By DAVID DAVENPORT
If, in addition to (a) George W. Bush, (b) John Kerry and (c) Ralph Nader, the presidential ballot included (d) “none of the above,” there is reason to believe that (d) would win. How is it possible that this presidential race will spend more money on more sophisticated techniques than any other campaign in our history and end up generating less enthusiasm for any of the candidates?
The fact is that presidential campaigns now focus on increasingly narrow strategies to win the electoral vote, while neglecting the larger concerns of the population as a whole. Indeed, no presidential candidate since 1988 has even won a majority of the popular vote.
Consider some of the changes that have led presidential campaigns to seem disconnected from the lives and concerns of most Americans.
* Rather than campaigning in all 50 states, candidates now focus on a few key precincts in a handful of strategic battleground states. In 1960, for example, Richard Nixon announced that he would campaign in all 50 states, reaching every American with his message. Now, unless you live in one of 15 to 20 battleground states, you are unlikely to see a candidate or, in some cases, even view many television commercials. By Election Day, the campaign may be aggressively contended in as few as three states. Don’t the rest of us count? * Instead of addressing the undecided voters in the middle, the Bush campaign has been concentrating on energizing its partisan base. Historically, presidential campaigns begin with roughly 40 percent of voters in each camp, and the campaign is aimed at the 20 percent of undecided voters who will determine the outcome. In this race, however, people have lined up quickly on one side or the other and less than 10 percent of voters remain undecided. If only the battleground states really matter, then the number of important uncommitted voters is smaller still, perhaps only 2 percent to 3 percent. Energizing your base is a more partisan style of campaigning that increases the disconnect with other voters. * Reaching the target audience in this campaign reinforces negative impressions voters have about each candidate. When Bush seeks to invigorate his Republican base, he comes off as more partisan, talking about issues in black-and-white, even divisive, terms. On the other hand, when Kerry carries out his more traditional strategy of reaching undecided voters in the middle, he impresses people as too complex and wishy-washy. Experts say that when people watch the presidential debates, they are swayed when candidates reinforce negative concerns voters already have about them. This is already happening and is part of the campaign disconnect.
To put it simply, this presidential campaign is too much about too little. It features more and more of the things people do not like about politics: heavy spending, negative campaigning and saturation marketing and advertising. And it is less and less about the issues that concern most Americans. Polls consistently show that the two issues that top lists of voter concern are the economy and Iraq. But, instead, the campaign seems to be mired in either culture wars (marriage amendments, stem-cell research, abortion and the like) or the wars of history (Vietnam and the swift boats).
In his classic 1991 book, Why Americans Hate Politics, E.J. Dionne argued that voters were weary of meaningless campaigns that offered voters false either/or answers to ideological issues. Instead, Dionne suggested, voters generally live closer to the center and desire candidates who would seek remedies to our real problems. Dionne’s book anticipated the need for a political center, which appeared briefly in the 1990s, but didn’t last very long.
An old adage holds, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” With the growing campaign disconnect, it is not difficult to predict that, though someone will win, he will win ugly and will find it difficult to govern an increasingly alienated electorate. The longer view suggests that candidates should run the race in such a way as to make the prize truly worth winning.
(David Davenport, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, teaches a course on presidential campaigns.)
C Copyright 2004 by Capitol Hill Blue
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