It's not about the issues – it's about earning trust
You'd think that elections this November and in 2008 would yield Democratic victories, hands down. It won't happen. Not, at least, until Democrats understand the fundamentals of political behavior.
With an incumbent president and party mired in a manufactured war, rampant corruption, higher debt levels, and swollen executive power, momentum favors Democrats. But they are still aiming for votes and contributions, not for the most basic of all convictions – trust.
The Democratic candidates in the 2004 primaries missed the core issue for voters. John Kerry stressed electability, Howard Dean focused on Web-based contributions, and John Edwards insisted that we have become two unequal Americas. But the public trusted none of them enough to make a difference.
If presidents and congressional majorities were elected primarily on the issues, Democrats would have won in 2004 and should win in 2006 and 2008. Surveys show the unpopularity of President Bush and his policies. But elections are decided on feelings, not issues.
In 1992, the Clinton campaign team's mantra – "The economy, stupid" – was not about policy. It was about selling a mistrust of President George H.W. Bush and his awareness of Americans' daily challenges. Bill Clinton won.
America is not a country of intellectual voters. We do not calculate our ballots on the basis of financial or class interests. Sure, advocacy groups back candidates by virtue of their sympathy with cherished causes. But more often, voters base their decisions on sentiments that are more amorphous. Traits such as toughness and likability are key factors, subject to the standards that media establish.
In 2004, viscerally negative feelings about Mr. Kerry were generated by impugning his Vietnam War record and by mocking his elite manner. Sept. 11 made George W. Bush a wartime president even though he never served in battle. But he was simple and ordinary. He won. If Democrats want to win, they must convey grace, not false charm, and the depth of ordinary experience, not pseudo-exuberance. It's called populist charisma.
Democrats should know more about checkout lines at Wal-Mart, and less about windsurfing. They should also show an ability to speak different "languages" depending on their audience. If they cannot speak evocatively to union members in Seattle one day and an African-American congregation in Georgia the next, they can't win.
It's not enough for Democrats to repeat: "We have had enough." They have to tell people what they'd get if elected. And they have to create trust in their ability to make Americans more secure.
I'm not advocating "feelings, nothing more than feelings." But Democrats must know that the best candidates are not the most produced, doctored, or managed. Al Gore fell victim to such control in 2000, and he became a caricature.
The primary system is skewed toward state party organizations, Beltway and Wall Street assessments of electability, and money. The emotional tie between citizens and candidates counts, too. This tie depends on a candidate's charisma – one grounded in the needs and challenges of American life. Democrats can win. They just need to remember who elects them.
• Political consultant Daniel N. Nelson was a senior adviser to Democratic congressional leaders.