On a recent episode of How To!, political strategists David Axelrod and Mike Murphy help an undecided voter, Anthony, pick a presidential candidate for 2020. Axelrod is best known for being the mastermind of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, and Mike Murphy is a veteran GOP consultant and prominent Never Trumper; together they host a podcast called Hacks on Tap. They spoke with host Charles Duhigg about character, experience, and the “moral tariff” paid for voting in your self-interest. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Axelrod: One thing that the past decade should have taught us is a little bit of humility in making summary political judgments. One of them is that Bernie Sanders would be an abject disaster and couldn’t win. I think that’s an open question, honestly. The one thing that I think people in politics do too little is listen. Mike joked about turning the podcast into a focus group, but people can be counterintuitive. So it’s important to approach this with an open mind and try and understand how people are making their judgments.
Charles Duhigg: Both of you said it’s a false dichotomy to say “follow your brain” versus “follow your heart.” And in some ways you should just listen to what matters to you and follow that path. But what advice do you have for people who are trying to figure out how to prioritize these things?
Mike Murphy: Well, it’s hard because with each candidate, particularly for president, you get a salad of things, which is certain issues they’re very focused on, other issues they sort of have to be allegiant to based on the reality of the party. People are more complex than simple liberal, conservative. I always say, just imagine you’re a congressman. What would be the most important single vote or piece of legislation you’d try to support if you had two years there?
The other thing, what a lot of people do, is they just decide who sees the world the way they would, because you’re really voting for a proxy to make the decisions you’re not going to make, because you’re not there. So what is their life experience, their character, their passion, their family, their experience? You just kind of sum it all up and say, “All right, that’s somebody I’m comfortable with, representing me, making those decisions behind the big desk.”
David: It isn’t just an equation about issues. It’s also worldview and culture, whether you feel comfortable with a person you’re voting for, and the character of that person to do the right thing.
Charles: So let me challenge this a little bit. I am not a fan of Donald Trump. I’m registered as a Democrat, and yet under Donald Trump, my life has actually been pretty good. The news media is doing pretty well. Stock market’s gone up. I haven’t been at the border. And I look at Bernie Sanders and think to myself, although he’s not someone I would choose as my candidate, but if he was in the general, he’s someone who agrees a lot more with my values than Donald Trump does. But he actually presents a real risk, I think, to my life. He’s going to tax me and the people in New York a lot. He could take away my health care. How should I parse through choosing a president based on character versus choosing a president based on my own self-interest?
Mike: The great challenge of the Trump era, especially for center and center-right people who care about the economy and, as you say, their personal lives and how they’re doing economically, is what is the moral tariff you are willing to pay for that? You know, if you’re a computer and you’re designed to pick your voting challenge purely on economic growth, then the machine, without feeling or moral compass, just beeps and says Trump has done well.
But if you think about it, character in office, who makes the right decision, and other intangibles like competence and the risk of incompetence, which could be catastrophic down the line in a foreign policy crisis—you just have to decide how big of a price are you willing to pay for some economic results. And that’s a moral question that people have to look within and decide.
Charles: There’s probably a number of Republicans out there who say, “Look, I did vote for Trump, and I didn’t vote for Trump just because I’m rich and I want him to cut my taxes. I voted for him because even though I think he’s personally distasteful, I actually think the moral thing to do is to vote for this guy because he puts the judges that I want on the bench, he upholds the values—even if he doesn’t live by those values, he at least talks about those values.”
Mike: I hear it all the time. It’s basically a low tax of personal disgust I paid for policy victories. No, the vast majority of Republican voters are right now paying that tax without too much complaint.
Charles: How do you guys think someone should analyze experience? How important is having been a governor, versus being a senator, versus being a businessman who comes out of nowhere, versus being a mayor?
David: Yeah, it used to be a lot more important. I am hopelessly biased on this question, and yet one of the virtues of campaigns is that you do get to see how people handle all kinds of different pressure and all kinds of complex issues, and paying attention to campaigns is really an important part of this. Obama proved himself from the beginning of that campaign, he proved himself through the campaign, 50 primaries against an array of opponents, dealing with all kinds of challenges. And by the end of it, these things were signals to voters that, yeah, I think he’s up to this. And so campaigns matter in judging how people might function as a president.
Mike: I would not be looking for risk. I would not be looking for revolution. I would not be looking to nominate a candidate that Trump can make the election about, because that increases risk and that deters from the overall mission of letting the country do what I think it wants to do, which is fire Donald Trump. So I might be a little timid, which means I would be looking at candidates who are unlikely to be easily turned into scary monsters. In other words, I wouldn’t be for Bernie Sanders. Though I agree with David. When the country is mad at the system, it elects Republicans like Trump and Democrats like Sanders. So I’d be trying to back down from that kind of horrible standoff and go with a little tamer, more centrist Democrat, be it an Amy, a Peter, a Bloomberg.
Charles: So let’s say we make it through the primary, and we got Donald Trump versus Bernie Sanders. Is it moral for me to just stay home?
David: Well, it’s certainly an option in our democracy to do that. We saw people do that in 2016. The reason Donald Trump is president is because of low turnout in some key areas. The reality is one of them is going to be president of the United States. And if you believe that the president of the United States is significant in terms of the impact on the life of the country, the life of the world, and your own, then it would behoove you to make a decision, one way or the other.
Anthony: What’s your opinion on independents? Voting for someone who’s not in one of the two parties?
David: I think that you want to vote for one of the candidates who is actually in contention for the presidency. Given the gravity of the times, I think a symbolic vote is a wasted vote. Anthony, you gotta suck it up, evaluate these candidates, and cast a vote for one or the other in hopes that that person will become president.
To listen to the entire episode, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.