Two MSNBC reporters—Benjy Sarlin, who has been covering the Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail, and Alex Seitz-Wald, who has been covering the Democrats—traded places for a week, to see what they'd discover about the politics and politicians they're covering, given a fresh perspective. And the resulting conversation about the experience is very interesting.
The whole thing is definitely worth a read, but this was the part that most stood out to me, as they discussed talking to voters from the other side than is usual for them:
Benjy: I was caught off guard by how specific and personal Democratic voters' issues tended to be. One woman told me she had lost a job because she had to take care of a sick relative and wanted paid family leave. Another woman told me her insurance stopped covering a certain medication that had grown too expensive and she liked how Clinton and Sanders talked about lowering drug prices. One man told me his wages were stagnant at his hotel job and he was looking for policies to increase them.This is, in some ways, keeping with liberal and conservative ideas about the role of the federal government. Liberals' view is that the federal government should be empowered to address a whole raft of domestic issues, while conservatives' view is the the federal government's role should be much more limited, with a particular focus on national defense.
"We're talking about bread-and-butter issues," Phyllis Thede, an Iowa state representative backing Clinton, told me when I asked about her constituents' top concerns.
By contrast, Republican voters tend to be excited by more abstract issues: One of the most common answers I get from Cruz voters when I ask about their leading concern is "the Constitution." There are fewer "I have a specific problem in my own life, and I'd like the government to do x about it" responses.
The other shock was just how far apart the party's interests are this election. In 2012, the election was dominated on both sides by the economy. This year, there's much less overlap between what Republicans and Democrats think the most important issues are. It's not so much that voters disagree on something like climate change as Democrats care about it while Republicans rarely give it much thought.
Alex: You're right, the two parties are operating in different parallel universes.
But obviously there's more at work here, given what Alex says next: "In my experience, the one place where the blue and red universes come closest together, surprisingly or not (older people disproportionately vote and attend political events): Social Security and Medicare."
I don't believe there's a single unifying explanation. One might argue that Republican primary voters tend to be wealthier and thus don't have as many personal economic concerns, but there are a lot of GOP voters who aren't wealthy (and a lot of Democratic voters who are). One might also point to studies showing left-leaning voters tend to be more empathetic generally than right-leaning voters, but that again is a generalization and not a rule. It's a combination of things.
Which frankly means it's harder to address the fact that "the two parties are operating in different parallel universes," and that's a concern.
As has become increasingly evident, it's difficult to get shit done when a population is living in different universes but the same country.