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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Friedman Files: Case File No. 1

Thomas Friedman is widely lampooned for his tendency to take an errant comment spposedly made by a taxi driver in some far-flung foreign city Friedman happens to be visiting, and extrapolating from that comment some supposedly deep understanding of the current state of the world.

I may be starting a semi-regular series of posts modeled on The Moustache of Understanding's own modus operandi. Hence, "the Friedman Files." The only difference between the two of us is that I can vouch with certainty that the conversations related herein did, in fact, occur and - unlike The Moustache - I understand that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data." In other words, while I may use some specific incident to make a larger point, I'm just some random blogger - not a Pulitzer prize winning columnist owning prime real estate over at The New York Times - and so unlike Friedman I have no problem acknowledging right up front that anything contained in these Files is just me spewing conjecture off the top of my head.

With these caveats in mind, on to File No. 1: The Case of the Low Information Bartendress.

Yesterday afternoon I popped into one of my favorite restaurants to grab a beer and a bowl of chili. As always, I was taken care of by my friend Jonni. Jonni is an intelligent person with a fine sense of humor, and even though I've never seen her outside of work I don't think I'm exaggerating when I claim that we are friends. However, like a lot of Americans Jonni doesn't really pay a great deal of attention to politics or do much more than scan the headlines in the newspaper. She is precisely the "low information voter" that the media insists on calling "an independent" and that both parties chase in their bid to win elections. I asked Jonni if she had been following any of the Republican presidential debates and she told me she had not, "but I kind of like that Perry guy."

Now I already knew that Jonni favors the death penalty for certain crimes and that she is a big fan of the right to carry a gun. But I also know that she is a big fan of Social Security and Medicare. So naturally I was curious - did Jonni consider issues like the death penalty more important than protecting Social Security? for example - and gently asked Jonni a couple of questions to find out what, exactly, about Perry appealed to her.

Turns out this was a great and immediate lesson in how low information voters make decisions. I just naturally assumed the answer would have to do with some of Perry's stated positions or past conduct, but that wasn't the case at all. Jonni's decision wasn't based on anything Perry had done or said - I don't think she even knows that he believes Social Security to be unconstitutional, or that he has set a new modern record for executing people - but just on his demeanor. "I like men who seem confident in what they believe," she told me. "He seems really sure of himself and that's important to me."

Now, like I said, the plural of anecdote is not data, but this does seem to be a confirming incident of my general belief about low information voters: their decisions are not made after a careful sifting of evidence and a weighing of competing policy factors. They are made from 'the gut' and this is something the GOP seems to more readily grasp than all the Democratic strategists Team Donkey puts together every election year.

And it seems to me that trying to convince low information voters to vote for Team Donkey by educating those voters about what Team Donkey stands for is probably the wrong way to go about winning elections. First, people are low information voters by and large because they find this stuff boring; trying to educate them about policy differences will only bore them more. Second, boring these voters is probably the best for which one can hope; I think there is also a big risk that in trying to educate them Team Donkey just comes across as condescending.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if it turned out that the Democrats' traditional campaign strategy of explaining themselves and their policies to voters is one of the reasons that party is so easily pegged as "elitist" despite the fact it is the only party that can claim to have at least made some effort on behalf of blue collar Americans. Trying to educate people about what is happening and why it is important - when you know they already don't care enough to really pay attention - has a tendency to build resentment: Look at these numbnuts trying to tell me what to think about this stuff! Those arrogant pricks. I'm voting for the other guy, he's more my style.

You know, I remember one of the very, very few episodes of The Apprentice that I ever watched involved dividing the contestants into the men's team and the women's team, and charging each with developing a promotional booklet to help sell the (then) new Pontiac Solstice (since discontinued). The men automatically assumed that - as gearheads - they had a natural edge and they put together a dense book, heavily laden with gearhead facts designed to showcase the Solstice's power and technical superiority. The women, on the other hand, put together a booklet that mostly contained photographs of the car (and it was a pretty sexy car) from different angles with a one-word tagline ("sexy," "powerful," "impressive," etc.) and a brief statement intended to underscore that tagline.

Needless to say, the women won. Looking through the guy's promotional booklet was like reading an owner's manual, whereas looking through the women's was like reading a wannabe owner's manual . . . and those were the people Pontiac was trying to reach.

It seems to me the Democrats could learn a lesson from that. The partisan voter, the committed, high information voter . . . they already know which party they're going to vote for; Democrats don't need to run a general election campaign that spells out their policy positions in order to secure those votes. Instead, Democrats need to run campaigns that convince the undecided, low information voter that the Democrats are their kind of people; and that is a sales job that - sadly, perhaps, but nevertheless is still the case - relies more on image, soundbites and a confident, breezy style.

Just like selling a goddamned car.

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