The Secret Weapon to Win Over Voters: Authenticity

It’s becoming harder for red-state Democrats to say what they really think on hot-button issues.

DAVENPORT, IA - JULY 17: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie listens to speakers at 'An Evening at the Fair' event with Scott County Republicans in the Starlight Ballroom at The Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds on July 17, 2014 in Davenport, Iowa. In addition to the event at the fairgrounds, Christie attended two fundraisers for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and greeted patrons with them at MJ's Restaurant in Marion, Iowa. With this four-city Iowa tour many suggest Christie may be testing his support in the state with hopes of a 2016 Republican presidential nomination. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 29, 2014, 5:59 p.m.

One of the most un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated at­trib­utes in polit­ics is a can­did­ate’s au­then­ti­city. In an era when politi­cians’ talk­ing points are scrip­ted, and they worry about a gaffe go­ing vir­al, the can­did­ate who comes across as genu­ine holds a real ad­vant­age. It’s one reas­on why Barack Obama was able to de­feat Hil­lary Clin­ton, why Mitt Rom­ney struggled to cap­it­al­ize on a fa­vor­able en­vir­on­ment in 2012, and why someone like New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie is able to use his force of per­son­al­ity to over­come ideo­lo­gic­al dif­fer­ences with both Demo­crats and con­ser­vat­ives.

And the au­then­ti­city factor has played a crit­ic­al role in this year’s midterm elec­tions, from the chal­lenges red-state Demo­crats face in win­ning over skep­tics to the prob­lems es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans have faced in reach­ing out to the tea-party grass­roots. Just take a look at the suc­cess­ful and flail­ing can­did­ates this cycle, and a lot of the gap comes down to au­then­ti­city.

It’s a wor­ri­some sign for Sen­ate can­did­ate Michelle Nunn, whose cam­paign was roiled this week by the rev­el­a­tion of a months-old in­tern­al cam­paign memo that offered frank ad­vice on what it would take to win in Geor­gia, a con­ser­vat­ive-friendly state. The memo, re­por­ted by Na­tion­al Re­view‘s Eli­ana John­son, por­trayed a can­did­ate with few core val­ues, re­ly­ing on friendly photo-ops to re­as­sure rur­al voters and will­ing to take po­s­i­tions that would raise her the most money. Nunn’s stance on Is­rael, for ex­ample, was “TBD,” but her ad­visers strongly re­com­men­ded tak­ing a sup­port­ive po­s­i­tion, thanks to “tre­mend­ous fin­an­cial op­por­tun­ity” in the Jew­ish com­munity.

For those who are in­volved in polit­ics, the memo wasn’t par­tic­u­larly shock­ing—it’s part of the cur­rency of all cam­paigns. But the de­tails in it il­lus­trate the di­lemma for Demo­crats run­ning in con­ser­vat­ive states, whose true be­liefs prob­ably run counter to a ma­jor­ity of their con­stitu­ents. That’s been a run­ning theme this elec­tion with first-time Sen­ate can­did­ates, such as Nunn and Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes in Ken­tucky, who have as­sidu­ously avoided of­fer­ing policy spe­cif­ics in fa­vor of bland gen­er­al­it­ies. Stay­ing on mes­sage is akin to lack­ing any type of mes­sage.

When Grimes struggles re­peatedly to ar­tic­u­late her views on bor­der se­cur­ity, it’s clear she’s caught between ex­cit­ing the Demo­crat­ic base, the source for her im­press­ive fun­drais­ing, and win­ning over mod­er­ate voters in Ken­tucky. When Nunn says she would have voted against Obama’s health care law but avoids talk­ing about any changes she’d make to it, it’s easy to as­sume she’s try­ing to do everything she can to have it both ways. Un­less Demo­crats have a clear re­cord oth­er­wise (see: Manchin, Joe), it’s go­ing to be hard for voters to find them be­liev­able.

Re­pub­lic­ans have a sim­il­ar au­then­ti­city chal­lenge, one that’s been mani­fest­ing it­self in primar­ies. Call it the Eric Can­tor chal­lenge. The out­go­ing House ma­jor­ity lead­er’s loss to a little-known pro­fess­or was driv­en by nu­mer­ous factors, but the one uni­fy­ing theme was that he wasn’t who he presen­ted him­self to be. He rep­res­en­ted a Rich­mond dis­trict but spent much of his time in Wash­ing­ton and in the Hamp­tons. He ini­tially po­si­tioned him­self to John Boehner’s right in lead­er­ship, but later helped van­quish the con­ser­vat­ive rebels to end the gov­ern­ment shut­down. His re­cent sup­port for le­gis­la­tion al­low­ing young il­leg­al im­mig­rants to be­come cit­izens con­vinced con­stitu­ents that he sup­por­ted im­mig­ra­tion re­form, des­pite his pub­lic op­pos­i­tion. All this, over time, raised enough sus­pi­cion that he lacked core be­liefs, oth­er than the pur­suit of power.

While the Demo­crat­ic Party has be­come in­creas­ingly lib­er­al over the years, mak­ing it harder for their red-state can­did­ates to sur­vive, the battle with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party is between the elites and the grass­roots. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter, in its an­nu­al polit­ic­al ty­po­logy, found the di­vide with­in the party to be between con­ser­vat­ives who are “so­cially con­ser­vat­ive pop­u­lists” and busi­ness-minded con­ser­vat­ives who are “pro-Wall Street and pro-im­mig­rant.” The former make up a nar­row ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans, but most of the party’s lead­er­ship fits in the lat­ter cat­egory.

So while the roots of most primary chal­lenges this year are ideo­lo­gic­al, many stem from the per­cep­tion of in­au­thenti­city. In Kan­sas, con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics of Sen. Pat Roberts have fo­cused more on the fact that he’s rarely in his home state than on his dif­fer­ence with chal­lenger Milton Wolf on par­tic­u­lar is­sues. Sen. Thad Co­chran of Mis­sis­sippi struggled when he tried to out-con­ser­vat­ive Chris McDaniel in the primary, but the vet­er­an ap­pro­pri­at­or shined in the run­off, when strategists re­fo­cused his mes­sage on bring­ing home count­less be­ne­fits to his con­stitu­ents—a sub­ject that came nat­ur­ally to him.

Mean­while, the battle over au­then­ti­city is ra­ging in many of the key gen­er­al-elec­tion races. In Iowa, Re­pub­lic­an Joni Ernst emerged as the star re­cruit of the cycle be­cause of her can­did ac­count of “hog cas­tra­tion,” while her Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent, Bruce Bra­ley, has been em­bar­rassed by un­der­cov­er video that’s at odds with his care­fully ten­ded im­age of be­ing farm­er-friendly. In Col­or­ado, one of Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Ud­all’s biggest as­sets is that he looks out of Rocky Moun­tain-cent­ral cast­ing, with his Pa­tago­nia jack­et and with the state’s moun­tain peaks and streams play­ing sup­port­ing roles in his ad­vert­ise­ments. (One ad­viser said he thought Ud­all’s avid moun­tain climb­ing would be an as­set in Col­or­ado, one of the most fit­ness-friendly states in the coun­try.) In a battle­ground New York House race, wealthy ven­ture cap­it­al­ist Sean Eldridge, a Demo­crat, has struggled to con­vince voters in the rur­al Hud­son Val­ley dis­trict that he’s one of them—des­pite hav­ing deep pock­ets and run­ning in a dis­trict that Obama car­ried twice.

GOP Sen­ate can­did­ate Tom Cot­ton fam­ously—and awk­wardly—said, “I’m warm, dam­mit!” when asked re­cently about his at­tempts to re­late bet­ter to Arkan­sas voters. But in this en­vir­on­ment, be­ing cha­ris­mat­ic isn’t as im­port­ant as be­ing real. With cyn­icism to­ward polit­ics en­dem­ic, be­ing able to con­vince voters you mean what you say is an as­set that shouldn’t be un­der­es­tim­ated.

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