How was it that Barack Obama, a failed President, was able to win re-election in 2012? Why did voters in Virginia vote for an ethically challenged candidate and elect Terry McAuliffe Governor in 2013? It’s because most people found their opponents to be out of touch with real life in America today, and determined that they were unacceptable.
Obama convinced voters that Mitt Romney was an out of touch old douche-bag. Using issues such as contraception and civil marriage for gay couples, he portrayed Romney as an extremist with a radical social agenda. McAuliffe used a similar strategy in his race against Ken Cucinelli by highlighting Cucinelli’s way out of the mainstream views on issues related to abortion and gay people. Using cultural issues, both Democrats made the public believe that their opponents only cared about people like themselves and issues that affect them. Most importantly, the Republicans didn’t appear to have a grasp on the realities of modern life.
Democrats all over the country learned lessons from those campaigns and we are seeing similar tactic in races this year. While Republicans continue their focus on important issues, such as jobs and the economy, they avoid engaging in cultural issues because they know that many voters disagree with them. Meanwhile, the Democrats hammer on the cultural stuff making the Republicans look crazy, or when the Republican refuses to engage, like they’ve never thought about those issues before.
If voters think that you don’t care or you’re not living in the real world, then nothing else you have to say matters. By defining their opponents as out of touch culturally, Democrats are able to keep voters from paying attention to anything else Republicans have to say.
To use an extreme example of how a cultural issue makes a candidate unacceptable, a racist with a stellar tax plan is still a racist. Unacceptable.
I’ve said before that I do think that a small segment of the GOP is genuinely culturally out of touch. Most GOP candidates are either part of that group or they go to great lengths to avoid offending them. I think that this cultural disconnect will ultimately keep the Republicans from winning a national election again.
You see, cultural standards and norms change. (They always have and they always will.) Politicians have to evolve in order to be competitive when faced with the political realities of the changing cultural landscape. Too many Republicans refuse to do this, and it’s costing them nationally, and more and more on the state and local level too.
I got my start in politics in western South Dakota. I was active with the College Republicans and worked professionally in Republican politics there in the early to mid 1990s. That was the time in my life when I developed my political views and embraced the mountain west independent conservatism that dominates the culture there. There’s a lot to love about South Dakota, but one thing that bothered me when I was there is that it’s one of those places where you can expect today’s hottest trends to become popular in about 5 more years!
That’s not the case in South Dakota politics this year. This year, Democrats are learning quickly and they’re doing what candidates in every other state are doing, and that’s using cultural issues to show that they are in touch with real life in 2014. My friend Pat Powers has the state’s leading political blog, and he asked me to comment on this story about how issues affecting gay people are part of Democratic candidate Rick Weiland’s campaign for the US Senate, and how those issues are playing in general in South Dakota. Pat’s story focuses a lot on polling on the specific issue of marriage. He says, in part:
By a very slight margin, voters appear to continue to favor the Republican stance on traditional marriage, although it appears that opinions are shifting, primarily in urban areas such as Sioux Falls more so than in hotbeds of older, church attending voters, such as in Clark County.
Millennial opinions on the issues are offset by the older, traditional voters. And whether it’s in South Dakota or anywhere else, the rates at which millennials are voting are far, far outpaced by the rate at which older voters participate in the election process.
But, like us all, millennials will eventually get older. And that equation could eventually change.
Read all of Pat’s post here.
Pat is a Republican, and his analysis of Weiland’s strategy is a very typical Republican analytical analysis of how an “issue” polls among voters. What you can’t poll is how Weiland’s public embrace of gay South Dakotans (not his position on any issue) makes him appear culturally connected to real life in 2014. Weiland’s opponent, Mike Rounds, has not ever acknowledged the gay community, and has publically embraced and welcomed the endorsement of groups and individuals who oppose homosexuality and demonize gay people.
In this race, one candidate acknowledges the reality that gay people are a part of life in South Dakota today. He shows that he cares about your gay family and friends by publicly engaging with them, while the other ignores them and works with the people who demonize them. Do you see how that works? Most voters aren’t going to base their vote on the candidate’s position on issues affecting gays and lesbians, but they aren’t going to vote for someone they don’t think is living in reality.
It’s not just issues affecting gay people that play into the cultural-disconnect narrative. Any cultural issue can be used to show that a candidate is out of touch.
Democrats are using this strategy all over the country. It’s the new Plan A in the Democratic playbook, and it should be because Republicans are allowing it to work time and time again.
Unfortunately for Democrats, Weiland isn’t likely to win that race in South Dakota this year. In fact, Republicans there and across the country will probably do well in this year’s mid-term elections.
Presidential election years have a very different dynamic, and the Democrats will most definitely exploit the GOP’s cultural disconnect to their advantage in 2016 – just wait and see.