Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Voters are the consumers. Politicians are the producers.

There's a fascinating discussion over on MyDD (link) about an article in The New Republic by Christopher Hayes about the undecided voter (link). Hayes explodes several myths about the undecided voter, but one of the biggest is the idea that undecided voters care about issues:

Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured--a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example--but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The "issue" is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It's what makes up the subheadings on a candidate's website, it's what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it's what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it's what we always complain we don't see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to.

I developed the theory a few years back that undecided voters are undecided voters because they just don't know what their issues are. Or, as Hayes puts it, they don't have any issues that they think of in political terms. To such a person, politicians who approach them with a laundry list of issues are the ultimate snooze.

I came to the conclusion that politicians can't win over undecided voters by simply determining what they want and then giving it to them. What works better is to simply tell them what they want and to do it in a convincing enough fashion that they will respond, "Yeah, that is what I want!"

Democrats have been making the mistake for years of thinking that if they just find the right hot button issues to push they can get these people to come over to their side. You see them making the same mistake in thinking that all they have to do is use the right code words on issues like abortion and homosexuality.

Democrats have been using focus groups to determine what issues motivate people. Republicans, on the other hand, use focus groups to figure out what messages motivate people. This is perhaps the fundamental reason why Democrats come off as confusing to the indecisive and wishy-washy to the decisive while Republicans appear steadfast and resolved even to those who ultimately disagree with their stance on particular issues.

Put another way: a winner in politics is not someone who figures out what the people want. A winner in politics is someone who can make the people want what the winner already has.

Democrats, in order to win, have to start seeing the voters as the consumers of a political message, not the producers of a political opinion.


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