The Surefire Way to Win Elections

Thinking out loud about political strategy

I was discussing politics with internet friend and he said “I don’t think there’s a single political strategy that works…” which has been stuck in my head ever since. It’s true, there are a lot of variables and guesswork with something as complex as an election, but if we had to quantify things, what would we go with? I have a good place to start:

  1. Win more votes

It goes without saying, probably, but this is the bedrock of all electoral strategy. If you get more votes, you win. If you can do a thing that means you get more votes than the other side, that’s a strategy that will win. What next? Can we drill down further from there?

2. Get more supporters

The way you win more votes is to get more people who want to vote for you. If you and your opponent both get 80% of your supporters to show up, you’ll win if your overall pool of people is larger. That goes hand-in-hand with our next bedrock point, turnout.

3. Get your turnout numbers up

Having more supporters than the other side is fine, but you need to motivate them to actually show up and cast a vote. If you have a million people with 10% turnout and your opponent has half a million people with 25% turnout, they’re going to win easily.

So those three items are pretty straight-forward and are hard to argue with. You win by getting more votes, and that’s made possible if you have more supporters who show up. Let’s drill down further. How do you get more followers and get them to show up?

4. Say things people agree with

If 90% of the country likes baseball and apple pie, you might as well mention that you like it too. If you see that the majority of people like social security and public school, that’s a good opportunity to align yourself with the wishes of the people. Same goes for making health care more affordable, supporting teachers, or wearing a mask, all of which have majority support.

5. Steer clear of things people disagree with

Pineapple on pizza is a good, non-political example. Some people are against it. Some people are for it. Coming down hard on one side or the other is a quick way to lose support. Diving into the middle of polarising issues with a strong opinion only works if you think you can gain more votes than you lose.

So we’ve built up each layer piece by piece, and come up with something that looks a lot like common sense. If people agree with what you stand for, you’ll get more votes. If the disagree, you’ll get fewer votes. So with everything you establish in your platform, you need to make sure you’re representing the widest group of people.

Some people are concerned about this approach to politics, because they believe leaders should boldly stand for what’s right over political expediency. And I agree, we’ve had plenty of leaders who were able to open our minds on all sorts of things, from racism and sexism to labour laws and trans rights. We need more people pushing for change and inspiring us to grow as a society.

But democracy is designed for majority rule. So if you’re going to propose an idea that can only garner about 31% approval rating, you might get 31% of the vote, give or take. But that’s not enough to win. In fact, you’ll be handing your opponent an easy talking point: “Vote for me, because I stand with the 69% that disagree with that idea.” And they’ll win. It’s just basic math.

Bonus round: The “bring non-voters to the polls” strategy

There is an exception, however. Some people believe that the polls aren’t telling the whole picture because about half of Americans don’t vote. So the theory is if you say something radical and popular, you can tap into a base of people who don’t show up in the traditional polling and they’ll carry you to victory. This is the argument used to support bold candidates and ideas.

I’m open to this theory. It’s absolutely possible to get the most votes, and the biggest base, with the most turnout, while proposing bold initiatives. But while it’s possible, I’m not sure how much data I can point to that proves the strategy. Technically possible isn’t the same as having a solid precedent.

But what does have a precedent is getting a lot of people voting for you by proposing popular ideas that the broadest cross-section of voters can support. Find a politician who can do that better than the person they’re running against, and you’ve found your winner.

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