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Performance Politics and Choosing Your Audience

In Jeffrey Alexander’s The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power, the importance of an effective political performance is made perfectly clear. That is, becoming an all-encompassing symbol of not only the civil sphere and its key qualities of liberty, equality and community, but also of its boundaries that include gender, family, religion, class, ethnicity and race (Alexander 3).

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission case, the Political Action Committee (PAC) and the super PAC have become more important than ever. With uncapped budgets, corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on an election. The three largest super PACs, American Crossroads, Restore Our Future, and Priorities USA Action, spent more than $305 million combined in the 2012 election cycle (Kaplan).

While voters decide who wins the election, it is becoming increasingly clearer that super PACs decide who gets on the ballot. So, who are candidates performing for – the donors or the voters?

Different types of performances are required to initially get donor support and later achieve voter support; however, many candidates fail to successfully execute both, very different performances. While donors care more about a candidate’s policies and what their “return on investment” might be, voters, according to Alexander, feed off a “collective psychic energy,” which he claims travel upward through communicative institutions into the broader civil sphere (1). However, the most important caveat is: donors don’t want to waste resources and money on a candidate, if they don’t think she will be able to portray an effective performance for the voters.

According to Alexander, voters respond to performances that breach the divide in citizen audiences that are “fragmented in all the familiar demographic ways” (3). However, donors and super PACs aren’t initially concerned with how voters will react, but rather what policies the candidate will pursue. One example of the “donor performance” is Chris McDaniel’s failed bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi. Three-quarters of the money spent on his campaign and 36 percent of the funds spent by both sides came from outside PACs. FreedomWorks for America, Club for Growth PAC, and Senate Conservatives Action spent $4.5 million combined in the unsuccessful effort to get McDaniel elected. According to FreedomWorks for America’s national political director Russ Walker, this strategy is exactly how they hope to pursue future endeavors. That is, finding a candidate who fits the “mold” of policies and ideologies that the PAC stands for, and then setting up a field program that helps gain support for the particular candidate (Bump). Therefore, it seems like some PACs are heading towards the approach where an organization can do all the work while the candidate’s only responsibility is to be the candidate. In essence, the donor performance of a candidate is to simply make your policies and ideologies known, and hope you are “selected” by a powerful PAC.

However, having financial support will only get a candidate so far, as it is ultimately the voters who decide the outcome of an election. Therefore, candidates must rely on a completely different type of performance to persuade voters, which Alexander covers in extensive detail. He says that the key to securing the popular vote in a presidential election is by becoming a collective representation. That is, candidates are able to project such a powerful energy and message that voters “fuse with political performers”. Alexander goes on to say, “If politicians’ symbolic projections cannot enter into the heart of the citizen audience, the candidates will not be seen as embodying the discourse of civil society; as a result, they will not be selected by the members of the civil sphere to represent them in the state” (2). His argument manifests itself through the recounting of President Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign. By Alexander’s standards, President Obama was able to secure the popular vote through his effective political performance, a carefully calculated campaign of “working the binaries” and “walking the boundaries.”

While portraying the “donor performance” and “voter performance” seem like two entirely different, unrelated acts, they are undeniably connected. That is, donors are not interested in spending their resources and money on a candidate, if they don’t think that candidate has the potential to secure the popular vote. This argument takes shape in the recent Mitt Romney 2016 presidential campaign confusion. Initially, Romney had said he wouldn’t run again for the White House after his failed 2012 presidential campaign. However, this past month Romney told a group of donors that he was considering another bid (O’Connor). But, after many donors who had supported him previously refused to commit to his new campaign and key operatives had moved on to the campaign of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Romney announced that he would not run for president in 2016 (Parker). These events are a key insight into how the “donor performance” and “voter performance” are related. Donors had already seen the failed tactics of Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and his “voter performance,” and weren’t interested in wasting any further resources on the candidate.

Candidates are expected to portray effective political performances both for donors and voters in order to win an election. However, with each being such isolated events, it is difficult to relate the two in order for candidates to prove to their donors that they can win over the voters. Candidates must remain flexible in their behavior, yet firm in their ideologies in order to execute a successful donor and voter performance.

Alexander, Jeffrey. “Becoming a Collective Representation.” The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. 2010. Web.

Bump, Philip. “Coming Soon: A Campaign Run Entirely by Super PACs.” The Washington Post 28 July 2014. Web. 5 Feb. 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/07/28/coming-soon-a-campaign-run-entirely-by-super-pacs/&gt;.

Kaplan, Andee, Eric Hare, Heike Hofmann, and Dianne Cook. “Can You Buy a President? Politics After the Tillman Act.” CHANCE: Using Data to Advance Science, Education and Society 27.1 (2014). Web. 5 Feb. 2015. <http://chance.amstat.org/2014/02/president/&gt;.

O’Connor, Patrick, and Beth Reinhard. “Mitt Romney Won’t Run for President in 2016.” The Wall Street Journal 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 5 Feb. 2015. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/mitt-romney-exit-spurs-scramble-for-donors-1422623723&gt;.

Parker, Ashley, and Jonathan Martin. “Support Waning, Romney Decides Against 2016 Bid.” The New York Times 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 5 Feb. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/31/us/mitt-romney-2016-presidential-election.html?_r=0&gt;.

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