Winning Back the Crank Voter

Billions of pixels have been spilled on what Democrats did wrong in the 2016 election and how they can improve their chances in the future. Most of these pieces (mine included) have assumed a basic level of attention to campaign rhetoric and facts on the part of the voters, whether it’s appeals to social justice, populist economics or some combination of the two.

But what if the persuadable voters who decide our elections are just cranks? What if campaign substance doesn’t actually win elections anymore, and it’s all about who can best feel the frustration of a certain part of the electorate?

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, most political consultants still assume that there’s a middle ground of reasonable voters out there to be claimed. Establishment track Republicans assumed their voters would come home to them in the end, but they never did. The Clinton campaign assumed that Trump’s temperament, combined with direct targeted appeals from the campaign, would win over moderate women and educated voters. None of the strategies to win the “moderate middle” succeeded this year because there are very few actual “moderate” voters left. So-called “moderate” voters often simply have extremist policy preferences that don’t line up neatly with the division between America’s two parties.

Most crucially, “swing” voters tend to be the least informed voters in the electorate. Partisans on both sides tend to know far more about politics than the undecided voters in the alleged middle.

One thing we do know about these ill-informed, often extremist undecideds is that they’re angry and frustrated with the system. That doesn’t make them unusual: everyone is angry. Democrats are angry at Republicans. Republicans are angry at Democrats. Partisan rage is arguably higher than at any time since the Civil War, and the vast majority of people have already either taken sides or removed themselves from politics entirely. The few persuadable voters who remain are chaotic enough in their beliefs and ill-informed enough about the facts that their anger is universalized against all sides. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong that political elites have failed them.

Liberal pundits in the wake of Trump’s election have often made the error of lumping all of Trump’s or Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s voters into a single group. Trump’s voters are called out as racist bigots, while Stein’s are criticized for being over-privileged ninnies. Those are generally true stereotypes about most of the Trump and Stein vote, but it’s not necessarily true of the persuadable voters who made a difference in this election–the ones who may have voted for Barack Obama once or twice before, but chose to vote against Clinton in 2016. A great many of them are simply ill-informed cranks who are upset with the system, want to smash everything and be given hope for a better future.

If all of this is correct, then it’s the cranks who will decide elections in the near future. And what matters to cranks isn’t any particular policy or platform of policies, but how well a candidate can emotionally convey the same fears and frustrations they themselves feel about the country–and provide them the generic hope they desperately want.

Barack Obama was mocked mercilessly in 2008 by Clinton partisans and mainstream pundits for the vagueness of his “hope and change” rhetoric, and his supporters were told relentlessly that the country would never vote for an inexperienced black man whose middle name was Hussein. But it turns out that that breath of fresh air was precisely what voters were looking for–and then they turned around and re-elected him rather than give the presidency to a staid corporate drone like Mitt Romney. Even the racist cranks voted for Obama because he better communicated their hopes and desires for change than the white status quo.

Similarly, Donald Trump was mocked mercilessly for his bad temperament, lack of experience, lack of education and laughably vague promises to “make America great again.” Wise pundits told us both during the GOP primary and the general election that Trump could never win. Again, the conventional wisdom was wrong. Yes, most of Trump’s support derived from open bigotry–but it wasn’t the deplorables who attended Trump rallies or his army of online trolls who actually put Trump over the top in the electoral college. It was the rural, ill-educated cranks in the Rust Belt who decided for Trump only in the last week–many of whom, best as we can tell, voted for Obama in prior elections.

There’s nothing Democrats can do to change this dynamic, especially as long as the middle class continues to deteriorate in the face of globalization and automation. The number of cranks will likely increase, and shaming them is a fool’s errand. Democrats are going to have to win them over.

Winning the crank vote will be much less about policy than it is about attitude. Liberal pundits and strategists will need to stop assuming that cranky, non-traditional candidates will repel mythical “moderate” voters, and concentrate more on winning over the non-voters and cranks who actually decide elections in the modern era. And Democratic candidates will need to give these voters hope for a better future, and communicate clearly the identity of the real villains who have been destroying their lives.

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.