Monday, March 26, 2012

Intentional Polarization

Conventional wisdom these days is that elections are decided by so-called swing voters, who inhabit the center of American politics, are generally not deeply engaged in politics, decide late in the game, and often break the same way toward the end of an election.   With the parties equally divided and more and more people identifying as independents -- some think the candidate that wins these swing voters will take an election.
But of late, the conventional wisdom is changing, at least among political professionals.  While the number of people who register with one party or the other is decreasing, this does not mean that the number of up-for-grabs voters is also increasing.  In fact, political professionals now believe that there are a shrinking number of truly undecided, swing voters and that pitching an entire campaign to win over this small sliver of the electorate may not be a winning strategy.  Independents may be independents in name only -- more and more of them are deciding who they are going to vote for early in the process and are not true swing voters.

As Thomas Edsall argued in a column last week, it may be beneficial for candidates to intentionally polarize the electorate as much as possible to increase their base vote, even at the expense of swing voters.  If, for example, you are winning women voters under 55% by 10-15 points (a huge constituency) boosting turnout among this group could bring in a much larger cache of votes than currying favor with the small number of fickle undecideds.  
Candidates have always focused on turning out the base and get out the vote campaigns.   But now, the campaign strategy to stimulate excitement and therefore turnout of the base by getting them mad at the other side -- in other words -- intentional polarization.  Issue positioning is important, but not as important as getting voters convinced that the other side is dangerous, threatening, evil, hard hearted, etc.  Technologies allow for microtargeting of voters based on the issues they care about the most -- campaigns can pitch the negative attacks on the other side as just the right sensitivity of the voter to stimulate them to get out the polls. 
Will candidates ignore swing voters to appeal to the base?  No.  There has always been and will continue to be a dance between the poles and the middle.  But more and more in modern politics -- the emphasis is on stimulating turnout among your own partisans and less and less on finding the magic set of positions to win over the centrists.  The problem is that   on the first Wednesday in November, we are left with a highly charged up, polarized electorate, but a legislative system that requires compromise to address our big problems. 

Photo  by:  Explore The Bruce


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  2. I think Edsall introduces an interesting new paradigm in terms of considering how a candidate can get the most votes on election day. If his insights are correct, it somewhat challenges the more traditional median voter theorem which argues that politicians tend to come to the center in order to win a two candidate race.

    Although the basic template of his argument - that you must either increase your percentage of support among competitive voting blocks OR increase turnout for voting blocks which support you - is not strategically groundbreaking, Professor Schanzer I think correctly identifies that it has become progressively easier to increase turnout among your base by creating intentional polarization. As internet based data mining technologies improve via mediums like Facebook and Google, political messages become more individualized and it may be easier for a politician to connect viscerally with their base. It's scary that in this age of technology, partisan propaganda may contribute even more to the acerbic tone of national politics.