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Texas Primary: Message Success, Message Failure


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The Texas GOP primary for governor is a lesson in both message success and message failure. Gov. Rick Perry was badly behind a year ago. Last night he won by 20 points. His rise began in the spring, driven in large part by his embrace of strong anti-Washington and pro-Texas rhetoric. While outsiders found many of his comments "secessionist" and extreme, Perry showed a fine ear for his Texas Republican voters who are themselves quite anti-Washington and pro-Texas. If the rhetoric was at times overblown, it still resonated with his constituency, and what harm is there in a little secessionist talk if it stirs up your base. You know you don't mean it literally, regardless of how MSNBC interprets it.

Sen. Hutchinson faced the problem of how to "out-populist" an overblown but effective populist. She was never going to be able to out-do Gov. Perry on this dimension. (See the lesson's of Gov. George Wallace in Alabama in the 1960s.) So her only option was to find an effective critique of that populism. She never did.

The challenge is how to find an effective counter argument to a rhetoric that cannot be taken literally but which resonates with voters as populist calls to arms. Gov. Perry expressed a symbolic truth for over half of GOP primary voters last night. Sen. Hutchinson failed to convince more that 30% of them that those symbolic claims were in fact irresponsible and unrealistic. She could not find a way to play the grown up to Perry's teenager.

This has long been a democratic (small d) problem. When populist enthusiasms run hot, be it Joe McCarthy or George Wallace or Rick Perry, responsible grownups find it very hard to compete. Wallace and Perry, at least, were consummate politicians with fine ears for voters. That is what makes them so effective as candidates and what poses so difficult a problem for their opponents.

 

Comments

Point well taken. Another public figure in that same category is Sarah Palin. There are no "grownups" in the country who do anything except laugh at her. Yet she has a constituency that thinks that she is great.

George W. Bush also had some of those same qualities, but at least in many arenas he was somewhat more rational than the people mentioned above (Perry, McCarthy, Wallace, Palin).

The challenge for real candidates opposing these caricatures of candidates is to generate sufficient enthusiasm among the "grownup" electorate. Obama did that for sure, as did Clinton, and Gore also did that to a more limited extent.

Hutchinson failed probably because there aren't enough "grownups" in a pure Republican constituency to win a battle like that. After all, the leading caricature candidate last night, Perry, got 51% of the vote and a second tier even more silly candidate, Medina, got another 20% or so.

What does that say about the proportion of "grownups" who claim fealty to the GOP label?

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GARY WAGNER:

This shows that washington insiders are in trouble this year. Republicans will suffer their losses in the primaries. As soon as the primary is over, the tea party will jump right in on the republican bandwagon.

The democrats, on the other hand, will send almost every single incumbent on to the general election. It will set up november to be even more of an anti-incumbent massacre for the democrats. Voters will make the choice of status quo or change. The people who want status quo won't even bother to show up to vote.

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Gary -- for decades people have been touting a "throw the bums out" anti-incumbent fervor. Yet the data never supports it. Every election, particularly in the House, some 90+% of incumbents are reelected. When major wave elections do occur, it's usually the result of vacancies -- not incumbents losing.

True, a few do lose every year, but only a few.

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GARY WAGNER:

I know that 90% or more of imcumbents get reelected to congress every time. I've been watching this for 35 years now. I have never heard an anti-incumbent sentiment as strong as this year. Things could change but I think this could be an even bigger change year than 1994.

Even with a 90% reelection rate the democrats could still lose the house.

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