Are the voters really mad as hell?

How "Network" changes the news
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Story highlights

  • Michael Smerconish: Angry voters, many of them in the GOP, have outsized weight in politics
  • There are seven solutions to improve the modern political landscape, he says

Michael A. Smerconish is host of "Smerconish," on CNN Saturdays at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET and of "The Michael Smerconish Program" on SiriusXM Channel 124, Sunday columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and an author. This piece is adapted from a speech he gave this week at an event hosted by the Inquirer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)If the 2016 campaign were a movie, it would surely be "Network."

Hopefully, you remember 1976. Peter Finch won an Academy Award for playing a fictional television newscaster named Howard Beale.
    Michael Smerconish
    Wet, disheveled, he arrives in the studio late one night and launches into a monologue.
    "I don't have to tell you things are bad -- everybody knows things are bad," he says as he begins his speech.
    And then comes the ask: He requests that viewers go to the window and yell: "I'm as mad as hell and not going to take this anymore."
    They do as instructed.
    The cityscape depicted in the film is a cacophony of angry screaming, and so, we have been led to believe, is the American electorate in 2016.
    We've been told that the storyline of this election is the angry American voter.
    Only I question that storyline.
    On February 1, Iowa voters participated in caucuses.
    Republican attendees were asked in the exit polls, supplied by Edison Media Research, for their "feelings on the federal government."
    A full 42% said they were "angry"; 49% said they were "dissatisfied." Of the remaining, 5% said they were "satisfied" and 3% -- a group I'd like to meet -- said they were "enthusiastic"!
    Democrats were not asked that question. In fact, they were rarely asked that question in the exit surveys. Although I suspect if they had been asked "what are your feelings about Wall Street or income inequality," we would have seen a lot more anger among them.
    One week later, on February 9 in New Hampshire, Republican voters were again asked about the federal government.
    This time, 39% of Republicans said they were "angry"; 50% said "dissatisfied."
    New Hampshire Democrats were asked the same question but did not reveal that level of anger. Only 12% said "angry" in comparison to the 39% from the GOP who said likewise. (Maybe that's why they were not asked again.)
    February 20, in South Carolina: 40% of Republicans said they were "angry"; 52% said "dissatisfied."
    March 15 in Florida: 40% of Republicans said "angry"; 46% said "dissatisfied."
    Each of these expressions of Republican anger received tremendous press coverage.
    In fact, if today you combine "angry" and "Republicans" in a Google search, you will get more than 20.3 million hits.

    A faulty narrative?

    Along the way, I grew suspicious of the evolving narrative. On a day-to-day basis, I answer telephone calls from SiriusXM radio listeners all across the country. I wasn't feeling the anger vibe from my listeners. On March 26, after leading a discussion on the subject, I made the following a poll question on my website:
    With regard to America, which better describes your mood:
    There were 1,662 votes that day -- not scientific, but a sufficient number to make me think I was onto something.
    Angry: 32%
    Hopeful: 68%
    One week after my poll, on April 2, Lynne Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA, challenged the conventional wisdom about angry voters in a column for The NY Times' Upshot. She wrote:
    "Data on the nation's economic recovery, people's reactions to current economic conditions and their overall sense of satisfaction with life do not suggest Americans are angry. In fact, historical measures indicate people are about as happy and satisfied with the economy and with their lives as they were in 1983, when Ronald Reagan told us it was "morning again in America."
    She cited the index of consumer sentiment, one of the longest running measures of American's views on the economy, which showed that by the end of 2015, consumer sentiment was nearly identical to where it was in the end of 1983.
    And she looked at the General Social Survey, which since 1972, has asked Americans to "take all things together" and rate their level of happiness. The 40-year trend showed only modest levels of changes, and some small increases in happiness in recent years.
    For example, one GSS Report, published in April 2015, found that in 2014, 32.5% of people said they were very happy, an increase of 3.7% points since 2010.

    The disconnect

    So what accounts for this disconnect between exit polls and headlines and social science?
    I'd argue that it's indicative of the outsized influence in our political process of the most passionate among us - those who are most participatory in the process vs. the rest of the nation.
    Pew Research Center has documented the influence of passion, noting that it rests on the ends of the political spectrum. That makes sense. It's where you find the activists. Those who are the most reliable voters. The people who put up yard signs. Hang a bumper sticker. Write checks.
    This appears especially pronounced on the right.
    In 2015, Drew DeSilver, a senior writer at Pew, reviewed data from the 2012 election and concluded that conservatives are the most politically active American voters. His analysis showed that 82% of conservative Republicans were "highly likely" to vote, the highest percentage of any of the political subgroups. And they also seem to be paying the closest attention. In 2012, 80% of conservative Republicans said they followed public affairs and government "some" or "most" of the time, as opposed to 73% of liberal Democrats and just 67% of the general public.
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    Don't misunderstand: I don't deny that anger exists in the electorate, I just believe that the loud voices of those who are angry have muted too many of the rest of us, because we have let them. And I think I know how we got here as I have written on this subject with Brian Rosenwald, Ph.D.
    Ask yourself: How did the Republican Party end up with its final competitors a scornful, extremely conservative senator, so unpopular among his colleagues that not a single one endorsed his candidacy, and a bombastic businessman who has never held elective office? Blame today's true Republican powerbrokers -- the (mostly) men with microphones who dominate right-wing talk radio.

    The titans of talk

    Business motives drive the titans of talk. They aim to maximize revenue from advertising, which requires the attraction of computer clicks, ears, and eyeballs. That goal, in turn, necessitates producing an authentic, stimulating product. The more passion provoked by hosts, the better their shot of capturing and maintaining an audience.
    Bold, assertive, controversial content achieves this goal far better than thorough, nuanced, paragraph-long explanations. This incentive explains why the content on talk radio and cable television news has long been a precursor to the provocative language of the stump speeches of Donald Trump and one of his final GOP challengers, Ted Cruz.
    When viewed against this backdrop, there's nothing shocking about Cruz having once said, "I think President Obama is the most radical president this nation's ever seen" in light of Glenn Beck having previously gotten traction among his supporters by claiming that Obama is a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people."
    Similarly, Trump's claim that Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever," is almost tame in comparison to Rush Limbaugh's characterization of Georgetown Law Center student Sandra Fluke as a "slut."
    Talk radio and cable television news did a lot to push so many conspiracy theories that Trump hints at and slyly pays homage to.
    Ironically, now many of these same hosts who created a climate that fostered the rise of candidates who could tap into the anger and fear of their listeners and viewers are fearful of a significant GOP loss -- the possible consequence of reaping what they have sown.
    If my theory sounds like the stuff of a liberal hiding behind an Independent label, guess who agrees with me? The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who was just quoted by the Washington Examiner as saying that talk radio is the reason the Republican base has unrealistic expectations which may have contributed to Donald Trump's securing of the nomination. McConnell was asked why voters seem so fed up and have largely favored outsiders.
    "A lot of base voters have been really misled by a lot of talk show hosts and others about what's achievable when you don't have the White House," McConnell said at the American Enterprise Institute.
    But let's not excuse elected officials like McConnell, themselves. Their own rhetoric has also fostered misperceptions and fed anger for decades. They have not exactly been out there trying to disabuse voters of misconceptions or to educate them on complex issues.
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    That talking heads have wrested control of the GOP from the traditional party powerbrokers benefits neither the party, nor the nation. Political parties, after all, exist to win elections. By surrendering issue control to entertainers on the fringe of contemporary thought, however, the Republican Party has limited its ability to win the White House.
    This is a partial explanation as to why Democrats have won four of the last six presidential elections (and the popular vote in a 5th). While the GOP has proven effective at controlling Congress and state capitals, the ever-increasing power of its media leadership has made control of the White House elusive. Thus, the GOP's intraparty struggles rob all Americans of the choice that comes from competitive presidential general elections.

    The silent ones

    If there's a new "silent majority" in the nation, they are not tea party activists or Millennials feeling the "Bern." They are the tens of millions of Americans who are not angry, but remaining silent.
    In Iowa this year -- despite all the buildup, the TV commercials and the opportunity to go and hear any candidate speak in person -- when all was said and done, just 180,000 Republicans and 170,000 Democrats participated in a caucus -- which is a mere fifth of the 1.6 million Iowans who voted in November 2012!! And it's an even smaller percentage of the Iowans eligible to vote in a general election.
    My conclusion is that those who have participated, especially on the right, are over-reflective of anger in America, and Donald Trump has been the beneficiary.
    Recall that 42% of Iowa voters said they were "angry" -- Trump won 30% of those "angry" voters at a time when he still had roughly a dozen competitors.
    In New Hampshire, 39% said they were "angry" at the federal government; Trump won 44% of those "angry" voters.
    In South Carolina, 40% said they were "angry"; Trump won 44% of them.
    In Florida -- 40% of Republicans who voted said they were "angry"; Trump won 59% of them.
    And in Pennsylvania, 38% said they were "angry"; and Trump won 66% of those "angry" voters.

    Will angry voters elect a president?

    Whether there are enough angry voters to win the White House is a different story.
    You have no doubt heard that Donald Trump received more votes than any prior Republican running for president. That's true. All told, Donald Trump received 13.9 million votes this primary and caucus season.
    But he also set a record for the most votes cast against a nominee -- more than 17 million voted for another choice.
    In fact, by June 7, the final night of primary voting, Trump had vanquished all of his opponents, still 25% of California voters still cast ballots for someone other than Trump.
    According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 57.6 million people, or 28.5% of eligible American voters, voted in the 2016 primaries. Donald Trump won 24.1% of the total votes cast thus far in 2016. Said differently, he has won only 6.9% of the votes of eligible voters.
    So Trump needs to build significantly on the nearly 14 million who have already voted for him once. Consider that four years ago, Barack Obama won re-election with 65.9 million votes. (In 2008, he received 69.4 million, a record.)
    And the question moving forward is whether angry voters will continue to have an outsized influence in the general election. My answer is: it depends on whether we let them. Not when the influence of anger on the right is diluted with general election voters who tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse, female, and young.
    Of course, perception in politics can become reality. If the coverage continues to highlight views of the angriest among us, portray them as if they are more omnipotent than is really the case, that perception might take further hold.

    Seven solutions

    Additionally, there are steps that can be taken to lessen the influence of the most angry in the nomination process, so that candidates are more reflective of a greater number of people, and not the passionate few. Briefly, here are seven suggestions:
    1. More overall participation. We need to make it far easier, much less onerous, to vote. When more participate they dilute extremes that otherwise limit our choices.
    2. More open primaries. These enable independent voters more influence, and don't limit their choices to picking among candidates selected by the ends of the spectrum. Another possibility is the top-two primary system recently initiated in California, which introduces competition in what would otherwise have been seats that re-elect the same members of Congress because the districts are so skewed toward one party or the other.
    3. Professionally drawn congressional district boundaries. Professionals should make the decisions, not partisans. Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight blog has documented that whereas in 1992, 103 of congressional districts were competitive or "swing" districts, today, that number is 35. Think about that -- the outcome of the presidential and congressional elections are essentially predetermined in 400 of 435 congressional districts. It's appalling.
    4. Campaign finance reform. Maybe we cannot overturn Citizens United, but we can demand full and immediate disclosure of donations via the Internet. (Dr. Rosenwald has suggested NASCAR uniforms for politicians so we know who bought them.)
    Jane Mayer's new book, "Dark Money," explains how so-called 501(c)(4) organizations that say they are devoted to "social welfare" can engage in politics with no sourcing of contributions. That's simply unacceptable in an internet- age when technology allows for full and immediate disclosure.
    5. Change "sore loser laws." Former Congressman Mickey Edwards has written compellingly about this.
    There are 44 states that block a candidate who fails to win a party primary from appearing in the general election, which deprives voters of full array of choices.
    In 2012, Texas, a habitually Red State, had a Senate primary. On the Republican side, David Dewhurst, the relatively (by Texas standards) moderate lieutenant governor won 46%, leading a multi candidate field. A tea party favorite was second, receiving 33%. But since no one won the requisite 50%, state law required a runoff.
    In that election, the tea party candidate beat Dewhurst, but only 630,000 Republicans voted in a state of 26 million people! And in the fall, Dewhurst was prohibited from taking on the tea party candidate in the general election when all Texans could vote.
    Thus, the road was paved for Ted Cruz to go to Washington, and shut down the government.
    6. In the presidential election, we need to expand debate participation.
    According to a Gallup survey last January, 42% of Americans regard themselves as independents -- an all time high. Twenty nine (29) percent say they are Democratic and only 26% say they are Republican.
    When it comes to picking winners, the "I's" have it!
    But they don't get a say on the debate stage.
    A group called Changetherule.org has done some good work in this regard.
    They point out that most Americans are either far-left, center-left, centrists, center-right, or far right.
    Yet we elect presidents based on coalitions consisting of extreme right, right leaning, and centrist or extreme left, left leaning, and centrist.
    Putting a third presidential candidate on stage might enable the election of left-leaning, centrist, and right-leaning coalition with a president who can govern more effectively, and in a manner more reflective of the views of most Americans.
    The idea is to force parties to defend against middle -- think of someone like Michael Bloomberg.
    7. We need to recognize that entertainment choices have consequences -- more of us need to change the channel and stop conflating our news and entertainment choices, thereby lessening the influence of talking heads.

    No time to wait

    But with regard to these seven steps, and anymore you can think of, here's the thing -- we need to hurry. Here's why: How many people would be displeased if their son/daughter married outside their political party?
    Not race. Not religion. But party. When that question was asked in 1960, just 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said they would be displeased.
    But when asked in 2010, 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats said they'd be displeased.
    A group of Stanford/Princeton researchers wanted to know more, so they conducted an experiment.
    Their conclusion? That political ideology has greater force than racism.
    So the anger that threatens Washington based on partisanship is metastasizing. Now is the time to take back control of our political debate.
    Remember, when Howard Beale asked Americans to shout outside that they were "mad as hell", many followed.
    It's time for the rest of us to close our windows.