Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Electable

The blonde and the 10 year old have been enjoying watching The West Wing together this season. I'm still not allowed to watch. If you've been following the show too, you know that the Presidential election campaign pitting Democrat Matt Santos against Republican Arnold Vinick is coming down to the wire. The 10 year old, good little Democrat and still loyal Kerry man, is rooting for Santos and thinks he's going to win.

He's rooting for Santos, but he likes Vinick better.

Part of it is that Vinick is played by Hawkeye Pierce. But then Santos is played by Bail Organa, so you'd think that with the 10 year old's Democratic sympathies coming into play and Star Wars ranking much higher in his Pantheon than MASH, it would balance out in Santos' favor.

Nope.

He likes Vinick.

Doesn't mean he doesn't like Santos. Doesn't mean that if it was a real election and he could vote he'd vote for Vinick.

He just means something like Vinick seems more like a guy he'd enjoy having a chocolate milk with.

That idea, expressed by adults, that it's important that you feel about a candidate like you'd enjoy having a beer with him, drives lots of smart people nuts. And no wonder, considering how it was used by the Media Elites for six years to justify the Presidency of George W. Bush and to bolster their conviction against all evidence that Bush was popular.

Bush's supposed companionability as a drinking buddy is still making it hard for many of them to admit that Bush isn't just wildly unpopular, he's verging on despised.

But there is some truth in the guy you want to have a beer with notion, and not just that the Media Elite would rather drink with a wise-cracking featherweight who gives them nicknames and doesn't annoy them talking about boring stuff like issues and policy than with a successful heavyweight whose very existence reminds them of their own mediocrity and real ineffectualness.

But there is another truth to it, and that's this. People want a candidate they feel they can approach. The want somebody they feel they can talk to, somebody they feel will listen, understand, and care about what they think and about their problems.

The bubble that Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have blown around Bush is necessary so that no one finds out that he is just a puppet. But it has been self-defeating. When he faces voters, he faces only voters who already like and agree with him. What Rove and Cheney forgot, if they ever knew it, or what they can't afford to risk putting to the test, is that liking a candidate, agreeing with that candidate, and voting for that candidate are three different things that influence each other but are not dependent on one another. They are contingent but not necessarily and definitely not always causal.

People will vote for candidates they disagree with on the issues as long as they feel that those candidates have their interests and concerns at heart.

Which is why it's not a bad thing if you're running for office to put yourself in a postion to be challenged by voters. It's often the case that you win voters over when you are disagreeing with them and explaining why you do, because it's while you are doing it that they can judge whether or not you are taking them seriously.

It's easy to sound sympathetic when you are just saying, "You're right."

I take that back. Often it's harder. You can come across as dissmissive or condescending if you don't watch it.

I think it's kind of a truism that Democrats nominate the candidate they agree with while Republicans agree with the candidate they nominate. I think it's also a truism that truisms are only more or less true, usually less.

It's another truism, though, that Democrats tend to like the candidate they agree with, while Republicans tend to like candidates who seems more like their kind of people. This is why I don't think McCain's going to get the Republican nomination.

It's not true that this has resulted in the Republicans nominating generally more likeable candidates for President.

In the last 42 years the Republicans have nominated exactly the same number of likeable candidates as the Democrats have.

One.

They had Reagan. The Democrats had Clinton.

That's it.

Goldwater, Nixon, Ford, the first George Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush is not a more congenial list than Johnson, Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry.

(Actually, it looks to me as though the edge goes to the Democrats, and we're not even measuring likeability in terms of decency and personal charm here.)

George W. Bush's "likeability" is a Media creation.

Studied carefully, that list should provide a counterargument to the Democrats are losers storyline.

In the last 42 years the Republicans have elected 3 Presidents and the Democrats have elected 4.

Historians will give the 2000 election to Gore. Probably they'll wind up giving 2004 to Kerry or at least deciding that because how many votes the Bush Leaguers stole can't be positively determined the actual outcome of the popular vote will always be a mystery.

I think it's becoming clear that they stole Ohio, so Kerry won the electoral vote. We know they cheated egregiously in Florida and Nevada and time will probably show that Kerry would have won them both in honest elections.

Regular readers of the BradBlog and Avedon Carol will have been following this.

For now, let's say the count is 4 to 3. I'm not counting re-elections of popular incumbants. Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton each count as one President.

What this means is that the Democrats have a better track record for picking likeable (in the sense of being electable) candidates than conventional wisdom holds. The only true loser in the pack was Dukakis and he didn't do as badly as people think. McGovern and Mondale were doomed from the start and nothing can be said about their electability, one way or another, except that sometimes current events are against you. In McGovern's case, current events were for him before they were against him.

I'm not saying that not having to face a popular Nixon or Reagan would have meant that either or both could have become President. I don't think that either one would have been nominated under other circumstances.

At any rate, Democrats looking ahead to 2008 are worrying about nominating an electable candidate. But electability is a nebulous notion.

Hard-core Democrats will vote for the Democrat. Hard-core Republicans will vote for the Republican. But the hard-cores of both parties make up for at most 60 per cent of the electorate. The real fight is for that other 40 percent, or a little more than half that 40 per cent, and most of those voters make up their minds about who's electable usually on the grounds of which candidate they think they'd like to have a chocolate milk with.

Which, as I said, is a way of saying the candidate they think has their interests and concerns at heart, even if that candidate has different ideas about how to go about advancing those interests and concerns.

I don't know how you go about judging who that is before the candidates have really gone out and met the voters.

There is a serious case to be made that it's the candidate who stands for something and stands for it squarely and steadfastly. But then shouldn't we be into the second year of President Kucinich's first term now?

Voters do care that a candidate stands for something.

They want her to stand for them.

And as I've been trying to say, they have a more open definition of what that means than pundits and insiders generally believe.

Personally, I think the upshot for Democrats trying to judge which candidate is electable here is that they need to look for two things.

The candidate must be telegenic, because television is the way most voters get to know and judge a Presidential candidate, and she must have a compelling biography, because it's by looking over what a candidate has gone through in her life that voters decide whether or not she understands what they have gone through in theirs and can take their concerns, their interests, their lives to heart.

You've probably been watching the pronouns.

Yes, I mean Hillary.

I'm not thrilled about it. But I've come to the conclusion that she is the one.

I'll go into it more in another post.

Meanwhile, at Liberalism Without Cynicism, Laura Turner has been looking over the field of Democratic hopefuls so far and although she is as wildly unenthusiastic about Hillary now as I am she's pretty much come to the same conclusion.

But you'll be very surprised to see who else Laura thinks has "that electability thing."