In American politics, symbols are more important than power structures for a simple reason. Power structures are hidden. Most people don’t know who they’re voting for when they cast their vote for some individual candidate. In their mind they are voting for a candidate, not for a faction. This is particularly true for the independent voter that does not identify with any particular faction. And by independent voter, I don’t mean the voters on the left and right fringes that vote for third-party candidates. By independent voter I mean the people that are truly persuadable as supporters of one of the two major parties. It is these voters in a dozen and a half swing states that determine the outcomes of national elections. And it is these voters, in all 50 states (in the Democrat’s case), that determined the outcome of the primaries.
I see American politics in terms of power and faction. In the primaries, I looked at the candidates in terms of which power blocs they were relying on to propel them to power. John Edwards was being powered predominantly by trial lawyers and a smattering of labor unions. Hillary Clinton was being powered by lobbyists, corporate cash, and the Democratic big donor list. And Barack Obama was being powered by the anti-Clinton faction (Daschle/Gephardt) of Congress, plus academia, some unions, urban progressive organizations, and small donors.
Based on that, it was easy to put Edwards and Obama in one category and Hillary Clinton in another. I knew which coalitions I favored (unions, urban and academic progressives, and small donors) and which I opposed (corporate lobbyists and big donors). That Barack Obama was black and that Hillary Clinton was a woman held some interest to me (it made both candidates more attractive) but was of secondary importance, at best.
I was consistently frustrated to see Democratic women, particularly progressive women, that found Clinton’s gender so compelling. I was also frustrated by academic progressives that took no account of the obstacles and compromises an urban progressive must navigate to maintain their viability as a general election candidate. But, most of all, I was depressed to see how few people understood that they were supporting and opposing factions, not individual people.
If you focus on factions you will have a much better idea what a candidate will seek to do in office than if you listen to their latest poll-tested drivel. George W. Bush fashioned himself a ‘compassionate conservative’ who thought we should have a more humble foreign policy. Hillary Clinton said she was tested and ready on Day One. None of that matters. What mattered was that Bush was being advised on foreign policy by neo-conservatives and on energy policy by Big Oil & Gas. Clinton was being advised by Mark Penn and other free-trading corporate hacks.
But the rubber meets the road where independent voters make up their minds. Bush was more likable than Gore and Kerry. That was enough to keep the elections close. There are two ways to win a national election. If you win the argument outright, like Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and 1984, most of the country will vote for you. But if the argument ends in dispute, it goes to the judges. And the judges are independent voters in a dozen and a half states that don’t have large party biases in either direction.
There are things you can do to improve your chances of winning in a judged election. If you can register enough new voters and mobilize them, you can take a swing state and turn it into a blue state or red state. You can win the argument in one region of the country (while failing to win it others) and sweep all the swing states in that region.
What we are trying to do is to win the argument. If we can win the argument, almost every state in the union will vote for us. The selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential race opens up an opportunity for the Democrats to win the argument in every region of the country. McCain is hoping that she will hold her own and force the decision to the judges. He hopes she will help him turn out his base in a few red states and take them out of contention. But he also hopes she will win over independent voters in the dozen and a half swing states.
Provided that they haven’t lost the argument, those independent voters are unlikely to vote for or against McCain for rational reasons. Policy will not be decisive. Personality will be decisive. Trust will be decisive. Intangible qualities and current events will be as important as message. Sarah Palin is likeable. She’s nice. In some ways she is reassuringly normal. And she is a woman…an attractive woman.
That’s what McCain is betting on in this roll of the dice. There’s nothing wrong with Joe Biden. He’s a nice-looking attractive personality, too. But we don’t want this to get down to a beauty contest. Not against a former beauty queen, anyway. We want to win this argument. We want to win it in the Midwest and in the South. We want to win it the Plains States and in the Mountain States. Ronald Reagan won New York and Massachusetts and California because he won the argument. When you win the argument, there are no blue states and no red states.
The Republicans cannot win the argument. Not this year. But they can keep it close enough to throw it to the low-information independent voters than make up their minds on matters of personality. That is why McCain picked Palin. We can try to make her less likable. But what we really need to do is make it no contest.