The Campaign Spot

Remembering the Gut-Level Connection With Voters

On my reading pile this year is finishing up Applebee’s America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community, by Clinton strategist Doug Sosnik, Bush strategist Matthew J. Dowd, and former AP political correspondent Ron Fournier.

The fact that I didn’t finish it last year probably reveals that I have found it uneven so far – fascinating political tidbits, followed by dry, vague descriptions of religious or business trends that didn’t keep my interest.
Interspersed throughout the book are short descriptions of conversations the authors had with ordinary voters, usually at some Michigan-area Applebee’s. Those snippets of conversation reminded me that I am very, very different in my thinking from “average” Americans. You almost certainly are as well; the average American doesn’t read political web sites or blogs.
In fact, lots of voters out there base their voting decisions on ephemeral, vague, intangible feelings about a candidate, rather than his or her stands, policies, beliefs, etc. A couple examples:

HOWELL, Mich. — Debbie Palos is a prochoice nurse and the daughter of a Teamster who cast her first two presidential ballots for Clinton. Her friend and neighbor Lynn Jensen supports abortion rights, opposes privatization of Social Security, and thinks President Clinton was the last president “who gave a hoot about the middle class.” … Both opposed the war in Iraq.
Yet they both voted for President Bush in 2004.
“I didn’t like doing it, but the other guy was too radical for me,” says Jensen, a thirty-three mother of two…
“I don’t think much of Democrats anymore,” says Palos. “Besides, I may not agree with President Bush on everything, but at least I know he’s doing what he thinks is right.”

That sound you hear is the heads of former Kerry strategists exploding, as they learn that they failed to persuade longtime Democrats and Iraq war opponents that their man “is doing what he thinks is right.” Another conversation, later in the book:

More than a year after the election, Palos still struggled to answer the question, “Why did I vote for Bush?”
“I don’t know.” …
She was disappointed with the president. He hadn’t performed well after Katrina, “and this war hasn’t exactly turned out as he promised.” Yet there was something about him that still struck a chord.
“It’s just the whole measure of a man,” she said. “When I voted for Clinton, I did it on gut instinct. I look at a person, and I try to see through their eyes to their values.
“Who knows if I know everything on policy,” she added, “but I can get a sense of who a person is.”

Another example:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — George Heier is sipping a cup of coffee at his usual table, between the bar and the bathrooms and within sight of the front door. “I like to see my friends coming in,” he says.
Even the politics is unfamiliar in his new hometown, Blue Springs, Missouri. “Hell, they’re all Republicans out there,” he says with a laugh. The Roosevelt Democrat and veteran of D-Day opposed the war in Iraq and President Bush’s domestic policies yet voted with the majority in his new community. “I backed Bush because I liked him, and even though I didn’t support what he stood for, at least I knew he stood for something.”

Another example, same vein:

“Even when we don’t agree, you know what I believe and where I stand,” Bush said at his 2004 nominating convention. Watching the convention from her suburban Chicago home, Bonnie Kohn rubbed the goosebumps out of her arms after that line. A Democratic-leaning voter, she had been on the fence about the 2004 presidential race. “I decided right then and there that even though I couldn’t put my finger on it, there was something about that guy that made me feel safer. Something gut level about him made me trust him. He had me thinking that we were all in this together,” she said months later. Polls suggest that there were many more like Kohn who opposed the war but voted for Bush because they thought he had the Gut Values to keep them safe.

It’s worth keeping in mind as we see the argument that Obama is too liberal to win the nomination, and/or the presidency. In this case, a certain number of antiwar, Democratic-leaning voters who often preferred the liberal stand on issues voted for the Republican, almost entirely based on hard-to-measure emotional connections with the President.
If George W. Bush could connect with voters like Palos, Jensen, Heier and Kohn, I think there’s a good chance that Obama can establish that same gut values connection.
UPDATE: For those of us who are a little more policy-wonkish, James Pethokoukis, a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report has written a great summary of Barack Obama’s views on trade, taxes, and entitlements. He calls it “a sneak preview of Obamanomics.”


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