January 22, 2016
Inside A Campaign Brain: What Do Local Campaign Experts Think Of The 2016 Election?
Every election asks voters to make a series of important decisions. First, voters have to decide if they want to pay attention to the election at all. If they decide to participate, voters then have pick candidates to support and decide whether or not they will vote, donate to campaigns, or even volunteer. Voters weigh politics and parties as they make these decisions, but emotion plays a significant role in motivating voters. We talked to a few local political experts about the emotions they’re seeing voters express across the nation and in our community.
Mo Elleithee is the founding Executive Director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. He has worked on numerous national and state elections, founded two political consulting firms and, most recently, served as the communications director of the Democratic National Committee.
What role does emotion play in motivating voters?
Emotion is the entire driver of political activity. The dirty little secret is voters almost never vote on policy. Voters are asking themselves three basic questions: Which candidate is going to get the job done? Do they get me? Who would I invite into my home for dinner?
In 2008 Obama was running an emotional campaign on hopes and dreams. You had people coming off the sidelines to canvas for the first time, to vote for the first time, to give for the first time, to phonebank for the first time. There’s a ladder of political attention. The bottom rung is just “pay attention,” then comes “agree to support,” then “agree to vote,” then “agree to tell someone else to vote.” Each rung on the ladder of engagement is just another level of participation. They’re not going to rationalize taking that next step, they are motivated to it. They have to feel energized to do so.
Is there one emotion dominating the 2016 election cycle?
I think it’s frustration. The average American looks around and they say nobody is looking out for me. Everyone [else] is getting breaks and handouts.
This may be one of the most populist environments I’ve seen in a long time. It’s coming from both ends of the spectrum. Some people believe the system is rigged for Wall Street. Some believe the system is rigged for the political class. Some people think the system is rigged for the poor or the minorities. It’s very much an age of “the others.”
How does that frustration differ from past elections?
I think it’s been compounding and growing. 2008 was an election where people were frustrated by an unpopular war and six weeks before the election the economy cratered. But people were hopeful and optimistic and they voted for Obama. Since then, I think a lot of the hope has shifted to anger. This election will be interesting to see which emotion wins out in the end. I think that people, even when they’re angry, at the end of the day want to support people who make them feel better about the future.
Tucker Martin is a communications consultant in Richmond, VA. He served as former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Communications Director.
What role does emotion play in motivating voters?
The issue of emotion in a campaign is critically important because if you’re not motivated you won’t even vote. Every candidate wants to inspire emotion in in their supporters. Emotion is at the center of American politics. You have to have people excited if you want to win.
Is there any emotion dominating the 2016 election cycle?
If you look at 2016 on paper you would say a Democrat should be favored, but there’s a reason why winning a third term is difficult. If voters have questions or concerns about the nation it’s hard for them to say “give me a third term.” Voters are [concerned] and rightly so. The world is a more dangerous place and they’re concerned about the economy and their wages. I think that’s going to make it much harder for a Democrat to advocate for change. That’s why it’s rare for a party to win three straight terms. If the voters are not happy they’re going to look for another alternative.
Is concern the dominant emotion in Virginia?
One thing that has been true for Virginians is that when they’re asked if the country is on the right track or the wrong track, many times we’ve seen voters say “wrong track.” [But Virginians usually] say Virginia is on the right track. There was a [recent] Mary Washington poll that shows Virginians say Virginia is on the wrong track. Typically they separate the national condition from the Virginia condition. If you’re worried about how the country is doing, you’re worried about how the state is doing.
Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. As the center’s director, Kromer oversees the Goucher Poll.
Is there one emotion dominating the 2016 election cycle?
I think the biggest emotion that will play a role in the early primaries is a sense of frustration. It’s the key thing behind Sanders support and obviously the key thing behind Trump support. It’s a frustration with the status quo.
Where does that frustration come from?
From the progressive side, it’s the realization that all the things that Obama talked about in the 2008 election got tempered by the political realities we live in. [Progressives] looked at Obama as a bellwether election that would really usher in change. Things are certainly different than they were, but everything is moderated by political reality. If Bernie Sanders can push or rile up that progressive base, in the event that he wins, he will most likely face a Republican Congress, so how much change will really be possible? That’s the difference, he’s tapping into that frustration and I think that frustration has to do with all the hopes and promise of the Obama administration [in part]. While the world looks different from how it would if Obama hadn’t won in 2008, it’s not the ideal progressive dream many people thought would have happened. It’s just reality. It’s a two party system.
What about on the other side?
On the other side, I think this frustration comes from eight years of Obama. Democrats get frustrated that not enough of progressive agenda was realized. Republicans are frustrated by the entire agenda. They don’t like that he is weak on defense. Social conservatives don’t like gay marriage and the affront to religious liberty that happened in the Obama administration. They’re looking for somebody who can take on a Democratic establishment. They think Congress has been too conciliatory and ready to cooperate with Democrats. If you look at Obama’s poll numbers, he’s never been able to curry that much favor with Republicans. It’s eight years of consistent dislike. It’s no wonder they’re looking at Trump who is completely outside of the establishment and Ted Cruz who, [while he has been] inside the establishment, has been the thorn in the side of the Democrats and his own party. These two candidates are the embodiment of the frustration.
Are you seeing this frustration in your polls?
Maryland is different. Maryland has a history of supporting establishment candidates. A Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll found what you’d expect among Democrats: Clinton has a lead on Sanders and a sizeable lead among women and African-Americans. Those are key demographics you need in a primary. Sanders has support in New Hampshire, but once you leave New Hampshire I think things start to fall apart for him. Clinton has key support among women, African-Americans, and Latinos. That sense of frustration is replaced by a sense of pragmatism among those voting blocs.
Chuck Thies is a political consultant. Recently, he managed former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s re-election campaign.
In your opinion, what role, if any, does emotion play in motivating voters?
Voters are so varied that there are individuals who vote on one issue and one issue alone. There are individuals who assess candidates across a broad spectrum of criteria and policies and there are voters who have a visceral reaction to different candidates. They will refuse to vote for them or even consider their ideas. Or they’ll be so head over heels for that candidate that there’s no consideration of anyone else. We often see that with candidates who have extraordinary charisma and elevate voters rather than repulse them. We see that with Bernie Sanders and with Donald Trump in this election cycle.
Is there any one emotion that you think is dominating the 2016 election cycle?
Some people might say anger in the GOP. I think it’s something more complex: frustration, confusion, and betrayal. If there’s a word for that one emotion I don’t know what that is, but I think the combination is the most powerful emotion. On the Democratic side there’s a similar dynamic at play. Certainly people supporting Bernie Sanders are frustrated, somewhat confused and a bit fed up. It’s more visceral and easier to put your finger on the GOP side. There’s a lot of calculus on the Democratic side. People who want to win the general election turn their emotions off and they apply logic to their support of Hillary Clinton. People who support Senator Sanders are doing almost the opposite, they’re not looking at November. Those voters are elevated by what he has to say.
You’ve run a number of campaigns in D.C. Are you seeing that mix of frustration, confusion and betrayal in local politics?
Every locality has their own characteristics. And there have been candidates and community leaders that can tap into emotion. I haven’t seen any extraordinary emotions in district politics since Fenty ran in 2006. You could see he had an uplifting impact. He wasn’t able to sustain that, I think that’s why the bottom fell out so dramatically because he had been elevated beyond any sustainable level of idolatry.
[In D.C.] there is some anger and frustration, primarily rooted in the great socioeconomic divide, which primarily falls along racial lines –and rightly so. Marion Barry was a master at tapping into that, but no one else has really tapped into that in a way beyond the pedestrian. Candidates are cautious about tapping into that because the outcome of tapping into that is unpredictable. Marion could play the chess game and see what was going to happen four to five moves ahead.
What do you mean that it’s unpredictable?
If you tap into an upbeat emotion or some theoretical anger –like anger over illegal immigration, where most people are not on the frontlines– you can control that kind of emotion. If you hit home [on an issue people have real experience with] you better be able to deliver. People may support you, but what do they want from you? If you can’t deliver it there’s protests on your doorstep or people fleeing to another candidate.
Barry never forsook his people. The days of an elected official being able to deliver jobs in the district are gone. You can hand out a handful of jobs, but not on the scale Barry did. There are people living in D.C. for whom every waking hour is a struggle. As Marion would call them “the least, the last, and the lost.” You have to be very careful before you tap into that emotion.
Interviews were edited for length and clarity.