Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?
– Andy Warhol
By Ken Feltman
Have we learned anything this election cycle that we did not know before? I am tempted to say no because the lessons many people thought we had learned in 2008 and 2006 had very short shelf lives. By mid 2009, the confident predictions by political commentators and supporters about President Obama were washed away in partisanship.
Part of the problem is that party leaders must appeal to their party’s bases to retain their leadership positions, regardless of how well or poorly the party does with voters. The party leaders concentrate on the fringes, not the larger middle. So I’m dusting off some “rules” I came up with nearly 40 years ago for a talk to a group of Republican Party leaders:
1. Political parties do not add by subtracting.
That sounds simplistic, but political parties do things that are often beyond comprehension. In the closing days, President Obama and other Democratic leaders appealed to the Democratic base. Neither major party has a large enough base to win an election; both must appeal to independent voters to win. If a party must appeal to the base in the closing days, that is a sure sign that the party leaders realize that they cannot save their more moderate candidates.
Research 18 months ago showed pretty much what today’s research shows: A sizeable slice of the electorate was upset with the Bush Administration’s budget-busting spending. Many of these same voters became alarmed with the Obama Administration’s single-minded obsession with healthcare reform, which crowded out attention on jobs and the economy. Left wing Democratic constituencies pressured the Democrats to go further left as they drafted healthcare legislation. That alienated more centrist voters and in the end did not please the left-wing base of the Democratic Party. The base seemed determined to be unhappy if Obama and Congress did not deliver everything that they wanted.
Intentionally or not, the Democrats ended up with a strategy that did not include reaching out to the middle, to the independents. Obama governed from the left. In the closing days, he campaigned as if he thought that he could frighten the moderate independents back into line.
2. Know why the swing voters support or oppose you.
This is where it gets incomprehensible. Months ago, a key Democratic political advisor told me that the White House realized that much of the support for the Tea Parties came from “frustrated independents who swung for Obama last time.” He continued: “We think that when they see how the Tea Party is perceived as right-wing, those independents will stick with us. We will marginalize the Tea Party and the Obama coalition will hold.”
The coalition did not hold. The strategy failed. Independents have abandoned Obama and the Democrats. They support Tea Party-backed candidates – sometimes only because those candidates are the alternatives on the ballot. The independents will reassess after this election, as they always do. Of course, that is why they are called independents. Throughout American history, non-aligned or independent voters have pulled things toward the center, away from the fringes, away from the bases of the parties. The voters turning out for Tea Party rallies are mostly middle-of-the-road independents. Sure, the media focus on the extremists at Tea Party events. But the vast majority of Tea Party voters are the typical swing voters who went for Obama two years ago.
3. Party leaders tend to misread the voters.
Each election provides a new wrinkle, an excuse really, that fools the party leaders into concentrating on their base, ignoring and even alienating those voters in the middle. Obviously, if a candidate wants to have a better chance of winning, he or she needs to be where the voters are. For the past several elections, the critical mass of persuadable voters has been in the middle. Again this election year, instead of finding out what the voters-in-the-middle wanted, the leaders of both parties were sidetracked by this year’s new wrinkle: The Tea Parties.
The tendency to misread and misunderstand the middle is reinforced by attitudes such as expressed by one Republican woman years ago: “Why concern ourselves with (independent voters)? They are not part of our party.” They never will be if the party is not inclusive.
4. Do not create your own loose cannons on deck.
If you reach out to the folks in the middle, you create the chance to work cooperatively with them. They may surprise you. The people who now identify with the Tea Parties were there all the time, and many were waiting to be approached. Republican leaders acted like the teenage boy who is too shy to ask for a date. Many Republicans viewed the Tea Parties with suspicion. They did not see the potential for a winning alliance. The Tea Parties fielded and supported candidates and many of those candidates defeated regular Republicans in the primaries. More than a few of those Tea Party candidates will win and head to Washington without strong ties to the GOP. The Republicans missed an opportunity, just like the teenage boy who never could muster the courage to ask for a date.
Publicly, the Democrats dismissed the independents who backed Tea Party candidates as right-wing kooks. The Republicans were threatened and saw “outsiders” trying to “take over” the GOP. Both parties blew chances to broaden their appeal to voters. The Republicans, however, face an uncomfortable post-election period as they figure out two things: First, how will they work with the winning Tea Party candidates? More importantly, can they attract the independents who voted for the Tea Party candidates, not the regular Republican candidates, to the GOP coalition?
5. Know which issues matter.
The prize for political parties is to win enough seats to assume control of the legislative process. That is the reason parties are organized. Only when they win can parties advance their agenda. But many party leaders have another objective that gets in the way of winning control: They select candidates who past their litmus test on the issues, including issues of lesser importance to voters. This year, the Tea Partiers focused on budget and spending issues. The Republican party bosses are still struggling with social issues. Because the Tea Party candidates narrowed the issues to those most important to the most voters, they attracted support. If the GOP leaders are wise, they will take this opportunity to focus first on economic and tax issues. The social issues are divisive and no longer add voters to the cause.
Normally, when one party fails to understand which issues are most important to the most voters, the other party catches on and pays some attention to those issues to pick up additional support. True, sometimes it is only lip service, but his year, neither party focused effectively on the problems that the middle-of-the-road, independent voters wanted addressed. The Tea Party candidates, for the most part, zeroed in on those issues that mattered and avoided those issued that did not. Voters responded.
6. Make sure you stress your own accomplishments.
When you can’t figure out how to attack your opponent, stop attacking and stress your own accomplishments. Yes, the Tea Parties represent people on the right – but also the mobile middle. Because of the Tea Parties’ breadth, the Democrats have struggled to figure out how to attack Tea Party candidates. One problem for Democrats this year is their failure to make certain that voters knew what Obama and the Democratic Congress had accomplished. Democratic candidates were forced to defend an unpopular Democratic agenda as painted by the Republicans.
The minute Democratic Party leaders realized that they had a problem because they had not emphasized their strong points, they should have adjusted. Instead, they let the opposition – whether Tea Party spokespersons, Republicans or Democrats who broke with Obama – define them.
7. Don’t assume anything about the opposition’s future.
The Democrats may be convinced that the Tea Parties are kook-ridden and will fade quickly. The Republicans may resent the intrusion. But the voters who identify with the Tea Parties have work to finish. They may need another election or two to get the work done or to get tired of trying.
The 2012 election cycle starts in a few days. The independent voters will be ready while the Republicans try not to be gobbled up by the Tea Parties and the Democrats try to figure out how to stop the bleeding.
Meantime, imagine “Yes we can!” being replaced by “You betcha!”
This year’s election may not be finished for a while.