Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Voters Don't Really Care About Issues

Utah Policy has posted a fascinating discussion about the importance of issues in political campaigns. Three knowledgeable contributors offer their views on the matter. Each has demonstrated success in getting candidates elected to political office.

These three are Todd Taylor, a chiropractor and Executive Director of the Utah State Democratic Party; Deidre Henderson, Campaign Manager for Congressman Jason Chaffetz; and Matt Lyon, a member of the Executive Board of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party. LaVarr Webb wraps up the commentary with brief remarks.

The three experts all hit on some of the same points, but each also offers a few additional insights. I’d summarize the points made as follows:
  • Specific issues are rarely important to campaigns.
  • Few voters pay attention to position statements.
  • The ability to communicate effectively and at the appropriate depth (for the audience) about a broad variety of issues is quite important.
  • Effectiveness in communicating principles upon which actions will be based is significant.
  • Party affiliation is more important than specific issues.
  • A candidate’s likability and appearance of competence are key factors.
  • The overall “message” the candidate delivers is a deciding factor.
In addition to these main points, the contributors offer some useful tidbits of insight. I sense significant wisdom in Todd Taylor’s observation that:
“The big issues that never seem to resolve, are not really important issues at all, they are talking points for two or more groups that find them profitable to keep unresolved. A note to voters: If you find that you are attracted to a candidate because of their position on one of the many unresolved but long-brewing issues, just know that you are being played. If it is not resolved, it is not resolved for a reason. Americans are good at taking care of the most important things.”
Deidre Henderson stresses effective communication of one’s beliefs in principles of government. Principle-based communication can help a candidate live with statements made on the campaign trail once elected. She notes that “Once a statement is made it's nearly impossible to retract.”

Matt Lyon explains why specific issues don’t help candidates much: “Since local issues vary so drastically for individuals and households, it can be difficult to relate to voters on a specific issue. Additionally, regardless of party affiliation, local candidates often have very similar local issues -- everyone runs on the "education" ticket.” Lyon notes the importance of connecting with voters in ways that increase likability. But he also emphasizes the significance of party affiliation.

Party affiliation is important to voters just as branding is useful in many of the products consumers buy and use daily. Voters look at political parties the same way they look at product lines. Little may be known about a new product, but the reliability of the brand’s other products and the brand’s overall message give the consumer some clue as to what to expect. Political parties work the same way for voters.

When you are voting in a tight enough group that you have personal interaction with (or at least personal knowledge of) the various candidates, you are selecting among somewhat known quantities. In most cases, political jurisdictions are now too large for voters to personally know the candidates. Voters don’t really know what they are getting. So they take cues from a variety of sources, including party affiliation.

Moreover, marketing experts know that consumers and voters tend to minimize the effort they must expend to make a selection, since we all have many things clamoring for our time. If the choice becomes too difficult — such as when too many options are offered or too much complexity is involved — many consumers won’t buy. Many would-be voters skip voting for the same reason. Conversely, voters tend to stay away when there is too little product differentiation (i.e. no candidate seems qualitatively superior).

Webb laments the fact that “well-researched, principled, in-depth positions on issues” is “not really the recipe for success.” He agrees that simply “staying on message with sound bites dictated by focus groups and polling will win more races.” He opines that a “great campaign can bring the two together….”

That may be true, but why would a candidate expend resources on activities that produce no advantage in an election? Besides, as Taylor notes, “The important issues that an officeholder will have to confront will likely be those that do come as a surprise - not only to the candidate but to the public and most everyone else.”

What are we really voting for when we vote for a political candidate? Are we expecting to get a box of cut and dried issues or are we expecting to get someone that we hope will competently represent us in government? Some of us certainly think that how candidates stand on issues helps define what kind of representatives they will be. But that is clearly not a selling feature for the vast majority of voters. They are trying to capture a glimpse of a bigger picture.

I like Deidre Henderson’s principle based approach. Clearly state your principles and then let the public determine how well your actions in office match those principles for the next go-around. But we also need good memories to recall what principles candidates said they held dear. Otherwise we will find that they slowly shift to something quite different. Consider, for example, the contrast between the 1976 vintage Orrin Hatch and the Orrin Hatch of 2009.


Donald Lewin Nelson said...

In many elections, a single issue or community concern can be overwhelming. In one California city, the issue was the fact that the city did not have its own school district. The city of 100,000 was divided among four other school districts. This was a huge community identity issue. The candidates who won election to the city council all agreed in the formation of their own school district.

In another city, an individual won a city council seat by being the dog poop candidate. (Actually, everyone in town referred to it by another name.) The candidate won by saying that he would end the dog poop problem and clean up the town.

In many states, an individual's stand on gun control can be the deciding issue.

Other candidates win through identity politics. The only thing that is important to the majority of the electorate is the fact that the candidate shares a common identity with them. Jews vote for Jews. Blacks vote for Blacks. Mormons vote for Mormons. Look at John F. Kennedy's popularity among Catholics.

rmwarnick said...

I think knowing the policy details as well as the politics is very, very important. The "surprise" issues that arise don't surprise elected officials who know a lot about the world.

For example, those who knew Osama bin Laden had declared war on the USA weren't so surprised by the 9/11 attacks.

Similarly, those who had studied the savings and loan fiasco of the 1980s probably weren't surprised when financial deregulation led to the collapse of investment banking.

I'm worried that a lot of our politicians know how to get elected but are clueless about statesmanship.

Thus we get dumb statements telling us "no one anticipated" this or that perfectly predicable catastrophe during the Bush administration.

Maybe the ultimate example was Hurricane Katrina taking out New Orleans-- nothing was more widely predicted by the experts, yet the politicians were caught flat-footed.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Single issue candidates can win elections. The outgoing mayor of my city won his first election to address the injustice he saw when a major road in the city was being widened. The plan called for all of the new width to come from one side of the road, which just happened to be the side that this guy lived on.

Stands on certain issues can tip a close race.

It's easy for a single issue candidate to beat the drum for that issue and to be defined by that issue. If the timing is right, this kind of campaign can work. But issuing detailed issue statements on multiple issues doesn't work.

Only the highest level matters to most voters when it comes to issues. They're simply not going to care very much about the details and nuances of a candidate's stand on most issues. Small groups will care about some things enough to seek detail. But it's rarely a broad crowd pleaser.

I agree that voters will often vote according to identity politics. "There's someone that's like me and can understand where I'm coming from," seems to be the thinking. I've kind of soured on that kind of thing, because candidates that use that kind of leverage are frequently just using their supporters.

I think Richard makes some very good points. We have oodles of problems in the wings just waiting to break loose. The well informed won't be surprised when these events occur.

While I agree that we have a lot of people that are good at getting elected but not so good at doing the job for which they were elected, I think that at least some of them are smart enough to see what is coming down the pike. But they use this knowledge mainly for political advantage.

Charles D said...

To an extent, this seems to support my long-held contention that we have a triumph of marketing over politics. The important thing is that a candidate project an image: I'm really on your side, I am truly concerned about the things you are concerned about, I'm a man/woman of my word, and I'm going to make my sales pitch regardless of what question you ask me.

Are we well served by this kind of politics? I don't think so, but we have a voting public that is ill-informed on most issues and misinformed by the media on many others and are not in a position to properly evaluate policy issues. We have a political process dominated by money, one in which the seriousness of a candidate and the viability of a candidate has far more to do with their ability to raise money than with their stands on policy issues. Changing either of those situations requires the sort of systemic change our political system will not permit.

Scott Hinrichs said...

"... we have a triumph of marketing over politics."

True words, indeed.