Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bloggers Don't Vote

So asserted the website (and, IIRC, the URL) of Ben Nuckles and Chris Warshaw in 2004. Their point was simple: Howard Dean may have had universal support of progressive bloggers in 2004, but it didn't translate into votes in the Democratic primaries.

It's worth reminding ourselves of this large disconnect in the midst of the special election for IL-05. An overwhelming majority of the bloggers interested in this election have no vote in the Democratic primary. As such, their influence is limited to attempting to frame the debate and contribute money. Only a handful of outside-the-district bloggers will get their feet dirty trapsing in the snow in this race. Bloggers don't vote.

Do Issues Matter? NO. That's the short answer. Issues do not decide elections.

Take Health Care, for example. Health Care has consistently polled as a higher priority outside the electoral context:

CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. Oct. 30-Nov. 1, 2008. N=714 likely voters nationwide. MoE ± 3.5.

"Which of the following issues will be MOST important to you when you decide how to vote for president: [see below]?" Options rotated

Issue | 10/30-11/1/08 9/19-21/08
Economy | 57 | 58
War in Iraq 13 | 9
Health care 13 | 13
Terrorism 10 | 13
Ill immigration 5 | 5

Contrast these responses to those given -- albeit at a different time -- when one asks a similar question in an open-ended manner:

CBS News/New York Times Poll. July 7-14, 2008. N=1,796 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.

"What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?" Open-ended

Issue | %
Economy/Jobs 39
Gas/Heating oil crisis 14
War in Iraq 14
Environment 3
Health care 3
Other 24
Unsure 3

Exit polls in recent history have been remarkably consistent on this issue:

Most Important Issue 2008

Economy (63%)
Iraq (10%)
Terrorism (9%)
Health Care (9%)
Energy Policy (7%)

Most Important Issue 2004

Moral Values (22%)
Economy/Jobs (20%)
Terrorism (19%)
Iraq (15%)
Health Care (8%)
Taxes (5%)
Education (4%)

Exit polls from 2000 also put health care in the 8% range.

So while we may be impressed by a single-payer proposal from a congressional candidate, the one thing we can determine is that voters, well, aren't. Efforts to please the political elites (yes, bloggers are a political elite) doesn't translate down to the electorate. This reality doesn't appear to sit well with many bloggers.

The strange thing, from my perspective, to this post about the importance of issues is that I was present when Arshad Hasam spoke before a DFA training in 2006 about the difference between activists and voters. The writer of that diary was also present at the presentation. "We're the strange one's," Arshad pointed out. The poster didn't seem to disagree (and I won't presume that she forgot the lesson).

But the ideological pull of the centrality of Issues is a strong force in progressive politics. Three-quarters of the election cycle, I wouldn't disagree. But when it comes to campaigns and elections, Issues Don't Matter. Other factors are far more decisive in determining who wins and loses.

Issues are the playing field in which political contests take place. In sports, few people outside the athletes themselves care about whether the grass is cut short or not, or the surface is hard or has some give. Boston Garden was revered despite its crappy playing surface. Which is not to say that there weren't fans that didn't care about the playing field. Hell, the 5th lies squarely in Chicago Cubs territory, the baseball team with the worst facilities for players in the country. For most baseball fans in the the 5th, you'd pry the Cubs out of Wrigley through their cold, dead hands. So you can understand why the Cubs are perennial losers in the pennant race. It's not really a deciding factor for Cubs fans.

So it is in elections. Ben Nuckles, of Bloggers Don't Vote fame, posited that most voters made their decisions with their gut. I'd have a different take on that; I'd argue that voters make their decisions based on trust. Can I trust this candidate to look out for my interests? Is the candidate a safe choice? Will I feel good about casting this vote?

Issues may or may not be used to build the necessary report with voters, but these questions suggest the hurdles that face a relative unknown in a race -- especially in a special election. Voters have to know who you are before they can begin to trust you. They have to have an impression of you before they can believe that you are a safe choice or can feel good about casting their vote for you. This is why the question of validators -- in this case, the unions (who are supposed to know Tom Geoghegan so well) -- is critical. If Geoghegan gets the support of SEIU, AFSCME and the Chicago Federation of Labor, then he can be a contender. Unions vote. It's hard to see how he's viable without them.

Now I assume that Geoghegan wouldn't have gotten in the race without the promise of support from these unions. And I assume that the unions have to feign some degree of impartiality until they complete their endorsement process. But the fact is that Geoghegan starts from behind. He has to catch up. While Geoghegan may try to use his stance on the issues to do this (catch up), it won't be why he catches up, if he actually does. If his stance on the issues doesn't morph into a message that reaches voters, it won't matter. And where bloggers stand won't help. A handful of bloggers will vote in this race. And it will take more than five votes to win...


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