Hearing Ourselves Think

Hearing Ourselves Think

One can’t help but experience a little déjà vu as pundits and analysts examine the ruins of the Democratic Party’s efforts to hold the line against the traditional mid-term surge of the “out” party (especially in a president’s second term). What seems familiar is the discovery (with shock) that a lot of the leadership’s expectations (and, arguably, a lot of the polls this time) were “off.”

Sounds like 2012 and the Romney campaign’s post-mortem.

I’ve written about both the déjà vu and the challenges of polling about elections. This time around, a lot of pollsters were fooled. In the last week or so, there’s been considerable buzz about pollsters “norming” their own results to the conventional wisdom of other pollsters as one possible explanation, resulting in each subsequent poll reinforcing the errors of those that preceded it.

But, separate from the national debate about polls, there’s another interesting phenomenon that reminds me of 2012 and the Romney campaign. It’s about what happened this time in Texas.

After the 2012 election, members of the Obama campaign team announced an initiative to turn very red Texas into a deeply purple state like Florida (or, at least, like Florida looked in 2012 and 2008). Battleground Texas brought millions of dollars and extensive organizational expertise to the state that gave us two Republican presidents. Their mission: to build a sustainable Democratic majority from the ground up. That majority, it was imagined, would be built on the growing Hispanic population, women and younger voters.

Looking at the national patterns of voting by these blocks, this seemed a reasonable strategy. It would take a tremendous amount of work, over a significant amount of time, with significant resources to sustain it, but it looked reasonable.

And then . . . well, apparently, they forgot the mission. The lead organizers became enamored of a quick strike at the top of the ticket, thanks to the national media phenomenon made of Wendy Davis, who filibustered against restrictive abortion legislation and became an overnight national celebrity.

Problem is, people generally don’t elect governors because they wear sneakers and campaign on abortion rights (though Florida did elect a senator in part because he wore holes in his shoes traversing the state).

I don’t know the whole story, of course. I don’t know all the strategic deliberations and decisions made by the Battleground Texas leadership. I don’t know what data they were examining, or why they apparently shifted from building a majority over time to trying to win the brass ring the first time out.

What I do know, what anyone who looks at results in Texas knows, is that they called it wrong. Deeply, deeply wrong.

Wendy Davis managed to attract less than 40 percent of the votes of Texans this fall. The national media celebrity was, apparently, viewed with disdain by most Texans who voted. Given the very poor Democratic turnout, one might guess that she was viewed with disdain by a lot of Democrats, too (though Democrats are blaming Texas’ new voter ID law).

What it looks like, from my admittedly great distance and my admittedly uncertain perspective, is that Battleground Texas had its own little echo chamber going. Instead of coming to know and understand what Texans were thinking and feeling, they knew what they were feeling, and they went with it.

Straight to defeat. No . . . more accurately, Battleground Texas led the Democratic candidates who signed up with it like cattle to the slaughterhouse.

I don’t necessarily blame the candidates. When a well-funded party operation (though this clearly wasn’t a Texas Democratic Party operation) encourages you

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to run and promises to help, it’s hard to say no. They’re the experts, right? They’ve got the money, right? They must know what they’re doing.

What every public leader or aspiring public leader needs to remember is that campaigns are noisy. In the midst of all the conflicting bits of information, it can be hard to hear anything clearly.

But what we need to hear clearly is the citizenry we hope to represent . . . which may, or may not, think and feel as we do.

What we don’t need is simply to hear ourselves think . . . in the echo chamber of our own ideological world.