The wrong lesson to be drawn from Super Titanic Tuesday is that both Bradley and McCain were too far to the left of their respective parties. The right lesson is that there's a large and growing party of independents and nonvoters in America that neither party's establishment has been interested in courting. The question now is whether Bush or Gore will try to attract them, or whether these potential voters will go back to sleep.
Bill Clinton famously repositioned the Democrats in the middle of people who vote, but not in the middle of people who are eligible to vote. Note the distinction. In 1960, 62.8 percent of voting-age Americans chose between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In 1996 just 48.9 percent of voting-age Americans chose between Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Ross Perot. Apart from the old South, where the 1965 Voting Rights Act has had its largest impact, the drop in voter participation between 1960 and 1996 marks the longest and most persistent decline in voting in American history. These numbers would actually be lower if it weren't for all the efforts along the way to make it easier to register, most recently embodied in "motor voter" legislation.
Who are these growing numbers of nonvoters? On the whole, they're poorer and less educated than the people who do vote. When lower-income people voted, they used to vote for Democratic candidates. For example, if the same portion of the electorate that voted in the 1992 presidential election had been lured back in 1996, there's a high probability that Democrats would have reclaimed the House of Representatives that year, if not Congress as a whole.
Yet in recent years, Democratic political consultants have been telling Democratic candidates to forget about people who haven't voted in previous elections, and to focus on swing voters in the middle. "Forty percent of the voters are with you," Dick Morris advised the president in 1996. "Forty percent are against you, so concentrate all your efforts on the swing." Hence, the string of policy miniatures promised in that election, like V-chips and school uniforms, and the careful eschewing of any hint of populist rhetoric.
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That advice has created its own self-fulfilling prophesy. When Democratic pollsters canvas "swing" voters in the middle, they find that they're--surprise!--middle of the road. When Democratic candidates tailor their rhetoric to these polling results, they sound like spokesmen for the local Rotary club. The "nonvoters" whom they ignore don't show up at the polls on election day, which seems to confirm what the political consultants predicted. It's a deadly tautology.
Leave it to the Republi-cans to show the Democrats how wrong they've been. Despite predictions that voter turnout during the 2000 Republican primaries would continue to decline--especially, warned the pollsters and consultants, during this era of peace and prosperity--turnout dramatically increased. Yes, some of these new voters were Democrats who crossed over, and some were long-standing independent voters. But many had never participated in a primary before. Exit polls suggest that a not inconsiderable number had never before even voted in a general election.
The Republicans succeeded in tapping into the vast party of nonvoters because John McCain wooed them with his moral heroism and energized them with an anti-establishment, tell-it-like-it-is, give-'em-hell message. The message wasn't the xenophobic bile of Perot or Buchanan. It was about grabbing government back for the people. Bill Bradley was the Democrats' anti-establishment candidate, but he didn't mobilize the nonvoters because his message had no "give 'em hell" in it. Nonvoters know you can't change a corrupt system by being polite. The only way to speak truth to power is with the moral fervor of a reformer.
McCain ran aground on the shoals of the Republican establishment. Right now, George W. Bush is scampering as fast as he can away from the Christian right, toward the swing voters in the middle. With the Democratic nomination sewn up, Al Gore is doing precisely the same. But if Bush and Gore decide to duke it out over the swing voters, the party of nonvoters will go back to sleep.
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Gore would do better to look beyond swing voters. He shouldn't ignore them, but he needs to rekindle the passions that awakened a portion of the nonvoting public during the past few months. He could start by making campaign finance reform a centerpiece of his presidential bid. This would be wise tactically as well, given Gore's dubious record on this score, which Bush is sure to highlight. (Expect millions of tiny Buddhist prayer wheel pins.) Next, Gore could do some plain talking about the extent of corporate welfare in America, and pledge to cut it. The Treasury has already begun cracking down on corporate tax cheats, which is but the tip of this rich iceberg. Finally, he should commit to using the savings from corporate welfare to do some of the things he has thought to be too expensive. With $100 billion a year (less than the Democratic Leadership Council's own estimate of the extent of targeted tax breaks and subsidies), for example, Gore could finance universal health care.
Gore might also consider proposing as a running mate someone committed to reforming the political system--say, Bill Bradley. ¤