Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

An Interested Observer's Take On American Elections

I've always been interested in the process of political campaigns, wondering if the system we've set up is really the best way to pick leaders for our Republic. Before answering the question, I should provide my perception on how American election campaigns work. (I'll use examples from the current competitive race in my area, that for Congress in Idaho's 1st Congressional District between incumbent Democrat Rep. Walt Minnick and Republican/Tea Party challenger State Rep. Raul Labrador. My previous posts on this race can be found here and here.)

There are three basic groups of potential voters each candidate has to consider in any election; their interactions with and message to each group will differ. For lack of better terms, these groups are (1) Those predisposed to support you; (2) Those predisposed to support your opponent; and (3) The undecided "swing" voters. Since voting isn't mandatory in the U.S., candidates can turn voter excitement (or apathy) to their advantage. A smart candidate will tailor his campaign to maximize the likelihood that group (1) will vote, while trying to suppress voting from group (2). Most of the "horse-race" coverage of elections focuses on the efforts of each candidate to win over group (3), but I think a smart candidate can get just as much mileage from working on the other two groups. An example of this is the 2004 Presidential election; where many observers believe that the key to President Bush's victory was getting an additional several million group (1) religious conservatives who failed to vote in 2000 to turn out. Likewise, getting those predisposed to vote for your opponent to decide that it's not worth the trouble to bother to vote, or to vote for an unelectable 3rd party candidate, is a potentially fruitful strategy. While I don't want to give the Republican leadership too much credit for planning this ahead of time, one could see how their refusal to compromise on basically anything during the last two years and therefore keep the Administration from claiming victories could be a cause of the "enthusiasm gap" being reported in pre-election polls this year.

In the ID-1 race, this model is a little bit skewed, because the Democrat's group (1) is smaller than normally found throughout the country. While there are clearly Idaho Democrats who have become so disillusioned with Rep. Minnick's independent voting patterns that they vow not to vote for him, the Minnick campaign has apparently decided that it's more important to work on groups (2) and (3) than to try to shore up their base. I think they're probably right, even if I don't like the way they're going about it. Based on the advertisements the Minnick campaign has chosen to run, it appears that they're trying to break off the substantial "anti-illegal immigrant" bloc that normally votes Republican from Raul Labrador. Having a candidate with an Hispanic name in Idaho is probably a negative to begin with (I don't want to say there seem to be quite a few "brown people are bad" voters in Idaho, but...), and the Minnick campaign seems to be hoping to stoke those doubts those voters may have had otherwise to make them less excited to vote. While it's unlikely these people would vote for a Democrat ("Pelosi" seems to be a really bad word here), if they can be convinced not to vote -- a possibility since the other Republicans on the ballot in the up-ticket races are more "establishment"-type candidates, and not the Paulite bomb-throwers these potential voters are looking for -- that would be a win for Rep. Minnick.

Since it's not as easy to get the group (1) and (2) voters not to vote (they tend to vote more regularly than people who may be independent more based on apathy than anything else), there's still money to be made from convincing group (3) potential voters to vote for you. If your opponent has extreme positions, it's wise to try to highlight those, as Rep. Minnick did in his closing comments in the televised debate last night. Rep. Minnick has a built-in advantage with this group, as most of them who did vote in 2008 cast their ballots for him, and as a moderate he is likely a closer fit to their political ideology to start with. Likewise, he has an advantage with voters with military experience; even those who won't vote for him are being convinced not to vote for non-veteran Labrador.

The debate last night, which I attended, should be the last public interaction between the candidates for this election. (Neither of the major candidates are impressive debaters, but neither made an election-altering gaffe. Since debates tend to be watched only by the most involved political junkies, I'd be surprised if anyone's mind was changed by the debate; the number of truly undecided voters who tuned in to decide how to vote was probably in the three digits district-wide, based on no real data.) Assuming Rep. Minnick's internal poll numbers are favorable (all the publicly-released numbers to date have been), expect to see him start playing "prevent" defense and avoiding settings where the press may be present. As a general rule, the candidate with more money and a lead in the polls in the last couple of weeks will recognize that only a gaffe could cause the election to slip away. In this election, however, I'm not sure that's the case. Turnout on November 2nd will depend on either the group (3) voters deciding on their own that they want to vote, or being convinced by more politically-active friends. While Rep. Minnick rules the airwaves by sheer force of money, and therefore is more likely to gain votes from the 1st subset, it's the Tea Party-inspired voters who are more eager to vote. If the Republican GOTV effort pays off, expect this election to be a nail-biter than could go either way.

My initial question remains -- is this the best way to select candidates to lead our Republic? I used to think it was; that the effort required to put together a team to win an election, and to understand the electorate well enough to put together a message to which they could respond, was a good predictor of the attributes required to be a successful legislator or executive. Now, however, since there's so much more money being poured into campaigns, I don't think it is; I don't think we're getting the best candidates for office anymore. (Note that several Tea Party-backed candidates for Senate have basically refused to have any unscripted interactions with the press not because they have the lead, but because they say something stupid whenever they open their mouth. At least two of them -- Paul and Angle -- have a chance of winning.) I don't have an answer for how to fix this, but I hope the electorate will decide after a few campaigns like this one to no longer reward that type of behavior. Yes, I know I'm an idealist, but I can still dream...

Update 1343 15 Oct: Here's an opinion piece from the New York Times discussing the Minnick-Labrador race. Surprisingly insightful for a stuffed-shift Eastern media elite guy.


Blogger Buck said...

If more people personally knew the candidates, I think the elections would turn out better. The flip side of that is that the electorate really needs to follow up all year instead of paying attention for a few days before voting.

10/15/2010 1:57 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

Agreed. I've had a chance to meet both candidates (and personally like them both) but I don't think most voters get that opportunity. One suggestion I've seen is to drastically increase the number of House seats, so that each representative would have a smaller constituent base, and would have to get to know people better. Since that would cost more, I don't see it happening soon, but I wouldn't necessarily oppose a 5000 member lower house that meets and votes online.

10/15/2010 2:10 PM

Blogger Vigilis said...

Since you mention races outside of your state, although I am outside of yours allow me to note that Rep. Walter Minnick is a lawyer.

Because Minnick has not been a career politician, he is not suspected (yet) of being a member of the insidious Lawyer-Political Complex.

His GOP challenger, Raúl Labrador
is a non-lawyer. Idaho is in store for good representation based upon the wisdom and choice of her citizens. Good luck!

10/15/2010 2:47 PM

Anonymous ReggieH said...

I'll read this after I get done with my HW, but wanted to make a quick suggestion. Post a link to facebook whenever you do a political write-up? The only reason I knew to come here for your article was b/c I saw your comment on Huckleberries. Thx.

10/15/2010 4:06 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

Actually, Rep. Labrador is a lawyer; an immigration lawyer, in fact, which is what most of Rep. Minnick's commercials have focused on. While Rep. Minnick has a law degree, his main work has been running lumber businesses. Rep. Labrodor's only work has been as a lawyer.

10/15/2010 4:12 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

I post notification of all my posts to the Facebook group for TSSBP, and specify if a post is non-submarine related. You could join that group to get notifications.

10/15/2010 4:16 PM

Anonymous ReggieH said...

The only reason I didn't join the blog-specific group is because I didn't want to clutter my newsfeed with your submarine related (though brilliantly written) posts. Anyway, it's just a humble request. You can take it or leave it.

@Vigilis: I'm a law student. Should I stay out of politics? Correlation is not causation. American politics would indeed be MUCH better if more non-lawyers would step in to the political arena, but how is that the fault of lawyers? I can't help but feel somewhat stung by your implications.

10/15/2010 4:27 PM

Anonymous XEM2 said...

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

To answer your question, it really is a deeply flawed way of choosing our leaders, but I haven't heard of a better way. I like your take on candidates' ability to organize a campaign staff and sell voters on their positions being a good indicator of an effective legislator. And I agree that the enormous amount of money spent on campaigns makes the candidates themselves sort of secondary.

We have a candidate running for the State House with a novel idea: He wants to limit campaign spending to a relatively small dollar amount per registered voter in the district. This would greatly level the playing field, especially for third-party candidates, and would provide more of a test of a candidate's ability to spend wisely and motivate volunteers.

Kind of off-topic, but have you checked out the Modern Whig Party? I was browsing sites for whacko fringe parties and came across their site, and I have to say that I like their way of thinking.

10/15/2010 6:20 PM

Blogger Vigilis said...


"I'm a law student. Should I stay out of politics?"

You must decide to take your best shot, of course.

Your future profession's honor has been on the decline thanks largely to the role model set by too many career-politician lawyers.

Take a look at Capt. Eric Goldie's current notoriety, for instance, here.

10/15/2010 7:06 PM

Blogger wtfdnucsailor said...

As one who has been active in local politics for the past twenty years, I have found that most voters know the names of their mayor, governor, congressman, senator, and the president and vice president. The rest of the elected officials have to reintroduce themselves each election cycle. The local election is mostly door to door with a self generated flyer and a one shot ad in the local rag (newspaper) the weekend before the election. The State Representatives also door knock as do State Senators. They rely on mail pieces as well as the aforementioned door to door and a newspaper ad or two. Above that, it is television ads that really reach the voters. Only the all ready decided watch televised "debates". In the current election cycle, as I work the phones for the candidates of my party, I find that the voters are suffering from ad fatigue and have tuned out. Many comment that they are not going to vote because of the negativity of the ads. That is a real shame but, as much as we hate them, the negative ads seem to work. Regarding the question of the original post. I wish we had a thirty day limit on campaigning like the Brits and that candidates could only accept donations from persons (or coorporations thanks to citizens united SC decision) that were in their district (or other electoral subdivision such as town, city, or state, or nation). That would limit the cost of campaigns but I suspect that it is unconstitutional under the first amendment. I don't think limiting the campaign season would be unconstitutional but it might hinder some presidential candidates who basically run for two years or more.

10/15/2010 7:10 PM

Anonymous Gimme A Break said...

One U.S. political system 'tweak' that could yield fantastically better results is to allow for the "None of the Above" voting methodology in elections.

This simple addition would/could have prevented the arguably disastrous 2008 presidential election from producing the result that it did. Neither candidate, IMHO, was remotely qualified in terms of executive experience, if not any number of other factors.

10/16/2010 6:11 PM

Anonymous Derrick M. said...

You know I been looking all over the mill blogs to see if any of you are covering or heard that the military is censoring Websites (liberal ones) from being viewed by soldiers---a week before Midterms.

It seems others are worked up about it. I was hoping to get some thoughts on it from at least one mill blog. My blog is non-military (very progressive/liberal however) but I wrote about it cause it impacts the midterms:

10/30/2010 11:39 PM


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