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Analysis: Politicians’ hearing improves when their jobs are on the line

Everybody wants to see the election results in a couple of weeks, but politicians — those who survive, that is — will be looking for something more: instructions from voters.

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Politicians “listen” to voters all the time, but their hearing gets a lot better when their heads are on the chopping block.

In an election cycle that has put disgruntled voters at center stage — as their support fueled the rise of Donald Trump in the GOP and Bernie Sanders’ transformation of the Democratic platform — every smart politician on the ballot is on edge.

You hear it from the scattered Texas political districts where both Democrats and Republicans have a reasonable chance to win: in the 23rd Congressional District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd is trying to fend off Pete Gallego, the congressman Hurd beat two years ago; and in the nine or 10 Texas House districts where Republicans have narrow or nonexistent advantages over their Democratic challengers.

They’re talking about their own races, to be sure, but they’re also talking about Trump and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton.

The giants fighting at the top of the ticket can trample the hopes of the politicians below. And the measure will come after the election, when the political world digests the results and decides whether voters have commanded a change in direction, like they did in 2010, or whether this election was just one of those things — a one-time frolic that doesn’t really change any tunes in the political songbooks.

The real measure of an election is what it tells the people who are supposed to represent us, whether they come away thinking they should stay the course, change it a little or change it a lot.

The fortunes of the people at the top of the ballot always have some effect on elections. The presidential race is the one everyone knows about, the one everyone talks about; downballot races follow that conversation, if anyone brings them up at all.

Lesser-known candidates depend on party strength to make it through Election Night. Just ask any judge: They run as virtual unknowns, living and dying on their association with a particular party’s flag. If the man or woman at the top of the ticket stumbles, the down-ballot candidates scrape their knees.

There’s more, though. On Nov. 9, the voters who backed Trump and Sanders (and Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, too) will still be around. And the general election will offer a reading of voter attitudes for the winners up and down the ballot.

You don’t need a historian’s help with this; it happened in 2010, when the Tea Party wave hit Republicans in their own primary and then washed over the Democrats in November.

It put a posse of new politicians in office in Washington and Austin. More importantly, it changed the politics of the Republican Party; once the establishment knew what their voters were excited about, they changed direction. Republicans are still split; Trump’s candidacy is just the latest episode in the GOP drama.

The real measure of an election is what it tells the people who are supposed to represent us, whether they come away thinking they should stay the course, change it a little or change it a lot.

The rhetoric is always amped up at this stage. It’s crazy time for political people. Facebook is a little dangerous to anyone who posts about politics or has friends who do. That will mostly be over in a couple of weeks.

The politicians listening to this will hear it in the down-ballot races — their own, of course, but also in the stories of who won and who lost and why. Was it purely because of the drag or lift provided by the candidate at the top? Was there something else the voters were trying to say? Were there any new lessons about how to stay alive in politics, about dangerous voter sensitivities or preferences heretofore unknown?

Was it just about Donald and Hillary (and Gary and Jill), or are the voters demanding something new?

It has been a very, very noisy 18 months. But that’s the thing about elections: They erase the noise. A signal emerges. There’s a winner, a loser, a new set of instructions from voters — and the politicians who survive are listening.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • State lawmakers complain that local property taxes need to be leashed. But state lawmakers are more responsible for the increases than they let on.
  • State officials would like to lower local school property taxes, but they've got a secret: Some of those local school tax revenues make it easier to balance a tight state budget.
  • The Clinton campaign is buying television ads in Texas, but not enough of them to capture the attention of most TV viewers — or most voters. So what's the deal?

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Politics 2016 elections