Ideas Aren’t Enough to Win in NC. Candidates Need to Inspire, Too.

Voters at an east Charlotte precinct say they're looking for change. (Image by Pat Moran)

By Matt Leatherman

February 12, 2021

A former candidate for NC Treasurer on the stuff that moves folks to get a ballot and vote.

“I don’t know if ideas matter anymore in elections.” 

The North Carolina Democrat on the other end of the phone line, alas having just come up short in November, sounded positively flummoxed.

Ideas don’t matter, not in the sense of swaying just enough swing voters to earn the win. Show me a candidate who campaigned on “I have a plan for governing” and I’ll show you a campaign with less-than-even odds of winning.

Republican candidates, abetted massively by the legislature, seem to have stumbled into this reality faster than Democrats and embraced the worst of people’s impulses. Democrats have some major catching-up to do and some great opportunities to do it constructively.

Some of this is easy. A campaign staffer broke it down for me very straightforwardly at the start of my race in 2019 when I ran for state treasurer. 

“The most important thing for a voter to feel about you is that you care about them and listened to them.” 
Once more: “Feel,” not “think,” no mention of preaching about some plan, and make it a general rule rather than selectively applying it just to some constituencies.

The question from here is whether the goal of campaigning is to get people to agree with you or to vote for you.

Votes. Obviously.

Successful campaigns will earn votes as efficiently as possible so that they can collect more with the limited resources available to them. Appealing to voters on the issues with a plan is about the most expensive way to go because you have to inform before you can even start persuading, which is no small task itself.

Cut to the chase. Voting is a behavior. We’re trying to get people to do something, not to just think something. It’s actually a series of behaviors including, at minimum, getting a ballot, casting a vote in all races rather than just the top of the ticket, and making each of those votes Democratic.

Republicans have hacked the system of people’s behavior. They’ve learned that identity, status, and fear are among the strongest nudges for human action, and they’ve put it to work whipping up animus against just about every community that they can.

They’ve also learned from a shameful, centuries-long history about how to create sludge in the system so that people don’t vote.

Reduce availability, from cutting early-voting Sundays when Black churches organize “souls to the polls” to relocating voting sites off of college campuses. Disenfranchise, expressly against people who have served time and paid their debt to society and in-effect against communities that are less likely to have state-issued identification. Sew disorganization, by hamstringing labor and calling it “right to work” instead of “segregation.” Distract, by making money the only way to get voters’ attention.

Democrats’ long-term agenda is to reverse this system, eliminating sludge and nudging everyone to vote. It’s an agenda of democracy, not autocracy. But, to get there, we will have to win in this system by nudging enough voters to fight through the sludge.

What nudges NC voters to get a ballot, cast it fully, and do so in favor of Democrats – with integrity, despite all of the obstacles placed in their path, and at a winning scale?

Clearly, I do not know the full answer to this question – but I do think that part of the answer is evident. We want to frame these races on our terms, with our stories, so that voters feel strongly that the outcome matters to them individually.

This means going on offense and mixing it up with Republican office-seekers. It means having the spine and the stomach to fight for the win. Ultimately, it means giving voters the inspiration – again, inspiration, not reasons – to choose our candidates over theirs.

Coattails are not going to carry the day. The fact that a voter showed up and cast a vote for Cooper in no way means that they’re voting Democrat right on down the ballot. Tens of thousands stop there and either walk out of the voting booth or start voting for Republicans.

Also, feel-good gets no follow-through. Please do not ever let me see another Democratic TV spot that boils down to “I’m a nice person, I have a family, and we probably have a dog too.” It’s all too clever by half. If a voter cannot feel the inspiration of your campaign relative to theirs, then it all hinges on how they feel about your name and the party affiliation beside it. That is a losing proposition in North Carolina.

I do not have the solution for guaranteed wins. But I do know that the right questions are about behaviors, not ideas, and that we have a couple of years to improve our answers before the next statewide contest for North Carolina’s future.

Let’s learn now so that we can lead then.


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