Nov. 11, 2004
Kerry Lost; Voters Went With Character and Conviction
If John Kerry did lose, he didn't lose so much because his campaign was conservative (although it was) or because his campaign was tentative (although it was). Kerry lost because voters didn't feel confident with his character, his stances on the issues, or the approach of his supporters.
Kerry was smart, articulate, and composed. These are all good qualities to have when trying to win someone's trust, friendship, or cooperation. But Kerry didn't have strength of conviction, and this is why he lost the contest for 'character.' By standing firm on an issue, particularly on a controversial one, a person wins listeners' respect. Even if one doesn't agree with the stance the person takes, on a human level, one tends to respect and even trust someone whose stance is certain. Note that this doesn't extend to dogmatic rigidity, which is a turnoff. But when one is sizing up a stranger, a sure stance is a positive; an uncertain stance, on the other hand, often engenders confusion and inspires mistrust. And remember that no voter ever agrees with any candidate on every issue. We choose which of the two imperfect packages we want to support with our vote. An overall sense of character and trustworthiness is essential.
Many Democrats, not just John Kerry, are losing the contest for character today. This is because the stances of Democrats on the issues tend to be, frankly, watered down versions of the Republican stances. Democrats aren't for universal healthcare -- they're for corporate healthcare that's a little nicer than the Republican version. They aren't for election reform -- they're for elections that are a little fairer than the Republican vision. They aren't for peace -- they're for wars that are a little better, a little 'tougher,' than the ones that Republicans launch. Voters, on an instinctive level, mistrust Democrats because of this. Even many Democrats mistrust their own candidates and vote Democratic primarily from fear, since the Republican agenda is so scary.
Thus Kerry lost, at root, because of his stance on the issues. If he had been a candidate who stood firmly against the Iraq War and offered a seriously different approach to the global economic corporate structure that is pushed by Republicans, he would've come across as more trustworthy and his words would have resonated with far more people. If he had both stood for and articulated a vision of universal healthcare, grassroots education reform, and global peace and cooperation, he would've appealed to people's best instincts. For there is an instinct in people that isn't based on fear. There is an instinct in people to be tolerant, to be open and giving, to love and to share. But with Kerry's "A Stronger America," he played a solid second fiddle to Bush's predictable fear-based rhetoric. This is not only a losing strategy for Democrats, it also starves the national debate of inspiration and hope.
Kerry also lost because of his supporters. This may seem counterintuitive. Certainly having more supporters rather than less is necessary to win any election. But because of the points on character and issues outlined above, Kerry's support was broad rather than deep. Very few voters, even longtime Democrats, felt affirmatively great about voting for and supporting John Kerry. Most Kerry voters were primarily anti-Bush, and, as such, weren't likely to win Bush supporters over. This is the key point. More often you can win over voters with a convincing affirmative message -- a message that is based on a candidate's refreshing stances on the issues, innovative visions for the future, or inspiring integrity. Kerry voters were largely scared, and this made it difficult for them to spread their message. Primarily all they had to spread was fear.
Fear is not an irrational response, of course, when death or severe danger is at hand. And we may be approaching death and severe danger quickly in this country. The question is, how can we get involved in governing our country better today? And how can get involved in ensuring that the next election both has better candidates and results in a better federal government?
Nader Helped Gore Win
With so much media time spent over the past four years exclaiming that the main reason Gore didn't become president in 2000 was because of the candidacy of Ralph Nader, it is altogether understandable that today so many people believe this to be the case. Of course, in truth, Gore didn't become president in 2000 because, although he won the election, Bush stole it (with the help of the transparently worst-reasoned Supreme Court case in history and the assistance of the Florida Department of Elections). Also, eleven times more Democrats voted for Bush than for Nader. And 85,000 mostly black voters (90% of Black voters in Florida voted for Gore) were removed from the voter rolls before the election. Gore won the 2000 election. He won the popular vote by half a million votes, and if one removes Florida from the equation (or calls Florida a tie), Gore won the electoral college, too, 268-247. G&G is convinced not only that Gore won, but that Ralph Nader's candidacy helped him win in two key ways.
Both of the ways Nader helped Gore are rooted in the fact that Nader's presence pulled the nation's political debate to the left. By confidently and unapologetically articulating a progressive vision for America, Nader began to win the character issue, as outlined above. People trusted him, even if they didn't agree with him on every issue. This garnered him tremendous support and forced his issues into the news. And then, at two key moments during the campaign, Gore took hold of Nader's issues and delivered powerful progressive speeches. He did it, primarily, to take Nader's support. But what happened was that he took support from all quarters.
Gore had until this point frequently found himself behind by 8-12% in the polls. But shortly after each of these key speeches, the second of which was barely two weeks before the election, Gore jumped about 5% in the polls. By the eve of election day, the polls were tied. And Gore carried his momentum to win the election.
So Nader helped Gore by forcing him (or allowing him) to speak out with a genuine progressive vision. He talked of pushing the pharmaceutical corporations for fair drug prices, taking on big tobacco, and generally fighting for issues that affect working people's daily lives. This won him points on character, issues, and supporters.
The other the changed tone of the debate helped Gore was by opening up Bush's vulnerable fronts. When the debate is on national security, tax cuts, policing, and religion, Republicans will do better. When the debate, on the other hand, is on the environment, education, corporate profiteering, and wages, Democrats tend to win. It's a question of whose turf the debate occurs on. Who's the home team.
In 2004, there was no significant Nader factor. Voters had 'learned their lesson.' And what did this do? We still had a tepid Democrat, but now we didn't even have a strong progressive to force the progressive issues onto the table. How many times during the debates was the environment mentioned? Sure, it was Kerry's fault for not bringing it up. But when there's a strong progressive in the debate, you don't have to depend on the Democrat to make sure the debate happens on the Democrat's home turf.
Obviously, there's still the problem of the voting booth. Some voters who would vote for a Green or a Nader if one were on the ballot, would vote for a Democrat if one weren't. The obvious solution to this is to change the system so that people can indicate their preferences. This is done through a runoff election. In some places, a runoff election has to happen separately, several weeks or months after the first election. But with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV, which G&G touts constantly), voters can express their preferences during one single election. It works by simply allowing voters to rank the candidates however they like. For instance, G&G might have ranked the candidates: 1. David Cobb (Green); 2. Ralph Nader (Independent); 3. John Kerry (Democrat). If we had done that, our vote (if G&G got one) would have ended up counting for Kerry -- once it was determined that neither Cobb nor Nader received enough votes to be one of the top two finalists.
IRV is also called 1-2-3 Voting because the notion of ranking one's choices is so simple. The system is also more democratic, as voters get to express more of their opinion on how the nation should be governed. And it creates cleaner, more positive campaigns, as candidates will realize that to get their opponents' supporters' second choices, they will need to refrain from negative hit pieces.
Any Democrat who opposes IRV should be seen for who he really is -- a conservative who wants his party to lose and his democracy to continue to be gamed by right wing organizations skilled at divide-and-conquer. IRV builds coalitions, and creates a freer electoral environment in which progressives and Democrats win.
We actually got to see IRV in action in San Francisco for the first time ever this election! Yours truly bicycled between polling places, explaining to poll workers how to educate the eager voters on how to rank their choices. IRV turned into a marvelous success -- and saved San Francisco over $3 million by obviating the need for a separate run-off election. It also allowed voters to vote for whom they really wanted to, while assuring that the candidate they hated didn't get elected. And best of all, it allowed diverse parties to build coalitions to work for the progress they envision -- instead of bitterly attacking one another in the run-up to election day.
This success in San Francisco was one of the few bright spots on November 2.
Another was all the wonderful activity people engaged in all around the country. From get-out-the-vote efforts in Missouri, to poll watching in Florida, to precinct walking in Nevada, and from internet chat rooms, to laundromats, to rock concerts, the good news was all the thousands who got out and care and worked. People in this country care. We Americans care. We want to live in a country that is fair in its elections, fair in its economic policy, fair to the nations of the world, and fair to its own citizens.
And it is that desire, not the variegated poll numbers, which we are to build on.
Tony Brasunas (firstname.lastname@example.org) is publisher of Garlic & Grass.
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