Two important elections happened on November 5, 2013, one in New Jersey and the other in Virginia. These elections could be indicators of what’s to come in politics and how to win or lose an election.
The reelection of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie provides the first set of electoral lessons. According to the Associated Press, Gov. Christie won by a whopping 22 percentage points and drew a large number of women, minority, and democrat voters to his side in the election. Did I mention that Gov. Christie is a Republican? He was able to accomplish something that is a rarity for many politicians in the current political environment. In an interview covered by the Associated Press the day after his reelection, Gov. Christie highlighted his outreach to these groups and his appearance in areas of the state that have memberships from these groups. What a novel idea – politicians speaking to all of the constituents who make up the electoral body in order to win an election.
His win should serve as a shot across the bow and a road map for politicians. A candidate running for office cannot assume that just because a “D” or an “R” is next to their name that a certain sector of the public will vote for or against them. Votes from citizens have to be earned and not taken for granted.
It is foolhardy to believe that citizens are one-issue voters. Americans are diverse and care about a multitude of issues. Just because they disagree with a candidate on one issue does not mean that a vote for that candidate is out of the question. Politicians cannot afford to write off entire sections of the electorate assuming that they will never get those votes.
The second set of electoral lessons comes from the Virginia gubernatorial race. This election featured two extremely flawed candidates in Terry McAulliffe, the Democratic candidate and eventual winner, and Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate. Each candidate brought his own cart of baggage to the race. McAulliffe’s questionable business dealings and label as a far-left leaning Democratic Party boss were widely reported nationwide. In the opposite corner was Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, who was broadcasting himself as a hard-core conservative with social beliefs that alienated a large sector of the voting public.
The flaws of these candidates explain why the election was so close. Each candidate cared more about turning out those that zealously agreed with them rather than appealing to the large swath of Virginia voters. I would argue that the votes in this election were more about voting against the other candidate rather than voting for a candidate, which is a dangerous place to be. If either party had put up a more palatable candidate, this election would have been won by a wide margin. This tells us that the type of candidate and the personality traits of the candidate matter.
What does all this mean? First, it suggests that Americans are not lemmings. We can be thoughtful, intelligent citizens (or at least most of us can be) that can understand complex topics that take longer than a 30 second sound bite to explain. Engage us and discuss the issues that matter. It may be tough, but who said being a politician should be easy. We can disagree without having to be disagreeable and talk without having to shout.
Second, just because a person happens to be a Democrat, Republican, Independent, Progressive, Conservative, etc. does not mean that a politician sharing that identification automatically gets their vote. Votes are earned, and reaching out to citizens that disagree with you is important. A candidate that wins an election has to govern all the people, not just those that voted for him or her. That means addressing the concerns and positions of all constituents is essential to governing effectively.
Third, Americans are not as polarized as the media likes to portray. I know highlighting the differences between us, the gaffes politicians make, or words taken out of context can make for exciting news. I also know that discussing real topics might not be “sexy” television, but it makes for a better society.
Now, before I step off my soapbox, I’ll leave you with one final thought. It is not just the candidates and politicians that must engage the citizens. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to be engaged, to ask the tough questions and listen to the answers, even if we don’t agree with them. We need to talk to those individuals that have different opinions from ours rather than huddling in a corner with like-minded friends. We learn more from those that disagree with us then we do from those with which we agree. Now go out and engage in the process. Help shape the society we all live in because if you don’t do it, who will?