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Thursday, January 21, 2010
Reasons and Excuses for Electoral Defeat

In the wake of Tuesday's special US Senate election in Massachusetts, the reasons and excuses we offer after an electoral defeat seem relevant.

Explanations, Scapegoats, and Excuses

You probably noticed that the Democratic Party began its damage control days before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' so-called "Kennedy seat" in the United States Senate fell to -- maybe you should sit down -- a Republican, Scott Brown. The gossip which began to swirl was rather predictable: Democrat Martha Coakley was a bad candidate, a lazy candidate, a complacent candidate. She believed the early polls that said it would be a cakewalk, and by the time she woke up, it was too late. That sort of thing. I even heard that ACORN was unable to ramp up its absentee ballot fraud machine fast enough, because the race didn't look like it would be close enough to justify the effort until it was too late.

Nationally, Democrats don't want this little revolution to be pinned on President Obama and his policies or, for that matter, on House and Senate Democrats. Some Democrats who are up for reelection this year don't want to think about how much trouble they themselves may be in, come November, if Massachusetts -- and New Jersey and Virginia before that -- mean anything. So there are psychological reasons to want to blame the candidate, quite apart from the fact that in this case the blame might be quite legitimate.

Candidates usually are not quick to blame themselves. They may blame their opponents' dirty campaigning, the biased media, bad luck, someone further up the ticket with insufficient coattails, the state or national party for not sending the needed funding, or outright voter fraud or intimidation. They may blame the voters themselves, for not showing up or for being stupid, bigoted, selfish, or, ironically, not self-interested enough. More recently, they may blame the blogosphere or the World Wide Web in general. Sometimes these explanations are quite legitimate, too. Often they are not.

I'll have some thoughts soon about the virtues and vices of the blogosphere, where politics and government are concerned -- there are plenty of both virtues and vices -- but today let's consider two other themes: first, the laziness or complacency of the candidate, and then voter turnout.

The Complacent Candidate

We see complacency often enough in places where a particular party dominates politics year after year, as the Democrats do in Massachusetts. A state attorney general who is a Democrat is not likely to feel threatened by a relatively unknown Republican there -- and it appears that Martha Coakley didn't, until it was too late. It is also quite common for an incumbent, especially a well-funded, multi-term incumbent, or one who was most recently elected or reelected by a large margin, to feel the same sort of complacency and to approach a campaign casually or even lazily. A variation is the candidate who loves to govern but dislikes campaigning; George H. W. Bush comes to mind. These things are not lost on the voters.

Sometimes the complacent candidates are right, and they sail to victory despite a lackluster effort. There's an art to deciding in advance how much of a campaign you'll need to run, and overkill is expensive.

But often such candidates are defeated, by narrow margins or quite resoundingly. We see this in local, state, and national politics, year after year after year. Former Congressman Chris Cannon is intelligent and personable -- at least I found him so -- but he didn't seem to enjoy campaigning, and he wasn't very energetic about it. He ran into a campaigning machine, current Congressman Jason Chaffetz, and . . . well, you know what happened. I'm not crazy about Chaffetz, as long-time readers will recall, but there's no denying that the man knows how to campaign, and lazy is the last word we would use to describe him.

The Hard-Working Candidate

I heard a story just the other day about a candidate for local office in the last election, somewhere in Utah County. He happened to see a negative comment about him, left by someone at a newspaper Web site. Most of us know that such comments are often essentially anonymous and tend to be vicious, if not actually deranged. He could have just dismissed the criticism, with or without jaded comments about the Internet. But one of the comments made enough sense to him, as a criticism of his own position on a matter, that he decided to pursue it. The commenter's username at that site was a first name and a last initial, so he assumed that it was a real name, and he got out the phone book. To his good fortune, the last initial was uncommon enough that only one family in his town had it, according to the phone book, and he was acquainted with the family.

He went, knocked on the door, and asked if there was a person by that particular name in the household. There was such a person, and, as it turned out, it was she who had left the negative comment about the candidate. It's not unknown for candidates in such a situations to try to intimidate, threaten, or simply bluster, but this candidate is a gentleman. He listened, while she explained her concerns. She listened, while he explained his position and the thinking behind it. They talked for a while, and by the time he left her home, he had won her vote. As these things go, I'd bet that by the time Election Day came, she had won him some additional votes among her family and friends.

Such a conscientious and hard-working candidate does not always win the election, but this one did. I'm inclined to think that his mature willingness to confront and consider the message, rather than simply blaming the messenger, had something to do with his victory.

I have just enough experience with such matters that I think I can say that, if I were in the commenter's shoes, I would have been inclined to vote for this candidate even if I still disagreed with the position that originally troubled me. There are some in various levels of local government with whom I have fundamental disagreements on some issues; this is unavoidable. Some of these are willing, even eager, to listen and consider and explain, even if no one's mind changes as a result. These I hold in high regard. And, yes, I tend to vote for them, despite disagreement on some issues.

The Will of the People

Do the math. If voter turnout is 50 percent, and the winner in a two-way election wins by a single vote, the election was decided by just barely more than one-fourth of the registered voters.

If voter turnout is 99 percent, and the margin of victory is a single vote, the election was decided by less than a majority of registered voters.

For that matter, if voter turnout is 50 percent, and the loser gets only one vote, and the winner gets all the rest, the election was decided by less than a majority of registered voters.

In any of these cases, but more likely when turnout is relatively low, we may hear defeated candidates complain that their opponent's election was not the will of the people -- of a majority of the people, they mean. If more voters had voted, surely the will of the people would have been to elect the . . . loser.

On one level, the substance of such whining is a mathematical fact. On a more politically mature level, this is just another of those happy illusions which defeated candidates harbor. If they sleep better at night as a result, fine, but I'm not inclined to accept their analysis.

Tell me if you think this is too clever: Candidate A defeats Candidate B by a 56-to-44 margin, and voter turnout is a mere 25 percent. (I picked these numbers because the math is easy.) Candidate B may be tempted to complain that his opponent was elected by only 14 percent of the registered voters. His arithmetic would be correct, but here's something Candidate B isn't thinking, or at least isn't saying. In this scenario, it was the will of 75 percent of the voters to let the other 25 percent choose the winner. Therefore, despite the low turnout, the will of all the registered voters really was expressed, and the will of a large majority was done.

Happily, Brown's five-percent margin over Coakley, together with turnout over 50 percent (in a January election!), will probably spare us most of the low-turnout/not-the-will-of-the-people arguments in this case. We are not always so fortunate.

I'm not saying that high turnout is a bad thing, or that it's necessarily a bad thing to do the will of the majority. But I wouldn't claim that it's necessarily a good thing. As far as I'm concerned, eligible voters should register to vote. Registered voters should be well-informed and attentive generally and should study the issues and candidates carefully. And well-informed, registered voters -- whether 75 percent or 25 percent -- should vote. I'd prefer that the others -- whether 25 percent or 75 percent -- simply stay home or go to a movie.

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