Friday, May 27, 2011

Magnetism and Winning the Presidency in 2012

Here's the thing about presidential elections....

The conventional political wisdom says you win by attracting the votes of the moderates.  So, the GOP political strategists figure fielding moderate candidates is a winning strategy - hence John McCain's lackluster run in 2008.

It is true that the undecided middle tips the scale in elections. Whoever wins the middle, wins the election. Parties think that the closer you get to the middle, the more likely you are to win the middle.  Tain't necessarily so, though. Look at the presidential races of the past three decades that were predicated on that political strategy.
  •  Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter: Ford's tepid moderate-Republicanism failed to convince moderates to drift his way. Instead they voted for Carter because Carter was, at least, promising to be different from the same-old/same-old Washington politics that Ford represented (though that difference proved disastrous for the country).
  • Reagan vs. Carter AND Reagan vs. Mondale:  Reagan was a fiery right-winger set against two clear leftists.  The moderate middle drifted to the right (a direction that, given a clear choice, they tend to drift anyway.
  • Bush/Dukakis: Bush managed to win the presidency once because of the magnetism he carried over from his ex-boss, Ronald Reagan. It didn't work when he wishy-washied on taxes. It wasn't the faithful that threw him under the bus either. It was the middle, who gravitated toward the candidate with more personality.
  • Clinton/Bush and Clinton/Dole: Both times, Clinton, who pandered to the center was up against two opponents who both tried to emulate him. With no clear choice, the center went with the sexier candidate. Bush #1 betrayed conservatives and lost his way. Dole promised more Washington political same old/same old,  Clinton seemed more powerful, so the votes in the middle drifted his way.
  • Bush/Gore and Bush/Kerry:  These two battles really confused the Republican Party. Bush squeaked one by Al Gore, but unconvincingly.  People were sick of the Clinton squabbles, but because both candidates courted the middle, it was a crap shoot which, thank God, Bush won.  Bush won the 2004 race because Kerry was clearly a liberal and Bush had shown he had the stones to fight a war that most Americans believed we needed to fight. Bush's moderate fiscal policies cost him a decisive victory over Kerry, though. The GOP brain trust thought they had a winning strategy and that they could continue to win by trying, not to attract moderates, but by being moderates. It was a strategy to have dire consequences in the next election.
  • Obama/McCain: This is the race that most clearly demonstrates the "magnetism" principle. Obama was clearly a socialist/progressive liberal.  McCain was a moderate, compromiser. The politicoes truly believe McCain would win because he would attract moderates and the conservatives would vote for him because there was "nothing better". What happened was the moderates drifted toward the more well-defined candidate and the conservatives didn't show up to vote for somebody they didn't like just because they had no other choice. 
Think of moderates as iron filings scattered between two magnets. Whichever side has the stronger magnet will draw more of the iron filings toward itself.  By fielding wishy washy candidates like McCain, you field a weaker "magnet", so more of the iron filings in the middle are drawn toward the stronger magnet who seems to have some ideas the moderates can get behind. Republicans lost, not because the Dems had a better strategy or better media support or because more people "understood" Obama's message better. The middle of the roaders voted for Obama because he appeared to have a stronger more coherent message than did McCain.  No one could tell what it was, exactly the McCain stood for.  He appeared to not even have support from his own party.  So, why would moderates, who need someone to put strong ideas into their heads, be drawn to someone like themselves, who hasn't anything attractive to offer? 

There seems to be a new strategy coming out of the Republican country clubs -- ditch the Tea Party. They are messing up our strategy and that's why we lost elections in Nevada and New York. They didn't support our strategy so we had candidates that were unacceptable to moderates. The Tea Party, they maintain, is too polarizing and won't attract moderates. They mess up our strategy (as though politics was entirely a game of manipulation of stupid voters by smart politicians). Karl Rove is supposed to be this great political strategist, for instance. So what did Rove actually accomplish?  Two squeaker wins that, while we always get a buzz out of watching the Ohio returns come in, were not decisive and only set up the 2008 debacle.

The point the political generals seem to miss is that you don't attract movement among the non-aligned by being non-aligned yourself.

Go back to the magnet metaphor.  Political ideas are like magnets. Conservative or Liberal/Socialist/Progressive, these ideas attract voters one way or another. Those who are liberal or conservative true believers are part of the magnets.  Then, there is a phenomenon in any population you care to name. There is a middle ground group that floats without hardly any detectable charge. They are drawn back and forth across the table, drawn towards whichever charge is strongest. They vote one time for Reagan, another time for Obama. They vote whichever way sounds the most exciting.  I've heard them in voting booths pulling the lever for the "cutest" candidate or the one that "sounds better". You don't win these voters by being exactly like them.  Iron filings do not attract other iron filings unless you first magnetize them.

So don't blame the failures of the Republican Party on the Tea Party. The Tea Party is the RESULT of the failings of the Republican Party. Lose the Tea Party and you lose part of the magnetism of Republican ideas. Lose the Tea Party and you only have yourselves to blame when you watch those moderate votes sucked up by the left.

Tom King

No comments: