Monday, September 18, 2006

They Can Hold Their Breath Long As They Want That Won’t Turn The Country Blue
Single issue politics

Note: When the comments came in on this piece at Echidne's this weekend there were some interesting assumptions that I hadn't considered. First people didn't seem to realize that the size of the groups subtracted could be very small or could be effectively all the voters a politician could hope would support them. A politician might lose a handfull of votes on a minor bill or they could turn their entire pool of supporters away based on a real killer of a bill.

More disappointing a lot of comments missed the last paragraph in which more successful stratgeies are suggested for single-issue people. Some single issues are very unpopular but also too important to waste on unrealistic strategies. There is a piece about assumptions and their dangers to be posted sometime in the coming days.

When it comes to who wins and who loses in our winner-takes-all political system you have to look at the electoral price of issues. You just do. There are a few absolutely basic issues that we have to risk losing it all over. Those can’t be defined by a rule. But there aren’t anywhere near as many as single-issue voters insist. Issues beyond compromise generally involve life and liberty since without those any pursuit of happiness is impossible. And even with those a compromise is sometimes the best that can be gotten in the short run.

A secondary issue can be mildly liked or disliked or it can be the be-all and end-all for a voter, either way. It depends on the voter and it depends on the issue. Anyone who insists on their particular issue being the most important shouldn’t be surprised when other people look at them as if they’ve got rocks in their head. Just try telling another single-issue person that your issue is more important than theirs if you need an illustration.

What holding out for an unpopular issue costs a politician and their supporters.

This is an experiment, it needs tweaking . It’s just a matter of subtracting.

You start with the entire voting population, 100% of the people who will actually vote.

You subtract those who will never vote for you under any circumstances, R.

This will give you 100 - R = D, the percent of people who might vote for you. D is the first number you need to determine voters who you can keep but who you might lose over a given issue.

Taking D, subtract those who will not vote for you if you support an issue, D - O = S. O stands for definitively Opposed to the issue S stands for Stalwarts.

S allows you to go on to determine how many of your most reliable voters will Peel off over a more controversial issue. Even stalwarts have their limits.

S - P = B or Stalwarts minus P equals the voters whose support a politician has Bought with his support of their issue.

The Cost of B is the number of voters that support for the issue in question turns away. B are roughly single issue voters, those who you will definitely lose if you don’t buy them what they want. You might enjoy thinking of other meanings for “B”.

Or maybe we need to go one step further.

B is usually smaller than vocal one-issue proponents claim since other people identified by them as members of their group don’t agree with them. There will almost always be members of the group B claims as supporters of their issue but who are actually members of all of the groups above. Call this number W for the unknown number claimed by B but who really think they’re all Wet.

The real number you need is B -W = G. G is what you might Get for what you spent. It can be fairly large or minuscule depending on the size of the variables. On many single-issue issues it will not be very many.

This isn’t exactly science but it gives you an idea of what supporting a massively controversial single issue can cost a politician versus the tiny number of supporters that issue has. And, given experience, that tiny group of single-issue people can turn on a dime and stay home on election day. Single-issue folk sometimes aren’t notable for their maturity.

From the standpoint of supporters of an issue, they should fully expect politicians who have to win elections to make these estimates because they have to. There is no other way to win an election but to get the most votes. If a group of single-issue voters is small enough they should fully expect to be left out of real politics because they will be, due to their own insistence. This happens either because politicians who might agree with them can’t do what they want or because friendly politicians will lose to their enemies. They will lose to politicians who will never support the single-issue in question.

Single-issue people should also keep in mind that their insistence on losing elections over their issue will win them the hostility of other people who they might have won over to their cause if they didn’t insist on being spoilers. These are costs to the single-issue voters in these calculations. You can look at it that way too.

Of course, supporters of even the most guaranteed loser of an issue could choose more intelligent ways to pursue it than holding a rubber knife to the throat of a politician. Those ways don’t involve elections, they involve convincing the People, a far harder thing to do but often the only way to move those really tough agendas. That can cost lifetimes of work and not just talk, a price that only real supporters of issues are prepared to spend. They might start their job of convincing other people by sacrificing their single-issue status and entering into coalitions. But that comes with other costs.

I'm so busy ciphering for my work, I'm not capable of following your argument right now, but I bet I'd agree with it.

Anyway, though, part of the way around this sort of calculus is for us to do what the Republicans do and have code languages to keep the Dem. base supporting Dem. politicians while also allowing the Dems. to change their rhetoric a bit so we can reach out to voters who don't agree with the base on all issues.
Democrats certainly have to change something about our presentation, forty years of failure isn't a great track record.

I wish whatever it was Bill Clinton has could be bottled and given to our candidates, he wasn't the most successful office holder but he was the most brilliant campaign politician I've ever seen, and I've seen a couple of really great ones.

I'm going to re-write this from the other end up and see how it flies. Single-issue or hopeless issue voters sometimes have a point but they're uselessly banging their heads against the bad habit of thinking they can force politicians to do their bidding as a matter of principle. Even a politician with principles has to win an election to do something.
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