What Does the Center Believe?

I work side by side with people ranging on the political spectrum from far left Progressives to moderate Republicans (the latter is rare in an academic setting…I know two people of this persuasion and I count myself lucky to know that many).  I find myself much better off trying to forge relationships with the sporadic conservatives and with the more populous squishy moderates – my best friend on Long Island is definitely a moderate – a conservative pragmatist tempered by the crucible of modern social liberalism.  When you ask him what he really believes, he stutters, struggles and generally appears unnerved by the slightest chance of confrontation – what he does do that I appreciate is listen to all viewpoints.  But he seems to think that carving out an identity is a private battle (I’ll respect this, though I was like that at one time and it did no good for me or the world around me) and something he wishes not to deeply contemplate on the basis that once he chooses what to believe, he will become less open-minded.

If you wanted a snapshot of what centrists and swing voters in America look like – this is the optimistic image.  A man who is intelligent, pays attention to the news, doesn’t like to be confrontational, and doesn’t want to choose sides because he views such an action as tribalist and unproductive.  There are also a number of centrists who are in the center because they wish to claim the moral high ground and have spent too much time ignoring conservative instincts in favor of liberal media condemnations of conservatives as amoral.  And another sizeable subset who just don’t care one iota about politics and would love it if everyone shut the hell up and stopped fighting over every detail of public policy and let them get back to watching reality TV and playing Halo IV.  But let’s deal with each of these pieces one at a time and talk about how to convince these people to vote for you.

First we’ll tackle the apathetic apolitical types who just want to live in the now and don’t like thinking about the future other than their own personal hopes and dreams.  These folks don’t turn out much to vote.  BUT…when they DO turn out to vote, it’s usually something they do because they believe it will be fun, help them fit in, or cause political consequences that will immediately influence their freedoms.

Liberals get people like this to vote a bit more by convincing them that the liberal candidate is the latest new cool thing – a rockstar – a part of history.  Obama actually drew a ton of these college-aged and recently-graduated kids out to vote.  Hollywood does its part by continually portraying Conservative figures as out of touch, antequated, or uncool.  Give these guys a “Maaaaaaan” to fight…and a few of them might.

Conservatives approach this group (the few who are successful at this) by convincing them that voting for the other guy or staying home could make them less free.  Apolitical types only stay apolitical as long as they’re being left alone, but if they’re about to hammer you with a huge middle-class tax hike (Obamacare) or take away your big gulp sodas (Bloomberg)…woe betide the liberal that sticks to their guns and doesn’t count on some payback.  Of course, they also don’t want to have to think about moral consequences – they are libertine and want birth control and condoms and such.  So conservatives have to either punt this group entirely or try to avoid social issues.

Now, let’s talk about folks like my friend and office-mate.  The folks who wish to avoid confrontation and prefer not to be forced to “choose sides”.  There is a certain subset of Myers/Briggs personalities that I would call “doormat” types – who will go out of their way to make everyone happy, who feel uncomfortable standing up for their beliefs, and who don’t want political candidates to make them imagine what the other side is thinking and picture rage.  My very socially conservative mother avoided voting for a long time because she disliked the idea of picking someone and imagining her friends or family disapprove and because she was tired of the constant bickering and disgusted with the unethical tactics used by both sides.  So how do you win these guys over?

Simple – no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on – you must convince these guys that your opponent is the one making this an ugly fight and that you wish to lead from above.  These people want leaders who appear to want peace and prosperity – they won’t vote if both candidates go negative unless one side is clearly more negative than the other.  In short, they like people who look “presidential.”

The third group – those who watch Jon Stewart and call that enlightened?  Well they are largely voting Democrat right now because the media has done a good job convincing them that their better judgment is backward.  What can be done to win them back to the conservative side?  Nothing right now…but they do tend to follow “movements” – when given moral license to vote their conscience, they will.  They vote GOP when the Democrat is caught in a really bad scandal and they’ll vote GOP again when Conservatives can compete with Hollywood messaging.  So there’s hope for the future.

Now, we have to ask, which strategies were employed by McCain and Obama in 2008, and which strategies are in play in 2012?

Obama turned a lot of moderates Democratic for a year by convincing them that he wanted to claim the moral high ground and end bickering and do-nothingism in DC.  McCain answered by trying to be a gentleman – but came across as lacking vision and looking tired (and you can’t out-maneuver a shark like Obama by being perfectly nice at all times – especially when he’s winning on general likability).  That card is now out of play because, if anything, he made the bickering far worse by flaunting his authority and by savagely raping the Constitution on multiple occasions – enough to cause a furious uproar from conservatives and start a war with a newly resolved Tea Party movement in 2010.  He also managed to get the “in-crowd” trend-followers from the squishy center by being enshrouded in a cloud of “cool” like no other candidate before him.  People voted Obama and literally admitted in exit polling tha they did so because they wanted to be a part of history.  That card is gone too – Obama looks much older, much smaller, and much less appealing these days since he’s had to go negative to avoid talking about the lack of progress in the economy.  And the bottom line is…even if he’d done a better job, psychologists have shown that fads never last.  Movements do, but Obama wasn’t propelled forward due to a movement – it was a reactionarry fad in response to general dissatisfaction with the mushy Bush administration and the floundering economy.

So…Obama can’t play the cool card.  He can’t play the righteous peacemaker card, and he can’t play the freedom card (to get apathetic voters to support him) since his policies are doing more to hurt the post-graduate crowd than help them.  What IS he doing then?  He’s playing every other trump card he has – invoking the war on women to convince swing women that Romney will be bad for them, offering amnesty to illegal immigrants to convince Latino voters to continue their support, etc.  And…he can try to make every attack by the republicans seem like an egregious negative folly – he gets help from the press on this score.  He isn’t claiming to be a positive uniter anymore, but he sure is trying to convince the center that Romney is much more divisive, especially now that he’s chosen Ryan as his running mate.

Meanwhile, Conservatives have 4 years of actual “leadership” at which to point, demonstrating that Obama has been unfair, dishonest, unduly negative, etc. for a long time now.  At best, Obama’s claims that Ryan is a polarizing figure will take the conflict avoiders out of the election entirely – they certainly won’t be voting for Obama this year.  And some of them may vote for Romney in response to Obama appearing for the longest part of this campaign to be the one starting most of the trouble.  The apathetic crowd is heavily disillusioned and now extremely tired of fighting about politics.  They want peace and quiet and the best way to do that is to avoid politics entirely.  They’re staying home this year, for the most part.   The amoral centrists who just want to fit in and go with the crowd?  They’re probably not going to come out with nearly as much enthusiasm for Obama this time around…but they won’t support Romney either, as he is the very definition of uncool. 🙂

Romney’s camp has made a calculated gamble that conservative rebel yells for liberty and individual responsibility and fiscal sanity will sound optimistic and sway a few conflict-avoiders despite the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric they’re using regarding the coming end to medicare and Obama’s terrible behavior.  They’re doing as good a job as you could imagine when it comes to avoiding discussion of social issues while letting the base know that they are pro-life, anti-PP, anti-gay-marriage, etc.  The Ryan pick has revved up the rhetoric and may scare off some conflict avoiders…it certainly ruined any chance Romney had of swaying moderate democrats – many of whom may just stay home or very grudgingly vote for Obama this time around.  But, by the very nature of his leadership style, Obama has taken away pretty all of his inherent advantages for 2008 and even handed Romney a few of them.  It’s hard to be optimistic and upbeat and to feel like you’re a part of something big when you’ve been running the country through four of the longest and most painful years of its existence.  And it’s even harder to convince people you’re above the frey when you’ve lowered and debased yourself so often that you now reside in the Mariannas Trench.

Romney has consistently polled slightly ahead of or slightly behind Obama, depending on whether the sample was accurate or wildly left-biased, but the most important observation is that even in the most optimistic of polls, Obama never draws more than 50% of support from the voters.  You have to win 50.1% of the vote…Obama isn’t going to do that unless something big happens to change the equation between now and November.

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