First, Secure the Base

Some years ago I taught a class on campaigns and elections in a liberal arts college in New York state. One of the things I told students — one of whom went out and ran for office soon thereafter — is that the first task of a politician is to secure the base.

If you don’t have your peeps with you, you might as well stop running around giving speeches and shaking hands and go home.

In some races, the base is enough. If you represent a district or state that’s really strongly blue or red, base politics is good general election politics.

But in swing districts and swing states and certainly, usually, in presidential elections, it’s not enough. You secure your base and then you reach out to swing voters.  The trick is to avoid turning off those swing voters too much when you secure your base.  

George W. Bush carried out this maneuver in part by using coded language, referencing biblical passages in speeches.  These would be heard by evangelical Christians but often would not be picked up by other voters.  

Somehow the Obama administration has failed to learn this lesson.  They have focused, foolishly, on independents, as if they are a coherent group. But they aren’t.

At the same time, they seem to have forgotten the base or at least taken it for granted. 

Here’s pollster Mark Mellman a few days ago, before the debt ceiling deal was raised.

 “Whatever qualms or questions they may have about this policy or that policy, at the end of the day the one thing they’re absolutely certain of — they’re going to hate these Republican candidates.” “So I’m not honestly all that worried about a solid or enthusiastic base.”

Mr. Mellman, securing the base is job one.  Turns out only 33% of independents support the deal and, while the raw level of support among Democrats is higher, only 29% of Democrats believe it will make the economy better.

A final note: Ed Kilgore makes a good point, that Republican presidential candidates will have their own problems in that they will find it hard to pull away from the tea party base.  And it’s definitely true that the Republican stance on the debt ceiling was seen as too uncompromising by most Americans. However, incumbent presidents tend to be judged based on their own record, of which the economy is a large part, and the debt deal’s cuts will slow the economy.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.