Thursday, October 16, 2008

What the GOP is up against

It's very hard to explain to conservatives in Washington that independent voters don't fit easily into the prefabricated compartments with which ideologues are comfortable. Independent voters, God bless 'em, are a cantankerous bunch, generally ill-informed about the stuff that political junkies take seriously, but very certain about their hatreds.

Keep that in mind as you read what a Republican consultant said in an e-mail to Ben Smith of the Politico about a recent Midwestern focus group where people were asked to watch and react to a Republican TV ad:
The two most unreal moments of my professional life of watching focus groups:
54 year-old white male, voted Kerry '04, Bush '00, Dole '96, hunter, NASCAR fan...hard for Obama said: "I'm gonna hate him the minute I vote for him. He's gonna be a bad president. But I won't ever vote for another god-damn Republican. I want the government to take over all of Wall Street and bankers and the car companies and Wal-Mart run this country like we used to when Reagan was President."
The next was a woman, late 50s, Democrat but strongly pro-life. Loved B. and H. Clinton, loved Bush in 2000. "Well, I don't know much about this terrorist group Barack used to be in with that Weather guy but I'm sick of paying for health insurance at work and that's why I'm supporting Barack."
I felt like I was taking crazy pills. I sat on the other side of the glass and realized...this really is the Apocalypse. The Seventh Seal is broken and its time for eight years of pure, delicious crazy....
There are several things going on here. Notice that the white male was a stout enough Republican to vote for Dole in '96, and also voted for Bush in 2000, but went for Kerry in '04. What happened during the first four years of Bush's term to switch this guy to Kerry? We don't know, but now he uses "god-damn Republican" as an epithet and advocates the nationalization of industry as something that Reagan would have done.

And what of this woman who (a) is pro-life, but (b) supported the Clintons, then (c) turned against Al Gore, yet now (d) supports Barack because (e) she's upset about health care?

These reactions seem bizarre and irrational to the Republican consultant, but reflect two basic facts about independent voters:
  • They are radically disconnected from the political information system. There is a strong correlation between partisanship, political involvement, and news consumption. The less news you consume, the less likely you are to be politically involved, and the less likely you are to have a strong attachment to a party or ideology. Thus, the woman is pro-life, but voted for the pro-choice Clintons, while the man is a hunter but voted for gun-control advocate Kerry. They simply don't follow politics closely enough to know which candidate supports their issues.
  • Their political passions tend to be personal in nature and negative in orientation. We don't have enough background on these two people to know what's going on with their lives, their jobs, their marriages, their finances, etc. However, if you talk to independent voters one-to-one, you'll find their politics are usually motivated by their own direct experiences. Did this middle-aged white guy get his truck repossessed? Or did his wife leave him? And is the woman's complaint about health insurance related to some specific medical problem she's got? Did her employer just get a new health plan that raised her premiums? Whatever the root of their grievances, these grievances translate to negative reactions: I'm against X, and therefore I'm voting against the opponent of whoever I blame for X.
This is where the "brand damage" of the Bush era comes from, and it's one of the downsides of having a Republican in the White House. People who aren't politically involved don't pay much attention to Congress (a recent study found that 41% of CNN viewers don't know that Democrats have a majority in Congress), but generally they do know who the president is and what party he belongs to. So when these politically uninvolved people are unhappy, the guy in the White House takes the blame, and his party along with him.

Thus the apocalyptic revelation for the Republican consultant: These independent voters don't know a lot about politics, but they do know they're not voting Republican -- and ideological coherence be damned!


  1. Bob or Robert?

    I file this under: Only a fool can be bribed with his own money and only a thief is bribed with someone else's.

  2. Is it anything more than coincidence that Dirty Harry had a Sammy Davis Jr clip up the day before Joe made his tap dancing comment?

    I dunno, but I check DHP daily.