Lessons From The 2008 Election

January 20th, 2009 at 11:56 am | 6 Comments |

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Before the election season began, the Democrats were expected to get something like 53% of the presidential vote this year and 55% of the congressional vote, giving them unified control of the federal government with a party that is ideologically unified around a liberal core.  And this is indeed what happened.

Beyond waiting for the pendulum to swing back, what should conservatives do?  And what do the voters really want?

The 2002 and 2004 elections were followed by a lot of soul-searching among Democrats, with some arguing that they needed to move back to the centrist triangulation strategy adapted by Bill Clinton after the success of the Gingrich-led 1994 revolution, some arguing for a more full-throated liberal message, and some taking comfort in attributing their defeats at the congressional and presidential level to transient factors such as Tom DeLay’s Texas redistricting, George Bush’s focusing on the war on terror, and Karl Rove’s narrowcasting appeals to socially conservative voters.

In the event, the Democrats were rescued in 2006 and 2008 by an unpopular war and a weak economy, and they were able to regain Congress and then the Presidency without moving much to the left or the right.

It is now conservatives’ turn to agonize.  Is Colin Powell correct that the Republican Party has moved too far to the right and no longer represents the average voter, or would it make more sense to listen to economists such as Bruce Bartlett who trace the Republicans’ decline to an abandonment of small-government conservatism?  Or was 2008 just a bad yearÑmaybe Republicans should bide their time and play to their traditional strengths of conservative values in taxes, social issues, and national security.

 

Beyond issues of political tactics and the strengths of particular politicians, the answers to these questions depend on voters’ attitudes:  where Americans stand on the issues compared to the positions of the two parties, and how political polarization fits into this story.  Who is voting for the Democrats and who is voting for the Republicans?

On the day of his retirement from Congress, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said, “The common lament over the recent rise in political partisanship is often nothing more than a veiled complaint instead about the recent rise of political conservatism.”  There was a lot of truth to that statement, and Republicans shouldn’t forget it now that they are on the other side of the 50% mark.  Americans would be poorly served by two identical parties in the middle of the political spectrum:  the Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right provide voters with a clear choice that allows for mandates, policy innovations, and the occasional move to throw the bums out.  But, just as the Democrats did themselves no favors by convincing themselves that what the voters really wanted was 200-proof (or even 100-proof) liberalism, conservatives seeking to fight after 2008 and bounce back in 2010 or 2012 would do well to recognize the complexity of Americans’ views.  By saying this, I’m not recommending that the Republican Party prepare a smorgasboard of policy positions that would make every special interest happy, but I am suggesting a realistic understanding of where Democrats and Republicans currently stand and where their supporters are in different parts of the country.

Here are some lessons for conservatives that can be drawn from election returns and surveys:

Don’t be so sure that Joe Sixpack and Waitress Mom are on your side.  The myth of rich Democrats and poor Republicans is sustained in part by the electoral map, which shows–for real–that Democrats are now winning in the rich states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut.  But winning rich states is not the same as winning rich voters.  You might have heard about yuppie Starbucks Democrats and working-class Wal-Mart Republicans.  But, in reality, Republicans have consistently done better among the rich than the poorÑa difference of about 20 percentage points that was as high in 2004 as it was during the 1970s and 1980s, and in fact higher than in the consensus-politics days of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.  The 2008 election was only slightly different, with Barack Obama doing extremely well among the lowest-income voters (many of whom are ethnic minorities) and breaking even among the upper middle class.

Thus, Republicans cannot count on the working-class vote by any means.  And socially conservative policies won’t do the trick here either.  True, in 2004, looking just at voters with lower incomes, George W. Bush did 10% better among frequent churchgoers than seculars.  But among the upper income categories, this “God gap” was over 30%.  We don’t have the religion/income breakdown yet from the recent polls, but the data we do see suggest a similar pattern for 2008.

It appears that poorer voters don’t have the luxury of choosing candidates based on social issues.  For example, Latinos are more conservative than whites on abortion, but, when surveyed, very few Latinos say that abortion is an important issue in their voting, and, by and large, they’ve been staying with the Democrats.  On the other hand, the religious vote has helped Republicans retain the allegiance of higher-income Americans in socially conservative areas.

Resist the siren song of ideological purity.  It sounds pretty silly when liberals rail against the Democratic Party for being insufficiently liberal, as if a hard-left agenda of income redistribution, government intervention, and military retreat would somehow capture the majority of Americans’ votes.  But there’s a reverse illusion from the conservative side:  like it or not, most people aren’t looking to drown government in a bathtub and they’re also mostly skeptical about military commitments overseas.

Survey data show the average American to fall between the Democratic and Republican parties, both in economics and social policy.  If you make a graph of the ideological positions of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right, you see two widely separated humps with almost nobody in the middle.  Then when you add the voters to the picture (using survey data in which voters are asked their opinions on a number of issues that Congress had voted on), you find the vast majority of Americans to be between the two parties.  This does not mean that the Republicans (or, for that matter, the Democrats) should move all the way to the centerÑpolicies matter, after all. But it makes me skeptical of any claim that the Republicans lost because they were insufficiently conservative.

Pick your battles.  Most voters are not ideologically consistent in the way that Democrats and Republicans are in Congress.  One message from this is that centrist positions will be compatible with more voters.  Another message is that it is should be possible to focus your policies in the directions that are more appealing to the electorate.

For example, consider gay rights.  In surveys, 72% of Americans support laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. An even greater number answer yes when asked, “Do you think homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?”  This consensus is remarkably widespread:  in all states a majority support antidiscrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians, and in all but 10 states this support is 70% or higher.

What is the message here?  Opposing the Employee Nondiscrimination Act might seem like the perfect move for the Republican Party, unifying traditional-values social conservatives with anti-government libertarians.  Actually, though, this would go strongly against public opinion in red states as well as blue states.

For another example of the complexity of public opinion, consider Americans’ views of corporations.  Nearly two-thirds of respondents say corporate profits are too high, but, according to surveys by the Pew Foundation, “more than seven in ten agree that ‘the strength of this country today is mostly based on the success of American business’Ñan opinion that has changed very little over the past 20 years.”  And people like individual corporations, with 95% having a favorable view of Johnson and Johnson (among those willing to give a rating), 94% liking Google, 91% liking Microsoft, and 78% liking Citibank.  Republicans tend to like corporations, with little difference between the views of professional-class and working-class Republicans. For Democrats, though, there’s a big gap, with professionals having a generally more negative view, compared to the working class.

On the other hand, Democrats and Republicans were both concerned about business collecting personal informationÑand, for both parties, this was more of a concern than this information being collected by government.  Again, voters think better of individual businessesÑeven big corporationsÑthan of business in general.

Social issues motivate the rich more than the poor.   Voters are polarized in different ways.  The contrast between Barack Obama of Chicago and John McCain of Arizona drew attention to the cultural battles between urban centers and the rest of the country.  But fundamental economic divisions remain as well, separating Americans by income, by industry, and by whether they work in the private or public sectorsÑdivisions that are ultimately connected to the policies the two parties support.

Pundits often say that the rich vote based on economics, while the poor vote “God, guns, and gays.”  The reality is that among low-income voters, there is only a small difference between how churchgoers and non-churchgoers vote, whereas among the upper middle class and rich, Republicans have a big advantage among churchgoers.

We’ve been hearing for a while about the cultural divide between Wal-Mart Republicans and Starbucks Democrats.  A more accurate description of voters distinguishes more subtly between rich and poor.  Among upper-middle-class and rich voters, rich states go Democratic while poor states go Republican.  But among lower-income voters, rich and poor states do not vote differently.  The differences between “red states” and “blue states” are real, but these differences occur among voters in the upper half of income.  As you become more prosperous you can afford to be concerned about non-economic issues.  This holds for individuals and also for states:  richer voters in rich states such as Connecticut are much less likely to vote Republican than you would expect based on their income alone.  The prospects for future success of conservative economic and social messages will rely on understanding that voters have strong views about the two parties and about individual issues but are largely non-ideological when looking at multiple issues.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of political science and statistics at Columbia University and the lead author of the recent book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State:  Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

Recent Posts by Andrew Gelman



6 Comments so far ↓

  • empirical

    Andrew,

    What does your research indicate are the common non-ideological issues, that may link a majority of Republicans and centrist Democrats together for the upcoming congressional elections? Are these issues subject to rapid change, within the parameters of an growing or declining economy, personal fortune or misfortune, or are they in part, generational, based on educational, cultural and social differences and influences?

  • ConservativeMovement

    This is the same crap only a professor could write and it is killing the Republican Party. Conservatism is “what works” and the problem is that the RP could not formulate a winning argument if it tried – lawyers dont do marketing. Business stopped using focus groups ten years ago the way politics does for the very reason now in evidence – you do not let focus groups tell you what business to be in. The RP is not losing because they defend morality, they are losing because the media chased them from the stage like cowards – eight years of demonizing President Bush, eight years of trashing President Reagan – a 16 year trashing without ever firing a shot – what do you think a focus group is going to tell you? Anyone notice the RP has not won squat since Dick Morris starting helping? Anyone notice the Dems completely skated on the subprime debacle? We at the actual Conservative Movement (we own the trademarks) are proving every day that about all it takes to win is show up against the Party of OZ. It is that simple.

  • sinz54

    “ConservativeMovement”:

    You say that “conservatism works.” But just what is conservatism?

    Aren’t Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan conservatives? Both of them support protectionism, not free trade.

    Mike Huckabee is certainly a social conservative. But do you think the American public would have voted for a self-styled “Christian leader,” if he had been nominated by the GOP?

    And has the American public ever voted for smaller government? They voted for Reagan in 1980 to fix the economy and restore America’s standing in the world.

    They voted for the Contract with America in 1994 because it talked about REFORMING government, not “shrinking it down to fit in the bathtub.”

    They voted for Bush in 2000 because he said he was a “compassionate conservative.”

    So has “smaller government” EVER been a winning message for conservatives? What election(s) were won that way?

  • petty boozshwa

    Republicans today are viewed by far too many as the new nameplate put on the Dixiecrat Party, and their pro-life Copperhead allies in the North and West. McCain probably would have had a better chance of becoming President if he and Lieberman had run on an internet-based Unity Ticket right up the middle, opposing Obama and Romney as a real change agent. I don’t see how the Republicans can come back outside the South with our current disconnect from most voter’s center of gravity, maybe we need to support independents on fusion tickets for awhile and wait for the Democrats to overreach.

  • Neo

    Aside from now-departed President Bush, I doubt most people could identify any national level Republican, save possibly John McCain.

    House and Senate Republicans are invisible. So invisible, in fact, that most Americans still thought they were still running the Congress this past election.
    Granted, the press won’t help in this regard, but Republicans have to find something that they can stand together on (and not just to be negative) and then make themselves visible by holding fast and hard.
    It’s like they have embraced the failed campaign strategy of John Kerry, who stood for .. whatever was blowing in the wind, then decided to go local .. and hide from the national press.

  • Neo

    If you really want to look for motives or strategies to explain the Iraq “adventure”, I suggest you consider the idea that Iraq was a weeping wound on American foreign policy. Bush et al decided that instead of doing a rerun of the Soviet failure in Afghanistan, that they would make a statement in Iraq instead, by completing the Gulf War, that was in suspension, using the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 as the defining centerpiece.
    While this is only conjecture, it makes a lot more sense then the meme so often offered up by the progressive cascade.

Lessons From The 2008 Election

January 14th, 2009 at 6:55 am | No Comments |

| Print

Lessons from the 2008 election
Andrew Gelman

Before the election season began, the Democrats were expected to get something like 53% of the presidential vote this year and 55% of the congressional vote, giving them unified control of the federal government with a party that is ideologically unified around a liberal core. And this is indeed what happened.

Beyond waiting for the pendulum to swing back, what should conservatives do? And what do the voters really want?

The 2002 and 2004 elections were followed by a lot of soul-searching among Democrats, with some arguing that they needed to move back to the centrist triangulation strategy adapted by Bill Clinton after the success of the Gingrich-led 1994 revolution, some arguing for a more full-throated liberal message, and some taking comfort in attributing their defeats at the congressional and presidential level to transient factors such as Tom DeLay’s Texas redistricting, George Bush’s focusing on the war on terror, and Karl Rove’s narrowcasting appeals to socially conservative voters.

In the event, the Democrats were rescued in 2006 and 2008 by an unpopular war and a weak economy, and they were able to regain Congress and then the Presidency without moving much to the left or the right.

It is now conservatives’ turn to agonize. Is Colin Powell correct that the Republican Party has moved too far to the right and no longer represents the average voter, or would it make more sense to listen to economists such as Bruce Bartlett who trace the Republicans’ decline to an abandonment of small-government conservatism? Or was 2008 just a bad yearÑmaybe Republicans should bide their time and play to their traditional strengths of conservative values in taxes, social issues, and national security.

Beyond issues of political tactics and the strengths of particular politicians, the answers to these questions depend on voters’ attitudes: where Americans stand on the issues compared to the positions of the two parties, and how political polarization fits into this story. Who is voting for the Democrats and who is voting for the Republicans?

On the day of his retirement from Congress, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said, “The common lament over the recent rise in political partisanship is often nothing more than a veiled complaint instead about the recent rise of political conservatism.” There was a lot of truth to that statement, and Republicans shouldn’t forget it now that they are on the other side of the 50% mark. Americans would be poorly served by two identical parties in the middle of the political spectrum: the Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right provide voters with a clear choice that allows for mandates, policy innovations, and the occasional move to throw the bums out. But, just as the Democrats did themselves no favors by convincing themselves that what the voters really wanted was 200-proof (or even 100-proof) liberalism, conservatives seeking to fight after 2008 and bounce back in 2010 or 2012 would do well to recognize the complexity of Americans’ views. By saying this, I’m not recommending that the Republican Party prepare a smorgasboard of policy positions that would make every special interest happy, but I am suggesting a realistic understanding of where Democrats and Republicans currently stand and where their supporters are in different parts of the country.

Here are some lessons for conservatives that can be drawn from election returns and surveys:

Don’t be so sure that Joe Sixpack and Waitress Mom are on your side. The myth of rich Democrats and poor Republicans is sustained in part by the electoral map, which shows–for real–that Democrats are now winning in the rich states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut. But winning rich states is not the same as winning rich voters. You might have heard about yuppie Starbucks Democrats and working-class Wal-Mart Republicans. But, in reality, Republicans have consistently done better among the rich than the poorÑa difference of about 20 percentage points that was as high in 2004 as it was during the 1970s and 1980s, and in fact higher than in the consensus-politics days of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. The 2008 election was only slightly different, with Barack Obama doing extremely well among the lowest-income voters (many of whom are ethnic minorities) and breaking even among the upper middle class.

Thus, Republicans cannot count on the working-class vote by any means. And socially conservative policies won’t do the trick here either. True, in 2004, looking just at voters with lower incomes, George W. Bush did 10% better among frequent churchgoers than seculars. But among the upper income categories, this “God gap” was over 30%. We don’t have the religion/income breakdown yet from the recent polls, but the data we do see suggest a similar pattern for 2008.

It appears that poorer voters don’t have the luxury of choosing candidates based on social issues. For example, Latinos are more conservative than whites on abortion, but, when surveyed, very few Latinos say that abortion is an important issue in their voting, and, by and large, they’ve been staying with the Democrats. On the other hand, the religious vote has helped Republicans retain the allegiance of higher-income Americans in socially conservative areas.

Resist the siren song of ideological purity. It sounds pretty silly when liberals rail against the Democratic Party for being insufficiently liberal, as if a hard-left agenda of income redistribution, government intervention, and military retreat would somehow capture the majority of Americans’ votes. But there’s a reverse illusion from the conservative side: like it or not, most people aren’t looking to drown government in a bathtub and they’re also mostly skeptical about military commitments overseas.

Survey data show the average American to fall between the Democratic and Republican parties, both in economics and social policy. If you make a graph of the ideological positions of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right, you see two widely separated humps with almost nobody in the middle. Then when you add the voters to the picture (using survey data in which voters are asked their opinions on a number of issues that Congress had voted on), you find the vast majority of Americans to be between the two parties. This does not mean that the Republicans (or, for that matter, the Democrats) should move all the way to the centerÑpolicies matter, after all. But it makes me skeptical of any claim that the Republicans lost because they were insufficiently conservative.

Pick your battles. Most voters are not ideologically consistent in the way that Democrats and Republicans are in Congress. One message from this is that centrist positions will be compatible with more voters. Another message is that it is should be possible to focus your policies in the directions that are more appealing to the electorate.

For example, consider gay rights. In surveys, 72% of Americans support laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. An even greater number answer yes when asked, “Do you think homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?” This consensus is remarkably widespread: in all states a majority support antidiscrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians, and in all but 10 states this support is 70% or higher.

What is the message here? Opposing the Employee Nondiscrimination Act might seem like the perfect move for the Republican Party, unifying traditional-values social conservatives with anti-government libertarians. Actually, though, this would go strongly against public opinion in red states as well as blue states.

For another example of the complexity of public opinion, consider Americans’ views of corporations. Nearly two-thirds of respondents say corporate profits are too high, but, according to surveys by the Pew Foundation, “more than seven in ten agree that ‘the strength of this country today is mostly based on the success of American business’Ñan opinion that has changed very little over the past 20 years.” And people like individual corporations, with 95% having a favorable view of Johnson and Johnson (among those willing to give a rating), 94% liking Google, 91% liking Microsoft, and 78% liking Citibank. Republicans tend to like corporations, with little difference between the views of professional-class and working-class Republicans. For Democrats, though, there’s a big gap, with professionals having a generally more negative view, compared to the working class.

On the other hand, Democrats and Republicans were both concerned about business collecting personal informationÑand, for both parties, this was more of a concern than this information being collected by government. Again, voters think better of individual businessesÑeven big corporationsÑthan of business in general.

Social issues motivate the rich more than the poor. Voters are polarized in different ways. The contrast between Barack Obama of Chicago and John McCain of Arizona drew attention to the cultural battles between urban centers and the rest of the country. But fundamental economic divisions remain as well, separating Americans by income, by industry, and by whether they work in the private or public sectorsÑdivisions that are ultimately connected to the policies the two parties support.

Pundits often say that the rich vote based on economics, while the poor vote “God, guns, and gays.” The reality is that among low-income voters, there is only a small difference between how churchgoers and non-churchgoers vote, whereas among the upper middle class and rich, Republicans have a big advantage among churchgoers.

We’ve been hearing for a while about the cultural divide between Wal-Mart Republicans and Starbucks Democrats. A more accurate description of voters distinguishes more subtly between rich and poor. Among upper-middle-class and rich voters, rich states go Democratic while poor states go Republican. But among lower-income voters, rich and poor states do not vote differently. The differences between “red states” and “blue states” are real, but these differences occur among voters in the upper half of income. As you become more prosperous you can afford to be concerned about non-economic issues. This holds for individuals and also for states: richer voters in rich states such as Connecticut are much less likely to vote Republican than you would expect based on their income alone. The prospects for future success of conservative economic and social messages will rely on understanding that voters have strong views about the two parties and about individual issues but are largely non-ideological when looking at multiple issues.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of political science and statistics at Columbia University and the lead author of the recent book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

Contact info: gelman@stat.columbia.edu, 212-851-2142

Recent Posts by Andrew Gelman



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