By a nose, and liking it

Nov 4, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

Today's presidential election strategists deliberately shoot for a close election

On Tuesday we'll vote in the 2012 general election. In the case of the presidential election, the candidates have been running for many months. They have been in full-on campaign mode for a long time.

A problem with such long presidential campaigns is that candidates and voters can come to confuse running for office and serving in office. Running and governing are not the same. There are numerous examples, but one is relatively new: Presidential candidates don't necessarily try to get as many votes as possible any more.

Political journalist Ryan Lizza, in a national magazine article this week, noted that "for decades, persuasion was considered the key to winning, and the gurus and consultants promised candidates that they could craft messages that would win over uncommitted voters."

Gradually, though, the top strategists conceded that "winning by narrow margins was a better strategy," Lizza writes. A few elections ago, presidential campaign managers decided to stop spending so much time trying to get voters of one party to switch over to the other party, or to persuade undecided voters to tilt their way, and to spend much more time and money ensuring their own voters solidify their support and, even more importantly, getting their voters to turn out on election day.

What it means is this: The campaigns don't care if they win by .01 percent, just so long as they win.

That approach works fine for an election, but when a candidate who won by a hair's breadth takes office, he has a harder time claiming a mandate to establish and follow his agenda.

In this way -- the success of new campaign managers who actually shoot for a narrow victory to a larger one because it's easier to achieve motivation of your base than persuasion of the undecided -- in this way, those who work so hard to get the candidate elected aren't doing him or her any favors when it's actually time to serve. So long as we have decided we'll deliberately try to win our elections in a photo finish, we're likely to sentence ourselves to governing the same way. It is a fascinating development to the political scientist, outside the think tank it is creating a self-perpetuating cycle of dogmatic, polarized elections on one end in which consensus not only isn't valued but is discouraged, and gridlocked, contentious governing on the other end in which consensus is avoided because it could affect one side's or the other's success in the next election -- when it starts all over again.

Thank goodness for local elections. Cast your vote.

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