Conservatives lose by expecting too much from voters

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Conservatives pride themselves on having a more realistic view of human nature than liberals. But conservatives have not had a realistic view of voters.

As political scientists have long known:

● Most voters don’t take time to inform themselves about candidates’ policy positions. Voters usually don’t even know what a candidate’s positions are.

● Voters use shortcuts (such as whether a candidate is a Democrat or Republican) to make voting decisions.

● It’s difficult to change voters’ minds because they pay attention to information that confirms their views and ignore or undervalue information that questions their views.

● Republicans start out at a disadvantage among voters because most voters view Democrats as favoring people like them and Republicans as being in bed with big business and the rich.

● Negative ads keep people normally predisposed toward a candidate from voting. Perhaps that’s why Mitt Romney barely got more votes than John McCain.

The president told Charlie Rose that his biggest mistake was his “failure to tell a story to the American people.” Well, he learned that lesson. His team gathered an immense amount of data and used that information to identify persuadable voters, tell them the story they wanted to hear, and get them to the polls.

Mitt Romney and his team counted on voters to see past the president’s stories that no one could have done a better job with the economy and that Republicans were waging a war on women — laughable to everyone but the voters that the president targeted. The president’s story about his handling of the economy overcame what traditionally has been a winning issue for a challenger — a poor economy.

Of course, the mainstream media did their best to help the president. The same people who told us we were in a recession when economic growth was good during President George W. Bush’s term of office trumpeted reports of meager economic and jobs growth as a harbinger of happy days just around the corner. Anyone doubt that a Republican seeking re-election with the same woeful economic performance would have faced a daily barrage of stories about individuals struggling to find a job, forced to choose between gasoline and food for their children, and finding themselves homeless?

The shorthand expressions that Mitt Romney and his team used to describe his policies have been used for many years but don’t resonate with voters like they once did. The Republican tax-cutting message, for instance, doesn’t resonate very much with the half of Americans who don’t pay income taxes. What it does do is feed the perception that Republicans are only out to help the rich.

Unfortunately, most Americans don’t understand that tax-rate cuts spur economic growth, increase jobs, and result in the rich actually paying a greater share of taxes collected. Mitt Romney might have done better by arguing that he would simplify the tax rules (meaning cut tax rates and eliminate many deductions and credits) to make it easier for people to fill out their tax forms and encourage businesses to hire more workers.

Railing against big government (as a shorthand expression for rejecting government limitations on our personal freedoms) doesn’t resonate with people who reject governmental interference when it comes to sexual and reproductive matters but don’t understand that a growing government, however well-intentioned, encourages conformity and dependency and prevents individuals from cultivating their unique abilities. Mitt Romney might have done better by arguing that he would cut government red tape and give people more control over their lives (meaning that he would reduce regulation and the size of government).

No doubt conservatives have a daunting task. Their policies have proved effective but are difficult to explain. By contrast, Democrats have learned to use language to make their policies sound good (e.g., “fair taxes,” “free health care,” “green jobs”) and count on most people not to consider the unintended, adverse consequences of those policies.

In the short run, conservatives need to catch up with the Democrats in using data mining, pay greater attention to the words they use, and better explain how their policies will actually help voters.

Long term, conservatives need to focus on improving our educational system so that voters have a better grasp of such things as how free markets benefit their lives and how easily freedoms can be lost. Students should be taught to think at least as critically about issues facing our country as about cereal advertisements. Our country’s future depends on it.

David Gibberman, a lawyer, writes about legal and financial matters for professionals, college students, and the general public.