Sunday, July 30, 2017

To win an election, turn out your base.

There is no "middle".   

A corollary of the premise of yesterday's post--that Trump successfully channelled the voters' mood of frustration with democracy--is that a great many people drop out of the electoral process.

They don't bother voting.

Mark Hatfield.  So last century.
This blog looked closely at the public presentation of State Senator Alan DeBoer in recent posts.  Some readers have contacted me and said it looked to them like DeBoer was "moving to the center" and that this was good.   He wasn't moving to the center.  He was staying where he was, advocating a political position in eclipse in the GOP, that legislators are elected to make government work better.

This blog described DeBoer as behaving like a "civic minded good government" Republican in an era when the Republican party generally had moved away from a party of governance toward the politically successful position as an anti-government party of protest.  Republicans win politically but do so at the price of having difficulty governing.   GOP marketing channels voter contempt and protest.  

At the national level the GOP is stuck unable to decide whether their majorities should be proud of reducing healthcare access or embarrassed over it, so Obamacare repeal-and-replace has stalled.  Republican energy in Oregon is going toward repealing the 1.5% healthcare provider tax which actually brings outside money into the people actually paying the tax, which is why the hospitals and other providers favor the tax. It makes them money.  It expands healthcare to the working poor and it keeps hospitals from falling back into a bankruptcy spiral. Republicans are trying to repeal it, in a protest vote.  
 57% turnout.  The swing in those who don't bother.

Democrats have learned a lesson from the GOP success.   Tea Party populism, language, and tactics work.  Shortly after Obama's election Tea Party populist conservatives showed up at Town Halls and began doing something simple but effective:  they shouted.  They were not "concerned"; they were angry.  The photogenic rant became part of political theater.  It was a perfect media environment for the ascendence of the Trump-talk radio-Fox News.  Anger is more interesting than concern.  Politics is salesmanship and drama pulls in a crowd.

DeBoer was rejecting high-drama anti-government protest speech and he was sticking to old-school civic minded good government Republicanism.

The DeBoer problem.  It could be that good government Republicanism is a losing game.   Political consultants who have looked closely at voting behaviors in swing districts observe that there is precious little convincing of voters.  People don't much change their minds on "the person, not the party." The notion that one "moves to the middle" to pick up the reasonable non-partisan voter in the middle of some left-right political continuum is simply incorrect.

Voters are polarized by party.  The convincing consists of getting people who would vote for you actually to bother doing it.   The eloquent and angry comment this blog reported at length two days ago by a Republican supporter of DeBoer, a supporter who represented the exact opposite of DeBoer and whose behavior undermines what DeBoer attempts to do, concluded by attesting that she and other Republicans had "not abandoned DeBoer.  They will be there when it counts--at the ballot box."  

I think she is exactly right.  Partisan brand is more important than policy or process.  

An astute political advisor tells me that a Democrat can defeat DeBoer in this somewhat Democratic leaning district, but only by energizing Democrats.  The swing voters are not in the middle.  The swing voters are in the turnout.   A Democrat who attempts to pick up votes by expressing some sort of moderation--e.g. mild criticism of public employee union behavior or some kind of middle ground on an environmental issue--will gain no votes in the middle, but would depress Democratic turnout--a losing strategy.

The evidence for this is that commenter's devoted praise for DeBoer, not apparently realizing that her policies and tone are directly confounding what DeBoer is trying to do.   Anti-government protest warriors polarize.  But they are linked by party, so as the warrior commenter assures my readers, they will be there for DeBoer at the ballot box.   

His policy goal opponents are his political base.  Yes, this is weird, and also politically fragile for him.

The route for a Democrat to replace DeBoer is most likely to push left, not right.  Energize Democrats.  Cause them to see the difference between a "pretty good Democrat at heart", i.e. Alan DeBoer, who identifies as a Republican and therefore is forced to make nice with people who confound his own politics, versus the Democratic opponent who is a real Democrat, someone with much the same compassionate civic minded good government  orientation as DeBoer, but a Democrat, who therefore can act without apology.

Readers who wish that politicians would find "common ground" with votes "in the middle" misunderstand where the middle is.   On election day the middle is that ground between apathy and engagement.  

Protecting his heart
If DeBoer loses it will not be because he failed to capture Democratic votes because he will in fact get very few of them (just as the Democratic candidate will have a very difficult time getting Republican votes, even if he or she adopts "conservative" positions.)  DeBoer's political vulnerability would come because Republican voters think him not fully on board with the GOP as a party of protest and anger, a RINO.

This puts DeBoer in an interesting decision point about who he is and what he wants.  If he cares about re-election he would do best to quietly back away from his good government bridge building consensus building policy and tone.  He will shore up his base by criticizing the "eco-terrorists", the Democratic "bullies".  His base will get the message he is one of them, for real.  The result, though, is that he loses his position as that potential  bridge builder who creates a governing supermajority, if in fact he takes up that challenge and opportunity.  (He would be best to leave it to people like the commenter to use language like  "the hard-leftist filth of Ashland."  He lives in Ashland and has friends there.)

The DeBoer situation is a microcosm of the national GOP dilemma: the marketing message that brought them to power--an anti-government protest--is the thing that keeps them from exercising it effectively.  


  1. I agree that energizing the base expands a new middle. Previously you wrote about political "branding" (style). Connect the dots. We live in a visual as well as an audio and written communication culture. Branding to the left on each of those three legs is necessary. So, what does our energized base want to seeand hear about that might represent their interest? Same ol, same old? What is fresh and unique and knowledgable concerning what our base is energized about? Where's the person who's a talented speaker who's served a career advancing the public good, who knows the complexities of Social Security, Medicaid, Snap, assisted living, as well as the plight of the disabled and otherwise challenged?
    Its not a time for the same ol, same old. You are on to something Peter, Lead the way.---jim sims

  2. Energizing and playing to the base is always important in political races. That should be campaigning 101. I would argue that in the era of social media and a world of knowledge and facts at our fingertips, we do that more efficiently and prolifically than any time in history. So much that we lounge chair campaign managers are now down to dissecting the issues and candidates with skills and data that would have astounded and amaze the professionals of 30 years ago.

    In this past election, 2016 voter turnout was larger than 2012. the presidential candidate of the left received more votes than any previous candidate in history short of Obama. Morethan two-thirds of voters cast ballots in Massachusetts, Oregon, Maryland and Virginia. Most active voters on the left can quote health care and climate legislation chapter and verse. There is a lot working for us. Infighting aside, the choir for the most part, is on board. I'm not so sure that voter frustration is a real issue.

    The goal now should be to get the potential and non-voter to the polls. Nearly half of eligible voters don't vote in this country. 13% of those that don't vote are not interested, 17% are too busy, 14% have disabilities and illness issues, 12% don't like the options, the rest are combinations of access. People with money and privilege vote, less so the poor. These are the people we need to appeal to. Most of these problems are easy to over come.... mail in voting to start, automatic registration with a drivers license. We need to make voting appeal to millennials. We are not including them in the resistance movement and not addressing their issues. They are the ones that will save the world. Find electable candidates, being on the right side of the issues is not enough. They need to appeal to the majority of voters not just those in our little bubbles. We have a census coming up in 2020. This make the 2018 election about building a base for the future. If we do not show up to vote in 2018 there will be no change for the Left's base.

  3. I agree with the two comments above. They are well thought out. But I would add that Mark O Hatfield, while really good on peace issues, was a conservationist's nightmare. I went back to Washington DC in 1979 to lobby for Oregon Wilderness, but watched Hatfield push thru the Senate Energy and Natural resources committee his version of Wilderness that would release everything else not in the bill to logging. Fortunately it did not happen! I watched him bend the rules and do other devious things while the committee met. Not so moderate.


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