From time to time, people who know how interested in politics I am ask me if I watch the Presidential debates. I always reply: “No, I’m not interested,” and try to change the subject.
But why don’t I want to watch? There’s plenty of drama. Donald Trump talks about whatever comes into his head, without a trace of a normal person’s filter. He gets the most attention, but there’s lot’s more – Ted Cruz, smarmy and smug, but obviously intelligent. There’s Ben Carson, who seems to be running in order to sell his books. There’s Bernie Sanders, challenging us all to have a better vision of what’s politically possible. And finally, there’s Hilary Clinton, brimming with competence, but oddly uninspiring.
All in all, the story line for the Republican and Democratic nominations is as intriguing as any I can remember. but I have never felt the urge to watch a single debate. Part of the reason is that social media gives me the highlights almost as soon as they happen; I don’t really need to sit passively in front of a television screen. But a more important reason is that there is virtually nothing I can do to influence the outcome. At the moment , I am deeply engaged in the race for an important local office – the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. I am supporting a candidate I believe in. I know that by involving myself in the race, I can make a difference, and I get a great deal of satisfaction, from knowing that. I’m sorry to say that, for the moment, I’ve lost all sense that involvement in national politics can matter. I’m sure that as 2016 moves along, that will change. But for now, I’m thinking locally and acting locally.
As we prepare for the 2016 campaign season, it’s time for another of my brief essays. Consider the following conversation:
“Where’ll we go for dinner tonight?”
“I don’t know – where would you like to go?
“Maybe sushi…or pizza.”
“I don’t feel like pizza – let’s do sushi.”
Sound familiar, even banal? How many times have you had a conversation like that? I know the answer – a lot.
Well, I’m here to tell you – that’s politics, the decision-making process associated with any form of governance. Governance is merely the exercise of control over a system or process – in this case, the breaking of daily bread. Politics in this broad sense is fundamental to our daily lives. We are all truly politicians.
Why, then, is politics considered a dirty word in some circles, to the point where some candidates for public office are reluctant to reveal their political backgrounds when they publish their ballot statements? Governance requires that some person or some body of persons be in control. And those that Roosevelt called “malefactors of great wealth” have engaged in a lengthy propaganda campaign to help insure that they remain the body of people in control.
DON’T BUY IT. Politics is essential to democracy. Politics is us.
If we have a representative democracy in this country, that means, or should mean, that elected officials are the representatives of the people – they take our place, and represent our interests and well-being.
One of the most pernicious ideas to gain currency in my lifetime is the notion that there is something inherently corrupting about being an elected official. Pete Schbarum’s Proposition 140 did immeasurable harm to this state, not only by making it more difficult for California to have a professional, experienced Legislature, but also by gratuitously enhancing the power of the Governor’s office. ( With a few exceptions, California’s Governors have not been noted for their vision and leadership.)
Instead of running down elected officials and making “politician” a term of obloquy, we should be treating our elected officials with the same respect we ourselves would wish to be treated. And we should expect them to be skilled professionals, and pay them accordingly. (Careful academic studies have shown that the most professional legislatures are the most responsive legislatures, contrary to right-wing myth.)
Governance is hard; it is not a job for amateurs, as Arnold Schwartznegger amply demonstrated.
[See my earlier post on polling here]
Candidates in down-ticket races have a problem – they need professional help to run their campaigns, but, unless they are independently wealthy, they usually can’t afford the price of a professional political consultant. For small cities (in my area of California, we have a number of incorporated cities with a population less than 4000), it is possible to talk and get to know each and every voter, but for larger municipalities, like my own city of Santa Rosa with an acknowledged population of around 175000 people, it is essentially impossible.
What are candidate for low-profile but important offices like the Santa Rosa City Council to do? I have spent a large amount of time over the last twenty-five years trying to help local candidates deal with this problem. And, as a result. I have a pretty good feel for the political landscape of this part of the world, But I am just one person, and the need is great (every two years). Some candidates, as you might expect, hire consultants from out of the area. Often this works fine – because the outside consultants have the sense to associate themselves with people who know the area. But there have been a number of races (I name no names) that have been badly screwed up because the consultants did a poll and failed to understand what the undecided electorate was like.
In an earlier post, I made the following statement: “Undecided voters are usually much more important to look at than those voters who have made up their minds,…but not always. It’s time to explain what I meant.
Undecided voters are usually important, because the assumption is ( and studies have shown this) that once a person has chosen a candidate to vote for, they don’t switch to another candidate very often – for any reason. Therefore, the theory is, if you can determine the demographics of the undecided voters, and if you have limited funds, your voter communications should focus on the undecideds.
But suppose you have good reason to believe that the undecided voters will not support your candidate. Imagine, for example, that your candidate is running in a large field for several at-large City Council seats. Further suppose that the majority of the undecided voters are Republican, that there are several Republicans running for Council, and that your candidate is a Democrat. ( Even in non-partisan races, party preference matters.) In these circumstances, your campaign should focus on turning out marginal democratic voters, rather on persuading the undecided. In either case, it is useful to know who the undecided voters are.
In an earlier post, I talked about how I got into polling for local elections, and gave a ;ist of key points about polls that local candidates should know. This is the first of several posts in which I will elaborate on that list. (Note: In all my posts on polling, I assume that the voters polled are random se;ections from the target universe.)
A poll is a snapshot of the electorate at a given point in time; it is not, by itself, a way to predict the outcome of an election. An experie3nced political adviser, who understands the background of the poll and the local political situation may be able to use the information obtained from a poll to make an informed guess as to whom the winner or winners might be, but the poll itself merely tells you who might be ahead at the time of the poll. Of course, if a candidate is twenty points ahead of his or her opponent two weeks before election day, one can reasonably infer that that candidate will win, but the poll is not really doing the prediction; it is the context.
Polls have other uses for local candidates besides calling the horse race. Polls can tell a candidate which campaign themes resonate with the voters; they can also tell which of your supporters are more attractive to the electorate. The wise candidate for, say, City Council, will focus on these aspects of polling and not on the question of who is the frontrunner.