Friday :: Apr 25, 2008

The 48 Half-State Strategy


by eriposte

After the Obama campaign criticized the Clinton campaign for de-emphasizing some of the caucuses in red states where Democrats have not won in a long time and after they themselves de-emphasized Florida and Michigan (two important swing states that Democrats can and should win), I have to say that this comment from the Obama campaign's chief strategist David Axelrod was rather amusing (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

The white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections, going back even to the Clinton years. This is not new that Democratic candidates don’t rely solely on those votes.

There's a part of Axelrod's statement that is true. As John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira pointed out in The American Prospect (April 2006) (h/t linfar):

The key weakness of the progressive coalition can be summarized easily: very weak support among white working class voters (defined here as whites without a four-year college degree). These voters, who are overwhelmingly of moderate to low income and, by definition, of modest credentials, should see their aspirations linked tightly to the political fate of the progressive movement. But they don't.

Data from the last two presidential elections vividly demonstrate this problem and underscore its significance for progressives. In 2000, Al Gore lost white working-class voters by 17 percentage points; in 2004, John Kerry lost them by 23 points, a swing of 6 points against the Democrats. In contrast, Gore lost college-educated whites by 9 points and Kerry lost them by 10 points -- not much change. 1

Let me pause there for a second and say this very slowly to some people. It wasn't racism that led white working class voters to pick George Bush overwhelmingly over Vice President Al Gore or Sen. John Kerry.

OK, back to Halpin/Teixeira:

Almost all of the white working-class movement toward Bush [from 2000 to 2004] was among women rather than men. Bush won white working-class men by almost identical margins in the two elections (by 29 points in 2000 and by 30 points in 2004). But he substantially widened his margin among white working-class women, going from a 7-point edge in 2000 to an 18-point lead in 2004. That 11-point swing against the Democrats among white working-class women was arguably the most important single fact about the 2004 election.

Of course, it's worth noting that white working class women are coming out in droves for Sen. Clinton. But I digress. Here's what Axelrod failed to mention:

But is it really feasible for progressives to significantly improve their performance among white working-class voters? That would appear to depend on the extent to which they can they can clarify their views and principles to these voters and begin earning their trust again. Right now, the Democrats are 23 points down to the Republicans among these voters on knowing what they stand for. 3 Narrowing that gap is key to improving performance among this critical group.

And there is a lot of room for that improved performance. Keep in mind that Bill Clinton actually carried white working-class voters in both his successful presidential campaigns (by a single percentage point in both instances). 4

Now, I can understand why the Obama campaign wants to minimize the importance of the white working class vote. What gets me is that, yet again, they used the opportunity to falsely portray the Clinton legacy ("The white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections, going back even to the Clinton years") - something that has been a defining characteristic of their campaign. When you view this in combination with the nature of the negative attacks against Sen. Clinton by Sen. Obama and his campaign, it's hard not to conclude that their talking-points (memos included) have just been mainstreamed versions of the fact-free rantings of Clinton-haters in certain allegedly "progressive" websites - which goes a long way in explaining the somewhat unnatural affinity of the latter for the former.

Let's go back to Halpin and Teixeira to call out another salient point:

Progressives' difficulties here are underscored by the large size of this group. According to the 2004 Current Population Survey (CPS) Voter Supplement data, white working-class voters are a larger portion of the electorate than indicated by the exit polls -- 52 percent, rather than 43 percent. Based on educational attainment trends and population trends by race, a reasonable guess is that the size of the white working class in another 10 years, even though it is shrinking, will still be around 46 percent to 47 percent -- a very large group among which to be doing very poorly. 2

Let's say that in a different way. If we de-emphasize roughly 50% of the electorate in the 50 48 states, either by writing them off or stereotyping them as racists, that leaves us roughly with 48 half-states. This is particularly noteworthy considering the goal of the Obama campaign is was to win much more than 50% + 1 of the electorate. So, in honor of this strategy and some Obama supporters who can't seem to lose any opportunity to stereotype working class whites as racist Bubbas, I am going to refer to this as the 48 Half-State StrategyTM.

Axelrod's comment is also a perfect illustration of how history repeats itself. As I discussed in one of my earlier posts:

Once [FDR] became Governor:

Roosevelt's interest in agriculture was also of long standing, a natural product of his avocation of gentleman  farmer at Hyde Park and Warm Springs. Whereas Al Smith had written off New York's farmers as inherently Republican ("I never made any impression on any considerable number of them." [31]), FDR made farm relief the centerpiece of his legislative program....Not only did Roosevelt's interest revitalize the Democratic party upstate, it also helped him balance between the urban and rural wings of the party at the national level. [33] [page 238]

This is not very different from the approach that President Bill Clinton took in the 1990s and Sen. Clinton has taken - both in her NY Senate race - and in her Presidential campaign. While she has been rightly criticized for not competing effectively in the February caucuses, there is no mistaking the fact that Sen. Obama's victories in the majority of the states has been most often facilitated by higher turnout amongst the traditional Democratic vote in the cities (including in the red state caucuses), African Americans (especially in Southern red states) and the youth vote, along with some Republican and independent votes. Sen. Clinton on the other hand has done reasonably well with the traditional Democratic vote, especially in the largest states, but she has also been very successful in tapping into the working class and rural vote (particularly the female and Hispanic vote) that was won by her husband in the 1990s.

If you read the Halpin/Teixeira article you will notice one more thing, which lies at the heart of the Clintons' ability to connect with many of these working class voters:

But is it really feasible for progressives to significantly improve their performance among white working-class voters? That would appear to depend on the extent to which they can they can clarify their views and principles to these voters and begin earning their trust again. Right now, the Democrats are 23 points down to the Republicans among these voters on knowing what they stand for. 3 Narrowing that gap is key to improving performance among this critical group.

And there is a lot of room for that improved performance. Keep in mind that Bill Clinton actually carried white working-class voters in both his successful presidential campaigns (by a single percentage point in both instances). 4

As I said earlier:

There is a broader lesson here. As Lambert (Corrente) said:

Funny how Hillary’s going around giving detailed and wonky bullet points on policy to supposedly low information voters—and though our famously free press yawns, the crowds eat it up with a spoon.

Meanwhile, our supposedly high information voters, exemplified by the “creative class” [cough] types, have all gone gaga for the Unity Pony.

’Tis a puzzlement!

Tell me again who the people are who really care about politics, how government works, and the way the country is going might be.

It's not just the traditional press that yawns at Hillary's issue-based campaign theme as opposed to the campaign theme of um, hope, change, unity of her opponent. Some Obama supporters also have disdain for Sen. Clinton's approach because they simply think back to the Bush era and assume that many (working class) voters don't care that much about the issues. This is a bad assumption. These voters care about the issues but they also care about the credibility of the candidate in their eyes. It's not an either/or. An issue-based campaign did not help John Kerry in 2004 and Al Smith in 1928. However, it helped Bill Clinton in the 1990s and FDR in 1928 (and beyond). So far, it's helping Sen. Clinton with working class voters because they also like her as a candidate even if they may have some misgivings about her.

Let me also quote Paul Krugman in the NYT today:

Let me offer an alternative suggestion: maybe his transformational campaign isn’t winning over working-class voters because transformation isn’t what they’re looking for.

From the beginning, I wondered what Mr. Obama’s soaring rhetoric, his talk of a new politics and declarations that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” (waiting for to do what, exactly?) would mean to families troubled by lagging wages, insecure jobs and fear of losing health coverage. The answer, from Ohio and Pennsylvania, seems pretty clear: not much. Mrs. Clinton has been able to stay in the race, against heavy odds, largely because her no-nonsense style, her obvious interest in the wonkish details of policy, resonate with many voters in a way that Mr. Obama’s eloquence does not.

Yes, I know that there are lots of policy proposals on the Obama campaign’s Web site. But addressing the real concerns of working Americans isn’t the campaign’s central theme.

Tellingly, the Obama campaign has put far more energy into attacking Mrs. Clinton’s health care proposals than it has into promoting the idea of universal coverage.

During the closing days of the Pennsylvania primary fight, the Obama campaign ran a TV ad repeating the dishonest charge that the Clinton plan would force people to buy health insurance they can’t afford. It was as negative as any ad that Mrs. Clinton has run — but perhaps more important, it was fear-mongering aimed at people who don’t think they need insurance, rather than reassurance for families who are trying to get coverage or are afraid of losing it.

No wonder, then, that older Democrats continue to favor Mrs. Clinton.

Back to Halpin and Teixeira:

White Catholics

There are several other important characteristics of white voters that intersect the white working-class category -- either reinforcing or mitigating Democrats' basic problem with those voters -- but are worth considering independently. One such characteristic is Catholicism. White Catholics have historically been a relatively good group for progressives among white voters but have also been quite volatile. Here are the margins among white Catholic voters in the past five presidential elections:

1988: plus-14 Republican

1992: plus-5 Democratic

1996: plus-7 Democratic

2000: plus-7 Republican

2004: plus-13 Republican

As the data show, that volatility has lately sent them away from the Democrats and toward the GOP. That has been a development of real consequence, since they are most certainly a large enough group (21 percent of voters in the 2004 election) to have a serious impact on election outcomes. 5

Yet, as a March 2005 Democracy Corps survey report on white Catholics pointed out, white Catholic voters are considerably more Democratic than other white voters and more moderate on a whole range of issues, including tolerance on homosexuality and openness to stem-cell research. 6 So what explains their surge away from the Democrats? Part of the reason lies in the fact that, according to that survey, the GOP had a 33 point advantage among this group on “know what they stand for.” (In January 2006 Democracy Corps polling, the GOP advantage was still a very healthy 26 points). Moreover, the top reason cited by white Catholics on why Kerry lost the 2004 election wasnot clear on what he stood for” (48 percent selected this reason as one of the two top reasons Kerry lost, twice as many as selected “permissive views on issues like abortion and gay marriage” as one of the reasons).

White Married Women

The “marriage gap” -- where married voters lean toward the GOP and single voters toward the Democrats -- is famously an important part of today's political landscape. A particular problem for progressives lies among a subset of married voters, white married women. Specifically, married white working-class women (62 percent of white working-class women) gave Bush a 15-point margin in 2000 and more than doubled that margin, to 31 points, in 2004. These women are responsible for most of the shift toward Bush among white working-class women, which, as mentioned above, was probably the key electoral shift against the Democrats in the 2004 election. 7

The reasons for the shift track pretty closely with the data cited above on white working-class women in general: these married women trusted Bush not only on security issues but also on handling the economy. The failure of Democrats to convince these women that their families' aspirations for economic advancement would be best served by a progressive agenda indicates a serious weakness -- as does the continued failure to convince these voters progressives know what they stand for.

I don't need to remind readers that Sen. Clinton has been doing very well with white Catholics and married women. This is another way of saying that when I hear unceremonious b******* that it is only Sen. Obama who is "widening" the field of voters who will vote Democratic and not Sen. Clinton, I just know that we don't need Fox News anymore.

P.S. Also read Jerome Armstrong's post at MyDD where he discusses John Judis' recent TNR article about Sen. Obama ("The Next McGovern?") and Clinton-hater Jonathan Chait's response to that article.

eriposte :: 5:59 AM :: Comments (40) :: Digg It!