Real Politics, Anyone?

Try Campaigning on the Issues

The dismal prospect of the 2016 presidential cycle was perfectly captured in a cartoon of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, iPhone in hand, taking a selfie with a babe in arms (the New York Times Magazine, November 27, 2014). The baby looks about to bawl. So should we all. Let’s face it: those few of us (36.2 percent) who voted in November were expressing the triumph of hope over experience. Who expects the winning Republicans to work with the losing Democrats? Who expects the Tea Party to work with the moderate Republicans? The Democrats may want to govern, but first they have to win some elections. In order to win they will have to make some drastic changes.

Here’s my advice. Give up on slicing and dicing the electorate with demographic profiles. Get back to politics—actually trying to persuade voters—and campaign on broad, fundamental issues instead of niche appeals.

Identifying and putting together different constituencies is nothing new in politics. That’s what balanced tickets were about. But in recent decades it’s become a new religion, especially among Democrats and their campaign gurus. Every campaign since McGovern’s was going to turn on a new youth vote. Then the gurus became more refined: “Soccer moms” soon to be countered by “NASCAR dads” and put into play alongside “Joe six-pack,” “pink collars,” “angry white males,” “angry black women,” “older voters,” “younger voters,” “college grads,” blacks and Hispanics (some angry, some not), post-racials. All these came in geographic flavors: urban, suburban, exurban, New South, New West, bi-coastals. Why not cave dwellers? Political consultants have been eager to conjure up slogans calculated to appeal to a specific slice of the electorate; then the candidates dutifully mouth those slogans and ignore the issues their real constituents actually care about.

If a strategy based on demographics ever worked, it isn’t working today. In his 2014 re-election campaign, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) focused on abortion rights in order to appeal to young women. It didn’t work. Either Colorado women don’t care as much about abortion as the political consultants imagine, or they care more about issues Udall hardly mentioned. In Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina races, President Barack Obama urged blacks to get out and vote for the (white) Democratic candidates. Some did, but not enough to swing those contests to the Democrats. Is it possible that the president’s appeal had the opposite effect, encouraging white voters to pull the lever for the Republican candidates (also white)?

This demographic strategy is of a piece with identity politics, which claims that ethnicity, race, religion, income, and age dictate what you care about. If there’s any truth to that, it’s not enough to get out the voters. As E. J. Dionne has pointed out, in 2014 disproportionate numbers of Latinos, the young, the poor, and the less educated stayed home. The white working class voted for Republican congressional candidates, while also voting to raise the minimum wage in states with referendums.

In 2016, jobs and wages, inequality and education, income insecurity and the social safety net are more than ripe for national discussion—issues that concern men and women, whites and blacks, young and old. Democrats might actually try taking credit for their achievements, explaining how the worst economic crisis since the Depression has been beaten back by the Obama administration, how affordable health care has provided over 8 million people with access to doctors and hospitals, how jobs are back but workers need better pay. Sure, it can’t be done by white papers without also being done by bumper stickers—but it can be done.

And finally, let the culture-war issues slip into history, or at least be waged in the culture rather than the voting booth. Republicans used abortion and same-sex marriage as wedge issues—and where did it get them? Democrats are using these issues to whip up a demographic vote; they alienate those opposed. Demographics ain’t politics; it’s a shell game run by clever people. What voters need is real politics, engaging the issues that affect the daily lives of the vast majority. Try it, Democrats.

Published in the January 9, 2015 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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