As I post this on the evening of Nov. 2, 2010, the election returns are yet to come in.
Still the wise guys who run the numbers (like this guy and that guy) have already made it clear that the Republicans will do very well tonight. Tonight also marks the end of all the sophisticated analysis of what will happen and why and the start of all the sophisticated analysis of what did happen and why. In the end, it’s all pretty simple: Win stay, lose change.
All the campaigning, advertising, debates, position papers, scandals, faux pas, outside funding, and the like make little difference – as a matter of social science. They push the needle a little bit this way or a little bit that way. They can upset a particular race. For example, the nomination of the I-am-not-a-witch candidate in Delaware probably cost the Republicans a senatorial seat. But nationally, a lot of those factors even out.
To be sure, even moving the needle a little can have critical consequences. The difference between winning 49 and 51 seats in the Senate or, even, as the Democrats learned last January, between winning 59 and 60 seats, can make a huge difference in public policy. But in terms of understanding the political science and the sociology of voting, what affects swing voters in most elections is beyond campaigning.
In the last few decades, the American voters have largely divided into roughly one-third or so who are true-blue Democrats and one-third or so who are true-red Republicans. What campaigns have to do, first and foremost, is make sure their folks show up at the polls. The enthusiastic anger of being in the “out” party helps here – to the Democrats’ advantage in 2006 and 2008 and the Republicans’ advantage now. But a great deal depends on the how the roughly one-third in the middle swing. And for them: Win stay, lose change.
Overwhelmingly, independent voters do not follow politics closely, do not know much about it, do not care about it, and do not care for it. There’s too much else to do – get the kids to soccer practice, pick up grandma’s medicine, get that report done for the boss before Friday quitting time, watch the game on Sunday – and anyway, politics seems dirty and confusing. Who’s to say they are wrong?
Swing voters typically vote on their sense of how things are going in the country – usually how things are going economically. They seem to follow a simple rule: Win stay; lose change. That is, if things seems to be going OK, then vote for the “in” party – the one holding the White House. If you’re “winning,” stay with what you have. If the country seems to be going on the wrong track, then vote for change; vote for the “out” party and hope things get better.
Ronald Reagan’s party lost in 1982 as a result of a sharp recession, but in 1984 he could run on the recovery with the slogan “It’s Morning Again in America.” In 1992, Clinton took advantage of a sour economy and reminded his campaign all the time that “it’s the economy, stupid!” In 2008, Obama could talk vaguely about “Change” precisely because the economy was sinking and it’s all about Win stay, lose change.
Win stay, lose change is a simple rule. It doesn’t require reading the voter pamphlets, watching debates, comparing Fox and MSNBC news reports, remembering who John Boehner is, or deciding whether the stimulus was useful or a bust. Democrats can complain that a careful analysis of what’s been happening shows that Obama’s policies have worked, that the Republicans have slowed economic improvements, have lied about health care, etc., etc., etc. Who’s got the time or information to sort all that out? Win stay, lose change. Pretty straightforward.
Liberals worry that the White House’s “messaging” or Obama’s image or mishandling of the Tea Party and such things lost 2010 – but none of that would have mattered much if the unemployment rate had dropped a couple of points between January and Labor Day. Win stay, lose change.
So, what is a political strategist or activist to do? If you cannot turn the economy around, all you can do is canvass, advertise, raise money, craft the message, and so on – and try to move the needle a little.