Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Dale Edmondson last wrote “Why Do Both Parties Fare so Badly with the Public?” for us during the election.
A few observations (ok, maybe a bit obvious, but still an attempt to get beyond a Jim Carey in Ace Ventura II scream of “Yeeuuukkkkk”)
- Running against something rather than for something wins but lacks staying power. For quite a few cycles, elections seem characterized (oversimplistically but with some validity) as not a mandate for one, but rather a repudiation of the other. This election smacks of that. Rs don’t seem to have won because of a strong message on a widely approved policy agenda (by and large they didn’t offer one) but by running against the perceived status quo. Ds have done the same. That certainly wins elections. But it doesn’t give staying power – especially since the winner of last round becomes, in the public mind, the status quo. In this context, all victories look temporary, and lasting change proves elusive. Still…
- Running against something still beats running without any real message. In 2010 and 2014, Ds seemed not to stand for that much. They did not tout what accomplishments they had (possibly because their accomplishments don’t look that great when things overall remained unfixed). Instead they kind of cringed, didn’t really defend their work, didn’t really articulate why they were better alternatives, and hoped not to get slammed too much by the oncoming tide. There were reasons for this, but we saw how it worked out. In a lot of ways they’ve been seen as running not to lose (and when you play to not lose, too often, you do. Rather than offering a vision or a grand purpose, all they had was a “that guy is worse” narrative – one which they often didn’t even press very effectively (eg Braley). And when they did,
- “Even if you don’t like me, the other guy is worse” can work but has limits. Kay Hagan did about the best with this strategy and nearly pulled it out in a less blue state than CO or IA. But it only takes you so far, especially against an angry electorate that may feel that, Groundhog-day style, anything different is good, and has as its default “throw da bums out.” The negative approach has been disfavored at least in part out of fears of depressing turnout, and though it may be the best option (given that elections are in truth a choice between candidates far more so than anything else), it hardly inspires. On top of that..
- Ds can’t reliably count on Rs to scare away the center. For the last few cycles, Rs have shifted so far right as to frighten everyone not only conservative, but extremely conservative. That’s provided Ds a refuge of sorts, and an excuse not to really change their own side too much. Rs, however, saw this, and responded. With the arguable exception of Ernst (who won anyway given the tide, but by less and with a weaker opponent), the worst of teabaggery was harder to see. Whether newly reformed non-extremists like Gardner have moved to the center in truth (which would be a very good thing for a country that desperately needs a reasoned, compromising, more moderate while still right-side Republican option, but would also be a complication for Ds electorally) or whether their facial moderation was a smokescreen remains to be seen. But for election purposes, they succeeded in being seen as at least plausible/non-scary alternatives to the status quo. Which highlights the underlying problem that…
- When things suck, voters don’t seem to much care why. Here, the R attacks on things not being good resonated at least in part because they’re true. Things aren’t good for most people. Wages are falling, employment is low, the list goes on. Of course, the Rs offer little that shows promise of actually making things better, and show every sign of making things worse, as they did the last time they held power. But voters don’t seem to look that deeply. The Rs’ comparative lack of ways to do better, much less ways that have not been tried and failed before, didn’t seem to matter that much – at least, not to those who voted. Which underscores that
- Who shows up, wins – and Ds too often don’t. Turnout was down yet again. Maybe part of that is dispiritedness of the base due to scandals, lack of transformative change etc. Or maybe part is generally lower rates of participation -on average years. Regardless, Ds still haven’t found a way to crack this. That leaves Ds in a horrible place (although they did manage to do differently in 06). It also leaves decisions made by an increasingly small fraction of the electorate. (Of course that, compromises the force of any general themes directed at general voting public, including the ones here- but that’s a separate point). It’s hard to say democracy itself is failing when it’s voters’ own choices not to show up at all, and it’s hard to complain about something one has the power to fix but does not. Still, self-inflicted wound though it may be, the situation is a wound for the country, and one that results in decision-making that does not reflect the wills of most of the people. However,
- Low turnouts also highlight the prospect for change. Given how depressed turnout seems to be, it would take a correspondingly small shift in voter mobilization to dramatically swing outcomes. That would require shifts in individual desires to make such a change, as well as increased feeling that change would even matter or that either candidate is worth supporting. Such things may be daunting tasks, especially in an overall climate of disappointment on all sides and dislike of the other side being a prime motivator. Shifts like that do remain possible if the underlying factors prompting apathy can be addressed, and should be considered among the many other elements going into what to do next.
– Dale Edmondson