Listening to the political circus unfolding today, you hear frequent allusions to God/faith/religion/fairy tales on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter that faith ought to be divorced from political action; candidates throughout history have made it a point to pander to the believers. It’s seen as a function of electability. It’s been about appealing to the “likely voter.”
What is a “likely voter” in U.S. polling? That depends on what poll you’re looking at. A company like Gallup attempts to ascertain whether an individual is likely to vote based on voter registration and a series of questions about political awareness and engagement. Others rely on voter registration alone. Still others look at only those who were willing to vote in the past or rely on trends in terms of voter turnout according to demographics.
What such approaches neglect are the impacts of time and potential demographic shifts. Polls conducted today, for instance, are unlikely to adequately reflect actual voter participation in 2016’s general election; analysis of past elections found large discrepancies between those who said they would vote early in the election cycle and those who said they would vote closer to the general election. In other words, at this point in the election, there’s still time to change things.
But current methodologies and their political subscribers reinforce the idea that participation is static and tied to tradition. Candidates themselves buy into that assumption and craft their campaigns accordingly. They forget or ignore the possibility of changing the turnout demographics. In turn, they fail to capture the attention and enthusiasm of those who fall outside of the traditional “likely voter” bloc, which turns it all into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To be fair, such a calculus was not without merit in past election cycles. After all, it has only been in recent years that the cultural tides have shifted in a substantial enough way to put the primarily progressive religiously unaffiliated in a position of influence. But if this election season is telling us anything, it’s that candidates on both sides of the aisle are moving forward with little regard for these social changes and hurting themselves in the process. They continue to pay homage to the idolized “likely voter” without realizing that they have a chance to change the definition and reap the benefits of increased turnout.
Perhaps it’s time to correct course.
The big concern, especially for Democrats in these early stages of the election, is that Millennials seem especially disengaged and apathetic. This is a big voting block for liberals, with most Millennials identifying as Democrat or likely to lean Democrat. If they don’t show up, it may spell trouble for Democratic hopefuls at all levels. This continuously growing and aging group of potential voters continues to fall outside the parameters of the “likely voter” in this regard, and so candidates don’t pay them adequate attention, which does nothing to help their engagement.
But it’s worth noting that this disconnect may be tied to a lack of representation of Millennial beliefs in the candidate pool. Where Millennials are overwhelmingly progressive on social issues, many candidates feel the need to toe the line in order to court the “likely voter.” Where Millennials are primarily unaffiliated in terms of religion, many candidates continue to court the religious bloc of “likely voters” instead of appealing to a ripe opportunity to flip the script. Even outside the unaffiliated voting bloc, most voters respect the idea of separation of Church and State (most pronounced within growing faithful communities of color), but candidates continue to assume that the “likely voter” will oppose concrete positions rejecting religion in politics.
To be fair, the notable exception to this common pitfall has been Bernie Sanders. Defying expectations, his more ferocious progressive platform has propelled him ahead of party darling Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire while bringing in massive Millennial support and record crowds.
If the Democrats want to win big in the upcoming Congressional and Presidential elections, it’s time they let go of the “likely voter” fallacy and follow Sanders’ lead. Millennials, the unaffiliated, and more pragmatic faithful voters present a massive opportunity for them, but until they start to represent the dominant values of these demographics, these people will likely never be a part of the “likely voter” group. Make no mistake: the current “likely voter” demographics are aging out (and frankly dying) at a rapid clip.
Want to surge beyond the constraints of polling? Grow a spine, change your perspective, and redefine the term “likely voter” with your platforms.
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