Closing Range

Little Book, Big Sky

All that noise on TV, radio, your phone, your doorbell, the newspaper – is aimed at those who know the least

Writers get better by reading, a lot. Because I write a lot about politics, I should read tons of political books, right? Um, no. Most are screeds written on a third-grade level by partisan political celebrities, time-wasting drivel. There’s nothing worse than reading non-fiction and not learning anything new.

Away from the mass-market trash, there are darn few “good” political books directly relevant to Montana’s unique issues. Not helping is the fact Montana is the political bush leagues – often treated as such by academic political experts, or worse, ignored completely.

However, an imprint of Congressional Quarterly has finally published a political book worth reading: Battle for the Big Sky, by Montana State University associate political science professor David C.W. Parker, Ph.D. The book is about the 2012 U.S. Senate race between Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg, which my guy lost.

Now, Parker is relatively new to Montana, a Midwesterner who got his doctorate in 2004 from oh-so-progressive University of Wisconsin (Madison), joining the faculty at MSU in 2008. But he is productive and smart – rapidly gathering prominence in the state, probably because Parker gets it right more than he gets it wrong, and is therefore worth paying attention to. Don’t think so? Check out Parker’s numerous posts to Montana State’s blog: Big Sky Political Analysis – his latest asks if Congressman Ryan Zinke is aiming for the Senate in 2018.

I’m a regular reader of the MSU blog and Parker – and I’m glad I read his new book. Not because it was entertaining … educational books aren’t supposed to entertain. Not because I agreed with everything he wrote – especially the details – picking which players had the most impact on events, and what specific events most influenced the final result.

What is most valuable in Battle for the Big Sky are Parker’s comments on political “generics” – things that should be true of any election, or electorate. It’s not a pretty picture. Frankly, if you are thinking about playing politics, Battle will help disabuse you of any idealistic delusions.

“Campaigns, at their core, are about presenting narratives to the voters that win the candidate the most votes.” So, if you tell your story (the narrative), you’ll win on the issues, right?

Well, Parker devotes quite a bit of space to the advantages of incumbency – advantages so huge that in America’s gerrymandered Congress, only 19 percent of all House incumbents face a “quality” challenger in any given cycle.

And, if you are a quality kind of person, keep in mind, “Elections are often referenda on incumbents. The challenger must demonstrate they are an acceptable alternative to an incumbent that has done a bad job.”

You can demonstrate that, right? But the 2012 election was the first cycle with a new fly in the ointment – dark money groups: “One consequence of Citizens United is a loss of candidate message control to outside organizations and ads appearing on television much earlier during the election cycle.”

And those ads dragged on and on, didn’t they? What the heck was the point? “Most campaign advertisements, if they have an effect, remind and do not persuade.” Nonetheless, there were 170,000 ads in Montana for the 2012 Senate race compared to 219,000 in swing-state Ohio by the presidential campaigns. There’s only 1 million Montanans compared to 11.5 million in Ohio, for goodness sake!

Why? “Independents represen[t] the single largest group of voters [in Montana] and are notoriously fickle.” Independents “are less engaged politically, less knowledgeable about politics,” but the “sheer volume of ads also raised the probability of low-information-voter persuasion.” The adverts were bought because they “best persuade low-information voters in the final days of a campaign when one side dominates the airwaves.”

In a nutshell, all that noise on TV, radio, your phone, your doorbell, the newspaper – is aimed at those who know the least.

I used to think that Montana electoral politics were somehow different, better than the “norm.” Thanks to Dr. Parker, I’ve learned an important lesson: Montana is special, but her politics sure ain’t.