An Interested Observer's Take On American Elections

I've always been interested in the process of political campaigns, wondering if the system we've set up is really the best way to pick leaders for our Republic. Before answering the question, I should provide my perception on how American election campaigns work. (I'll use examples from the current competitive race in my area, that for Congress in Idaho's 1st Congressional District between incumbent Democrat Rep. Walt Minnick and Republican/Tea Party challenger State Rep. Raul Labrador. My previous posts on this race can be found here and here.)

There are three basic groups of potential voters each candidate has to consider in any election; their interactions with and message to each group will differ. For lack of better terms, these groups are (1) Those predisposed to support you; (2) Those predisposed to support your opponent; and (3) The undecided "swing" voters. Since voting isn't mandatory in the U.S., candidates can turn voter excitement (or apathy) to their advantage. A smart candidate will tailor his campaign to maximize the likelihood that group (1) will vote, while trying to suppress voting from group (2). Most of the "horse-race" coverage of elections focuses on the efforts of each candidate to win over group (3), but I think a smart candidate can get just as much mileage from working on the other two groups. An example of this is the 2004 Presidential election; where many observers believe that the key to President Bush's victory was getting an additional several million group (1) religious conservatives who failed to vote in 2000 to turn out. Likewise, getting those predisposed to vote for your opponent to decide that it's not worth the trouble to bother to vote, or to vote for an unelectable 3rd party candidate, is a potentially fruitful strategy. While I don't want to give the Republican leadership too much credit for planning this ahead of time, one could see how their refusal to compromise on basically anything during the last two years and therefore keep the Administration from claiming victories could be a cause of the "enthusiasm gap" being reported in pre-election polls this year.

In the ID-1 race, this model is a little bit skewed, because the Democrat's group (1) is smaller than normally found throughout the country. While there are clearly Idaho Democrats who have become so disillusioned with Rep. Minnick's independent voting patterns that they vow not to vote for him, the Minnick campaign has apparently decided that it's more important to work on groups (2) and (3) than to try to shore up their base. I think they're probably right, even if I don't like the way they're going about it. Based on the advertisements the Minnick campaign has chosen to run, it appears that they're trying to break off the substantial "anti-illegal immigrant" bloc that normally votes Republican from Raul Labrador. Having a candidate with an Hispanic name in Idaho is probably a negative to begin with (I don't want to say there seem to be quite a few "brown people are bad" voters in Idaho, but...), and the Minnick campaign seems to be hoping to stoke those doubts those voters may have had otherwise to make them less excited to vote. While it's unlikely these people would vote for a Democrat ("Pelosi" seems to be a really bad word here), if they can be convinced not to vote -- a possibility since the other Republicans on the ballot in the up-ticket races are more "establishment"-type candidates, and not the Paulite bomb-throwers these potential voters are looking for -- that would be a win for Rep. Minnick.

Since it's not as easy to get the group (1) and (2) voters not to vote (they tend to vote more regularly than people who may be independent more based on apathy than anything else), there's still money to be made from convincing group (3) potential voters to vote for you. If your opponent has extreme positions, it's wise to try to highlight those, as Rep. Minnick did in his closing comments in the televised debate last night. Rep. Minnick has a built-in advantage with this group, as most of them who did vote in 2008 cast their ballots for him, and as a moderate he is likely a closer fit to their political ideology to start with. Likewise, he has an advantage with voters with military experience; even those who won't vote for him are being convinced not to vote for non-veteran Labrador.

The debate last night, which I attended, should be the last public interaction between the candidates for this election. (Neither of the major candidates are impressive debaters, but neither made an election-altering gaffe. Since debates tend to be watched only by the most involved political junkies, I'd be surprised if anyone's mind was changed by the debate; the number of truly undecided voters who tuned in to decide how to vote was probably in the three digits district-wide, based on no real data.) Assuming Rep. Minnick's internal poll numbers are favorable (all the publicly-released numbers to date have been), expect to see him start playing "prevent" defense and avoiding settings where the press may be present. As a general rule, the candidate with more money and a lead in the polls in the last couple of weeks will recognize that only a gaffe could cause the election to slip away. In this election, however, I'm not sure that's the case. Turnout on November 2nd will depend on either the group (3) voters deciding on their own that they want to vote, or being convinced by more politically-active friends. While Rep. Minnick rules the airwaves by sheer force of money, and therefore is more likely to gain votes from the 1st subset, it's the Tea Party-inspired voters who are more eager to vote. If the Republican GOTV effort pays off, expect this election to be a nail-biter than could go either way.

My initial question remains -- is this the best way to select candidates to lead our Republic? I used to think it was; that the effort required to put together a team to win an election, and to understand the electorate well enough to put together a message to which they could respond, was a good predictor of the attributes required to be a successful legislator or executive. Now, however, since there's so much more money being poured into campaigns, I don't think it is; I don't think we're getting the best candidates for office anymore. (Note that several Tea Party-backed candidates for Senate have basically refused to have any unscripted interactions with the press not because they have the lead, but because they say something stupid whenever they open their mouth. At least two of them -- Paul and Angle -- have a chance of winning.) I don't have an answer for how to fix this, but I hope the electorate will decide after a few campaigns like this one to no longer reward that type of behavior. Yes, I know I'm an idealist, but I can still dream...

Update 1343 15 Oct: Here's an opinion piece from the New York Times discussing the Minnick-Labrador race. Surprisingly insightful for a stuffed-shift Eastern media elite guy.