The nature of the ‘Political Base’

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Published: July 31,2011

Tags: Marty Wiseman, MBJ column, political campaign

If you have paid even passing attention to the news lately you have no doubt heard multiple references to one political leader or another’s “political base.” This is because the task of solving problems in the political arena in a bi-partisan fashion is becoming more difficult than ever. Compromise as a path to policy agreement is fast becoming the label for weaklings within the respective parties’ rank and file. In this column we shall examine the importance of establishing and maintaining the all-important “political base” by a political party.

Let us begin with a glimpse at recent political history. Party identification, aka Party ID, has always been a key and desired component of political strategists. In modern day usage, however, Party ID, which refers to the political party that a person identifies with, is different than political base. Political base implies the more proactive and pure in political heart among the party identifiers. Credit should probably go to the Republicans for making a sort of science of identifying, activating and maintaining a party-affiliated political base to the degree that we see them operating today. This does not imply that the Democrats were loafing or asleep at the wheel. It merely points to the fact that the Republicans realized the need to operate strategically out of necessity. The Democratic Party has often been the beneficiary of an embarrassment of riches, so to speak, in that a look under their proverbial big tent reveals a wide and diverse base of Democratic Party identifiers. Republicans, on the other hand, fit into a narrower set of demographics, and hence their numbers have historically been somewhat smaller. It became obvious to Republican leadership that, as much as possible, the party’s base must be identified and that the ability to mobilize that base must be developed and perfected on a continuous basis. Karl Rove and his associates in the Republican campaign machinery became the master strategists of the Republican base. Today, the resolve of that tightly-constructed Republican base is clearly on display in the debates over remedies for the federal budget deficit.

The question arises as to what makes the political base so resolute? A glance back to the “Gingrich Revolution” of the early 1990s sheds some light on this. This was the time for the “Contract with America,” a 10-point covenant produced by the Republican Party in the run-up to the 1994 elections. It was a campaign document in writing that was signed onto by the Republican candidates to symbolize a real contract that could not be broken. The result was a takeover of Congress by the Republicans in the 1994 mid-term elections. The process of identifying and binding a party’s base in writing worked fabulously well.

The ability to feed the hearts, souls and minds of the respective political bases has since exploded. The followers are constantly nourished through the use of email, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, all of which can be delivered on the smartphones of the political base. Add to that the addition of numerous 24-hour news outlets on television, radio and the Internet and the maturation of blogs. Once identified as part of the political base it is difficult for a person to escape. Campaigns have turned from broad sweeps across the electorate to a continuous process of identifying and analyzing supporters and adding them to the database of first the candidate and then the officeholder. It has become inefficient to engage in a great deal of extra effort to persuade the opposition to change their minds as a way of gaining additional votes. Throughout all of this, a distinct “we versus them” mentality has become a necessity to bring maximum cohesion to the base.

As we survey the national political landscape today we find two additional components associated with the Republicans that serve to harden that base. First, the Grover Norquist “No new taxes” pledge has proven to be highly effective. As applied to sitting office holders, it has done the “Contract with America” one better. Secondly, the TEA Party has proven to have the numbers and the staying power to add considerable “backbone” to those Republicans who might otherwise appear to be considering compromise.

Meanwhile, it is by no means the case that Democrats are foundering. They continue their broad appeals to a large, diverse, although decidedly less manageable, base of support. The advantages of such a base can be seen in Democratic Party fundraising abilities as evidenced by the recent Obama quarterly campaign finance report that revealed contributions exceeding $80 million. The disadvantages are manifested in the extreme diversity of often contradictory policy positions advocated by those in the base.

The rest of us simply sit back and choose the media outlets, led by Fox News for the Republicans and MSNBC for the Democrats, that confirm the position that we choose to take.

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.

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