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January 31, 2005

Andy Stern May Be a Little Bit Crazy, But Sometimes Crazy Is What You Need

I'd be the first to admit that not everything Andy Stern says is correct or even makes sense. He frequently overstates his case and is even more frequently impolitic in how he states that case.

But, on some level, my reaction to these problems is: so what? As Matt Bai's fascinating portrait of Stern in the New York Times magazine demonstrates, he is indisputably the labor leader least afraid to confront the crisis of the union movement in the US and the stark necessity for American unions to either change or die. It is equally indisputable that John Sweeney, whatever his other merits, shares much of the fundamental conservatism of the traditional union movement and, left to his own devices, would move only sluggishly to confront these challenges.

That's what makes Andy Stern and what he's trying to do so great. Right or wrong, his proposals (vastly increase the resources devoted to organizing by redirecting AFL-CIO dues and consolidate the existing 58 AFL-CIO unions down to about 15 to increase bargaining power are the chief ones--more detail can be found on the SEIU website) to reform the labor movement are on the scale needed to start to deal with labor's problems. Smaller scale proposals just aren't adequate to deal with the structural forces labor needs to overcome and the longterm trends they have to reverse. Like many, I have been very afraid that labor would simply fiddle at the margins of its longterm decline and therefore continue to sink slowly into the sunset. But Stern's willingness to rock the boat gives me hope.

As fine as Bai's article is, one thing it fails to do is give you a very good guide to somewhat confusing pattern of shifting alliances within the labor movement as the debates Stern and others have initiated have come to the fore. Fortunately, Chris Hayes provides a crisp guide to these shifting alliances and what they actually mean in this useful article in Q&A format in In These Times. Check it out and by all means follow the debate within the labor movement closely, if you aren't already. Something important is going on here. It deserves our full attention.

January 30, 2005

Yes, Virginia, Question Wording Does Matter

The Pew Research Center has just released a useful little study, "Social Security Polling: Cross-Currents in Opinion about Private Accounts". The study looks at a number of different types of questions that have been asked recently about private accounts and the President's Social Security proposal and compares how results differ on a given type of question, depending on question wording. Here are some of the findings, which should probably come as no big surprise to those who have been reading my posts and/or closely following recent polling on the issue.

1. Polls show that the public thinks Social Security faces major problems, but does not believe it is in a "crisis". Moreover, the public is less likely to believe Social Security system needs a complete overhaul or major change than that the health or education systems need such change.

2. Questions which do not mention the risks or tradeoffs involved in setting up private accounts generally get a more positive response than those that do.

3. Among questions that simply mention the general idea of private accounts, those that associate the idea with Bush and/or do not specify that only some of workers' contributions could go into private accounts get the most negative response. (Note: recent DCorps and Hart Research/AFL-CIO results indicate that support for the general idea, both with and without specific reference to Bush, may have declined in the short time since the questions quoted in the Pew study were asked.)

4. Among questions that do refer to the tradeoffs of private accounts, questions that allude directly to risk and, particularly, the cut in guaranteed benefits that accompany these accounts get the most negatives response.

5. Finally, questions that query initial supporters of the general idea whether they would support private accounts if it meant a reduction in guaranteed benefits yield the most negative results of all: a hardcore of support for private accounts in the 22-23 percent range.

There you have it. These varying results suggest that private accounts will not have an easy time of it unless the public forgets that Bush is pushing the accounts and never connects these accounts to risk and a reduction in guaranteed benefits. Such a know-nothing public no longer seems likely on this hotly-debated issue.

Public Not With the Bush Program

The latest Democracy Corps poll (see also the useful accompanying charts) provides a wide range of data indicating that the public, while they may have granted Bush a second term, remains distinctly unenthusiastic about his agenda.

In terms of right direction/wrong track, just 42 percent think we're going in the right direction, compared to 51 percent who think we're off on the wrong track. And 50 percent want the country to go in a significantly different direction than Bush's direction, compared to 46 percent who want to continue in Bush's direction.

In terms of assessing the direction of the economy, only 39 percent agree "the economy is doing well, creating jobs, rising incomes, growing stock values and home ownership and moving in the right direction, while 59 percent say "the economy is not good for the middle class and working people. Jobs are scarce, incomes stagnant, and benefits being cut back". Two different questions on whether "the middle class dream is very much alive in America" yield negative judgments, 50-48 when paired against a general statement about people having less chance to be middle class and middle class living standards declining and 60-39 when paired against a statement that emphasized the contrast between people at the top thriving and others having less chance to be middle class.

In terms of the direction of US foreign policy, 55 percent now say that "America's security depends on building strong ties with other nations" rather than "bottom line, America's security depends on its own military strength" (41 percent). That 14 point gap in favor of building strong ties is up from just a 3 point gap right before November's election. And by 55-40, voters now say the war in Iraq was not worth the cost in US lives and dollars--consistent with other recent polls that have been showing increasingly negative views on whether the war with Iraq has been worthwhile.

As for the focal point of Bush's second term program--his proposal to transform Social Security by creating a system of private accounts within the system--the poll finds 44-41 opposition to his proposal when presented in unaided fashion ("As you may know, George Bush recently presented his proposal to reform Social Security. Overall, do you favor or oppose his proposal to reform Social Security?". And when presented in an aided fashion that includes a simple description ("As you may know, President Bush has proposed a plan to strengthen Social Security by allowing workers to establish personal accounts to invest a portion of their Social Security contributions in the stock market. Do you favor or oppose Bush's proposal?"), opposition is even higher (52-39). In addition, by 53-40, people say they are more worried about politicians changing Social Security to make it less secure in the future than about politicians failing to change Social Security so that it will be secure in the future.

The poll also includes an extensive battery of items that asks respondents which party they associate more with a wide variety of characteristics. The Democrats' advantages aren't terribly surprising. They are favored over the Republicans on: for the middle class (+21); equality (+19), a better life for middle class America (+17); cares about people (+16); putting the public interest first (+13); fairness (+11) and a number of other areas including being 24 points less likely to be associated with greed.

Republicans' associational advantages are also generally predictable: strength (+27); protecting America against any threat (+25); and respecting religious faith (+15), for example. But it should give Democrats pause that the GOP's top associational advantage is not any of these but rather "know what they stand for" (+28). The GOP also has an 11 point advantage on optimism and a 10 point advantage on prosperity. These GOP advantages illustrate the following uncomfortable political truism for the Democrats. They will not be able to generate that much political progress from the indisputable fact that the public, in many important ways, is not with the Bush program if they cannot convey to the public what Democrats stand for and what their vision for the future is.

This point is amplified by considering some of the more contested areas, where Democrats have only slight advantages or disadvantages vis a vis the Republicans: reform and change (+5); opportunity (+3); improving America (+3); new ideas for addressing the country's problems (+3); trustworthy (+1); for families (tie); shares your values (-1); future-oriented (-1); and individuals making the most of their talents (-4). Democrats need to move many of these associations decisively in their direction and that can likely only be done by clarifying for the public what Democrats stand for and where they propose to take the country.

January 28, 2005

How to Build a Majority

You might summarize the key difference in political practice between Democrats and Republicans as follows: Democrats take majority positions and build minority support; Republicans take minority positions and build majority support. Or, to put it a bit more precisely; Democrats generally hold majority positions but emphasize minority aspects of those positions which leads to minority support; Republicans generally hold minority positions, but emphasize majority aspects of those positions which helps them build majority support.

Paul Starr provides some examples of this dynamic in his important op-ed in Wednesday's New York Times, "Winning Cases, Losing Voters". Starr dwells in particular on three social issues that have caused difficulties for Democrats: gay rights; abortion rights; and affirmative action.

Rebuilding a national political majority will mean distinguishing between positions that contribute to a majority and those that detract from it. As last year's disastrous crusade for gay marriage illustrated, Democrats cannot allow their constituencies to draw them into political terrain that can't be defended at election time. Dissatisfied with compromise legislation on civil unions and partner benefits, gay organizations thought they could get from judges, beginning with those on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, what the electorate was not yet ready to give. The result: bans on same-sex marriage passing in 11 states and an energized conservative voting base.

Public support for abortion rights is far greater than for gay marriage, but compromise may be equally imperative - especially if a reshaped Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade by finding that there is no constitutional right to abortion and throws the issue back to the states. Some savvy Democrats are already thinking along these lines, as Hillary Clinton showed this week when she urged liberals to find "common ground" with those who have misgivings about abortion.

And if a new Supreme Court overturns affirmative-action laws, Democrats will need to pursue equality in ways that avoid treating whites and blacks differently. Some liberals have long been calling for an emphasis on "race neutral" economic policies to recover support among working-class and middle-income white voters. Legal and political necessity may now drive all Democrats in that direction.

In each of these areas--gay rights, abortion rights and affirmative action--Democrats hold a general view that has strong public support (pro-tolerance and anti-discrimination, keeping abortion safe and legal and promoting opportunity for the disadvantaged). These are majority positions. But gay marriage, no restrictions on abortion and racial preferences are not and Democrats have suffered, as Starr points out, from becoming more identified with those minority views than with the broad majority positions the public supports.

This dynamic is a big problem and it prevents Democrats from realizing the potentially big political payoff from the fact that independent voters, as the new Pew Research Center study shows, are now generally much closer to Democrats than Republicans on a wide range of issues. But Democrats' insistence on leading with their chin on many issues has allowed the GOP to escape serious punishment from these voters. (In 2004, for example, Kerry carried independent voters by only a single point, despite the trend just alluded to; if Kerry had carried these voters by 5 points or more, it would have been a different election with a different result.)

The Democrats' goal should be to have these voters punish the GOP severely for their minority positions on many of these same issues. To do this, Democrats need to practice the basic approach recommended by Starr above: "Rebuilding a national political majority will mean distinguishing between positions that contribute to a majority and those that detract from it."

Easy to say, harder to do. But very, very necessary.

January 27, 2005

AARP Poll On Privatizing SS: NO!

An AARP opinion poll released on 1/24 indicates that a strong majority of Americans are opposed to President Bush's proposal to privatize Social Security. The poll, conducted 12/6-23 by Roper Public Affairs for the AARP, revealed that 83 percent favored strengthening Social Security, rather than replacing it, and 60 percent believed that private accounts would hurt Social Security. Three out of five respondents would "strengthen social security with as few changes as possible."

When informed that the white house proposal would not guarantee against reduced benefits and could pass on an additional $1 trillion in debt to the next generation to pay current obligations, an anemic 17 percent of respondents supported privatization. When informed about "all of the consequences to diverting payroll taxes to fund private accounts," including an end to pre-retirement withdrawalls, support tumbled to 5 percent.

The poll found that 66 percent of respondents over the age of 30 favored keeping Social Security "as is." Despite concerns about the viability of Social Security, 62 percent of the so-called "Gen X-ers" (ages 30-39), frequently identified as a key constituency for President Bush's privatization scheme, agreed.

January 26, 2005

Voters on Bush’s Social Security Plan: Thanks, but No Thanks

A just-released poll of 2004 election voters by Hart Research for the AFL-CIO (no link currently available) has a host of useful data on voters’ attitudes toward Social Security privatization, including some very specific tests of their views toward Bush’s current plan for private accounts.

To begin with, the poll finds the public now evenly-split on whether they support (49 percent) or oppose (46 percent) the general idea of “a plan by which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market”. That's down from 64-31 in favor in a May, 2000 Washington Post poll.

The poll also, similar to the recent WSJ/NBC poll, gave respondents a major troubles, but not a crisis, option in their question on whether there is crisis in the financial situation of Social Security. The result here: just 26 percent say Social Security is in a “crisis”, with another 39 percent opting for a less apocalyptic major troubles assessment (another 32 percent say the system faces minor troubles or is basically secure).

The poll directly tested support for Bush's Social Security plan. Initially, before key features of the plan were rehearsed for voters, they said they opposed Bush's plan 46-39. And after voters heard about the plan's key features (workers age 55 and younger can place one-third of Social Security taxes in private accounts; guaranteed monthly benefit reduced by 30-50 percent, depending on whether they open such an account; no change in benefits for those 55 and over; and longterm Social Security funding shortfall eliminated, but government will have to borrow $2 trillion to cover transition costs), opposition rose to 54-40, with three times as many strong opposers (35 percent) as strong supporters (12 percent).

That opposition included 48-47 opposition even among those 18-34 (with each succeeding age group more opposed), 51-43 opposition among whites and 60-32 opposition among independents. Working class whites (arguably the group whose support is most critical to the GOP's tenuous electoral majority) were even more opposed (52-37) than whites in general and working class white women (where Bush made critical gains in 2004) opposed his plan 56-38.

Moreover, twice as many said they would punish a candidate who voted for Bush's plan (41 percent) than said they would reward (21 percent) such a candidate. And by 64-20, voters declared that Congress wait and develop a different plan for Social Security, rather than pass the Bush plan this year.

Of other options to strengthen Social Security, voters expressed the most support for tax-free retirement savings options, separate from Social Security (82 percent in favor). This result is consistent with a number of other recent polls.

Other popular options were having Congress repay the money it took from the Social Security trust fund (73 percent in favor) and repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent and giving the recovered revenue to Social Security (65 percent in favor).

The poll also tested a variety of different messages about the benefit cuts, deficit costs and potential for corruption intrinsic to the Bush plan and found a number of them to be very effective with persuadable voters.

Hart Research summed up what they learned from this message-testing and the general results of the poll as follows:

DON’T debate this at the level of philosophy --“ownership society” vs. “social insurance.” DO focus on the real, concrete harm to Americans’ retirement security done by the Bush plan.

DON’T get caught up in debating the size of the problem.
DO focus on how Bush plan makes problem worse and weakens Social Security.

DON’T focus all your attention on “risk” of accounts.
DO tell Americans about huge benefit cuts in plan....

Conclusions: Focusing Our Message

The Bush plan undermines retirement security by cutting guaranteed benefits 30% to 50%, even for those who don’t choose an account. Risky privatization accounts won’t make up the difference. Working people should get the benefits they paid for.

Social Security does face problems, but the Bush plan makes the problem worse and weakens Social Security by diverting trillions of dollars from the trust fund.

We can strengthen Social Security without slashing benefits:
Require Congress to pay back the money it has diverted from Social Security and create new opportunities for Americans to have tax-free savings for their retirement in addition to Social Security.


January 25, 2005

That Cleared Up Everything, Right?

Edison/Mitofsky released their massively-detailed evaluation of the 2004 NEP exit poll last week. As Mark Blumental of Mystery Pollster observes, there is much useful data in the report, even if much of it is presented in fairly arcane fashion.

Among other things we learn the following:

1. There was, in fact, more error in this exit poll than in previous exit polls and data are presented on WPE (within-precinct error) that pretty much clinch the case. The increased level of error meant that, after the exit poll data were initially processed and corrected, they had to be further weighted, to a greater degree than in previous exit polls, to correspond to the actual election outcome. Hence the Kerry 51-48 popular vote win in the initial exit poll data that became a 51-48 popular vote defeat upon final weighting.

2. There seem to have been serious problems with inexperienced and poorly-trained interviewers, who were not able to administer the questionnaires in the fashion intended by Edison/Mitofsky.

3. There seem to have been serious sampling problems ("clustering effects") with the national exit poll that, for example, contributed to the 44 percent support figure for Bush among Hispanic respondents, which Edison/Mitofsky appears to be backing away from.

The problem with all these admissions and the copious data in the Edison/Mitofsky report is that nowhere to they really make much of a stab at answering the underlying questions that are raised by the report's findings.

1. If there was higher error than normal, why was that? What makes this election different and will the next election be even more different? If Kerry voters were more willing to be interviewed (or Bush voters less willing), which appears to be Edison/Mitofksy's primary rationale for the high error level, why was this and why would this kind of behavior be particularly common in this election? And how does this square with the lack of variation in response rates across precincts that voted heavily for Kerry, heavily for Bush and inbetween? (See Mystery Pollster's good discussion of this issue.)

2. If so many interviewers did so poorly, why was that? Did Edison/Mitofsky do an exceptionally poor job of selecting and training interviewers and, if so, why was that? Or is exit polling just getting harder to do, so interviewers that might have been adequate 4-8 years ago are not adequate today?

3. If the sampling problems were so serious, why was that? Were they worse than in previous years and, if so, why? Did Edison/Mitofsky do a poor job of dealing with these problems or was there nothing they could have done? Should we have been using aggregated state data instead of the national data for relatively small demographic groups all along like they imply we should with this year's data? Or, again, is there something about the way the country's changing that's making always-exising sampling problems of the exit polls worse?

I don't know the answers to these questions. But I think they deserve answers, hopefully sooner rather than later, while there's still time to restore faith in an exit polling system that is now faced with widespread skepticism.

So If We Agree on All This, How Did We Wind Up with Bush?

The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) released a fascinting document last week, "Opportunities for Bipartisan Consensus: What Both Republicans and Democrats Want in US Foreign Policy". They present a series of positions, based on their own late December poll, plus a number of other polls conducted in 2004, that are

....consensus positions. In nearly all cases, they are supported by a clear majority of both Republicans and Democrats. In a small number of cases, one or the other party was divided, but in no case was the majority of one party clearly opposed. For many of these positions, leaders were polled as well, and there was also bipartisan consensus among them. In a very small number of cases the positions below were not endorsed by a majority of leaders in both parties but were included if there was a clear public consensus and the overall position among the leaders was supportive.....

The consensus positions were as follows:

• Do not pursue a general policy that emphasizes disengagement nor US dominance, but rather multilateral cooperation
• Make preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and combating international terrorism the top priorities in US foreign policy

• Strengthen the UN
• Take part in UN peacekeeping
• Comply with adverse WTO decisions
• Participate in the International Criminal Court
• Give the WHO the power to intervene

• Do not make further increases in the number of US military bases
• Do not make further increases in defense spending
• Do not develop new types of nuclear weapons
• Continue research on missile defense but do not deploy until proven effective
• Ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
• Participate in the Land Mines Treaty

• Only go to war with a government that is developing weapons of mass destruction or supporting terrorists if there is an imminent threat to the US, or the UN Security Council approves
• Use US military force to deal with a humanitarian crisis, especially to stop genocide
• Do not use US military force to replace dictators with democratic governments
• Do not use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack

• In the effort to fight terrorism, strengthen international law through multilateral institutions, use military force, promote economic development of poor countries and be even-handed in the Israel-Palestinian conflict
• Do not use torture to gain information Do not use torture to gain information....

• Limit greenhouse gasses through legislation, including the McCain Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, even if this would incur significant costs
• Require car manufacturers to meet higher fuel efficiency standards, even if this would increase the cost of buying or leasing a car, and give tax credits for more energy efficient cars and appliances
• Participate in the Kyoto Treaty
• Try to get developing countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but do not expect them to actually reduce

• Work toward lowering trade barriers while also pursuing more trade adjustment assistance to help American worker to adapt
• Include requirements for minimum labor and environmental standards in trade agreements
• Pursue a Free Trade Area of the Americas
• Do not provide subsidies for large farming businesses, but do provide them for small farmers.

Great! All that's missing here is a Democratic president that actually believes in some of this stuff. 'Til that blessed time, we're stuck with a president who believes his "accountability moment" on November 2, 2004 means he's now entitled to completely ignore public opinion for the next four years.

Zogby Poll: Bush Job Approval Lags, 'Shame' Quotient Rises

President Bush's job approval rating still hovers at 49 percent, and that's the good news for the white house, according to a new Zogby America Poll conducted January 18-21. The poll also found that 31 percent of respondents said they were "ashamed that Mr. Bush is their President," a substantial increase from 26 percent a month earlier.

Yee-Ha Is Not A Foreign Policy

Bush's increasingly negative image appears to be driven in large part by eroding confidence in the Administration's foreign policy. A majority of respondents in the aforementioned Zogby Poll, 52 percent, now agree that the results of the war in Iraq have "not been worth the lost lives," up from 50 percent in the previous Zogby Poll, and 55 percent of Americans are "not confident about democracy's prospects" in Iraq. Looking ahead. 76 percent of the respondents said they were "opposed to the U.S. trying to bring about regime change in Iran" and only 19 percent favored some form of military action to compel Iran's cooperation in nuclear disarmamment, while 68 percent favored some form of diplomacy.

“Public opinion has been turning against the Iraq war and our continued presence there,” said pollster John Zogby. “Americans continue to support the January 30th elections, but that support is half-hearted—only one-in-three still believe a democratic Iraq is a strong likelihood. And they certainly have no stomach for military action against Iran.”

January 23, 2005

The Public's Health Care Agenda

Bush has made it clear he's got his agenda for America's health care problems: capping medical malpractice awards. A newly-released poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health makes it clear that this goal is only a minor part of the public's health care agenda. In this poll, respondents were given a series of 12 health care reforms that they could rate as a top priority and reducing jury awards in malpractice suits came in 11th out of these 12 items. Just 26 percent said it should be a top priority, compared to these figures for the top three health care reforms: 63 percent said lowering the cost of health care and insurance should be a top priority, 58 percent said making Medicare more financially sound for the future should be and 57 percent said increasing the number of Americans with insurance should be.

The poll also finds that Bush's signature accomplishment in the health care field, the Medicare reform bill that established a prescription drug benefit within that program, remains unpopular with the very group, seniors, who were the intended beneficiaries of the new benefit. Just 29 percent have a favorable impression of the new law and 70 percent believe lawmakers in Washington should work to fix the problems in the new law, rather than leave it as it is. The three key problem to be fixed are that the bill is too complicated for people on Medicare to understand (81 percent say this problem needs fixing), that it does not do enough to lower prescription drug prices (78 percent) and that it does not provide people on Medicare enough help with their prescription drug costs (also 78 percent).

January 21, 2005

A Nation of Unhappy Campers (Continued)

Today we continue our tour of unhappy camperland, after the stirring festivities of yesterday. (Incidentally, if you're looking for a useful analysis of Bush's speech the best one I've run into, oddly enough, is this op-ed, "Way Too Much God" by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal.)

Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll

1. Are we better off than we were four years ago? The top area here is the nation's feeling of security, where 40 percent say we're better off. After that, it drops off as follows: optimism about the future (35 percent); economic conditions (25 percent); moral values and standards (23 percent); the education system (20 percent); America's standing in the world (16 percent); and partisanhip in Washington (just 10 percent).

2. How should the Democrats conduct themselves in Congress? By 57-33, the public thinks Democrats should provide a balance so Bush and the Republicans don't go too far, rather than work in a bipartisan fashion to pass Bush's legislative priorities.

3. On Social Security, 50 percent say it's a bad idea, compared to 40 percent who say it's a good idea, to change the Social Security system to allow workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market. A more complicated question, that pits "making some adjustments" to Social Security and "running the risk that the system will fall short of money" (44 percent) vs. "changing the Social Security system" to allow private accounts and "running the risk that some people will lose money...due to drops in the stock market" (46 percent) yields close to an even split.

Does Bush have a mandate "to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market"? By a wide 56-33 margin, the public says no. And here's an interesting finding: this poll gave respondents a "serious trouble but not in a crisis" option in their question on whether there is crisis in the financial situation of Social Security. The result: just 14 percent say Social Security is in a “crisis”, with another 38 percent opting for the less apocalyptic “in serious trouble, but not in a crisis” (another 45 percent say the system is in some trouble or not really in trouble at all). A similar question asked about the financial situation of Social Security in 10-20 years returned only 23 percent saying the system’s financial situation will be in crisis at that time.

4,. On Iraq, 52 percent say “removing Saddam Hussein from power” was worth the costs of the war, compared to 40 percent who say it wasn’t (tied for the most negative reading on this question in this poll).

Los Angeles Times poll

1. In terms of how much progress he government in Washington will make solving the major problems facing the country, only 18 percent say "a great deal" or "quite a lot"; 77 percent say "only some" or "not much at all".

2. In terms of economic policies, about a quarter (26 percent) think Bush's economic policies have made the country better off in the last four years; 71 percent think these policies have made the country worse off (43 percent) or left it about the same (28 percent). In addition, 51 percent believe Bush cares most about rich people, compared to 3 percent who say he cares most about the poor, 7 percent who think he cares most about those with middle income and 35 percent who say he cares equally about all income groups. And, by 62-26, the public believes Bush cares more about protecting the interests of the large business corporations, rather than ordinary working people.

3. By an overwhelming 71-25 margin the public believes Bush should compromise with Democrats on his issues, rather than proceed as if he has a mandate to push through his agenda.

4. On Social Security, by a 52-42 margin (64-33 among independents) the public disapproves of the idea of allowing workers to divert payroll tax money to private investment accounts, given a tradeoff between the possibility these accounts could earn "a higher rate of return in the stock market" and the possibility the stock market might be "too unpredictable. And, when a followup is asked about supporting private accounts if such accounts meant a reduction in guaranteed benefits, support drops to just 23 percent. The latter figure is quite consistent with other polls and suggests hardcore support for Social Security privatization is no more than one-fifth to one-quarter of the public.

5. A similar exercise finds 54 support for making Bush's tax cuts permanent falling to 34 percent if making the tax cuts permanent meant the federal budget would remain in deficit. The poll also finds that 58 percent believe the rich have been the primary beneficiaries of the tax cuts, rather than middle income people (25 percent) or the poor (5 percent) and that an economic agenda focused on infrastructure improvements (60 percent), rather than tax cuts (34 percent), would do the best job stimulating the nation's economy.

6. On Iraq, by 56-39, the public now says the situation in Iraq was not worth going to war over (62-35 among independents). Only 24 percent believe the war in Iraq has stabilized the situation in the Middle East; only 29 percent believe the US is winning the war in Iraq; only 31 percent believe the impending Iraq election will lead to significant improvement in the Iraq security situation; only 23 percent believe the Iraqis ready to govern their country without US help; and just 10 percent think US involvement has helped the US image around the world, compared to 65 percent who believe our image has been hurt.

And here's an interesting result: 47 percent agree that the invasion of Iraq has alienated many in the Muslim world, which will increase the risk of terrorism against the US, compared to 44 percent who say the overthrow of Saddam and installation of a new government will encourage changes in the Middle East that will reduce the risk of terrorism against the US.

Sounds like tough sledding for the administration's current non-WMD-based rationale for the Iraq war.

CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll

1. In Bush's first term, the public thinks the Bush administration "improved military security for the country" (62-36)and "improved moral values" in the US (50-49). Afer that, it's all negative: by 50-46, the public believes the Bush administration failed to keep America prosperous; by 48-46 that it failed to "cut your taxes" (!); by 52-45 that it failed to improve education or to increase respect for the presidency; by 63-31 that it failed to improve the quality of the environment; by 63-28 that if failed to ensure the long-term strength of the Medicare system; by 65-32 that it failed to improve respect for the US abroad; by 68-27 that it failed to heal "political divisions in this country"; by 69-26 that it failed to improve the health care system; and by 74-18 that it failed to ensure the long-term strength of the Social Security system.

Now there's a magnificent record.

2. Sorry, George, no mandate here either. By 58-36 the public believes that, since the election was so close, Bush should emphasize programs both parties support, rather than that, because he won a majority of the votes, Bush has a mandate to advance the GOP's agenda.

3. On Iraq, the mistake watch continues: in this latest Gallup poll, the number saying that the US "made a mistake sending troops to Iraq" is now up to 52 percent, continuing the steady rise in this indicator since right before November's election.

All in all, these polls, while they are not without areas of strength for Bush--most obviously, of course, on broad, non-Iraq security issues--do suggest that we are, in many important ways, a nation of unhappy campers. And a nation of unhappy campers can easily turn into a serious time-for-a-change electorate by 2006-08. In fact, based on these data, if time-for-a-change voting were a stock, I'd be buying.

January 20, 2005

A Nation of Unhappy Campers

So many polls, so little time. In the last several days, four more major public polls have been released, in addition to the four I previously discussed in "Pre-Inauguration Blues", Part I and Part II. By and large, the tale told by these polls is quite consistent with the story I laid out in those earlier posts: we are a nation of unhappy campers at the beginning of Bush's second term. And he has quite a challenge in front of him to win these unhappy campers over, given his relatively unpopular agenda and apparent contempt for the political center.

Here are some of the more interesting findings from these new polls:

New York Times/CBS News Poll

1. When asked whether things in the US are going better, worse or the same as five years ago, just 20 percent say better, 56 percent say worse and 21 percent say the same. Compare that to responses at the beginning of Poppa Bush's term in 1989 (44 percent better/26 percent worse/23 percent same) and at the beginning of Reagan's second term in 1985 (57 percent better/26 percent worse/11 percent same). Evidently Bush has a different coalition-building strategy than Reagan-era Republicans: make things worse!

2. The public is more likely to believe the next four years of Bush's presidency will divide Americans (47 percent) than bring them together (44 percent).

3. Expectations of progress in other areas during Bush's second term are minimal: only 17 percent think the US will be more respected in the world; 33 percent think the economy will be better than it is today; 29 percent think the US will be safer from terrorism; 24 percent believe the educational system will be better; 15 percent believe the price they pay for prescription drugs will be lower and just 9 percent think their taxes will be lower. Even on Iraq, only 38 percent believe there will be fewer troops there four long years from now. And 66 percent believe the federal budget deficit will be bigger.

4. Speaking of the deficit, almost four-fifths (78 percent) say it is not possible to overhaul Social Security, cut taxes and pay for the war in Iraq (all of which Bush proposes to do) without running up the budget deficit.

5. Another of Bush's schemes is to maintain and extend the system where income from investments and interest is taxed less than income from wages and salaries. Only 28 percent endorse that approach, while 66 percent say investment income should be taxed either the same (54 percent) or more (12 percent).

6. By 50-45, the public says it is bad idea, rather than good idea, to allow "individuals to invest portions of their Social Security taxes on their own, which might allow them to make more money for their retirement, but would involve greater risk". That's the most negative judgement this poll has received on this question since they first started asking it in mid-2000. Moreover, support for this proposition drops to 22 percent, when it is posited that establishing personal accounts would reduce the guaranteed benefit by as much as a third.

As for whether they would be likely to actually invest in the stock market through these personal accounts, just 39 percent say they would be likely to do so. And that figure drops to 30 percent, when it is pointed out that the personal accounts would be accompanied by a drop in the guaranteed benefit.

And in terms of Bush's motivations in seeking changes to the Social Security system, 50 percent say he primarily trying to help Wall Street investment companies, compared to 40 percent who think he is trying to help average Americans.

7. On Iraq, the number saying we did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq is down to 45 percent, tied for the lowest ever. And for the first time, a majority (53 percent to 41 percent) say that the war in Iraq will not have been worth the costs if we never find weapons of mass destruction there.

A majority (52-41) also believes that it is not possible for the US to create a stable democracy in Iraq and that Bush is making the situation in Iraq today sound better than it really is (55 percent). Just 15 percent believe violence in Iraq will decline after the election and a mere 18 percent believe Bush has a clear plan for dealing with the situation in Iraq (down 20 points from before November's election).

In terms of the war's effect on terrorist threats against the US, less than a fifth (19 percent) think such threats have been decreased, while 33 percent say they've increased and 47 percent think they've stayed the same.

Like I said, a nation of unhappy campers.

More on unhappy campers tomorrow.....

January 19, 2005

Do the Iowa Caucuses Prevent Moderate Candidates from Being Nominated?

By Alan Abramowitz

Peter Beinart in his recent Washington Post op-ed blames the Iowa caucuses for the Democrats' failure to nominate more moderate, security-conscious candidates in recent years. But while Iowa's Democratic caucus-goers are clearly not representative of the overall Democratic electorate, they have not been particularly friendly to left-wing candidates. In 1976, southern moderate Jimmy Carter's victory over several northern liberals in the Iowa caucuses helped propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination. Four years later, Ted Kennedy's attempt to challenge Carter from the left failed badly in Iowa. In 1988, Missouri moderate Dick Gephardt finished first in Iowa and in 2000, Al Gore easily dispatched Bill Bradley. Finally, Howard Dean's collapse in Iowa in 2004 was due in no small part to widespread concern among Democratic caucus-goers that Dean's strident anti-Bush and anti-war rhetoric would make him unelectable in November.

The fact is, the presidential candidates nominated by the Democratic Party in recent years, including John Kerry in 2004, have accurately reflected the liberal views of rank-and-file Democratic voters across the nation. If California, New York, or Illinois had held their primaries before Iowa held its caucuses in 2004, it is very unlikely that Joe Lieberman or another centrist candidate would have had a better chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

January 18, 2005

Pre-Inauguration Blues (Continued)

Yesterday, I talked about the first of four recent polls that indicate the public has a serious case of the pre-inauguration blues. Here are some findings from the other three polls.

2. The second poll to be released was the Time Magazine/SRBI poll, which focused particularly on the issue of Social Security. To begin with, the poll finds that public divided both on whether there truly is a Social Security crisis (45 percent say there is; 44 percent say that's just a scare tactic to help Bush push through his plan) and on whether they favor (44 percent) or oppose (47 percent) the general idea of allowing people to invest part of their Social Security payroll tax in stocks and bonds.

Note that the latter finding was before respondents were informed of any possible costs of the plan. Opposition moved to 48-41 if Bush's plan included a drop in "guaranteed money from Social Security". And when informed that Bush's plan would include government borrowing of $1-2 billion over 10 years, in addition to the private accounts and reduction in guanteed benefit, opposition to his plan soared to 69-21.

In perhaps the most intriguing result of the survey, by a healthy 23 points (56-33), people believe they personally would do better sticking with the current system "which pays benefits regardless of the performance of stocks and bonds" rather than "investing part of your Social Security payroll tax in stocks and bonds".

The poll also finds the public favors a series of alternative ways to fix the Social Security system's problem, some by wide margins. By 48-41, they favor raising the cap on income that is eligible for Social Security taxation; by 58-38, they favor reducing Social Security benefits for wealthy people; by 69-28, they favor providing more incentives for people to work beyond the ages of 62 and 65; and by a very impressive 73-19 margin, they favor allowing people to invest more in tax-deferred retirement accounts outside of Social Security.

The latter result strongly suggests that Congressional Democrats could strengthen their hands against Bush's Social Security privatization push by focusing attention on a plan to provide private accounts outside of Social Security, such as the one advocated by Gene Sperling of the Center for American Progress.

3. Two polls were released on Monday (Washington Post/ABC and Annenberg). The Washington Post story on the WP/ABC poll led with the following:

President Bush will begin his second term in office without a clear mandate to lead the nation, with strong disapproval of his policies in Iraq and with the public both hopeful and dubious about his leadership on the issues that will dominate his agenda, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

On the eve of Thursday's presidential inaugural ceremonies, the survey found few signs that the country has begun to come together since Bush defeated Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) two months ago. The president has claimed a mandate from the election, but the poll found as much division today as four years ago over the question of whether Bush or Democrats in Congress should set the direction for the country.

Fewer than half of those interviewed -- 45 percent -- said they preferred that the country go in the direction that Bush wanted to lead it, whereas 39 percent said Democrats should lead the way. During the first months of his presidency, after the bitterly disputed 2000 election, Americans said they preferred Bush to take the lead by 46 percent to 36 percent.

Bush's approval ratings, both overall and in particular areas, are pretty close to the generally poor Gallup ratings I commented on in my post of January 12. But it's worth noting that in the currently hot areas of Iraq (40 percent) and Social Security (38 percent) his ratings are actually 2-3 points lower than in that earlier Gallup poll and tied for the lowest he has ever received on these issues in the WP/ABC poll.

Other findings on Iraq underscore the president's difficulties in that area. By 55-44, the public now thinks the war with Iraq wasn't worth fighting, the second most negative reading on this question (the most negative was in the previous WP/ABC poll). On whether the war with Iraq has contributed to the long-term security of the US--a question that has always tended to produce relatively positive responses (compared to, for example, asking whether the Iraq war has made us safer from terrorist attacks)--the public gives its most negative response yet, with almost as many saying the Iraq war hasn't contributed to long-term security (47 percent) as say it has (50 percent).

On Social Security, the public not only gives him a very approval rating (noted above), but also says it trusts Congressional Democrats (50 percent) more than Bush (37 percent) to handle the issue. And young people (18-30), in particular, have little confidence in Bush on Social Security: just 33 percent approve of the way he is handling the issue, compared to 60 percent who disapprove, and by 59-32 they say they trust Congressional Democrats more than Bush to handle the issue.

And these are the voters who are going to power the Republican drive to transform Social Security? Seems hard to believe based on these data.

On the specific plan Bush is putting forward to deal with Social Security, the WP/ABC poll reports markedly more positive results for that plan than almost all recent polls, including the Pew and Time polls summarized above. A question that mentions a change in the guaranteed benefit returns a close split (48 percent opposed/47 percent in favor) and a question than mentions this change in guaranteed benefit along with "a stock market option for Social Security contributions" returns a 54-41 majority in support.

How can this be--how did the WP/ABC come up results so radically different from other polls?

Simple. It's all in the question wording. The change in the guaranteed benefit that is mentioned in the WP/ABC questions is not described as a cut in the guaranteed benefit but rather as "a reduction in the rate of growth in Social Security benefits for future retirees"--a question wording that no doubt elicted broad smiles down at the White House and in the offices of Congressional Republican leaders.

And I'm sure it's true that if the massive cut in guaranteed benefits proposed by Bush is uniformly referred to simply as a reduction in the rate of growth of benefits, Bush's plan could have pretty smooth sailing. But of course that's not where the debate is going to take place and it's rather odd that the WP/ABC poll chose to use the locution favored in RNC talking points, rather than the straightforward wording favored by other pollsters.

So these particular results should be treated very skeptically. In particular, no one should suppose that Congressional Democrats' criticism of Bush's proposed cut in guaranteed benefits is likely to be ineffective, based on the WP/ABC findings. Noam Scheiber is all over this one and his assessment is worth quoting at length:

According to the Post, the response [to the proposed change in guaranteed benefits] was basically a wash: 48 percent opposed the idea, 47 percent supported it. So does that mean it would be hard for Democrats to defeat privatization by emphasizing benefit cuts?


What would be a wash is a debate in which one side argues: "To help keep the Social Security system funded, we want to reduce the rate of growth in guaranteed benefits for future retirees by up to one and a half percent a year." And the other side argues: "We oppose reducing the rate of growth in guaranteed benefits for future retirees by up to one and a half percent a year, even though it would help keep the Social Security system funded and would, truth be told, be the responsible thing to do."

What would not be a wash is a debate in which one side argues: "To help keep the Social Security system funded, we want to reduce the rate of growth in guaranteed benefits for future retirees by up to one and a half percent a year." And the other side argues: "Bush will SLASH your Social Security benefits." Or, even better, "Bush will SLASH your Social Security benefits by $4 TRILLION," which is the kind of cut we're talking about.

Note to congressional Democrats: If there's something in here that doesn't make sense, please see "Medicare, slowing growth of, 1995," in your handbook.


4. The final poll to be considered here is the new Annenberg survey. Here's the lead paragraph from their report on the new poll:

George W. Bush will be sworn in this week to lead a nation giving him a lukewarm approval rating, unenthusiastic about his ideas on Social Security, impatient to get out of Iraq and showing no signs of post-election reconciliation, the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey shows.

The poll's specific findings on Social Security include startlingly lopsided 86-11 opposition to a proposal worded as "[w]hen current workers retire, giving them lower benefits than what they are now promised". Note the huge difference with the WP/ABC finding, though both questions are referring to the same proposal.

The Annenberg survey also finds that only 18 percent of the public favors Bush's plan to both reduce "promised benefits and current taxes by allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market" once it is mentioned that such a plan would entail borrowing as much as 2 trillion dollars to cover benefits for people who have paid into the current system.

And on Bush's alleged election mandate to transform Social Security, here is what the public has to say: just 23 percent think his election victory means the American people support his ideas about changing Social Secuirty, while 65 percent do not. And of those who said he did not have such support from the American people as a whole, only 19 percent believe he even has such support from the people who voted for him. Finally, by 50-32, the public says they personally do not support his ideas about Social Security.

The survey finds strikingly negative views of the situation in Iraq. On whether the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, 54 percent say no and just 40 percent say yes. On whether Bush has a clear plan to bring the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion, 62 percent say no and 32 percent say yes. On whether the election in Iraq will produce a stable government or not, 60 percent say no and 29 percent say yes.

And here are some particularly eye-opening results. When asked what the US should do if the Iraq election does not produce a stable government, only 39 percent say the US should stay as long as necessary to provide stability, while 56 percent say the US should start pulling out its troops right away (31 percent) or set a date for later this year when troop pullouts will start (25 percent).

Even starker, by 2:1 (67-32) the public agrees that "[d]emocracy and freedom in Iraq are important, but the war has cost the United States too much in lives and money already to stay much longer".

Will the pre-inauguration blues for the public turn into the post-inauguration blues for Bush and the Republicans? Stay tuned.

January 17, 2005

Pre-Inauguration Blues

The public's got those mean old pre-inauguration blues. That's the message of four polls released over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

1. The first poll to be released was a Pew Research Center poll, their annual assessment of the public's policy priorities. Here's the lead paragraph of their report on the poll, succinctly titled "Public's Agenda Differs from President's":

George W. Bush begins his second term with considerably less popular support than other recent incumbent presidents after their reelection. He also is proposing a second-term policy agenda that differs in several key respects from the public's. Health care, aid for the poor, and the growing budget deficit are all increasingly important public priorities, while limiting lawsuit awards, making recent tax cuts permanent and tax simplification rank near the bottom of the public's agenda.

On the public's exceptionally weak support for Bush at the start of his second term, the report notes that their current poll has Bush at 50 percent approval, while their analagous poll in January, 1997 had Clinton at 59 percent approval. And earlier Gallup polls had Reagan at 62 percent in January, 1985, Nixon at 59 percent in December, 1972, Johnson at 71 percent in January, 1965 and Eisenhower at 73 percent in January, 1957.

On who will gain and lose influence during Bush's second term, the public is quite pessimistic about "people like yourself", with just 22 percent saying this group will gain influence and 34 percent saying they will lose influence. That's down from four years ago, at the beginning of Bush's first term, when, by 35-26, the public felt people like themselves would gain, rather than lose, influence. The public is also pessimistic about whether older people (29 percent), blacks (26 percent), poor people (20 percent), union leaders (18 percent) and environmentalists (18 percent) will gain influence during a second Bush administration. All of these figures are significantly down from where they were four years ago.

In fact, the only groups the public is more optimistic about than four years ago are Washington lobbyists (up from 35 to 40 percent in terms of gaining influence) and conservative Christians (up from 51 to 54 percent). But the groups the public is most optimistic about today are the still same two groups that topped this list in 2001: the military and business corporations.

On prospects for the economy, fewer people today than at any time since 2001 say they believe economic conditions will be better a year from now. Only 27 percent express this optimistic viewpoint, 18 percent believe they will be worse and most (52 percent) believe they will remain the same.

On Social Security, 49 percent say the system needs major changes or to be completely rebuilt. But that's much less than the 71 percent who say the health care system has problems of this magitude or the 62 percent who have the same viewpoint about the educational system. And, while the poll finds support (54-30) for the very general idea of having private investment accounts within Social Security (the typical finding when no tradeoffs or costs are mentioned), the poll also finds overwhelming support for the priority of "keeping Social Security as a program with a guaranteed monthly benefit based on a person's earnings during their working life" (65 percent) rather than "letting younger workers decide for themselves how some of their own contributions to Social Security are invested, which would cause their future benefits to be higher or lower depending on how well their investments perform" (29 percent).

More on "Pre-Inauguaration Blues" tomorrow, including much more on Social Security and and a great deal about Iraq.

January 14, 2005

Democrats and Single Women

A bright spot for the Democrats in the 2004 election was their performance among single women. That fact has been noted here and there by observers (including John Judis and myself in our recent American Prospect article) but a just-released report by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Women's Voices/Women Vote documents this trend in much more detail than anyone else has. Among the key findings of the report:

In a year with high turnout, unmarried women increased their numbers, and were one of the few demographic groups to increase their share of the electorate. As a percentage of the electorate, they moved from 19 percent in 2000 to 22.4 percent in 2004, an increase of roughly 7 million votes. Unmarried women constituted as large a share of the electorate as African Americans, Latinos and Jews combined.

The marriage gap is one of the most important cleavages in electoral politics. Unmarried women voted for Kerry by a 25-point margin (62 to 37 percent), while married women voted for President Bush by an 11-point margin (55 percent to 44 percent). Indeed, the 25-point margin Kerry posted among unmarried women represented one of the high water marks for the Senator among all demographic groups.

The marriage gap is a defining dynamic in today’s politics, eclipsing the gender gap, with marital status a significant predictor of the vote, independent of the effects of age, race, income, education or gender. Marital status had a significant effect on the way in which these voters performed, whereas a voter’s gender did not. This was true of all age groups. Younger unmarried women supported Kerry while younger married women supported President Bush. Unmarried 18-29 year olds gave Kerry a 25 point margin, while younger married women, like their older counterparts, gave President Bush an 11 point margin.

The 2004 election brought many new unmarried women to the polls. Nineteen percent were voting for the first time, versus only 6 percent of married women....

White voters supported President Bush overall, but Kerry performed well among white unmarried women. White voters generally supported President Bush in the election (58 percent to 41 percent), but Kerry performed strongly among white unmarried women (55 percent to 44 percent).

Unmarried women are social and economic progressives advancing a tolerant set of values. They believe government should play a role in providing affordable health care, a secure retirement, equal pay, and education opportunities for themselves and their children. They support a woman’s right to choose and gay rights, including marriage.

Unmarried women were strongly opposed to the war in Iraq. They believe that the Bush Administration’s pursuit of the war made America less safe, not more secure. This is the opposite conclusion from that drawn by many blue-collar voters.

Clearly single women are a very good and growing constituency for the Democrats. The report does not, however, address how to appeal directly to this constituency without aggravating the Democrats' already existing problems among married women voters. That would be a useful subject for debate among Democrats because this report demonstrates that single women voters could a critically important source of Democratic votes in the future. If that source can be further tapped without worsening Democratic performance among married women--or ideally improving that performance--the Democrats could have a winning formula.

January 12, 2005

More on Mr. Popularity

The latest Gallup poll has Bush's approval rating at 52 percent, slightly above his average 49 percent rating in polls in the last month. That 52 percent rating for a re-elected president on the eve of his inauguration is quite poor by historical standards.

Bush's popularity ratings in specifically areas also indicate Bush is receiving no political boost from his re-election and impending inauguration. His highest rating is in the terrorism area where he receives a 58 percent rating, just a point above his worst rating in this area in this poll.

His next-best rating is in the education area, where he receives a 52 percent rating, his worst ever in this area in this poll, followed by the economy, where he gets a 50 percent approval/48 percent disapproval rating. His other ratings are all below 50 percent and, with the exception of health care, are all the worst Bush has ever received in these areas in the Gallup poll: the environment, 49 percent approval/45 percent disapproval; taxes, 49/47; foreign affairs, 47/49; the situation in Iraq, 42/56; Social Security, 41/52; health care policy, 40/54; immigration, 34/54 and the federal budget deficit, 32/63.

Bush's poor rating on Iraq is underscored by several other findings from the survey. For the first time in this poll, more people (50 percent) think the US made a mistake sending troops to Iraq than don't (48 percent). In addition, about three-fifths (59 percent) think things in Iraq are going badly for the US, the same number feel it is unlikely a democratic form of government will be established in Iraq in the next year and even more (71 percent) believe it is unlikely peace and internal security will be established in Iraq in the next year.

Not much help for Mr. Popularity there. Perhaps he expects his Social Security scheme to overcome his Iraq problems. That seems highly unlikely given how his idea is apparently playing with the downscale constituencies Bush relies upon politically (see yesterday's post) and the fact that his Social Security approval rating (see above) is actually lower than his anemic Iraq rating.

January 11, 2005

Social Security and "Sam's Club Republicans"

"Sam's Club Republicans" is a term invented (or at least prominently used) by Tim Pawlenty, now governor of Minnesota, to describe socially conservative voters of modest means who vote Republican. According to Reihan Salam, in a perceptive op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, there is now a crisis brewing among these voters, as Bush's second term agenda unfolds:

What Pawlenty realized — and what President Bush apparently fails to grasp — is that the Republican Party has changed. The rich still vote for Republicans in large numbers, but they're not the party's heart and soul. To win elections, the GOP increasingly relies on socially conservative voters of modest means.

Which is why Bush's second-term agenda is so spectacularly wrongheaded. Social Security privatization (a good idea whose time hasn't come) and tax cuts for the rich (cast as "tax reform," of course) are on the front burner, and an amnesty for illegal immigrants (which would put even more pressure on native-born workers without college degrees) isn't far behind. The Freedom Club GOP is riding high — and the Sam's Club crowd is left in the dust.

Consider this from the perspective of a not atypical GOP voter — say, a young married woman with three small children living in Ohio. She voted for Bush because he promised to vigorously defend her family against terrorists and because he shares her values. But she has material interests too. She would like to raise her kids full time, but the money isn't there. Her husband is working long hours, but it's not nearly enough, and the tax cuts barely made a dent in their debts. At some point, she has to wonder, what has President Bush done for me lately?

What indeed? No wonder so many Congressional Republicans and relatively clear-thinking Republican analysts are getting nervous about Bush's Social Security privatization scheme (see today's story in the Washington Post for abundant evidence of this nervousness). They know that the GOP's rather thin electoral margin is completely dependent on the votes of these Sam's Club Republicans (really just another term for white working class Republican voters) and that these voters are not going to take very kindly to the cuts in guaranteed benefits that are an integral part of Bush's plan.

Moreover, the really big dent in GOP support from these benefit cuts appears likely to be in precisely the age brackets where these Sam's Club Republicans are most heavily concentrated. Bush carried voters over 50 last November and did particularly well among those 60 and over, receiving 54 percent of their votes, a 7 point gain over 2000. According to the new Gallup poll, while the public as a whole thinks it would be a bad idea (55 percent) rather than good idea (40 percent) to "allow people who retire in future decades to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market" but "reduce the guaranteed benefits they get when they retire", these negative views are markedly more lopsided among those 50 and over: by 63-33, they think such a scheme would be a bad idea.

How can the Democrats maximize their appeal to these Sam's Club Republicans who are unhappy with the Bush's approach to Social Security? In my view, and E.J. Dionne's, as he outlines in a thoughtful recent column, the Democrats need to go beyond opposition to Bush's scheme and offer a positive alternative:

...Marshall and many Democrats, liberal as well as moderate, argue that the party cannot simply be reactive to Bush. The goal, says Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat, should be to offer alternative policies that deal with larger problems than the ones Bush has chosen to identify.

"We should be for a savings revolution in this country," Emanuel said. "The president's plan isn't big enough. He just wants to rearrange the deck chairs. . . . The public's view is of their insecurity about retirement. It's not about their Social Security. They're worried about what they can't see, not what they can see."

Emanuel and his former Clinton administration colleague Gene Sperling have worked on a series of proposals to create new private retirement accounts for workers without pensions. They would not be carved out of Social Security but financed separately. One way of covering the costs of these accounts: blocking the total repeal of the inheritance tax, as envisioned by Bush, and using the proceeds from levies on large fortunes to help workers who have little savings begin building their own nest eggs.

Such proposals have potential appeal across [Democratic] philosophical lines.

And more importantly, they have potential appeal to Sam's Club Republicans, who are looking for real solutions to retirement insecurity. Democrats should go for it.

January 10, 2005

Clintonism, Consultants and Character

What's holding back the Democratic party? Here are three nominations, as advanced by three different observers in recent articles.

1. Clintonism. Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, argues in the new Atlantic that Clinton's strategy of triangulation--neutralizing troublesome issues by "splitting the difference"--had great success rehabilitating some negative parts of the Democrats' image and, combined with Clinton's great skills as a politician was a successful formula for a limited time at the Presidential level. But Clintonism did little to build the Democrats as a party (indeed the Democrats' Congressional majority was lost in the heyday of Clintonism) and, as applied by less skillful politicians in a changed environment, has contributed to the deadly perception that Democrats don't really stand for anything and have no core values.

2. Consultants. Amy Sullivan argues in her entertaining new article, "Fire the Consultants", in The Washington Monthly that the Democrats' tendency to employ the same losing consultants--who are so inbred with the Democratic establishment that they wind up, in essence, assigning themselves work--over and over again ensures that the same losing strategies are employed in campaigns over and over again. No market discipline on these consultants (in fact, it seems more like a form of crony capitalism) means no progress for the Democrats.

3. Character. Jill Lawrence argues in USA Today that Democrats keep nominating men of sterling character (Gore, Kerry) whose character the Democrats' inexlicably fail to defend against a deliberate Republican strategy of character assassination. She suggests that Democrats' just don't take character seriously enough and think they can deflect these attacks by talking about "issues".

What do I think? I think there's truth to all three of these critiques, though each of them overstates their thesis. It seems reasonable to me that Clintonism did not perform particularly well either in party-building or in building a positive image of Democrats' core values and convictions among constituencies like white working class voters who no longer "got" what Democrats were about. Perhaps that was inevitable given the other problems that Clintonism had to solve first, but it seems silly to deny that these were real failures of Clintonism. (See Ed Kilgore over at NewDonkey, however, for a stout defense of Clintonism against Todd's critique.)

It would also be silly to deny that rewarding those consultants that fail (all shall have prizes!) with more and more work is flat-out dumb as a strategy and stands in depressing contrast to the Republicans' ability to promote new talent and reward winners. And who could deny that Democrats have handled character attacks poorly in the last several elections and need a more aggressive appoach to beat them back?

But none of these critiques add up to a silver bullet for Democrats' electoral fortunes. Let's take the elements of truth in each of them, without getting dogmatic about any of them. That's the "Newer Democrat" way--or the "Vince Lombardi Democrat" way, to use a term coined by Rahm Emanuel, the new head of the DCCC. The last thing we need is a new orthodoxy about what's wrong with the Democratic party. Instead, let's be pragmatic and take only the elements of these critques that may help us win and discard the rest.

January 9, 2005

Mr. Popularity

Just how popular is Bush these days? Check out this excerpt from a recent AP story, discussing the most recent Ipsos-AP poll:

Bush’s approval rating is at 49 percent in the AP poll, with 49 percent disapproving. His job approval is in the high 40s in several other recent polls — as low as any job approval rating for a re-elected president at the start of the second term in more than 50 years.

Presidents Reagan and Clinton had job approval ratings of around 60 percent just before their inauguration for a second term, according to Gallup polls.

President Nixon’s approval was in the 60s right after his 1972 re-election, slid to about 50 percent right before his inauguration and then moved back over 60 percent. President Eisenhower’s job approval was in the low 70s just before his second inauguration in 1957.

That 49 percent approval rating in the AP poll is no fluke; it is exactly Bush's average approval rating in the last month across 9 polls, as shown by Chris Bowers over at MyDD.

It's worth highlighting the rest of Bush's underwhelming approval ratings as well. Even his rating in his best area, "foreign policy issues and the war on terrorism" is a mere 50 percent approval/48 percent disapproval. His rating on the economy is 47/51; his rating on Iraq is 44/54; and his rating on "domestic issues like health care, education, the environment and energy" is 43/56.

Rather than celebrating his impending inauguration, many Americans seem to be developing a case of buyer's remorse.

Whither the Labor Movement?

As many readers of this blog are no doubt aware, the labor movement is in the process of a vigorous internal debate about its future and how to rectify the obvious weaknesses of the movement (see this article by Thomas Edsall, "AFL-CIO Chief Facing Challenges From Labor's Left: Critics Say That Under Sweeney, Group's Political Influence, Percentage of Workforce Have Waned" for the basic parameters and dramatis personnae of this debate).

But what you may not know is that there are a couple of places on the web where you can access the key documents in this debate and evaluate for yourself the arguments different parts of the labor movement are now making.

1. SEIU has relevant documents and proposals plus a blog on the Unite to Win part of their site.

2. The AFL-CIO site has relevant documents and proposals on the Stregthening Our Union Movement for the Future part of their site.

Definitely worth a look.

January 7, 2005

What, If Anything, Do We Now Know about the Exit Polls That We Didn’t Know Before?

As many readers of this blog probably already know, Scoop, a leftwing website out of New Zealand, has posted a large number of official documents that were issued by the NEP to subscribers on election night and the day after. These documents capture the exit poll results in three different stages: 3:59 and 7:33 pm on election day and 1:24 the next day.

What, if anything, do we now know from these documents that we didn’t know before. Basically, nothing. What the documents do show is well-summarized by the indefatigable Mark Blumenthal over at Mystery Pollster:

On Election Day, the "national" exit poll had Kerry ahead by three points (51% to 48%) at 3:59 PM and by the same margin (51% to 48%) at 7:33 PM when the polls were closing on the east coast. By 1:33 PM the following day, the completed, weighted-to-match-the-vote exit poll showed Bush leading (51% to 48%). These numbers had been previously reported by the Washington Post's Richard Morin and Steve Coll on November 3.

The early samples included too many women: The percentage female fell from 58% at 3:59 PM to 54% at 7:33 PM, but this change alone did not alter the overall candidate standings (as the Simon/Baiman paper argues). By the next day, the sample was still 54% female, but the results among men and women were very different - Bush was 4 percentage points higher among men, 3 points higher among women.

All of the three releases are marked as "weighted," but keep in mind: The first two releases were weighted only to bring their geographical distribution into line with hard counts of actual turnout. The last release would have been weighted so that it matched the official count (something I explained here).

Keep in mind that the 7:33 PM sample from election night was incomplete. It had 11,027 interviews, but the next day NEP reported 13,660. The missing 2,633 interviews, presumably coming mostly from states in the Midwest and West, amounted to 19% of the complete sample.

We knew all this before, since this same basic story had been pieced together previously by various bloggers (including Blumenthal) and other observers from screen shots people saved, interviews with the NEP pollsters and other information about the exit polls that has been released since election night. But it is nice to have official documentation, as it were, that this story is correct.

Where does that leave us? I see no reason to change my previous position on this which I outlined in my post of November 12: exit polls have historically been off the actual election results before they are weighted to match those results and this year they were apparently off even more than normal. Why that was is an interesting question (see this post by Blumenthal for some of the logical possibilities), but there is no good reason to interpret this worsening of a long-standing problem as evidence of voter fraud--that is, that the unweighted-to-the-reported-election-result exits were right and the reported vote count was wrong.

January 6, 2005

Is It All about White People with Kids?

An interesting variant on the exurban argument (which I critiqued on Monday and in other posts) is the white families with kids argument. This argument contends that exurbs are busting at the seams with white married households with children who have moved there for more land, bigger houses and a safer, more traditional and (let's face it) less racially diverse environment for their kids. Since these kind of voters naturally tend to favor the Republicans, and since the exurbs are fast-growing, this must give the Republicans a big edge over the demographically stagnant Democrats. This argument popped up recently on The New Republic website in an article "Parent Trap" by Joel Kotkin and William Frey. The same basic argument is developed in more detail by political analyst Steve Sailer in his article "Baby Gap" in The American Conservative.

I have already had much to say about the problems with the fast exurban growth part of this argument. But the white families with children argument has another, deeper problem: white married households with children are not only declining relatively, as a percentage of households, they are also declining absolutely--that is, the number of these households is actually falling over time. Between 1990 and 2000, for example, the number of white married households with children declined by almost 7 percent. This is true even in the NCEC-designated "exurban" counties (or "Republican-leaning suburban counties" [RLSCs] as I prefer to call them} I discussed on Monday: white families with kids declined by 1 percent in RLSCs between 1990 and 2000. And in NCEC-designated rural counties, they decreased by 9 percent.

That makes the whole white families with children argument sound pretty weak. Aren't there any areas where these households are at least growing in absolute terms? Sure there are, but to find them you have to adopt a fairly strict definition of exurbs like the one I've used in the past (fringe counties of large metro areas). If you do that, it turns out that these exurban counties had 11 percent growth in white married households with children in the 1990s. But these exurban counties are also just 4 percent of the population and contain only 6 percent of the nation's white families with children. In other words, the only category of counties that remotely fits the white families with children argument is too small to have the big political impact the argument alleges.

It's also interesting to note how slowly the distribution of these households is changing. Using the NCEC categories, in 1990, 34 percent of white families with children were in "exurban" (or RLSC) counties compared to 35 percent in 2000. In rural counties there was no change (24 percent in both years). In NCEC's "suburban" counties (many of which are not really suburban and are selected so that they tend to lean Democratic), there was a slight increase, from 20 to 21 percent of white families with children over the decade. And in NCEC-designated urban counties, which are typically in only the largest urban areas with the heaviest minority populations, there was only a slight decline over the decade, from 21 to 20 percent of these housholds.

And even using my strict--and more accurate--definition of exurbia, the proportion of white families with children in this category of counties only rose from 5 percent in 1990 to the 6 percent mentioned above.

Thus, not only are the absolute numbers of these families declining almost everywhere, but the distribution of these families across different types of counties is actually changing very slowly--in fact hardly changing at all.

In short, the attempt to construct a dynamic, demographic argument around white people with kids just doesn't hold water. Of course, the basic observation that white people with kids do tend to vote Republican remains true, but the attempt to gussy up this fact with "parent traps" and "baby gaps" should be taken with an entire cellarful of salt.

January 5, 2005

Where to Show Them the Money: More on Taking Back the House

By Alan Abramowitz

Based on the findings of the Abramowitz, Alexander and Gunning paper (see yesterday's post), in 2006 Democrats would be wise to target Republicans representing high-risk districts: districts that lean Democratic in presidential elections. Such districts account for a disproprtionate share of incumbent defeats and party turnover in House elections. For example, in 1994, 32 percent of Democratic incumbents in high-risk districts were defeated compared with only 7 percent of Democratic incumbents in all other districts. Although only 34 percent of all Democratic seats in 1994 were in high-risk districts, 70 percent of Democratic seat losses occurred in these districts.

So where are these high-risk Republican districts? There are currently 25 such GOP districts: Colorado 7; Connecticut 2, 4, and 5; Delaware AL; Florida 10 and 22; Illinois 10; Iowa 1 and 2; Kentucky 3; Nevada 3; New Hampshire 2; New Jersey 2, 3, and 4; New Mexico 1; New York 3, 13, and 25; Pennsylvania 6, 7, 8, and 15; and Washington 8.

There are certainly vulnerable Republicans in other districts, but the GOP Representatives in these high-risk districts deserve special attention. In order to maximize their gains in the 2006 midterm election, Democrats need to recruit strong challengers in these high-risk GOP districts and make sure that these challengers have the funds needed to wage competitive campaigns. That will take a lot of money, but Democrats showed in 2004 that they can compete financially with Republicans. We only need to gain 15 seats to regain control of the House. With a major effort and a little help from a Bush Administration that seems determined to cut social security benefits for future retirees, it should be possible.

January 4, 2005

Show Them the Money: The Key to Taking Back the House

The Democrats can't take back the House because of redistricting, right? In fact, redistricting has reduced the number of competitive seats so drastically that the Democrats must wait until after the next round of redistricting (that is, 2012) to even have a chance of taking back the House (and that's only if this future redistricting is done far differently than the previous round of redistricting).

Pretty depressing, if true. But there's a huge problem with this argument, accepted as gospel by so many political observers: the idea that redistricting has destroyed competition for House seats is dead wrong. That's what Alan Abramowitz, Brad Alexander and Matthew Gunning of Emory University's Political Science department show in their new paper "Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections", to be presented at the forthcoming meeting of the Southern Political Science Association. They present evidence that suggests very strongly that redistricting has almost nothing to do with the decline of competitiveness in House elections. And if that's true, then redistricing can't be the root of Democrats' difficulties in taking back the House and the whole argument about having to wait 'til 2012 falls apart.

But if redistricting isn't the cause of decreased competitiveness in House elections, what is? And what, if anything, can Democrats about it?

Abramowitz, Alexander and Gunning provide a clear answer to the first question:

The evidence presented in this paper indicates that declining competition in U.S. House elections is explained by two major factors: a shift in the partisan composition of House districts and a decline in the ability of challengers to compete financially with incumbents. Since the 1970s, and especially since 1992, there has been a substantial increase in partisan polarization among House districts. The number of marginal districts has been declining while the number of districts that are safe for one party has been increasing. Redistricting appears to have little or nothing to do with this trend: almost all of the change in district partisanship has occurred between redistricting cycles....

The effects of increasing partisan polarization have been reinforced by the second trend uncovered by our study—the decreasing financial competitiveness of House challengers. Not only are there fewer incumbents in high-risk districts, but even in these districts, incumbents running for reelection are less likely to face financially competitive challengers. Fewer and fewer challengers are able to raise the amount of money that is now required to wage a competitive campaign against a well-funded incumbent. As a result, competition is now confined to open seats and a handful of races involving exceptionally vulnerable incumbents and/or exceptionally well-financed challengers.

Got that? It's not redistricting, it's partisan polarization and (lack of) money. Since Democrats can't do much about the first problem (at least, in a purposive way), I suggest they concentrate on the second. Find high-quality challengers and show them the money. To hell with waiting for 2012.

January 3, 2005

More on Exurbia

In previous posts on this topic, I have argued that the term "exurban" has been used in a scandalously confused way, categorizing so much of suburbia as exurban that the term loses any meaning. In particular, I took a close look at the definition of exurbia used by the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), a leading Democratic targeting firm. Here is some of what I reported:

[NCEC's original criteria] indicate that pretty much any suburban county that does not contain a large city can be designated as exurban, if it is relatively downscale in terms of occupation, income and education or if it falls below a certain density criterion. [Note: these original criteria also appear to categorize any non-rural county with a minority population over 50 percent as an urban county.]....

1. Some entire MSAs (metropolitan statistical areas) are designated exurban, like the Canton MSA in Ohio and the Pensacola and Sarasota MSAs in Florida.

2. In other MSAs, only the county containing the MSA's main city is designated "urban-surburban" while every other county is designated exurban or even rural. For example, in the Columbus, OH MSA, only Franklin county is termed urban-suburban, while five other counties are designated exurban and two are considered rural. Similarly, all Ohio counties in the Cincinnati MSA are designated exurban except Hamilton county.

3. Medium-sized metro areas wind up being classified almost entirely as exurban or rural. In Florida, for example, there are 16 counties in medium-sized metro areas. Of these, just three are classified as either urban-suburban (1) or suburban (2), while 13 are classified as either exurban (11) or rural (2).

4. Almost no counties are simply designated "suburban". In Ohio, there are only three (compared to 30 exurban counties); in Florida, just five (compared to 21 exurban counties)....

Collapsing all but the most urbanized parts of big metro areas, almost the entirety of medium-sized metro areas and outer suburbs everywhere into exurbia does considerable violence to the concept and clarifies little.

Arguably, what the NCEC criteria are really doing is categorizing all suburban counties where downscale white voters predominate as "exurban". Not surprisingly, given recent voting trends among white working class voters, these suburban counties tend to vote Republican. But calling these counties exurban simply confuses the issue: why not call them Republican-Leaning Suburban Counties (RLSCs) instead? That would be clearer and more analytically justified (though less trendy).

I have now obtained a categorization of every county in the US on the basis of NCEC's original criteria and have conducted some analysis using their categories. (Note: they appear to have modified their criteria slightly since their original criteria were elaborated, but I do not have access to these modified criteria.) This analysis produces some interesting results which further underscore, I think, the need for much more careful and selective use of the term "exurban".

1. By NCEC's definition, 581 counties in the US are exurban and just 131 are suburban.

2. By NCEC's definition, 29 percent of the US poplation lives in exurbia and just 19 percent in suburbia (!). (If you've got a geographer friend, tell that one to him/her to get a good laugh.)

3. NCEC's exurban counties provided 31 percent of the vote in 2004, 2 points over their population share of 29 percent. Note that these counties provided 30 percent of the vote in both 2000 and 1996, so the exurban share of the vote, even under NCEC's peculiar definition, is increasing very slowly, not rapidly.

4. Once you adjust the increase in votes in these counties for population increase (see my earlier post on this subject), their adjusted rise in turnout in 2004 was actually less than in rural, suburban and urban counties, as defined by NCEC.

5. Republican domination of these counties is, as I argued previously, nothing new. Even under NCEC's definition, Reagan carried exurban counties by 27 points in 1984, compared to just 15 points for Bush in 2004. In fact, Bush's papa in 1988 actually did better than his son in these counties, carrying them by 17 points. The only area where Bush bested his papa was in rural counties (by NCEC's definition), carrying them by 19 points, compared to 11 points for his father (though Reagan carried them by 24 points). And Bush did way worse than his father in NCEC's suburban counties, losing them by 5 points, while his father carried them by 11 in 1988 (and Reagan carried them by 21 in '84); he also did much worse in NCEC's urban counties, losing them by 19 points, while his father lost them by only 5 points in '88 (and Reagan actually carried them by 4 points in '84). All this underscores the "Reagan lite" nature of Bush's coalition.

Bottom line: we're still looking for a definition of exurbia that clarifies more than confuses and adds real analytical value. I am in touch with some geographers who are trying to come up with a clear, tight definition rooted in standard practices in their field. I'll report back when their efforts have (hopefully) borne some fruit.

Back to the Barricades?

Ron Brownstein seems to think so. In an article published on Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, he said:

On one front, a liberal operative at a top think tank has accused the Democratic Leadership Council, the principal organization of party centrists, of pushing the party toward a pro-corporate agenda "that sells out America's working class — the demographic that used to be the party's base."

In equally combative terms, a leading young centrist commentator published a manifesto in the New Republic magazine accusing the Democratic left of slighting the struggle against Islamic terrorism and undermining the party's image on security — an argument instantly embraced and promoted by the Democratic Leadership Council.

In the near-term, the Democratic desire to unify in opposition to almost all of Bush's agenda is likely to take the edge off these disagreements.

But these twin firefights, which have inspired volleys of responses, Web postings and e-mails, reflect enduring divisions over strategy, message and policy that could influence the race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee next month and are certain to loom over the contest for the presidential nomination in 2008.

....Democrats have now moved back to the barricades, at least in their intellectual circles. The lines of battle evident in these disputes also could resurface in the race for the DNC chairmanship, which will pit liberals Dean and party operative Harold M. Ickes against centrists such as former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer and Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democrat Network.

This "let's you and him fight" kind of analysis seems to really miss the point of a great deal of the discussion and debate inside the Democratic party. Perhaps this is the only lens many observers have to look at intra-Democratic party debate, but I think it is a misleading one and I am frankly surprised that as perceptive an observer as Brownstein would employ it. It is particularly useless for understanding the contest for the DNC chair, as Markos Zuniga forcefully points out over at Daily Kos. Framing Simon Rosenberg's candidacy as a New Democrat taking on the liberals, for example, is exceptionally obtuse, as is the general characterization of Dean as the liberals' candidate. Brownstein should know better.

Realignment Watch

Alan Abramowitz provides these data from the latest Ipsos-AP poll (no public link available yet that I can find):

WH '08 Generic Ballot (RVs)
Dem 48
GOP 44
Undec/Oth 8

Congress Generic Ballot (RVs)
Dem 50%
GOP 42
Undec/Oth 5

As Alan comments: "Doesn't exactly look like 2004 was a realigning election, does it?"

January 1, 2005

Can We All Agree on This?

Ed Kilgore over at NewDonkey has an excellent four part series on "Lessons Learned" from the previous 12 months of politics. I commend the entire series to you, but I particularly wanted to highlight four points of agreement among Democrats that Kilgore proposed in his first entry to this series:

(a) mobilization of partisans and ideologues is not enough; we need a persuasion strategy as well;

(b) we're the out-party now, and no longer have any excuse for behaving as the Party of Government;

(c) you just cannot win a presidential election without a clear, overarching message, defined as a theme or two that explain what you propose to do to organize public resources to address the needs and interests of the American people at home and abroad; and

(d) that message must, for the foreseeable future, address the perceived weakness and incoherence of Democrats on national security issues; the perceived elitism and relativism of Democrats in terms of their understanding of the direction of American society and culture; and the perceived obsession of Democrats with a program-heavy, values-lite approach to economic and other domestic issues.

Can we all agree on this? We may disagree on exactly how to address these four points, but we should all agree that these are the points to be addressed. Kilgore provides his basic approach to these points in the other three parts of his four part series; it's up to all of us to provide our own recommendations in the months ahead.