In a May, 2011 post, Appealing To The “Center” Drives Away Voters I wrote that the traditional Democratic campaign strategy of taking positions perceived to be “between” the left and the right not only doesn’t appear to work, it actually might be costing Democrats.
The traditional idea, driven by Democratic campaign consultants, is that “independent” voters “swing” between parties. So you can get them to “swing” your way by taking positions that are not those of the base of your own party, but instead creep over towards those of the other party. I wrote in that May post,
The problem here is the effect the metaphor of a "center" has on our thinking. Thinking about independent voters as being a "block" that is "between" the parties is the problem. It forces the brain into a constraint because of the visual image that it evokes. What I mean is that the actual language of "centrist" changes how we think. The metaphor makes us think they are "between" something called left and right. And as a result it forces certain conclusions.
I said that Karl Rove figured this out, and used this to get Bush to instead “appeal to the base,” which increased Republican turnout, while dispirited Dems, tired of their standard-bearers taking wishy-washy positions that give everything away, decided to just stay home. I wrote that Rove has “nailed it,”
Karl Rove believed that there were independents who were not registered Republican because the party was not far enough to the right for them, who would only turn out if the party gave them something to vote for. I think Karl Rove’s model is more accurate, that the independent voters are a number of groups, and very large numbers of them are MORE to the left or right than the parties, and don’t vote unless the parties appeal enough to them.
Rove decided this means the Republicans need to move ever more to the right, and this will cause those “independent” voters who had changed their affiliation out of disgust with the centrism of their party to now turn out and vote.
Now there is confirmation of this. On NPR’s Talk of the Nation today, Clarence Page talked with host Neal Conan about the role of independent voters, saying that we might be surprised to learn that candidates who try to appeal to “independents” tend to lose, because they turn off the voters who closely follow and care about the issues.
Click the Play button below to hear this Talk of the Nation segment:
In fact, candidates that try to “appeal to the center” lose, because this idea of a :center” is a myth. From the transcript:
You know, there is a professor Alan Aramowitz of Emory University, who has been studying this using voting statistics, and he found that the – well, as he put it, in all three of the presidential elections since 1972 that were decided by a margin of less than five points, that the candidate backed by the independents lost.
This was – this surprised me. You know, he’s citing here Jimmy Carter in ’76, Gerald Ford – sorry, Gerald Ford beat – excuse me, Gerald Ford won the independent vote but lost the election. Put it that way, OK.
Most independents voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but Al Gore got the overall popular vote. As you recall, he got the popular vote but not the state vote.
CONAN: Yeah, but that’s fudging your statistics a little bit. The guy who got the independent vote got the big prize.
PAGE: Yeah, but still, though, most of the – the one backed by the independent voters, though, did not get the majority of the popular vote. And in 2004, John Kerry, most independents voted for John Kerry, but he lost the overall election.
What does that mean? What it means is that Karl Rove and others, who have often advocated firing up the base rather than reaching out for independents, they’ve got a point. In some elections, that works. If you fire up your base, get your vote out, it can be big enough that it will overwhelm the opposition and the independents, because independents also tend to have the least turnout, and they also tend to be the least committed, not just to a party but also to – well, less engaged with the whole campaign.
They are joined by Daron Shaw, who was a campaign strategist for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
SHAW: Well, I think the thing that Clarence pointed out that’s worth reiterating is that the distinguishing characteristic of independent voters is they’re not that interested, they’re not that involved, they’re not that engaged with politics. So if you’re a political professional and you’re dealing with finite resources, and you have to make decisions about where you’re going to invest dollars, and where you’re going to invest manpower, you know, the idea of reaching out to independents, who may or may not show up, and if they do show up may or may not vote for you, can give you pause.
So you know, it’s interesting that there’s been this movement in the last two or three election cycles, and as Clarence correctly pointed out, I think Karl Rove is kind of given credit for this, although I don’t know if he’s, you know, the architect or godfather of it; a lot of people who have moved in this direction.
But the idea of sinking your resources into mobilization, which primarily targets, you know, sort of identifiable partisans and appeals to them, that that’s become kind of a staple and maybe even the dominant perspective. And I find it kind of interesting that word out of the White House – and you have to read all these things with a dose of caution – but suggests that they’re kind of moving in that direction. That’s sort of what their thinking is. And I just find that fascinating.
As I wrote in May:
The way to grow your voting base is NOT to try to “appeal” to some group that is not left or right, but is “between” something called left and right. To get more voters — especially the “independent” ones who won’t identify with a party — is to take stands, be more committed to progressive positions, and to articulate them more clearly.