The Smith Project: What Voters Want

WATERLOO, IA - SEPTEMBER 27: Voting booths are set up for early voting at the Black Hawk County Courthouse on September 27, 2012 in Waterloo, Iowa. Early voting starts today in Iowa where in the 2008 election 36 percent of voters cast an early ballot. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Veteran pollster Pat Caddell’s Armada group has spent the past several years charting the alienation of the American electorate, constructing a fascinating model of what most Americans desire in the ideal political candidate – the great statesman, or stateswoman, voters want for our time.

Using a large volume of survey data, they created a hypothetical “Candidate Smith” whose platform would enjoy strong majority support from the entire country.

Here are some of the many highlights from the poll, which is attached below:

  • 70% agree that the federal government today no longer has the consent of the people
  • 79% want to recruit and support more candidates who are ordinary citizens rather than professional politicians and lawyer
  • A majority of voters would join a third party if it had a chance of success
  • 77% prefer candidates who “take on the political elites and special interests” to those who conform to a set ideology

 Considering how bitterly fractured the electorate has become, with intra-party disputes almost as vicious as the exchange of heavy artillery fire across the partisan divide, there is a remarkably strong consensus about what “Candidate Smith” would stand for. All of the existing candidates from both parties fall far short of this lofty ideal… and yet, the passionate supporters of every candidate in the race would insist their man or woman is Candidate Smith.

Caddell’s research therefore offers a fascinating insight into the nature of the great American divide.  

Democrats, Republicans, and independents have very similar ultimate missions, but they heatedly disagree about every detail, and every step that should be taken to reach the goal. The Smith platform was constructed from years of survey data to aggregate what all voters claim to support… but they would disagree about the precise meaning of every word in that platform.

Maybe this is such an angry election because every partisan is obsessed with how far he thinks all other politicians fall from the Candidate Smith ideal. Every other candidate is a heretic, traitor, sellout, phony, or trickster, even if they agree with our favored candidate on most important issues.  

For very different reasons, every brand of liberal, conservative, and libertarian thinks our current government falls far short of what Candidate Smith – the honest and selfless avatar of American popular will – would deliver. They are losing faith in the two-party system, because it produces so many politicians that Candidate Smith would refuse to share a congressional cloakroom with.

For this reason, Caddell and company look upon the turmoil of the Iowa caucuses as proof that “politics in the United States today is a revolution, not a revolt,” asserting that 2016 will be “an election of insurgency.”

“A new paradigm has emerged,” the researchers argue. “It is a shift in political tectonic plates, the death rattle of the old order and the coming of the new political order. The old rules that reflected an establishment-centered, ideological two-party duopoly are now under siege by an anti-establishment, anti-political class, anti-duopoly movement that is nonpartisan and to a great degree even non-ideological.”

It will be an impressive insurgency indeed, if it includes “the overwhelming majority of American voters of every persuasion,” as the Smith Project paper argues. Nothing less than “the beginning of the end of the two-party duopoly in the United States” could be at hand.

In brief, here are the points that strong majorities are said to agree upon:

  1. America is in decline, and the next generation may be the first that is worse off than its parents were.
  2. The system is rigged against ordinary people, as powerful interests – corporate and political – exploit the rules for their own benefit.
  3. Both the Democrat and Republican parties are “essentially useless” in changing this situation, with both of them dominated by well-connected special interests, and too interested in accumulating power instead of fulfilling their essential duties to the American people.
  4. The political class is too insular, and should be infused with fresh blood from “ordinary citizens,” rather than “professional politicians and lawyers.”

Like the modern Prometheus, the Armada group poured this consensus data into a human mold, struck with with the lightning of politics, and created Candidate Smith, whose almost universally beloved platform reads as follows:

“Candidate Smith’s beliefs are not based on liberal or conservative ideas, just fundamental American common sense. Smith says we can’t change anything with the usual politics, the usual politicians, and the usual interest groups. We need new leaders from mainstream America, like Candidate Smith, who take on the political elites and special interests, and put the American people in charge again.”

Pollsters tested the Smith platform and registered an astounding 77 percent favorable rating, with only 11 percent unfavorable. Smith Project researchers assert he would be chosen as an independent candidate by voters of all parties and demographics, handily defeating every big name from both parties. He’d also be a formidable contender in the primary of either party, as demonstrated by testing him as a hypothetical alternative with survey groups.

The veteran political observer would note that “generic candidates” very often outperform real human beings in this sort of survey, because the generic candidate has no history. No one can step forward to complain about that one time Candidate Smith voted against a bill he once claimed to be for, or the time his failure to play ball with the Party cost it an important election, or that dodgy real estate deal he got involved with 25 years ago. The generic candidate doesn’t turn off young voters with the wrinkles in his face, turn off older voters by looking like a high-school class president, have a screechy voice, or carry 50 extra pounds over his belt.  

We might take those observations to conclude that either the two-party system is incapable of giving us Candidate Smith… or that no conceivable alignment, of any number of parties, is likely to produce someone pure enough to unite disparate groups into a coherent insurgency against the established order. And let’s face it: fragmented insurgencies that mostly fight each other are little threat to any established order worth its salt.

Another intriguing detail of the Smith Project can be gleaned by looking at the four broad points of consensus listed above, and even the more specific positions the Project describes as enjoying super-majority support. There is so much room to disagree about what each point of consensus really means.

For example, here’s how the Project describes the “Platform of Reform and Rejuvenation” Candidate Smith stood upon to win 81 percent favorability from all voters:

Smith says no one candidate can fix our system or our country alone. What we need is for ordinary Americans to stand up, take responsibility and take control. Eighty-one percent of voters agree.  

Smith believes our economic policies of both parties have failed and we must grow the economy and provide real jobs and better wages for the middle class. Eighty percent agree.  

Smith says that America cannot succeed unless we take on and defeat the corruption and crony capitalism in our government. Seventy-six percent agree.

Smith says we must fix our broken political system before we can go about solving the other important issues, like economic growth, education, national security or immigration. Two-thirds of all voters agree.

Senator Bernie Sanders is currently riding high in the Democrat primary on a promise to spend another $20 trillion dollars, and raise taxes by $10 trillion to fund half of his agenda.

No one who supports Bernie Sanders seriously believes “ordinary Americans” need to “stand up, take responsibility, and take control” when he’s offering a cradle-to-grave universal welfare state with such funding methods… not in remotely the same sense that a conservative or libertarian would understand the concepts of responsibility and citizen control.  

But for people on the far Left, the essence of liberty is freedom from want, achieved by using collectivist means to provide for a long list of basic necessities. Notice how the term “access” in the liberal political lexicon is now synonymous with public financing – if something like contraception isn’t “free,” then some number of people are “denied access” to it. People who think this way are convinced that citizens can “control” such an all-encompassing welfare state by voting for the right people. They tend to define “taking responsibility” as obeying the law and paying your taxes without complaint. They worry about losing their freedom to predatory business interests, including the one that signs their paychecks, more than they fear the government, which they believe they can control through the sacred power of the vote.

In a similar vein, if you ask people of different political alignment how to “grow the economy and provide real jobs and better wages for the middle class,” you will get very different answers about what makes the economy grow, how jobs are created, and what forces are keeping wages down, followed by a vicious argument about what the “middle class” is. That eight percent consensus would go up in smoke very quickly, the instant Candidate Smith explained what he thinks all those terms mean.

76 percent agreement that corruption and crony capitalism are critical problems sounds great… until you ask a mixed crowd of Clinton, Trump, Sanders, Rubio, and Cruz supporters who they believe the culprits are, and how they should be stopped.

The Smith Project is a fascinating study because it prompts us to ask these questions, reverse-engineering consensus to learn how we find ourselves having such bitter disagreements. What Candidate Smith really represents is the essence of populism, 2016 style: a way for political leadership to understand why so much of the public has lost faith in them. Every candidate in this race, and those to come, could benefit from studying what so many Americans agree they want, when all of their partisan and personal barriers are lowered. The measure of our discontent is the difference between what we want, and what we expect.

Here is one point of spirited disagreement with the Smith Project’s conclusions: it is argued that none of the current Republican or Democrat candidates was considered more than “somewhat similar” to the ideal Candidate Smith. To the contrary, most partisans probably do think their guy or gal is batting in Smith’s league – perhaps more than they consciously admit, when surveyed in the manner of the Smith Project.  

To put that another way, they think their preferred candidate has the personal qualities Candidate Smith would exemplify to them: a selfless public servant, a brilliant master of policy, a stalwart defender of liberty, someone who sees the true greatness of America, and so forth. They probably believe circumstances, both personal and political, forced the compromises that bring their candidate up short of true Smith-hood. Many supporters would fervently insist their candidate truly wants to do so much more than they campaign on today, and blame the opposition for corrupting their pure vision.

It would be absolutely fascinating to put supporters of every 2016 candidate in a focus group, describe Candidate Smith’s platform, and ask them how their favorite presidential contender agrees with every point of the Smith platform. They could probably all do it, citing public statements or legislative positions to support each of their contentions.

And that is why the Smith Project may be correct that an election of insurgency is at hand. Consensus on the big picture, vigorous disagreement about every detail of the specifics, and an urge to make every opposing faction submit to grand visions, indeed actively punishing them for social crimes: we have agreed to disagree.

Smit.release.appendix – 1 Feb 16


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