One area of elections that political pundits and media commentators regularly avoid until just prior to election day is any in-depth discussion of the mood of the electorate.
The reason is simple: the voters’ mood can change instantly. What you predict today about how the voters will vote based on their mood can be easily turned on its head by tomorrow’s news story.
Nobody wants to waste time listening to premature, wrong ideas and opinions about how voters are likely to vote, so pundits and experts need to be mostly right and seldom wrong in order to keep their jobs — or at least be seen that way — and since mood as a component of election science is so ephemeral and unpredictable, it’s best for career-minded opinion-makers to avoid the subject altogether.
Notwithstanding, the mood of the voters counts among the most important elements in who wins elections from the very beginning of a campaign. It affects media interest, poll results, campaign donations, big contributor support, primary election challenges, platform development, positioning at national conventions, brokering of delegates, etc. In short, mood can make or break a candidate.
And since we at Minnesota Progressive Project stand to lose nothing — not salary, not access to campaigns, not even respect — by being wrong once in a while, there is no barrier for us to prognosticate with utter impunity how a campaign season is likely to shape-up based on the voters’ current mood. Lucky you.
So, to Hillary. Mrs. Clinton’s demeanor so far has been a certain detachment or aloofness as might befit an heir-apparent to the party nomination. The idea seems to be: “If I act as if this is all a done deal, that attitude will radiate out to the electorate and perception will become reality. Then all I have to do is recruit Sherrod Brown for my VP, which will cinch Ohio, and I can slow-walk the campaign into the White House.” If that’s the thinking, maybe she’s right — she has the Clinton machine and her husband’s legendary political acumen to draw from in terms of strategy — but from what I’ve seen so far, I think she’s probably making a huge mistake in how she appears to be positioning her campaign.
The history of a couple of recent presidential campaigns might be instructive here.
In 2008, after eight years of Bush&Co.’s lies, duplicity and incompetence, and after nearly as many years of Clinton scandals before that (whether manufactured or not), the national mood of the electorate was wide open for someone fresh, young, vigorous and confident. In my view, it was that mood more than any other factor that caused the voters to reject the campaign of John McCain — a national hero and proven statesman — and propel Barack Obama — an untested candidate with a startling lack of real bona fides — into the White House. Of course, the national mood only represents a preponderance of feeling among the citizenry. Without Obama’s cool confidence, erudition and amazing charisma, the vote could as easily have gone McCain’s way. While the choice of Sarah Palin might have been a sea anchor on McCain’s campaign, the outcome of the election was still largely in doubt. The 2008 economic meltdown was the final nail in McCain’s campaign coffin.
Mood is not monolithic. There is a national mood that affects how campaigns are reported, which stories get air-time or ink, which opinions by which pundits and opinion-makers are given credence. There is a component economic mood that affects how voters regard candidates and their management skills, or lack thereof, and hence their ability to effect economic growth and opportunity — often called pocketbook issues. There is a component tribal mood that affects how voters who identify themselves by association with different social groups (c.f., religious, urban vs. rural, etc.) will by extension view candidates, their campaigns and their credentials. There are numerous other component moods that lend to and influence the national mood.
But it’s the national mood that produces the emotional energy that drives the national narrative. All of our social systems and civic institutions are inherently leader-driven. Consequently, that national mood, that national narrative, is preoccupied with a single underlying theme as relates to a presidential election: ‘Who will make the best leader and does my opinion or belief accord with what the majority of others seem to think?’
That’s where Hillary Clinton’s problems begin.
Currently, the national mood of the country can be characterized as “Angst and Ennui.” The overall affect of the American electorate is one of disorientation, disconnectedness, insecurity, reversion to tribalism and/or nativism, and a sense of separation from the collective “we,” as in ‘We the People.’ To put that type of mood in historical perspective, in the run-up to the 1968 presidential election, the country was torn by political assassinations, race riots, widespread labor strikes, the anti-war movement, the counter-culture, the youth movement and generation gap, the breakdown of governmental authority and upheaval of the social order, etc. The national mood then could be characterized as “Weltschmerz undt Entfremdung” — pain and alienation over the state of the world. Nixon’s cronies recognized the prevalence of that national mood and moved quickly to capitalize on it by authoring the leading political slogan of the ’68 campaign: “Bring Us Together.” By way of comparison, consider that just eight years earlier the national mood was upbeat and optimistic. The campaign slogan of Nixon’s former rival, JFK, was “Let’s Get Moving!” and his Presidency came to be known as Camelot.
The right-wing brain trust and media machine understood the national mood then and it understands the national mood now (they’re responsible for creating a lot of it). It will continue to use captive media to fear-monger among the electorate even to the point of continuing to shamelessly manufacture threats to the social order and voters’ sense of security (e.g., the New Black Panther Party, ISIS as an “existential threat” to the US, etc.). The vast sums of money already pledged by the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson will only fuel that fire and amplify the sense of discomfort and discontent so prevalent among voters today. So Mrs. Clinton, as a woman candidate and career politician with a long history of association with scandal, however unearned it may be, is already swimming against the current of the times.
Moreover, the election and re-election of Barack Obama, coupled as it was with an economic disaster, has created a high psycho-emotional barrier in the minds of the electorate with regard to any radical, historical change in the kind of leaders we choose. Choosing a woman president for the first time would constitute just such radical, historical change. Far from being a “post-racial society” as conservatives and the SCOTUS love to tout (since it absolves Americans from any need for further remediation of racial disparities and injustices), the election of Barack Obama re-ignited racial tensions and resurrected tribal animus and economic self-centrism that had lain somewhat dormant for a few decades, but never fully dead. I would characterize the last six years of Obama’s presidency as a period of re-emergent, resurgent and re-socialized racism. Not his fault. Still, in my view, the reaction of protesters in New York, Cleveland, Ferguson and Baltimore to the deaths of black citizens has been as much a reaction to that resurgence of racist attitudes in the country as to the depredations of police departments who have come to see themselves not only as enforcers of the law, but also enforcers of a reactionary social order and covert doctrine of racial division.
In essence, the election of Barack Obama has effectively salted the earth for Hillary. The video of buildings burning in Ferguson, of smashed windows and looting, of cops injured in Baltimore, only lends emotional power to the national mood and national narrative of voter angst and ennui. How, then, does the inevitably feminist-badged candidacy of Hillary Clinton jive with how voters are feeling about themselves and the country? It doesn’t and it can’t. The prospect of electing a woman president will surely evoke the same reactionary response from the right-wing media machine, which will recall to voters all the excesses and abuses of the Third Wave and allow RW media to paint Hillary Clinton with a broad black brush as the personification of a stereotypical man-hating, castrating, militant feminist who doesn’t like baking cookies. Any reference she might make to gender-bias, pay inequities, glass ceilings, reproductive rights, etc. in soliciting women voters will only be grist for the propaganda mill, serving as evidence of her militant feminism and anti-male bias lurking just beneath the surface. To an electorate already weary of the re-socialized racism that Obama’s election brought about, the prospect of a trip down memory lane revisiting all the insults and injuries of militant feminism on the body politic can only look like a 4-year visit to Hell’s Half-Acre. In other words, a journey and outcome to be assiduously avoided.
Not surprisingly, now comes the candidacy of Carly Fiorina, former AT&T executive and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, whose bold move to merge H-P with Compaq resulted in the company losing half it’s market value overnight and forcing the lay-off of 30,000 employees. Still, she sports herself as a hard-charging, innovative executive. Fiorina is well known at the upper-echelon of GOP king-makers, having served as an adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign (before they showed her the back door) and having run against Barbara Boxer for a US Senate seat in California in 2010. Fiorina knows very well that she has little chance of capturing the nomination in the male-centric GOP, so it’s quite certain that the presidency is not her ultimate goal. Nor would she have dared to run without first securing the Blessing of the Bosses. Instead, in reality, she is offering her services as an attack dog on Clinton, a role that a male presidential candidate would be wise to avoid since any personal attacks by a male candidate on a female candidate will appear unseemly to voters, regardless of any other considerations. In that role, Fiorina is well-qualified to perform effectively since she has already earned a reputation in the business world as a surly and ruthless combatant. In addition, she is offering herself as a potential vice-presidential prospect to counter any advantages among women voters that Hillary Clinton might enjoy. Accordingly, you can look to Fiorina to conduct her campaign from the start as if she were already running against Hillary Clinton to establish her bona fides with whomever the eventual GOP nominee will be. And regardless as to whether she gets the VP nod, by making herself a vicious, man-loathing harridan who presents herself as a merely ambitious female politician, and a woman cut from the same generational cloth as Hillary herself, Fiorini may well succeed in making Hillary look just as bad as herself. That can only further damage Hillary’s image in the minds of voters and further sour their mood for anything remotely like historical change. In all, Fiorina will perform great service to the Bosses for which, in time, she will be amply rewarded.
Next, it is an unfortunate truth is a sexist society like ours that women are judged to an unwarranted degree by their looks. Of course, all political candidates including men are judged to some degree by their looks, which results in scandals over $400 haircuts, but the situation is much more acute for women. Beyond that, the dignity of age and the reputation for acquired wisdom that is often accorded to men as they age is never accorded in equal measure to women of the same age. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton looks her age. She looks soft, a little frumpy, a little grand-motherly. There is a certain fragility and lack of vigor in her demeanor that the RW media, who have perfected fear-mongering as a means to energize the base, will fully exploit. There is a danger here, too, that in the midst of a hard-fought campaign, where a campaign’s behavior is reactionary and there is little time to make fundamental adjustments to counter an RW media blitz to unsettle voters with a series of manufactured revelations of weakness or infirmity, that any sign of confusion, any stumble or misstep, any bobbled answer or jumbled recollection, will be amplified and advertised as evidence that Hillary Clinton is past her prime and therefor unfit for the presidency.
Finally, each of the eventual nominees will have to raise in excess of $1 billion, perhaps as much as $1.5 billion, to counter the money that will be spent by the other side. There is nothing to suggest that Hillary Clinton can raise that kind of money. To be fair, there is nothing to suggest that any candidate on either side outside of Jeb Bush has that kind of Midas touch. Maybe she can, but for a significant segment of the political base, Mrs. Clinton has shown too much coziness with Wall Street, too much interest in centrist positioning, and too little interest in issues popular on the left. I would suspect she’ll have some real difficulty getting those on the left to part with their money until after both national conventions, when the candidates are known, and by that time it will be too late. The super-PACs will have captured all the television and radio slots that weren’t already taken. In a campaign early money spends better and buys more than late money, so unless Mrs. Clinton has a sugar daddy she can go to for some Big Ask early on, I think she’ll find herself coming up short.
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. Because there’s another factor to consider when it comes to the money side of Hillary’s campaign — the effect of a left-wing insurgency, which I’ll cover in Part 2.
From Dan Burns: This is well-argued.
I’d say right now that there’s at least an 80% chance that Hillary Clinton will be the next POTUS, and quite possibly by the largest popular vote margin since 1984. And she can most definitely raise the money.
From Dan Burns: Specifically:
– The only thing I see that could – might – lead to a GOP presidential win is a really sharp, serious, recession, beginning late 2015/early 2016. I’ll start worrying about that when Krugman and Stiglitz start predicting it.
– I totally support the right of the purity-martyr/concern-troll types (I’m not saying you’re one) to continue to dominate left social media, however relentlessly and repetitively. I think they play an important role. But I must note that they were proved wrong, very wrong, in 2012. Not that many have ever admitted it, that I’ve seen.
– I don’t think the national mood is “Angst and Ennui.” My data for that include POTUS approval, right-track/wrong-track, and consumer confidence. None of them scintillating, but all solid, all things considered. And most of the non-political people I interact with are not going through their days in anguish and despair, whatever you may see on AlterNet or wherever. They’re not unhappy, by any means.
– Elections now are all about one thing: whether Dems can get our voters to the polls. In presidential years, we generally do. And note that since the last sweet Dem wave in 2008, by November 2016 there will have been eight more years of demographic movement leftward, as so many Republican base voters aren’t with us any more.
From Invenium Viam:
– All very good points. And you very well might be right. It may be that there is little that the GOP can do to knock the Hillary train off the rails. Even some GOP pundits argue that a Dem win in 2016 is a foregone conclusion. But we have to assume that the RW media machine will spend bushels of money trying. I just don’t think it’s going to be a cakewalk for her.
– I agree with you that the breast-beaters on the extreme Left got it wrong in 2012 and too few have manned-up. But every campaign season turns out a batch of folks who got it wrong for various reasons.
– I disagree with you about the current mood of the country. While there are good reasons to be optimistic about the economy, etc., folks on the left of the political spectrum tend to be more optimistic by nature than those on the right (obviously). But folks in the middle and on the right are far less sanguine about the current state of the nation and the direction. That’s hwy poll after poll shows MORE than two-thirds of respondents are dissatisfied with the direction of the country including Gallup polling (http://www.pollingreport.com/right.htm) and numbers like that have been pretty consistent for a long time.
– Rather than anguish and despair, I would parse the terms angst and ennui as “high anxiety and utter weariness.” In my view, the electorate is both fascinated by the political polarization they witness daily (conflict is at the core of all good storytelling) and repulsed by it (a dysfunctional government seems symptomatic of a nation in decline). There is a general lack of faith in the power of government to accomplish even routine, minor tasks, much less address the enormous challenges we face, which is largely true given the present program of obstruction by the GOP.
From Dan Burns: Yeah, right/wrong direction does suck, now that I went and looked. I don’t remember what I saw, that had me thinking otherwise.
From Grace Kelly: Very great analysis – one that I wish I had written. What happens when we have the hottest summer ever and suddenly climate change comes out of the closet?
From Jude: Let me agree with your take on the mood, but argue that it only makes Hillary more certain to win. What you are missing is just how Hillary is perceived and how that feeds directly into the mood. She is a bitch, but a tough one. The caricature that has been painted of her over the decades feeds directly into the solution of government dysfunction, this is opposed to the Obama is a wimp narrative that is playing. I’d also argue that the relentless long term attacks have basically rendered gender useless as a negative. She is a Clinton much more than a woman and her iconic status just adds to that distance.
From Dan: I am excited to have Clinton as president mostly because of the heads that will explode on the right.
From Mac Hall: Hey good news for Minnesotans … our votes won’t matter.
That assumes that Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball is correct.
That leaves just seven super-swingy states: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia, all of which backed Bush and Obama twice each, and Iowa and New Hampshire, which have voted Democratic in three of the last four elections.
And in the Senate … Minnesota does not have a seat being contested.
And in the House … although Rick Nolan and Colin Peterson are again on the GOP’s hit list but most pundits predict returning all incumbents (will Erik Paulsen or Tom Emmer even get a “real” competitor … and will the DCCC send support $$$ to anyone against John Kline ?).
And no Minnesota governor’s race … so unless the DFL decides to offer candidates in every district (mine has had repeated elections with no competition) … I will not have to vote.
Regarding Mrs. Clinton … I do not care if she is a woman … I care that she, like Amy Klobuchar, is a corporatist. But hey, you gave me an idea, IF I vote, I might write in Sherrod Brown. Of course, that is because I do not think the Clinton would pick him for VP … I would think that Tim Kaine or Mark Warner would be more likely … unless she goes to the House and picks Julian Castro.
As far as the Republicans go, the wild card is John Kasich … his name on the ballot as President or VP would help them with independent voters … just ask Tim Penny … and Kasich was a thorn in Bill Clinton’s side for those that remember the Kasich-Penny budget … plus a February poll in the Columbus Dispatch had Kasich and Clinton deadlocked.