The Promise and Peril of “Hidden Majority” Theories

If you are a political party or party faction, and you find yourself in what appears to be a durable minority position with the electorate as it currently exist, you have four basic options to boost your standing: (1) you can tailor your message to pick off “swing voters” (e.g., the median voter theory that constantly dictates “moving to the center”); (2) you can increase your appeal to the marginal voters who already support you but need encouragement to vote (conventional GOTV efforts), recognizing that the noisier techniques help the opposition turn out their vote, too; (3) you can somehow try to engage consistent non-voters who you think agree with you; or (4) you can reshuffle the deck by creating new coalitions that raid your opponent’s ranks without moving in your opponent’s direction.

It’s natural to the more movement-oriented and ideological party factions who hell no don’t want to move to “the center” and who recognize the shortcomings of conventional GOTV, to gravitate towards the third and fourth approaches. But while such “hidden majority” strategies may represent imaginative “outside the box” thinking, they can also represent wishful or even delusional thinking, too, particularly for those who simply don’t want to adjust their creed to public opinion and so are tempted to treat public opinion as an illusion created by The Man’s false choices and voters’ “false consciousness.”

A good example is the “libertarian moment” argument that someone like Rand Paul can draw disengaged young people into the political arena and/or pull liberal voters across the line via his positions on non-interventionism or privacy or drugs and criminal justice. As I and other critics have pointed out, young people are almost always relatively “disengaged” from voting for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the political choices they are given, and party preferences run a whole lot deeper than any one or two or three issues, for very good reasons.

It’s not that surprising we are hearing similar “hidden majority” talk on the left with the rise of Bernie Sanders, who indeed could use a theory of “electability” to defy the inevitable derision of MSM analyts who assume his screw-the-traitorous-center approach would mean death for Democrats in a general election. Yesterday at Ten Miles Square our own Martin Longman thought out loud about the kind of strategy that could make a Sanders election realistic. It’s interesting that he mentioned Rand Paul as another “unorthodox” pol that might find a way to stick it to The Man:

To win the overall contest, including the presidency, however, he is going to have to achieve a substantial crossover appeal. If he beats Hillary, he’s going to lose a portion of the Democratic coalition in the process, and he’ll have to make up for it with folks who we don’t normally think of as socialists or liberals.

Some of this deficit can be made up for simply by bringing people into the process who would otherwise have stayed home, but that alone will never be enough. If you think the electorate is so polarized that Bernie can’t change the voting behaviors of very many people, then there’s really not even a conceptual way that he could win. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to wait and see if he can appeal to a broader swath of the electorate like he has consistently done in his home state, then the “white liberal” vote isn’t quite as decisive.

Honestly, a lot of these potential Bernie voters are probably toying with Rand Paul right now. Most of them probably can’t imagine themselves voting for a socialist from Vermont. But substantial parts of his message are really almost tailor-made for these folks. They hate big money in politics, for example, and feel like everyone else has a lobbyist in Washington but them. They hate outsourcing and are suspicious of free trade agreements. They’ve lost faith in both parties and their leaders. They can’t pay their rent or afford college. Their kids are all screwed up on painkillers and are seemingly never going to move out of the house. They’re sick of investing in Afghanistan while American needs get ignored. And they want the blood of some Wall Street bankers.

Bernie Sanders is going to make a lot of sense to these folks, even if they think Hillary Clinton is the devil and are trained to despise liberals.

To my great fascination, Martin even alluded to an ancient argument over the 1972 elections:

If George McGovern had one single insurmountable problem, it was that there were a lot of George Wallace voters out there who preferred Nixon to him when it came right down to it. Later on, we’d call these folks Reagan Democrats, but initially they were part of the backbone of the New Deal Democratic coalition. If you distract these folks with cultural issues, you can keep them from listening to Bernie Sanders. And that might be exactly what happens this time around.

But, it might not.

Hunter Thompson and others argued for many years that by acting too much like a regular Democratic pol after winning the 1972 nomination, McGovern forfeited a clean shot at Wallace voters, who were open to–and only to–a more radical, anti-Establishment Democratic candidate.

Now anyone with a sense of history realizes there have been moments when new and at the time radical options have emerged and scrambled existing party coalitions. Just possibly hatred of financial elites could be like slavery or trust-busting or civil rights, a powerful sentiment just waiting for a galvanizing movement or candidate to reduce prior notions of partisan differences to dust. But if so, it should start becoming apparent at some point via measurements of public opinion, like general election polls (not just early-state surveys or crowd sizes in activist centers).

Bernie Sanders and his supporters have every right to claim they are in the process of overturning the table of the moneylenders in the temple of Democracy, and creating a mind-bending coalition that combines liberals with former non-voters and “populist” conservatives; that may be the only plausible theory of “electability” Team Sanders can muster. But at some point it needs to materialize in measurable ways, and beyond that point it could become cranky and then delusional.

The truth is, moreover, that a definite if hard-to-quantify number of people who are showing up at Bernie’s rallies and maybe even telling Iowa and New Hampshire pollsters they are going to vote for him are mainly interested in “keeping Hillary honest” and pushing the national Democratic Party in a more progressive direction, and the closer Sanders gets to becoming a real threat to HRC the more they are inclined to bail on him. Who knows how many there are? “Hidden majority” theories are great fun, but not-so-hidden reasons ideological candidates often fail are worth noticing, too.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.