Base-Oriented Populism Actually Helps: Lessons from the Sanders and Trump Surges

Those of you who know me at all before I started doing weekends here at Washington Monthly probably recognized me from the years I spent at Digby’s Hullabaloo, or perhaps as “thereisnospoon” at Daily Kos. What you may not know is that I also served as chairman of a Democratic central committee in one of the nation’s most closely contested Congressional districts the last two election cycles (Ventura County/CA-26), and that I’ve managed and run field for a variety of state and local races as well.

The reason I bring it up here is that when analyzing national politics, sometimes there are strategic insights that only experience from the pressure cooker of real campaigns can teach.

Most analysis of the recent polling surges of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump highlight their base voter appeal. These analyses depend on a an assumption that base-oriented messaging makes a candidate less electable by the so-called moderate or independent middle. But that’s not necessarily so.

There are many good reasons to believe that Sanders and Trump might make poor general election candidates, from message discipline to personal history to simple age and demeanor. But having base-oriented messaging is not one of them. In fact, intensely populist rhetoric may actually help, for a few reasons:

1) Messaging that polls well isn’t necessarily messaging that resonates well.

This lesson above all is one that Republicans like Frank Luntz understand far better than most Democratic operatives. Talk to campaign professionals on the left and most will treat you as unserious if you suggest much more than the blandest possible campaign messaging. That’s because when they’re polled, voters tend to give the highest ratings to the blandest, more innocuously upbeat statements emphasizing non-divisive issues like education or healthcare. Candidates pay for big, expensive background polls that find out what persuadable like, and then tailor their messaging to that. You’d have to be a crazy person, according to the professionals, to go off message from what polling tells you voters like.

The problem there is that voters like authenticity. When a candidate sounds like a pull-string doll repeating the most inoffensive, generically sunny statements, voters can tell it sounds fake. The outcome of most elections is determined in advance–but in the close ones, poll-tested inauthenticity can often doom a candidate more than off-message truth-telling.

2) Messaging needs to stand out to be noticed by independents. One of the biggest myths in politics is that of the “independent voter.” Most “independent” voters are basically secret partisans. Very few of them are actually persuadable in an openly partisan contest. The few that are persuadable, tend to be the ones who are least likely to vote and pay the least attention to politics–usually because they’re jaded. For these voters, a blunt and unusual message that resonates with popular public opinion will often do better than generic poll-tested blather, if for no other reason than that it will get noticed. It also helps define the candidate as person who might actually make some substantive systemic changes, which is what jaded voters are looking for most in a candidate.

3) Base turnout matters as much as persuading independents. Political scientists and campaign professionals are increasingly becoming aware of the fact that the universe of persuadable voters is actually quite small–and seemingly shrinking every year. The persuadable voter is the holy grail of campaigns for obvious mathematical reasons: if you can flip a vote, it counts as two (one less for your opponent, one more for you.) But persuading the shrinking voters costs a lot of time and money–and you never know if the voter you persuade three days before election day will actually stay with you when they enter the voting booth.

In many cases it can be more helpful to energize inconsistent base voters to come to the polls, than to move heaven and earth to persuade the fickle persuadable. Bland messaging designed to appeal to persuadable voters can depress base turnout. Nor is it necessarily the case that a base voter appeal necessarily turns off independents, if it is based on broadly supported populist rhetoric.

All of which is to say that whatever the faults of Sanders and Trump as candidates, their message isn’t necessarily problematic for them. There’s no particular reason to believe that Hispanics will vote in much larger numbers for Jeb Bush than Donald Trump: most voters of all races are not really persuadable in either direction. Nor is there any particular reason to believe that disappointed left-leaning women inclined to vote for Clinton will vote for a Republican if she fails to receive the nod. Most of the differences in the head-to-head polling at this early stage are based on name recognition that would sort itself out in a major general election contest.

All of which is not to say that Sanders would actually do as well as Clinton in a general election, or that Trump would do as well as Walker or Bush. Ed Kilgore and Martin Longman have already given good reasons why not. Voters still want to support the candidate they’d most like to have a beer with, and that’s probably not Sanders or Trump. For now.

But don’t listen to pundits who claim that base-oriented messaging means doom in a general election. That’s based on self-serving corporate centrist ideology, and outdated campaign communication theories.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.