When I was a kid playing little league baseball, my dad always stressed to me one maxim: “You practice like you play.” What this meant was that if you practiced sloppily, it would eventually manifest itself in a game situation.
During stressful situations, we revert to doing what we’ve practiced.
To stress this point, dad (who was also a prison guard) then told me this story, which I cannot corroborate (though he had no reason to fabricate it). He said that at the firing range he went to, police officers would casually keep their extra ammo in their back pocket. They seemed to view time at the firing range as sort of a day off. Then, one day some officers were gunned down in a shootout. One of them was found dead, with his hand in his back pocket. He was looking for some bullets that weren’t kept there…
When the heat is on, we tend to revert to what we’ve been trained to do. That’s why practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. The solution is to simulate a game-like situation. This, I suppose, helps explain why you’ll see photos of Peyton Manning donning a football helmet while riding a stationary bike, soaking his foot, or whatever.
This brings us to an interesting question having to do with politics: Do the Republican primaries actually train Republicans to perform well on game day (the General Election)? When the heat is on during a General Election debate or interview, are candidates likely to revert to the things that pulled them through the primary process?
If so, that’s a problem. Take a look at this recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey that was featured today on Morning Joe.
Here, it is very clear that there is a stark dichotomy between what the GOP primary electorate looks like and what the General Election electorate looks like.
Why does this matter? One one hand, you could argue that candidates should stress the same issues, regardless of their audience. But this is naive. Politicians obviously pander—and even the most principled politicians will learn to stress certain issues over others.
Now, it would be trite to complain about the fact that the primaries mean we aren’t nominating the most electable candidates. There is always hand-wringing about the possibility that a candidate will have to go so far to the Right or the Left in order to win a nomination that he or she becomes unelectable in November.
That would be a facile (and debatable) point to make. But it’s not what I’m suggesting, in any event. Instead, my point is that whoever emerges as the nominee will tend to have acquired a certain muscle memory that might pose problems in a general election (think Mitt Romney and the 47 percent, for example). Candidates often operate on the pleasure principle. When you deliver a line at a debate and it gets applause, that provides positive reinforcement. It trains you to want to deliver more of the same. If you get jeered, that’s negative reinforcement. But what happens when the audience changes?
If the GOP continues to become a party that is increasingly buttressed by older, white, married, rural voters, this will be just one of the many conundrums the party will face.