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.

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.

Looking at the wrong problem

So, I just got off the phone with an old friend who is on the communications side of political consulting. My friend is apparently giving my former polling colleagues a rough time and apparently so are others – “suggestions” that are not feasible, organizations that are assigning them letter grades as they would to school children, clients dismissing the need for research at all.

Now, I have been pretty clear in these pages that I think polling as a methodology no longer works the way people think. It is a rougher measure and can leave important groups out of the equation. It has value but it also has serious limits: It is far less useful than it used to be for prognosticating close elections. Low response rates allows greater risk of response bias and, as a result, sampling is more complex.

Polling risks leaving out constituencies that may be critical to winning – voters who are anti-establishment (or anti elite) and see it as an elite or establishment tool, and those who just don’t relate to the political frame as employed. Except perhaps for this last one, none of this is the fault of pollsters, and imposing the extant political frame on swing and low propensity voters who aren’t interested in it is hardly an error unique to pollsters. The Washington political frames to which many voters do not relate is a shared Washington responsibility.

Here’s what I think are actually the remedies to better political research by campaigns:

1. More upfront strategic thinking about how to win. There is a plethora of information available for any district or state, including prior election results, demographics and analytics, and two (or more) real candidates with unique strengths and weaknesses. After studying all that, what are the hypothetical ways to win that you need to test? (Chances are there are better methods than polling for choosing which is most likely.)

2. Better analytics and better integration of them strategically. Political analytics got better and better from 2006 through 2012. Then its practitioners started competing on cost and cutting corners on what they did statistically. At the same time, people seemed to think it was a good idea to separate analytics from the process of campaigning so it was an independent look and not integrated into the campaign process. Both of these developments were unfortunate in my view. Cutting corners made analytics less valuable as a predictor and the separation from campaigns meant than campaigns did not have the capacity to ask for a sophisticated statistical look at the challenges that were on the table strategically. It’s time to go back to the future on analytics – an invaluable tool that should be guided strategically.

3. Tailored research that answers the strategic questions on the table. In close elections, winning is often on the margins. Hypothetically, maybe your candidate can win if you can move 6 percent more of Latino voters, or lose a particular suburban community by a little less, or find a way to blame the incumbent for the serious infrastructure problems in a community that usually votes for that person’s party. Strategic analysis and analytics can help you develop these options. There are experiments you can conduct to say which one(s) might help put your candidate over the top. And a poll of voters in the aggregate wont tell you which one will work anyway.

4. Integration of field data into research. Almost any good campaign has a field program in which people go talk to individual voters, including those who are swing voters and lower propensity voters. I don’t want to mess up the open ended nature of these conversations, which is part of what makes them valuable, but there are ways of capturing quantitative information from them – and that is about the only way you really will hear from genuinely non-partisan and non-political voters, and those who vote irregularly. You have to start the field program earlier, but that is generally a valuable thing to do for other reasons.

So, yes, there are new challenges in political research. The biggest problem in polling is that you can no longer talk to people at random because they don’t respond at random. Careful polling makes that less of a problem and sloppy polling makes it worse but it is not feasible to eliminate the problem. The problem is the result of caller ID, telemarketing, political polarization, and changing modes of communication. The pollsters did not create the problem.

Generally, pollsters are analytic and political thinkers with a penchant for numbers. Those skills sets are important in the mix of campaign skills. Conversation about methodology is useful. Creativity on how to answer strategic questions is essential. Increasingly, the presence of advanced statistical skills on the team is important. Beating up on the pollsters won’t help to find new and better ways to conduct research.

Problems with polling: Redux

I haven’t posted since April since I had little to contribute to what I saw as the two overarching goals of the last six months: electing Joe Biden and developing a COVID vaccine. I did my civic duty toward the first and had nothing to contribute to the second, and so it seemed a time to pause. Now, I feel my free speech is restored and for a moment at least there is some attention to one of my favorite topics – how we need to do research for campaigns differently. I have covered much of that previously but here is a redux on the problems with polling with some updating for 2020.

1. Samples are not random. If you ever took an intro stats course, it grounded most statistics in the need for a random sample. That means that everyone in the population of interest (e.g. people who voted November 3) has an equal probability of being included in the sample.

The margin of error presumes a random sample. The number of people required to give you an accurate picture of the array of views in a population depends on size of the sample, the breadth of the views in the population, and the randomness of the sample.

The intuitive example: Imagine a bowl of minestrone soup. If you take a small spoonful, you may miss the kidney beans. The larger the spoonful (or sample) the more likely you are to taste all the ingredients. The size of the spoon is important but not the size of the bowl. But if you are tasting cream of tomato soup, you know how it tastes with a smaller spoon. America is definitely more like minestrone than cream of tomato.

The problem with polling has little to do with the margin of error, which remains unchanged. The problem is that pollsters have not used random samples for a generation. The advent of caller ID and people’s annoying proclivity to decline to answer calls from unknown numbers (a proclivity I share), plus some changes in phone technology with fiber optics – including a proliferation of numbers that are not geographically grounded, and an explosion of polls and surveys (How was your last stay at a Hilton?), makes the act of sharing your opinion pretty unspecial.

Not to worry, we pollsters said. Samples can still be representative.

2. The problem with “representative” samples. A representative sample is one constructed to meet the demographics and partisanship of the population of interest (e.g. voters in a state) in order to measure the attitudes of that representative sample.

The researcher “corrects” the data through a variety of techniques, principally stratified samples and weighting. A stratified sample separates out particular groups and samples them separately. Examples include cluster samples, which stratify by geography, and age stratified samples, which use a separate sample for young people, who are hard to reach.

Professional pollsters usually sample from “modeled” files that tell how many likely voters are in each group and their likely partisanship. They upweight – or count the people they are short of extra. They may up-weight the conservative voters without college experience, for example, to keep both demographics and partisanship in line with the model for that state or population. Virtually every poll you see has weighted the data to presumptions of demographics and partisanship.

Back to the minestrone soup example: Samples are drawn and weighted according to the recipe developed before the poll is conducted. We presume the soup has a set quantity of kidney beans because that’s what the recipe says. But voters don’t follow the recipe – they add all kinds of spices on their own. Pollsters also get in a rut on who will vote – failing to stir the soup before tasting it.

Most of the time, though, the assumptions are right. The likely voters vote and the unlikely voters do not, and partisanship reflects the modeling done the year before. But disruptive events happen. In 1998 in Minnesota, most polls (including my own) were wrong because unlikely voters participated and turnout was unexpectedly high particularly in Anoka County, home of Jesse Ventura, who became Governor that year. That phenomenon is parallel to the Trump factor in 2016 and even more so in 2020. Unexpected people voted in unexpected numbers. If the polls are right in 2022, as they generally were in 2018, it is not because the problem is fixed but because conventional wisdom is right again, which would be a relief to more than pollsters, I expect.

3. What’s next. I hope part of what’s next is a different approach to research. If campaigns and their allies break down the core questions they want to answer, they will discover that there is a far bigger and more varied toolbox of research techniques available to them. The press could also find more interesting things to write about that help elucidate attitudes rather than predict behavior.

Analytics has a great deal more to offer. That is especially so if analytics practitioners became more interested in possibilities rather than merely assigning probabilities. Analytics has become too much like polling in resting on assumptions. Practitioners have shrunk their samples and traded in classical statistics for solely Bayesian models.

Please bear with me for another few sentences on that: classical statistics make fewer assumptions; Bayesian statistics measure against assumptions. When I was in grad school (back when Jimmy Carter was President – a Democrat from Georgia!), people made fun of Bayesian models saying it was like looking for a horse, finding a donkey, and concluding it was a mule. We will never collect or analyze data the way we did in the 1970s and 80s, but some things do come around again.

It would also be helpful if institutional players were less wedded to spread sheets that lined up races by the simple probability of winning and instead helped look for the unexpected threats and opportunities. In those years when everything is as expected, there are fewer of those. But upset wins are always constructed by what is different, special, unusual, and unexpected in the context of candidates and moment. Frankly, finding those is what always interested me most because that’s where change comes from.

More on all of this in the weeks and months ahead, and more on all the less wonky things I plan to think about Democrats, the south, shifting party alignments, economic messaging, and my new home state of Mississippi. I am glad to be writing again, now that I feel more matters in this world than just Joe Biden and vaccines.

My Vote on March 10 for…

I had always planned to wait until the March 10 Mississippi primary in which I will vote to decide for whom I would vote. But I have now decided – and have surprised myself (and will surprise many who know me). I considered many factors, superficial and otherwise, before deciding that I will vote for Joe Biden.

I considered relationships with campaign operatives and even with some candidates. After spending 35 plus years in Democratic politics, I unsurprisingly know people in almost every campaign. I am probably closer to more people in Senator Klobuchar’s campaign than any other because of shared history in Minnesota politics, and I know Senator Klobuchar slightly and like and respect her. But that is not enough.

I also know slightly and very much like and respect former Mayor Buttigieg, who (with some gaps) has run a remarkable campaign.  For a short while, the former Mayor of South Bend was the delegate leader and is still solidly in the top three in delegates.  He has tremendous talent and smarts, a message of meaning and substance, and we do, indeed, need to bring a new generation of leadership into the Democratic Party.  But that is not enough.

If I could wave a magic wand and make one of the candidates president, it would be Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Her politics are closest to my own, she cares about the things I care about (and she even did a town hall in Mississippi).  I love her energy and I do so very much want to see a woman President in my lifetime.  My 35 plus years in politics only makes that drive stronger as politics is not a field where women are near equal to men in how we are treated or heard.  That should be enough reason to support Senator Warren but this year it is not.

Because this isn’t about me.  It is about our country, our system of democracy, and about people whose very lives (unlike my own) depend on the outcome in November. 

I am not hostile to Bernie Sanders, whose political ideas may be closer to mine than Joe Biden’s are.  I don’t blame him for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, which was far more complicated than that.  I will support him with enthusiasm if he is the nominee.  And I believe there is a chance he might eek out a victory if by November Donald Trump is less popular than he is right now.  But there is also a significant risk that he would lose and that he take down good people running for the Senate and the House with him.  That is too big a risk.

Then there is Michael Bloomberg.  I believe he is trying to do good in this race and in large part because he saw a gap that, before South Carolina, worried me as well.  But I believe he has the wrong positioning and politics for the task at hand, which is to defeat Donald Trump.

I support my candidate, Joe Biden, because it is, I believe, the right thing to do and that he is the right candidate for this time. It is not personal.  I have never met Joe Biden – we don’t share the same political space.  It may not be what I want but it is what we need:  A good and decent man, who listens to others, who wants to unite the country around shared ideals of democracy. 

He has my vote on March 10.

Some questions for post-Labor Day Polls

I suspect we will see a spate of new polls fielding after Labor Day.  I am hoping they ask some questions beyond the horse race that tell us more about what voters are thinking around the Democratic presidential contest.  Here are some suggestions (in no particular order):

Candidate Qualities 

Here are some qualities people might look for in the candidate they ultimately support for President.  On a scale of 1 to 7, please tell me how important each one is to you, with a 1 meaning not important at all and a 7 meaning it is the most important quality.  (READ AND RANDOMIZE)

  • Can beat Trump in November
  • Shows compassion for people
  • Knows what they want to do as President
  • Would bring the country together
  • Would make significant policy changes
  • Has a new approach to governing
  • Will protect individual rights and freedoms
  • Will promote economic opportunity
  • Has the wisdom of experience
  • Will advance equality and anti-racism

Which of these qualities – or some other quality – is most important to you of all?

Electability

We know voters care about whether a candidate can beat Trump but we don’t know what qualities make a candidate stronger in their views.  How about a couple questions, like:

How important are each of these in telling you a candidate can defeat Trump in November, using a scale of 1 to 7 with a 1 meaning it is not important at all and a 7 meaning it the most important quality?  (READ AND ROTATE)

Is there another quality that is important in telling you a candidate can win?

  • Tough and willing to fight
  • Has moderate issue positions
  • Popularity with Trump voters
  • Inspires young people
  • Relates to diverse communities
  • Leads Trump in the polls
  • Likeable and appealing

Thinking about your friends and neighbors, if the Democratic candidate is a woman, will that make them more or less likely to turn out and support that candidate in November, or won’t it make any difference to them?

Thinking about your friends and neighbors, if the Democratic candidate is over age 75, will that make them more or less likely to turn out and support that candidate in November, or won’t it make any difference to them?

Thinking about your friends and neighbors who are uncomfortable with Trump, do you think they are looking more for a return to the pre-Trump years or more for new policies that will bring change?

Issues

What issues are most important to you in the 2020 election? (Open-end, multiple response)

If we elect a Democratic president in 2020, which of the following should be their top priority in their first term: (READ AND ROTATE)

  • Climate change
  • Affordable health care
  • Access to post-secondary education
  • Infrastructure like roads and bridges
  • Higher wages
  • Immigration reform
  • Criminal justice reform
  • Other (specify)

When it comes to health care, which would do more to expand access to quality affordable care – (ROTATE)  a public option in which voters can choose government-administered insurance OR Medicare for all in which everyone is in a government-administered insurance program (with response options for neither as well as don’t know)?

(IF CHOICE) Would that system be much better, somewhat better, somewhat worse, or much worse than the current system?

If there is a Democratic president, how likely is it that the proposal will become law in the next five years – very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely, or not at all likely?

The Horse Race Question

I have been concerned that asking about 20 people in phone polls flattens choices because people can only hold seven plus or minus two item in short term memory.  Consider asking the horse race in groups of 5 to 7 candidates – preferably randomizing sets although it is also tempting to ask the top 7 together.  Then add a question like:

You indicated candidates A, B, and C were your top choices within the groups I gave you.  Which of these is your first choice among all the candidates?    

Is that the candidate you would most like to see as President or the candidate you feel can best win?  (Code for volunteered both)

Vote History

Most public polls are asking how likely people are to vote in the primary or caucus in their state.  Consider asking whether they voted in the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and for whom they voted.

The question allows analysis of how large a primary electorate you are polling and what the standing is among those most likely of all to participate, as they have done so historically.  It will also say where the support for these two candidates is going. 

Demographics

Basic demographics are fine, but also consider asking whether they live in a county that supported Clinton or Trump in 2016, as these voters may have different perspectives from each other.

# # #

Questions like these would say more about what voters are looking for in the next president (other than that he or she is not Trump).  Crosstabs of questions like these by candidate preference might also provide more insight as to why voters are making the initial choices they are, and how the contest may evolve.

Liberal Elite Is Not a Hyphenated Term

There is much discussion lately about how some Democratic candidates may be “too liberal” to win.  That term needs disambiguation. 

First, “too liberal” may be about policy: if a candidate will raise voters’ taxes and spend money in ways they do not believe benefit them, they may be judged “too liberal.” Second, candidates may express liberal social values that voters believe are out of step with their own. Often, however, too liberal is a euphemism for a candidate who appears to disrespect the way people live their lives and the struggles they face. A candidate is “too liberal” if they appear too elite. Arguably the third of these – elitism – has been more of a problem for Democrats than the first two.

Some things to watch out for:

The Politics of Pandan

Shortly after the 2016 election, I had a lovely dinner at a French-Asian fusion restaurant with my friend Ed.  The food was terrific and we ended the meal sharing chocolate encrusted Pandan Cheesecake, which cost about $12.  It was delicious.  Since we were not familiar with pandan, we asked the server about it, who extolled its subtle vanilla-like flavor, bright green color, and widespread use in Indonesian cuisine.  When the server walked away, Ed turned to me and said, “That conversation we just had, that’s why we lost the election.”

Ed had a point. 

Pandan cheesecake consumption reveals disposable income and foodie tastes. It may also show a tendency to waste money – a lot of people think it wasteful to pay $12 for an individual exotic dessert when you can get a whole frozen Sarah Lee cheesecake at Walmart here in Jackson for $4.98.

On its own, the waste may be excusable.  Until pandan-eaters start to make fun of Sarah Lee aficionados on social media.

Donald Trump is not a pandan guy.  His lack of elite tastes are an asset to him.  Especially when the pandan-eaters make fun of his putting ketchup on his well-done steak, his swoop-over hair, and the ill-fitting tuxedo he wore at dinner with the Queen.  

Just cut it out. Stick to how Trump’s policies hurt people and damage the country.  Excise from conversation any notion that elite tastes rule – or should. 

In a democracy, Ivy League grads are not better than those whose last degree was from their local community college.  Those who vacation on Martha’s Vineyard are not better than those who go up to the lake.  And pandan-eaters are not in charge of devotees of Sarah Lee. 

Victims and Executioners

Adding to a confessional of my own tastes, I acknowledge that Albert Camus’ essays on being neither victims nor executioners are core to my world view. Camus wrote that, “In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, not to be on the side of the executioners.” (He wrote it in French. I don’t read French.)

Generally, liberals are not on the side of executioners, but there are more victims and more executioners than many acknowledge. 

I have never polled the question of whether people believe they have been the victim of the arbitrary and unfair exercise of power, but I suspect just about everyone has felt a victim of that experience.    There are the patterns of discrimination – systemic racism and sexism – but also the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracies and bosses, and the feeling of being unheard, misheard, or misunderstood by people who have power over you.      

Some of the ways people are treated unfairly have policy remedies – I wish Democrats would discuss the overtime rules more than they do – but others are just there.  People are not looking to elected leadership for redress of all the ways life is unfair.  Still, it would behoove leaders to recognize and acknowledge that life is unfair for almost everyone. 

A whole lot more people face executioners and warrant support than we often recognize. When we fail to acknowledge them and their struggles, we risk their choosing – when they have the chance – to become executioners themselves.

Zero Tolerance          

I am generally uncomfortable with the idea of zero tolerance – it proscribes a world without ambiguity or exceptions – even when zero tolerance is for unambiguously bad behaviors like hate speech, drunk driving, and unwanted touching. Vaunting the idea of zero tolerance can take a judgment designed to protect a victim, and turn it into an act of execution.

I would like to think, for example, that all men will respect all women all of the time and never treat them as objects. After all, the Bible says (Matthew 5:28) “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Former President Jimmy Carter, a man who knows his Bible, acknowledged to Playboy Magazine that he had committed “lust in his heart many times.” It happens. Among all genders, binary and non-binary.

Racist images are common among white Americans.  Almost everyone has unfairly treated someone as “the other.” Or made an assumption about skill or character based on appearance.

Oppose bad behaviors that make people victims. Declare that hate speech, drunk driving, and unwanted touching are wrong. But it is a political and arguably a moral error to decide that those who have practiced a bad behavior should be the objects of zero tolerance. Argue, persuade, point out the error of their ways – and prosecute them when a crime is committed. Don’t make people the victims of zero tolerance in the name of tolerance. Only the very few who are entirely guilt-free will respond to that.

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So what does all this have to do with Medicare for All?  

I don’t know if people are willing to risk losing something they have for something that may be better. It requires a leap of faith. I know they will not trust someone whom they perceive as elitist or who fails to recognize that people are nervous about the exercise of power, which in their experience is rarely benign.

The perception that Joe Biden is more electable than Elizabeth Warren is in part because he does not have the image of being a pandan-eater.  And he certainly knows that life is unfair. 

Elizabeth Warren, whose biography to a point is less elite than his, can gain on trust and empathy over the next five months. If she does make those gains, the policy nuances of Medicare for All versus a public option seem unlikely to be dispositive in a November match-up that includes either of these candidates.

Don’t just poll – research!

Political practitioners too often see polls and focus groups as the automatic choices for political research.  Polling tells you about aggregate attitudes.  Strategic reliance on polling grew with dependence on television – a medium that used to reach most everyone and so aggregate attitudes and message receptivity made sense. 

In the internet age, the strategic balance is shifting to more targeted research and a more diverse array of message options. 

Here are some traditional research goals and some new (and old) approaches:

Exploratory research

One goal of almost any campaign is to avoid generic messaging.  If you want voters to think your candidate understands the unique problems of their region, the first step is to learn about those problems. In a national campaign, that can mean speaking to the dairy crisis in Wisconsin or the historic importance of the glass industry in Toledo. 

Local political conversation remains a basic.  Meanwhile, Google Trends can provide localized search data, voter file analysis combined with Census data can tell you the demographics and partisanship of who votes and who does not.  Sophisticated modeling like that of the Peoria Project can say a lot about people’s political attitudes and interests and the breakdown of Google affinity groups can say a lot about people’s non-political interests.   

Message Development:  The Core Argument

Review the candidate’s records against what you have learned about voters.  The core argument is almost always that your candidate will represent people’s interests and the other candidate will represent someone else – be that partisan interests, special interests, or an ideology (although most voters say philosophy) that is alien to people.  Alternatively, you can argue your opponent has a character flaw but these days a lot of voters think most politicians have character flaws, so it better be an egregious flaw.    

If you know the turf, have analyzed the available voter info, and read information on each candidate, the likely core arguments logically follow. On the presidential level, for example, Pete Buttigieg has to develop generational change as an argument. Joe Biden must run on his experience and the comfort of familiarity. Should either become the nominee, they will have different contrasts with Trump.  Already, Buttigieg articulates that we can’t continue the way we are while Biden promises a return to the balanced decency and rationalism of the recent past. Much is baked into who they are. The same is true in a local race. The candidate defines the message.

Message Development: The Media Mix 

Here’s where there are a lot of new opportunities in the internet age.  You can’t have a different core argument in different media; but you have more options for how to express the argument  than ever before.

Let’s take a congressional example:    

Your candidate is running against a Republican incumbent who has opposed funding an array of programs that would put money in this single media market district.  The district includes the city of Townville and surrounding rural counties. It tilts Republican and is predictably fiscally conservative as people figure that government money goes to someone else.

From exploratory research, you know a rural hospital is of danger of closing, local stores and the Family Dollar store have closed in small towns, and tariffs are hurting farmers, each of which can be tied to incumbent votes or statements opposing ACA, opposing online sales taxes and so helping Amazon, and supporting Trump economic policies.  The consequences, however, allow localized messaging that the incumbent has let bad things happen in the district.

You also want to make sure that voters who turn out for the presidential race in Townville vote down ballot. 

You are going to need a television ad that establishes a basic argument that your guy is going to put the people of the local area first, and not fall in with what party bosses tell him to do in Washington.  It should likely reinforce that he won’t waste their money on things that don’t help them. (It will be less generic than that because your candidate will be a person with a history and personality.)

Polling to sort through some options may be appropriate at this stage but instead of testing “message” paragraphs, you might look instead simply for what bothers people most, since your paragraphs will never translate directly to ads and can lead to swing voters terminating the poll as they get annoyed by them.

Then you have a lot to work with on specific executions that can reinforce each other as appropriate in television, mail, and online.  Start with online testing because it is easiest to do.  You are now looking at executions of varying content, but also varying tone and style.  

Message Testing

Your creative team is not limited to a 30 second format but can use a longer-form story, a metaphor, or a meme.  They can show how your candidate’s spouse has to drive farther for groceries since Family Dollar closed or how ambulance response times will increase if the hospital closes.   

As long as the ads are under the message umbrella, and sensitive to what you know from affinity group and other analyses of the district’s interests from Google, Facebook and other sources, the team can develop an array of options.

Internet ads can be self-testing.  It is easy to see what engages interest – either through clicks, viewership, or by varying search terms.  Conduct brand-lift surveys.  Such surveys are a standard for commercial advertisers – asking one question, exposing someone to an ad, and asking a follow up question later to test movement.  Brand-lift surveys can and should be conducted within affinity groups or whatever targeting scheme you will employ, or they can help you choose internet targets.

You can also design your own experiments:  If you are canvassing, expose some people to one message and others to another.  Gauge their reaction.  You can also contact them a few days later and see what they retain and how their attitudes may have changed. Add to your canvassing script what people have heard lately, and you will have another measure of what is breaking through as advertising begins.  (Don’t ask them to recall the medium – people are not very good at that.) 

The end result should be a mix of messages, measured for effectiveness within affinity groups or other online targets.  Television and mail can overlap with internet messaging and some internet messaging may stand alone as it impacts a discrete group only (like efforts to reach Democratic Presidential voters in Townville).

Prediction

The final historic purpose of polls is to predict the outcome of the race.  Conduct tracking polls if you want, but they won’t guide your final resource targeting online because the sample size will be insufficient and your targets are generally behavioral not demographic.  Analysis of the canvassing stream will help as you monitor what people are hearing.  Tailored analytics can tell you whether you are above or below partisanship among people who are principally streaming online or are more traditional in their media habits, and by attitudinal groups as available.    

Currently, most analytic efforts are too divorced from campaign strategy to help but that will likely change as campaign practitioners see the broader uses for analytics and as analytics professionals are better integrated into the strategic discussions of campaigns. 

In any case, there are new tools available designed for the internet age.  Polling is not about targeted online communications. These days television alone will not reach everyone, and it misses opportunities for tailored messaging about issues that touch people’s lives.