Voters Start With a Conclusion and Work Backwards
As Democrats take stock of a disastrous November and plot their path back to power, it’s important to remember one key thing—voters are extremely unusual creatures.
The trouble with voters is that--among our many quirks--we are prone to motivated reasoning. That is to say, we often start out with a conclusion and work our way backwards. We suffer from confirmation bias, clinging to certain ideas and constantly returning to the news sources and stories that confirm our predisposed beliefs. Left or right or anywhere else on the spectrum, everyone has this tendency.
So when we try to understand the mind of a voter, we run into trouble. Polls can't take every motivation or predisposition into account. For example, take a look at what happens when Pew (as it has for years) asks voters how they think the economy will fare in the next year.
It seems pretty extraordinary that 75% of GOP voters suddenly feel so positively about the future of the economy. There's either a lot of faith being placed in Republican economic policy or voters are associating their expectations for the economy with their political preferences. I’m leaning toward the latter interpretation.
Obviously, this points to the power of partisanship in driving motivated reasoning. But, more importantly for the Democratic Party, it demonstrates how difficult it is to craft a compelling economic message to win over people who have largely made up their mind in one direction or the other.
This goes for foreign policy as well. If you had told me a Republican billionaire running in a close race could win by embracing Vladimir Putin, I would have thought you were nuts.
Now, it probably didn’t help that Trump embraced Putin, but it wasn’t enough of a penalty in the precise states that Democrats now need to rebuild in to cost him the election. In fact, the victory seems to have had the curious effect of bringing Vladimir Putin’s favorability ratings up considerably with Republicans.
My point is that voters are often driven by preexisting motivations and a bunch of chaos in between. They may start off with a conclusion (“I want Republicans to succeed”) and then work their way backwards to something pretty nutty (“therefore, Putin’s not such a bad guy after all”).
And there’s a deeper point here about what really motivates voters and where those motivations come from. Elections can be so unpredictable in part because we just can’t always capture an honest picture what's going on in people’s minds. Sure, you can interview people and ask them about different policies, but there’s such a tremendous difference between stated preferences and revealed preferences that getting to the truth is difficult.
For example, it’s obvious that Putin is polling better with Republican voters after the election because these voters can see how that relationship helped them regain power. But the economic question asked by Pew is a little trickier. Do right-leaning voters believe in (and understand) Republican economic policies and expect them to work? Or is this question about economic performance really just a meaningless proxy for which party these voters believe should hold the Presidency?
This is precisely why “messaging” is so much harder than it looks and why straight lines are so hard to draw. Most establishment Democrats tried to dismiss Bernie Sanders as just an out-and-out socialist, but he made an impressive challenge to Hillary Clinton because his “economic message" had a lot to do with political power and how the rich had way too much of it. And it’s why people like me were so wrong about Donald Trump being a viable candidate—his “economic message" was largely about immigrants, terrorists, and corruption. It sounded unhinged coming out his mouth, but it obviously connected very deeply with tens of millions of supporters. Lord knows Hillary's campaign staff now know a thing or to about how powerful preconceived notions about a person can be.
Again, these motivations and how to tap into them are not easy things to figure out. What makes someone predisposed to support a Donald Trump? What might make those 5-10% of swing voters more predisposed to vote for a Democrat? What makes someone choose to be a socialist or a libertarian or an establishment Democrat? Or, more importantly, what might motivate the millions of Democratic-leaning voters that stayed home this November to actually go vote in 2018 and 2020?
And even if you do have good answers for all these questions, how do you put that information to work? How do you convince members of Congress, the relevant national, state, and local committees, the activists, and the donors to buy into the strategy you've crafted?
My point is this: any real plan has to go beyond polling, beyond this superficial artifice of campaigning, and focus on how to connect with people on a base level—the very deep roots of what motivates people to become regular, reliable voters. Sure, many people will never vote Democratic under any circumstance. But if we win over one or two percent of swing voters and increase voter turnout, that’s the ballgame.
Whether we can conceive of this plan using the information we have to address the things that matter to voters, I have some measure of faith. Whether voters will throw us a curve ball and reveal they actually wanted something entirely different than they tell the pollsters, well, that's another story.