The risks and rewards of retail politics

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire
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By now, you've likely seen them — the short clips of Florida Republican Governor and presumptive 2024 GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis uncomfortably laughing just a bit too hard at some innocuous comment in Iowa or stumbling his way through awkward introductions at a New Hampshire diner. His unguarded moments are "what it looks like when the joker gas hits," quipped columnist Oliver Willis. He's "maybe the worse retail politician ever," added longtime political consultant Keith Edwards.

But for all his high-profile and well-reported struggles with small-scale interpersonal interactions, DeSantis is far from the only elected official to wade into the choppy waters of retail politics, eschewing — or at least temporarily superseding — hands-off campaigning on social media and at large-scale rallies, with a "more meaningful" presence full of "eye-to-eye contact," and "shaking hands, the really getting to know people, and them getting to know you," as GOP candidate Nikki Haley explained to Politico in Iowa. Even President Joe Biden, possessor of perhaps the largest soapbox on Earth, is leaning heavily into retail politics during his reelection campaign, particularly through brand association, which offers him "a way to locate [himself] in the country's cultural and social landscape," explained University of Virginia Miller Center presidential historian Russell Riley.

High risk, high reward

Consider Biden, a "retail politics virtuoso" and "the only politician of his kind," as The Atlantic's Edward-Isaac Dovere put it during the 2020 campaign. Like former President Bill Clinton and, to a degree, George W. Bush as well, Biden's skill at retail politics has helped establish a career-long public persona as a "shake-your-hand, pat-you-on-the-back kind of guy," according to Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale. That impression is crucial among voters whose impressions of various candidates otherwise "develop from a mixture of media coverage, preexisting partisan preferences, word-of-mouth and gut instinct," Monash University Journalism school lecturer Stephanie Brookes wrote in 2013. Moreover, while the primary recipient of retail politics is the person being politicked to, "there is a secondary audience: others who are present, those who hear about the meeting through word of mouth, and, increasingly, the broader media audience." While retail politicians operate one-on-one, the impact of that meeting — particularly in an era where every interaction is filmed, streamed, clipped, remixed and analyzed — goes far beyond the personal space in which the specific conversation takes place. Put another way, the benefits of retail politics are twofold: There are the "hard" gains of actively engaging with and hopefully convincing a voter to support you, as well as the "soft" gains of helping craft a broader public persona and national narrative.

This, of course, makes retail politics a risky proposition and something of a high-wire act — a lesson DeSantis and Haley both seem to be learning of late, thanks to the virality of their respective retail missteps, including most recently an attempt by Haley to rouse a New Hampshire breakfast crowd with anti-LGBTQ+ culture war rhetoric, only to be met with silence from the assembled diners. If "voters like and know more about the candidates whom they meet, but they also are more likely to experience contact with candidates whom they are predisposed to like," as Lynn Vavreck, Constantine J. Spiliotes and Linda L. Fowler wrote in the American Journal of Political Science, then the inherent risks involved are apparent: Not only are awkward encounters likely to turn off the most readily gettable voters, but in an era of ubiquitous social media virality they can appear more damning to third-party observers who have not self-selected to meet with the politician themselves. As much as retail politicking can help a campaign, particularly in primary races where small-scale interactions play a crucial role in not only setting the tone for a candidate but actively whipping votes, it can also detract from a candidate's intended persona and turn away supporters.

Will it matter in November?

Noting DeSantis' reputation as "a cold, prickly a**hole," The Dispatch's Sarah Isgur took a step back recently, asking the broader question of "whether voters will care." In other words, do "retail politics matter anymore?"

As Isgur points out, neither Donald Trump nor Barack Obama is considered a particularly effective retail politician, with the former eschewing rope lines and baby-kissing and the latter "known as a wonk who had difficulty connecting in small groups." Still, their respective presidential victories, predicated on what Isgur describes as a "preternatural" skill at large-scale oration, suggest that retail deficiencies can be overcome by other campaign tactics. In DeSantis' case, that means maximizing "negative attention on issues that he thinks will galvanize his supporters" while appealing to "a lot of GOP bigwigs … happy to support a moldy loaf of bread if it means retiring Donald Trump."

Trump himself, meanwhile, has abandoned retail politics entirely, basing his campaign not on an effort, practiced or natural, to make an empathetic connection with voters but instead on using "a moment of maximum crisis and disorder" to present himself as "a figure who stands apart from the crowd, positioned to swoop in and take command," Joanna Weiss wrote in Politico during the 2020 race. Even when he roils his base during stadium rallies, "it's not based on feeling the pain of their personal circumstances but rather expressing and validating their anger," agreed Randolph-Macon College political science professor Elliott Fullmer in the same piece.

Even Biden, a retail politician par excellence, was forced to abandon much of the intimacy and proximity he had spent years honing during the 2020 presidential race, as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic upended many traditional modes of campaigning. Of the many factors involved in his victory that year, his ability to transcend the limitations of retail politics upon which he relied for so long is certainly among them.

This brings us back to DeSantis, whose allies in the Never Back Down super-PAC have reportedly raised a staggering $200 million to ensure he "beat[s] Trump by beating Trump," PAC chair Jeff Roe told The New York Times. The group is leaning heavily into its brand of retail politics, amassing an army of volunteers and organizers, as the "peer-to-peer, neighbor-to-neighbor conversation and conversion is going to be extremely important" for the candidate, particularly in the early primary states. While DeSantis may struggle with the optics of retail politics, his allies seem to understand that ultimately there's nothing quite like it on the path to the White House.

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