Contrary to many media reports, it isn’t the big national issues or the philosophical ideas of right and left that decide presidential elections, but the local issues and concerns of people in a few bellwether counties. Every vote counts, but presidential elections are often decided by swing states, and while voters care about the country, their motivations are often much more local.
In his new book Going Red: The Two Million Voters Who Will Elect the Next President–and How Conservatives Can Win Them, HotAir’s Ed Morrissey explains that the presidential election will likely be decided in only seven counties. At an event at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Morrissey argued that it is crucial for Republicans to localize their message.
“We’ve stopped making politics a peer-to-peer issue and more of a top-down results approach,” Morrissey warned. He spent six months doing on-the-ground research in the seven counties that are likely to determine the November election, and he discovered that when it comes to motivating voters, local issues carry more weight than national messages.
In order to win voters, “Republicans need to contextualize issues and policies to touch the lives of constituents,” Morrissey said. This does not entail pandering or altering your positions on national issues, but rather finding the way to give a local resonance to your broader message.
The author pointed to the county that I grew up in, Jefferson County, Colorado. “Republicans and conservatives there tend to be conservationists,” he said. They care about the environment, “but they don’t necessarily want a big huge, top-down government effort to do it.”
“You can’t go into Jefferson County, Colorado, and talk about the enviro-wackos …you have to address the conservation issues,” Morrissey explained. “Fortunately, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] gave conservatives a great opening” to do just that, in the Animas River spill.
Last August, the EPA investigated an old abandoned mine near Silverton, Colorado. In the process of cleaning it out, they unleashed three million gallons of toxic sludge into the Animas River, which flows south into New Mexico. Coloradans who care about the environment have learned to hate the EPA, because it insists on “heavy-handed, job crushing regulations.” Now, they hate it for destroying the environment.
The general, national message against environmental scares might be less effective in my home state, but the message against a bloated national government hits home to Coloradans who remember the Animas River spill.
This is the kind of local issue that a Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump campaign needs to bring up in the general election — not to pander to Jefferson County in the sense of compromising their principles, but to explain the concrete ways their agenda would answer the concrete harms of big government which this community deeply cares about.
As a native of Jefferson County, I found Morrissey’s analysis spot on. Coloradans care about jobs, energy, and the environment, and it is important to explain the conservative message in these terms. They also care about freedom (the state did legalize marijuana), and the heavy-handedness of federal agencies like the EPA really rub them the wrong way.
“Just saying, ‘liberty, liberty, liberty!’ doesn’t work, but local conservative solutions do,” Morrissey argued. For the bellwether Jefferson County, Colorado, he is spot on, and he is likely accurate on the other six counties as well.
Next Page: Tampa, Cruz vs. Trump, and how the RNC is actually doing its job right.
Morrissey also mentioned how the 2009 stimulus could be a good issue for Republicans in Tampa, Florida. Forty million dollars was earmarked for the city, but most of that money didn’t go to the “crumbling roads and infrastructure” which big government politicians like Bernie Sanders are always crowing about. The city only received $15,000, while the rest went to an unrelated development outside Tampa. When Floridians hear about this, they are rightly upset.
When it came to the battle between Cruz and Trump, Morrissey would not specify whom he supported. Instead, he lamented, “There’s a lot more heat than light in the presidential primaries right now.”
Nevertheless, he praised the efforts of the Republican National Committee (RNC), which seems to have taken some of the lessons in his book to heart. “The RNC is trying to build a granular, county-by-county organization in swing states,” he explained. In Morrissey’s account, the organization is doing its job by refereeing the primary campaign, and preparing for the general election.
This is exceedingly important, in the light of the success of President Obama’s 2012 campaign. Morrissey explained that the president’s reelection effort “didn’t just use Facebook, they identified ambassadors in certain neighborhoods.” While the Mitt Romney campaign used a top-down structure, Obama was mobilizing the grassroots, getting his volunteers fired up about local issues important in their communities.
The author recalled speaking to a group of millennials in Jefferson County who complained that all the Republican messaging seemed targeted for senior citizens. “Republicans want to turn us into old people,” they told him.
In politics, as in everything, we all need to listen more, Morrissey concluded. It sounds great to talk about big government and conservative principles, but the issues that really drive voters to the polls have more to do with their local communities.
Conservatives have an approach that works very well from the local level on up, we just need to focus on getting the right message to the right communities and building more personal relationships.