James Kerian: It's Not The Voters' Opinions That Matter, It's How Much They Care

Most people disagree with you.

If you care about anything in politics (it doesn’t matter where you are on the ideological spectrum) most people disagree with you.  You might be tempted to believe that’s wrong because you have an opinion poll that says most people believe elective abortion should be illegal or most people want tax relief.  If you’re a liberal you might be tempted to believe I’m wrong because you have an opinion poll that says most people want insurance companies to have to cover those with pre-existing conditions or that most people believe the government needs to “invest” more in education.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]They do oppose Obamacare.  It’s just that many of them don’t care enough about the issue to both find out which senate candidate supports Obamacare and then to vote accordingly.[/mks_pullquote]

But even if your opinion poll is trustworthy it doesn’t change the fact that most people disagree with you because your position, when you really get specific, is not what the pollsters ask about.  Your position is not just that the government should do this or stop doing something else.  Your position is that it’s really important that the government do this or stop doing something else.  That’s where you’ll lose your majority, every time, because when a majority of the population comes to an agreement about what’s important that issue ceases to be politically contested and those who hold the majority position don’t even think of it as a political idea.

More Americans have opposed than supported Obamacare since it was passed.  In North Dakota one would expect it’s popularity to be even lower.  But in 2012 North Dakota elected (albeit narrowly) Senator Mary Kathryn “Heidi” Heitkamp despite her repeated (albeit quiet) support of Obamacare.

Why did this happen?  It isn’t that the voters are lying to the pollster.  If asked to take a position they do oppose Obamacare.  It’s just that many of them don’t care enough about the issue to both find out which senate candidate supports Obamacare and then to vote accordingly.

Most Americans, unfortunately, favor the type of expanded background checks on gun sales that the Democrats attempted to require after the highly publicized school shootings last year.  It’s a bad idea, but if forced to take a position on that specific issue most voters will support it.  Fortunately, this idea is going nowhere legislatively because, again, most of these voters don’t actually care enough about the issue to both educate themselves about which candidates agree with them and then to vote accordingly.

This is why popular initiatives and ideas do not become law while unpopular laws remain in place.  It is not some complicated Illuminati conspiracy it is simply a feature/bug of the Republic that it is not the voters’ opinions that matter, it is how much they care about those opinions.

Occasionally (but only very rarely) a political leader comes along who is such a great communicator that he can influence both the positions that voters take and (just as importantly) how passionately they care about those positions.  Politicians like this accomplish things like winning the electoral votes of 49 states.  In the vast majority of races, however, no political party is going to be able to field a candidate like that.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]It is simply a feature/bug of the Republic that it is not the voters’ opinions that matter, it is how much they care about those opinions.[/mks_pullquote]

To win, therefore, nearly every candidate has to cobble together a majority by offering several groups of voters allegiance on the issues that are most important to each group.  You pick up a few percentage points with your position on taxes and a few more with your position on health insurance and a few more with your position on oil development and (unfortunately) a whole lot by appealing to those whose primary concern is name recognition.  If you can pull together a broad enough coalition you get 50% of the vote and you’re in office.  Some candidates will claim they just put their position out there and don’t worry about whether or not it is popular, even if that’s the case this is still the dynamic that determines whether or not they win.

This is one of the many reasons that third party candidates and their supporters who seek ideological purity are usually (if not always) undermining the causes they claim to care about.  If you’re not willing to support a candidate who disagrees with you on some issues you will probably never find a candidate you can support whose platform can cobble together support from a majority of voters.  In our system of government the difficult work (for those who want to advance the convictions they hold passionately) is to find a candidate whose platform is both broad enough to acquire majority support and includes support for those convictions.  If your list of passionately held convictions and the current makeup of the electorate makes that an impossibility then you will not be able to make any meaningful difference in a Republic.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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