Personality Over Policy
“Voting blocs,” defined as groups that form a voting unit due to common interest or purpose, have long been a part of the American political scene and are a crucial part of any democracy. Voting blocs, traditionally characterized by demographic groups, however, have evolved this presidential election into more personality-driven affinities for particular candidates. Hoping to inspire greater voter turnout, campaigns seem to be focusing more on candidates’ personas rather than on their policy platforms.
Renewed focus on turnout
In addition to attracting new supporters, getting existing supporters to show up to the polls has always been a relevant consideration in elections. However, as voters have become more ideologically consistent, turnout has taken on an increased importance. With fewer conflicted voters in play, what seems to matter most to today’s politicians is getting the people that already agree with them to actually vote.
This isn’t to say that the issues don’t matter. In most cases, a candidate’s actual stances are a big factor in how people choose who they support. But the extent that support is given — and translates to votes — is becoming more and more inspired by a sense of shared identity. It’s been called Bernie’s populism and Trump’s fascism, but the general trend is the same: inspiring turnout through targeted rhetoric and a carefully crafted persona.
Of all the candidates, Ted Cruz is the most willing to admit to this strategy. Cruz strategists have modelled their campaign after a growing body of literature that argues that swing voters are relatively unimportant; elections are decided by the turnout of base voters.
The Cruz campaign has estimated the number of undecided voters to be at 9 percent. According to Business Insider, only 20 percent of eligible voters in 2012 were “persuadable” and only half of that group ended up actually voting. That makes Cruz’ number seem fairly accurate.
The important question then becomes whether or not building a strong persona translates into voter turnout. Currently, there is no clear answer. Articles such as US News’ “Does Trump have fans or voters?” seem to show that one does not necessarily entail the other, but, so far this election, it seems like fans are the most likely ones to vote.
A new sort of identity politics
For Cruz, this strategy has meant pushing a previously established voting bloc — the religious right — into an even stronger, more militant support base. With campaign videos featuring the candidate cooking bacon around the barrel of a shotgun and speeches telling supporters to “strap on the full armor of God,” Ted Cruz has tapped into many’s sense of a need for protection from religious persecution.
While Cruz might be the most open about the turnout strategy, perhaps the strongest examples of constructed political identity come from the extreme ends of the spectrum: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
On the right, Donald Trump has surpassed nearly everyone’s expectations. David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times, “Donald Trump Isn’t Real,” encapsulates much of this surprise. Far from a traditional politician, Trump has a background in hospitality and entertainment, bringing not only beauty pageants and “The Apprentice” to Americans, but also appearances in “Battle of the Billionaires,” a show that is exactly what it sounds like. Trump’s campaign has been equally full of “entertainment,” from the USA Freedom Kids to his aggressive lack of filter. But that is the appeal of Trump.
When NPR interviewed Trump supporters at an Iowa rally, there seemed to be a consensus that his bold tongue is what makes Trump the hero of the “silent majority.” The supporters identify as not wanting anything free but not wanting “stuff taken away from them either.” They don’t brag, aren’t activists, and don’t depend on other people. However, despite this self-description, Trump’s supporters are becoming more politically active and seemingly less silent now that they’ve found their hero.“They used to call it the silent majority,” Trump told the crowd that day in Iowa. “I’m calling it the noisy majority because we are angry, and we are angry at stupid people.”
On the left, Bernie Sanders supporters are angry too, albeit for different reasons. The lovable, fiery grandpa, Bernie, is fighting for the lower and middle classes, and the Bernie Bros, as they have been branded, are typically young and active on social media. They distrust big money, and they are ready for the revolution.
Bernie is the pure leader of the revolution that they might not have even known they were waiting for. Bernie is the first presidential candidate from the Democratic National Party to openly label himself a democratic socialist, and he’s had the same political talking points (namely, income inequality) for some thirty years. While Sanders has laid out some plans to achieve these ends, the fan focus seems to be more about the purity of Bernie’s ideology rather than the details of his proposed policy solutions.
Establishment candidates in more ways than one
On the other hand, Clinton and Rubio, who are coincidentally more aligned with their respective party establishments, have neither the quirk nor the bold charisma of their primary opponents. Neither did Jeb Bush, who — before dropping out of the race — flailed under criticisms of being boring and unenergetic by his opponents, the media, and public alike.
Although Clinton has a strong base in more traditional voter blocs like women and minorities, there isn’t the same passion or fervor associated with being a Hillary supporter as there is with being a Bernie fan. The Clinton campaign seems aware of this and has tried to convince voters of Hillary’s hip relatability, but, as seen in SNL skits, this hasn’t been the most effective. While Clinton was nevertheless successful in South Carolina, voter turnout was far below the 2008 primary at only 10.35 percent, perhaps due to Clinton’s lack of connection with her supporters. Winning with low voter turnout does not bode well for the general election.
On the Republican side, Rubio is often, quite interestingly, labelled a moderate. As Margaret Talbot pointed out in the New Yorker following Rubio’s relative success in Iowa, it is hard to make a case for this when looking at the issues. Socially, he opposes gay marriage and abortion without exception and has a perfect grade from the NRA. Economically, he opposes raising the minimum wage and believes any climate action would be economically damaging and not grounded in science. In fact, Rubio’s reputation as a moderate comes not from the issues, but rather from his more mild temperament relative to his opponents’s. It is a true sign of changing politics that “moderate” is being used to describe personality rather than political positioning.
Like Clinton, Rubio has been reasonably successful thus far into the primaries and finishing second in South Carolina and Nevada. But for an establishment candidate with wealthy donors, Rubio will have to do more to win; as The New York Times put it, “Marco Rubio Gets Party’s Blessing, but Not Voters’.” It is of course hard to pinpoint this to Rubio’s more mellow personality, but perhaps his campaign could benefit from a more energized support base. Indeed, in recent debates Rubio has been more fiery in his criticisms of frontrunner Trump. Perhaps, like Clinton, Rubio is seeking to show off a more dynamic personality to vote for instead of just a policy platform.
Indeed, all of the candidates seek this greater energy to carry them through to the convention this summer. While it can’t be known how the races will shake out, Trump, Sanders and Cruz focus on displaying a rousing personality have rallied voters beyond early expectations. Others — namely Rubio and Clinton — have not necessarily attained the same level of charisma despite efforts to be more like their fiery rivals. Only time will tell if party establishments and traditional issues campaigning will be overtaken by shooting guns to cook bacon, showing off cultural aptitude in memes, or making bombastic and controversial statements for effect.