Political EQ

A couple of Thursday’s ago, after a nice dinner out, I was sitting in my friend’s living room and we had stumbled onto the topic of job hunting and how running for President of the United States, and for that matter any public office, was so different than seeking any job you could possibly think of in the private sector. Her and I both have a similar vantage point to this discussion in that while she’s not in the political field now, she has been in the past, we can both view political issues in a bit of a wonkish way, but we’ll say we both have known how to live wild in times past (she went to Arizona State, I’m definitely not worthy).

Naturally we stumbled onto perhaps the best illumination of this discussion possible- Bush 41 and Bush 43. On paper, Bush 41 is obviously a far, far superior candidate for the job than his son. If this was a CEO position being chosen by a corporate board of directors, there’s literally zero chance Bush 43 would be chosen over his father. That would be his father who served in Congress, ran for the U.S. Senate, ran the CIA, served as Ambassador to the United Nations, ran for President, served eight years as the Vice-President of the United State, all before winning the Presidency in 1988. Of course Bush 41 beat possibly the worst political candidate of the last 40 years, Michael Dukakis, in a 1988 blowout that was caused by Dukakis being even worse at connecting to normal people than Bush 41. Four years later when two far more charismatic and capable politicians ran against Bush 41, including maybe the most charismatic man since JFK (Bill Clinton), Bush 41’s Presidency was over. Have no fear though, just eight years later his son, a wild college frat boy that did some cocaine, wrecked an energy company, got some DUI’s, ran a baseball team into the ground, and then found Jesus and a cowboy hat, he won the White House by beating the wonkish nerd Vice-President, a man with qualifications a lot like Bush 41. Bush 43 not only won, he won a second time and is the only Republican President since his father’s 1988 victory to win a majority of the popular vote in a Presidential race. One could argue the far less qualified and prepared Bush is the best Republican politician of the internet era in America.

So what about that man who served between the two Bush Presidencies? Yes, Bill Clinton, the politician that probably could have served four or five terms had our constitution let him. That would be the man who was so popular he survived scandals that would have destroyed even other great politicians. His 1996 margin of victory over Bob Dole might not be matched in a Presidential election any time in the rest of my adult lifetime. Yes, he oversaw a booming economy and relative period of peace, but Joe Biden can argue historically low unemployment and ending our longest running war right now, and it’s not saving his approval rates. There is just something incredibly different about a politician like Bill Clinton. He told you he felt your pain and you actually believed him. He played the saxophone. He liked music like you, he ate really unhealthy McDonald’s food like you, you’d see him at a ball game sitting court side. Even his affairs gave him a certain “normalcy” at a time when divorce was becoming far more common place in America. Bill Clinton could relate to you, or you could to him, depending on how you saw it. He succeeded where Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and even Carter had failed in the post-1960’s world, standing as a Democratic politician who didn’t scare the living hell out of a country that had long since turned it’s back on New Deal and Great Society liberalism. He was bigger than life, playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, and yet he was really very normal.

If you want to be an executive at Goldman Sachs, or SpaceX, or Meta, or Apple, or Verizon, there’s a pretty good chance you will face an interview with people who are experts in what you want to do. If you want to be a college professor, the track from getting your doctorate to being hired, let alone to being hired, requires a lot of peer review. Doctors not only go through med school, but not-so-high-paying post grad work to prove your skills. Lawyers pass the bar to even be allowed to work, let alone get a high paying job in the field. Professional athletes are picked by scouts who draft them and develop their talent to the major leagues, or can cut them if at any point they don’t see the development they want from the player. Almost any other job in the world that is “elite” requires you to be peer tested, and to show your qualifications to get the position. Even being Vice-President requires you convincing the Presidential nominee of your political party (and the vetting team on their campaign) that you are the best pick for the job, then winning a national election of the public. Even rock stars and actors convince someone along the way that specializes in that field to believe their talents can bring millions of fans to buy their product and make everyone involved money. Society simply does not hand out any job worth having to any old shmuck that comes along. Let’s be honest, there’s an interview process for everything, and it’s almost without fail supervised by someone who knows exactly the qualifications and skills they want for the job. Except for President of the United States. We literally let almost any shmuck out in society have an opinion or even a say in whether you’re the right pick.

Let me put this in a little bit more crude terms- super unqualified people get just as much of a say in who the next President is as members of Congress do. Often times, candidates with better resumes lose. Al Gore, Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Bob Dole, and John McCain are among the recent people to lose a Presidential election, and absolutely zero of them qualify as stupid people, unqualified to do the job, or somehow lacking in the faculties to serve in office. Donald Trump never served a day in government office of any kind before he won the White House. Barack Obama had been in the United States Senate less than two years when he jumped into the 2008 Presidential race. George W. Bush had barely recovered from the sting of being denied the Commissioner of Baseball job when he was being sworn in as President. Today he looks super qualified for the job, but Bill Clinton faced questions about “only” being Governor of Arkansas when he won the White House in 1992. Joe Biden looks like a post-Cold War outlier today sitting in the White House, a man with a long political career at the time of his election. We really don’t care that much about who has more lines on their resume when we hand the nuclear codes to someone who will serve in the Oval Office for four years. That’s just a bit startling.

American politics really is less about qualifications and more about relatability. Spending all of your political capital arguing “deep weeds” policy points and trying to be perfectly right in every argument does not have a great track record of winning elections, it has a great record of getting you the top job at Boeing. American voters really want to know you have something, anything, in common with them. That you relate to them. They’d like to know something more about you the person, at your core. John Kerry won all but two issues in most of the network exit polls against George W. Bush in 2004. He lost the question of keeping the country safe and leadership qualities. It turns out that trumped all the other issues. Republicans were astonished that their attacks on Barack Obama as unqualified and weak fell flat, as the country wanted someone they genuinely liked, and felt like he actually related to the pain they were feeling at that time. Democrats laughed at Trump’s appeals against “the elites” and asking “what the hell do you have to lose?” It turns out a lot of people felt really alienated by Washington, D.C. at the time. Bill Clinton didn’t leave office with better than 60% approval ratings because of the brilliance of his first Budget Bill, or entirely because of his record job creation, but in large part because of how he made people feel. It turns out emotion is stronger than being right, quite often in politics.

The friend I was sitting with that night, she’s quite literally one of the smartest people I know, I really enjoy my conversations with her. I don’t enjoy them just because she’s smart though- there’s something fun and relatable about her. It turns out that these things matter a lot in human interactions. In an era where society is incredibly analytical and precise with so many of our actions, it turns out that we often seek out “real” people in our lives, and when we actually get a choice about who is going to be on our television for the next four years of our lives, we’re not picking them based on some checklist of issues. There is a want for some sort of common touch, something relatable, something that makes us forget that our government is largely run by an Ivy League/Beltway class that has little in common with how we live out in the real world. Being “right” is less attractive than being somehow authentic in politics, and that makes us make decisions that sometimes make no sense in rational terms. No Fortune 50 company would pick someone who bankrupt a casino, or ruined a baseball team, to run their operations. Some random high school, or even college educated person living 50 miles from a major American city just might vote for that guy though. And occasionally they may surprise us with how they do. While I basically oppose every policy decision George W. Bush made in the months and years after 9/11, there’s something to watching him throw a strike for the first pitch at Game Three of the 2001 World Series. It made a lot of other people feel a helluva lot better about the terror in the world at that time. There’s more than a little to be said for making people feel. Even just a little bit of “emotional intelligence” can sometimes beat being the smartest person in the room- even when you are the smartest person in the room. Does this make electing an ignoramus right or okay? No, hell no in fact. Perhaps it should serve as a lesson to the “right” people though about how to sell the “right” ideas and stop being such a damn stiff.

The “Reagan Democrat” Electoral Myth

He didn’t flip the voters you think…

There’s a political myth that has survived too long- Ronald Reagan won because he flipped the “Reagancrats.” They were northern, union, Catholic households that were attracted to his message of lower taxes and less government. To Democrats, Reagan convinced them to vote against their own economic interests. It is a neat story, a more interesting story of complicated outreach that changed electoral politics. It’s also pretty much fiction.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States. He won without winning anything in the Western United States, literally. With the exception of Hawaii, Carter won all of his electoral votes in states that closed their polls by 10pm at the latest. He won without sweeping the Northeast. He won while losing almost as much of the Rust Belt as he won. He dominated in Appalachia. He won nearly the entire South. President Ford won a lot of places that Republicans don’t even dream of competing in today. He lost the election because he got crushed across the “Solid South” that Democrats dominated for a little over a hundred years, but never again after this election.

But let’s talk about those “Reagan Democrats” from labor households, across the Rust Belt, Kennedy Catholics that had been the backbone of the Democratic Party up until this point, supposedly. Yes, Reagan won them in 1980 and 1984. He won almost every group in both elections. He lost a grand total of 62 electoral votes in the two elections, and while he did better across the Rust Belt than Ford, the difference was pretty much in proportion to his victory. Basically Minnesota and West Virginia defied his political reach. Ford managed to win those and hang on to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and it was close. Carter was an outlier in this era though.

One look at Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 victories tells you the story of the “Reagan Democrat.” Their flip happened in 1968, from Kennedy voters to the swing voters that remain crucial even until today. Nixon carried Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio in both of his victories. Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia came along in 1972. Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana went red for Ford in 1976 for a third straight election, and Michigan went for the 38th President’s party a second straight time as well. All in, from 1968 until 1988, the GOP did pretty well throughout the midwest:

  • Illinois and Indiana went red six straight times.
  • Iowa went red five straight times until Bush lost it in 1988. Ohio and Missouri went red every time except for 1976. Michigan went blue every time except for 1968.
  • Pennsylvania went red four times out of six elections in this time period. Wisconsin did as well.
  • Minnesota did defy the GOP every time in this period, amazingly.

The main point of course is that it was not Reagan who flipped the Midwest, or the “Reagan Democrat.” One could make a pretty strong argument that this was already a region in play, and that it was Nixon who brought it onto the red side, more so than Reagan. The trouble for the GOP heading into the 1980 election wasn’t the Rust Belt- it was the South. The Democrats hold on the region was already slipping in 1968 when Wallace won Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and Nixon pulled in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. In 1972, Nixon swept across the South, as with most of America. In 1976 though, Carter swept the whole region back into the Democratic column, for the first time since LBJ’s 1964 blowout. Reagan’s task was to break that hold on the South. His campaign zeroed in on it, and that focus has predominantly held it since.

Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” He made it an explicit attack on government and a fight for “states rights.” He attacked anecdotal enemies such as the “welfare queen.” He gave an explicitly “states rights” speech at the Neshoba County Fair, near the site of the Philadelphia, MS lynchings of 1964. On the one hand we have to admit that Reagan simply seized on electoral trends that dated back to at least 1966 (the first “post Civil Rights” legislation election) and ran with them. On the other hand, Reagan explicitly ran on those themes and flipped the region into the Republican column for good.

In the 40+ years since Reagan’s victory, there have been some exceptions to the GOP’s “Solid South,” which now clearly includes Appalachia running north out of Dixie. West Virginia stayed in the Blue column in 1988, 1992, and 1996, before leaving to the Republicans ever since. Bill Clinton carried Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky in both of his elections, and Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996, before Al Gore and John Kerry lost every state in the South. Barack Obama did flip Virginia and Florida both times, and North Carolina once, before Hillary Clinton lost everything in the South besides Virginia. And of course, Joe Biden won Virginia and Georgia on his way to victory in 2020. For the most part though, Reagan left a legacy of a solidly Republican South. One look at 1988’s map shows what he created.

Ronald Reagan’s political revolution realigned the Southern United States into the Republican column. The truth about the northern “Reagan Democrat” is that while he won them, it was not any true marking of a massive change. Nixon and Ford did well with them too, but these voters remained the swing voters that would give the Presidency to Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, Trump, and eventually Biden thereafter. Reagan’s enduring political legacy is the permanent flip of the South away from Democrats, because he made an explicit appeal to grievance politics in the region that have become emblematic of his party since.