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How today’s elections are won — and the bad consequences

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
David Plouffe: “If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 percent of the electorate, you're not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need.”

There’s a danger. Well, perhaps more than one danger, but the one I’m thinking of at the moment is the danger of “motivated reasoning” aided by the twin demons of selective perception and confirmation bias. At some fairly superficial level, most of us believe it’s important to keep an open mind, listen to new evidence and consider the possibility that one or more of our beliefs is incorrect, at which point we are supposed to change our minds.

But in practice too many of us read and listen to those with whom we expect to agree. And when we do listen to those with whom we disagree, we are motivated to disbelieve their argument and treat their facts more skeptically. Although I try to be an exception to the dangers of motivated reasoning, selective perception and confirmation bias, I mostly fail. (Or maybe it’s just that my beliefs are just, you know, right.)

For example, as regular readers of Black Ink have noticed, I’m fairly convinced that the U.S. system of politics and government is slowly but steadily breaking down. We have a system that — more than pretty much any other in the world — requires compromise across party lines for the government to function. But our parties have mostly lost the ability to compromise. I do believe that most of the fault for this is on the right/Republican side, where the notion of compromise is more frequently treated as a form of betrayal or surrender. All of this is available for more discussion as we head into our ridiculously long and very enlightening presidential campaign season.

But Tuesday, the regular morning note from NBC’s politics crew, starting with Chuck Todd, focused on the connection between the modern way of winning presidential elections (which has less and less to do with appealing to moderate swing voters) and the gridlock in Washington. First you ignore most of the country because only a relative few swing states matter. But even in those states, you don’t put most of your effort into persuading moderate swing voters. The new formula focuses much more on identifying people who would vote for your candidate, if they vote, and then motivating those voters to vote. Those are, in the passage below, “the voters you need.” And you motivate them by scaring them about the consequences of the other side winning.

From that article:

David Plouffe, Obama’s former top political strategist, summed it up this way: “If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 percent of the electorate, you’re not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need.” In today’s highly polarized political world, this is how you win elections — by motivating your base and by recognizing there are few swing voters left. But it also makes governing harder, especially when the parties are trading electoral victories every two years (with Democrats benefitting from presidential turnouts, and with Republicans benefitting from midterm turnouts). When you have data-driven candidates appealing to win 51% of voters, it means that a president’s job-approval rating is never going to get much higher than that, and it means that bipartisan policy goals (like the TPP free-trade agreement) are the exception rather than the rule.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/10/2015 - 12:27 pm.

    The sad truth is

    It is easier to unite people against something than for something. Hence the reason scare tactics work.

    I think one of the biggest scams is the Anti abortion scam. There have been plenty of opportunities to pass legislation at the national level according to the rhetoric of the parties but it hasn’t happened. How long does it take folks to figure out they are just being used.

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/12/2015 - 01:19 am.

      Not what I’ve observed

      It seems much easier to motivate maybe-voters if they voting for their candidate rather than against the opponent. I think about why Obama had such increased turnout. His voters voted for him and didn’t really care about McCain or Romney. It seems like a losing strategy to run on how awful the opponent is.

  2. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 06/10/2015 - 12:27 pm.

    Is That Really New?

    “And you motivate them by scaring them about the consequences of the other side winning.”

    Is this mentality in politics really new? Or is it that how the message is spread has evolved so radically even in the last three decades? Instead of handbills, radio speeches, whistle stops, and t.v. ads on one of the three major networks, we now have e-mail blasts, social media memes, and web-based writing that both reaches much farther and wider *and* amplifies the intensity of the message. It’s amazing how quickly a rumor or outright lie can spread across the political spectrum.

    Mark Twain (I believe) once famously said: A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. Now, that same lie can circumnavigate the globe ten times before the truth is finished being typed.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/10/2015 - 04:28 pm.

      It’s not new, and much older than 3 decades.

      Here’s a quote from Herr Reichsmarshal Herman Goering:

      “…it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked,
      and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

      Isn’t this exactly what we’re seeing here in the U.S. ?? It is practically a persistent national policy – from LBJ and his cohort’s “domino theory” to the Bush administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, to the security state apparatchik’s claim that all the secret surveillance on innocent Americans was necessary to our national security.

      It works so well !! What do do about this is a much bigger subject than this column raises.

  3. Submitted by robert burns on 06/10/2015 - 03:45 pm.


    “I do believe that most of the fault for this is on the right/Republican side, where the notion of compromise is more frequently treated as a form of betrayal or surrender. ” Eric Black
    This quote tells me you are “Leftist Democrat” from the “Mpls. Star & Cycle” newspaper which has “brainwashed” Minnesotans for generations and does not tell both sides of the story.
    “the right/Republican side” is not “betrayal or surrender”. It is a firm & accurate knowledge of what is best for the USA. What has happened to the USA for the past 6 years is pathetic.
    No one in the world trust us anymore, our Foreign Affairs are a mess, we tell the bad guys when we will pull out so they can just sit back and wait until we are gone and then take over the country we had just saved from the bad guys with the sad loss of many American lives. Release enemy guys from prison so they can go back to fighting us. Put our country in trillions of $ in debt, continue to spend $$$ that we have to borrow from other counties. Play the “Race” card and foment more racism.
    Do you have anymore good news from the “Left”???

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/10/2015 - 09:32 pm.

      It’s always great

      when someone steps up to the plate to assist the writer in illustrating his point perfectly. Well done, Robert.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/10/2015 - 04:13 pm.

    Closed mind

    While I like to listen to and analyze views that conflict with my own, I like to think of myself as a closed minded person. I have reached certain decisions where politics are concerned and I stick with them. As a closed minded person, as a general rule, open minded people are the bane of my existence. What I find is that for the most part, in politics at least, open minded people don’t make decisions on principle, people who do that have already progressed a long way toward close mindedness. Rather they make decisions based on whim, on things like which commercial is grainier or which candidate wears the least flattering pant suit.

    The other day, I read this op ed from a guy who advocated a philosophy of centrism which is something I heard about for the first time. Just imagine it. When the extreme moves a little bit more extreme, he has to move a little bit in that direction too, not because he thought the ideological change was right or wrong, but simply because it’s necessary in order to stay in the center. Evidently the philosophy of centrism is a philosophy of nihilism, committed only to the idea of being politically high maintenance.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/10/2015 - 06:23 pm.

    Winning elections

    Sadly, Mr. Burns provides a fine example of the syndrome that Plouffe and Black are talking about. Much of what his complaint(s) are based on was enacted by people who like to call themselves “consrvative,” but it’s easier and more convenient – and fits the appropriate confirmation biases – to ignore that and place all the blame on the current administration. Mr. Obama has richly earned quite a bit of criticism, in many instances because he *is* trying to accommodate differing political views. Doing so has not gone well for either him or the country.

    Mike Worcester seems on-target to me: frightening the voters (or even if they can’t or don’t vote, the citizenry) is as tried and true an election technique as elections themselves. Steve Titterud also has a relevant reference to Goering and his ilk. Every administration resorts to propaganda at least some of the time, but in the past couple of decades, what we’re mostly hearing is the Doublespeak that Mr. Orwell wrote about so compellingly.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/10/2015 - 07:10 pm.


      There is a research literature on risk aversion.
      People tend to overvalue negative consequences as compared to positive ones, which accounts for the effectiveness of negative politics.
      People in general are more afraid of losing what they have than they are motivated by the desire to gain something positive.

      • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/11/2015 - 08:48 am.

        “People tend to overvalue negative consequences as compared to positive ones, which accounts for the effectiveness of negative politics.”

        For me, the tens of billions of dollars we spend on electronic surveillance is an example of that. We know two things about this stuff. First, the whole thing can be compromised if a low level employee decides to talk to the Times. Secondly, that the whole multi billion dollar effort can be evaded by terrorists with a bare minimum of sophistication with knowledge of software that can be accessed for free in any anonymous internet cafe in the world. Yet we are assured by the most solemn of tv talking heads, that we need to spend these unimaginable sums of money in order to keep America safe. The emperor is not only not wearing clothes currently, he has been running around naked for quite some time.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/11/2015 - 08:43 am.

    Frightening folks

    I have never understood why frightening folks was somehow off limits for political campaigns. I think the last Republican president came close to wrecking the country. I am frightened that another Republican president will finish the job. Where is the problem in communicating that?

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