As both amateur and professional observers grapple with the forces behind the 2012 election result, one factor to consider is the passion gap. Everyone wonders what motivates undecided and “swing” voters, particularly when they’re not deeply invested in the issues, and therefore pay little attention to policy-wonk speeches. We’re always assured that voters want to hear plenty of specifics from a positive agenda that steers clear of divisive social issues; Barack Obama won re-election with a completely nebulous, relentlessly negative campaign, whose engineers prided themselves on needling Mitt Romney to death with divisive social issues.
It might therefore be said that one of the things undecided voters look for is the balance of passion. They pay attention to which side is more dedicated to victory, and if they’re “lesser of two evils” voters – which quite a few people see themselves as – they notice which side is denounced in more passionate terms.
This presents a structural problem for Republicans, because if they’re foolish enough to believe they can get away with the kind of attacks Obama launched in 2012, the media “referees” will bury them under penalty flags. Try to imagine some future Republican presidential candidate using surrogates to falsely insinuate that his Democrat opponent is a tax cheat, or gave some guy’s wife cancer. The media would excoriate the candidate, not the surrogates. Push your imagination a bit further, and try to envision a Republican campaign operative getting away with Obama flack Stephanie Cutter’s “I never heard of Joe Soptic, even though I hosted him in a conference call” excuse. The press would destroy both her Republican equivalent and the candidate she worked for; it would be a massive national scandal.
But the passion gap isn’t just a matter of vicious personal attacks and dirty tricks that Republicans aren’t allowed to pull. Ronald Reagan was able to level his opponents without ever losing his good cheer. If you’re old enough to recall the Reagan years, you can remember how deeply liberals hated him for this.
John McCain spent an awful lot of time assuring America that his enigmatic opponent was a wonderful guy who would make a terrific President. Mitt Romney ran a tougher race, but there was still always that theme of “nice guy, but in over his head.” Democrats, on the other hand, spent $100 million portraying Mitt Romney as evil incarnate, during a post-primary period when he could do little to respond, and he never really rebutted most of it personally. The Republican convention, while very well executed in many respects, had a somewhat defensive character as a result, while the Democrat gathering was an unhinged revival meeting containing a good deal of shouting about how the Republicans wanted you to starve, or bleed to death in an emergency room. The Democrat approach produced a short-term surge, but Romney never really capitalized on its expiration, or followed up his terrific first debate performance. If they didn’t get deeply into other issues, some swing state voters at least sensed the imbalance of passion.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie was also part of that problem. He’s got a reputation for tough, straight talk, but in his much-heralded GOP convention speech he said much about himself, little about Mitt Romney, and nothing about Barack Obama. When it was Bill Clinton’s turn over at the Democrat convention, he lambasted Republicans in a stemwinder, and held out Obama as a savior. Christie would go on to embrace Obama after Hurricane Sandy, and people notice when your team’s star sumo wrestler suddenly starts getting cuddly.
Passion doesn’t require venom or obnoxious behavior to project. Accomplishing the task without those crutches is harder, but more rewarding, and healthier for our political culture. Strong words require neither shouting nor profanity to express. A fair slice of the electorate has ears that only perk up for them.