Monday, June 13, 2011

How Partisanship Works at the Voter Level

Dave Weigel reports from the campaign trail:
I talked briefly to Bob Wilson, who works with the Amputee Golf Association, and works with Next Step to meet new amputees and tell them what their options are. "They see me walk in the room," he said, pointing to his extremely flexible prosthetics, "and they see they'll be okay."
What did he think of PPACA? "Flush it," he said. "I don't even want to know what other crap is in there. I wouldn't be surprised if they sneaked a gun ban in there."
Look, you can talk forever about framing and messaging and all that, but there's just no way in the world that Barack Obama is going to get the vote of someone like that -- or that the Republicans are going to get the vote of the third of the nation that are partisan Democrats. That's not a bad thing, but it's the reality of partisanship. Hey, I'm not saying that this guy literally thought that there might be a gun ban in ACA -- but this is exactly how people think when they oppose something for basically partisan, not substantive, reasons. And most of us, most of the time, think about stuff through partisanship, not substance.

Unfortunately, Weigel doesn't quite get a quote to show the other side of it, although he does talk about it. As he points out, ACA actually is quite important to the people Tim Pawlenty is talking to at Next Step Orthotics & Prosthetics because (among other things) of the ban on denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. The point is that partisan Republicans, even those with a high degree of interest and self-interest in the topic, are apt to believe the half-hearted claims by Republican politicians that of course we all agree about pre-existing conditions. Partisan Republicans don't press those politicians about why Republicans have no plan of their own for dealing with the problem (and didn't enact anything when they had the chance).

Again, this isn't about Republicans; it's about how most partisans wind up acting in practice. Not all, but almost all. Of course, I don't know for a fact that the people in question are Republicans...but I'd bet heavily that anyone who talks the way Wilson talks is a very safe GOP vote (and there's the logic of it, too: Pawlenty is unlikely to be campaigning among people unlikely to vote in the GOP primary).

As long as I'm on the topic -- I'd also be willing to bet that if you asked Wilson, there's a good chance that he would say that he votes the candidate, not the party. He'd also -- well, let's zoom out to "most people" instead of the particular guy in one story -- most partisans also say they don't feel particularly close to the Republican (or Democratic) Party, and that they certainly don't automatically do whatever the organized party tells them to do.

Last point: none of this is a bad thing. It's perfectly fine that lots of us act as partisans, that we take issue positions on most things by trusting opinion leaders instead of through rigorous substantive analysis, that we don't see it happening when we do it. It's just how politics works, or at least the politics of mass opinion and mass electorates. However, it's quite important to know. Next time you're tempted to think that Barack Obama (or Paul Ryan) could win the debate over some issue by using the right phrase or giving the right speech, think of Bob Wilson, and remember just how severe the limits are on how much that sort of thing can possibly matter.


  1. remember just how severe the limits are on how much that sort of thing can possibly matter.

    Well, but if one-third of the country are hard-core partisan Democrats, and another (say) 40% are hard-core partisan Republicans, that still leaves almost 30% of the electorate who are amenable to changing their opinion on issues based on "the right phrase" or "the right speech."

    Are you saying that it's not worthwhile to try to persuade these voters? Or, maybe, that there just aren't that many voters who are truly persuadable? (I'm sympathetic to the latter viewpoint, but it doesn't seem to be what you're getting at here.)

  2. My guess: most of the 30-odd percent who call themselves indies are really partisans with an annoyed attitude. Think of all the people who are strong liberals/progressives, but have few good words to say for the Democratic Party.

    Perhaps 10 percent of the electorate are genuinely nonpartisan. But most of them dislike politics and pay minimal attention to political issues at all. In theory they are persuadable; in practice they mostly just tune it all out.


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