Unlikable, Untrustworthy, Unappealing to the Center

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: Jun 11, 2015 12:01 AM
Unlikable, Untrustworthy, Unappealing to the Center

This week in 1976, Jimmy Carter, then-governor of Georgia, locked up the democratic nomination for president when George Wallace, Henry Jackson and Richard Daley released their delegates and endorsed him. Carter was a fresh, smiling face. He had worked hard for the nomination, deciding early in the process that he would compete everywhere, for every vote. He was a relentless campaigner and had scores of volunteers (the Peanut Brigade), who would travel to states, walk door to door, talk about their candidate and follow up with hand-written notes at night.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who ran 16 years later, was also a fresh face on the national stage. Seen as affable, charismatic and friendly, Clinton ran a campaign that focused on moving voters in the middle over to his side of the ballot. It worked.

A recent New York Times article by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman, "Hillary Clinton Traces Friendly Path, Troubling Party," reveals a different path being taken by Hillary Clinton. The strategy: Focus on turning out the base rather than winning over the swing voters.

"Mrs. Clinton's aides say it is the only way to win in an era of heightened polarization, when a declining pool of voters is truly up for grabs. Her liberal policy positions, they say, will fire up Democrats, a less difficult task than trying to win over independents in more hostile territory -- even though a broader strategy could help lift the party with her."

The core belief underlying their strategy: "Energizing core supporters is more important in presidential contests than persuading those still undecided." Instead of focusing on a grand vision for the country, the goal is to create small visions for specific subsets of voters that will galvanize them into action for their particular cause.

This is opposite of what political consultant James Carville did for then-candidate Bill Clinton when he coined the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." Carville refocused the campaign on a core statement that appealed to voters regardless of their party affiliation. In doing so, enough of the country was united and galvanized into action to elect Bill Clinton president.

According to Carville, the voter focus has changed. "The highest-premium voter in '92 was a voter who would vote for one party some and for another party some. Now the highest-premium voter is somebody with a high probability to vote for you and low probability to turn out. ... That's a humongous change in basic strategic doctrine."

This strategy to turn out the base rather than win over votes in the middle requires a very different focus on issues and messaging. "By emphatically staking out liberal positions on gay rights, immigration, criminal justice, voting rights and pay equity for women, Mrs. Clinton is showing core Democratic constituencies that she intends to give them a reason to support her," wrote Martin and Haberman.

President Obama also followed this strategy in his elections, and it paid off. But for a candidate that is running for the job or running the country -- why wouldn't they attempt to unite a majority of voters to provide them with momentum to actually govern once they were voted into office (think Contract with America in 1994).

A CNN/ ORC poll released June 2 provides insight on why Clinton might be focusing on the base rather than swing voters. Her dropping favorably ratings and untrustworthiness might make it hard for her to appeal to swing voters.

Clinton's favorability rating stands at 46 percent, with 50 percent unfavorable. When asked about the qualities Clinton possesses, 49 percent said she inspires confidence, 47 percent said she cares about people like me and 42 percent believe that she is honest and trustworthy. Clinton' s handling of Bengazi is deemed unsatisfactory by 58 percent of those polled.

Among men, it's even more dismal. Only 38 percent have a favorable impression of Clinton. She inspires confidence in 41 percent, and only 36 percent believe that she cares about people like me. The real break comes when asked if Clinton is honest and trustworthy. Only a third of men believe she is honest and trustworthy.

With low marks on trustworthiness, and with half the country viewing her unfavorably, Clinton has little choice but to run to the edge and hope that the issues rather than her candidacy, will take her over the finish line.

This leaves an opportunity for the republican nominee to focus on a grand vision for the country that will unite voters and galvanize them into action for the country at large.