Utah Policy has posted a fascinating discussion about the importance of issues in political campaigns. Three knowledgeable contributors offer their views on the matter. Each has demonstrated success in getting candidates elected to political office.

These three are Todd Taylor, a chiropractor and Executive Director of the Utah State Democratic Party; Deidre Henderson, Campaign Manager for Congressman Jason Chaffetz; and Matt Lyon, a member of the Executive Board of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party. LaVarr Webb wraps up the commentary with brief remarks.

The three experts all hit on some of the same points, but each also offers a few additional insights. I’d summarize the points made as follows:
  • Specific issues are rarely important to campaigns.
  • Few voters pay attention to position statements.
  • The ability to communicate effectively and at the appropriate depth (for the audience) about a broad variety of issues is quite important.
  • Effectiveness in communicating principles upon which actions will be based is significant.
  • Party affiliation is more important than specific issues.
  • A candidate’s likability and appearance of competence are key factors.
  • The overall “message” the candidate delivers is a deciding factor.
In addition to these main points, the contributors offer some useful tidbits of insight. I sense significant wisdom in Todd Taylor’s observation that:
“The big issues that never seem to resolve, are not really important issues at all, they are talking points for two or more groups that find them profitable to keep unresolved. A note to voters: If you find that you are attracted to a candidate because of their position on one of the many unresolved but long-brewing issues, just know that you are being played. If it is not resolved, it is not resolved for a reason. Americans are good at taking care of the most important things.”
Deidre Henderson stresses effective communication of one’s beliefs in principles of government. Principle-based communication can help a candidate live with statements made on the campaign trail once elected. She notes that “Once a statement is made it's nearly impossible to retract.”

Matt Lyon explains why specific issues don’t help candidates much: “Since local issues vary so drastically for individuals and households, it can be difficult to relate to voters on a specific issue. Additionally, regardless of party affiliation, local candidates often have very similar local issues -- everyone runs on the "education" ticket.” Lyon notes the importance of connecting with voters in ways that increase likability. But he also emphasizes the significance of party affiliation.

Party affiliation is important to voters just as branding is useful in many of the products consumers buy and use daily. Voters look at political parties the same way they look at product lines. Little may be known about a new product, but the reliability of the brand’s other products and the brand’s overall message give the consumer some clue as to what to expect. Political parties work the same way for voters.

When you are voting in a tight enough group that you have personal interaction with (or at least personal knowledge of) the various candidates, you are selecting among somewhat known quantities. In most cases, political jurisdictions are now too large for voters to personally know the candidates. Voters don’t really know what they are getting. So they take cues from a variety of sources, including party affiliation.

Moreover, marketing experts know that consumers and voters tend to minimize the effort they must expend to make a selection, since we all have many things clamoring for our time. If the choice becomes too difficult — such as when too many options are offered or too much complexity is involved — many consumers won’t buy. Many would-be voters skip voting for the same reason. Conversely, voters tend to stay away when there is too little product differentiation (i.e. no candidate seems qualitatively superior).

Webb laments the fact that “well-researched, principled, in-depth positions on issues” is “not really the recipe for success.” He agrees that simply “staying on message with sound bites dictated by focus groups and polling will win more races.” He opines that a “great campaign can bring the two together….”

That may be true, but why would a candidate expend resources on activities that produce no advantage in an election? Besides, as Taylor notes, “The important issues that an officeholder will have to confront will likely be those that do come as a surprise - not only to the candidate but to the public and most everyone else.”

What are we really voting for when we vote for a political candidate? Are we expecting to get a box of cut and dried issues or are we expecting to get someone that we hope will competently represent us in government? Some of us certainly think that how candidates stand on issues helps define what kind of representatives they will be. But that is clearly not a selling feature for the vast majority of voters. They are trying to capture a glimpse of a bigger picture.

I like Deidre Henderson’s principle based approach. Clearly state your principles and then let the public determine how well your actions in office match those principles for the next go-around. But we also need good memories to recall what principles candidates said they held dear. Otherwise we will find that they slowly shift to something quite different. Consider, for example, the contrast between the 1976 vintage Orrin Hatch and the Orrin Hatch of 2009.

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