By Martin Burch of Portland, Oregon. Martin describes himself as a "very liberal, long-time professional writer, and dedicated activist."
Lately I’ve been studying voting patterns in Oregon during 2004, 2006, and 2008 just for the fun of it. I’m reading reports and statistics from analysts, editorialists, and state and county elections bureaus, studying demographics relevant to the elections, looking at who ran, how much money they spent and where and how they spent it in Oregon – true political geekiness. And an amateur political geek at that; make no mistake.
While it’s too early for me to discuss any significant trends I’ve noticed that differ from what professional political scientists have noted, the current cluster flock going on in the health care debate this August does tie into a few observations that I think are ready for group discussion.
Never underestimate the power a few dedicated, organized, and script-following enthusiasts can have over the conduct and outcome of any political activity. We see this in the health care debate with the thuggish actions of the angry and mostly older white people in the town hall meetings. Not only are these relatively small numbers of people able to wreak havoc in the actual meetings, their actions are consuming hours of televised media cycles in both news and opinion-oriented shows. Even when we try to seriously discuss health care, we wind up instead discussing these thugs and those who organized them. I detest their actions, but there’s no denying how effective their tactics are in obfuscating the debate.
Small numbers and big noise can equal enormous results. But this discussion isn’t about the health care thugs. I’m simply using them as an example of organization and emotions as group dynamics.
These two group dynamics also matter in elections. In some Oregon precincts, districts, and counties a 5% or smaller change in voting patterns can flip that district or county from red to blue or vice versa. This principle is nothing new in political science, and it makes sense (unlike so many things in political science…); small numbers of votes can make a difference in close elections. Duh!
Maybe a lesson we progressives can take from this summer of discontent is how to better focus our strategy, tactics, and funds so that we can identify those 5 percent regions and make them flip in our favor. As all politics are local, it will be worth our while to concentrate on picking up city council seats, school board positions, and other local elected slots wherever the opportunity presents itself. Also, perhaps, in statewide or regional elections it makes more sense to amass votes in select areas rather than to try and appeal to or campaign for all Oregon voters. Win the election with the percentages and then govern for all (or not, but that’s another discussion, too).
The second point I see this summer concerns public perceptions of emotions and media coverage and how those relate to voting patterns. Again, the relationship between emotions individuals feel and the emotions media portrays as existing in the general public is not a new concept in politics or media studies, either. For example, the message of peace and love of the flower power era didn’t capture television news, and thus the American psyche. What got the media attention and tapped public emotions were the relatively bizarre actions of some of the hippies concerning free love (sex) and the perceived assault on accepted mores about drugs and what later came to be known as family values.
We saw how displays of raw emotions were used in Oregon concerning Proposition 36. Yet in an almost completely 180 degree turnaround, the positive message of the Obama campaign in 2008, promoting hope and change as its goals, got many of these very same supporters of Prop 36 to vote for a man who openly campaigned against the principles they had supported just months before. There was that whole George W. Bush thing, too…
Now, I know Obama didn’t come out in favor of gay marriage, and when it comes to gay rights he is lackluster at best in acting on his promised changes regarding this issue. Still, the subtle but important point remains that somehow he and his campaign were able to shift public perceptions here in Oregon regarding the emotions a topic such as gay marriage aroused in people. Individuals didn’t change their minds about gay marriage or other GLBT issues, but these people did become convinced that their peers had somehow “softened” on gay rights, thus making it acceptable for them to vote for a candidate who was in stark contrast to the Republican candidate concerning gay issues.
This is a very fine point to make. It’s not the actual emotions of individuals in a group that need to change to make a difference in elections or public attitudes. What needs to change to affect voting patterns seems to be the individuals’ perception of the emotions they see in their peers. Further, negative emotions – anger, hatred, rejection for example – while easier to manipulate, seem to have no greater impact on voting patterns than positive emotions such as hope or caring. The constant images of gigantic crowds cheering for Obama made a difference in swaying perceptions in the conservative community.
Well, I don’t want to go too far in this because of the size requirements for articles here on Blue Oregon, and also because I’m not through with my research. And, it just might be that what this research will show me is that after all, it’s the economy, stupid. But watching these silverback thugs shout at the top of their lungs that Medicare isn’t socialized medicine reminds me that while we progressives enjoy facts and thinking, and that truth, honesty, and sincerity also matter to us, these ingredients are not the most important factors in most elections or public awareness campaigns. We as progressives not only have to be smart, we have to work on our branding and imaging.
And ain’t that too damn bad…