In my first installment in this series, I explained how a candidate must run for something, not against something and, as such, a candidate wishing to win OH-12 must not turn his or her campaign into a referendum on Donald Trump.
This does not mean, however, that one should worry about upsetting Trump supporters or that one should strive to carve out some sort of middle ground in the name of a centrist campaign that seeks not to offend Republicans in a Republican-leaning district. It certainly does not mean taking for granted those voters who comprise a Democrat’s motivated liberal and progressive base while pivoting to the center in an effort to woo moderates and conservatives. Indeed, to the extent anyone thinks that’s a good idea, they think so because they’re trapped in a political mindset addled by old, mistaken assumptions about the ideological nature of most voters.
There’s a conventional political wisdom that holds that the electorate is divided evenly, between staunch liberals and staunch conservatives, with a mass of moderate swing voters in the middle. Based on that, there’s a belief that the more a candidate can move his or her platform in the direction of his opposition without alienating his or her core base of support, the better his or her chances of capturing the center, and with it, the election.
This framing has informed Democratic campaigns for over 25 years. It is the reason why, since the early 1990s, Democrats have worked hard to portray themselves as pro-business, pro-war, tough-on-crime, pragmatists while downplaying their populist and humanitarian tendencies. Democrats have come to believe, based on the example of Bill Clinton and his acolytes, that pivoting to the center will allow them to grab the bulk of those centrist voters — which they believe to be the bulk of all voters — and take their left wing base along with them because the base has nowhere else to go.
The only problem with this is that it’s almost completely bunk. I suspect it never was true, and even if it was at one time, it certainly isn’t now.
While the left-center-right model of politics provides a somewhat useful theoretical explanatory framework, people don’t fall into such neat categories. Yes, there are people who, almost tribally, identify themselves with one party and would never consider voting for the other under any circumstances, but I’m not terribly concerned with them. No politician will ever turn the hardcore base of the opposition party in their favor, nor should he or she waste a lot of effort trying. Likewise, one should not fear attack from them, given that they are going to oppose you no matter what you do. Franklin Roosevelt is a good example to follow here. In 1936, as America was still litigating the New Deal, he knew who his opponents were and he knew they wanted him defeated. Rather than try to placate them or sidestep their attacks, he openly recognized them, saying “they are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Most voters, even in a districts which lean heavily toward one party, like OH-12, are not such committed ideologues. Yes, the district skews Republican, but the number of staunch partisans in any district is often overstated.
This district, like others, contains economic conservatives who espouse markedly liberal social views. It contains reactionary social conservatives who nonetheless support increased social security and medicare benefits and who, when asked, say they’d support a national jobs program. There are economic liberals here who are devoutly religious and who resist pro-LGBT policies. There are social progressive entrepreneurs who, when their friends aren’t listening, will tell you just how much they’d like that corporate tax cut. While committed and engaged political types might march in lockstep with one party’s platform, most voters are not committed and engaged political types. Most voters have strong, predictable policy positions on one or two policies but upend those old political spectrum models when it comes to others.
At the same time, there is no evidence to suggest that the consensus on any one issue lies in the middle of a left-right spectrum. A 2014 study suggested, in fact, that the “moderate” position on any number of issues presented to participants in the study was typically the least popular and that people tended to gravitate in large groups to some surprisingly extreme positions. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising as we’ve seen this born out in public opinion polls and heard it in conversations with our friends.
A large majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana which is typically portrayed as an extremely liberal position. Smaller majorities, but still a great many people, favor tougher immigration restrictions than we’ve had in the past, which is a conservative and, often, a reactionary viewpoint. Though their specifics — and their sincerity — varied wildly, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump delivered remarkably economically populist messages at times in 2016 — messages often characterized as extreme — gaining each of them surprising amounts of enthusiastic support. At the moment, the entire government is controlled by elected Republicans who have vowed to slash taxes and social programs, but slashing taxes and social programs is massively unpopular, suggesting no one was punished for refusing to take a “moderate” position on those issues.
On average, a lot of voters may wind up in the “center” overall but they may not inhabit a centrist position on any single issue. That’s the problem with averages, right? The average age of the humans in my house is 26, but there is no one close to age 26 living in my house. A candidate should spend no more time trying to win the vote of the largely mythical centrist voter than I should spend looking for a 26-year-old in my kitchen. To the extent they set up their campaign to do so, they set themselves up to fail.
So, if you can’t predict where the voters will be based on the old left-center-right spectrum, and if you can’t play the old “establish your base in the primary and then pivot to the center in the general” game, how does a candidate connect to voters and gain their support?
The answer is to stop trying to identify abstract, ideological policy positions in the hopes of finding people who support them and to start looking at and listening to people and their concerns and to craft or support policies which address them, no matter how such policies are traditionally characterized, ideologically speaking.
The name of the game is to help make people’s lives better which, in turn helps make our country better. It’s a pretty simple game once you stop adhering to the old political conventional wisdom and start applying values, empathy, brains, compassion and creativity to the problems facing our country and its people.
In subsequent installments, I’ll flesh out how this works in practice, addressing a number of problems and political issues through that lens.