According to political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, the ideology and identity of the candidate is irrelevant—the only real variable is who votes.
By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, February 6, 2020
Modern political theory would suggest that voters focus on either issues or identity politics. Either you care deeply about healthcare, income inequality or immigration, or you simply don’t like Bernie Sanders and would prefer a woman. Something version of that. Take your pick.
Rachel Bitecofer, a 42-year-old professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, has unsettled that idea with a new model that nearly perfectly predicted the 2018 Democratic Blue Wave, to the contest. When the experts were wondering if Democrats were going to be able to capture the 23 seats needed to flip the House, she predicted that they would pick up 42 seats, and she did it 16 months before the election.
“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates. What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated,” Bitecofer said.
She claimed it didn’t matter who was running. It mattered who was voting. According to the numbers, independents continue to grow as an entity, and yet Bitecofer asserts that campaigns are spending too much time, money and energy on them. There are no real swing voters—people who go from one party to the other. Instead, she argues, the real swing comes from who votes or doesn’t vote depending on who is fired up or not.
One could argue that this is the same thing as finding the right candidate to excite the party, which even in traditional political analysis, has always been true. If you have a poor candidate, you can’t expect people to come out to vote for them.
The real news here, is that ideology might not be the mitigating factor, nor even gender or race. After the Iowa fiasco, it’s even arguable that it’s not even electability. It’s excitement.
Democrats need to ensure that voters vote. Period. No one is really concerned with policy, domestic or foreign, social or financial. They care about winning and they want to be excited.
So if you’re running a campaign, make sure you are working to fire up the electorate or you’re going to be seriously disappointed. It’s about exciting the voters in that particular area, so messaging counts, but it’s far less about policy positions. It’s about making an emotional connection between the candidate and the electorate. It’s about giving people something to hope for.
Voting still matters.