For most of American history there has been a massive misunderstanding of what motivates the electorate and why turnout is so low. The American electorate can be broadly categorized by the 5 Ps though there is important nuance as well. Nearly every voter is driven by some combination of party, policy, priority, personality, and pragmatism. Different candidates even running on relatively similar platforms in similar constituencies often generate very different electoral results.
We’ll use Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders,, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as examples. Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton through Personality and Priority. Clinton and Obama had about equal cache among Party voters. Hillary easily lead Obama on Pragmatism and Policy. Sanders lost to Hillary by being strong where Obama was strong without the Party power to back his campaign up. Trump meanwhile rode the same strategy as Sanders AND Obama, again with minimal Party support. The difference was his party had a dozen other candidates splitting the vote. His personality was also more interesting for the media than that of Sanders. Obama was like Trump in that way.
Different traits are more valuable in primaries versus general elections as well. Party is a worthless advantage for instance since it can’t grab non-party voters. Policy is a similarly weak power because general election voters are less educated and less politically involved than primary voters. Pragmatism is mostly a comparative value, so its more useful in primaries. Personality and Priority are the most valuable of the traits in general elections and its not for nothing that candidates winning on those traits ended up being more powerful in general elections.
Lets really dig into what these traits are actually about. Policy is relatively obvious. Having a lot of detailed and thought out policies for every conceivable issue helps a candidate seem prepared and knowledgeable to the elite interests in a party as well as other politicians. The weakness of Policy is that it affects mostly those who would support a candidate because of party anyway. The kinds of voters who swing one way or another in the general election generally don’t concern themselves with details.
Party is also an obvious one. A large percentage of voters in primaries and a vast majority of politicians are wedded to the organization rather than the platform of their party. They devoted time and money and for staffers and politicians they get their job and their paycheck from the party. We often see the sort of familial loyalty to parties even as their positions are rapidly changing. Similarly party voters often take the positions delivered from on high by party elites as their own positions. The recent flip in the Democratic party on Dreamers and immigration are an example.
Pragmatism is relatively related to Party and opposed to Priority. People with the pragmatist trait often focus on proclamations from the elite about who has the greatest chance to win. Hillary in both 2008 initially and in 2016 the whole time was presented as the pragmatist’s candidate. Sanders was too progressive to win a general election and such things. However pragmatism is often a problematic issue when it misunderstands what kinds of priorities voters have.
Personality is mostly about the backstory of the candidate, their personal charisma, how interesting they are to voters and the media. Personality can include traditional attractiveness and charisma but also includes things like authenticity, which powered the Sanders campaign. This is a very valuable general election trait because people make lots of subconscious and snap judgments based on manner and appearance during first impressions.
Priority is one of the most significant traits. Priority represents the sort of overall high level message of a campaign. Obama did hope and change while being extremely generic and bland, which is what made him so successful on top of his personality factor. Trump was bombastic and take charge and he presented simple solutions to significant issues. The drain the swamp push was the most important, probably followed by building the wall. Sanders spent his time talking about healthcare and economic equality which was a powerful message for those unimpressed by the ACA and by the elite driven economic recovery. Clinton meanwhile represented the status quo while the previously mentioned candidates focused on change. Change is almost always a superior strategy, especially with ISIS and the failure of the ACA and immigration in the news day in and day out. Its also a critical strategy when your party is the one with an outgoing two term president.
Voters in a general election are likely not going to read your bland and impenetrable policy papers. The whole point of representative democracy is that voters select other people to solve political problems. If you aren’t a healthcare expert than reading a candidate’s wonky detail heavy healthcare policy doesn’t benefit you because you can’t evaluate it. You want to elect someone you trust will fight for your best interests.
Also relevant to note that having too many policies is actually off putting. You can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time but you can’t also play the tuba, create nuclear fusion, and write an essay while doing that. A clear focus on a few issues is the essence of the value of Priority.