It’s the trust, stupid

A few days after this year’s election, House Democrats conducted a conference call to review the election results. To say that the mood was confused is an understatement. While we all were relieved and excited by Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, a victory we think saved our democracy for the time being, most were very disappointed that Democrats had not — pending two runoff elections in Georgia — retaken control of the U.S. Senate, held or enlarged our majority in the House or flipped legislative control in any state.

Sparks flew during that conversation. Liberals complained that we had equivocated on the policies that excited young voters and drove turnout of our base, and felt we had not concentrated enough on the digital world where so many voters get their political information. Less liberal members moaned that we had underperformed because many Dems were talking about defunding police, the benefits of socialism, and initiatives like the Green New Deal. Even F-bombs were thrown.

To a certain extent, these discussions feel like a Goldilocks syndrome. We’re looking for a “just right” position, not too left, not too moderate. But the debate ignores something that I have been arguing for years, and that Republicans figured out long ago: Most voters don’t cast their votes with their heads; they vote with their guts. They don’t vote based on a candidate’s agenda, but on whether they trust him or her to have their best interests in mind.

Democrats are great at policy. We come up with detailed, 10-page policy proposals on virtually every subject. If we had the opportunity to sit down with every voter, most of them, in Kentucky as well as California, would say they sound great. But That’s Not What Happens!

No, we also come up with names like Universal Healthcare, and Free College, and Green New Deal that are easy to characterize by our opponents as “government takeovers,” and they cancel out any perceived personal benefits for the voters.

In short,  Democrats have never really understood how voters make their decisions. We think, logically but erroneously, that voters think about how a candidate’s positions will affect their lives and vote accordingly. James Carville, whom I like and respect, capsulized this in the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Maybe that was true in 1992, but it’s not now.

Today, most votes are not in play at all. Drew Weston, an Emory University professor who has studied voters’ decision-making processes more than anyone, estimates that the vast majority of voters’ votes are reliably predictable regardless of who the candidates are. In other words, according to him, only about 15% of voters are “persuadable.” We are wired, he believes, by our backgrounds to vote for one party or another.

I tend to agree with him, but I think I know how people become wired, or are persuaded, to vote a certain way. My theory is that there are 15% to 20% of voters on either side of the philosophical spectrum who vote based on issues, and they are not persuadable. The other 60% to 70% vote based on whom they trust, and the way you gain their trust is to show them respect and empathy.

I know that Democrats have the empathy, but they don’t talk about it. They think their policies speak louder than their words and actions. To too many people, they don’t.

I remember visiting my first Black church as a candidate in 2006. I was worried the congregants would think I was pandering, but I quickly understood that they welcomed me warmly, because I was showing respect by coming to meet them at a place that was very meaningful to them. To this day, after visiting hundreds of Black churches — most times not near the election — I cannot count the times a Black constituent remembers my visit to their church.

As I tell any candidate who asks my advice, “People will want to know where your heart is.”

If we want to change the way too many Americans view Democrats, we must show all citizens the respect they deserve, even if we think they’re wrong, and even if we don’t understand their thinking. We must show we are willing to try to understand their thinking, and most important, empathize with their lives and the challenges they face.

Republican politicians, including, most notably, Donald Trump, know this, even though they don’t respect the voters, don’t care about their lives, and don’t think government can or should help them.Joe Biden knows all this, and that’s why he is our next President. Democrats everywhere need to pay attention to him.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, founder of LEO, has represented Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District since 2007 and is now chairman of the House Budget Committee.