The two major parties have managed to nominate presidential candidates this year whom the majority of Americans consider completely unacceptable, so third-party and independent candidates are doing especially well.
This, of course, causes hemming and hawing among blind partisans. They complain about those voters who refuse to simply check a box because of the letter next to a person’s name. So, it’s easy to see what will happen after the election, no matter who wins: Supporters of the losing candidate will spend no time at all examining why their candidate lost. Instead, they’ll lay the blame at the feet of voters.
Why is it so easy to tell that this will happen? Because in Maine, we’ve seen it all before.
After the 2010 gubernatorial election, Maine Democrats spent a lot of time blaming Eliot Cutler and his supporters. They called him a spoiler and said that he cost their candidate the election. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification that ignores basic realities (such as the fact that Cutler came in second that year) and does a great disservice to democracy as a whole. Unfortunately, it’s appealing to Maine Democrats because it provides a simple scapegoat.
The losing party in 2016 may well find itself in a very similar position to what Maine Democrats faced in 2010, with a sizable portion of the party base feeling dispirited and disengaged. If so, the party faithful would be wise to avoid the blame game that Maine Democrats engaged in after 2010, with their oh-so-clever, “61%” bumper stickers. Instead of criticizing voters who saw both candidates as too flawed to support, it’s important for party leaders to understand the reason for voters’ disappointment so they can begin to work on winning back their trust.
Instead of blaming Cutler, Democrats should have reached out to him and to his supporters more. They should have worked to figure out why so many Mainers found the Democratic candidate so unappealing, not only so that they could field a better candidate in 2014, but so they could come up with some new ideas. Instead, Democrats largely focused their efforts on attacking LePage, and while they improved their results in 2014, in the end it wasn’t enough. They needed new ideas and new strategies, not just a new candidate.
The voters who are unwilling to support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton this fall should be sought-after commodities for the party of the losing candidate. They shouldn’t be blamed, ignored or ridiculed. They are the voters whom party elders and strategists should go to for answers — whether before or after the election. It’s not that they were too stupid to see the importance of voting for (or against) one candidate or the other; rather, it’s that neither candidate did enough to appeal to them.
Every candidate for office has to earn votes. They’re not granted votes by virtue of their political parties. That’s how democracy works in the United States. When candidates fail to convince people to vote for them, the candidate is the one to blame, not the voters. When activists start by complaining about voters, it’s easy to escalate that into complaints about the media and the electoral process itself.
Endless complaints about people being against your candidate might make faithful supporters feel better, but it won’t magically turn a bad candidate into a good one any more than complaining about referees or umpires turns a losing team into a winner.
If a political party wants to win, it has to start by learning from its losses. That means listening to the people who didn’t vote for the party’s candidate the last time, not belittling them. It’s not an easy process, but it’s a necessary first step on the path of turning today’s defeat into tomorrow’s victory.