As we wait for the polls to close (and endure the “So many people at my polling place, so turnout must be high!” tweets), it’s worthwhile to reconsider what we’ve been focused on this election season, and whether we’re concerned about the wrong things.
Money: Money in politics corrupts. It makes us cynical. But it also seems to be largely wasted, at least when it comes to advertising. Instead of getting money out of politics, perhaps candidates should wise up to the fact that donors, consultants and ad men have a self-interest in emphasizing the importance of money. But do you read all those mailers that cram your mailbox? Do you pay attention to political ads on TV? (Quick, what’s the last one you saw for your congressional race, and what did it say?) Republicans have perfected the art of making a single, outrageous online ad, getting the buzz from media and spending practically nothing for it. Where money certainly may make a difference is pulling in new voters, registering voters and getting out the vote. (Those things could make the difference in the Florida and Georgia gubernatorial races and the Texas Senate race.) It would be interesting to see a candidate spend practically nothing on ads and spend almost everything on increasing the electorate and dragging their people to the polls.
Polling — are you kidding me? I get probably two to three calls per day from pollsters, who are revealed as such on my phone’s caller ID. I never pick up. The New York Times’s live polling (a terrific innovation) will make 25,000 or even 40,000 calls to get 400 or so responses. I dunno, but that seems like you’re practically begging for results that will miss the mark. I’d like to know the profile of the busy people with caller ID who don’t pick up — but you can’t find out because they won’t answer, etc. Likewise, fess up if you’ve ever fudged your demographic information on automated polls. (Hmm, if I say I’m an “independent,” maybe it will make my candidate looks stronger.) And some of those questions become downright metaphysical. Does a child live with me if he’s home mostly for holidays and summer? Is there a union member in the household if someone joined a union, but currently holds a nonunion job? I sort of admire candidates who don’t poll themselves; if there are free, public polls that are of questionable accuracy, why pay good money for your own polls of questionable accuracy?
Ideology: If people can vote for President Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016, I’m thinking that ideology plays a much smaller part in voters’ decisions than we assume. Ideology seems to be cudgel to attack opponents in primaries (Not a real conservative!) or in general elections (Socialist!). CNBC’s John Harwood hit the nail on the head, writing that just as Trump “thrashed” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) by defying ideological conventions and practically flaunting his mercurial shifts in policy positions, “[Rep. Beto] O’Rourke seeks to scramble Cruz’s ideological formula again. Defying left-right conventions, the third-term Democratic House member stands with liberals on key issues such as ‘Medicare for all,’ restrictions on gun rights, legal status for immigrant ‘dreamers’ and Trump’s impeachment.” Even if O’Rourke doesn’t pull the upset of the year, he has gotten really, really close by being — I hate the word but it works — authentic. A candidate’s position on taxes or debt matters much less that if she is decent or relatable or seeking the right kind of change (e.g. eschewing money from political action committees, pushing for ethics reform, ending cronyism). There is growing evidence that how candidates make you feel is more important than their stances on a laundry list of issues.
Despite all this, politicians and media are obsessed with money in politics, polling and ideological purity tests. Maybe those are more critical than I imagine, but it could be that great candidates beat poor ones, big personalities attract an outsize share of free press and people pick candidates for who they are, not for the white papers their staff produces or the ideological rating they get from partisan groups. If that’s the case, maybe there is hope for decent, smart candidates who seem normal.