Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The (Lack Of?) Mind Of The Voter

Both Democrats and Republicans have die hard core constituencies. They each average almost a third of the voters, with the proportions varying in Blue and Red states, and rarely stray from their party. Both parties can rely on these bases, so long as they to turn out to vote.

In Republican Scott Brown's surprise victory over Martha Coakley for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat it was the swing of independent voters towards Brown that made the difference. This was unexpected in a solidly Democratic constituency when most voters knew about the high stakes involved in giving Republicans the 41st "filibuster enabling" Senate vote.
What led to this voter behavior? Pundits talk about dissatisfaction with the economy and lack of jobs, anger at a do-nothing government (even though Republicans as a block were largely responsible) and anxiety over "bad" health reforms. I've this to add:
  • Trivials can matter a lot. Scott was out there campaigning vigorously. He was in front of the cameras. He is telegenic. Martha was lax. She celebrated her Christmas at home and shunned "standing in the cold" at Fenway Park. She flubbed with some silly sports comments. She took voters for granted. So they punished her.
  • Do not underestimate voters - part 1. That is, underestimate their ability to make wrong judgments or outright mistakes. Americans re-elected George Bush in 2004. I supported Joe Lieberman in 2006. Democrats chose Obama over Hillary in 2008 (okay, I couldn't resist this cheap shot.) They do that - just take it in stride.
  • Do not underestimate voters - part 2. That is, underestimate their ability to blame the wrong people. The economic and jobs debacle was created in GWB's time (with some roots going as far as in Clinton's time.) AIG was bailed out along with Wall Street players with 100% coverage of counterparty commitment also during the Republican era. Obama's administration and Congress opted for too small and misdirected a stimulus package despite Paul Krugman's early and repeated warnings because of solid Republican (and some Blue Dog) obstruction. Ditto for the long and torturous evolution of the convoluted health reforms bill. But voter anger is rewarding the bad guys.
  • But there are hopeful lessons, including from elsewhere. In India voters are often ignorant and seem irrational. Convicted murderers, bandits and thugs have been elected as Members of Parliament. In some states corrupt and inept governments are successively elected for decades at a stretch. Voters frequently are driven by very narrow considerations (like caste) that don't reflect their larger interests and longer term preferences. But in the last election last year even they seem to have rewarded the Manmohan Singh / Sonia Gandhi Congress government for trying to do the right thing. People are the same. If Indian voters with a 66% literacy rate and under 1.5% of US per capita income can ultimately "get it", then why not US voters?
So it's good for the Obama administration to read the Massachusetts outcome to adjust strategy and message as Bob Herbert suggests in his NYT OpEd today. But they shouldn't be spooked away from bold policy initiatives. Obama said as much in his State of the Union speech today, and we'll know soon enough how much he means it.