Why Cultural Affinity Isn't Enough

As you travel the political web today, you'll probably be seeing this ad a lot, the latest from Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst. Like many a candidate (mostly Republicans) before her, Ernst wants voters to know that, like them, she enjoys firearms. And she'll prove it by shooting one, while the narrator says, "Once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni's gonna unload" over the sound of her bullets travelling freedom's path on their way to rip through the guts of tyranny:

And if you go to Ernst's web site today, you'll see this ad under a huge headline reading "Give Joni a Shot," with the "o" in "shot" made into a target. In other words: "Vote for me because gunsgunsguns!"

If you're a Republican and you want to send a signal of cultural affinity, there's no easier way to do it than by firing a gun. Guns have carried symbolic weight for a long time, but never more so than now. They send a message both about conservatives and about liberals; not only "I'm one of you," but also, "Liberals hate guns, so let's piss them off together." In a 30-second ad, you don't have time for a lot of explanation, so you can send that message in literally one second just by holding up (or even better, shooting) your gun.

But as important as it can be to send signals of cultural affinity, it sometimes gets overplayed when we assume it's all that matters. Candidates who have nothing to offer voters other than that "I'm one of you" message tend to lose. Which is why you usually see TV ad gunplay coming from a guy who's running eighth in a field of twelve. But Ernst actually has a good chance to be the Republican nominee in this race. She's running neck and neck with Mark Jacobs, a self-funded candidate who is about as gaffe-prone as self-funded candidates usually are.

The candidates who succeed with those cultural affinity messages are the ones who layer them on top of something else—an argument about a salient policy issue, a strong record, or a personality voters are already familiar with. Everybody remembers Joe Manchin shooting a copy of a cap and trade bill in an ad for his Senate campaign, but that was effective because it was about an issue that was important to West Virginia voters (the coal industry), and because Manchin was, at the time, the state's popular governor. In other words, the cultural message was only a part of the rationale for his candidacy.

And that reflects voters as a whole. There are some people for whom knowing that a candidate is "one of us" is all they need to know. But they're a minority even in the Republican party. That's why, for instance, Sarah Palin commands an intense but relatively small part of the GOP base. Republican voters want their culture war, but it isn't all they want.

So even if Ernst should prevail in the primary, she'll have to do a lot more than shoot some guns to win the general election. Iowa is an unusual state, in that it combines an extremely conservative Republican electorate with a very liberal Democratic electorate. But it leans slightly Democratic—the Democratic nominee has won there in six of the last seven presidential elections—and whoever wins the GOP nomination will face a strong opponent in Rep. Bruce Braley. Affinity candidates like Ernst can, on occasion, get their party's nomination. But unless they're running in deep-red states, they'll find it much tougher going once they have to present themselves to an electorate whose hearts don't go all aflutter at the sight of a gun.

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