It’s all about the candidate

I’ve taken a break from blogging for a number of reasons during the last few months of this election cycle.  Now that the election is over, the one thing that seems clear to me from the results nationally and in a number of Congressional and Senate races is that those of us in politics all too often overlook one key thing about American democracy: it’s about people and it’s about trust.

Not just the people who are voting, but the people who are running.  Just from reading the front page of Bearing Drift, it’s clear that the inevitable argument who over whose ideology is to blame for Republican losses has already begun.  This is the same argument Republicans had in 2006, the same argument from 1996, 1992 and the same arguments Democrats had in 2010, 2004 and 2000.  Each time the electorate sends a clear signal, and each time those of us in the political class have either missed or ignored it.

At the end of the day, arguments over the economy, ideology, and various issues will take a back seat in the modern political world to arguments over the candidate and the candidate’s character.

If Republicans want to win nationally, Republicans need to start running better candidates.

Elections aren’t about choosing the best person for the job. They’re about choosing the best person from the choices we’re given.  A lot of different things go into making a candidate, but the American people have made it clear that there are a few things that they value above all else.

First, they want candidates who are consistent.  A “correct” ideology is not as important as a consistent ideology.  One of Ron Paul’s biggest selling points to folks from both sides of the aisle was his consistency.  What essentially derailed John Kerry, John McCain and Mitt Romney in their attempts at the White House was a lack of consistency.  Americans will accept liberals, moderates, conservatives in equal measures, but they won’t accept someone who changes his stripes to fit the race he’s running.  And in the modern era, where everything a candidate has ever said or written is available at a keystroke or two, consistency is going to be ever more imporant.  To win, we need consistent candidates.

Second, they want candidates who can connect with average people.  Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton – these are all presidents who were able to show political empathy with a wide variety of voters.  Mitt Romney, like John Kerry before him, got painted as an effete rich guy, and while it’s wrong, the electorate punishes those types of men for their success.  The odd paradox in politics these days is that those who have the most personal resources to win races have a hard time winning them.  Money can buy you some kinds of elected office, but not the biggest one.  Voters seem to want someone in the Oval Office who appears to understand what they’re going through or has been there themselves, even if that’s only an appearance.

Third, voters want competence.  They want to believe that the person out on the stump can actually do the job and do it well.  This goes for incumbents as well as for challengers – for incumbents, incompetence on the job, whether it’s manifested in bad decisions or through ethical lapses, can be devastating.  For challengers, running a clean campaign with no major unforced errors is important.  Every error chips away at the belief that a candidate is competent to do the job.  Too many, and you become a punchline.

Finally, voters are willing to forgive almost anything if they like a candidate.  There’s really no other way to explain how Barack Obama got reelected.  At the end of the day, when faced with a choice between someone they knew and liked and who didn’t do as well as they hoped and someone they didn’t really know, didn’t really like and didn’t really trust they went with the one they knew.

Trust.  Trust trumps ideology every time.  To get elected, you must earn the trust of the voters.  You can earn that trust through consistency, through appealing to common experiences, to being likeable enough that voters are willing to forgive mistakes and bad steps.  If the voters trust you, they will elect you.  If not, you lose.  It’s really that simple.

That’s why the Republican field in 2012 was so weak.  There were few, if any candidates in the field who were consistent, competent, connected with voters, and were likeable.  There are people like that in the party, they just didn’t choose to run.  I still think Mitt Romney was the best choice for President from the choices we were given, but Republicans made some major mistakes in down ballot races that cost votes and elections.  All of that is cumulative.

If Republicans want to win elections, it’s time to go back to basics and start with finding candidates who voters can trust.  People with records that demonstrate consistency, who have demonstrated an ability to connect and understand people, who have proven competence, and who are likeable.  When we do that, we will find people like Ike, Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43.  And that’s when we win.

I don’t want to hear another two years worth of debate about ideology.  That’s a smoke screen for the reality that modern politics is now as much about men as it is measures.