Commentary

In Search of A Ministerial President

How’s this for a political marketing challenge: our latest poll asked a representative sample of registered voters whether they would consider voting for 11 declared and potential presidential candidates. In each case, there were more “would not consider”s than “would”s. Within the poll’s statistical margin of error, 50% or more voters rejected the entire field. 

Why? First, Americans fear for their lives. A whopping 41% agreed that they worried terrorists will not only attack the country, but hit their immediate family. That’s statistical nonsense, but so is the lottery. Violent intrusions and get-rich-quick stories are, of course, media perennials. They’re genres because they resonate with the popular audience. 

Second, large majorities fear the American Dream has ended. The poll found that 72% of registered voters worry about “another economic downturn which will negatively impact your family,” and 70% do not believe that “the next generation will be better off than the current generation.” (Notice that the same percentage opted for the pessimistic alternative whether we phrased the question negatively or positively.) This economic melancholy is not just a media-borne preoccupation. The job numbers are worse than in the “stagflation” days of the Carter Administration. Never mind the global poor; here come the robots.

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Third, voters resent Washington. The blame game forks among them. To Republicans, President Obama betrayed his promise to transcend partisanship. (Thanks, Obama.) To Democrats, Republicans in Congress skew policy to favor their rich masters. Beneath the blame game, however, that longing for federal solutions to public problems which candidate Obama tapped a decade ago still beats strongly in American hearts. “If you had to choose, would you vote for a candidate whose views most closely match your own (35%), or a candidate that you believe will be the most effective at getting things done in Washington (57%)?” 

Given these chronic concerns roiling the electorate, at some point in the long campaign, the 2016 presidential candidates will need to depart from attacking each other and demonstrate their “I’m fighting for you” chops —both necessary moves, don’t get me wrong— and spend some of their superPAC gazillions on ads that exhibit ministerial qualities in two senses of that word. 

Ministers in churches lift fallen spirits. The next president needs to reassure voters that “your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on your way.” You may not recall those lyrics, but many “security mom” swing voters do. Remember that W. got elected and re-elected as a “compassionate conservative.” Note as well a massive new Pew poll documenting a 7% decline in Americans identifying as “Christian” since 2007, with a corresponding rise in “unaffiliated.” Candidate, hear our secularized prayers. 

Ministers in the parliamentary sense of the word bang together legislative majorities. They broker deals across party and institutional borders. The poll-expressed preference for political effectiveness over ideological fidelity suggests that candidates who can demonstrate this ministerial prowess in their marketing campaigns will gain advantage. As my colleague Lara Brown observes, “there aren't significant differences in the percentages of Republicans (58%) and Democrats (57%) who say they want an effective candidate over an ideologically aligned one.”

So it would behoove Clinton to be seen as ironing out differences among Democrats on trade, and Bush and Rubio among Republicans on immigration. The prime ministerial tilt favors current Governor candidates, Walker especially, over Senators, former Governors, and the self-styled non-politicians. The preaching ministerial gap provides an opportunity for Huckabee. 

Next month, another look at the pack (which may double in size) from a very different angle.

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