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Let's Hear It for the American Voter

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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As a first-timer covering the presidential campaign, I expected to confirm the widely held impression that the process is dominated by vested interests, big money and powerful parties operating in the background. To my surprise, I found instead a process that can be taken at face value, in spite of the hype and intrigue. My biggest discovery was that whatever goes on in back rooms, spin rooms and newsrooms, the ordinary voter always is the central character in the drama, and the best way to understand the campaign is from the voter's point of view.

In New Hampshire, I met Carl Toepel, 76, of Howards Grove, Wisconsin. His red baseball cap was bedecked with pins he has picked up as he traveled around the country to hear candidates during every electoral cycle. Toepel, a retired school principal, is a Republican, and he proudly noted that he has attended 10 of the party's national conventions -- once as a delegate. "I love American history, and this way I get a front row seat," he said.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

In Russia, my country, or in Ukraine, where I've also covered elections, such a statement would be deemed naive. None of the politicians in those countries make as many campaign stops and speak to such small gatherings: A school? A pizza parlor? You've got to be kidding. But the biggest difference is that listening to the speeches doesn't provide any insight into what's really going on. Elections are decided by who makes a deal with whom, who has the best handouts for elderly voters, who has the support of the regime both on the national and the local level, and ultimately by who controls the vote count.

Post-Soviet voters are not in the habit of traveling around listening to stump speeches, even in their own regions. They get information from the media -- television, if they don't have much interest, print publications and websites if they care. This puts a heavy burden on journalists: They need inside information to be relevant. The only honest way to cover a campaign is to investigate it as a corruption scandal. There are, of course, lots of dishonest ways, too -- and propaganda and spin dominate because the ruling regimes control the airwaves and distort the social media picture with the help of thousands of paid trolls.

Many people around the world, including me until recently, suspect that U.S. elections also are a bit the same way. American politicians and political experts decry the importance of money, vested interests, party machines and complicated campaign strategies. And there's no doubt that these flaws exist. But seeing the campaign from Toepel's vantage point makes it clear that in the end the process is about ordinary people making up their minds.

That might explain why veteran political experts are as surprised as I am by the 2016 campaign. Even the best pollsters were unable to predict the outcome of the Iowa caucuses. Even the smartest political scientists and journalists, who have accounts of previous campaigns imprinted in their minds and who have read the academic literature, don't know where things are headed or whether this or that misstep or tiny victory brings a candidate closer to the goal.

Did Donald Trump come in second in Iowa because he staged an alternative event instead of attending the final debate -- or simply because his supporters like the candidate's show but not enough to actually vote for the the candidate himself? Did Marco Rubio shoot himself in the foot by repeating the same soundbite four times in the Republican debate on Saturday? Is Bernie Sanders going to lose any points because he's unconvincing on foreign  policy? Is it bad that Hillary Clinton seems to scream during town hall meetings (I think she mostly just shouts over the noise her supporters make, but that noise seems quieter on television, so she's unfairly described as "shrill")? Why do so few people like Jeb Bush, who is so obviously a nice guy -- or are the polls not telling the whole story? Is a ground game essential? How do TV ads help?

At best, the answer to all these questions is an educated guess. There is no wisdom from past campaigns that could help. I have attended panel discussions, watched analysts pontificate on TV, listened to Rush Limbaugh on long drives -- and no one has been successful at second-guessing voters. That's because they really and truly hold the cards. People drive to those campaign stops and watch televised debates to see if they like the candidates and agree with them. Then they decide what to do, and they winnow the field. In the end, it's that simple.

Arguably, the best way to make sense of the race is to do the same, talk to people in the audiences about their impressions and watch their reactions as they listen. They often just toss back the candidates' words, but it's possible to feel the atmosphere in a tightly packed room and to read moods. That's why tourists come to New Hampshire and Iowa at caucus and primary time.  

As recently as 1969, activists were still fighting to give ordinary voters a role in nominating candidates, and diminish the power of party bosses. At least judging by what I've seen of the process in the two early states, that battle has been won decisively. Parties, donors and campaign strategists can try to influence voters -- but their job is increasingly thankless, at least this time. During a campaign appearance on Sunday, Chris Christie said as much. Citing "the great political philosopher Mike Tyson," the New Jersey governor said: "Everyone's got a strategy until they get punched in the face."

Voters have more power and independence than ever because of technological advances and the decline of traditional hierarchies. Trump and the other presidential hopefuls have constant access to their audiences on the stump, on social networks, during the frequent televised debates. Control of the media in the vast U.S. market is impossible. As a result, candidates may no longer need to spend as much money to be seen and heard. Yes, they are raising record amounts and spending frantically on ads that look as if they were made in the 1980s, but that just may be inertia.

Candidates can get good results, even if party elites are against them (Ted Cruz and Trump in Iowa and possibly Trump and Sanders in New Hampshire). The elites' power has eroded enough to make them barely relevant.

The candidates and the political class aren't rewriting the rules -- voters are. They may be unaware of the finer workings of the political system, but they are exercising their power. That's why Toepel's vantage point on American history keeps getting better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net