What Voters Want

By Winston, David | Policy Review, June-July 1999 | Go to article overview

What Voters Want


Winston, David, Policy Review


The Politics of Personal Connection

It is pardonable to be defeated, but never to be surprised. - Frederick the Great

NEWT GINGRICH STOOD before the TV cameras on election night 1998 confused, angry, and disoriented. He had expected to win a significant number of House seats, which would secure his speakership and his agenda for the next two years. He had weathered, he believed, the worst that anyone could throw at him - from a coup by his trusted advisors, to a massive Democratic effort to pursue ethics charges against him, to 120,000 negative television spots produced by organized labor and the Democrats. But he had survived, and he had set up the 1998 election just the way he wanted. Now he faced the cameras having suffered a huge defeat - and he didn't know why.

In 1996, about two weeks before the election, Bob Dole, a true war hero and one of the most respected legislators ever to serve in Congress, realized he wasn't going to win the presidency. In frustration, he blamed the American people, crisscrossing the country to tell them they were wrong. Inside the Dole campaign, it was referred to as the "Wake Up, America" tour. Just 18 short months earlier, it looked like any Republican would beat Bill Clinton, but Dole now faced a humiliating defeat, and he didn't know why.

In 1994, Clinton and his staff huddled on election night - removed from the public. They had been handed a historic defeat. After having laid out a bold and ambitious series of proposals, Clinton had done something a Democratic president had not done since 1946. He had lost both the House and the Senate - and he didn't know why.

How could these three very different political leaders be so far off in their expectations about the results of an upcoming election? The reason is that each had crafted a strategic vision and tactical plan based on assumptions that missed the most important shift in American political behavior since the 1920s. American voters now are largely unwilling to make political decisions based on liberal or conservative ideology - that is, by locating themselves somewhere on the left-right political spectrum and supporting the candidate located closest to them or opposing the candidate farthest from them. Voters have evolved new, highly personalized ways of choosing, and more often than not, they regard attempts to make them view the world in ideological terms as too constricting. Politics will never be the same again, and politicians who miss this change are apt to be left behind scratching their heads as the masters of this new politics emerge victorious at the polls.

Ideology and its discontents

THE BASIC PARADIGM of political decision-making since FDR has been ideological. Think of a straight line from left to right, with "liberal" at one end, "conservative" at the other, and varying shades of "moderate" in between. Candidates have tried to place themselves along that spectrum at a point that includes at least 50 percent of voters.

Exactly where that point is varies considerably. Fifty percent plus one in a very liberal district (say, the Upper West Side of Manhattan) is very different from the same point in a conservative district (Orange County, California).

In an ideological world, politics and political appeal are largely a matter of the positions a candidate takes. Gun control: For it? Liberal.

Against it? Conservative. To state the position is to make the pitch for support, because in an ideological world, voters know where they stand and respond to candidates accordingly.

Today, for some voters, a "conservative" or "liberal" label is a drawback, because many people now tend to view both terms - rightly or wrongly - as extreme. Nor is the solution for politicians somehow to take a "moderate" view, that is, simply a blend of liberal and conservative positions.

Increasingly, people do not see themselves as fixed somewhere on the political spectrum of left to right. …

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What Voters Want
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