I've written several times about the upcoming Presidential elections and why voters are really acting the way they are. This week, I figured I'd examine this in an unconventional way:
I am an American voter who is unaffiliated with any party (that wasn't always the case, but I'll get to that). I have written for newspapers for 20-plus years and have some insights into the world of journalism and what's going on with mainstream media. I follow writers and pundits of differing backgrounds who have strengths I admire, even if I don't always agree with them. And while I have made up my mind that I'm backing Gary Johnson in the 2016 Presidential election, that's not stopping me from paying attention to what else is happening in that or other upcoming election.
So I'm going to give you a little more insight into how you convince an undecided voter to back the candidate you back. I'm doing it in what might be called "interviewing myself." But I'm going to do my best to break down what voters like myself are thinking and how you might be able to sell some of those voters on the candidate you plan to vote for.
Q: Tell us about your political affiliations as an American voter.
A: Well, when I was younger, I was a fan of Ronald Reagan but didn't feel like I was a Republican, if that makes any sense. On the other hand, I didn't feel a strong pull toward the Democrats, either. So when I first registered to vote, I kind of shrugged my shoulders and registered as a Democrat, more or less because my parents were Republicans and I thought that they could talk to me about who was in those primaries and I could talk about who was in the Democrat primaries. But things didn't work out that way. I moved to another part of Colorado, then I moved to New Mexico, so it couldn't work that way. It wasn't until the 2004 election that I realized that I didn't identify with any party, to the point that I shouldn't be a member of a political party. So the next time I updated my voter registration, I declared myself unaffiliated.
Q: But why do that? Aren't you no longer able to participate in the primaries?
A: Here's the thing about primaries: You are asking who you want to represent a party, but that might not be who you think is the best choice among everybody who is running. So if you are going to run closed primaries, I don't see the point in joining a party just to vote in a primary. I prefer open primaries, where you can ask for a certain party's ballot and vote that way, without having to declare a party affiliation.
Q: But aren't open primaries subject to abuse? Say, if one party's Presidential nominee is decided, that members of that party would try to influence the elections for the other party's nominee?
A: It's a fair point. I would address it this way: All federal offices decide their nominees in one primary, while states can decide whether to combine their state office primaries on that same day or hold them another day. That way, people in one party are less inclined to switch parties to influence another election. Why would party loyalists do that if they realized they'd miss out on a chance to vote in the Congressional primaries? And these days, you are seeing more challengers to incumbents for Congressional seats than you have in the past. So, if you do an open primary the way it should be done -- you tell people when you show up to the polls which party's ballot you want -- they have to remember that they aren't just voting for a Presidential nominee, but Congressional nominees, too. And that might get voters to remember that they need to show up for mid-terms, too.
Q: But wouldn't that mean some voters in one party might switch over because they see a better candidate in the other party?
A: At times, yes. But this is what you have to remember about party members: Not all of them are loyal to the party. They became members for whatever the reason may be, but don't believe their votes are locked for that party. This is why you have a fair number of undecideds in Presidential elections, in any election, each year. Because they aren't loyal to the party, they aren't going to vote in lockstep with the party. And those are the voters who are really coming into play.
Q: So it's more than just people who are unaffiliated.
A: Exactly. In fact, it's those voters who do more to influence elections than other factors people like to talk about.
Q: Can you explain why?
A: First, you have to remember that there is a difference between party loyalty and political beliefs. The narrative likes to portray Democrats as liberals and Republicans as conservatives, while everyone else is an independent. It's like how they portray states during Presidential elections. Red state, blue state, swing state. There's more to the states than that and there's more to voters than how they get portrayed.
Q: So how would you classify voters?
A: When it comes to a Presidential election, or any election, for that matter, you need to think of people more as how loyal they are to a party than what their political views might be. Because you will seldom find a candidate who represents everything you believe. A candidate might be considered liberal, but that doesn't mean that candidate only attracts liberal voters. Same thing with the so-called conservative candidates.
But to address your points, I'd classify voters in these terms: Strong party supporters, solid party supporters, party members who think of themselves as independents and true independents. In terms of a sliding scale, it would go like this: Strong Democrat, solid Democrat, Democrat independent, true independent, Republican independent, solid Republican, strong Republican.
If you are a strong party supporter, you are going to vote on party lines most of the time. The instances you don't are rare and you don't jump the party line if you think the election will be close. You stay with the party unless there's a dramatic shift in the political landscape. The 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats backed the Civil Rights Act and the so-called Dixiecrats jumped to the Republican party, is a good example of how you can lose a strong party supporter, though it's rare.
A solid party supporter will vote party lines the majority of the time, but disappointment in the direction of a party or a candidate might cause that person to vote for somebody else. They will stay with the party unless something within the party upsets the,. George Will is a good example. Say what you want about him, but the Donald Trump nomination was enough for him and he left the Republican party.
Then you come to those who get classified as independent. True independents aren't members of either party. They may be third-party members or more likely to third party. But they aren't voters that the parties can count on every year. Party members know this as much as party leadership does.
But those who are members of either party and think themselves as independent -- they are the voters that party members, especially loyalists, think are "true independents" while the leadership knows that they are "party members who decide elections." They are the ones that party leaders have to try to lure. Party members could do that, but party members, especially loyalists, have to be careful not to think like a loyalist if they want to get them to back that party's candidate.
Q: OK, you've gone into a lot of detail, but what does this have to do with the upcoming Presidential election?
A: What I'm seeing a lot this election, especially this election, is the remarks I keep hearing ever since 2000. A vote for anybody but Clinton is a vote for Trump. A vote for anybody but Trump is a vote for Clinton. Two different ways of saying the same thing -- third-party votes are wasted votes that decide elections. Now, I won't pretend third-party candidates have zero influence on elections, but to say they influence things more than anything else is a gross exaggeration. It's the voters who fall into the independent categories who do that, and in particular, those who are members of a party but identify themselves as independents. They swing the elections more than anything else. Their votes do not belong to a candidate. Truth be told, no vote belongs to a candidate except party loyalists. And it's what those candidates do to get the votes -- if they get them -- that has more impact on an election's outcome.
Q: Would you explain what you mean by "votes do not belong to a candidate"?
A: Well, let me be more specific now that the Presidential primaries are over. The strong party members, they are going to vote for their party's Presidential candidate. So, in a sense, those votes belong to that candidate. It would take something drastic to get those voters to change their minds and there's nothing to indicate that some dramatic shift in the landscape will happen to cause those voters to switch allegiances.
The solid party supporters -- that depends on who announces they are leaving the party or they refuse to back the candidate. We aren't seeing that happen with Hillary Clinton, but we are seeing that happen with Donald Trump. Of course, the only ones we are aware of are the high-profile types. Those among average voters, that's not as clear, though I sense more average, solid party supporters who are Democrats are more likely to back Clinton than those who are Republicans who will back Trump. But those are votes that, while they may be thought as safe for a candidate, don't belong to the candidate because you never know what the solid party supporter may be thinking.
The true independents, Democrat independents, Republican independents -- their votes belong to no candidate unless you are talking about a third-party loyalist, and those loyalists are the minority. The rest are voters you can't predict, but you can get some insight into what they are thinking by talking to them. You don't do that by telling them they'd waste their vote if they didn't back Clinton or Trump. You just don't do it. You are more likely to drive them away than you are to get them to back the candidate you like.
Also, don't shout about "this is the most important election ever!" Every election is important. The independents get turned off by that talk, because they want to know why they should vote for a candidate, not about how important elections are or how they can't vote for other candidates.
Q: But what if they go to a third-party candidate? Haven't we seen elections in which the candidate decided things?
A: Again, that's grossly exaggerated. You go back to the 2000 election and Democrat loyalists blame Ralph Nader. Go back to 1992 and Republican loyalists blame Ross Perot. And that's because party leadership, in each case, has said that. But you have to understand how party leadership understands the landscape to know why they say things.
Party leadership knows that those independents who happen to be members of their party are important, so the leadership isn't going to blame those voters. They'll talk about other factors that are considered "safe" to discuss. Anti-incumbent. PACs. Misinformed voters in the other party. Misleading attacks by the opposing candidate. The media. And, yes, third-party candidates. Because, that way, they don't risk losing those independents from the party. A few will leave if you do those things, but the majority won't be bothered, because they aren't that politically active.
As far as 2000 goes, those of us who call "Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election" a myth aren't saying Nader had nothing to do with the election. They are saying he wasn't number one on the list. There were other factors that mattered, many which mattered more. Democrats who voted for Bush were a big one, and that's a group the Democrat leadership doesn't want to upset, even though they don't like it. More importantly, Gore and his campaign assumed too much. The economy was doing well, people generally liked Bill Clinton despite the impeachment proceedings, and you didn't have a strong field of Republican candidates. But George W. Bush had a slight lead in the polls after the conventions and Gore didn't do enough to sway voters to him. And then there was the Supreme Court intervening, with Antonin Scalia leading the way. It might have helped if Gore had asked for a full recount rather than focusing on a few ballots the first time around. And what got exposed about how Florida was conducting its elections -- well, I'd say that was the biggest factor. If voters can't understand the ballot or the vote-counting process is flawed, you have a problem.
And while it's easy to categorize Nader as drawing liberal voters, a closer look shows that he drew conservatives. Who Nader was really drawing are people who don't identify with a party, even if they are a member. And that goes right to the 1992 election. Perot was drawing voters who don't identify with a party. Party loyalists -- the strong types and most of the solid types -- aren't going to abandon the party just to vote for a candidate who is "more liberal" or "more conservative" than the party's nominee. That's now how they think. The party members who consider themselves independent, those are the voters who may do that if they determine their party's candidate isn't worthy of their vote. Deep down, the party leadership knows this. That leadership won't say it publicly, though, because the leadership doesn't want to sound like it's blaming those voters, lest those voters leave the party.
Q: So how do you convince these voters to back your candidate?
A: First of all, you need to understand who these people are. They are tired of rhetoric, even if they understand it comes with the territory. They don't want to hear "Trump is crazy" or "Hillary can't be trusted." They aren't going to chant things like "build a wall" or "lock her up" or "Hillary stole the primary." The people who chant those things have made up their minds. It's the person who doesn't chant those things, who says very little -- that's the voter who is in play. And that voter isn't like the ones who show up at rallies to engage in chants.
It's the type of voter who isn't politically active but has opinions. That voter wants a good-paying job and as much stability as possible. These voters believe in what the United States is all about, even if they don't have faith in many elected leaders. And these are the voters that are having difficulty adjusting to how the landscape in the United States is changing. They are the middle-aged people who have lost their jobs and have to find new ones but can't -- these people believed that hard work would reward them, but it all got was their jobs being outsourced. They are the college students who were told that a four-year education would get them a good job, but all they deal with is mounting student debt and constant job searches that turn up nothing. They are the people who have lived all their lives in one state, are proud of the state they live in, and are watching things fall apart and wonder where things went wrong. It's these voters that are going to take convincing, and they won't be convinced if you stereotype them or lecture them about how they are wasting their votes. You have to approach things differently.
To do that, you need to empathize with their situation. You need to start the conversation by asking these voters about what they have experienced. What are the problems they face, what were the things they were told and what are their perceptions of those things now, and what do they really want from life. Be a good listener. Don't lecture them, don't scold them, don't tell them they are stupid. And don't call them a racist. Things like that, all you'll do is lose that person.
Once you know what they have experienced and their perceptions, start framing your arguments. Argue why you believe your candidate will do a better job addressing their situation. When talking about the opposing candidate, argue why that candidate won't address the voter's situation enough. And make sure your arguments relate to what the voter told you about his or her experiences. It's difficult, yes, but this isn't meant to be an easy process.
Q: Are there past Presidential candidates you thought did this well?
A: Barack Obama did. I know some people don't want to hear that, but he did a good job of that back in 2008, even if I haven't always agreed with the things he's done in the White House. He's done some better things in his second term, though. Bill Clinton did it well in 1992. I don't think he's a top President, but he did more to empathize and communicate with voters. Ronald Reagan did it well, too, even though many of the people who followed him didn't understand that Reagan didn't take a "my way or the highway" approach to everything. And when I look back on past elections, Franklin D. Roosevelt excelled at that. Of course, FDR set a high bar, but most candidates should get to the level that Reagan and Obama reached if they take the time to assess their strategies.
Q: Which political writers have influenced your thinking?
A: It's more about which writers I like to read because of how they approach things. I like Charles Pierce because he's willing to get into the trenches and take a deeper look at topics, even if he doesn't agree with the views he explores. And he's not afraid to criticize Hillary Clinton, even though it's clear he's backing her in this election. I like Rod Dreher, whose social conservative views I may not agree with, but he empathizes with the poor and refuses to stereotype them, no matter who the person is. And while he may be a social conservative, he's sharply critical of the GOP and the way it conducts things these days. And I like Nate Silver, because he's good at keeping perspective. Of course, Silver is a number cruncher, but he takes a critical look at what the polls really show when he projects election results. There's others I enjoy following on Twitter: Bruce Bartlett, Daniel Larison, Conor Friedersdorf, David Graham, a few others. And I love following the Richard M. Nixon Twitter account... I know it's not really Nixon, but I'm playing along here: Mr. President understands how politics work and what the little guy is thinking. He's not afraid to call out nonsense on either side of the aisle.
Q: What do you think will happen in the 2016 Presidential election?
A: I believe Clinton will win, though it's still early. But it's going to take some major missteps for her to not win. I do think Democrat leadership will pay attention to every state in play, though. Trump is still acting like the primaries are taking place, but you can't approach the general election like a primary. He's not out of the running yet, but he's not helping his cause and his campaign hasn't been well organized. His missteps have been greater, and that's going to matter more than the times when he does say the right thing.
I believe Clinton wants to empathize with voters but doesn't have the political savvy, so I suspect Democrat leadership will look to others to help. Trump doesn't have the working relationship with top GOPers that Clinton does with top Democrats. So that should be to Clinton's advantage.
With that said, if anything decides the election, it will be how well those two draw in the voters truly in play. I like Gary Johnson, I really do, and I'd love to see him get into the Presidential debates, but even if he does, it's a tough mountain to climb.
But I will say this: Johnson won't be the No. 1 reason for the election outcome unless he wins the Presidency. The biggest reasons will be what Clinton and Trump do or fail to do.