My former boss Mark Steenbergh, one of the most sophisticated politicians I’ve ever met, had several sayings about politics. “Politics is a game of addition, not of subtraction,” he would say. “If you have 51 percent, you’re winning.” This saying might seem folksy and almost superficial, but they revealed a deep understanding of politics. It’s not by accident he was elected mayor of Michigan’s third-largest city three times.
How Our Political System Divides Us
Steenbergh pointed to a few basic facts in those statements that politicians need to internalize. First is that you stick by your friends. Some call the people you relied upon to help get elected your “supporters,” or your “base.” The premise is reminiscent of another famous political saying popularized by former President Ronald Reagan, “dance with the one that brung you.”
The second truism revealed by Mark’s statements is that we live in a winner takes all system. Just look to the Electoral College for evidence of this reality. Trump won Michigan in the last election with just 47.5 percent of the vote, only 0.23 percent of the vote more than Hillary Clinton, a difference of just 10,704 votes out of 4,799,284 cast. Despite a close result in which he earned less than a majority of the votes, Trump won all sixteen of Michigan’s electoral college votes, helping him win the election.
Practicing politicians, including my former boss and our current president, viscerally understand these realities of American politics. Academic research has found empirical support for these concepts.
In a paper published last year in the American Political Science Review, political scientists Joshua Kalla and David Brockman demonstrated how ineffective campaigns are at gaining voters’ support. There is no such thing as persuadable voters. The only impact campaigns have on public opinion occurs when they contact voters very early in the process — long before the official “campaign” has actually begun. Otherwise, campaigns are simply a process of making sure your candidates’ supporters get to the polls, and the other candidate’s supporters don’t.
Two Reasons Campaigns Exist
When people argue for turning out your supporters, visions appear of people driving voters to the polls, going door-to-door to remind people to vote, and sending out absentee voter ballot applications. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. For some time now, political scientists have known why people show up at the polls: they are convinced there is a reason to vote. That’s why campaigns hold big rallies in which candidates offer up “red meat” to their supporters. The goal is to inflame the passions of their supporters as motivation to go out and vote on election day.
The other goal of modern campaigns is to get the other side not to show up to vote. This is where “negative campaigning” comes in. By telling your opponent’s supporters negative information about their candidate, you might discourage some percentage of them from voting at all. Each person you convince not to vote for the other person equates to gaining a vote for your candidate.
But doesn’t negative campaigning also hurt turnout among the negative campaigner’s supporters? According to the research, the answer is no. In fact, there is some evidence that rather than depressing turnout, negative campaigning actually encourages your supporters to go to the polls because they feel vindicated in their position.
The result of these structural factors has been campaigns aimed at riling up the base and attacking their opponent in ways that discourage their opponent’s supporters. Sound familiar? That’s modern political campaigning.
The Medium Matters
The biggest change in the last two elections has been in how these messages are delivered to voters. In the past, candidates had to rely upon television ads to reach voters who were generally uninvolved in politics. Campaigns would buy ads that would be seen by huge swaths of the voting public just to get a negative message to some of the other candidate’s supporters.
These television ads aimed to deliver a message to a very small segment of the population: the other candidate’s supporters who would be offended by a position taken by their chosen candidate. The problem is that everyone would see the ads. It’s like shooting a shotgun: the campaign has to make sure none of the shot blows back. As a result, the attacks have to generate broad interest, and they have to be on an issue that did not offend their base.
Candidates now use the internet and with Facebook can target their ads specifically to the people who are most receptive to their message. For example, they can send increasingly virulent red meat to ideological supporters to help motivate them to go to the polls, all while not offending less partisan voters. At the same time, campaigns can carefully target groups of the other candidate’s supporters to depress their interest in voting.
For instance, in the 2016 election, Trump and Russian trolls worked aggressively to contact Black activists through Facebook, delivering a message regarding the unfairness of our political system. The ads were effective because the message was based upon reality: our political system is unfair to large swaths of Americans. Nevertheless, one choice was much more favorable to the interests of Black Americans than the other choice. But by playing to the valid complaints of Black voters, the Trump campaign was able to encourage their dissatisfaction with the system and thus discourage them from voting. The result was that Black turnout fell by six percentage points compared to 2012, helping Trump win narrowly.
Twitter understands how destructive this kind of tactic can be. Just a few minutes ago they banned any further political advertising from their platform. Facebook should do the same.
What the Media Doesn’t Understand
Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of the political landscape among most journalists has paved the way for erroneous coverage of the current campaigns. This misrepresentation of our political process diverts Democrats’ and Republicans’ attention from addressing this division.
For example, the media is obsessed with so-called “swing voters,” and how Democrats need to be careful not to offend those individuals. In truth, there is no such thing. There are only two groups: potential Democratic supporters and potential Republican supporters. The only question is who will show up on election day.
Next has been the flood of articles regarding how Trump is outpacing Democrats with his party-building appeals on Facebook. The problem is that the Republican and Democratic presidential races are in very different stages. Trump is the Republican nominee. As a result, he can act as a nominee, firing up his base with red meat rhetoric.
Democrats don’t have a nominee yet. Although there are some front-runners, in truth, the field is still wide open. As a result, they are not yet in the stage of riling up the base. They are still in the stage of building up support among their party faithful to help them win the primary. Comparing what they are doing with Trump’s efforts is an example of false equivalence.
Finally, there have been numerous stories about how groups of Trump supporters are unmoved by revelations from the impeachment inquiry. While this is true, the more important, untold story is the actual shift among Democratic voters and leaners who at one time were content to wait and remove Trump from office at the ballot box to removing him from office sooner by impeachment. You can count me among that crowd, by the way.
The media’s misunderstanding and subsequent misrepresentation of our political process make it harder for us to address the actual issues dividing us by diverting our attention from them. I would suggest some solutions to remedy this structural problem.
What We Can Do About It
First, make it easier to vote. Australia, Belgium, and a few other countries legally mandate it, resulting in shockingly high voter turnout, nearly 92 percent in Australia’s last election. If everyone turns out, the campaigns will have to work to convince the non-committed voters to support their position. In the United States, we don’t need laws requiring turnout, but we could sure stand to make it easier to vote. The United States is one of the countries that make it most difficult to vote anywhere in the world. Addressing some of these barriers would have a significant impact.
Second, we could reduce the impact of the “winner-take-all” nature of our system. One idea might be ranked-choice voting, recently adopted in Maine, that seeks to ensure that more than a bare plurality elects the winner, and in some systems, providing representation to the losing groups. This system requires candidates to win majorities to get elected. If no candidate wins a majority in the first balloting, the race moves to a run-off between the top two candidates. The result is that you no longer have candidates elected with a minority supporting them.
Another idea might be allocating Electoral College votes based upon the percentage won by the candidate. Both these ideas have won some support of late, and if implemented nationally, might help reduce the anger of the disenfranchised minority.
Finally, eliminating gerrymandering should be a priority. With machine learning and modern computers, we have technology that can fairly allocate voters. This would be a vast improvement over the current system in which legislative districts are drawn to maximize the representation of one party or the other. This approach would end situations like in North Carolina, where Democrats only win three Congressional seats out of thirteen despite winning more than half of the statewide vote.
An honest discussion of these issues, however, requires an actual understanding of the way our political system works. Unfortunately, too often the public is ill-served by a media that seems to be observing our system from an ivory tower.