Home>Feature>The O’Toole Chronicles: Overton Window – A View into the Electorate

Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Overton Window – A View into the Electorate

By Kevin O'Toole, December 08 2020 12:01 am

Although I have been actively involved in elections since 1984 as a campaign volunteer, staffer, candidate or fundraiser, this year I found myself somewhat of a bystander and it had a very different feel – a good feeling, but a different one.

It was a solemn and serious time as we watched our state and national leaders grapple with the COVID pandemic and its response. They learned to deal with the aftermath such as the death of so many innocent lives and the financial ruin for many. It was somewhat fascinating, in part, to watch the political hysteria as both sides predicated defeat for the other side. I was also intrigued by the majority of prognosticators who predicated a wipeout of Republicans at every level. Well, that didn’t happen and some pretty savvy pollsters are still searching for a plausible answer.

So what is the Overton Window?

A political theory named after its conceiver: Joseph Overton.

The Overton Window is a theory based on acceptable political concepts and ideas that fall within a so-called window.

Those ideas found inside that window can be considered popular, sensible, acceptable, or reasonable; ideas that can be safely embraced or endorsed by most politicians. The ideas or concepts that push beyond the windowpanes, by advocating more or less extremes, are generally shied away from and considered radical and unthinkable.

The Overton Window contemplates that the extreme points beyond the actual panes mark points of “more freedom” or “less freedom.” It is a hypothesis of some that the embracing of radical political concept points leads to public rejection. While I believe that we should encourage all dialogue in our democracy, it is those ideas held within the Overton Window that somehow delineate political positions that become popular and ultimately policy. The observant politician is taught that embracing extremes of the left or right could in fact lead to political deconstruction – of the individual or a party.

I recall during a break at an Assembly Budget hearing in the 1990’s, I was discussing the idea of political malaise with State Assemblyman Louis Greenwald.  At that moment the Budget Chair offered up a pretty straight forward analysis, which I agreed with. Lou stated he believed during one of the Democrat v. Republican deadlocks, we could put 80% of the assembly members in a room and figure most of the state’s problems away. I want to state that the extremes of both parties make that social experiment very difficult to do.

As an elected official who was on the ballot from 1989 to 2013 — two times in a non-partisan election, nine times in a general election, and a handful of primaries (as I got challenged from the Tea Party or another right-wing faction of the party). Those primaries were the most expensive and most difficult to win; the general elections in the old District 21 (which included Springfield, Livingston and Union Township) and District 40 in four counties, were less of a fight and the outcome more certain.

I don’t have the secret answer why the GOP won 23 so called swing seats in Congress, when their leader was losing pretty substantially at the top of the ticket; as many pollsters said the GOP was tracking to lose even more of their minority.

I read closely the comments from the highly respected Congressman and Majority Whip, James Clyburn, who said certain ideas and platforms were too extreme for the public to embrace.

While some candidates and elected officials (in both parties) preach about turning the system on its head, doing away with the status quo, there is only so much the electorate will tolerate. While many so-called “experts” may wonder how certain people get elected, you just need to figure out what is your voter’s “Overton Window” and stay within the panes.

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