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Politics of future past

Political scientists armed with econometric models have been debating it for decades: Do voters look to the future, asking themselves which candidate is more likely to make us prosperous after the election, or do they look backward, punishing those who delivered a poor economy and rewarding those who create abundance? Despite all the analyses and increasingly complex equations, the econometricians still have no clear answer.

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Nonetheless, they have teased out some complexities. How does a voter determine which candidate will bring about a better economy? Surely it is not by comparative examination of the relative future efficacy of each element of competing 10-point plans. Future expectations are driven importantly by past experience.

Indeed, neuroscience tells us experience can leave an indelible physical imprint on the brain, conditioning how we interpret future events.  This interplay between past and future was on vivid display in the contrast between two successful mayoral campaigns in which we had the honor to participate over the past year.

In many ways, our clients in those two cities were quite different. Mayor Dave Bing of Detroit is an African-American basketball great and businessman. Mayor–elect Mitch Landrieu is a lifelong public servant, from a family of distinguished public servants.

They also have a great deal in common — intelligence, ability, drive and an abiding commitment to their respective cities.

Both also faced daunting challenges. A political neophyte, Bing had to oust an incumbent backed by the city’s political establishment. Landrieu had lost the office before, but went on to become the only non-incumbent in history to win it without a runoff.

It is their differences, though, that bear on the relationship between voters’ experience and their preferences for the future

Voters in the two cities expressed opposing inclinations. Detroiters badly wanted a job-creating businessman as mayor — about the last thing they wanted was an experienced politician. Bing’s incumbent opponent ran as the candidate who proved he knew how to get things done — and lost badly.

New Orleanians desperately wanted an experienced public servant; a businessman was near the bottom of their wish list. One of Landrieu’s opponents wasted over $3.5 million proving our research.

But why did voters in two troubled cities look to the future with such disparate visions? The answer lies in the past: Detroit had been stung by politicians, New Orleans by a businessman.

Detroiters blamed many of their ills on a failed mayor with an impeccable political pedigree. Done in by a combination of corruption and personal scandal, Kwame Kilpatrick left office to face criminal charges.

With jobs fleeing and scandal rising under a politician, Detroiters wanted a change. A job-creating businessman seemed the perfect kind of change. New Orleans followed a very different trajectory. Mayor Ray Nagin ran as a businessman and political outsider, but failed in office because, in the public view, his unfamiliarity with government was a debilitating handicap for a city trying to recover with help from Washington and Baton Rouge. Mitch Landrieu’s mantra offered the perfect antidote — “I know what to do, and I know how to do it.”

As is so often the case, competing visions of the future emerged from differing experiences in the past, intertwining voters in all three tenses at the same time, and rendering the question with which we began mostly meaningless.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.