Whatcom Citizen guest writes this and is a pseudonym for a few local writers whom we know and respect but who must remain anonymous.
- - -
Readers of this blog are familiar with the phrase, “All Politics are Local,” which is usually shorthand for: “Ignore the national trends, people vote based on their personal feelings/interactions about some tiny local issue.” But what if “All Politics are Local” runs the other way as well, and the explanation for most national trends can be found in the maneuvering of local politicians?
For instance, the growing distrust of the way law enforcement handles people of color and those with mental health issues can be writ small in this year’s local vote on the jail. In the local case, the public decided not to rubber stamp the sheriff’s recommendations and, instead, vigorously sifted through every detail of the new jail plan and found it wanting.
In the presidential race, Clinton and Sanders are battling for the Democratic nomination. To understand those dynamics, we can “scale it local” and look at the recent County Council campaigns of Pete Kremen and Carl Weimer.
Pete Kremen, the consummate insider and former county executive, ran for County Council in 2011. His campaign featured endorsements from local chambers and lots of meet-and-greets with community groups. He was cautious and did not push for drastic change but rather supported issues he had been working on for the past 16 years as county executive.
His campaign style matches Hillary Clinton’s. It is steeped in the belief that the same people vote, year after year, and if you appeal to the widest swath of those reliable voters you will win. It is sometimes called the “swing voter” theory or “triangulation,” but in reality, these candidates are simply looking at the last couple of elections and targeting their campaigns based on information gleaned there.
Carl Weimer, an environmentalist and liberal, ran most recently for the County Council in 2013 as part of a slate of anti-coal candidates. His mailers featured endorsements from Planned Parenthood and Washington Conservation Voters and highlighted people of color and women. While he was relatively absent from doorbelling, a small army of anti-coal activists knocked on thousands of doors to get out the vote.
This campaign style mirrors Bernie Sanders approach. Rather than try to appeal to the voters that vote every year - which tend to be older, whiter, male, and more conservative – the Sanders campaign is trying to change the math. By motivating other segments of the population to vote - usually younger, multicultural, female and more liberal - they are trying to change the result without confronting the people who likely won’t vote for them anyway.
This has been called “the holy war” theory. The strategy is to build a campaign around issues that get people to mail in their ballots. In the Sanders campaign, he talks about a $15 minimum wage, substantial police reform and single payer health care. Locally, Weimer’s campaign focused on dangerous coal trains, bloody slaughterhouses, and slashing funds to the food bank. Neither approach is intended to appeal to the squishy middle; both want voters to be excited enough to turn out.
Locally, both Weimer and Kremen won their campaigns with solid margins. So, both strategies can work; but both can also fail. Astute political organizers point to shifting demographics, the growing millennial population and rising Latino vote as evidence that Kremen’s triangulation-style politics are outdated. But spending all those volunteer hours reminding people to vote can be a complete waste if they don’t, and the low turnout numbers in 2014 and 2015 indicate that the “holy war” theory didn’t work either. The question is, which of these strategies will bring victory in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina?
Regarding the Republican slate, it appears that in the current radicalized state of conservative politics, these two campaign strategies are actually sabotaging the presidential candidates. The moderates seeking to appeal to a wider swath of voters (Jeb Bush, John Huntsman, John Kaisch) are being drowned out by the extremists who are trying to whip voters into a political frenzy (Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina). To get past the primary nomination, candidates have to be as radical as possible, but that in turn seems to prevent them from connecting to people on a national level.
This has played out locally as well. Since Charlie Crabtree took the reins as Whatcom Republican party chair in 2012 they have had numerous extreme candidates. Their County Charter Review committee tried to cut off funding to the food bank, mandated Christian prayer at the opening of their meetings, and inappropriately wandered into tangents about environmental billionaire Tom Steyer.
As a result, they have not won a countywide election since. Similarly, the GOP will not win a presidency until they get the internal conflict in their base resolved with some kind of moderation.