Last month, the Cook Political Report released updated analyses of state and district partisanship. The analyses showed increased partisan polarization in Congressional districts (https://www.cookpolitical.com/cook-pvi/2023-partisan-voting-index/118-district-map-and-list). Polarization and realignment over the last 25 years have cut the number of competitive seats in half with a shrinking middle ground. (https://www.cookpolitical.com/cook-pvi/realignment-more-redistricting-has-decimated-swing-house-seats). In a polarized electorate, partisanship plays a larger role in who wins elections than it did a generation ago.
No doubt much of the change reflects greater polarization in voter attitudes. Former President Trump deepened polarization with violent rhetoric as a tactic. The Obama Presidency was not tumultuous but because – in politics as in physics – for every action there is a reaction, his presidency polarized as well. Increased polarization also derives from how campaigns are conducted, which has changed radically over the past 25 years.
Ever since Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994, national messaging has dominated congressional races. And since 2010, when the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case opened-up unlimited spending through independent expenditures (IEs), more campaign decisions are made outside the state and district, often with little or no local input at all. The Citizens United changed the practice of politics in fundamental ways and increased the distance from the people and places that the political process is supposed to represent.
A newly nationalized competition for funds overwhelms at least federal races – what people say about the candidate at the National Republican Senatorial Committee or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee matters for IE and campaign money. National press and cable TV mentions, even if they do not penetrate state and district lines, also help raise funds into campaigns and IEs. And pleasing the power brokers requires hiring staff and consultants, “pros from Dover,” that have their imprimatur. Outside consultants bring technical expertise, volumes of experience and brash confidence that they know how to win. Consultants rarely bring local knowledge although the best of them understand that Wisconsin is not like Minnesota, Mississippi is not like Alabama, and Rhode Island is very different politically from Connecticut. And each state has internal microcultures that matter to who wins them.
By now, there is a generation of consultants and operatives who know only the post-Citizens United world. They know the process of nationalized fundraising and often nationalized messaging. There are operatives running IEs who have never worked on the ground in a campaign. To them, the “ground game” is three weeks of paid GOTV in the closing weeks, without political infrastructure or local nuance.
Now, should any prospective candidates out there read this, let me be clear: Nothing in this blog post should be read to mean you shouldn’t raise money. If you are not willing to spend countless hours on the phone asking strangers for specific dollar amounts, if you will not treasure mentions in the Washington Post of your authentic roots, and if you will not confide your poll numbers with appropriate spin to all the right people, you probably should not run. You need to do those things as a candidate, particularly for an office you do not yet hold. Otherwise, someone will call you an axe-murderer on TV and you won’t have the money to say its not true, much less make the case for why you would do a great job. You need to raise money.
But you need to do more than that. The best campaigns – the ones that break through the partisan polarization now bred by the political system – are the most localized and personalized. Sometimes it is about the choice of issues. Congresswoman Mary Peltola ran on “Fish, Family and Freedom,” putting Alaska Salmon ahead of any national issue agenda. Sometimes it is about force of personality, as Senator John Fetterman’s sartorial choice of shorts and a hoodie led to praise of his authenticity. In all cases there is no substitute for showing up. If the members of the Board of Aldermen, the county Sheriff, and the local Mayor – all of whom have a lot more voter contact than members of Congress – are invested in who wins, it will validate messaging and spur voter turnout. The new Mayor of Jacksonville, Florida held a town hall in every neighborhood. A ground campaign is harder in a big state or district than a small one – although I can think of a couple big state U.S. Senators who pull it off – but the more the better. Voters care more if they have a more direct connection to the candidate than if he or she is simply a TV celebrity, no matter how compelling he or she may be in paid advertising.
Voters may be pounded by TV ads, but they still try and judge what is real beyond that. They notice the unscripted gestures, take their own reads of candidate character, and listen to those of their friends who follow politics more closely than they do. There may not be many swing voters left, but those who remain are far more likely to be for you if you seem to be a real person who cares about Washington County (the most common county name). Maybe they heard from their cousin who works at the Courthouse that you met with the town council who talked to you about the need to rebuild a bridge or repair a school roof. Or they caught a shot of you on the local news in which you seemed to be enjoying the local 4th of July parade. When it comes to turnout, also, people are far more likely to show up at the polls if they know someone who vouches for you and reminds them to vote than if they get an SMS text that says its time to go to the polls. (The high tech name is direct relational organizing – and all the research says it is much better than SMS.)
Next year is a presidential election year and the electorate will be deeply polarized on a national level. Some candidates will win if they just go with the flow. Partisanship can be your friend – and the partisan flow will likely be a torrent in 2024. But in the handful of competitive states and districts remaining, campaigns would be well served by at least establishing a local track. You will not only follow the shibboleths of your party, but you know about the issues in Washington County. And you talk not only about working families need for health care, but about the strains on the local hospital in nearby Franklin County. And maybe you also seem like a person they might like – with some rough edges as well as the smarts and compassion demonstrated in your scripted TV persona. If you need voters to cross partisan lines to win – raise the money, please the powers that be – but then bring it all home. Let people say on November 8th how surprised they were at how well you did in Washington County – and nearby Franklin too.