Friday, June 27, 2008

suburban vs. rural/small town voters

Generalizing from what I've observed from my 1.5 campaigns in the 9th District...

Going into my congressional run in 2006, I suspected that I would have an easier time connecting with suburban, more-educated voters. But my three lowest vote percentages were in the most "suburban" counties, including Clark and Floyd where I've lived for 8 years and worked/taught for 16 years! (Ironically, my highest percentage came in Jackson County-- home to Baron Hill!)

Trying to explain this surprising result...

My first theory was paid media-- that we had bought a lot of radio time in rural/small town areas, but had not been willing to pay a lot of money for little coverage in the suburbs. For example, to advertise in Clark and Floyd, we had to buy Louisville media-- a lot of money for little (relevant) coverage for our campaign.

I still think that story carries significant weight. But now, after walking the business districts, I have another theory.

First, let me back up a step and talk about a key observation in political economy: "rational ignorance and apathy" in the general public. In a word, because people have little to offer within a political market (a vote and maybe a modest campaign contribution), the costs of becoming (more) informed and taking action are simply too high to justify much investment. Thus, it is "rational" for voters to lack knowledge and desire to become involved at anything more than a very shallow level. The result is that people typically vote on the basis of one issue (a "special interest"), political party, name recognition, anti-incumbency, etc.

Again, this is a (gross?) generalization, but here's theory #2:

Rural/small town voters tend to vote the person and suburban voters tend to vote for a particular issue or with a particular party. In my case, I'm having an easier time with voters in Huntingburg and Brownstown because many of them don't respect my two opponents all that much &/or they have a sense that things just aren't right in DC and they want (true) change. Combine that with a credible third alternative, I'm in pretty good shape if I can get the word out to those people!

Another observation and perhaps a corollary: Rural voters make more principled choices (just choosing the best candidate) while suburban voters are more pragmatic (strategic). For example, I have rarely heard the "lesser of two evils" argument in rural/small town settings but I hear it a lot in the suburbs. Putting it another way: suburban voters take their votes too seriously and are willing to lose sleep in choosing an inferior candidate. I need suburban voters to be more principled and less pragmatic!