The Vote Getting Gene

By Bradley Tusk  |  November 10, 2015

Conventional logic, as we’ve discussed in prior posts, rarely applies in politics. It’s not that politicians are irrational – most are exceptionally rational. But their incentives are different. Conventional logic would dictate that someone making laws would try to achieve as much as possible for the greatest number of people. Political logic demands a laser-like focus on a narrow group of voters needed to win re-election, often at the expense of everyone else. The same cognitive dissonance applies to analyzing elections.

If you’re a VC or a founder of a startup in a regulated industry and you’re looking at an election, you do what you always do: you apply logic and reason. You add up what appear to be the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, use that to predict who will win, and that influences your thinking about how the outcome will affect you and your company. That means you examine things like partisan makeup of the electorate, demographics, the candidate’s experience, voting records, fundraising, endorsements, attractiveness, message and other criteria. And to be clear, all of those things do matter – in fact, the majority of elections are decided almost solely on partisan affiliation and demographics.

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But based on my experience in government and politics at the local, state and federal level, there are two more criteria, both intangible, that have a significant impact on the outcome.

The first is the zeitgeist of the electorate. It’s hard to put your finger on how the electorate is feeling, but the campaigns and candidates who can figure that out have a major advantage. Donald Trump is doing that right now by appealing to very disgruntled GOP primary voters as an extreme outsider. Obama did this exceptionally well in 2008 by encouraging the voters to see him as a Rorschach test, allowing him to be whatever they wanted him to be. Reagan did it better than anyone in 1980. Here in New York City, Bill de Blasio figured this out in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary. He knew that the small number of people who would actually vote wanted someone sympathetic to their fears of being priced out of the city and being harassed by the police, and he connected with those voters exceptionally well. Candidates who just talk about themselves and why they’re right for the job (and often argue, explicitly or implicitly, that they’re owed the job because it’s “their turn”) rarely win.

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The second criteria is even more intangible. It’s the vote getting gene. In my experience, this is not something that can be learned. Either you’re born with it or you’re not. And it’s not solely based on charisma or looks – it’s more intrinsic than that. Bill Clinton had it. Hillary Clinton does not. George W. Bush had it. His father and brother do not. Obama has it.

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Of the GOP contenders for the Presidency, Rubio and Cruz both appear to have it. I’m not sure any of the other candidates actually do. You can win an election without having the vote getting gene (pretty much everyone running for President other than Trump and Carson has won election to something). But it’s a lot easier to win if people intuitively want to vote for you.

So if you own a startup in a regulated industry and you’re trying to read the tea leaves and figure out how it could all affect you, what do you do? You should still do what comes naturally to you and analyze all of the tangible factors listed above.

But then you should put those all aside and ask yourself: (1) Do I really want to vote for this candidate; and (2) Is this candidate capturing something that people are clearly feeling, even if they can’t articulate it? You don’t have to think a lot about either question. You know both answers intrinsically. And when you add those to all of the conventional factors, you get a much better sense of what might happen. That should help you make both better predictions and smarter decisions.