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Impeachments & Elections

CBC News was interviewing an American professor about the impeachment hearings. The reporter asked a good question: “Is the impeachment changing the minds of Americans?” [My paraphrasing]

The analyst responded: “If you already believe Mr. Trump is guilty, the impeachment hearing has helped verify your opinion. If you are a Trump supporter, the evidence is not there to change your mind.” [My paraphrasing]

So, if the impeachment process cannot change the collective minds of Americans (and polls suggest that has been the effect), what is the purpose of impeachment?

The answer lies in the purpose of election campaigns.

There is a myth that election campaigns are about changing people’s minds. To some degree, that is true. In two elections (when I was not so politically inclined), I walked into the voting booth mostly as an act of civic duty, but I didn’t have a clue who I was going to vote for. What made me put an “X” in this box and not in that box is still a mystery to me. Was I swayed by a newspaper ad? The number of lawn signs that I walked past? A little talk with a party worker at my door? Who knows?

But this kind of voter (often given adjectives like “undecided”, “fickle”, or “swing”) is a small part of total voters. It may be true that a political party can adjust its message to get more of the swing vote than the other party. But the parties have bigger voter demographics to manage than the undecided. These demographics are called “hard” and “soft” support.

“Hard support” are the political party’s supporters who are very motivated to make a trip to the voting booth. Their minds are made up. They are going to cast a vote. Blizzards and long lines will not deter them. All the negative press about their party or its candidates will go unheard by this group.

“Soft support” for the political party are those voters who prefer that party. But these voters can find excuses. A little illness or a teenage son’s basketball game can cause this voter to assume “my vote doesn’t count that much anyway,” thereby justifying not making the trip to the polling station. If the party does not manage its soft support, it could lose the election. That is the main reason for the lawn signs, the canvassing, the rallies, and the phone calls on election day. All this activity motivates the soft support to vote. None if it convinces the other side they are wrong.

Political junkies believe all voters come to a strong, committed conclusion on who to vote for, just like the junkies have—even if the voting conclusion is obviously wrong. Political junkies just don’t understand voters who are not that committed to watching and analyzing the political process, but who still want to do their civic duty.

But political parties do understand soft support. In fact, they deliberately go after the soft support of their political opposition with negative campaigning. When a soft supporter is confronted with a piece of communication that puts his or her preference in a bad light, that “fact” pushes into the subconscious of the soft supporter. If enough negative bits get into the soft supporter’s head, that accumulation can turn into one vote less for the preference, which is just as good (as far as the attacker is concerned) as to gaining a convert from the undecided voters.

From a psychological perspective, it is a more effective use of campaign resources to go after the opposition’s soft support than to find new converts from the undecided. That is why the parties engage in negative advertising and personal attacks. These techniques do not change minds, but they bring results at the ballot box with fewer votes cast for the opposition. Otherwise, the various players would not be using these techniques — election after election after election. Nice guys do indeed finish last in politics.

The following example is showing an evolution in negative campaigning. In the Trump Facebook campaign, this team was able to segregate single mothers on Facebook. Why should Mr. Trump cater to single mothers? After all, single mothers are usually cash-strapped and time-challenged to manage their household. They would welcome any help from government. Why should they vote for a rich businessman who wants to reduce taxes for rich people? Single mothers’ inclination, as a demographic, would be to vote mostly for the D’s. So why should the Trump campaign even target single mothers?

Here’s how the Trump Facebook team went after this demographic. It delivered this ad to the single mother Facebook feed: a sunny day, a playground surrounded by green trees, children playing on swings and monkey bars, laughing and giggling, nice music—followed by a meme that said nothing more than “TRUMP pence.”

Put yourself in the position of a cash-strapped, time-challenged single mother. You really don’t like Mr. Trump and you are not going to vote for him. But this whole Facebook ad conveys the idea that he is not as bad as the stories that seem to follow him. After all, a bad man would never make an ad like that, would he? Mr. Trump understands that your kids need a good life, right? You get home tired from work. Kids are fighting and need to be fed. Then Attitude! One hour left to make a trip to the polling station to cast your D vote. You need to find a baby-sitter. Favorite TV show is on. Trump’s not really that bad. Aw, fuck it! Your one vote really does not matter. For sure, you didn’t vote for Trump.

I believe this one particular ad was more effective in getting Mr. Trump elected than any Russian interference. Those who are fixated on fixing American democracy by attacking Russians are totally missing the point of what is really ailing American democracy.

Here’s another disturbing trend related to soft support. Toward the end of the 2016 campaign. CBC News did a mini-documentary on the ground teams of both the R’s and D’s. The ground team is the mostly volunteers of a political party who try to identify their supporters and get them to the voting booth on election day. The purpose of a ground team is to ensure much of the party’s soft support does vote. In close elections, ground teams can make the difference between first place and nothing. And nothing means several years of nothing!

According to the documentary, the D’s had fantastic ground teams. Nice campaign offices with desks and phone banks and computers and bustling with people. But many R offices were mostly empty with just a sign in the front window. We later found the R resources were going to social media instead of giving great parties to ground teams. What has happened is that the ground team volunteers, who believe in the party and its candidates and are ready to sacrifice time and energy to do some rather boring and thankless work for that party and its candidates, are—well—it’s hard for me to say this—are really not that important any more in these days of cellphones and social media. In other words, the parties no longer need people the way parties used to need people.

Rather, the parties need more rich people with lots of money to hire the best social media gurus, whose loyalties lie mostly to the guru bank account, to manipulate the psyche of people with much less money and convince them not to vote. Now, that is democracy in action, isn’t it?

When political parties no longer need to build a political platform to attract volunteers to win elections, western democracy—especially the American version—is losing an important check-and-balance. Other than their occasional vote, the parties need not rely on common people for much. Think about that!

Let’s get back to the impeachment process, analyzing six kinds of American voters.

Is the impeachment process going to the change the mind of strong D supporters?

No, the impeachment was not needed to convince these people of anything.

Is the impeachment process going to change the mind of the strong R supporters?

No, even with 100 witnesses with cellphone videos documenting violations of all 10 Commandments, these people will see no wrongdoing.

Is the impeachment process going to change the mind of the swing voters?

Maybe, but in today’s polarized USA, the number of people who could vote either way is probably pretty small.

Is the impeachment process going to change the mind of the soft D supporters?

I believe some soft D support will be more motivated to find their way to the voting booth in 2020 — and not be swayed by cheap Facebook ads.

Is the impeachment process going to change the mind of the soft R supporters?

We could argue that there are few soft R supporters; Trumplings sure seem to be highly motivated. But if current polls and my math are correct, a 40% approval rating and 250m voters means 100m votes are going to be cast in an R way. That didn’t happen in 2016, and I don’t think it will happen in 2020. Despite what the polls say, there is a lot of soft R support. And the impeachment process will convince more than usual to stay home on election day.

Is the impeachment process going to convince the 50% of Americans who normally don’t vote to vote?

Probably, but by how much? I think it’s safe to say whatever that shift is, it will tilt mostly to the D’s.

The D’s have all the leverage for a landslide in 2020, but . . . .

So, I’m hoping readers understand this impeachment process is not about removing a rogue president from office—or even convincing this president to behave more presidentially. The impeachment is just a prequel to the 2020 campaign, with exactly the same motivations as the 2020 campaign: protecting D soft support and attacking R soft support. I believe that the D’s realized that they were going to lose much of their soft support if they did not use their constitutional power to hold Mr. Trump accountable. Why should the soft D support make a trip to the 2020 ballot box if the D’s allow Mr. Trump to continue with his presidential antics? Let me put this another way—the impeachment process is mostly about not giving Mr. Trump an easy victory in 2020.

The R’s probably would prefer not to fight this battle. But like a basketball team down 10 points in the third quarter, they are rising to the challenge. Most of their actions are understandable in terms of protecting R soft support and attacking soft D support. And Mr. Trump seems to be enjoying this battle!

Both sides know they cannot convince anyone to vote the other way—and are only using the impeachment game to enact their offense and defense strategies in manipulating soft supporters.

If you think governance should be focused on resolving social issues and not on managing hard and soft political support, then may I suggest you inspect an alternative system of democratic governance with no political parties and no drama the parties bring into governance? That choice all belongs to you, the open-minded Medium reader.

Published on Medium 2020

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