Remember Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man”? Using fiery rhetoric and fear tactics, he somehow convinced an entire town that a new pool table would mean the end of civilization, and the only solution was to invest in his marching band. “We’ve got trouble,” he chanted, “right here in River City, with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pool.”
Let’s imagine that he’s been lying low for a while, and now he’s come back to town as a political campaign strategist. Whatever side Harold is working for (and it could be either side), his first job is to lay out the problem. Both candidates have a solid base of supporters, people who will reliably vote for them no matter what. But these bases aren’t quite big enough for either candidate to win the election.
“Let’s focus on a calm discussion of the issues,” Harold’s candidate says. “Voters are mature and reasonable.”
“No,” says Harold. “You’ve got to scare ’em.”
He advises his candidate to start with the reliable party-affiliated base. “Make them excited about supporting you. They already know there’s trouble in River City — your job is to remind them, and to remind them that it’s the other guy’s fault. Get them worked up enough to give you money, to volunteer for your campaign and, most important, to turn out at the polls.”
Harold then advises his candidate to concentrate on undecided voters. Some may lack a strong party affiliation. Others may differ strongly with their party on a single issue. “Either way, they’ll jump to our side if you get them riled up enough about that one issue,” says Harold.
“What’s the issue?” the candidate asks.
“It depends on the voter,” says Harold. “There’s unemployment, taxes, climate change, national security, abortion, health care. Oh, and don’t forget Medicare. And then there are issues that might seem small, like a pool table, but to some folks they’re going to loom huge. Believe me, there are dozens and dozens of kinds of trouble in River City. We just need to figure out which issue each person cares about most.”
“How do we do that?”
“Microtargeting, my friend. Through public and private data sources, we know what party people belong to, how often they’ve voted previously, what their mortgage is, what magazines they subscribe to, whether they own a gun. We know their age, sex and often their race. We can pinpoint which issue an individual is likely to care about — which issue scares them deeply enough to vote for you, even if it’s only so they can vote against your opponent. We say to one undecided voter, ‘We’re going to protect your interests on Issue A,’ and to the next undecided voter, ‘We’re going to protect your interests on Issue B.’ We’ve got to convince each voter that you’re the lesser of two evils on their key issue.”
“But aren’t these undecided voters in the middle? Shouldn’t we take a more moderate position to attract their votes?”
Harold shakes his head. “If a voter is undecided, we need to poke him with a stick. We’re not trying to convert them to permanently switch parties — we’re just trying to get their votes for this one election.”
My point in writing this column is not to skewer campaign strategists, per se. But if you’re wondering, as I was, why today’s political rhetoric seems to rely so heavily on Harold Hill-style hysteria — finger-pointing and demonizing the other side, rather than a reasonable discussion of the issues — it might help to consider how and why campaigns are not only targeting, but microtargeting, undecided voters. (To get some perspective on voter psychology, I interviewed political scientists Robert Y. Shapiro at Columbia and D. Sunshine Hillygus at Duke.)
Do such techniques help win presidential elections? The campaigns think so, if the tone of their ads, fliers, blogs, phone calls, emails and tweets is any indication. But do the polarizing strategies that win elections help us out as a country when it comes to governing?
“Now what?” says Harold Hill’s candidate, after winning in November. His job now is to get things done: to compromise and to find common ground with the opposition (who are already planning how to widen the polarization four years from now).
“Good luck with that,” thinks Harold, who has already left town.
Joan Vennochi is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her new book, The News From Spain, will be published in the fall.