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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

What Doesn't Win Elections

I spent election night watching results with my kids who, at least for now, are Republicans.  My oldest daughter voted in her first presidential election...for the losing candidate.

I was glad to be with them during a time when their favored political party was suffering a loss.  After all, a political activist will enjoy great victories and suffer big defeats over a lifetime.  Therefore, the Romney loss offered a "teachable moment" for my kids:  winners get to gloat.

It's true.  Electoral winners get to gloat...with the understanding that the temporary losers will one day be entitled to gloat themselves.

Ross Douthat offers a great definition of electoral gloating:


WINNING an election doesn’t just offer the chance to govern the country. It offers a chance to feel morally and intellectually superior to the party you’ve just beaten. This is an inescapable aspect of democratic culture: no matter what reason tells us about the vagaries of politics, something in the American subconscious assumes that the voice of the people really is the voice of God, and that being part of a winning coalition must be a sign that you’re His chosen one as well.

Both the winners and losers get to frame the election outcome in terms of whatever ideological framework in which the analyst operates.   That is, if the blogger is socially conservative, it's because the party wasn't conservative enough.  If the analyst is liberal, it means the country is turning to the left in a permanent way.

The real answer, though, is usually too ideologically sterile (i.e. not exciting enough) to offer as analysis.  However, this report by the Winston Group, based on exit polling as well as subsequent polling of voters, is probably as accurate an assessment as is available.

It contains a harsh truth for activists in both parties:  while bashing your ideological opponents feels good...it doesn't win elections.

Republicans thought this election was a referendum on President Obama, and gleefully turned the spotlight on perceived gaffes such as, "You Didn't Build That."

Had GOPers realized that voters actually didn't blame Obama for the current state of the economy, it would have led to a much different campaign.   Maybe my party didn't want to face that fact...because the resulting electoral strategy would have been...well, boring.

Voters believe that the economy could be growing faster and were willing to vote for the candidate that offered a plan to accelerate growth.   In the end, voters believed they were choosing between the Obama approach and a return to the Bush approach...Republicans failed to sell voters on a new economic plan under a "we can do better' banner.

It's been widely reported that Romney was soundly defeated among Latinos, young voters, and unmarried women.   Yet these groups also identified the economy as their top concern.   Republicans need to keep in mind that "outreach" doesn't mean changing party principles.  It does mean presenting a plan to the various constituencies that exist.

In summary, voters chose the "man with the plan."  That's not emotionally satisfying news to activists who want campaigns to be about the humiliating defeat of ideological opponents.  But to win in the future, the losing side needs to learn the correct lessons.


1 comment:

desmoinesdem said...

On a related note, this is how I talked to my children (younger than yours) about our family's favored candidates losing the 2010 elections.

http://www.bleedingheartland.com/diary/4372/teaching-kids-about-politics-losing

I think I disagree with you here:

It's been widely reported that Romney was soundly defeated among Latinos, young voters, and unmarried women. Yet these groups also identified the economy as their top concern. Republicans need to keep in mind that "outreach" doesn't mean changing party principles. It does mean presenting a plan to the various constituencies that exist.

Sometimes a sensitive topic becomes a threshold respect issue for a group. Supporting comprehensive immigration reform or something like the DREAM Act may be that kind of threshold respect issue for many Latinos. Without that, they may not be open to listening to a plan for fixing the economy. For unmarried women, access to contraception or equal pay may be a similar kind of threshold issue. To some extent you may need to "change party principles" to get certain groups of voters to listen to you.

Or, you can stick to the current strategy, which may be adequate to win midterm elections (when the voter universe looks different).

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