« June 2005 | Main | August 2005 »

July 30, 2005

Data Advantage May Give GOP Edge

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten have an article in The L.A. Times on the GOP's increasing ability to target potential supporters with laser-like precision and deliver tailored messages based on correlated data profiles. Their article, "Parties Are Tracking Your Habits: Though both Democrats and Republicans collect personal information, the GOP's mastery of data is changing the very nature of campaigning," argues that the data edge may account for the GOP's victories in 2004.

a GOP database that culled information ranging from the political basics, like party registration, to the personal, such as the cars they drive, the drinks they buy, even the features they order on their phone lines. The "micro-targeting" effort was so effective that the party credited it with helping to secure Bush's reelection.

...Both parties gather data on registered voters through public records such as voting history, voting registration rolls, driver's and hunting licenses and responses to issue surveys. Consumer data, often gathered from supermarkets, liquor stores, online book vendors, drugstores and auto dealerships and used increasingly in marketing campaigns, also are finding their way into the voter files kept by both parties...Where a voter lives, what car she drives and what magazines she reads are all used to predict her position on specific issues.

If this seems a stretch, consider the opinion of Dennis L. White, the Democrats' Ohio Party chairman, quoted in the article: "The Republicans have been working on this for a decade, and that's why they" are defeating us..."We are still three years behind."

Hamburger and Wallsten note that "the depth of the Republican files is greater — they have been around longer and include more information." They also cite the GOP's economic leverage in purchasing data from retail chain stores. But some of the gathered data cited by the authors suggests the GOP may be wasting time, money and energy with data overkill and silly sterotypes:

Bourbon drinkers are more likely to be Republicans; gin is a Democratic drink. Military history buffs are likely to be social conservatives. Volvos are preferred by Democrats; Ford and Chevy owners are more likely Republican. Phone customers who have call waiting lean heavily Republican.

There is such a thing as too much information, and screening out data ought to be as much of a concern as collecting it. Still, the article makes a credible case that Dems need to get up to speed in data collection and analysis.

July 28, 2005

How Labor's Split Could Affect Dems' Future

Democratic strategists and campaigners should take note of Jeanne Cummings' article "Unions Recast Their Political Role: Fracturing of AFL-CIO Could Boost Labor's Influence Over Election Campaigns in Long Run" in today's Wall St. Journal. Cummings discusses some of the ramifications of the widening divisions within organized labor on the Democratic Party. As Cummings points out:

The departure from the AFL-CIO of Mr. Stern's Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters raises the likelihood of more split union loyalties in primary contests. It might even open a crack for some labor-friendly Republicans.

...To be sure, intralabor competition could end up wasting resources through duplication...they could dilute resources in a way that results in fewer victories.

One Democratic Party segment that may need to brace for fallout is moderate elected officials, many of whom joined President Clinton in the 1990s in backing free-trade deals. The Change to Win Coalition -- which, like other labor officials, lambastes those deals as harmful to workers -- pledges to take a tougher line toward defectors.

Just yesterday, labor presidents issued a warning to Democrats that supporting the Central American Free Trade Agreement now pending on Capitol Hill could cost them at re-election time.

Cummings also quotes labor insiders who believe the split could lead to an increase in union investments in political campaigns. The Democrats' share of labor PAC contributions decreased slightly from 2000 to 2004, while the Dems' share of the union vote remained constant, according to charts featured in her article. The voter turnout of union workers has increased in percentage terms in recent years, even as the number of union members has fallen.

Cummings and her sources agree that unions will continue to play a significant role in Democratic Party politics. But if the split in the ranks of organized labor produces an energized workers' movement over the longer haul, unions will have enhanced influence in electing Democrats.

July 27, 2005

Articles Spotlight Elements of Winning Dem Strategy

In These Times is featuring three articles on aspects of Democratic Party strategy. Matt Singer's "The Progressive Frontier: The governor of the Big Sky state has important lessons to teach Democrats across the nation" offers insights from the experience of Montana's rising star, Governor Brian Schweitzer. The Schweitzer story has been well-covered here and elsewhere, but Singer's article rolls out some useful principles, such as:

Fight everywhere. Schweitzer didn’t write off the rural areas of Montana that have recently become Republican strongholds. He campaigned statewide, winning two counties typically lost by Democrats and narrowing the margin in dozens of others.

Fight back. When Schweitzer got “Swift Boated,” his campaign staffers didn’t sit silently. They hit back fast and hard. And in his first months in office, Schweitzer didn’t refrain from criticizing the president who received more votes than he did. He aggressively criticized Bush on a number of fronts. Now he’s more popular than the president among Montana voters.

Actions speak louder than words. Unlike other Democrats who revel in meta-analysis or theorizing over values, Schweitzer simply did it. Rather than saying he was a real Montanan, he talked about his homesteading ancestors. Rather than talking about reclaiming the flag, Schweitzer just did it—prominently on his Web site and on pens the campaign distributed.

ITT is also featuring U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky's speech to the recent Campaign for America's Future conference, entitled "Democratic Dos and Don'ts": Among Schakowsky's points:

Progressives and Democrats don’t need an extreme makeover. Far from it. We do not need to rethink our values and principles, rewrite our agenda or move to the “center.” Polls taken the day before the 2004 election as well as the day after tell us clearly that the Democrats are already where most Americans are on the issues and also on values...We do, in fact, represent the aspirations of the majority of Americans.

...do what your mother said—or at least what my mother said—stand up straight. What people like least about progressives and Democrats is that they think we’re squishy. They think Bush is tough, knows what he believes and is willing to fight for it. Americans like tough, even when they don’t entirely agree with the substance. Voters like tough; voters don’t like tentative.

...Repeat, repeat, repeat...Republican repetition of the same talking points may irritate you, but it represents the level of discipline that we need if we ever expect average Americans to hear what we stand for and be able to articulate it in one declarative sentence.

In "The Case for a Democratic Marker," ITT's Christopher Hayes interviews Rick Perlstein, author of The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become the Dominant Political Party. Perlstein's most salient point in the interview is the importance of consistency:

...a commitment that doesn’t waver adds value by the very fact of the commitment. The evidence is that even though the individual initiatives that make up the conservative project poll quite poorly, they’ve managed to succeed simply because everyone knows what the Republicans stand for. And the most profound exit poll finding in the last election had nothing to do with moral values, it was all the people who said that they disagreed with the Republicans on individual issues, but they voted for George W. Bush anyway because they knew what he stood for....there’s value just in making credible demonstrations of fortitude."

If there is a common theme to the advice presented in the three articles, it's that Dems have a lot to gain by emphasizing clarity, consistency and commitment --- not a bad formula for victory in '06 and beyond.

July 25, 2005

Whites Moving Away from GOP

Pundits like to point out how dependent the Democrats are on the minority vote and, therefore, how vulnerable the Democrats would be to any weakening in that support. True enough. But it's also true--perhaps even more so--that the GOP is utterly dependent on high levels of support among whites and, therefore quite vulnerable to any weakening of support among these voters.

And weakening of white support for the GOP appears to be precisely what's happening--though you'd never guess it from the deafening silence among the very pundits who like to tut-tut about the Democrats' dependence on the minority vote. Here are some very interesting figures from a recently-released Gallup report, "Black Support for Bush, GOP, Remains Low", based on results of their 2005 and earlier Minority Relations polls.

1. In June of 2004, Bush's approval rating among non-Hispanic whites was 61 percent. This June, it's down to 47 percent, with 48 percent disapproval. In contrast, Bush's approval ratings among blacks is flat-lined at 16 percent in the two polls, while Hispanics haven't really budged either, giving Bush a 40 percent rating in 2004 and a 41 percent rating in 2005.

2. In June of 2004, the GOP enjoyed a 19 point lead in party ID (including leaners) over the Democrats among whites. This June, the Democrats actually have a small 2 point lead in party ID among whites. That's a huge shift. Combined with the Democrats' current 60 point lead in party ID among blacks and 19 point lead among Hispanics, that makes the GOP look quite vulnerable indeed.

After all, without white voters in essentially landslide proportions, the GOP political coalition, as we know it, could not exist. In fact, it wouldn't even be particularly competitive.

Something more for Karl Rove to worry about! And for pundits to opine about, if they can tear themselves away from telling the Democrats to panic about their dependence on the minority vote.

Dems Should Focus More on Congressional Campaigns

WaPo's Colbert I. King has an article Dems need to think about, if we want to create a party that can actually play offense, instead of limp defense. King's "Democrats Are on the Wrong Battlefield" (July 23 edition) brings a needed reminder that tunnel vision focused on Presidential campaigns has not served Dems well. King says Dems invest too much energy and resources in the race for the white house to the detriment of other important elections:

Self-designated as a government in exile, Democratic Party activists have spent recent election cycles working their fannies off for that glorious day in January when they, as victors, could show the door to a vanquished Republican administration. For members of Washington's Democratic administration-in-waiting, winning the White House has been the only game in town. The presidency, in their view, is the instrument to make the way straight and easy for all who wage war against the heathen right.

So, lo these many years, they have been spending millions of dollars and consuming time and energy treading the primary roads that they hoped would take them to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Meanwhile, far beyond the presidential trails, Republicans have been picking off Democrats on the Hill one by one, making it possible for George W. Bush to fulfill his upfront pledge to govern America from the right, where tax cuts, changing the face of the federal judiciary and making liberals perfectly miserable every waking moment remain the order of the day.

King says neglect of important congressional races has made it easy for Republicans to dominate, not only legislative struggles, but judiciary confirmation battles, such as the filibuster "compromise." And, if you doubt King's point about presidential campaign tunnel vision, ask a Democratic friend to please name five key Senate races slated for next year. If King is right, re-routing more energy and resources into congressional, state and local campaigns, leadership development and training could prove to be a worthy investment in a Democratic future.

July 24, 2005

Main Political Supports of Bush Presidency Seriously Weakened (Continued)

On Friday, I discussed two of the main supports of the Bush presidency--public views of Bush's character and the role of Karl Rove--that have been seriously weakened, as revealed by the new Pew Research Center poll.

But the most important support of the Bush presidency is, by far, the war on terror and the public's belief that Bush and his policies are keeping them safe. That belief now appears to have eroded considerably.

Start with the Iraq war. Right now, Bush's approval rating on Iraq is down to 35 percent with 57 percent disapproval. That's the lowest his rating has ever been in this poll.

That's bad, but the really significant news here is that the public is now concluding that the Iraq war has had a negative effect on the war on terror and on their safety from terrorist attacks. For example, an 8 point plurality in the poll (47-39) now believe the Iraq war has hurt, not helped, the war on terror. This is the first time views have been so negative about the Iraq war's effect on the war on terror. And the public now believes, by 2:1 (45-22) that the Iraq war has increased, rather than decreased, the changes for terror attacks on the US.

Reflecting these views, Bush's approval rating on handling terrorist threats has sunk to 49 percent, only the second time that his approval rating in his premier area has dipped below 50 percent. It is unlikely to be the last time given how the public is starting to view the Iraq war.

Pew provides an interesting table comparing different groups' views from today and about a year ago on Iraq war's effect on the war on terrorism. Scrutinizing the table it is clear that white women, as opposed to white men or nonwhites, are mostly driving the overall public move toward the position that the Iraq war has hurt the war on terror. This is particularly significant because it is white women, primarily on the basis of security issues, who moved the most toward Bush in the 2004 election and provided much of his victory margin in that election.

If these voters are starting to conclude that the GOP is not doing a good job protecting them and may, in fact, be making them less safe, the implications for the GOP in 2006 and beyond could be profound.

July 22, 2005

Main Political Supports of Bush Presidency Seriously Weakened

Bush may very well get his Supreme Court nominee through without much trouble. But that's likely to help him only marginally, because the Pew Research Center has just released two new reports on their latest poll, "Republicans Uncertain on Rove Resignation" and "More Say Iraq War Hurts Fight Against War on Terrorism", which together show that the main political supports of Bush's presidency have become seriously weakened.

Character

Bush has benefitted during this presidency from positive public perceptions of his character, which have seemed relatively immune to fallout from his many policy failures. No longer. Public views of Bush's character have apparently taken a nose-dive since the last time Pew asked in people for their impressions of Bush's character.

In fall of 2003, 62 percent said Bush was trustworthy and just 32 percent said he was not, a 30 point positive margine. Today, however, it's almost an even split--49 percent say he's trustworthy and 46 percent say he isn't. Similarly, he's slipped from 56 percent he does/38 percent he doesn't on "cares about people like me" to 48/49 today.

The biggest shift has been on "able to get things done", which has fallen from 68/26 to 50/42 today. And even characteristics like "a strong leader" (68/29 to 55/41) and "warm and friendly" (70/23 to 57/37) have declined substantially.

Across the board, those stellar character ratings which supposedly meant Bush could weather any political storm have become mediocre to poor. And he's lost the most ground among independents, only 38 percent of whom now believe Bush is trustworthy or cares about people like them. Even more amazing, less than half (48 percent) of indepedents now think Bush is a strong leader, which is a massive 24 point decline since Pew's previous measurement.

And how about this: in February of this year, the two leading one word description of Bush were "honest" and "good", cited by 38 percent and 20 percent of the public, respectively. Today, honest has declined to 31 percent, closely followed by "incompetent" (26 percent, up from 14 percent) and "arrogant" (24 percent, up from 15 percent).

Karl Rove

Another mainstay of Bush's presidency has been Karl Rove. But he's starting to seem more a liability than an asset. As ABC News reported the other day, only a quarter of the public think the White House is cooperating fully in the investigation of the "outing" of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame (married to Bush critic Joseph Wilson). Rove is a central target of that investigation and administration attempts to shield him are just contributing to the erosion of public trust in Bush and his administration.

Right now, more believe Rove is guilty of a serious offence than not (32-23) and more believe he should resign than not (39-23). But many haven't heard enough to have an opinion, so the percentage of the public calling for his resignation still is not that high.

However, among the half of the public that has been following the story closely (which makes this story roughly as big as the Trent Lott resignation and much bigger than the Delay ethics controversy), almost three-fifths (58 percent, including 69 percent of independents) call for Rove's resignation, compared to just 26 percent who don't. Similarly, those who think Rove is guilty of a serious offense rises to 47 percent among the attentive public (54 percent among independents), with 29 percent dissenting.

More on "Main Political Supports of Bush Presidency Seriously Weakened" tomorrow.....

Sorting Out Opinion on Abortion Issues

As reported below, opinion polls indicate healthy majorities oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade and want Supreme Court nominees who will honor majority opinion on this issue. Beyond that, polls reveal confusion and misinformation among many Americans regarding abortion-related issues, as Matthew Yglesias points out in his TPM Cafe post "Abortion and Public Opinion":

Strongly anti-choice claims like "abortion is murder" have quite strong public support. At the same time, strongly pro-choice claims like "the choice should be left up to the woman and her doctor" have even stronger support...Taking a more fine-grained look, people say they support Roe v. Wade but then also say they support all kinds of restrictions on abortion's availability that would go against the current understanding of the Roe precedent.

Yglesias gets his conclusion from Karlyn Bowman's in depth American Enterprise Institute study "Attitudes About Abortion," which explores public opinion concerning broad range of abortion-related issues over the last 33 years. Bowman's study, which afffirms overwhelming support for the Roe decision, should be required reading for all Scotus justices and nominees, as well as candidates for office and policy wonks.

July 21, 2005

Despite Scotus Nominee, Recent Polls Say Keep Roe v. Wade

If Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts is confirmed, it is quite possible that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned, given the current balance on the court and his track record on the issue. (His wife, Jane Roberts' involvement in "Feminists for Life of America," a strongly anti-abortion group is another factor). But Democrats who are willing to give Roberts an easy pass should take a look, at least, at the most recent opinion polls, which show overwhelming support for keeping Roe vs. Wade and strong opposition to criminalising abortion in most cases.

A CBS News poll, conducted 7/13-14, for example found that only 3 percent of respondents believe abortion should "never" be legal, and 59 percent agreed that Roe vs. Wade was a "good thing," compared to 32 percent who said it was a "bad thing." A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted 6/24-26 found that 24 percent of respondents believe abortion should be "always legal," 55 percent said "sometimes legal" and 20 percent said it should be "always illegal." The poll also found that 65 percent of respondents wanted a new Supreme Court justice to "vote to uphold" Roe vs. Wade, with 29 percent wanting a new justice to "vote to overturn" the decision. A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey conducted 6/8-12 found that 63 percent of Americans did not want Roe overturned, while 30 percent did.

Abortion will remain a difficult issue for Democrats, and the Roberts nomination will likely heighten debate within the Party over the issue. While keeping an eye on public opinion, Democratic leaders should continue exploring potential common ground to build a broader consensus between constituencies who disagree on abortion rights.

July 20, 2005

It’s the (Message About the) Economy, Stupid

I’ve documented extensively the level of economic discontent among the public in recent posts. Two new polls, one by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Public Opinion Strategies for NPR and the other by Lake Snell Perry Mermin (LSPM), confirm that discontent. The LSPM poll finds, for example, that 56 percent think the country’s economy is seriously off on the wrong track, compared to just 38 percent who think that it’s going in the right direction, and that two-thirds of voters believe Bush is doing either a “just fair” or poor job on the economy. And in the NPR poll, voters were read a series of positive and a series of negative facts about the economy–eight in each series–and asked which best described the economy. After this exercise , voters were asked whether the positive or negative series of facts tells the best story about the economy in general. By 53-39, they thought the negative series of facts told the better story.

Will that discontent pay off for the Democrats in 2006? That is far from certain, though it certainly gives them good raw material to work with. First, the reasons why the discontent might pay off.

1. Dissatisfaction with the performance of the economy typically hurts the incumbent party and Republicans are unamiguously the incumbent party. Moreover, right now, general anti-incumbent sentiments are running high. For example, in the recent NBC News poll, 47 percent said it's time to give a new person a chance", compared to 39 percent who said their representative "deserves to be re-elected". That 8 point deficit against the incumbent is the highest it's been since before the 1994 election. Also in the NBC News poll, Congress, which is completely controlled by the GOP, is running an abysmal 28 percent approval rating.

Finally, public polls in July show Democrats with a 5-7 point lead in prospective questions on the 2006 elections, indicating that anti-incumbent feelings may be developing a partisan edge. (Note, however, that Democrats' favorability ratings are still no better the the Republicans' and frequently slightly worse.)

2. In the LSPM poll, Democrats are preferred on a wide range of economic issues, many by hefty margins. These include: fighting for the middle and working middle class (+31); budget deficits (+20); dealing with rising health care costs(+17); keeping jobs in America (+16); retirement security (+15); dealing with rising gas prices (+12); creating jobs (+10); creating economic security for families like yours (+7); fiscal accountability (+7); for small businesses (+6); and providing economic opportunities (+5).

But there are also reasons why economic discontent might not pay off for the Democrats.

1. Voters are dissatisfied with the economy, but they're hardly ready to storm the barricades. Both the NPR and LSPM polls note that people rate their own economic situation substantially more positively than they rate the country's. While there is a long-standing polling phenomenom of individuals rating their own situation (and not just economic, but everything from their kids' schools to their values) more positively than that of the country as a whole, the fact that voters are not inclined to rate their own personal economic situation as particularly dire should reduce one's faith that a sour view of the country's economic performance will necessarily propel voters toward the Democrats.

2. When you look carefully at the list of economic issues Democrats hold an advantage on, it is striking that they hold a huge advantage on a which-side-are-you-on item like "fighting for the middle class", but rather modest advantages on two items that should be at the heart of what Democrats really stand for: creating economic security for families like yours [note the "families like yours" language](+7); and providing economic opportunities (+5). And on another item that traditionally has shown itself to be an especially good predictor of vote choice--"keeping America prosperous"--Democrats are actually running a small deficit (-3).

This suggests that Democrats have yet to convince the average voter--even if that voter is dissatisfied with the economy and where it seems to be going--that their party has a clear and clearly superiour approach to providing economic security and opportunity and ensuring prosperity. That may limit, in turn, Democrats' ability to capitalize on economic discontent in the next election and beyond.

How can the Democrats rectify this situation? Not, in my view, by embracing fashionable theories like "framing" which inevitably encourage the party to recycle its old proposals and ideas dressed-up in different language. As Matt Bai noted in his very interesting piece on the Democrats and framing in the New York Times magazine, Democrats tend to interpret academic George Lakoff's framing theory in exactly this way:

When I asked Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the minority whip and one of Lakoff's strongest supporters, whether Lakoff had talked to the caucus about [a] void of new ideas in the party, Durbin didn't hesitate. ''He doesn't ask us to change our views or change our philosophy,'' Durbin said. ''He tells us that we have to recommunicate.'' In fact, Durbin said he now understood, as a result of Lakoff's work, that the Republicans have triumphed ''by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping,'' the implication being that this was not a war of ideas at all, but a contest of language.

And there are good reasons why Democrats interpret his theory that way:

...Lakoff had spoken for 12 minutes and then answered questions at [a] U.C.L.A. forum with [Arianna] Huffington and [Tom] Frank, and not once had he even implied that the Democratic problem hadn't been entirely caused by Republicans or that it couldn't be entirely fixed by language.

This is really too bad, because it diverts Democrats' attention from the fact that even good political language has to connect to arguments that are clear and compelling and plans whose real world implications voters can easily grasp. For example, in the LPSM poll, the political language (or "narrative") that tested the best, beating a Republican "ownership society" narrative, 53-37, was an "economic security" narrative that alluded to ways in which Democrats would act to make Americans more economically secure and ensure properity.

That seems like a promising approach, especially since Democrats apparently need to beef up their appeals in the economic security and prosperity areas. But, unfortunately for the Democrats, voters don't vote just on narratives--they vote on what a party stands for and what it proposes to do. And right now, voters are fairly mystified about what the Democrats stand for and what they propose to do with the country if they attain power--including in the area of economic security. That returns us to the land of core beliefs, solid arguments and good ideas, where Democrats, if they wish to win in 2006 and beyond, should be concentrating their efforts. There is no substitute.

July 18, 2005

Antonio Villaraigosa’s Victory in Los Angeles: Any Democratic Lessons for Winning Latino Votes?

By Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler

In recent weeks, much has been written about Antonio Villaraigosa’s strong victory over then-incumbent Los Angeles City Mayor, James Hahn. Villaraigosa beat Hahn in the mayoral runoff election handily, winning almost 59% of the votes cast, making him LA’s first Latino elected mayor in 133 years. As Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times wrote after the election, “Antonio Villaraigosa’s election victory as mayor of Los Angeles vaults him into the top ranks of Latino leaders, crowning him as a potent force in the Democratic Party and giving him a strong platform to reach for higher office...”

No doubt, Villaraigosa’s victory was exciting. Villaraigosa campaigned with vision and focus, keeping on his message of fixing pressing problems in Los Angeles, especially public education and transportation. He is indeed a progressive candidate to watch.

Further, his win attracted enormous media attention, and led many back to a question that loomed large after the 2004 presidential election for Democrats: what can the party do to attract Hispanic and Latino votes nationally? Villaraigosa’s win has led some to wonder if it holds important lessons for Democratic strategists as we seek to determine how best to attract more Hispanic votes to their candidates in 2006 and beyond.

Writing in a recent issue of Newsweek, in an issue with a beaming Villaraigosa standing on Venice Beach after his victory, Arian Campo-Flores and Howard Fine gushed that Villaraigosa had “energized Latino voters to turn out for him at historic levels and stitched together the sort of multiracial coalition that has often eluded less-gifted politicians.” And later in their story they noted that “Democrats will be studying Villaraigosa’s formula for victory, hoping to replicate it win other races nationwide --- where the terrain may be more challenging than two Democrats squaring off in a Left Coast city.”

The question for Democratic strategists remains --- what can be learned of Villaraigosa’s victory?

In our opinion, the primary lesson for Democrats is that they need to continue efforts to develop and support issue-oriented Hispanic candidates for office at all levels. Villaraigosa’s victory also does point out that progressive Democratic Latino candidates can win votes from all racial/ethnic groups --- and that drawing support from non-Latino voters is critical for these candidacies.

But we also need to point out that because of the unique characteristics of this election, there really are not many lessons for Democrats to learn in terms of national strategy for winning Hispanic votes.

First, it is really hard to see how anyone can claim that voters in LA were excited or energized by the 2005 campaign --- including Latino voters. Overall turnout in the mayoral runoff was extremely low, with only 34% of the city’s almost 1.5 million registered casting ballots for either candidate. In the 2001 runoff election, almost 38% of the city electorate voted. So the 2005 runoff election had a turnout rate that was 4% lower than in 2001!

It is remarkable to note that Villaraigosa only received about 289,000 votes in this election --- about 25,000 more votes than he received in 2001. In another perspective on this same point, Villaraigosa picked up votes from only about 20% of the city’s registered voters in 2005. Again, these hardly seem like the sort of numbers we would expect to see from an energized or excited electorate. Quite the opposite, as to us these numbers indicate a relatively apathetic or uninterested electorate.

Second, not only is it hard to see how someone can argue that Villaraigosa energized or excited the overall electorate, it is also difficult to see how pundits and the media have concluded that he energized the Latino electorate in Los Angeles. In the 2001 mayoral runoff election (which Villaraigosa lost to Jim Hahn), the Los Angeles Times Exit Poll estimated that 22% of the electorate was Latino and that Villaraigosa picked up 82% of the Latino vote. In the 2005 runoff, the Los Angeles Times Exit Poll estimated that 25% of the electorate was Latino and that Villaraigosa got 84% of that vote. We fail to see the logic that would lead anyone to think that as the Latino electorate increased by 3%, and that Villaraigosa’s Latino vote increased by 2%, there was a stunning transformation of Latino politics in Los Angeles.

Third, many pundits seem to either be unaware or dismissive of the unique context of Los Angeles mayoral elections, especially this one. The facts are:

a. Both Hahn and Villaraigosa are Democrats, and despite Hahn being portrayed as the more moderate of the two, in what we would consider the broader national context, Hahn anywhere else would be seen as a fairly liberal Democrat. It is only in the context of a progressive Villaraigosa, with his strong connections to the strong union movements in Los Angeles and the progressive community, that Hahn was seen as a moderate.

b. The Los Angeles electorate is politically vastly different from the national electorate. In both 2001 and 2005, the exit polls estimated that over 21% of the electorate were union members. Almost half of the electorate in both elections were self-identified liberals. 70% in both elections were Democrats. And in both elections, 41% were Liberal Democrats.

c. And while mayor, Hahn undertook a series of efforts that dramatically undercut the political foundation he had built in 2001. His opposition to Valley succession, and his firing of Bernard Parks as police chief, hurt Hahn with Valley and Black voters. Those peculiar aspects of the political context cannot be dismissed, as they constitute the strategic opening that Villaraigosa exploited in his second run to become mayor. Villaraigosa was probably as appealing to voters in 2001 as he was in 2005. In the final analysis, the difference between the two elections was the appeal of his opponent, Hahn.

Finally, most of the media has focused on Villaraigosa’s racial/ethnic identity. His Latino identity, combined with his progressive values, helped him to cement over 80% of the Latinos votes in this runoff election. But the most important lesson that we see in Villaraigosa’s recent win is that in certain contexts Democratic Latino candidates can draw support from white, black, and Asian voters. One of the key demographic shifts between 2001 and 2005 for Villaraigosa was his ability to increase his support among non-Latino voters. His white vote increased to 50% in 2005, up 9 percentage points from just four years earlier. His black vote share increased by a stunning 28% percentage points, to 48%. And his share of Asian voters increased by 9 percentage points, to 44%. We (along with Marisa A. Abrajano) have written about the importance of non-Latino votes for Latino candidates, in this specific case Villaraigosa’s first run for mayor in 2001, in an academic study, titled “Race Based vs. Issue Voting: A Natural Experiment” (just published in Political Research Quarterly). In this study, we found that non-Latinos (especially white voters) are willing to support Latino candidates because of issues or ideological identifications, and that the votes of non-Latinos can be of critical importance in the electoral coalitions that Latino candidates often need to construct to be successful in their bids for elected office.

In sum, Villaraigosa’s win helps demonstrate that progressive Latino Democratic candidates can get support from non-Latino voters. And thus, as part of a long-term strategy to insure that the Democratic party represents the diversity of America, it needs to recruit and support candidates – of all ethnicities -- throughout the nation who are in tune with the concerns of Hispanic voters, especially at the state and local level. They can ensure that Hispanic voices and concerns are reflected in Democratic party values and policies, and thus help keep Hispanic votes in the Democratic column in the long-term, as Hispanic votes are a key to Democratic success at the national level in coming elections.

No Rally Effect for Bush

A number of media observers predicted that a rally effect would significantly boost the popularity of Bush and his agenda after the July 7 London bombings. That does not appear to have happened, based on a number of public polls that have been released since then. Instead, these polls suggest little positive effect on Bush's popularity and agenda, as violence continues in Iraq and the Rove scandal at home grabs the headlines.

Job Approval. Gallup is the only firm to have polled close to and then right after the July 7 bombings. They found a modest three point rise in Bush's popularity, from 46 to 49 percent. With other public polls, one has to compare the post-July 7 poll with poll from early June or even May. Based on this comparison, Pew and CBS News found Bush's popularity up 3-5 points to 47 percent and 45 percent respectively and Ipsos-AP and NBC News/Wall Street Journal found Bush's popularity down a point to 42 percent and 46 percent, respectively. In the case of the latter two polls, these are actually the lowest job ratings Bush has ever received.

The Economy. Bush's economic approval rating was 42 percent in the Ipsos-AP poll (a point down from the previous poll reading), 40 percent in the CBS News poll (a point up) and 39 percent in the NBC News poll (four points down). Moreover, a July 13 Gallup report notes:

The Gallup Poll's first read on consumer confidence after last Thursday's London terror bombings shows little positive or negative change. Americans remain generally pessimistic about the economy, only about a third rate the current economy as excellent or good, and a majority say that now is not a good time to be looking for a quality job.

Social Security. The Ipsos-AP poll finds Bush's approval rating on Social Security dropping to 35 percent. And the NBC News poll, which asks now finds its lowest number ever, 33 percent, saying it is a "good idea" to change the Social Security system to allow workers to invest their contributions in the stock market, compared to 57 percent who term it a bad idea. And, as we have seen before, those who believe it's a bad idea say they're unlikely to switch (by 62-36), while those who believe it's a good idea say they're open to switching by essentially the same margin (62-37).

Iraq. As I noted in an earlier post, the Gallup poll taken right after the bombings showed no evidence that reaction to the bombings had increased support for the Iraq war. The other post-bombings public polls tell the same story. Bush's Iraq approval rating remains mired at 40 percent in the Ipsos-AP poll, and 39 percent in both the CBS News and NBC News polls. Moreover, the CBS News poll finds the following:

1. More than half the public (52 percent) says that US involvment in Iraq is creating more terrorists, compared to just 17 percent who think our involvement is eliminating terrorists.

2. As for how the Iraq war has affected the terror threat to the US, 44 percent now say that war has increased that threat (another 41 percent say there has been no effect), while only 13 percent believe it has decreased the threat.

3. Half the public says that Iraq is not part of the war on terror, compared to 37 percent who it's a major part and 9 percent who say it's a minor part.

4. Most Americans (54 percent) continue to think things are going badly, not well (44 percent), for the US in Iraq.

5. By an overwhelming 63-28 percent, the public says Bush does not have a plan for dealing with the Iraq situation.

6. And, finally, by 55-40, the public says the US should set a timetable for bringing the troops home from Iraq. This underscores the developing interest among the public in a timetable for leaving Iraq, despite Bush's adamant refusal to consider such an option.

In short, Bush's problems today look pretty much like Bush's problems before the London bombings. Those problems were serious then and they're still serious now. Indeed, with Karl Rove now in the crosshairs of the national press as the current scandal continues to unfold, they could easily become much worse.

July 17, 2005

Does 'Re-Framing' Give Dems Political Leverage?

The debate over the importance of "framing" gets re-energized in Matt Bai's "The Framing Wars" in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Bai argues, among other points, that the Democrats used creative framing to stop the GOP 'nuclear option' and he tells an interesting story:

In January, Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story -- a frame -- for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds -- that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights -- was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were ''changing rules in the middle of the game'' and dismantling the ''checks and balances'' that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.

Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make this case. He heard voters call the majority party ''arrogant.'' They said they feared ''abuse of power.'' This phrase struck Garin. He realized many people had already developed deep suspicions about Republicans in Washington. Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry's spokeswoman last year, to put together a campaign-style ''war room'' on the filibuster. Cutter set up a strategy group, which included senior Senate aides, Garin, the pollster Mark Mellman and Jim Margolis, one of the party's top ad makers. She used Garin's research to create a series of talking points intended to cast the filibuster as an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks. The talking points began like this: ''Republicans are waging an unprecedented power grab. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game and attacking our historic system of checks and balances.'' They concluded, ''Democrats are committed to fighting this abuse of power.''

Bai notes that not everyone considers the filibuster compromise much of a victory for Democrats. But he makes a persuasive argument that a conscious strategy of re-framing the debate did give the Dems some leverage.

Bai provides a broad summary of the theories and still-rising popularity of framing guru George Lakoff, who now has a new DVD "How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff." Bai also runs the 2004 Presidential race through a Lakoffian filter:

From Day 1, Republicans tagged Kerry with a larger metaphor: he was a flip-flopper, a Ted Kennedy-style liberal who tried to seem centrist, forever bouncing erratically from one position to the other. They made sure that virtually every comment they uttered about Kerry during the campaign reminded voters, subtly or not, of this one central theme. (The smartest ad of the campaign may have been the one that showed Kerry windsurfing, expertly gliding back and forth, back and forth.) Democrats, on the other hand, presented a litany of different complaints about Bush, depending on the day and the backdrop; he was a liar, a corporate stooge, a spoiled rich kid, a reckless warmonger. But they never managed to tie them all into a single, unifying image that voters could associate with the president. As a result, none of them stuck. Bush was attacked. Kerry was framed.

To show that Dems have been equally ineffectual in projecting their agenda, Bai quotes Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and a strong proponent of framing:

I can describe, and I've always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values...We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn't compete very well. I'm not talking about the policies. I'm talking about the language.

Bai's article includes blistering quotes from Lakoff's critics, but concedes that Lakoff's theories have been oversimplified by many of them --- "the cartoon version of Lakoff," according to Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Meanwhile, Katha Pollitt's article "If the Frame Fits..." in July 11 edition of The Nation, offers a different take on Lakoff missed by Bai and other Lakoff critics:

I keep thinking that reframing misses the point, which is to speak clearly from a moral center--precisely not to mince words and change the subject and turn the tables. I keep thinking that people are so disgusted by politics that the field is open for progressives who use plain language and stick to their guns and convey that they are real people, at home in their skin, and not a collection of blow-dried focus-grouped holograms.

Bai concludes his article more on the side of Lakoff's critics than not and he gives the Republicans too much credit for substance in their message. Still, his article has some usefull insights on 'frames' and the importance of a clear and unified message for Dems.

July 15, 2005

Dems Have Bigger Problems Than Rove

In his Bullmoose post today, "Reviling Rove," Marshall Wittmann makes a couple of important points Dems should heed in focusing their energies on punishing Karl Rove for his role in Plamegate:

Democrats can't merely be the party of "no" - or "we hate Karl". While we are seething with our justifiable anger, the Republican Chairman is making serious overtures to the African-American community. And what kind of effective out reach is the Democratic Party making to groups that have been estranged from the party in recent years?

The politics of scandal do not always pay off for the opposition party. In the 1988 campaign, Iran-contra did not doom an incumbent Veep with ties to the scandal. And Democrats actually made gains in 1998 in the midst of the Lewinsky frenzy.

Surely the donkey should pursue Rove, but Democrats should not be consumed with him.

The other point Bullmoose could have made is that Rovism was around before Karl Rove and will likely be a cornerstone of GOP strategy and tactics long after he is gone. Rovethink is just a bent form of the same ruthless mentality embraced by Haldeman and Erlichman during the Nixon Administration, or Lee Atwater during Bush I. Democrats need to develop a more effective strategy for confronting dirty politics, regardless of who is behind it.

Rove should be held accountable for his role in the Plame affair, because endangering our intelligence personnel is a very serious transgression. But Rove-bashing, however richly deserved, will not do anything to inspire confidence in the Democratic Party. For that, we have to put more energy into developing strong candidates who know how to deliver a consistent, credible message that wins the support of swing voters.

July 14, 2005

Public Opposes 'In-Your-Face" Scotus Nominee

It's hard to tell if President Bush was much impressed by the boomerang effect of his nomination of John Bolton to be our next U.N Ambassador. But in light of Bush's tanking approval ratings, Democratic strategists should take note of the findings of a new Wall St. Journal/NBC News poll conducted 7/8-11, in defining their stance on the next Supreme Court nominee. In his WSJ wrap-up, John Harwood notes:

Mr. Bush faces a Rubik's Cube of shifting opinion as he copes with pressure from all sides on replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor...Fully 63% of Americans say it would be a move in "the right direction" to pick a justice who backs displaying the Ten Commandments on government property, a popular stance with the Republican Party's conservative base.

Yet 55% of Americans also applaud the idea of a justice who would uphold affirmative action, a key demand of liberals. More problematic for the right, which for three decades has blasted the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, a robust 65% of Americans say the court shouldn't overturn Roe.

Perhaps most hazardous for Mr. Bush's other priorities is the prospect of protracted partisan warfare over Senate confirmation of a high court nominee. The recent fights over judges, Social Security and John Bolton's nomination as United Nations ambassador have taken a toll on the public mood.

The poll also found that 55% of the respondents "disapprove of how Congress is doing its job" and 45% prefer that the 2006 elections produce a Democratic-controlled Congress, compared to 38% prefering Republican control. "This is a very difficult climate to begin that conversation" over a court vacancy, concludes Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "What the public perceives might only reinforce the notions of partisan fighting and lack of action."

If Bush nominates a moderate conservative, Democrats have some tricky decisions to make in crafting their response. But, given the enormous stakes, if the President choses another in-your-face nominee, it's clear Dems have little to lose in declaring their all-out opposition.

July 12, 2005

Did the London Bombings Increase Support for the Iraq War?

The lead to my post yesterday was: "As support for the Iraq war continues to ebb--and, no, I don't think reaction to the London bombing will much of an impact on that support....".

I swear I wrote those words before I saw the results of the latest Gallup poll. Here they are, showing no increase--in fact, a general decrease--in support for the Iraq war and Bush's foreign policy after the London bombings.

1. In the Gallup poll prior to the July 7 bombings, 46 percent said it was worth going to war in Iraq and 52 percent said it was not. In the new poll, conducted July 7-10, 44 percent say it was worth going to war, compared to 53 percent who say it wasn't.

2. In the pre-bombings Gallup poll, 44 percent said the war in Iraq has made the US safer from terrorism, while 39 percent said it has made us less safe. In the new poll, those figures have changed dramatically: 54 percent now say the war in Iraq has made us less safe, compared to just 40 percent who say it has made us safer. Most of this change appears to be attributable to people switching from the view that the war in Iraq has had no effect on the safety of the US to the view that the war has made us less safe.

In light of what just happened, one can see why these fence-sitters switched.

3. In the new poll, 52 percent say the war with Iraq has made the world less safe from terrorism, compared to 40 percent who say it's made the world safer (question not asked in pre-bombings Gallup poll, so no recent comparison available).

4. As for who's winning the war against terrorism, the view that the US and its allies are winning declined to 34 percent in the new poll, down 2 points from before the bombings, while the view that neither side is winning is up 3 points to 44 percent and the view the terrorists are winning is up a point to 21 percent.

5. Finally, those expressing a great deal of confidence in the Bush administration to protect US citizens from future acts of terrorism is unchanged at 23 percent from before the bombings. That 23 percent figure, however, is down from 38 percent in early February.

In short, it looks like the London bombings have simply deepened the political trouble the Bush administration faces from its Iraq policy and its increasingly vexed relationship to the overall war on terror.

How can Democrats take maximum advantage of that political trouble? I refer you to the excellent post below by Andrew Levison, who, I believe, has some very plausible suggestions.

Dealing with Iraq: What Recent Polls Suggest About Strategy for the Dems

By Andrew Levison

An extremely important new Gallup poll on Iraq (analyzed in a recent post by Ruy Teixeira) dramatically illustrates both the key problem and also the tremendous opportunity that now confronts the Democratic Party.

The problem Dems face on Iraq is that the public is divided into three roughly equal groups - one solidly anti-war, one solidly pro-war and a pivotal middle group with more nuanced and less easily pigeonholed views of the conflict. According to the Gallup poll, 36% of Americans believe that the war was a mistake and that we should set a timetable for withdrawal while 30% believe that we were right to send troops in the first place and that we must now keep them there as long as necessary.

These two groups - neither close to a majority - include many of the committed base supporters of the two political parties. The critical swing group of 28%, however, is comprised of people who believe either (1) that the initial decision to send troops was correct, but we should now set a timetable for withdrawal or (2) that the initial decision to send troops was a mistake but we are now nonetheless obligated to keep troops in the country until some kind of stability is achieved.

This poses an extremely difficult opinion climate for the Dems. They face a hard uphill struggle to formulate a clear, coherent message that can appeal to these distinctly ambiguous sentiments among the swing voters while at the same time not alienating those who are firmly opposed to the war. Attempts to rhetorically bridge the gap by combining different elements of these distinct positions - or by switching between them -- inevitably ends up appearing vague, confused and vacillating. What the Democrats need is one clear core message that firmly expresses most Democrats' basic disagreement with the Bush Administration's approach to Iraq but which is presented in a form and language that seems reasonable and convincing to the ambivalent middle group.

For an answer, the polls suggest that the Democrats should take page from the Republican's political playbook from 2004 and challenge Bush on the basic and fundamental issue of leadership. In the last election, Republicans did not debate John Kerry's specific criticisms of the Administration's policy in Iraq; instead they challenged his ability as a leader, caricaturing his behavior with pejorative adjectives like "flip-flopping" and "waffling".

Democrats should take a parallel approach with Bush - not out of spite, but for two more substantive reasons. First, because the key current problems America faces in Iraq stem directly from Bush's profound failures of leadership and second, because the public opinion polls clearly indicate that in recent weeks there has been nothing less then a massive collapse in public confidence in George W. Bush as a wartime national leader.

Recent surveys have consistently and repeatedly shown that solid majorities - ranging from 51% to 58% and 59% now feel that the war was "not worth it" or that we "should have stayed out" and similarly firm majorities of 55%-59% express direct disappointment and disapproval of how Bush himself has handled the conflict. In the last month majorities have agreed that America has become "bogged down" in Iraq, that the war was "a mistake", that it "has not increased U.S. security" and that Bush and his administration have "no clear plan" for ending it.

These results have been reconfirmed by a number of distinct surveys and survey questions. They indicate a genuinely stunning loss of confidence in George W. Bush as a leader. Even Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon's support during the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War declined relatively gradually in comparison with the sudden meltdown that has occurred in Bush's popular backing.

It is this rapid decline that explains the abrupt change in political strategy the Administration unveiled in Bush's June 29th speech. In it Bush energetically attempted to redefine the terms of the debate away from the failures of his leadership and over to the arguments against withdrawal from Iraq (where, as we have seen, public opinion is more ambiguous and evenly divided). At the same time, Karl Rove's semi-official addendum to the text of Bush's speech also attempted to shift the national argument - this time to lurid accusations that the Democrats were spineless cowards and cringing advocates of appeasement.

What both these tactical maneuvers reflect is Bush's strategists' frantic desire to change the subject and distract attention away from the discussion of Bush's personal failures as a leader. The Administration is desperately anxious to avoid having the debate conducted on this latter terrain.

But, in focusing attention on Bush's personal flaws and weaknesses, Dems must take care to formulate their criticisms with care because the strong majority of Americans who are deeply disillusioned with Bush's leadership are divided into two quite distinct groups or categories.

One group, which includes most of the core Democratic "base" voters, essentially perceives Bush as a calculating and cynical liar who deliberately manipulated America into a war that was not really vital to the struggle against terrorism. In a June 23-26 ABC/Washington Post poll, some 50% of the respondents agreed that Bush had "intentionally mislead the American people" in making his case for war. This represented a 9% increase from only 3 months before. A June 27-29th Zogby poll then also found that many of these people took this perception very seriously, a substantial 42% of Americans saying that they would favor the initiation of impeachment proceedings if it were proven that Bush had deliberately mislead the country.

The other group -- one which includes most of the "newly disillusioned" voters -- does not share this perception of Bush as a cynical liar. It does, however, indeed increasingly view him as a basically failed leader. The people in this category generally accept the mental framework expressed in Bush's speech - a vision of the "war on terror" as a kind of modern Pearl Harbor i.e. "A devious and relentless enemy launched a sneak attack on us and now we have to send our troops to far-off places to stop them before they attack us once again". But, at the same time, they feel very strongly that things are basically not going well.

If one were to interview a person from this group they would tend to say something like the following.

I think Bush honestly tried to do what he thought was best, and I also absolutely do believe that we have the right to go anywhere on earth and do anything we have to to stop another attack by terrorists on American soil.
But it's pretty darn clear that things have not gone the way President Bush and the people around him planned. We are basically stuck over there. They are still killing our boys and blowing things up and it looks like we don't have enough soldiers or even all the right kind of equipment to do the job.
Honestly, I'm worried. Sally's son Jim is over there and the way they just keep extending the tours, there's no telling how long it will be before he gets back. I don't know what the right answer is, but I know things aren't just going right and it really bothers me that nobody in charge wants to admit it.

At first glance it is difficult to see how the Democrats can simultaneously appeal to voters like the woman above and at the same time to people who view Bush as a cynical liar. But, in fact, both groups share one fundamental and profoundly important point of agreement. Democrats can speak to it as follows:

Many dedicated and patriotic Americans -- both Republicans and Democrats, in the Administration, The Pentagon, the State Dept and CIA -- men like General Shinseki, Colin Powell, Richard Clarke and many others -- accurately predicted many of the key problems we are now facing in Iraq. Yet all of them were dismissed or marginalized by Bush and his advisors. It is now clear that these individuals' warnings were entirely justified but Bush is just too stubborn, too arrogant and too proud to admit when he is wrong. So he and his advisors continue to ignore anyone who doesn't agree with everything they say.
This is a profound and fundamental flaw in Bush's character. It means that he is incapable of admitting his mistakes and making the changes that have to be made in order to make things better. Because of this, America needs to bring in a new set of leaders who are willing to start fresh and listen fairly and openly to all points of view. There is no other way we are going to get out of the mess in which Bush's stubbornness and refusal to listen to anyone who disagrees with him have placed us.

This is a simple, common sense statement of a case for a change of leadership that both democratic base voters and disillusioned Bush voters can easily accept and which the opinion data clearly indicate a solid majority of American voters can support. It is a view that can be accepted by Americans with a wide range of opinions regarding whether America should begin to withdraw troops from Iraq or continue to "stay the course".

It is because Bush's advisors know that he is, in fact, extremely vulnerable to attacks along these lines that they make such strenuous efforts to shift the discussion to almost any other topic. Democrats, in response, should make every effort to keep the focus relentlessly on Bush's profound character flaws and his consequent failures as a leader.

Dems should make the terms "stubborn", "arrogant" and "too proud to admit when he's wrong" as familiar to voters in 2006 as the terms "flip-flopping" and "waffling" were to voters in 2004. These phrases dramatically highlight the fundamental weaknesses in Bush's character and are the keys to his profound and increasingly visible inadequacy as a national leader in the struggle against terrorism.

July 11, 2005

Meanwhile, Back on the Economic Front

As support for the Iraq war continues to ebb--and, no, I don't think reaction to the London bombing will much of an impact on that support, except perhaps in the very short run--let's not forget how little support Bush has for what he's doing on the economic front.

A recent report by Gallup, "Bush's Economic Report Card Shows Little Progress", notes the following:

Americans remain concerned about the economy, as more say they expect it to get worse than get better, and Bush's economic approval rating stands at 41%, with 55% disapproving.

Gallup asks the public on a monthly basis if Bush's economic policies are "helping the economy, not having much effect, or hurting the economy." The trend line over the last five months shows consistently lackluster ratings. Slightly more than a third of Americans (36%) say Bush's economic policies are hurting the economy. This percentage has remained fairly steady, with a high point of 40% in April. A similar percentage of Americans (37%) say the president's policies are not having much of an effect. About one in every four Americans (24%), on the other hand, say the president's policymaking has helped the economy, and this percentage has hovered within a five-point range since February.

So only about a quarter of the public (and just 16 percent of self-identified moderates) believe Bush's economic policies are actually helping the country. That should make the economy another difficult issue for the Republican party in 2006. As Democracy Corps' report on their recent poll puts it:

Iraq will certainly be an issue, but do not underestimate the power of the economy. Structurally, this economy is not producing enough jobs to seriously tighten the labor market or enough income and benefits for people to feel they are making gains. When asked whether this is economy is doing well (creating jobs, rising incomes and home ownership and moving in the right direction) or not doing well (jobs scarce, incomes stagnant and benefits cut), a large majority (60 percent) are very clear that this economy is not performing for people.

Ah, but how to translate this economic dissatisfaction into the political coin of the realm, actual votes on election day? That's the difficult part and, in the last couple of elections, Democrats have had little success doing just that.

An easy answer is: new ideas on the economy. But, as Jonathan Chait usefully reminds us in his New Republic piece, "The Case Against New Ideas: Policies Aren't What Matters in Politics", Democrats don't lack for ideas, many of them fairly new, and, in fact, Democrats' ideas tend to more resemble real ideas (as opposed to slogans) and to be more carefully worked-out than those of their Republican opponents. Moreover, there is little evidence that voters actually pay much attention to detailed ideas, however new, about public policy.

So is there no ideas problem in the Democratic party? Depends on what you mean by "ideas", as Mark Schmitt points out in an excellent post on his Decembrist blog. It may be true that voters pay little attention to the details of policy ideas, but they do pay attention to what parties generally stand for and where, in general, they propose to take the country. And they do pay attention to the results of parties' policies once they are in office.

The Democrats could use new ideas, therefore, but:

1. Those ideas should sum up clearly and simply what the party stands for and where it proposes to take the country.

2. Those ideas should be few in number and easily reduced to a key principle or two that can be transmitted to voters--otherwise voters are unlikely to pay much attention.

3. Those ideas should actually work in practice, so that voters will see the benefits of having the party in office and reward it with additional electoral success.

If Democrats can produce ideas on the economy that meet these criteria, I think they have an excellent chance of capitalizing, both short-term and long-term, on voter dissatisfaction with Republican management of the economy.

Otherwise, not.

July 10, 2005

Americans Want Action on Global Warming

As was widely predicted, President Bush failed to provide leadership for significant action against global warming at the G-8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. This despite a new new PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll conducted 6/22-26 revealing that his policies on global warming lag way behind the wishes of the American people.

The poll found that 73 percent of Americans wanted the U.S. to participate the Bush-opposed Kyoto Agreement and 56 percent now agree that the U.S. should take steps "to reduce greenhouse gasses, even if it involves significant costs." The poll also found that 83 percent of respondents favored legislation requiring large companies to reduce greenhouse gasses. 50 percent of respondents wanted the U.S. government to do "as much as other countries" to reduce greenhouse gasses, and another 44 percent wanted the U.S. to do "more than other countries."

The poll indicated that overwhelming majorities supported GOP-blocked reforms such as tax incentives for companies to provide clean energy, requiring car companies to make hybrid autos half of production by 2010 and setting higher fuel efficiency standards, even if it makes cars more expensive. The poll revealed that awareness of the global warming problem increased modestly (9 percent over 2004), but 43 percent mistakenly believe that President Bush supports the Kyoto agreement.

Democracy Corps: Support for Bush, GOP Sink, But Dems Must Step Up

Democracy Corps new report, "The Democrats' Moment to Engage," brings more dismal news for the GOP --- and reason for Democrats to be cautiously optimistic. The Report, which includes results of a survey conducted 6/20-26, indicates that 56 percent of Americans think the country is "on the wrong track," the same percentage agreeing that the war in Iraq is "not worth it" and 55 percent of respondents want the country to go in "a different direction" than Bush's leadership is taking it. These percentages have been holding steady for Democracy Corps' last three surveys, and report authors Stan Greenberg and James Carville conclude "This is a country almost settled on the need for change."

The report also found that Democrats lead by 5 percent in a "hypothetical congressional contest" during the last three surveys. But the authors warn against overconfidence, because the GOP free fall is accompanied by "no rise in positive sentiment about the Democrats" and Democrats' positive ratings still lag 5 percent behind the Republicans.

Carville and Greenberg urge Dems to make "sharp choices to diferentiate" themselves from the Republicans. Democrats must become "the party of change" and "empower the middle class over the big corporate interests in Washington."

This and a host of other recent surveys (see below) strongly indicate that Americans want a clear change of direction. Job one for Dems is to show they can lead the way.

The Growth of Antiwar Sentiment

Antiwar sentiment is growing and deepening among the public, as violence in Iraq continues unabated and progress in ending the conflict becomes ever more difficult to perceive. A recent report by Gallup usefully summarize how public opinion in this area is evolving.

The report, “Americans Divide Into Four Groups on Iraq War”, partitions the public by combining the answers to two questions: (1) whether or not they think US made a “mistake in sending troops to Iraq”; and (2) whether the US should set a timetable for withdrawing its troops, and stick to it regardless of what is happening in Iraq.

Based on data from their June 24-26 poll, when both of these questions were asked, the public divides as follows. The largest group (36 percent) think both that the war was a mistake and that the US should set and stick to a timetable for withdrawing troops. Then, 14 percent believe the war was a mistake but think the US should keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the situation stabilizes, rather than set a timetable. An identical proportion believe the war was not a mistake, but believe we now should set a timetable to leave. Finally, 30 percent believe both that the war was not a mistake and that the US should not set a timetable for troop withdrawal. (Note that among independents, the solid antiwar group has now grown to 39 percent, with just 23 percent being solidly prowar.)

That the solid antiwar group is now the largest group is significant. And it will inevitably grow larger if present trends continue--that is, if sentiment that the Iraq war was a mistake continues to strengthen and public appetite for some kind of withdrawal timetable continues to escalate. Such trends will pull more and more people out of the two mixed groups into the unambiguously antiwar camp. Once that camp starts approaching half the population, the administration's position will become tenuous indeed.

On the other hand, the existence of the two mixed groups means Democrats cannot assume most of the public is currently antiwar in, say, the manner of the typical Democratic activist (the war was a colossal blunder and we need to get out of Iraq as soon as possible). That will take some time and, meanwhile, Democrats need to be sensitive to the conflicting views shared by a substantial part of public.

Caution is particularly advisable on the issue of withdrawing US troops and how fast this should be done. Chris Bowers of MyDD has helpfully rounded up the latest polling results on the withdrawal issue, so that the large variations in public sentiment for withdrawal, depending on how withdrawal is described, can be plainly seen:

Gallup Poll. June 29-30, 2005. N=883 adults nationwide. MoE ± 4. "If you had to choose, which do you think is better? For the U.S. to keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the situation there gets better, even if that takes many years. OR, To set a time-table for removing troops from Iraq and to stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq at the time." Options rotated

No timetable 48
Stick to timetable 49

ABC News/Washington Post Poll. June 23-26, 2005. N=1,004 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3 (for all adults). Fieldwork by TNS
"Do you think the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties; or do you think the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there?" Options rotated

Stay 58
Withdraw 41

Associated Press/Ipsos poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs. June 20-22, 2005. N=1,000 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.1.
"Should the United States keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, or should the United States bring its troops home from Iraq immediately?"

Stay in Iraq 59
Bring Home 37

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. June 8-12, 2005. N=1,464 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.
"Do you think the U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, or do you think the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible?"

Keep Troops 50
Bring Home 46

The Harris Poll. June 7-12, 2005. N=1,015 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.
"Do you favor keeping a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq until there is a stable government there OR bringing most of our troops home in the next year?"

Wait for Stable Govt 33
Bring Home in Next Year 63

The first question is the Gallup question already discussed, where a timetable for removing troops is counterposed to keeping a large numbers of troops in Iraq until things "get better". That meets with a split response, as does the Pew question which counterposes bringing troops home "as soon as possible" to keeping troops in Iraq until the situation stabilizes. No clear majority either way on these questions.

But when immediate withdrawal is thrown into the equation, as in the Ipsos-AP question, a strong majority forms against that option and for keeping trooping in Iraq. On the other hand, when a specific time period for withdrawal is mentioned (a year) and withdrawal is of "most", rather than all troops, a strong majority forms in favor of withdrawal and against indefinite maintenance of a large US troop presence.

This suggests Democrats will do best with an approach that steers away from immediate withdrawal, but highlights a specific timeline for partial, but not complete, withdrawal. Such an approach should be acceptable to the solid antiwar group discussed above, as well as providing a relatively unthreatening option for those in the mixed groups who are moving toward solid opposition to the war, but still harbor conflicting sentiments about it.

July 9, 2005

Shedding Light on Iraq Occupation

The London bombings underscore the urgency of improving homeland security in the U.S., a critical issue for Democrats to master in upcomming campaigns. But it's also important for Dems to get up to speed on what is really going on inside Iraq. Facing South, website of the Institute for Southern Studies, has a trio of articles that shed fresh light on U.S. policy in Iraq and ought to be of interest to Democratic strategists. Chris Kromm's "What Do the People of Iraq Want" reports on a U.S. government poll of Iraqis which found that:

45 percent of Iraqis support the insurgent attacks against coalition troops and a majority of Iraqis oppose having the U.S.-led multinational force in the country, and feel less safe with foreign troop patrols in their neighborhood.

In another article, "A Way Out of Iraq," Kromm reports on a proposal for a "negotiated withdrawall" from Iraq, a "win-win" policy option that merits thoughtful consideration by Democratic candidates and strategists. And, as long as you are there, you might as well check out Kromm's eye-opening piece "The Looting of Iraq," a devastating indictment of contractor corruption in Iraq, which summarizes a longer Guardian article Kromm calls "one of the most galling stories in the annals of U.S. foreign policy."

July 6, 2005

Sure, Hispanics Are Important, But You've Still Got to Do Most of Your Hunting Where Most of the Ducks Are

The Pew Hispanic Center has just released a very useful, data-rich report, "Hispanics and the 2004 Election: Population, Electorate and Voters". Among other things, the report concludes, as I have, that the 58-40 Kerry-Bush split among Hispanics in the combined state exit polls is much more plausible than the 53-44 split in the national exit poll. To support this view, they note that the demographics of the Hispanic voter sample in the combined state polls matches up well with the demographics of the 2004 Census Voter Supplement Hispanic sample. The demographics of the national exit poll Hispanic sample, on the other hand, match up rather poorly with the Census data. (For an explanation of what the Census Voter Supplement data is and why we should take its demographic information quite seriously, see my recent comments on the release of the 2004 Voter Supplement data.)

The report also notes that all of the shift toward Bush among Hispanics from 2000 to 2004 occurred among Protestants. Hispanic Catholics didn't waver in their Democratic loyalties.

The focus of the report, however, is not on partisan Hispanic voting patterns, but rather the Hispanic vote as a whole and how rapidly it is growing. Their answer, in brief, is: not as rapidly as you think, especially in comparison to the overall growth of the Hispanic population. Here are their key findings:

Between the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Hispanic population grew by 5.7 million, accounting for half of the increase in the U.S. population of 11.5 million.

Of those 5.7 million Hispanics added to the U.S. population between the last two presidential elections, 1.7 million persons or 30 percent were less than 18 years old and are thus not eligible to vote. Another 1.9 million or 33 percent of the people added to the Hispanic population between the two elections were adults not eligible to vote because they were not citizens.

As a result of these factors, only 39 percent of the Latino population was eligible to vote compared to 76 percent of whites and 65 percent of the black population.

Both the number of Latinos registered to vote (9.3 million) and the number of Latinos who cast ballots (7.6 million) in November 2004 marked increases of political participation over the 2000 election that were larger than for any other ethnic or racial group in percentage terms.

However, both registration and turnout rates for Latinos were lower than for whites or blacks. As a result, only 47 percent of eligible Hispanics went to the polls compared to 67 percent of whites and 60 percent of blacks. Differences in registration rates explain most of the gaps.

The combination of demographic factors and participation rates meant that only 18 percent of the Latino population voted in 2004 compared to 51 percent of whites and 39 percent of blacks.

In November 2004, Hispanics were 14.3 percent of the total population but only 6.0 percent of the votes cast. In the previous election, Hispanics were 12.8 percent of the population and 5.5 percent of the votes cast.

These interesting data serve to remind us of an important fact. While the Hispanic population is indeed growing fast, the Hispanic vote still lags far, far behind the white vote in terms of political importance and that is not going to change anytime soon. Therefore, even if the Hispanic vote turns back towards the Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, as I believe is likely, the Democrats will not make much progress without moving the white vote, particularly the white working class vote, away from the Republicans.

Indeed, it would greatly serve GOP interests for Democrats to focus their worries and energies on the Hispanic vote, while conceding GOP dominance over the white vote. That's still where most of the ducks are and where most of the Democratic hunting should be, if they hope to break the GOP hold on Congress and the Presidency.

July 5, 2005

Youth Say: Bad Bush, No Biscuit!

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR), in conjunction with internet survey firm Polimetrix, is conducting a "Youth Monitor" series of surveys of 18-25 year olds. The first survey in the series has just been released and it suggests that youth, as they showed in the 2004 election, are very much not with the Bush program.

According to the poll, youth give Bush a strongly net negative approval rating--42 percent approval,with 58 percent disapproval, for a -16 net. Even more tellingly, youth hold the following views: by 63-37, they feel the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost in US lives and dollars; by 65-33, they believe the Democrats, not the Republicans, do a better job representing the interests of young people; by 64-36, they think Bush and the Republicans "are going too far by invading peoples' personal lives and family decisions", rather than "are doing a good job in trying to uphold moral values and protecting families"; by 58-42, they believe we need to work harder at tolearting people who are different, particularly gays, rather than work harder at upholding traditional values and strong families; and, last but not least, by 57-43, they think that Bush has not made us safer from terrorist attack.

By these data, the Democrats should replicate their recent strong performance among young voters in 2006 and perhaps beyond.

'New Ideas' Over-rated as Key to Election Wins

In the current issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Chait blows away the cliche that the Republicans' success in politics derives from their superior "new ideas." Chait's article, "The Case against New Ideas" makes a compelling argument that (a.) the Dems have lots of 'new' (and good) ideas, certainly compared to the GOP and (b.) getting elected isn't so much about ideas anyway. As Chait explains:

To begin with, the plain fact is that liberals have plenty of new ideas. Troll websites of the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, or the Century Foundation, and you will find them teeming with six- and twelve-point plans for any problem you can imagine: securing loose nuclear weapons, reforming public education, promoting international trade, bolstering the military, and so on. They get churned out by the shelfful providing more material than any presidential administration could hope to enact...Liberals are brimming with ideas about reforming health care and taming the deficit. Conservatives have little to say about either of these problems.

Chait offers impressive examples of creative policy reforms offered by Democrats that never got much traction in the media. He argues that "the vast majority of the time, the press will simply ignore ideas put forth by the minority party." Chait points out that the Republican party is not exactly a treasure trove of new ideas (Quick, name the GOP's fresh ideas for addressing global warming or the health care crisis).

Chait shreds the notion that Bush's Social Security privatization scheme is a new idea and he notes that the Iraq war was not based on the 'new' idea of democracy-promotion, but the bogus threat of WMD's. And where, Chait asks are the GOP's new ideas about dealing with very real security concerns, like North Korea or Iran?

Chait's point is not just that the Dems have more and better ideas than the GOP; It is also that ideas rarely determine political outcomes. As Chait notes:

Alas, this sort of thinking assumes a wildly optimistic level of discernment by voters. Polls consistently show that large swaths of the voting public know very little about the positions taken by candidates. In 2000, the National Annenberg Election Survey found that just 57 percent of voters knew Al Gore was more liberal than Bush, 51 percent knew he was more supportive of gun control, and a mere 46 percent understood that he was more supportive of abortion rights. "The voting behavior literature, which is massive, shows that people are not particularly idea-driven," explains Berkeley political scientist Nelson Polsby. "They don't know what the fashions are, with respect to what ideas go with other ideas."

...A recent study in Science magazine was even more disturbing to those who believe in the power of ideas. Scientists showed the subjects pairs of photographs, which turned out to be matched candidates in Senate and House races. The subjects had to judge within one second which candidate looked more competent, on the basis of appearance alone. Their choice matched the candidate who won an astounding 71.6 percent of the time in Senate races. If you consider that a decent share of Senate races pit unknown, underfunded challengers against popular incumbents in highly partisan states, that is a remarkably high percentage. Faith in the discernment of the public is not based on proof, it's premised on, well, faith

Chait emphasizes that the myth of 'new ideas' as the decisive determinant of electoral victories has been bandied about as much by liberals, as by conservatives, and he quotes numerous sources to make his point. Well-articulated, fresh ideas can be an asset. But Democrats who want to win would do better to keep focused on projecting good character and credibility, supporting solid policies that address real concerns of working people and getting their message out to new voters, as well as their base.

July 4, 2005

Bush’s Speech Fails to Stop His Slide in the Polls

On June 28, Bush delivered a primetime speech intended to pump up support for the Iraq war and, just as important, pump up his sliding overall poll numbers, which have been hurt severely by by the continuing violence in Iraq.

It does not appear he succeeded. First, let’s review where Bush was before the speech to get a sense of just how the steep the hill was he needed to climb and then we’ll see how far he got up that hill. Here’s an excerpt from a USA Today story about a Gallup poll conducted on the eve of Bush’s speech:

Just one in three Americans now say the United States and its allies are winning the war, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday [June 24-26]. That is a new low, down 9 percentage points since February. Half say neither side is winning.....

By a record 61%-37%, those surveyed say the president doesn't have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq.

Bush's job-approval rating has suffered, too. His approval rating is 45%, equaling the lowest of his presidency. At 53%, his disapproval rating has reached a new high.....

....51% want a timetable set and followed for removing troops from Iraq regardless of the situation there. There is also growing skepticism about the president's core argument that the Iraq war is a crucial part of protecting Americans from terrorists:

• For the first time, a plurality of Americans, by 50%-47%, sees the war in Iraq as a separate action from the war on terrorism.

• By 46%-43%, a plurality says the war in Iraq has made the U.S. less safe from terrorism.

By 53%-46%, Americans say the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. That's the highest level of discontent since the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandals last summer....

Quite a hill to climb! And that’s just the Iraq issue. The same poll shows his approval rating on the economy at 41 percent approval/55 percent disapproval; on energy policy at 36/53; on health care policy at 34/59 (his lowest ever); and on Social Security at 31/64 (also his lowest Gallup rating ever). Even his rating on handling terrorism is mired in the mid-50s (currently it is 55 percent).

The Social Security data in the poll are particularly unfavorable for the administration. As the lead from the Gallup report on these data puts it:

The news for President George W. Bush on Social Security is not good. His approval ratings on Social Security are the worst they have been all year, and more Americans have faith in the Democrats than in the Republicans to deal with the issue. A majority of Americans continue to oppose private investment accounts -- Bush's core idea for addressing the Social Security system. And while a majority of Americans acknowledge Bush has proposed a Social Security plan, fewer describe it as a clear plan.

The latest ABC Mews/Washington Post poll, also released right before Bush's speech, underscored the depth of the challenge he faces on the Iraq issue. The ABC News report on the poll notes:

....Recriminations against his administration have jumped, with a majority for the first time saying it "intentionally misled" the public in going to war, and nearly three-quarters saying it underestimated the challenges involved.

A record 57 percent also now say the administration intentionally exaggerated its evidence that pre-war Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Views such as these cut to the administration's basic credibility and competence, vital commodities as Bush tries to turn public opinion in a more favorable direction.

The report further notes some very interesting information about Bush's overall approval rating:

Bush's overall position isn't enviable. Not only do 51 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance, a record 40 percent disapprove "strongly" (compared with 27 percent who strongly approve). That exceeds career-high strong disapproval for his two immediate predecessors, President Clinton (33 percent strongly disapproved in fall 1994, shortly before his party lost control of Congress) and Bush's father (34 percent in summer 1992, shortly before he lost re-election) (emphasis added).

In light of these data, given that Bush chose to give a speech that simply re-iterated standard administration rationales for the Iraq occupation, did not address credibility issues and steadfastly refused to provide any specifics about how and when the administration would successfully conclude the occupation, it's hardly surprising that Bush failed to move the public opinion needle much in his favor.

Even a Gallup flash poll of actual speech-watchers, who were heavily Republican (a 27 point Republican lead in party ID!), showed only modestly positive movement in Bush's direction on the war. And among the general public, there was very little movement at all. Gallup report on their post-speech national poll of adults observes:

In his speech, the president presented his arguments for staying the course in Iraq, saying it was essential for U.S. security. But the poll suggests that he changed few people's minds on the issue. Some of the questions showed slightly more positive views of the war, but the differences between the public's views now and what Gallup measured on the weekend before Bush's speech are small and within the polls' margins of error.

Bush's overall approval rating barely budged either: it climbed all the way from 45 percent to 46 percent in the Gallup poll. And a Zogby poll conducted around the same time found Bush's approval rating dropping to 43 percent from 44 percent before the speech.

After the speech, the Washington Post carried an interesting article by Peter Baker and Dan Balz about the administration's apparent public opinion strategy. According to Baker and Balz, the administration has decided, buttressed by the academic work of two political scientists serving as advisors, Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi of Duke University, that the key thing is to shore up public confidence in winning, because that prospective belief is most important to maintaining support for the war effort.

Supposedly that's what the government did wrong during the Vietnam War--started showing doubt that the US could actually win the war. The Bush administration apparently believes that simply by being resolute and uncompromising and betraying not the slightest scintilla of doubt about the war, past, present and future, that it can keep up public support and successfully bring the war to a conclusion.

Well, maybe. But even if it's true that public confidence in a war's winnability is key, it doesn't follow that simply insisting that the war is winnable and being won will convince the public that's so, in the face of actual facts on the ground that appear to contradict that assertion. That may be what the Bush administration wants to believe, but believing it doesn't make it true.

Moreover, if you read Feaver's and Gelpi's work a bit more carefully, it becomes clear that the Bush administration is deriving more comfort from their work than they should. Here's their basic thesis from their paper, "Iraq the Vote: Retrospective and Prospective Foreign Policy Judgments, Candidate Choice, and Casualty Tolerance."

We show that prospective judgments of the likelihood of success in Iraq and retrospective judgments of whether the war in Iraq was right are significant determinants of both vote choice and casualty tolerance. The prospective judgment of success is key in predicting casualty tolerance, while retrospective judgment of whether the war was right takes precedence in determining vote choice.(emphasis added).

In plain English, that means that, leaving aside the question of supporting the ongoing war effort, if people conclude the war was wrong and a bad idea to begin with, they want to vote against the party behind the war. What are people concluding right now? That the war was wrong and a bad idea. Uh-oh! Someone better call Karl Rove and let him in on the bad news.

July 3, 2005

Economic Interests and the Democratic Party: A Reply

By Alan Abramowitz

The problem with the Rose argument is that it is based on the assumption that it is primarily if not exclusively the disadvantaged who benefit from Democratic economic policies. But this assumption is patently false. In the first place, the Democratic Party has long championed government programs that benefit the middle class such as Social Security and Medicare. But even more fundamentally, the vast majority of Americans, probably all except the very, very wealthy, benefit from Democratic economic policies. This can be seen by comparing the performance of the economy under Democratic and Republican presidents over the past 60+ years. By almost every conceivable economic measure--real GDP growth, unemployment, real disposable income, and even the performance of the stock market--the economy does better, in fact substantially better, under Democratic leadership than under Republican leadership (for some evidence along these lines, see Michael Kinsley's excellent column on this subject). And this remains true even if you correct for the delayed effect of economic policies by subtracting the performance of the economy during the first year of a new administration.

The facts demonstrate that the vast majority of Americans are better off when Democrats are in power than when Republicans are in power. The major problem that Democrats fact today is driving this point home as forcefully as possible--something that both Al Gore and John Kerry unfortunately failed to do.

July 1, 2005

Economic Interests and the Democratic Party

Now, if we could just get people to vote their economic interests, rather than cultural convictions, all our problems would be solved. That's an article of faith among many Democrats. According to Stephen Rose, an innovative economist whose work is always worth paying close attention to, that's not a warranted assumption. In reality, the relationship between economic interests and inclination to vote Democratic, even when you take cultural and values issues out of the equation, is far more complicated than many on the center-left are willing to admit. As Rose puts it in the introduction of his new paper, "Talking about Social Class: Are the Economic Interests of the Majority of Americans with the Democratic Party?":

In all [the post-election] discussion, it is tacitly assumed that the majority of people have a natural home in the non-Republican party. The failure of the Democrats to capitalize on this advantage is explained in several ways. First, they are accused of having sold their souls in order to attract campaign contributions. Second, the press is biased and does not report the true effect of Republican policies. Third, the inside-the-Beltway mentality of Democratic campaign consultants has blinded them to obvious appeal of a populist approach.

Perhaps, we need to consider the alternative that the majority of people do not have basic economic interests to vote Democratic. While there have been many presentations on how people vote by education, income, and occupation, few have made careful arguments about what each division means in terms of tying interests to politics. For example, some have defined those without a four-year college degree as being working class and presumably with interests to support Democrats. To date, the discussion about defining economic interests is similar to the one defining pornography—hard to put into words but you know it when you see it. With respect to pornography, the courts have turned to community standards in deciding specific cases. We need to do at least as much in defining interests in order to make good strategic decisions.

It is an occupational hazard of those with big hearts to overestimate the share of the population that is economically distressed. In their desire to generate public attention and support to expand public policies, they argue that the system is “broken” and needs repair (e.g., candidate Edwards’ speeches about the two Americas). But, it makes a big difference whether the share of the population in need is 15, 35, or 50 percent. If it is at the high end of the range, then one would expect lots of pressure from below to meet their needs. But if it is at the low end of the range, then poor people will need allies among those who think it is morally right to take care of others in need.

Rose poses the issue sharply and, to his credit, does not flinch from the implications of the data he presents in his paper. He summarizes his conclusions thusly:

This article has been directed at looking at economic interests, trying to define them and trying to estimate the share of the population with economic interests aligned with the Democrats. If the number is as small as is indicated here, then one can’t argue that the majority have a natural home in the Democrat Party. Once this premise is dropped, another series of propositions lose much of their cogency:

* People are ill-informed;
* The media has obfuscated the truth;
* Politicians are willing to lose votes in order to satisfy their donors; and
* Political consultants (only Democratic ones) have led candidates to take losing positions.

Abandoning these premises would actually be very good for liberals. Many of them are arrogant, off-putting sentiments that have been successfully ridiculed by conservatives for their elitism. In addition, these easy answers inhibit creative analyses and the search for policies that will be support by the majority of the population. Without the crutch that the majority starts out on our side, we will be forced to face hard choices....

Liberals have a dilemma that no amount of parsing is going to help them avoid. Rightly, they are associated with public policies that support those that are less well-off, those that have faced discrimination, and those who feel the current system needs to be changed. While this is admirable, it has had the unexpected consequence of making the party seem a group of interest groups.

Liberals have relied on its identification with the “little guy” to be a unifying force based on a common self-interest. The data that are presented in this article would suggest that the number of people that directly benefit from activist state welfare policies is less than one quarter of the population. Other sectors of the population (e.g, college educated and young) have sympathies for redistributive and other progressive policies on the basis of moral values. But the support of many of these people for Democrats is not strong, and they can be swayed by fiscal and security concerns as well as various social issues. This is particularly true in light of the Republican’s four decade ideological assault on big government (‘wastes your money’), individualism (‘keep your money’), and covert racism (‘even if you want to help the poor in general, you don’t want to help welfare cheats of color’)....

In western European countries, social democratic parties are rooted in 100 years of activism and have a reservoir of support. The positive feelings towards the FDR Democratic Party are much weaker, and this is going to have to change if American liberalism is going to gain strength. It will not be an easy road and will need some very talented politicians to articulate a vision that resonates widely. It will also require some painful compromises that will alienate powerful constituencies. But we will not know how to make these arguments and compromises if we begin thinking the majority is already on our side.

A provocative conclusion indeed! I urge you to read and digest Rose's argument in full. I think it's highly unlikely that you will agree with everything Rose says, but I guarantee that it will make you think. And that's a good thing.