By Ken Feltman
What’s happened to the tea parties this election season? They haven’t disappeared. The primary results in Florida show that they are still there, just not as visible. Other voter uprisings have followed this pattern. The passions subside but the concerns remain. Successful political movements first shake up the establishment. Then they change it, usually from the inside.
Times have changed from the days when waves of immigrants swept across the country, creating big-city political machines. Originally, ethnicity and religion were the keys to how people voted. Living in Cook County four decades ago, I knew that the most recent arrivals from Eastern Europe still wanted to vote for their people but the Italians and Irish were following the WASPs, the Germans and the Jews, looking more at where the candidates stood on issues. Now, Hispanic and African-American voters are following the pattern.
Ed Derwinski, who died last month, demonstrated this evolution from ethnic to issues politics. When he first ran as a write-in candidate in a working-class Cook County-based congressional district, a political reporter laughed at the thought that a Polish Republican was running in what the writer called an Irish Catholic bastion. Derwinski understood what the voters wanted. He was right on the issues. He made it easier to remember how to spell Derwinski with “Der WIN ski” signs and bumper stickers. He won and served 24 years in Congress. Later, he became a cabinet secretary.
Voters were becoming most concerned about issues and they sought candidates who echoed their positions on important issues. Today, the most passionate voters – those willing to volunteer and rally in support of a chosen candidate – want something more from their candidate. Rabid supporters of Newt Gingrich, for example, are likely to be combative and aggressive in defense of Gingrich. They are likely to be offensive in criticism of Mitt Romney and the other Republican candidates. They may be almost paranoid in their attacks on the media and those who support other candidates.
In short, many Gingrich supporters share personality traits with their candidate. I call these supporters hyper-voters. Often, they exhibit the most negative or controversial traits of the candidates they support. The new hyper-voters may be moving us to the next phase of the cycle and they may be leaving bloodless candidates behind.
Early last year I began to read and analyze the online comments of ardent supporters of the Republican presidential candidates. One anxious fan of Michele Bachmann wrote that she disagreed with some of Bachmann’s issue positions “and her fundamentalist religion but I can’t ever imagine being for anyone else…. I’m too much like Michele and she’s like me.” I wondered if similarity of personalities trumped agreement on issues, just as issues came to trump ethnicity and religion.
As I had personal contact and interaction with supporters of the candidates, I added that information to my totally unscientific research and concluded that my hunch was still plausible, although far from validated. A man in South Carolina put it this way: “I don’t know what makes Romney tick. He’s hard to read. I just feel that I know how Gingrich will react to events.” Another man said: “Romney’s unfinished as a person. I need to know what gets his blood boiling.” A woman in Florida said, “Things change so fast, I can’t follow everything in Washington. I need to know that the person I support thinks through things in a way I can understand.”
Hyper-voters find candidates like Romney too unformed – not uninformed but unformed. “There’s no there there.” Hyper-voters do not know what to make of such candidates. How can they support a candidate they cannot relate to?
Voters support what they perceive to be in their self-interest. Their definition of self-interest may change. Are we back to where we began? Is understanding a candidate’s personality or decision-making process the new ethnicity or religion? People tend to support candidates like themselves. As issues become more nuanced and obscure, are people developing a simpler standard to cut through the complexity? If so, candidates who reveal more of their personalities and show how their experiences guide their thinking and decisions will have an advantage.
Voters may not be looking for emotive candidates, but they could be looking for candidates who explain how they will make future decisions. What a candidate has done in the past may be less important to the hyper-voter than understanding how the candidate will make crucial judgments in the future. The new comfort zone may not be an impressive list of accomplishments. How a candidate thinks may be more important than what a candidate thinks.
Also published at Politico.com