Humility Beat Hubris (For Now)

On November 8th, humility beat hubris. The election was not a triumph for professionals of either party who, with a few exceptions, didn’t see it coming. It is hard to claim credit for something you didn’t see. Meanwhile, voters, who generally lack hubris, quietly took a stand, particularly those in the middle who don’t talk to pollsters and just go do their thing.

There will be a lot of analysis forthcoming about who turned out and why, and how they all voted. But it is pretty clear that the “normal” people (see October 9th post), decided that Republicans were the riskier bet. They still don’t embrace either party – or politics in general these days – but when it came down to it, they decided that the Republicans go too far in ways that are more dangerous than the ways the Democrats go too far. That’s not approbation, but it is and was a choice.

It was quite remarkable. Midterm elections just don’t look this way, at least without a missile crisis 90 miles off our coast or an attack on New York City. President Biden’s numbers are “underwater,” as they say, and inflation is a problem. But given a choice between worse and worser, well, here we are, although it was a close call.

But humility will quietly recede and hubris will roar back. Hubris apparently runs rampant already in the state of Florida and will (no danger of a wrong prediction here), be back in DC any minute. So here are a few things for both parties to keep in mind if you don’t want the forces of humility to clobber you next time around.

1. Get Shit Done. Yeah, it is still a close divide, but that is no excuse. Democrats have enough of a mandate that no one wants to hear about how Republicans are the problem (even if they are) and, Republicans, neither standing up for Trump nor standing up to Trump counts as helping people who are still facing a wavering economy and high inflation. Cutting Social Security and Medicare and screaming about the Democrats – or about the election – is appealing to me as your chosen posture only because I am still a partisan Democrat and that posture is a loser.

2. Voting Rights. Almost all Americans take it as a given that every adult citizen in the United States has a right to vote and to have their vote counted. Republicans: If you are not for this, then you are not for our system of government and should not be a part of it. I get your strategic reasons for embracing racism and blocking voting rights – more of your people are uncomfortable with race than not. But even those who are uncomfortable with people whom they believe are different than themselves – and even those who have lingering attitudes of white supremacy – do not identify with ugly, screaming, violent and near-violent insurrectionists. You and yours variously led, encouraged, or tolerated that. If that is your brand, you will keep losing. Democrats: Do more and talk less. Starting every sentence with “regardless of race,” racializes. Failure to pass voting right legislation undercuts the argument that you stand for inclusive democracy. You need to act to protect free and fair elections and the right to vote.

3. Abortion. Americans did not approve of the Supreme Court decision taking away a right that women have had for two generations. Republicans: If you really believe that women should only have the legal right to make this decision only sometimes and in some places, you need a lot better messaging on it. Right now, it appears just a power play by a politicized Court of your making. And the argument that it is up to the states undercuts your message on the morality of abortion both to those who favor the right and to those who oppose it. It is logically inconsistent to say something is morally wrong in Mississippi but not in Colorado. Or morally wrong in Mississippi for those who cannot afford the flight to Colorado. Your arguments are mush. Democrats: Voters are with you on the legality of abortion. Most voters favor it being legal and don’t want to get into litigating details of circumstance. But most do not believe it is a morally neutral choice either; they are still with “safe, legal, and rare.” Don’t celebrate it; just keep it legal. Even in Mississippi.

4. The Economy. A little explanation and focus would help here. Blaming Biden, Putin, China, or immigrants really doesn’t make anyone more comfortable. Yeah, I know its a world-wide problem, but knowing that isn’t comforting to people. What is the focus and what is the government doing about it – in clear language that is oriented toward action not blame.

A final note to the news media: I have written plenty here to say polls don’t work the way they used to and forecasting just says what happened before will happen again. Next time, talk to fewer pollsters and forecasters, and talk more to the “normal” people. They knew what they were doing here, although they may not want to talk about it much.

The midterms, prophecy, and blood sacrifice

I am just back from two weeks in Greece. A visit to the cradle of democracy and contemplation of events Before the Common Era provides perspective. Besides, Greece is beautiful and retired people get to travel in October. But so much back here is messier now than when I left.

Despite all the polls, analytics, and forecasts, I think it is unwise to be too confident that any of us know what will happen in 11 days. A lot is close; in the last few election cycles, close polling has presaged a wave in one direction or the other, and the trend the last couple weeks has not been good for the Democrats. But the past is an imperfect predictor of the future, or even of the present. I am concerned, also, that such prophecies become self-fulfilling, creating rather than measuring momentum. Past performance is a useful predictor in targeting as well, but it does seem to me a bit overdone. Upsets do happen as a result of candidates or chemistry. The first U.S. Senate race for which I polled was Paul Wellstone’s in 1990, back when I was too new and naive to understand he couldn’t win. (For those who do not remember, he did indeed win.)

So, having learned from the oracle at Delphi how to be properly ambiguous my prediction is JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL NOT LOSE GROUND NOW. The meaning of that depends on how you see justice and whether you place the comma before or after the word “not.” Thus it’s correct – if interpreted properly.

If this is a wave election, there will be blood. It seems rather likely that many will call for a blood sacrifice of the pollsters. I do not think that will work any better than the blood sacrifices of pre-classical, pre-democratic Greece. True, if you sacrifice animals or even people after an earthquake, you are unlikely to have another earthquake right away but that may well have nothing to do with the sacrifice.

Now, I have been very clear in this blog and to anyone who asks that I believe people need to change and expand their research protocols. Polling is hardly the only form of research available, it does not work the way it used to – or the way people think it does. It also looks at the aggregate, which is less useful in the internet age, encouraging aggregate media like TV and lessening the emphasis on organizing on the ground, or by internet networks. There is utility in knowing aggregate attitudes but as an early step in a strategic process which now in my view over-relies on polling.

But the problems with polling should not swamp an examination of the problems with campaigning, which seems far less connected to people than in times past. And the media’s coverage of politics seems highly problematic and often destructive of the democratic process. It emphasizes polarization for the drama, forecasting and predictions for their ease, and in the process makes change, creativity, and conversation with the middle more difficult for everyone. The middle, which is bigger than some think and includes soft partisans, is increasingly non-participatory in polls and in reality, which also makes the polarization worse.

So, yes, we need better ways of doing research. But also a different attitude about listening to people and their views, more individual contact, less nationalization. And far less forecasting which does not, as far as I can see, contribute much to the dialog at all and risks creating a conversation from the top-down which alters results from the bottom-up. Besides, even if you sacrifice the pollsters, it wont affect the timing of the next earthquake.

JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL NOT LOSE GROUND NOW

The Midterm Election: Beware the “Normal” People

If you are reading this, you are not one of them. The “normal” people, for want of a better term, aren’t interested in politics. Normal people don’t see why anyone gets as excited as they do about candidates, parties, politics or issue positions. Normal people have their own ideas, but they aren’t passionate about them. They are passionate instead about their family, their hometown, their local football teams, and their hobbies. They vote – it’s something you are supposed to do – like going to church at least on holidays, or stopping at stop signs – but they don’t obsess over their vote; sometimes they don’t decide until they get to the booth.

Normal people used to find politics more interesting back when they could have a civil discussion about it. As I said, normal people have points of view. But they feel now its just so hysterical and overwrought – and that goes for both parties. Normal people may or may not have voted for Trump but now he seems to them to have lost it. A lot of people can get that way when they lose something they once had. But the Democrats are screaming all the time too. They are always crying racism, even when normal people don’t see it, not that they look that hard. And on abortion, they feel its better when abortion is legal because the sorrow of an unwanted pregnancy does happen, even among normal people. Abortion is not right, they say, but we can all forgive people who make mistakes. Still, women can walk, and talk; they haven’t lost control of their bodies and, really, people should be more careful.

As for the midterms, normal people aren’t sure what they will do. The Republicans really do seem to be on some kind of power trip but normal people have always worried about the Democrats on taxes, and the Democrats do seem to be on their own kind of power trip too – much more about screaming at the Republicans than saying what they will do about anything, except maybe abortion. Most normal people voted for Biden because they thought he would settle things down but things don’t seem very settled right now. Maybe its better to have Republicans in Congress so the Democrats don’t get out of control. On the other hand, they will all just scream at each other all the time and no good will come of it.

These days, normal people don’t take polls much. You hear a lot about the hard right anti-institutional crowd avoiding polls so everyone knows to make sure they have “enough” Republicans. But normal people don’t want to talk politics with a stranger for 15 or even 10 minutes either. And if they know your focus group is about politics, they really would rather not participate. Whatever they do in the midterms, it won’t be far off their center line, and they wont feel all that strongly about it. It’s football season, after all, and time to start planning for Thanksgiving.

To be clear, I’m not normal myself. I never have been. But they used to be willing to be in focus groups “about the community” and even to take polls. And while much of Mississippi is not normal by these definitions, a lot of it is – and more normal than Washington, although both D.C. and Jackson are football towns.

Entering polling’s silly season…

Soon there will be a plethora of “horse race” polls in various races and nationally, likely showing divergent results. That is a seasonal phenomenon plus the one-two punch of the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade and the compelling hearings by the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack have made the mid-terms more interesting and more contested. Plus, Republicans have nominated some truly dreadful candidates.

On the flip side, President Biden’s approval is low and the economy is perceived as weak. Last time there was a mid-term election with rising inflation (although rising less than now at that point) and a then unpopular Democratic President, the year was 1978. In that year, which almost no one under age 50 remembers, Republicans picked up three Senate seats and 15 House seats.

There are many differences between 1978 and 2022. So this year is looking interesting, but we cannot know what will happen based on polling alone, or even mostly. Here are two caveats on polling and then some things to watch for since polling isn’t going away.

The first caveat should be familiar to anyone who has followed this blog: No one is polling random samples. Polling simply doesn’t work the way it used to work. The rule for a random sample is that everyone in the population of interest – people who will vote on November 8, 2022 – has an equal chance of being included in the poll. Caller ID means no one has been able to do that since about 1990. Instead, pollsters mimic the electorate and aim for representative samples. Widely swinging turnout, extreme difficulties reaching some demographics, and response bias have made “representativeness” more and more difficult. Response bias is not unitary. It combines distrust of polls, distrust of the media, the desire to be seen as an individual not part of a labeled aggregate, the quality of the polling questions (which may cause terminations) and varying interest in politics. The response bias factor is greater among conservative voters than liberal voters but is greatest of all in the middle of the ideological spectrum, which is often the most interesting. Pollsters correct for the problems by “weighting” the data. Those weights rely on assumptions about the shape of electorate, predicated in part by mistakes of the past. There is no correction for “new” errors until after they have happened.

No poll, no matter how carefully constructed, should ever be seen as an absolute; an indication, yes, but not an absolute. If polls – even multiple polls – show Candidate A two points ahead of Candidate B, that does not mean Candidate A will win. That has nothing to do with the margin of error (which is addressed by multiple polls). It has more to do with common assumptions about turnout and perhaps new forms of response bias which we don’t know about yet. (On the other hand, if even two even semi-legitimate polls show Candidate A winning by 15 points, he or she very likely will win handily; this is all on the margins.)

Which brings me to my second caveat: Change is more often slow and incremental than sudden and dramatic. Small things happening slowly are worth attending to. Polls do not often pick these up, but deeper conversations with voters can at least create hypotheses ahead of the polls. I have found stories about how most Republicans still support Trump uninteresting. Of course they do; it is more important that the support appears less than it was. On the flip side, there is no question that many Democratic and independent women are deeply upset by the Roe v. Wade decision. The question is whether some of those who would not ordinarily vote in the midterms will turn out and vote as a consequence. Younger, lower propensity voters are not often included in polls, or not included in numbers that would allow analysis of them separately from the aggregate. In a close election, however, they could make a critical difference.

So, if you want to know what will happen, be skeptical but not dismissive of polls, be analytic about what small(ish) things may matter, and be curious about probing whether they will this time. Big upsets don’t come out of nowhere. They are also rare. But they do happen. Here are some things to watch for in polls and in the world outside them.

Small groups and sample sizes: Surprises may be produced by small groups in the electorate, like independent women, young voters, high propensity voters who stay home, low propensity voters who turn out. But an aggregate poll, even with a large sample size, cannot tell you much about groups who may be 10 percent of the electorate.

For example, the poll by Cygnal of the Georgia electorate led off the silly season. This Republican outfit put out a release on their 1200 sample Georgia poll, which included an oversample of 770 African American voters. First, they trumpeted that Republican Governor Brian Kemp led Democrat Stacey Abrams by 50 to 45 percent, which is pretty unimpressive for an incumbent Governor, actually, and they never defined their turnout assumptions which will matter a great deal in this race. Next, they declare that African American voters are not homogeneous, which really didn’t require a poll, and then declare that a quarter of African Americans under age 35 are supporting Kemp. Valid? Maybe, but maybe not. Even with a sample of 770 African American voters, how many were under age 35? I would guess maybe 150, and maybe fewer actually and upweighted to about 150. Was that small sample representative of younger African Americans? And who was the base sample of anyway, those who have voted previously or all African Americans? It may be true that Kemp is doing better than expected among younger African Americans – he has gotten a lot of press lately for not being as opposed to voting rights as other Republicans – but the conclusion, without adequate information about the sample, that this is somehow a prediction, seems a bit dubious.

Turnout assumptions: I have seen very few public polls (actually I cannot recall one) that have specified assumptions about voter turnout. First, if turnout is based on self-report (reaching people at random and screening for whether they are likely to vote), the poll is likely representing turnout as both higher than it will be (there is social pressure to say likely to vote) and more Democratic (see above on response bias). If they are selecting people based on vote history from a voter file, well, fine, but then say so, and even then is the assumption that turnout patterns are like those of 2018 (which was a Democratic year) or different. In any case, if the information on weighting and turnout is absent, the poll is really hard to read in a meaningful way.

Defining independents: With deeper party polarization, looking at voters who say they are independent is an important task. The thing is, who they are is often volatile and independents are often undersampled in polls. The image is that independents are people without party predilections, but there are independents who call themselves that because neither party is sufficiently liberal or conservative enough for them. They may be independent, but they are not up for grabs. Then there are those who don’t like either party because they feel neither party represents their moderate or centrist views. They are very important, but their distaste for politics extends to a distaste for polls, and so they are often undersampled even while many of them vote. People also float in and out of calling themselves independents, depending how they are feeling about the parties which creates exaggerated volatility – unhappy Republicans may say they are independent, making the category more Republican, or vice versa. Mushing all this together independents are still generally only about 20 to 25 percent of the polling sample. See the above on sample size. A poll of 500 with roughly 100 “independents,” of multiple descriptions won’t say much about them. (Except in some places, like California, where DTS – decline to state – voters can be a constant category.)

Extrapolating from national data: There are new national polls that show the generic match up between Democrats and Republicans far closer than it was in the spring even while President Biden’s numbers are low. It’s intriguing, and hints that the midterms may be less of a victory for the Republicans than previously thought. Hints at. Intriguing. I’m on board with both of those but not (yet) with any prediction. There is no reasonable way to extrapolate the national data into a number of house seats or to any particular statewide race. First, the national data may simply represent an even greater separation between “red” and “blue” places than was true even six months ago. Most of the national polls do not provide a time series by region, plus the above comment on turnout applies. National data often inadvertently oversample the coasts because there are more phones per person on the coasts. That New York, New England, and California are approaching political apoplexy matters, but doesn’t predict what voters will do in Georgia, Ohio, Wisconsin, or Nevada.

So what to do with all this if you are interested in the election? Well, that depends on your vantage point.

If you are a candidate, go figure out how many votes you need to win the election, how many you have already effectively banked by virtue of your party label or prior base, who are the additional people by demographics, geography, and perspective you need to win, and then go plan your campaign to win them. Whether you are ahead or behind, and by a little or a lot really doesn’t matter much in doing the intellectual work of how to win. Polling can help you understand your district better, and what people there may want to know about you and your opponent, but the strategic process of what you do with that information matters a lot more than the poll per se, which is only one tool in developing your strategy.

If you are a member of the press, use the polls to guide who you talk to, what you assess, and to enlarge your view of the range of what might happen. I wish you wouldn’t report on them as much but I recognize that is a losing battle. It’s too easy to report polls. But please ponder the questions that emerge from them: Will Republican voters turnout in droves because they are upset with Biden, or will more than usual stay home because they have new doubts about the MAGA crowd? Is there something happening that will cause younger people and lower propensity Democrats to turn out, whether that is something local or national? Are the individual candidates and campaigns perceived as interesting or distinctive enough (in ways both positive or negative) to break through whatever is happening nationally? And do voters generally believe they have relevant choices in the district or state on which you are reporting, or are the candidates boring, muting any opportunities for changing turnout dynamics or partisanship?

If you are an activist, well, go get to work. Whether your candidate is ahead or behind, by a little or a lot, door-to-door canvassing to discuss the election matters and has more of a lasting impact than most anything else, even for the next election. Read the polls if you like. But don’t let predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as too often happens during the silly season.

My Vote in the MS-3 Run-off

Throughout my 40ish years in political consulting, I heard at least hundreds of times voters tell me they chose a candidate as “the lesser of two evils.” There was one they saw as “just a politician” to whom they didn’t relate, while the other was generally someone who by flaws of character or understanding would do them active harm.

Those who didn’t vote at all explained that there was no one running who had anything to do with them. There is an assumption that not voting means someone isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care. That is sometimes true. Other times people know and care but choose not to participate because they do not relate to either candidate.

I understand these rationales better than ever before as I contemplate whether to participate in the June 28th run-off election between incumbent Congressman Michael Guest and ultra right challenger Michael Cassidy.

Here in Mississippi, there is no party registration and so registered voters can participate in primary and run off elections if they “intend to support the nominee.” Despite that little clause about intent, people cross party lines for strategic reasons and vote in primaries and run-off elections in either party with impunity. Democratic participation on behalf of Senator Thad Cochran was likely decisive in his victory over ultra right challenger Chris McDaniel in 2014, although many of those Democrats may indeed have supported Cochran in the fall given that the Democratic challenger fell short of 40 percent.

This year, many people I know who often vote Democratic plan to vote for Guest in the run off because Cassidy is a newcomer to Mississippi, reputedly a McDaniel protege, and vows to make Marjorie Taylor Greene a role model should he be elected to Congress.

Given that Cassidy is of questionable legislative competence and shows signs of being a pro-violent crazy, I have little doubt who is the (slightly) lesser evil. Cassidy’s main complaint against Guest, a former prosecutor, is that Guest voted for a bipartisan January 6th Commission on the recommendation of the ranking Republican of the Homeland Security Committee on which he sits. To Cassidy, that makes him a RINO. Guest also, however, applauds overturning Roe v. Wade, voted against certification of the election, and is running in the runoff on his conservative credentials, which are ample, tweeting right-wing language and no doubt figuring that if he reassures Republican voters on his MAGA-ness, he might still pick up some more progressive votes given that Cassidy is Greene-lite.

I am frustrated by the situation. I am angry at the legislature who for politically unsavory reasons carved out my little blue Jackson precinct and kept it in the 3rd CD with some of the most conservative counties in the state. I am a tad annoyed by what seemed a random article in Mississippi Today, arguably our best press outlet, that if the NAACP redistricting plan had succeeded, Guest might have lost outright. He might have won outright if he had campaigned, even without his having a couple moderate Jackson precincts where voters disagree with him, so why point to the NAACP? And I am frustrated that one of these two men – Cassidy or Guest – is likely to represent my blue precinct in Congress given the nature of the district as a whole and the (thus far) lackluster campaign of the Democratic candidate who will almost certainly get my vote in the fall. Of course, I chose to live here so that’s on me. I wish I could move my house two blocks to the west to the state’s one Democratic district.

But I just can’t vote for the lesser of these two evils. He is not lesser enough. And while the clause on intent is toothless, and Mississippi tradition almost invites my participation in the run-off, a vote for Guest would be to my mind just wrong for me. I would squirm every time he posted some racially tinged tweet, or went on an irrelevant diatribe about socialism (which is no threat here). I would remember with each squirm that I had used the little power I have – my vote – in his behalf. Cassidy would be worse, but only a little, and maybe people here would be embarrassed either by his rhetoric, or by his inability to deliver for the district (although probably not).

I respect the fortitude of those of my friends and neighbors who agree with me on issues but will vote for Guest. Maybe I will build such fortitude over time. But I just can’t do it this time.

I will take my guidance from those who don’t vote. Neither of these men have anything to with me. And I can’t support either one of them. I will stay home June 28th. And I understand better than before why some people don’t vote. Not voting is a statement too.

Law, order, and dishonor

Many Republicans seem to me to be confused about law and order. I am hearing decidedly mixed messages on public safety and public corruption both here in Mississippi and from Washington, DC. It’s hard to figure exactly where that party is coming from.

First, here in Jackson the Governor used his line item veto to take money away from the local planetarium because there is too much crime in Jackson. The connection between crime and star gazing is loose, unless you know that the Governor likes to criticize the City of Jackson where the planetarium is located.

To be clear, the Governor (and the Republican state legislature) have a pretty soft commitment to public safety outside of the planetarium threat. State policies around COVID contributed to among the highest death rates in the world here in Mississippi and the near collapse of the health care system, which is starved for resources in part because of opposition to Medicaid expansion. The legislature is slow to spend infrastructure funds which could help provide reliable and safe water service in Jackson, nor does it do much for the city except occupy it a few months a year when the legislature is in session.

I conclude that these Republicans care about public safety from some threats but not from others. They like beating up on the majority African American capital city but don’t do anything helpful about public safety unless it helps make their, shall we say, “anti-urban” argument.

Next, two of the three Republican members of Congress from Mississippi were forced into run-off elections for what appear to be opposite reasons. Representative Steven Palazzo has been the subject of multiple accusations that he struggles with both truth-telling and campaign finance law. His failure to win 50 percent was predicted, although he came in first. He faces a local Sheriff in the run-off.

Representative Michael Guest, on the other hand, in whose district I reside, was forced into a runoff by a newcomer to Mississippi, Michael Cassidy, who accuses Guest of being a RINO because he voted for a January 6th Commission. So Guest, a conservative former prosecutor is accused of failing to represent Mississippi by a guy from the DC area whose principal complaint was that the prosecutor wanted to investigate a crime. Whatever.

That brings me to the main event of the week, the January 6th Committee hearings. Dramatic. Fact-based. Headed by a Mississippian (a real one; not like me and Cassidy) who acknowledged in introducing himself that Mississippi’s history and his own had prepared him for the moment. The hearing also featured two very tough women: the extraordinarily clear-headed daughter of a Republican Vice President, and a law enforcement officer who had put her life on the line for her job and for her country. The Committee presented hard evidence of a carefully planned and executed coup against the United States government and its peaceful transfer of power.

The Republican leadership response? They would rather address inflation than sedition. That seems non-sensical. Like announcing they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Or that Jackson’s crime rate means it can’t have a planetarium. High inflation does not make the attempted coup OK.

Representative Cheney’s statement that their dishonor will remain was the central quote of the night. And I really don’t know what the Republicans think they stand for. Its not public safety. I am clear on that. Chaos and violence? Greed and unchecked power? Or what I have euphemistically called here “anti-urbanism”? They really aren’t leaving themselves with much else.

At least most Republicans aren’t leaving themselves much else. I am sure I have many disagreements with Representative Cheney on matters of policy. But I admire her courage, toughness, clarity, and patriotism. I hope in the coming months to see that our country and my adopted state honor those qualities.

Authenticity

Congratulations to John Fetterman on winning the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania. And kudos to you for being declared authentic.

Being authentic has long been a positive description in politics and is increasingly rare. What is it and why has John Fetterman won the authenticity award? Check out the dictionary and it means John Fetterman is an original. Not a copy. Not like everyone else.

Well, that really shouldn’t be that special, each of us being unique individuals and all. So why is only John Fetterman special in this way?

I have long believed that voters seeing individual candidate personality is critical to the candidate winning. Voters seem pretty good at getting a read on what candidates are about personally. In focus groups, I have asked questions about what a candidate would be like on a first date, whether, as a neighbor, they would look after your house when you are gone, and other questions to get at what the “guy” is like. People answer these questions easily. They do have that kind of read on people – even people running for office. Candidates who would be too polite or too grabby on that first date, or who, as neighbors, won’t pick up your mail, are less likely to win regardless of their issue positions. Even if campaign ads and messages declare them to be a fighter, if as a neighbor you can’t call on them in an emergency, you are clearly not buying they fight for you.

Now, plenty of ads describe candidates as growing up barefoot and poor, or the child of a single mother, or in some other way overcoming the odds just like most people have. But, would they feed your cat when you are away for the weekend?

In the olden days of polling (like in the 1990s), pollsters told candidates what people were worried about and then, on an individual basis, tried to connect what people were concerned about with the candidate’s thinking. In the modern era of independent expenditures, half the time the pollster hasn’t met the candidate, much less derived a sense of what makes them unique – as a person as well as politically. The result is too much messaging is pat regurgitated shit like how people deserve X, or at least how some people deserve X, and how the candidate knows they deserve whatever because he/she has also overcome odds. (The overuse of the word deserve is a pet peeve; it is fundamentally about entitlement and not respectful of what people earn.)

Not all candidates have visible tattoos, dislike suits and wear shorts and hoodies like Fetterman. He does provide more to work with than most. But every candidate has some attitudes that don’t fit the mold, or some aspects of their thinking that are original, or a real story about how they became interested in politics, or about how they are a good neighbor (told better by the neighbor, I suspect).

So, as the 2022 cycle gets going, if you want candidates to be deemed “authentic,” suggest they say some things in a way only they would say them. Messages and ads taken from common talking points will just produce an image that your candidate is a typical politician. And, believe me, those guys are never fun on a first date and while some might say they will feed your cat, they will get busy and forget and your cat may starve.

Now, in many cases, both the candidates would let the cat starve. Then people make a partisan choice between two cat-killers. Probably not a good year though for Democratic cat-killers. Even if they grew up poor and overcame the odds and therefore know what you deserve.

Its not about abortion (alone)

The leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision produced a torrent of texts and emails from friends and former colleagues many of whom had worked in the political sphere to advance women and women’s rights for their entire adult lives. That a legal right won 50 years ago and considered settled law since could be so readily erased was upsetting personally, politically, and professionally to many women. Assuming the decision holds – and the very politicized Supreme Court could modify it for legal or extra-legal reasons – the upset will last a long time; until, frankly, it is undone.

I concur with those who believe the decision may mobilize younger voters in November. No one wants to lose rights their grandparents had and while younger voters have long been dubious that this could be taken away, now they know there are no permanent victories.

Democrats must also meet the messaging challenges. A lot today seemed off the mark on that front. Abortion will be an issue in November but it wont be the only one. Voters are indeed more focused on inflation and their immediate economic realities than on the loss of their rights. For the roughly 50 percent of voters who own stock, things cost more while they have less. For the 50 percent who don’t own stock, things cost more and they didn’t have much to begin with. The message that “Democrats deliver” doesn’t resonate with either group.

“Whack-a-mole” messaging is not the answer: If you care about abortion rights, we are going to fix it; if you care about voting rights, hey, we’re on it; if you care about inflation; its getting better (not that anyone can tell). And then there is COVID which apparently isn’t quite done with us. Mission accomplished is not a good message when, well, it isn’t. It seems unfocused, at best, to list the litany of problems we are trying to address. No one wins whack-a-mole. It just times out.

So what to do? It is hard as the party that is at least nominally in power to run against the party that isn’t. It can sound whiny and partisan. We can, however, run against a worldview that undergirds much of what is wrong.

The enemy is a power-hungry minority that wants to impose their views and their interests on everyone else. It is a worldview that power means you get to decide. In that worldview people get to keep power because they have it. They use it to cheat. They use it to steal. And they use it to take away from the rest of us.

Not all Republicans subscribe to the world view, although the wimps who are unwilling to stand up to it don’t get an exemption. And I recognize there are a few Democrats who are of the “because I said so” school themselves. They should cut that shit out – if you can’t explain how your view or policy is consonant with my views or my interests you won’t convince me of it. Asserting my ignorance makes you part of the problem.

Strong messaging requires modification in our presentation of ourselves as well as aggressive opposition to those who take power for their own sakes. On our side, (1) we need to listen and reflect what we hear (and listening is not the exclusive province of pollsters). Reflect on what people are saying about their own lives – it is tough out here. Tell us how it happened and how you are addressing it. (2). The message should be about voters not about Democrats – Democrats deliver just says we are self-aggrandizing and out of touch with someone who doesn’t believe they have been delivered to. (3). Trim the ideological statements way back. (Yes, I do believe the worldview I am describing is about white male supremacy but describe it as acts of greed, arrogance, and corruption: say what it is not why it is.)

When we sound a little more like regular people and less like politicians, it is time to go after those who have used the money we put in to spur the economy in corrupt ways or not at all. Here’s one example (https://mississippitoday.org/the-backchannel/) of misspent federal funds but there are a dozen states that aren’t spending their federal stimulus funds. The story is that there is corruption stopping a lot of what Democrats are doing. There is corruption in state governments, at big drug companies, in anti-trust violations, and at the Supreme Court. It is all about greed and power. It is not about progress and people. We are for progress and people. They are for themselves in ways that are greedy and corrupt. Don’t start with the conclusion, but do tell the stories for which that is the (unstated) but self-evident conclusion.

Then there is perhaps the most corrupt thing of all – the conspiracy on the part of people in the White House and the U.S. Capitol to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential Election. And those aware of the corruption who stood by and did nothing or defended it out of fear of those who are corrupt. That is part of the same worldview that people with power get to keep it and be damned to the rest of us. Donald Trump, with his own deep roots in greed and corruption, made corruption fashionable for his cronies.

There are Republicans who have stood up. They include Members of Congress, state and local election officials, and judges. Go after the corruption not the party name. Republicanism isn’t inherently corrupt. But a whole lot of them became so under Trump.

As for Trump himself, he is a very painful and visible symptom but he is not the whole disease. Even if he goes into remission, there is still a need to fight the notion that power is there to advance the views and interests of the powerful. Power does corrupt and it has done so quite absolutely in some quarters.

The Supreme Court is politicizing women’s health and taking away women’s and family’s rights to make decisions because they believe power means imposing their viewpoint on the rest of us. Its not for our good; its not advancing the protections in the Constitution; its simply an exercise of power for its own sake. That is wrong. That is corrupt. It is the same mindset as people who stormed the capitol because they wanted to.

There is nothing new in “might makes right.” But saying we want to “protect democracy” is like saying “we oppose kratocracy;” Tell the story of corruption instead. People will understand it. At the moment they are concerned it applies both to Democrats who say they deliver and to Republicans who say they care. The story of what’s true, however, is often the story they will find more credible.

New Year’s Resolutions for Democrats

Happy New Year to all my friends in DC! I do miss you all, although I am glad also for the little distance I have achieved. I wish travel was easier but meanwhile there is much music, art, beauty, books, and fun here in Jackson and New Orleans (where I co-reside these days).

From the vantage point of a little distance, many Democrats in Washington seem to be struggling with message. So here are some suggested New Year’s message resolutions from a thousand miles (give or take) to the South.

1. Talk about what people care about. Talking about policy and programs that, granted, may benefit us all in the years to come just seems off to people who are thinking about now. People have too many immediate economic problems and COVID frustrations to want to hear about much else.

2. Do not declare pre-mature victories. Even major legislative victories do not fill the gas tank, fix the supply chain, or take down the restaurant signs apologizing for slow service due to staff shortages. Better to communicate you know what the problems are and are working on it than that you have solved a problem people didn’t even know was there when they are focused on self-evident ones they face day-to-day.

3. Stick to one message at a time. If you are arguing to preserve what has been settled law for two generations, that women should be able to terminate a pregnancy that was unintended and/or is a threat to them, then make that argument. There is no need to load it up with other agendas. You lose the main point.

4. Remember that dollars are costs not benefits. Don’t put them in the lede. When the government spends a billion or so on something that is big spending. What problems did it solve? How did we make people’s lives easier or better? The amount may matter a lot legislatively but they all sound like big numbers. Example: That there will be bike lanes in all five boroughs of NYC is great for people who bike there; the amount it will cost is just that.

5. Say what you mean. We are “protecting” a damaged environment when we need to salvage it. We “give” groups what they “deserve” and then wonder why people think we are about entitlements. Better to describe the benefit – preferably a universal one – than to declare a circumscribed entitlement. Same with the number of things we declare to be a “right.” Something can be sensible – or help the country – without it being a right. And while I understand “workers” and “families,” I have never really have gotten the working families thing except as a linguistic compromise between “families first” and “working people”. Consider describing the benefit and leaving off the preamble “working families deserve…” The edit will add clarity, at least.

Aside: The Sunday NYTimes includes a piece on whether Stacey Abrams is a moderate or a progressive. I can’t answer that but I can say she uses language with admirable precision without a lot of symbolic wrapping paper.

6. Talk about Republicans sparingly. Yes, many of them are ideologically driven white supremacists who are taking actions that undermine democracy and threaten the planet. But those things are more important than partisanship. When you frame issues in partisan terms rather than as choices we need to make, you end up belittling the matters at hand. We need to decide whether it will be easier or harder for people to vote; whether it is right or wrong to make it harder for some citizens to vote than others; whether we still believe in one person-one vote. Plenty of people think it should be equally easy and convenient for everyone to vote but do not see that Republicans are undermining our democracy. Besides, the Republicans are not the point.

7. Stop attacking each other. I might not love The Squad or Joe Manchin, and can argue with either. I see zero value in suggesting either are ruining the party because that just says the party is ruined. Stick to the point. Avoid the party and the personalities.

8. Avoid abstractions. Clearly framed concrete decisions give people a context for taking a position. Vitriol on both sides just sounds like, well, politics. Republicans commit bad vitriolic writing too, of course. Roger Wicker, the more tolerable Senator from Mississippi, put out a piece subtitled “51 Senators put Socialist agenda on life support.” I presumed that was to keep it from dying, right?

9. Quit listing constituencies. Way too many times there is political rhetoric followed by the specific consequences for Latinx people, the black community, and women. We will just slide by the gender-neutralizing of the Spanish language for now and simply note that listed constituencies exclude others without anyone actually feeling more included by being listed.

10. Lighten up. If everything is portentous, how can we know what you think is important?

Happy 2022! There were some good moments in 2021 (like January 20th and the day I got a condo in New Orleans). But there is room for improvement in 2022.

Goals and Means, Progressives, and the Election

I just finished reading a depressing Politico article entitled, “Progressives bare teeth after election debacle.” I hope there is more reflection from both moderates and progressives than the article suggests. Honestly, I don’t think the resolution is all that complicated.

First, most people want to feel safe in their communities, have health care when they need it, and have the opportunity for economic advancement for themselves and their children. Wanting those things is not very divisive along political lines nor by race, class, or gender.

Second, most people do not engage on the details of public policy. As they regularly assert in focus groups, that is what elected officials are for; to figure out how to get there. Voters are more likely to trust someone who articulates the goals and connects the policies to them than someone who argues the details of a particular policy or spending level. While there are differences between Democratic progressives and moderates on policy, most voters really don’t engage with those. There is considerable evidence, for example, that community engagement does more for public safety than face recognition technology, but most people care less about that debate than they do about feeling safe in their neighborhood. That does not mean letting Republicans get away with promising they will do things they have in actuality long opposed, but this election was clearly more about us than about them, a lesson Ciattarelli (I had to Google the spelling) taught us.

Third, then we arrive at the third rail of race. Moderates need to really get it that several hundred years of systematic discrimination on voting rights, housing, employment, education, public safety, and almost everything else is a real, clear, present and day-to-day problem for those who have been and still are subjected to it. It is completely unreasonable to expect continued fealty from people of color, who are indeed the base of the party, unless you really do something – do something does not mean lip service – to address the problems. It seems awfully late in the game to be arguing whether the federal government needs to protect the right to vote. In 1890, the House passed the Lodge bill and then it was filibustered in the Senate. Are we really still there?

Just as the issue of race is central for those who have been discriminated against, most white people do not care about it. Most white people are not active white supremacists; they do not define themselves as such and believe they are for fairness as long as they remain safe in their communities, have health care when they need it, and the opportunity for economic advancement for themselves and their children. Because they are not engaged with issues of race, they also do not understand the problem for those who are.

Many progressives – particularly it seems white progressives – want the white people who do not understand racial discrimination to get it. Now, there is ample evidence already in both the status quo and in American history that discrimination exists. If someone doesn’t get it, it is because they are not paying attention. They believe it doesn’t impact them and they don’t care much (and there are more than a few active white supremacists but they are not our audience). The reasons most white people don’t care and the long term remedies may be important, but you are unlikely to get those who don’t care to do so in the context of an electoral campaign.

Stokely Carmichael said, “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.” Elections are not a teaching moment. They are the occasions on which voters decide which candidate or which party will further their goals for themselves: like safety in their communities, health care when they need it, and opportunities for economic advancement for themselves and their children.

So why was this such a tough election for Democrats? Two reasons in my view: 1. We are in power but do not appear to be getting enough done on matters people care about: crime is up, COVID remains, education is down, and the economy is faltering. 2. We appear distracted by policy dialogue most people don’t care about. We appear to either deny the problems or argue what to many seems peripheral to them.

When things are bad it’s always easier to be a challenger. Some of the bad is beyond our control. But not all of it. Do stuff. Quit bickering. Most people don’t care about a lot of what you are bickering about. The bickering says to them you don’t care about what they want. Restoring democracy matters to me, but your capacity to do that will depend more on what you do than on what you say.