At some kind of top-secret fundraising party last week, Karl Rove (that’d be George W. Bush’s brain, and now the leader of the Evil Republican SuperPac Plot to Pervert Politics With Corporate Money™) shared a little observation about the current US campaign that was reported by Bloomberg Businessweek:
“The people we’ve got to win in this election, by and large, voted for Barack Obama,” Rove said, in a soothing, professorial tone, explaining why the campaign hadn’t launched more pointed attacks on the president’s character. [...] What had emerged from that data is an “acute understanding of the nature of those undecided, persuadable” voters. “If you say he’s a socialist, they’ll go to defend him. If you call him a ‘far out left-winger,’ they’ll say, ‘no, no, he’s not.’” The proper strategy, Rove declared, was criticizing Obama without really criticizing him—by reminding voters of what the president said that he was going to do and comparing it to what he’s actually done. “If you keep it focused on the facts and adopt a respectful tone, then they’re gonna agree with you.”
Seems to me this is a pretty good approach to dealing with a certain kind of political incumbent in general—the kind who was elected at least in part because of a personal connection he or she seemed to make with voters. In fact, when I read it, I was thinking about Rob Ford voters. Political partisans who feel strongly often tend to carry out a loud screaming match with deeply entrenched partisans on the other side(s), and they use a communications strategy (it seems to me) kind of like this: 1. I can plainly see that the candidate in question is pure evil. 2. His supporters can clearly see this too, but they like pure evil. 3. Therefore I will proceed to argue based on the premise of his pure evilness and the moral bankruptcy of anyone supporting that. How could that go wrong?
The thing is, it appears to me, that the voters these partisans are trying to attract—the swing voters that exist in any electorate who voted for the candidate you hate but could just as easily be persuaded to vote for your candidate instead—clearly do not share your “pure evil” assessment, however transparent the case may be to you. (Who are these voters? I dunno, maybe people who think Rob Ford and Jack Layton stood for pretty much the same things.) And at some point in the past, they made a decision that the candidate in question was their guy—that they liked him, or judged him genuine, or intelligent, or honest, or whatever. And once they’ve made that kind of judgement, and cemented it by voting based on that judgement, they become invested in that judgement. They process new information defensively: though they may not be experts on policy, they take it as a fact that their character assessment (this is an honest guy, or an intelligent guy; or just generally my kind of guy, looking out for people like me) was correct. The kind of attack that calls into question that assessment directly is likely to be ruled out of bounds—the burden of evidence will be very steep if the mission is to convince a voter that her most basic character assessments were dead wrong. That kind of argument can look to a voter like an accusation that she is stupid. And when someone calls you stupid, you don’t tend to react by thinking, “hmm, they have a point, I probably am stupid.” You tend instead to think that person is arguing in bad faith, or is themselves stupid, or disingenuous, or just crazy.
But: “nice guy, but he’s in over his head,” or, “the situation wasn’t what he thought it was and he turned out to be the wrong guy for the job” or “he may have had good intentions but his best efforts have just made things worse”—the kind of criticisms that allow these swing voters to continue to believe that their assessment was basically right but that it didn’t work out, have a better chance of being persuasive. Or so it seems to me. And apparently to Karl Rove.