The Art of the Possible

It amazes me how many Americans do not grasp basic political concepts. I don’t care what party you support, but there are certain things that are givens in elections. Now granted, I was heavily involved in the political process for about 15 years. But let’s state some things for the record:

  • “It’s the economy, stupid.” This is true the vast majority of the time. People vote based on how they personally are doing, for the most part. If they are doing well, they are likely to re-elect an incumbent. If they’re not, they are likely to kick him out. The one thing that overrides the economy is national security, a la life post-9/11. If the country does not feel SAFE, then most other things are moot.
  • What may be huge issues for you does not mean they are huge issues for the electorate at large. If global warming is your thing, you’re going to have to realize that most people have that at the very bottom of their issue list. They care much more about what their salary is, what their mortgage is, and how much it costs to buy milk, bread, and a car. (Or whatever.) In some places, yes, it’s a huge thing. But if the candidate make an outlying issue the center of his campaign, and his opponent is talking about things people understand and care about (like the economy!), then that candidate is most likely going to lose.
  • Politics is the long game, and politics is cyclical. You are up and you are down. It’s called an election cycle for a reason. That’s also important to realize.
  • Every state, every district, every town has a unique political climate. The smart candidate knows what it is, and adapts the campaign as such. If the candidate runs against that, it’s at his peril. (Point 2, again)
  • Stop saying that the candidate you dislike “doesn’t represent his constituents”. Obviously people must feel he represents them well most of the time if he keeps getting re-elected. If a candidate want to challenge a long-standing incumbent, then he has to build a campaign of energy/enthusiasm, a campaign that is well-funded (because name recognition is also huge), and a campaign that clearly illustrates the differences between Incumbent and Challenger. Now, sometimes, an incumbent wins inexplicably (see Al Franken in the Minnesota Senate Race). That happens. But usually there’s a reason, or several, why a candidate loses.
  • The electorate has a short memory, overall, and back to point 1. They are not really going to care if the governor signed some bill three years ago that they didn’t like if, economically, they’re pretty satisfied. In Ohio, you had a lot of people angry about Senate Bill 5 , yet Gov. Kasich won by a landslide last night. Why? Because his economic policies work. People like that. On the other side, look at the Wendy Davis campaign in Texas. She had one moment of political glory, and she tried to create an entire campaign out of something that’s inherently divisive (abortion). That’s not a good idea, especially in Texas. (State political climate, remember?)
  • Side note: governors/presidents can’t really “create jobs.” Well, they can’t, full stop. Businesses create jobs. The only thing a president/governor can do is support policies that are job-creation friendly. Now, granted, that’s a big thing. But no president can magically wave his hand and say, “Poof! JOBS!” He has to support economic policies that create them.
  • Midterm elections–like the one we had yesterday–generally go against the president’s party. There have been examples of this not happening (see the 2003 election cycle). But it generally does.
  • Also: people like ideas. If you present them a campaign of positive ideas, that helps immensely. I remember being at a roundtable during the 2004 election when people were asking Catholic college students how the GWB campaign could better attract them. I said that you have to present an option of hope, of better things, like “morning in America”, or St. John Paul II’s “Be Not Afraid” (he was still alive then, that’s how long ago this was.) If you relentlessly run a campaign of attack, or negativity, that turns voters off.

These are things to keep in mind. One election you’re up, and one you’re down. But if you live in a state like, say, Massachusetts, New Jersey, or New York, you know the electorate is going to go a certain way. Same is true for states like Texas and Kansas and Oklahoma and the Dakotas. There can be blips in the other direction. But it’s rare.

Elections are fun, but I’m not an election strategist. These are things I’ve gleamed from the campaigns I’ve worked on and the things I’ve studied. But some of it is also common sense.

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