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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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Polarized Politics?

by William A. Galston and Pietro S. Nivola
Excerpted from Chapter 1, “Delineating the Problem” in Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady, eds., Red and Blue Nation? Volume One: Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics (Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace and Brookings Institution Press, 2006)
What do people mean when they say that politics in the United States are polarized? Polarized in what sense? How pervasively? The U.S. Congress is more polarized ideologically than it was just a generation ago. In the House of Representatives, ideological overlap between the political parties has all but disappeared, and the rise of “safe” districts with partisan supermajorities has tended to push representatives away from the center. Activists in both parties have long been extremely polarized, and there are indications that the gap between them has widened even more in recent decades.
While there is no evidence that the electorate’s overall ideological balance has changed much over the past three decades, voters are being sorted: fewer self-identified Democrats or liberals vote for Republican candidates than they did in the 1970s, fewer Republicans or conservatives vote for Democratic candidates, and rank-and-file partisans are more divided in their political attitudes and policy preferences. Also, religiosity (not to be confused with the denominational hostilities of the past) has become a telling determinant of political orientations and voting behavior. All else equal, individuals who attend church frequently are more likely to regard themselves as conservatives and vote Republican.
Put simply, in a polarized America most Democratic and Republican voters are, if not increasingly segregated geographically, decidedly at odds over a number of salient policy issues. While the severity of the country’s “culture wars” is overstated, the preponderance of evidence does suggest that some significant fissures have opened in the nation’s body politic, and that they extend beyond its politicians and partisan zealots.
As Morris P. Fiorina of Stanford University has observed, polarized politics are one thing, close division or partisan parity quite another. An election may be closely divided without being deeply polarized, as it was in 1960, or deeply polarized without being closely divided, as it was in 1936, or neither, as seems to have been the case in the famous “Era of Good Feeling” between the war of 1812 and Andrew Jackson’s arrival on the presidential stage. The conventional wisdom is that the electorate has been both deeply and closely divided during most of the national elections of the past decade. We argue that this proposition is valid to an extent. Its proponents often go on to claim, however, that the interaction between deep and close division is bound to create inertia. But as George W. Bush’s first term demonstrated, a president elected with a minority of the popular vote and working with only a razor-thin margin in Congress could achieve legislative successes even amid polarized politics–at least as long as the majority party was purposeful and unified.
Here is another important distinction: “polarization” is not synonymous with “culture war.” Intense political conflict can occur along many different dimensions, of which cultural issues form only one. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took dead aim at “economic royalists” at the height of the New Deal, his politics polarized American society. But an economic crisis, not a cultural one, was at the root of the polarization.

Polarization in Perspective
A plurality of the U.S. electorate continues to profess moderate political persuasions. In 2004, 21 percent of the voters described themselves as liberals, 34 percent said they were conservatives, and fully 45 percent were self-described moderates.1 These numbers were practically indistinguishable from the average for the past thirty years (20 percent liberal, 33 percent conservative, 47 percent moderate).2 Contrary to an impression left by much of the overheated punditry, the moderate middle swung both ways in the 2004 election. Both presidential candidates amassed support from these voters. Fifty-four percent of them went to the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, 45 percent to George W. Bush. In fact, the reelection of President Bush was secured chiefly by his improved performance among swing voters such as married women, Hispanics, Catholics, and less frequent church attendees–not just aroused Protestant fundamentalists.
Nor did a widely anticipated “values” Armageddon materialize over the issue of same-sex marriage. President Bush endorsed the concept of civil unions in the course of the campaign, and about half of those who thought this solution should be the law of the land wound up voting for him. Initiatives to ban same-sex marriages were on the ballot in three battleground states, yet John Kerry still managed to carry two of the three. Political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III carefully examined county-level election returns and discovered an irony: by motivating voters and boosting turnouts, initiatives to ban gay marriage ended up aiding Kerry more than Bush.3
With respect to the most persistent wedge issue–abortion–there have been some unexpected twists as well. In the midst of the continuing partisan schism, a recent analysis shows that Republicans are consistently winning among those voters (more than 60 percent of the electorate) who believe that policy on abortion should be more selective. Republican presidential candidates carried this group in 1996, 2000, and 2004–despite the fact that a clear majority of the group leans pro-choice and prefers that abortion be “mostly legal” rather than “mostly illegal.” The staunchly pro-life Republican Party seems to be persuading millions of moderately pro-choice voters that its positions on specific abortion policies are reasonable.4
And what about the TV maps that depict “red” America clashing with “blue”? They are colorful but crude. Plenty of states ought to be purple.5 There are red states–Oklahoma, Kansas, North Carolina, and Virginia, for instance–that have Democratic governors, just as the bright blue states of California, New York, and even Massachusetts have Republican governors. Some red states, such as Tennessee and Mississippi, send at least as many Democrats as Republicans to the House of Representatives. Michigan and Pennsylvania–two of the biggest blue states in the last election–send more Republicans than Democrats. North Dakota is blood red (Bush ran off with 63 percent of the vote there), yet its entire congressional delegation is composed of Democrats. On election night, Bush also swept all but a half-dozen counties in Montana. But that did not prevent the Democrats from winning control of the governor’s office and state legislature–or stop, we might note, the decisive adoption of an initiative allowing patients to use and grow their own medicinal marijuana.6
To these prefatory observations one more should be added: for all the hype about the ruptures and partisan rancor in contemporary American society, the strife pales in comparison with much of the nation’s past. There have been long stretches of American history in which conflicts were far worse. Epic struggles were waged between advocates of slavery and abolitionists, between agrarian populists and urban manufacturing interests at the end of the nineteenth century, and between industrial workers and owners of capital well into the first third of the twentieth century. Yet what those now nostalgically pining for a more tranquil past remember are the more recent intervals of consensus.
Any serious exploration of today’s political polarities has to be placed in historical context. We have to ask: compared to what? Four decades ago, cities were burning across the United States. A sitting president, one presidential candidate, and the leader of the civil rights movement were assassinated. Another sitting president was driven from office, another presidential candidate was shot, and a hail of bullets felled antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University. George W. Bush is, by current standards, a “polarizing president.” But in comparison with, say, Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson, the divisions of the Bush era appear shallower and more muted.
Badly in need of a reality check, popularized renditions of the polarization narrative were subjected to a more systematic assessment a couple of years ago in a book provocatively titled Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. In this intriguing study, rich with survey data, Stanford’s Fiorina and his associates reaffirmed the oft-obscured fundamental fact that most Americans have remained centrists, sharing a mixture of liberal and conservative views on a variety of presumably divisive social questions. Ideologues of the left or right–that is, persons with a Weltanschauung, or whose politics consistently form an overarching world view that tilts to extremes–are conspicuous on the fringes of the two parties and among political elites, but scarcely among the public at large. Indeed, sentiments there appear to be moderating, not polarizing, on various hot-button issues.
Moreover, the authors argued, the moderate consensus seems almost ubiquitous. The inhabitants of red states and blue states differ little on matters such as gender equity, fair treatment of blacks in employment, capital punishment, and the merits of environmental protection.7 Majorities in both places appear to oppose outlawing abortion completely or permitting it under all circumstances, and their opinions have changed little over the past thirty years.
No knowledgeable observer doubts that the American public is less divided than the political agitators and vocal elective office-seekers who claim to represent it. The interesting question, though, is, how substantial are the portions of the electorate that heed their opinion leaders, and thus might be hardening their political positions? Here, as best we can tell, the tectonic plates of the nation’s electoral politics appear to be shifting more than Fiorina and his coauthors were willing to concede.
Even though the mass electorate has long formed three comparably sized blocs (29 percent identifying themselves as Republicans, 33 percent as Democrats, and almost all the rest as independents), the attributes of the Democratic and Republican identifiers have changed. They are considerably more cohesive ideologically than just a few decades ago.8 In the 1970s it was not unusual for the Democratic Party to garner as much as a quarter of the votes of self-described conservatives, while the GOP enjoyed a nearly comparable share of the liberal vote. Since then, those shares have declined precipitously.9 In 2004 Kerry took 85 percent of the liberal vote, while Bush claimed nearly that percentage among conservative voters.
Further, as their outlooks tracked party loyalties more closely, Democratic and Republican voters became far less likely to desert their party’s candidates. As Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels has demonstrated, party affiliation is a much stronger predictor of voting behavior in recent presidential elections than it was in earlier ones.10 In 2004 nearly nine out of every ten Republicans said they approved of George W. Bush. A paltry 12 percent of Democrats concurred. In an earlier day, three to four times as many Democrats had held favorable opinions of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Deepening Disagreements
Of course, the use of the terms liberal and conservative can be squishy–and if, at bottom, there is still not much more than a dime’s worth of difference (as the saying used to go) between the convictions of Democrats and Republicans, the fact that partisans are voting more consistently along party lines says little about how polarized they might be. What counts, in other words, is the distance between their respective sets of convictions.
On the issues that mattered, the distance was considerable. Consider the main one: national security and foreign policy. The Pew Research Center’s surveys found, for example, that while almost seven in ten Republicans felt that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, fewer than half of Democrats agreed.11 In October 2003, 85 percent of Republicans thought going to war in Iraq was the right decision, while only 39 percent of Democrats did.12 When asked whether “wrongdoing” by the United States might have motivated the attacks of September 11, a majority of Democrats, but just 17 percent of Republicans, said yes. Democrats assigned roughly equal priority to the war on terrorism and protecting American jobs (86 percent and 89 percent, respectively). By comparison, Republicans gave far greater weight to fighting terrorism than to worker protection.13
Popular support for the Iraq war has sagged since these surveys were taken. Yet, as of March 2006, nearly seven out of ten Republicans still perceived the U.S. military effort in Iraq as going well, while only three out of ten Democrats agreed. Two-thirds of Democrats (but only 27 percent of Republicans) felt the United States should bring its troops home as soon as possible.14 Not surprisingly, fully 76 percent of the electorate saw important differences between the parties in 2004, a level never previously recorded in modern survey research.15
Among so-called active partisans, who represent a nontrivial fifth of all voters, the gap was even more dramatic.16 Reviewing 2004 National Election Study data, Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University and Kyle Saunders of Colorado State University report that 70 percent of Democrats, but just 11 percent of Republicans, typically favored diplomacy over the use of force. On major questions of domestic policy, the difference was only a little less pronounced. The issue of health insurance, for example, ranked high for 66 percent of the Democrats, but for only 15 percent of the Republicans.17
Then there is the matter of abortion. Following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, no domestic issue has been more contentious. And no other issue has played a bigger role in mobilizing observant religious voters (a force about which we will have more to say later). A majority of Americans accept abortion under various circumstances. But the majority wobbles when abortion is framed as an absolutely unrestricted right to choose. The persistence of this dichotomy is noteworthy. Fiorina and his colleagues, in fact, provide perhaps the most emblematic evidence of the ongoing rift. When people were asked in 2003 whether abortion should be called an act of murder, 46 percent said yes and exactly 46 percent demurred.18 No doubt, if the question had been directed only at persons who identified themselves as Republican or Democratic loyalists, the percentages would have been even higher, and the underlying passions even more polar.

Redder Reds, Bluer Blues
In assessing these deepening disagreements we must also consider the territorial contours of today’s polarization. The question is of importance because if voters tend to migrate geographically toward like-minded voters, the resulting political segregation of Democrats and Republicans could increasingly lock in their differences: a person’s partisan inclinations seem more likely to deepen and endure if he or she is spatially surrounded by fellow partisans.
According to Fiorina and his associates, no wide gulf separates the residents of Republican-leaning (red) states and Democratic-leaning (blue) states. But states are large aggregates in which the minority party almost always obtains one-third or more of the vote. This raises the question of what constitutes a significant difference among states. Consider some of the data Fiorina himself presents from the 2000 election. In red states, Republican identifiers slightly outnumbered Democrats, but in blue states, Democrats enjoyed an edge of 15 percentage points. In red states, the share of the electorate that was conservative was 20 points larger than the share characterized as liberal. Blue state residents were 15 points less likely to attend church regularly, 11 points more supportive of abortion rights, 12 points more likely to favor stricter gun control, and 16 points more likely to strongly favor gays in the military.19
Using a slightly different definition of red and blue states (namely, states that Bush or Kerry won by at least 6 percentage points), Abramowitz and Saunders find differences in excess of 20 points along numerous dimensions, from church attendance to gun ownership to attitudes on hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.20
There are indications, moreover, that red states have gotten redder and blue states bluer, at least in this sense: presidential vote tallies in more states in recent years have strayed from the national norm. In 1988 there were only fifteen states in which George H. W. Bush won with a vote share greater than 5 percentage points above his national average, and only nine states in which his share was more than 5 points below his national average. Put another way, twenty-six states were within a 5 point range of his 53.4 percent share of the national vote. By contrast, in 2004, George W. Bush carried twenty states with a share of the vote more than 5 points above his national share, in twelve states he ended up more than 5 points below it, and in just eighteen states his share fell within the 5 point range.21
These results are not an artifact of an arbitrary selection of elections. In the election of 1960, which produced a near tie in the popular vote between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, a remarkable thirty-seven states yielded results within 5 percentage points of the national margin. In 2000, another election year with a razor-thin popular vote margin, only twenty-one states ended up within this range. These results do not reflect only the polarizing consequences of George W. Bush’s campaign and style of governance. In the 1996 race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, only twenty-two states were within 5 points of the national margin, nearly identical to the 2000 result. In fact, the past three presidential elections have produced three of the four most polarized state results in the past half-century. (The Reagan-Carter election of 1980 is the fourth.)22
There also has been evidence of increasing dispersion at the substate level. One way to get closer to developments on the ground is to examine the share of the population living in places where voters sided with one party or the other by lopsided margins. Compare the three closest elections of the past generation. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat incumbent Gerald Ford by a scant 2 percentage points, only 27 percent of voters lived in landslide counties (where one candidate wins by 20 points or more). In 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush fought to a virtual draw, 45 percent of voters lived in such counties. By 2004, that figure had risen even further, to 48 percent.23
In 2004 a mere fifty-nine congressional districts went in opposite directions in presidential and House elections. Compare this low figure to 2000, when there were eighty-six such districts, or 1996 and 1992, when there were more than a hundred.24 In 2004 the percentage of states won by the same party in that year’s Senate and presidential races rose to a level not seen for forty years, and the percentage of Senate seats held by the party winning that state in the most recent presidential election rose to the highest level in at least half a century.25

Sorting
What has happened in the electorate has much to do with how sharply political elites have separated along their respective philosophical and party lines. That separation is not in doubt. In the 1970s, the ideological orientations of many Democratic and Republican members of Congress overlapped. Today, the congruence has nearly vanished. By the end of the 1990s, almost every Republican in the House was more conservative than every Democrat. And increasingly, their leaders leaned to extremes more than the backbenchers have. Outside Congress, activists in the political parties have diverged sharply from one another in recent decades. Meanwhile, interest groups, particularly those concerned with cultural issues, have proliferated and now ritually line up with one party or the other to enforce the party creed. Likewise, the news media, increasingly partitioned through politicized talk-radio programs, cable news channels, and Internet sites, amplify party differences.
These changes, the reality of which hardly anyone contests, raise an important scholarly question with profound practical implications: what are the effects of elite polarization on the mass electorate? One possibility raised by Fiorina and others is that the people as a whole are not shifting their ideological or policy preferences much. Rather, they are being presented with increasingly polarized choices, which force voters to change their political behavior in ways that analysts mistake for shifts in underlying preferences.26 A plausible inference is that if both parties nominated relatively moderate, nonpolarizing candidates, as they did in 1960 and again in 1976, voters’ behavior might revert significantly toward previous patterns. Another possibility is that changes at the elite level have communicated new information about parties, ideology, and policies to many voters, leading to changes of attitudes and preferences that will be hard to reverse, even in less polarized circumstances.
On the one hand, there is no reason to believe that today’s voters are unresponsive to changes in choices that the parties offer. The Democratic Party’s decision to nominate more moderate presidential candidates in 1960, 1976, and 1992 (in the wake of more liberal but failed candidacies) did shift mass perceptions and behavior. On the other hand, there is evidence suggesting that as party hierarchies, members of Congress, media outlets, and advocacy groups polarize, so gradually does much of the public. Voters become more aware of the differences between the parties, they are better able to locate themselves in relation to the parties, and they care more about the outcome of elections.27 Abetting people’s receptivity to political cues is the increased influence of education. In 1900 only 10 percent of young Americans went to high school. Today, 84 percent of adult Americans are high school graduates, and almost 27 percent have graduated from college. “This extraordinary growth in schooling,” writes James Q. Wilson, “has produced an ever larger audience for political agitation.”28
Thus far we have discussed issue-induced or partisan shifts among voters with prior positions. But elite polarization has another dimension–namely, its effects on young adults entering the electorate without fully formed preferences and attachments. In an important analysis of 1972-2004 National Election Study data, M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker find evidence that the increasingly polarized parties and their activists tend to polarize young adults whose attitudes, once formed, are likely to remain stable over a lifetime.29 Especially in the case of the young, partisan polarization not only sorts but also shapes basic political orientations and party allegiances.
The cue-taking that has helped fuse ideology with party loyalty at the grass roots, in turn, reinforces the hyper-partisan style of candidates for elective office and their campaign strategies. Given the increasing proportion of the electorate that is sorted by ideology, mobilizing a party’s core constituency, rather than trying to convert the uncommitted, looks (correctly or not) more and more like a winning strategy.30 And that means fielding hard-edged politicians appealing to, and certified by, the party’s base. This electoral connection–and not just endogenous partisan incentives within institutions such as the House of Representatives–may help account for the increasingly polarized Congress of recent decades. And, as Gary C. Jacobson has suggested, it may even account for a tendency of Democrats and Republicans to move further apart the longer they stay in office.31
It would be a mistake, however, to see only one-way causality in the relation between changes at the elite and mass levels. History supports Jacobson’s contention that political elites in search of a winning formula anticipate voters’ potential responses to changed positions on the issues and are therefore constrained to some extent by that assessment. The Republican Party’s southern strategy reflected a judgment that Democratic support for civil rights had created an opportunity to shift voters and (eventually) party identification as well. The Democrats’ transition from a moderate stance on abortion in 1976 to a less nuanced one by 1984 rested on a judgment that this move would attract the better-educated, younger, more upscale voters who had been activated politically by Vietnam and Watergate.32
A feedback loop that mutually reinforces polarized comportment up and down the political food chain has at least a couple of important implications. For one, the idea that self-inspired extremists are simply foisting polar choices on the wider public, while the latter holds its nose, does not quite capture what is going on. While it is possible to distinguish conceptually between polarization and sorting, the evidence suggests that over the past three decades these two phenomena cannot be entirely decoupled. Polarized politics are partly here, so to speak, by popular demand. And inasmuch as that is the case, undoing it may prove especially difficult–and perhaps not wholly appropriate.

1William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, The Politics of Polarization (Washington: Third Way, 2005), pp. 3.
2These numbers are based on exit polls. The National Election Studies (NES) suggest that the percentage of moderates has remained stable over the past three decades, while the percentage of both liberals and conservatives has risen modestly. Complex methodological debates among the authors in this volume cloud the conclusions we feel confident about drawing from these data. Suffice it to say that there has not been a huge swing away from the center since the 1970s.
3Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III, “Truth in Numbers,” Boston Review 30 (February/March, 2005): 40.
4Jim Kessler and Jessica Dillon, “Who Is Winning the Abortion Grays?” (Washington: Third Way, 2005).
5Estimates of “purple” states vary considerably according to the methodology employed. Abramowitz and Saunders provide a tally of only twelve, but other estimates suggest a near plurality of states. For example, seventeen states fell into the category according to a preelection analysis that weighed (a) the percentage margin of victory in the 2000 and 1996 election, (b) whether a state voted consistently for one party in the past four presidential elections or swung back and forth, and (c) whether trends in the previous two presidential elections made a state significantly more competitive or less. See Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, 2005, “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Reality of a Polarized America,” The Forum 3(2). See also Richard S. Dunham and others, “Red vs. Blue: The Few Decide for the Many,” Business Week, June 14, 2004.
6The Montana Medical Marijuana Act won the approval of 61.8 percent of Montana voters, faring 3.5 percentage points better than Bush, according to statewide election data.
7Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, and Jeremy C. Pope, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 2d ed. (New York: Longman, 2006), p. 16.
8Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Democrats Gain Edge in Party Identification,” July 26, 2004. These shares have varied over time, but those in 2004 were almost identical to those in 1987. Some analysts stress that within the three-part division, the fastest growing group has been persons registering as independents or “other.” Even if everyone in this category were a genuine centrist–a big “if”–the main thing to remember is that most registered voters continue to identify as either Democrats or Republicans, and, as we shall show, their views are diverging in a number of important respects. Moreover, in a significant recent analysis, Keele and Stimson show that the share of “pure” independents (voters who do not consider themselves closer to one party than to the other) has fallen by half since the early 1970s, from 14 percent of the electorate to just over 7 percent. More than three-quarters of self-declared independents now admit to being closer to one party than to the other. See Luke J. Keele and James A. Stimson, “Polarization and Mass Response: The Growth of Independence in American Politics,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
9Galston and Kamarck (2005, p. 45). A generation ago, party identification and ideology were weakly correlated. Now the two are much more tightly intertwined. See also Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, 1998, “Ideological Realignment in the U.S. Electorate,” Journal of Politics 60(3): 634-52 and “Rational Hearts and Minds: Social Identity as Party Identification in the American Electorate,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, September 2-5, 2004.
10Larry M. Bartels, 2000, “Partisanship and Voting Behavior, 1952-1996,” American Journal of Political Science 44(1): 35-50.
11Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “2004 Political Landscape: Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized,” November 5, 2003.
12By December 2003, the percentage of Republicans holding this view rose to 90 percent. The percentage of Democrats went up to 56 percent, before dropping back again later on. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “After Hussein’s Capture . . . ,” December 18, 2003.
13Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq,” August 18, 2004 .
14David Kirkpatrick and Adam Nagourney, “In an Election Year, a Shift in Public Opinion on the War,” New York Times, March 27, 2006. The polling data reported in this article were also based on Pew surveys that queried respondents on whether the war was going “very well or fairly well.”
15For data on this going back to 1952, see the American National Election Studies.
16Active partisans are defined as voters who are engaged in two or more political activities other than voting.
17Abramowitz and Saunders (2005).
18Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, p. 81).
19Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, pp. 43-44).
20Abramowitz and Saunders (2005, p. 13).
21Galston and Kamarck (2005, p. 54). Using a different methodology, Abramowitz and Saunders (2005) reach a parallel conclusion. Comparing two presidential elections (1976 and 2004) with nearly identical popular vote margins, they found that the average state margin of victory rose from 8.9 percentage points to 14.8 percentage points, the number of uncompetitive states (with margins of 10 points or more) rose from nineteen to thirty-one, and the number of competitive states (with margins between 0 and 5 points) fell by half, from twenty-four to twelve. Not surprisingly, the number of electoral votes in uncompetitive states soared from 131 to 332. These numbers merely confirm what every contemporary presidential campaign manager instinctively understands: in normal political circumstances, when neither party has suffered a major reversal (a big-time scandal or policy failure, for instance), the actual field of battle has tended to be small and concentrated in the Midwest.
22William A. Galston and Andrew S. Lee; tabulations on file with the authors.
23Bill Bishop, “The Great Divide,” Austin American-Statesman, December 4, 2004. See also Bill Bishop, “The Cost of Political Uniformity,” Austin American-Statesman, April 8, 2004; Bill Bishop, “Political Parties Now Rooted in Different Americas,” Austin American-Statesman, September 18, 2004; Bill Bishop, “The Schism in U.S. Politics Begins at Home,” Austin American-Statesman, April 4, 2004.
24Dan Balz, “Partisan Polarization Intensified in 2004 Election,” Washington Post, March 29, 2005.
25Gary C. Jacobson, 2005, “Polarized Politics and the 2004 Congressional and Presidential Elections,” Political Science Quarterly 120(2): pp. 208-10.
26See Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, pp. 165-86).
27For evidence and discussion on these points, see Mark Brewer, 2005, “The Rise of Partisanship and the Expansion of Partisan Conflict within the American Electorate,” Political Research Quarterly 58(2): 219-29; Gary C. Jacobson, 2003, “Partisan Polarization in Presidential Support: The Electoral Connection,” Congress and the Presidency 30(1): 1-36; Donald C. Baumer and Howard J. Gold, “Party Images and Partisan Resurgence,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
28See James Q. Wilson, “How Divided Are We?” Commentary, February 2006, pp. 15-21.
29Laura Stoker and M. Kent Jennings, 2006, “Aging, Generations, and the Development of Partisan Polarization in the United States,” Working Paper WP2006-1, Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
30Matthew S. Levendusky, “Sorting in the U.S. Mass Electorate,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
31See Gary C. Jacobson, 2000, “Party Polarization in National Politics: The Electoral Connection,” in Jon R. Bond and Richard Fleisher eds., Polarized Politics: Congress and the President in a Partisan Era (Washington: CQ Press): pp. 9-30; Jacobson, 2003; Gary C. Jacobson, 2004, “Explaining the Ideological Polarization of the Congressional Parties Since the 1970s,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 15–18. Importantly, Jacobson’s findings apply to both the House and the Senate.
32Jacobson (2000).


Forging the Ties that Bind: Reaching Out to the MySpace Generation

by Anna Greenberg and Amy Gershkoff
In the wake of the 2006 elections, advocates for youth engagement trumpeted the increase in turnout among young voters: voters under 30 years of age turned out in higher rates than 2002, making it the second election in a row with increased turnout among the younger voters. Oddly, fewer commented on the fact that Democrats made an incredibly strong showing among these voters, winning 60 percent of their vote.1 This result was 6 points higher than John Kerry’s share of the vote (54 percent), and the highest for Democrats in a House election in more than a decade.2
Democrats should feel good about this result, though it is not clear that it had much to do with a systematic, national Democratic outreach effort.3 Most of the contact with young voters (and potential voters) came from non-partisan, non-profit organizations who worked out in the field, registering young people and getting them to the polls. Moreover, there are long-term trends, such as the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of young people, and short-term events, such as the war in Iraq, that may explain much of the growing Democratic trend.
Of course, it would be easy to just accept that we have a new generation of reliable Democratic voters and leave them to their own devices. As much of the early research on political behavior shows, partisanship remains relatively stable over the course of people’s lives.4 But this laissez faire approach does not grapple with the fact that despite Democratic voting proclivities, young voters are relatively disconnected from the Party; their support for Democrats does not come from a sense that the Democratic Party has delivered anything meaningful to their generation or that the Democratic Party’s policies perfectly reflect their issue agenda (e.g., a majority of young voters favor privatization of Social Security). In fact, the Democratic Party is not significantly better positioned than the Republican Party among younger voters.
Some of this disconnection reflects a larger cynicism about conventional politics, and there are limits to what any party or candidate can do when addressing the mood of a generation. At the same time, outreach to younger people that reaches them where they are, addresses and produces on the issues they care about, and approaches them in a style they can relate to, could go a long way towards forging a significant and lifelong relationship.
The Clinton Generation
In 2006, young voters supported Democrats by a larger margin than any other age cohort. This showing builds on an earlier increase in the early 1990s. Certainly there have been low moments for Democrats among younger voters in big GOP years such as 1994 and 2002. Moreover, third-party candidate Ralph Nader diminished the Democratic margin in 2000. Regardless, it is hard to dispute that since Bill Clinton’s first election, young voters have been solidly in the Democratic column.






While there are short-term factors (e.g., the war in Iraq) that impacted younger voters in 2004 and 2006, there are larger demographic trends that drive the recent Democratic character of younger voters. First, Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most racially diverse cohort in the country with only 62 percent identifying as white, 14 percent identifying as African American, 18 percent identifying as Hispanic and 5 percent identifying as Asian American.7 In contrast, in 1968, 88 percent of young people called themselves white.8 Non-white Americans continue to more strongly support Democrats than Republicans, and given the movement of Hispanic voters to the Democratic Party in 2006, this pattern is not likely to change.
Second, changes in family structure have profound political consequences. As the divorce and single parenthood rates rise, fewer and fewer children are growing up in “nuclear” families. In 1960, 88 percent of children under the age of 18 lived in a household with two married parents; in 2005, this number had declined to 67 percent.9 Because of increasing divorce rates and childbirth outside marriage, close to half of children will live in a single-parent household at some point before the age of 18.10 As we reported in our Youth Monitor research, young people growing up in “non-traditional homes” are more likely to support Democratic candidates–67 percent of young people growing up in homes with divorced, separated or unmarried parents voted for John Kerry in 2004, compared to only 49 percent of young people in homes with married parents. Young people growing up with divorced, separated or unmarried parents also have more progressive attitudes on social issues, such as gay marriage: 66 percent of young adults who grow up in non-traditional homes support gay marriage, compared to only 53 percent who grow up in traditional homes.11
Moreover, an increasing number of younger people are delaying marriage themselves. Forty years ago, nearly half of all adults under age 25 were married; today the number is just over 15 percent.12 There are huge political differences between married and unmarried Americans, with more than 60 percent of unmarried voters casting their votes for Democratic candidates in 2006 (compared to 48 percent among married voters),13 and with unmarried voters giving Democratic candidates more than a 20-point margin in every presidential election for nearly 20 years.14
The Bush Moment, Passed
Even with these long-term trends in place, there was a Bush moment–September 11th. It was a traumatic experience for everyone, but this cohort grew up in a post-Cold War period of peace and prosperity. They struggled to make sense of the attack; they were ready to listen–to gain an understanding of the larger meaning of the attack and what it means to be an American. This cohort was open–as many were–to hear what vision President Bush had to offer. In fact, despite strong Democratic trends in the 1990s, young voters split their votes evenly between the parties in 2002.
On the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan, 79 percent of college students supported taking military action there, with 68 percent supporting the use of ground troops. College students registered high levels of trust in the military (75 percent) and the president (69 percent.)15 Young people were also initially supportive of the war in Iraq: right before the invasion, 72 percent supported the invasion.16
In the past three years, we have witnessed a dramatic shift, with young people now offering among the most negative views about the war in Iraq: 62 percent disapprove of the war in Iraq, with 43 percent disapproving strongly. In contrast, 56 percent of all voters disapprove of the war.17 A Pew Research Center report shows 54 percent of Americans under 30 want to bring the troops home ‘as soon as possible,’ compared to only 44-46 percent of adults in all other age groups.18 College students’ trust in the president has dropped to only 31 percent, and 59 percent would give the president a grade of “D” or an “F” on his handling of the Iraq war.19 Voters under 30 are also more likely than any other cohort to report that they know someone currently serving or who recently served in Iraq or Afghanistan, which undoubtedly contributes to their souring views about our engagement in that conflict.20
The war in Iraq was the number one issue in this past election for younger voters, as it was for the rest of the electorate. But their rejection of the Republicans also reflected real concerns about their economic security: 23 percent of voters under 30 cited the economy as the most important issue in their vote, outpacing mentions of any other issue except Iraq (27 percent). Contrast these numbers with those of the electorate at large, among whom only 14 percent cited the economy as the most important issue in their vote.21


Unlike their older counterparts who worry about retirement security and prescription drugs (54 percent of seniors cite this as their top economic concern), younger voters are more concerned about having salaries that keep up with the cost of living (37 percent).23 Younger adults not only worry about having a well-paying job, but also about having one that they like and that is secure: 16 percent cite career advancement, job security, and job satisfaction as the most important problem in their lives today, compared to only 6 percent of adults over the age of 25.24
Republicans also lost with younger voters on other issues such as the environment: nearly half of younger voters said their biggest doubt about the Republican Congressional candidate was that he or she would do nothing about oil companies and gas prices, compared to only 28 percent of voters overall.25 Younger voters may be the ‘Greenest Generation’: 83 percent support government investment in alternative energy, far outpacing interest in this issue by other cohorts.26
I’ll Vote for You, but Don’t Call me a Democrat
In spite of these short- and long-term drivers, younger voters are actually not solidly Democratic nor do they have a uniformly progressive worldview. Young voters’ trend towards Democratic voting ought to be matched–at least in part–with a trend towards Democratic partisan identification; instead, the percentage of younger voters identifying as Independents has increased.27


While changes in partisan identification often take many years to catch up with trends in voting behavior, opinions about the parties themselves are more responsive, showing changes in underlying attitudes about the parties before they appear in partisanship. On the eve of the 2006 election, barely 40 percent of younger voters had a positive view of the Democratic Party (35 percent negative), the same percentage that had a positive view of the Republican Party, despite the fact that younger voters gave Democratic Congressional candidates a 22-point advantage in the vote.28
In fact, younger voters are more likely than older voters to say that they see “no real differences” between the parties (41 percent of voters under 30, compared to 29 percent of voters overall)29 . They are no more likely to think Democrats will fight corruption (46 percent) as Republicans (50 percent), and they believe neither party will fight corruption particularly well.30
While younger people are on the left side of American politics, younger voters do not harbor monolithically progressive or liberal values. Unlike previous generations, Generation Y does not fit neatly into the uni-dimensional liberal-conservative political spectrum. Instead, this generation has liberal views on some issues and holds conservative positions on others, accumulating views like so many MySpace friends and producing an “ideology” with some important contradictions.
Younger people, for instance, are the strongest supporters of gay marriage, but they are no more likely to support abortion rights than older people. (In fact, Baby Boom women are the most supportive of a woman’s right to choose).31 In general, younger people favor an expanded rather than limited role for government, but they hold decidedly non-progressive values on some specific economic issues, including privatization of Social Security (74 percent of young adults support privatization, compared to 41 percent of adults over the age of 60).32 In keeping with the racial diversity of this cohort, they have quite liberal views on immigration, and interracial marriage is decidedly non-controversial, but they also harbor reservations about the feminist movement.
Communicating with the “MySpace” Generation
Neither of the two major political parties as they are currently constituted offers a bundle of issue positions that neatly fits younger Americans’ worldview. But perhaps even more importantly, neither of the major parties has figured out how to communicate with young people in terms of medium, content, or style.
The two major parties continue to broadcast their messages through channels that younger Americans do not utilize. Unlike their older counterparts, younger adults do not regularly watch network television news. Among younger adults that do watch network television, many are likely to be among the growing number of households (now 23 percent nationwide) that has a TiVo or other Digital Video Recorder, meaning that even if they watch network television, they are not watching the political advertisements. They tend not to subscribe to or read daily newspapers. Many do not have a landline telephone and many move frequently, making direct voter contact over the phone or at the door difficult.33
For this generation, the Internet plays an unprecedented role in the acquisition of political information. The most recent Pew survey finds that 1 in 4 adults between the ages of 18 and 25 reported getting their news from the Internet.34 During the 2004 elections, half of voters under 30 used the Internet to find candidates’ positions on the issues, nearly 40 percent watched video clips of the candidates online, and 1 in 4 voters under 30 looked up information about the candidates’ voting records and endorsements online. Blogs have increasingly become a source of information for this generation, with 16 percent reporting that they got their political news from blogs during the 2004 election.35 Younger Americans also access the Internet from devices other than computers: 13 percent of adults under 30–and 19 percent of adult males under 30–get their news from their PDAs, mobile phones, or Blackberries.36
Perhaps in part because they do not know what medium to use, the two major parties communicate less frequently with younger voters than they do with the rest of the electorate. Younger voters were the least likely of any age cohort to report being contacted by either of the major parties during the 2004 presidential campaign.37 Younger voters’ mobility certainly impedes campaigns’ ability to contact them, as does the high percentage of cell-phone-only households, which makes contact by phone difficult and expensive at best, and unattainable at worst.
Even when the parties get the medium right and are able to reach these mobile voters, the Democratic Party sometimes misses the mark on the message. The issues emphasized during recent campaigns tend to concern older voters, such as Medicare and Social Security, while younger voters’ issues are less prominent or not addressed from their perspective. For instance, while young people have deep economic anxieties, they are more focused on wages and finding a career path than on healthcare costs. While younger voters are concerned about the quality of public education (and have experienced it more recently than other voters), they care equally about paying for a college education and debt. There is also the possibility of targeting communication to younger voters around their socially progressive values, something that Democrats currently avoid in reaching out to voters more broadly. For example, this cohort sees diversity as inherently valuable and is reviled by the exclusionary and extremist rhetoric of the far right.
Finally, even when the parties get the medium and the message right, they often get the style wrong. Younger voters don’t want to be “hyped” or “played,” and many adults in this generation see both parties as inauthentic. Their aversion to the style that both parties currently espouse may explain, in part, why Independent candidates like Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, and Ralph Nader garnered such support from younger voters. These candidates appeared to be more authentic, less corrupt, and outside the traditional political establishment, all of which found favor with this generation.
Forging ties with a new generation of Democrats
If Democrats want to forge a stronger set of ties to younger voters, they need to think about making a major investment in understanding Generation Y and to develop respectful and authentic strategies for reaching them. There are a number of places to start–in no particular order:

  • We know how young people feel about different issues–they hate the war in Iraq, care about the environment, want government to help people, and want improved public education–but is there a core set of values that defines Generation Y? What divides younger people–and are they the same issues that divide older people–and what brings them together? Is there a core identity for this generation that moves beyond the individualism and atomization that characterizes much of this cohort’s experience?
  • We need to map how young people see themselves politically, allowing for the possibility that their often apolitical or anti-political orientation can still have political consequences. Volunteerism, which is high for this generation, is a critical part of their self-identity, and young people are finding ways to connect to community outside of traditional institutions. For example, younger people are more likely than older people to boycott products if associated with bad labor practices or detrimental environmental impact. Is it possible to harness this energy into more traditional or partisan politics or do Democrats need to think about a new kind of politics?
  • Younger people are voracious consumers of pop culture, but what exactly do they learn from it? Is it nothing but the “market” working, or are younger people potentially exposed to a progressive set of values though music or movies? The Democratic Party and its candidates often draw upon celebrities to reach out to younger audiences, but do they view celebrities as credible or authentic spokespeople? Are younger people more likely than older people to listen to celebrities, simply because they are young?
  • We need to do a much better job figuring out the right communication media to reach younger people. News agencies and newspapers are little used by Generation Y, and they are even moving beyond Meet-Ups and websites (though they remain important); people are text- and instant-messaging, downloading videos on their cell phones, and playing video games with people across the country. Would young people pay attention if we reached them through these media?
  • For many young people, candidates and political parties simply lack credibility. Some of this skepticism reflects, in our view, a legitimate assessment of what the current political system has to say to them (i.e., not very much). But it also relates to style. Just talking about tuition tax breaks or global warming is not going to make young people Democrats. How can we develop a style that is sincere, genuine, and speaks to their desire for authenticity?

The answers to these questions–and others as well–would help the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates begin to build a relationship with younger voters that will last and maybe even be passed on to their children. But this relationship needs to be reciprocal. Young people do not want to be pandered to, and they want to believe in something bigger than themselves. Younger people are voting Democratic because they are out of step with Republicans ideologically, they want to get out of Iraq, and they are worried about their economic security. Let’s work to provide them a reason to not only vote Democratic, but also to become lifelong Democrats.

Anna Greenberg is Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
Amy Gershkoff is the Director of Analytics at MSHC Partners/Predicted Lists LLC.

1National Exit Pool’s Exit Poll, conducted by Edison Mitofsky, November 2006.
2Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) Report “Young Voters in the 2006 Elections,” December 12, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
3There were efforts by candidates and state parties in some states such as Virginia and Montana.
4See for example Campbell et al., 1960, The American Voter, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
5Data in Tables 1-3 were taken from the United States General Election Exit Polls, 1990-2004. Polls conducted by Voter News Service and Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International; data compiled by The New York Times.
6In 1992 Perot voters (22 percent) were allocated evenly across the two candidates. In 1996, all Perot voters were allocated to Dole. In 2000 and 20004, all Nader voters were allocated to the Democratic candidate.
7CIRCLE Report, “Youth Demographics,” November 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
8Ibid.
9“The State of Our Unions,” The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University. Last accessed March 9, 2007. (Subscription required.)
10Furstenberg, Frank F., Jr., 1994, “History and Current Status of Divorce in the United States,” Children and Divorce, Vol. 4, No. 1. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
11GQR+Polimetrix Youth Monitor, September 2005, based on an Internet panel of 892 18-24 year olds.
12U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2005. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
13National Exit Pool’s Exit Poll, conducted by Edison Mitofsky, November 2006.
14United States General Election Exit Polls, 1990-2004. Polls conducted by Voter News Service and Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International; data compiled by The New York Times.
15“Campus Attitudes towards Politics and Public Service Survey,” Institute of Politics, Harvard University, 2001. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
16Pew Research Center for the People and the Press News Index Survey of 1254 adults, conducted February 12-18, 2003. Data can be downloaded here. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
17CIRCLE Report “Young Voters in the 2006 Elections,” December 12, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
18Pew Research Center for the People and the Press News Index Survey of 1506 adults, conducted August 9-13, 2006; this is the latest Pew Research Center survey about Iraq in which the data is publicly available. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
19“The 11th Biannual Survey of Politics and Public Service,” Institute of Politics, Harvard University. Survey conducted October 4-16, 2006, N=2546. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
20Democracy Corps national surveys of likely voters, October – November 2006.
21Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
22Ibid.
23Democracy Corps national survey of 1000 likely voters, conducted October 1-3, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007; see also Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics,” January 9, 2007 for a similar finding. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
24Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics,” January 9, 2007. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
25Democracy Corps national survey of 1000 likely voters, conducted October 1-3, 2006.
26All other cohorts registered between 60 and 67 percent support for investment in alternative energy. Source: Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
27American National Election Studies cumulative data file Last accessed March 9, 2007. Similar trend analysis can be found in Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) Report “Young Voters in the 2006 Elections,” December 12, 2006. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS-Midterm06.pdf. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
28Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
29Ibid.
30Ibid.
31See, for example, Hulbert, Ann, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” New York Times Magazine, March 11, 2007. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
32Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics,” January 9, 2007. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
33Ibid.
34Ibid.
35Pew Internet and American Life Project and Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “The Internet and Campaign 2004,” November 22, 2004. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
36Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 20, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
37Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Report. “Voters Liked Campaign 2004, But Too Much ‘Mud-Slinging’; Moral Values: How Important?” November 11, 2004. Last accessed March 9, 2007.


The Hidden State Legislative Victories

by Michael Davies
While the state legislative elections are not covered to the extent that control of the U.S. House or Senate is, control of these 98 state chambers has a long-term impact on national Democratic success. Here’s why smart strategists are looking to the state elections:
A good year materializes
The thing most people don’t know–and that we never mind telling them–is that state legislative Democrats scored major wins in the 2004 elections. State legislative Democrats and the DLCC bucked national trends and gained 6 chambers on net.
We began the 2006 cycle on the defensive, having to protect narrow majorities in a number of chambers. Fully twenty of the thirty-six states in which the legislature controls redistricting were within four seats of changing hands. We knew our challenge was figuring out a way to defend our narrow majorities, many of them new and many in “red” states like Colorado and North Carolina, while still having enough resources to play offense elsewhere.
But as the 2006 cycle unfolded, we began to see several signs this would be a good year for Democrats. We could see the Democratic base was more engaged and organized than it had been in years. In candidate recruitment, Democrats were out-filing Republicans, both in terms of quantity and quality. Indeed, of the 35% of legislative incumbents who were unopposed in 2006, 60% were Democrats while only 40% were Republicans. We could also see proof of the splintering Republican base–popular moderate Republican incumbents in swing districts were losing their primaries to hard-right candidates.
A localizing strategy
For all the talk about the lack of a Democratic “brand,” state legislative Democrats have been winning elections by localizing them. The DLCC works to strengthen local operations. We give our caucuses tools, best practices, expert advice, and resources, but a large part of our success rests on recruiting candidates who are grounded in their communities and encouraging them to talk about issues and common-sense solutions that resonate in their communities. By empowering state caucuses we are implementing a national strategy to localize state legislative races.
Our strategy stands in stark contrast to the Republican strategy of nationalizing state legislative elections. Republicans attempt to nationalize these races primarily by resorting to divisive social issues. Whether or not these issues were even dealt with in a particular legislative session or whether the particular Democratic candidate is even assailable on the particular issue is of little consequence: Republicans seek to define these elections largely on a nationalized values-and-taxes message. In some cycles, this Republican strategy has been successful at the state legislative level, most notably in 1994 and 2002.
In 2006 our localized strategy met their nationalized strategy and the combined results were stunning. This was clearly not the year for the Republicans’ “one-trick” nationalized strategy. After an almost endless string of scandals and missteps, the national Republican message had little resonance in legislative elections. While this surely hurt the Republicans, the true extent of the legislative Democrats’ victories was just as much a result of our localized strategy which propelled us to victory.
Election results
In 2006, Democrats made huge gains at the state legislative level, gaining 10 new Democratic majorities:

  • Indiana House
  • Iowa House
  • Iowa Senate (from a tie)
  • Minnesota House
  • Michigan House
  • New Hampshire House
  • New Hampshire Senate
  • Oregon House
  • Pennsylvania House
  • Wisconsin Senate

Republicans, in contrast, shifted just two chambers: the Oklahoma Senate from a Democratic majority to a Democratic-controlled tie, and the Montana House from a tie to a narrow Republican majority. (Two chambers have switched control since the election due to party-switchers: the Tennessee Senate from Republican control to a tie and the Mississippi Senate to a Republican majority.) Democrats now control 55 chambers to the Republicans’ 41, with two chambers tied. This is up from the pre-election spread of 47-49-2.
Democrats gained nearly 350 seats in the 2006 elections, moving the national advantage to 3,984 Democrats to 3,326 Republicans. This is up from a statistically negligible 21-seat advantage pre-election.
We made gains in every region of the country:
CHAMBER AND SEAT SWITCHES IN THE 2006 ELECTIONS**


Some other highlights:

  • Democrats picked up seats in almost all of the chambers we won in 2004 including: 2 seats in the Colorado Senate, 4 seats in the Colorado House, 5 seats in the Iowa Senate, 5 seats in the North Carolina House, 10 seats in the Vermont House, and 6 seats in the Washington Senate.
  • Democrats also kept majorities in other targeted chambers, including the Kentucky House, Maine House and Senate, Minnesota Senate, Montana Senate, Tennessee House, and Washington House.
  • We had a blowout in the New Hampshire House, picking up nearly 90 seats.
  • We moved the Minnesota House from 52 Democratic seats after 2002, to 85 Democratic seats, a 33 seat gain.
  • In chambers where we’re in the minority, we’ve narrowed the gap,, including the Alaska House and Senate; Florida House; Pennsylvania House; North Dakota House and Senate; Ohio House; Tennessee Senate; and Wisconsin House.

Federal sweep does not tell the whole story
Of the more than six thousand legislative elections in 2006, the DLCC tracked 438 races particularly closely. These were the most-strongly targeted state legislative races in the most-strongly targeted states. The chart below details the Democratic wins in these 438 races across different categories of seats, including Democratic incumbents, Democratic open seats, Republican open seats, and Republican incumbent seats.


The win rate in these seats is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that the win rate was only one percentage point lower in areas not targeted by the DCCC or the DSCC. In fact, 270 of the 438 seats detailed above had no crossover with Democratic-targeted Federal campaigns, while just 168 did. State legislative Democrats won 67% of the seats without Federal crossover and 68% of seats with crossover. This rate is even more striking as the areas not targeted by the Congressional committees tend to be in states and districts more hostile to Democrats.
Implications for long-term Democratic success
There are five reasons why winning at the state legislative level is more important than ever in its long-term impact:
First, when we win a state legislative chamber, the conversation in the state changes overnight. Before Democrats took over the Colorado House and Senate, the conversation playing out in the papers and on the news was between the Right and the Far Right. When we won both chambers, suddenly we were discussing balancing the budget and funding education. By dealing with the bread-and-butter issues that matter most, state legislative Democrats are showing that state government can work, and are undercutting the Republicans’ tired talking points about the lack of a Democratic agenda.
Second, we’re preparing Democrats for redistricting, both Congressional and legislative. Winning at the state legislative level is the only way to make sure Democrats will have a seat at the table when district lines are cut and to ensure competitive districts.
We made some gains this cycle which will impact redistricting for years to come, including our new majorities in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. We also won the Indiana House, preventing a potential Republican mid-decade redistricting that could have made the three newly-Democratic U.S. House seats unwinnable for Democrats.
Third, we’re showing that Democrats can win–anywhere. We’re continuing to make gains at the local level in traditionally “red” and “purple” states, adding this cycle’s gains in Indiana and New Hampshire to last cycle’s wins in North Carolina, Montana, and Colorado. We’ve made gains in every region of the country–in “red” states and “blue” states and in urban, suburban, and exurban districts. We’re showing that when Democrats roll up our sleeves and work to solve problems, people will respond, no matter where they live.
Fourth, we’re standing up for Democratic values at home. State legislatures make more policy decisions that affect citizens’ daily lives than Congress, such as ensuring access to a quality education and healthcare. For every one law that Congress passes, state legislatures pass seventy-five. The role of legislatures has been more important since the Republican Congress slashed federal funding and pushed more of the fiscal burden to the states.
And lastly, as much as the state legislatures are the policy major leagues, we are the “farm team” for statewide and Federal races. About half of today’s governors and Members of Congress started at the state legislative level. Some of this cycle’s key wins were won by former state legislators:

  • Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe
  • New York Lieutenant Governor David Paterson
  • Montana U.S. Senator Jon Tester
  • Maryland U.S. Senator Ben Cardin
  • Colorado’s 7th District Representative Ed Perlmutter
  • Indiana’s 9th District Representative Baron Hill
  • Ohio’s 6th District Representative Charlie Wilson
  • Connecticut’s 2nd District Representative Joe Courtney

The bottom line is that Democrats must win at the local level to build towards long-term success.
2007 and 2008
In 2007, we have elections in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. In this next cycle, we have twenty-three chambers in twenty states within five seats of changing hands.
We’ll work with our caucuses, legislative leaders, and strategic partners to continue our record of success in 2008 and prepare for 2010, the last election before redistricting. We are proud to be partners with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) in a new redistricting nerve center, Foundation for the Future.
We picked up all four chambers in two early presidential states, Iowa and New Hampshire. We’re looking forward to seeing how this will shape the presidential debates. Instead of debating Republicans’ favorite topics, we could be asking presidential candidates about building infrastructure for sustainable energy, improving education by attracting and keeping the best teachers, and supporting rural America.
And there will be at least one former state legislator in the running–Barack Obama started as a state legislator.
Our Party will announce our nominee for the presidency in Denver, Colorado which was chosen largely because of the gains Democrats have made in the Mountain West, including at the local level.
While many Democrats will be focused on winning back the White House, our challenge at the DLCC in 2008 will be making sure that Democrats are walking and chewing gum at the same time–working to build the foundation for long-term success. And long-term success starts at the state legislative level.

Michael Davies has served as the Executive Director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) since December 2002. The DLCC is the one national Democratic committee charged with electing Democratic majorities in state legislatures and with raising the quality of Democratic legislative campaigns nationwide.


Let’s Back Up

By Bradford Plumer
Before talking about how unions can appeal to a younger generation of technical and professional workers, I want to revisit the question of why they should do so. Let me rephrase that: How much effort should organized labor really spend reaching out to the professionals that Grossfeld describes — professionals who are already skeptical about unions — given that resources are finite and there are many other battles to fight? We can all agree that the workers themselves would benefit from better representation of some sort. But what does labor get out of the deal? And what would it have to give up?
On the face of things, white-collar workers seem terribly important to the future of organized labor. After all, the AFL-CIO estimates that a little over half of its members are “white-collar”. And in 2003, the organization published a report noting that 30 percent of all new members were professionals — “the fastest growing occupational group within the federation.” So this looks like the backbone of labor, right? Won’t unions wither and die unless they can learn to appeal to the professional class?
Well, hold on. The trouble is that “white-collar worker” is a rather vague and overly sweeping term. Looking at the AFL-CIO’s report more closely, it seems the vast bulk of new “white-collar” union members were actually teachers, health-care workers, and telecommunications workers organized by the CWA. In other words, the AFL-CIO seems to be making most of its headway among groups that have traditionally backed labor quite enthusiastically — rather than the young college-educated professionals in, say, Silicon Valley that Grossfeld appears to be targeting.
Now, granted, just because organized labor hasn’t depended on young professionals in the past doesn’t mean they won’t have to in the future. But a few years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics put out a handy table: “Occupations with the largest job growth, 2004-2014.” Despite all the talk we hear about “the new economy”, here are the jobs that will grow most significantly in the coming decade: Retail salespersons, registered nurses, home health aides, food servers, janitors, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives. Again, these are all fields in which labor unions are already working hard to bolster their presence. Now my impression is that the main obstacles to organizing drives in these areas — that is, efforts to organize janitors and retail clerks and nurses — have been ruthless opposition by employers, rather than skepticism about unions among the workers themselves.
So to my eye, one could almost say the following: Look, organized labor has made the bulk of its recent gains by focusing on the sorts of workers who have traditionally been very receptive to unions — and it has ample reason to continue doing so well into the future. Yes, it would be nice if more college-educated engineers and technicians and so on joined unions, but if they’re going to make a fuss about it, why bend over backwards for them? And while the status quo is nothing to brag about, obviously, unions can grow most effectively by pushing for legislation that curtails employer resistance to organizing — the Employee Free Choice Act, for instance — rather than fretting too much about winning over workers who tend to cast a wary eye at the labor movement.
Of course, that’s not necessarily convincing, either. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t unions do what they’ve long been doing while also trying to reach out to young, college-educated professionals who have very real concerns about workplace security and — as Kusnet nicely illustrates — the quality of their jobs? After all, as Grossfeld mentioned in his original report, too many Democrats in Congress would prefer to buck union influence if they could. Perhaps the only way to nudge them in a more labor-friendly direction — so that bills like the EFCA can actually get signed into law — is for organized labor to make new allies among college-educated workers. Why can’t they do both things at once?
I suppose it all depends on the details. If the idea here is that labor unions simply need to market themselves more effectively to college-educated workers, well, that seems wholly unobjectionable. As Grossfeld points out, this would involve pointing out — rightly — that unions have evolved a great deal from the days of wildcat strikes and bitter clashes with employers, and now often focus on expanding access to health care, creating better child-care options, cushioning the effects of rampant job insecurity, offering employees a voice in the workplace, and so on.
My own anecdotal experience suggests that this strategy can be highly effective. For several years, I was part of a local union comprised of college-educated professionals and white-collar workers. A great many friends and associates my age — I’m 25 — often wondered why on earth our office needed a union. Many of them shared the attitudes described by Grossfeld in his study: They were all sympathetic to labor in theory, but thought that unions often went “too far”, and assumed that most unions either fostered hostility in the office by fighting with the bosses or else hampered flexibility in the workplace by creating too many silly work rules. I would have to explain that, no, no, our union actually gave us an outlet to air our various concerns, and, when the organization faced a severe budget crisis, allowed us to work out a plan with management to avoid painful pay cuts and layoffs. And this was a run-of-the-mill union — our local was part of the UAW, one of the supposed “dinosaurs” of the movement. Once people I talked to realized what unions actually did, they were a great deal more receptive. Better marketing really does work.
Meanwhile, some unions are now taking concrete and often unconventional steps to appeal to white-collar workers. The SEIU has backed Barbara Ehrenreich’s new organization, United Professionals, which provides support for white-collar workers who find themselves either underemployed or hurt by job insecurity. And a few years ago, Grossfeld reported that the CWA helped sponsor Techs Unite, an advocacy group that offers training to IT workers who experience high turnover. These efforts no doubt help attract a number of young technical and professional workers to the ranks of organized labor. The question, as I’ve mentioned above, is how much energy unions should put into these efforts, relative to traditional organizing and political action.
Meanwhile, I’m curious to hear more about Grossfeld’s argument that unions need to create “new structures” to suit the needs of white-collar workers. The CWA has offered some modest steps in this direction with a number of creative endeavors such as Alliance@IBM, which uses the internet to bring IBM employees together. That seems perfectly sound — more unions could probably stand to learn a few tricks from the CWA and SEIU. What about more drastic changes, though? Grossfeld writes: “Democrats ought to showcase new approaches to workplace organization — and the modern labor laws that make them possible.” What, exactly, will this entail?
In the past decade, after all, various scholars and politicians have proposed changes to the labor law ostensibly designed to suit the wants and needs of white-collar workers. In 1997, Republicans in Congress — with the support of New Democratic groups like the DLC — put forward the TEAM Act, which would have allowed businesses to form non-union “teams” of employers and supervisors to address workplace issues. The idea was to create a more flexible sort of bargaining arrangement. So what was the problem? By repealing section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act, the TEAM Act would have opened the door for management-dominated unions, which could be used to thwart organizing drives. Traditional labor groups objected, and Bill Clinton eventually vetoed the bill.
I don’t think anyone in this forum is proposing we resuscitate the TEAM Act. But it does pose a possible conundrum. The GOP sold the bill by declaring that it would “empower employers and employees to act as a team, rather than as adversaries, to advance their common interests.” The DLC sounded a similar note at the time: “Labor law should seek not only to protect workers, but also to empower them to participate in decisions that affect their livelihood and workplaces.” According to Grossfeld’s findings, this is exactly the sort of rhetoric — and potentially, the sort of “new product” — that appeals to college-educated professionals. Nevertheless, it proved radioactive to traditional unions.
So there are several questions here: How can Democrats and organized labor find ways to offer a “new product” that can appeal to college-educated professionals without clashing with the interests of the existing labor movement? Will those two goals ever conflict? Moreover, if Democrats and organized labor are going to talk about new approaches to workplace organization, how can they prevent their rhetoric from being co-opted by opponents of labor — as happened in 1997? And, to return to the question posed at the beginning, how much effort should unions spend chasing after white-collar workers, relative to other strategies?
I certainly don’t know the answers to all of these questions. But I do think they’re worth exploring.

Bradford Plumer is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. His blog can be found here.


Office Workers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Cubicles

By Will Marshall
Economic change has been especially brutal for Americans who work in factories. Now office workers are feeling their pain.
Thanks to corporate restructurings, automation, cheap communications and the rise of global sourcing and supply chains, U.S. white collar workers face unprecedented levels of job churning, demands from employers for “give backs” on wages and benefits, and the growing risk that their jobs will be sent offshore.
On top of that, middle class workers aren’t getting a fair share of the nation’s economic growth. Although U.S. labor productivity has risen a healthy 15 percent since 2001, the median hourly wage has barely budged.1 Meanwhile, the top one percent of households is reaping a bonanza, claiming fully 53 percent of income gains in 2004.2 This growing concentration of wealth, combined with job instability, has put economic insecurity and inequality front and center in the voters’ concerns — as Republicans learned the hard way in the 2006 elections.
Given office workers’ well-founded sense of economic vulnerability and unfairness, labor analyst Jim Grossfeld asks, shouldn’t more of them turn to unions for protection? It’s a good question. In White Collar Perspectives on Workplace Issues, a report on polling and focus group research into white white-collar attitudes, he makes an intriguing case that workers with professional and technical skills, especially women in “helping professions” like nursing, are ripe candidates for union cards.
Put me down as sympathetic but skeptical. There’s no question that working Americans need a new social contract to replace the unraveling World War II era safety net. In theory, unions could play a key role in such a compact, but they’d first have to reinvent themselves to serve the interests of largely autonomous knowledge workers who compete in global markets. Despite some promising experiments here and there, it’s not clear the U.S. labor movement is ready for such radical change.
Ever since the Reagan years, union leaders have complained that the rules governing organizing drives are rigged in favor of employers. That’s undoubtedly true, though whether it’s the main cause of labor’s dwindling membership is another question. Nonetheless, I note that the Democratic Leadership Council, though often at loggerheads with labor, has endorsed card check registration as a way to redress the imbalance of power. Solidarity forever! But the main barriers to organizing office workers, as Grossfeld’s research makes clear, are cultural, not legal.
It’s no secret that many white-collar workers view unions as relics of the industrial economy they have gladly left behind. They see unions as fomenting conflict between workers and employers, when a dispersed, networked economy relies puts a premium on teamwork. And they view unions as an obstacle to the flexibility and ceaseless innovation U.S. companies need to win in global competition.
Yet their growing disenchantment with the risky new world of global commerce, says Grossfeld, is making them more sympathetic to unions. This is plausible and he should be applauded for asking the right question: What do unions have to offer insecure white-collar workers? While he stresses the need for unions to take a “non-traditional approach,” this passage from his report gives me pause:

In the era of economic globalization, unions and the collective bargaining process remain the most effective vehicles for workers to win economic security for themselves and their families. Regardless of how profitable their employers are, workers who are denied the opportunity to negotiate their wages, hours and working conditions lack any significant means to share in the profits they create. This is the case for the 87 percent of U.S. workers who have no union representation today.

Today’s knowledge workers might well benefit from innovative mutual aid organizations. But industrial unions and collective bargaining rose in response to a specific historical circumstance–the reorganization of America’s agrarian society for mass production — that lies well in our past. The percentage of private sector workers in unions today (around 7. 8 percent) is not much greater than it was as that industrial reordering began in 1901: 6.5 percent.3
Industrial-era unionism scored important victories in protecting workers’ basic rights (now largely codified in national policy and law) and equalizing power between labor and big corporations. Collective bargaining was generally a progressive force (although sometimes minorities were left out). When labor and management struck deals for better pay, benefits and working conditions, the costs were passed on to consumers. Since most consumers workers were also workersconsumers, the result was a virtuous cycle as long as inflation didn’t get out of control.
Global markets confound the old model of labor-management relations, which was designed to work in an hierarchical, national economy. Companies seeking competitive advantage readily move production from high-wage to low-wage countries. Communications satellites and the Internet make it possible to shift specific jobs, typically in business and other services, to well-educated but lower-paid workers in countries like India. With foreign competitors breathing down their necks, U.S. workers and employers really don’t have the luxury of indulging in adversarial relations. Moreover, union-negotiated work rules sometimes stand as obstacles to closer collaboration between managers and workers in making the adjustments necessary to keep pace with global competitors. If U.S. workers want to keep high-wage jobs in America, they have to focus as much onon their company’s productivity, innovation and quality, not just their pay and working conditions.
The contemporary case for traditional unionism seems strongest for workers at the bottom in the labor market, especially in low-paying service jobs: child care, big-box retail employees, hotels and restaurants, etc. Most of these jobs are insulated from the pressures of global competition (though not large-scale immigration), and collective bargaining could help to lift low-wage service workers into the middle class, just as it did steel and auto workers in the industrial era.
But white-collar workers don’t see themselves as victims, as alienated from their labor–which usually often involves collaborative problem-solving rather than performing repetitive tasks on assembly lines–or as incapable of adapting to changing labor market demands. What they need is a new model of unionism that focuses on assuring their employability, mobility and earning power rather than protecting specific jobs or compensation packages.
Today’s workers know in their bones that education and skills are ultimately the keys to their economic security. Yet companies nowadays have weak incentives to make big investments in training their workers, who could pack up and take their new skills to competitors at any time. A creative effort to solve this “free rider” problem is the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, a consortium of business, labor and government. In effect, it spreads the risk of investing in worker training and, by insisting that training be company-based, makes sure workers get skills for which there is demonstrable market demandthat are really in demand.
This is one model for a new unionism; Grossfeld cites others. The point is, post-industrial unions must provide office workers with what it takes to succeed in the global economy. For example, they could help workers acquire valuable marketable skills, and create “virtual hiring halls” to match them to employers. They could also provide services like portable pensions and health insurance, which would smooth workers’ transitions from job to job. And they could experiment with novel concepts like wage or mortgage insurance, which aim at keeping families’ living standards from collapsing when workers lose their jobs.
Modern labor associations could help workers bargain with their employers for a better work-family balance–for flextime, paid leave, telecommuting and part-time jobs with decent benefits. They could operate, in short, like a back-to-the-future update on the old craft unions, which were defenders of quality workmanship as well as worker’s interests.
In an article for the DLC way back in 1998, Stephan A. Herzenberg, John A. Alic and Howard Wial captured the essence of the new bargain unions might offer today’s knowledge workers:

The essence of the new social contract–the New Deal for the New Economy–must be: Workers and unions will deliver responsible, high quality service; in exchange, society will support a union’s right to exist and all workers’ right to economic security.4

Still sounds like a deal to me.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute and editor of With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov/cps/labor2005/chart1-18.pdf.
2Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, www.cbpp.org/7-10-06inc.htm.
3www.publicpurpose.com
4“New Unions for a New Economy,” The New Democrat, March/April 1998. This publication has been replaced by Blueprint magazine.


Minding Our P’s and Q’s: Professionals, Portability and Quality

By David Kusnet
Jim Grossfeld is performing a real service by urging the unions, the Democrats, and progressives of all kinds to reach out to technical and professional workers in ways that make sense to this large and fast-growing constituency.
Grossfeld rightly urges the unions and their Democratic allies to understand that professional and technical workers want new kinds of supports — from education and training to portable health and pension benefits — to make their way in a churning economy. He’s also right on target when he urges organizers to transcend the stereotypes that unions are confrontational, resistant to change, oriented only to blue-collar and low-wage workers, and uninterested in partnering with management.
These points are well-taken, but it’s been a long time since they represented “apostasy” for organizers from the most successful unions or strategists for Democratic candidates who don’t remember Labor Day rallies in Cadillac Square. Are today’s unions unattractive to professional and technical workers because labor preaches class struggle, while white-collar workers are aligned with management and adverse to conflict of any kind? It’s not that simple any more, and professional and technical workers’ attitudes are evolving in complex and fascinating ways. So here’s a slightly different analysis — call it Apostasy 2.0:
Almost everything Grossfeld writes about white-collar workers is true — and so are some other things. In an uncertain economy, growing numbers of professional and technical workers are indeed concluding that they need some stable institutions on their side, from employee organizations to programs providing health insurance, continuing education, and retirement security. But there’s also something else at work: The idealistic concerns that used to make professionals identify with management now are pushing many of them in different directions. Professionals, technicians, and skilled workers of all kinds have always been dedicated to doing the best work for the people they serve. As long as the demands of their employers, the standards of their occupations, and the needs of the public all appeared to be in harmony, professional and technical workers were reluctant to challenge management. If they organized, it was as members of their occupations, not as adversaries to their employers.
But now, just as job security is becoming problematic, so is quality work. Doctors and nurses find their professional judgments are second-guessed by hospital administrators with corporate mentalities. Newspaper reporters are told to avoid in-depth stories. Software writers are required to rush their products to completion. Tenured professors are being replaced by part-time faculty.
These threats to professionalism are making professionals more open to organizing, to challenging management, and (as recent election results revealed) to supporting contemporary forms of populism. Historically, professional and technical workers are most likely to unionize when they believe that the quality of their work, as well as the security of their jobs, salaries and benefits, all are in jeopardy. Since the 1960s, teachers concerned with unmanageable class sizes, social workers upset with swollen caseloads, and other beleaguered public employees organized unions and even struck, often with slogans like “Teachers want what children need.” Nurses and other health care workers have organized against threats to patient care, as well as their own pay and benefits. More recently, engineers and information technology workers have begun to organize — and the engineers and technicians at Boeing even staged a successful 40-day strike — over professional issues as well as economic concerns.
As this recent experience suggests, professional and technical workers build organizations that address their aspirations for doing quality work, as well as navigating the new economy. Both concerns are crucial, and unions and Democrats should take note.
First, as Grossfeld correctly emphasizes, unions should emphasize and enhance their efforts to assist workers who are moving from job to job and need to learn new skills, acquire new credentials, and maintain their health insurance and retirement security. As William Safire, of all people, once advised me, unions and Democrats should use the word “security” less and “portability” more.
As they retool their services as well as their sound-bites, unions can look to many models: The craft unions pioneered apprenticeship, skill upgrading, and credentialing for skilled construction workers, as well as multi-employer pension programs for workers who move from contractor to contractor. Public sector unions like AFSCME, AFT, and SEIU created career ladder programs to help low-wage workers qualify for higher-skilled jobs. The talent guilds in broadcasting, the performing arts and the specialized fields of translating and interpreting run job referral programs (The phrase “hiring hall” doesn’t appeal to white-collars). CWA sponsors training and credentialing programs for telecommunications workers. And professional associations and professional unions set professional standards and stress professional development.
Second, these workers expect their organizations to advocate — and even, to use that dread word, “fight” for — their concerns about quality work. After all, people become teachers, nurses, journalists, computer programmers, and aerospace engineers because these careers are their callings in life. They want to be proud of their work.
Since the late ’70s, I’ve heard professional and technical workers express their concerns for the people they serve as well as the paychecks they earn. Working in organizing campaigns for AFSCME from 1976 through 1984, mostly in white-collar units, I heard social workers, employment counselors, psychologists, nurses and other professionals complain that they weren’t afforded the time, the resources, or the discretion they needed to serve the public properly.
Fast forward to 2000, when I researched and wrote a report about professional and technical workers for the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank founded by the AFT. I interviewed nurses in New Jersey, aerospace engineers at Boeing, and temporary workers at Microsoft, and profiled the innovative organizations that they had founded, all of which meld the services and appeals of professional associations and modern unions. These studies accompanied national surveys of teachers, engineers, nurses, and information technology workers, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates.
Our research and similar studies confirm the importance of quality work as an issue that inspires professionals and technicians to organize. In their surveys of the four occupational groups, Hart Research Associates found that three of five of those who said their profession was getting worse–but only about a third of those who said their profession was improving–wanted to found a union or some other form of employee organization. Similarly, in a 1997 survey of 1,500 non-union professional and technical employees by Cornell University Professor Richard Hurd, these white-collar workers said the most important issue on the job was threats to their ability to exercise professional judgment.
These findings suggest that today’s professional and technical employees take a more complex view of their jobs, their employers, worker organizations and workplace conflicts than earlier generations of white-collar workers. In my own interviews with aerospace engineers, software testers, and nurses and other healthcare workers, I found an anxious ambivalence that could be summed up in three paradoxes: 1) They love their work, but not their jobs; 2) They believe they care more about the organizations where they work than the people who run them; and 3) They will “fight,” if necessary, but not just for themselves. Each paradox creates an organizing opportunity:
Paradox #1:Professionals are committed to their callings — teaching, nursing, creating software, or designing airplanes, to name a few. But, while they enjoy the actual work that they do, they are less satisfied with the circumstances under which they do it — in other words, their “jobs.” For instance, a software tester told me, “I love my work. The only thing I hate is Volt [one of the staffing agencies that Microsoft uses to serve as the nominal employers for its temporary workers].” Unions should offer professionals the opportunity to improve their jobs so that they once again feel fulfilled by pursuing their callings in life. As a New Jersey nurse told me

Three or four months ago, I had a night that reminded me of the ideal nights a long time ago. There were three or four patients, all stable. I spent a lot of time with one. When I got home in the morning, I said to my husband, ‘I remember how it feels to give good patient care.’ This is what I went into nursing for, this is why I unionized.

Paradox #2: Nurses and other health care workers whom I’ve interviewed at several hospitals in New Jersey told me the same story: The old management cared about people; the new management cares about money. Engineers at Boeing told a similar story — the company had started shortchanging research and even testing, and they feared that Boeing might get out of civilian aviation. When the engineers struck, they had an unusual slogan on their picket signs — “On Strike for Boeing” — because they believed they were more loyal to Boeing’s mission and traditions than top management.
Paradox #3: Of course, professional and technical workers don’t want to walk off their jobs, except as a last resort. That’s partly because they don’t want to miss a paycheck or have a hostile workplace (who does?). It’s also because they are so dedicated to their work and the people they serve. Thus, nurses strike over patient care, not just their own paychecks. As for the Boeing engineers who felt they were defending American leadership in aviation, their union leader, Charles Bofferding, told me, “They don’t like conflicts, but they sure do like crusades.” In a similar spirit, Bofferding said, “We want to cooperate with Boeing, even if we have to do it on our own.”
The concern for quality is the common denominator for all three seemingly self-contradictory viewpoints. So, if we want to promote unions, we have to stress the concern for quality — to link the q-word and the u-word.
Quality work can be the unifying theme for the two essential roles for professional unions: 1) advocating for the resources and autonomy that empower professionals to do their best work; and 2) providing the services that prepare, attract and retain capable workers in a churning economy. Progressive candidates should point to both positive features of modern unions and also present a vision of work in America that not only pays a living wage but also offers the satisfaction of a job well done.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He was on the staff of AFSCME and helped to research and write Finding Their Voices: Professionals and Workplace Representation for the Albert Shanker Institute. He is writing a book about workplace conflicts in today’s America, Love the Work, Hate the Job, for the publisher John A. Wiley and Sons.


Unionizing the White-Collar Workforce

By Jim Grossfeld
“You need to be bar mitzvahed!” my London-born, Orthodox grandfather bellowed. I was taken aback. After all, even though I was 13, I’d been raised a suburban, ham-eating Jew whose only religious instruction was watching the Ten Commandments on TV.
“But I don’t understand Hebrew,” I answered. “It doesn’t matter,” he shot back, “just go up and say the bloody words!”
When I think about the relationship between labor leaders and their young, more upscale Democratic brethren I’m often reminded of that encounter. Like my grandfather, many in the labor movement hold firm to their Orthodox trade unionism and expect younger Democrats to honor it regardless. And, like me at 13, many of those Democrats see it as an empty ritual; something you do it to make the old guys happy. And that’s a tragedy, because labor and Democrats could both gain if only more in the Party recognized that old time religion could speak to the needs of white-collar workers with uncertain careers. And it can. This is the principal finding of the recent Center for American Progress study of mine, “White Collar Perspectives on Workplace Issues.”
The study, based on polling data and focus group research by Lake Research Partners, underscores the extent to which young technical and professional workers are as bewildered by the “new economy” as manufacturing workers have been for a generation. For them, Bill Clinton’s 1993 prediction that they “will change jobs eight times in a lifetime” is an unquestioned fact of life. As one focus group participant put it: “Our parents, they were able to keep their old jobs for 25, 30 years. They were very secure, and if they wanted to move over to another job they pretty much could, but if you find yourself out of work at age 50 in this day and age and you need to change fields because your industry has been eliminated and you don’t have training; no one will want to hire you.”
“I’ve been actually pretty much covering three people’s jobs,” another worker said. “Two people are out on disability so I jumped in the spot where I’m covering three people’s jobs. Then when they bring in the temp into the office I have to take time and train him, but I don’t have the time because I’m covering three people’s jobs!”
There was a time when more than a few of us would have cited comments like these as evidence of a nascent proletarianization–often justifiably so. For example, the California Nurses Association has been winning the support of some RNs with a message as militant as anything to come out of the United Mine Workers. Yet, as unstable and stressful as their jobs have become, few white collar workers will tell you that they’re being ground down under the boot heal of capitalism. Instead, they will say that instability and turmoil are unavoidable in today’s economy. And employers? They’re just doing what they have to do. In the words of another focus group member:
“Most owners want to maximize their investment out of every employee and they’re going to push you beyond your limits until they can reach some sort of capacity that’s going to support one more person or whatever. So there’s that time frame in there that you’re way overworked and that’s just a part of getting to the next level…. No it’s not fair, but unfortunately the economics plays into that.”
Long ago Seymour Martin Lipset described how white-collar workers see their interests as the same as management’s. Notwithstanding the challenges they face today there’s little reason to suggest that’s changed. This is especially so in the attitudes many voice about unions. “Certainly at one point when the unions were formed they were very important,” remarked one worker, adding: “I mean workers were horribly treated and not paid, you know? Child labor and all sorts of things. I think at that point the unions were very, very important. I think there are other avenues that are available, now that workers in general have a better voice in most situations, to address those same problems that don’t necessarily have to involve a union.”
It’s not that U.S. workers share a deep-seated animus toward unions. To the contrary, by some measures public approval of unions is as high today as it’s been in 40 years. Few Americans doubt that unions improve wages and working conditions. Yet, according to one 2005 Harris poll, 55 percent also believe unions stifle individual initiative and 60 percent agree that unions are more concerned with resisting change than helping to bring it about.
Of course, the labor movement has a huge stake in turning these attitudes around and more than a few believe the way to do it is to present unions as a movement that fights for social justice. In fact, a search of the AFL-CIO’s website finds that the words “fight” or “fighting” appear almost 2,900 times: that’s more than twice as frequently as the words turn up on the website of The Boxing Times. Don’t get me wrong: being seen as standing up for worker rights isn’t a bad thing. Efforts to organize janitors, hotel employees, farm laborers and other poverty-wage workers routinely win the sympathy of many technical and professional workers. But it hardly follows that those workers will then choose to unionize, too. Some white collar workers may want to join a struggle for justice on the job, but most just want to advance in their careers. Even if labor laws were made fair, many of these workers would still feel that unions have become eight-track tapes in an iPod economy.
Is all this to say that white-collar workers are ready to send unions to the Hefty bag of history? Not necessarily. In truth, white-collar workers do see the value in having some kind of workplace organization, just not the kind they think the labor movement is offering. When asked to describe the kind of group she would create for herself and her coworkers, one focus group member said it would promote “a safer workplace, better pay, opportunities for advancement, improving morale, bringing more revenue to our company, more training for the employees and more employee recognition.” Another said his would focus on employee recognition to help retain workers. A third added that she would have her group create child-care options for workers and join with employers to lower health-care costs. Another summed up the attitude of most when she said there needed to be an organization that would work to “create an environment where people want to come to work.”
It should not come as any surprise then that they sat up and took notice when they were presented with examples of existing unions who seem to be doing just that. Focus group members who had rolled their eyes at the mention of past union achievements were intrigued by case studies of unions joining forces with management to train employees for new tech jobs, working with employers to develop telecommuting policies, and creating a multi-employer pension funds for freelancers. They especially liked hearing how one union worked closely with an employer to turn a failing company around and make it competitive. In fact, they gave a thumbs up to every example of unions and management working together to help companies succeed.
To some, this may seem like labor-lite: less John L. Lewis than Stephen Covey, but whoever becomes its champion stands to make inroads with a new generation of young, career-oriented workers. Just ask the Republicans. “The times in which we live and work are changing dramatically,” George W. Bush told the 2004 Republican National Convention.

The workers of our parents’ generation typically had one job, one skill, one career often with one company that provided health care and a pension… Many of our most fundamental systems — the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training — were created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow. We will transform these systems so that all citizens are equipped, prepared and thus truly free to make your own choices and pursue your own dreams.

Democrats and the labor movement should be able to do better than this. And they can. But not by recycling Bill Clinton’s taking points or, for that matter, Henry Wallace’s. Instead, Democrats ought to showcase new approaches to workplace organization — and the modern labor laws that make them possible — as part of a broader plan to help white-collar workers succeed in their careers. For their part, labor leaders need to recognize that few workers, particularly technical and professional employees, want to sign up to join a coalition of victims. Rather than insist that those workers conform to more orthodox approaches to unionism they need to create new structures (dare I say products?) designed to meet their needs. The CWA, SEIU and a few other unions get this. The rest need to.
What should Democrats and labor be saying to younger, white-collar workers? It would be the following:

  • New technologies and globalization have changed how Americans work. What matters isn’t what labor unions achieved in the past, it’s how new unions can help employees — and employers — succeed now and in the future.
  • That’s why we are seeing the growth of new unions created by professionals who believe in being flexible and working together with management to make firms more competitive and profitable.
  • These new unions provide a strong, respected voice so that employees can team up with management to solve tough problems, whether they’re healthcare costs, overwhelming workloads, or the need for leading-edge training and opportunities for advancement.
  • The new unions also understand that as more Americans work from home or as contractors and part-time employees, it’s important that they have the resources they need to be successful, such as networking opportunities, ideas for better telecommuting and access to portable health insurance and pension benefits.

Apostasy? No doubt to some it is. But at a time when union membership is in a freefall labor needs a better strategy for organizing younger, white-collar workers than hoping they become class-conscious — and Democrats need to demonstrate that they care as much about helping them succeed in their careers as they do about stem cell research. It isn’t enough to just go up and say the bloody words.

Jim Grossfeld is a veteran of more than 25 years of union organizing drives and contract campaigns. During the Clinton administration, he was a senior aide to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and, later, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. Grossfeld later served as Communications Director for U.S. House Democratic Whip David Bonior (D-MI) and as Director of Speechwriting and Editorial Services at the Center for American Progress in Washington. Based in Bethesda, Md., he is now a public affairs consultant for unions and non-profit groups and a frequent contributor to the American Prospect magazine.


The Fair Trade Sweep1

By Chris Slevin and Todd Tucker
In 2004, the celebrated author Thomas Frank asked: “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” The question sought to get to the root of why Democrats lose in districts and states where low-income and working-class people ought to be in open revolt against Republican economic policies.2
In 2006, we got the answer to Frank’s question. There’s nothing the matter with Kansas, or the rest of “red state” America, when Democrats are willing to run on an economic platform that emphasizes their opposition to corporate-sponsored trade deals and support for policies that address middle- and working-class needs. In the midterm elections, a net sum of 7 Senate and 30 House seats flipped from the anti-fair trade to the fair trade column.3 Moreover, as our research shows, most of those Democratic candidates that made a strong fair trade message a campaign priority won, while most of those that did not–including many high-profile candidates supported by the national party–lost. (A “fair trade” position supports strong and enforceable labor and environmental standards in the core text of trade agreements, is against harmful investment and protectionist pharmaceutical patent rules, and is open to replacing fast track with a more democratic alternative.)
And while nearly all Democrats ran on a platform that emphasized criticism of the Iraq War, the difference between those war-critic Democrats that won and those who lost was the strength of their trade and economic message. War criticism was a necessary but insufficient basis for electoral support; anyone who thought that merely being opposed to a war of choice that is costing American lives would carry the day was proved wrong. It’s not enough to be against something; voters want to know what candidates are for. A fair trade position was an indicator to voters that a candidate was serious about being for the middle class.
WHERE ARE WE ON TRADE POLICY AND HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The increasing diversity of opposition to the NAFTA-WTO model was becoming apparent in 2004 when a University of Maryland Project on International Policy Attitudes poll showed that nearly three-quarters of Americans making more than $100,000 a year rejected actively promoting more trade deals, preferring instead a more passive approach or even a roll back of the status quo. This was the reverse of the group’s 1999 findings that found majority support among wealthy Americans for an aggressive tack.4
Polls since have showed growing public anxiety about the course of our trade policy. Global competition and the off-shoring of jobs was the top concern of Americans–no less important statistically than the Iraq War–according to a 2006 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.5 Eighty-seven percent of voters were concerned about off-shoring and 81 percent gave the government a C, D, or F in its handling of the issue, according to a 2006 Public Agenda poll.6
The public anxiety these polls capture has a clear basis in reality. Despite rising growth and productivity, income for the vast majority of Americans has been stagnant for a generation–leading to levels of economic inequality not seen since the robber baron era. As the U.S. trade deficit approaches $800 billion this year–at six percent of U.S. GDP a level threatening to the global economy’s stability–millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs continue to disappear. The exploding negative balance between what we buy and sell is not only in manufactured goods: in August 2006, the U.S. agricultural trade balance went into deficit, a reality totally at odds with the image sold to Midwestern voters that they will export their way to wealth because the United States is “breadbasket to the world.”7
Between the 2004 and 2006 elections, in their voting record and messaging, Democrats reconnected with middle-class economics for the first time since the Clinton administration wheeled and dealed NAFTA through Congress in 1993, a move that blurred the line of economic policy differentiation between the parties. The 2005 vote on CAFTA, a Bush priority expanding NAFTA to Central America, was framed as a referendum on NAFTA’s decade of lived damage both in the United States and in Mexico. The Republican Party became owner of NAFTA’s legacy when just 15 House Democrats supported CAFTA, compared to the 102 Democrats who voted for NAFTA. The Senate CAFTA vote was uniquely tight with 45 senators voting against it. And all congressional Democrats said to be exploring 2008 presidential bids voted against CAFTA–including several who had supported NAFTA over a decade earlier. And in July 2006, most Democrats also voted against a NAFTA-style pact with Oman.
In the actual campaign season itself, fair trade organizations helped translate popular discontent over failed trade policy into electoral gains. In addition to trade playing a prominent role in the political work of organized labor,8 newer specifically fair-trade-focused electoral efforts operated nationwide this year–showing again the growing public saliency of the NAFTA-WTO critique. For instance, beginning in 2005, Working Families Win (WFW), a project of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), ran a major 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) field program in Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin aimed at raising the visibility of economic issues, including fair trade, the minimum wage and universal healthcare.
But the fair trade effort with which we are most familiar was the affiliated political action committee (PAC) formed in 2006 by the Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC), a fair trade grassroots coalition initially founded in 1992 by consumer, labor, environmental, family farm and religious groups to fight NAFTA. After collecting trade policy questionnaires from dozens of candidates, CTC PAC endorsed 15 candidates and put paid organizers in seven campaigns that proved instrumental to the Democratic takeover, while making financial or other contributions to the remainder of the endorsed candidates. CTC PAC helped create media and get-out-the-vote operations specifically targeting independent voters considered receptive to a fair trade message. In the end, 12 out of 15 of CTC PAC’s candidates won their races, with a thirteenth race–Democrat Larry Kissell’s challenge of CAFTA and fast track flip-flopper Robin Hayes (R) in what should have been a solid GOP district–lost by just a few hundred votes.
As Table 1 shows, congressional candidates across the country ran and won on a fair trade platform against anti-fair trade incumbents and in open seats, resulting in a net fair trade gain of 7 Senate and 30 House seats.

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Furthermore, at least 25 campaigns ran paid TV ads highlighting fair trade positions. Fair trade was a campaign theme for nearly all Democrats, including those that replaced retiring fair traders and are thus not considered “net fair trade pick ups” in our analysis.9
As described in our report “Election 2006: No to Staying the Course on Trade,” the tenor of the fair trade message varied widely across the country. But a remarkable finding is that locally-tuned versions of the fair trade message won elections in “pro-NAFTA” corn belt states, including Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri, where rural communities have seen the trail of broken promises from past failed trade deals.10 In areas swamped by manufacturing job loss, candidates talked about stopping trade deals that disadvantage U.S. workers. Others spoke about requiring that potential trade pact partners meet EU-style readiness criteria before trade negotiations are completed, and others approached the immigration issue through a trade lens, citing Mexican farmer displacement to the United States following NAFTA. Still others spoke of the need for replacement of the undemocratic fast track process with a better process that allows Congress to fill its constitutional role of conducting oversight and setting the terms of trade policy. But where all candidates agreed was that positive alternatives to the Clinton-Bush trade agenda need to be constructed to ensure that the benefits of trade are widely shared.
Still, there were certainly degrees of fair trade messaging. We graded the fair trade messaging of the Democrats who challenged incumbent Republicans in competitive races, with even the “F” candidates still likely to be better on trade than the GOP incumbent with a pro-NAFTA-WTO voting record.11 As Table 2 shows, the single most common grade Democrats received was an A-plus–showing just how widespread was the fair trade messaging in 2006. Furthermore, in 73 percent of the races where Democrats successfully dislodged an incumbent Republican, the Democrat in the race made a strong fair trade message a campaign priority (receiving either an A+ or an A). At the same time, in 72 percent of the races where the incumbent Republican emerged victorious, the Democrat in the race was much weaker on the fair trade issue, receiving a B, C, D or F.

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Many incoming Democratic House freshmen won–while many other Democratic challengers came within striking distance of winning–in very Republican districts. One widely-cited strategic approach was for Democrats to focus resources in districts that lean Democratic but have Republican congressional representation, where it was thought that another dollar spent or another ad run might make the difference in a close election. But another approach might consider how several very underfunded and understaffed Democratic candidates in very “red” districts came within hairs of winning. In such races–of which there were many–a small investment of Democratic Party resources might have made a difference. Fair-trade Democrat Gary Trauner’s tremendous showing in the Wyoming at-large race was one such example. The race, which was not ranked as even an “emerging” race by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), resulted in a 48-48 margin, with Republican anti-fair trader Barbara Cubin barely squeaking back into office in a district that went overwhelmingly for Bush in both 2000 and 2004.
DOES THE PARTY “GET” THE FAIR TRADE SWEEP?
There is some evidence that top Democratic Party officials may not understand the voter mandate for change on trade policy. Ninety-two Democrats voted for a lame-duck-session measure that will subject the U.S. labor force to more low-wage competition from Vietnam, while several incoming Democratic committee chairs have hinted that they might pursue a more-of-the-same trade policy. In the midterms, a majority of the DCCC’s hand-picked top candidates lost–11 out of 20.12 All 11 scored low on our fair trade index, while 6 out of the 9 who emerged victorious received top fair trade grades. Meanwhile, all three challenger candidates who won on Election Day and who were not on the DCCC’s priority lists were A+’s on the fair trade index.
Politics, as DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel points out, is not a business in which you bat 100 percent.13 Still, the stated reason for the DCCC’s focus (and in turn, the focus of many other donors and Democratic-leaning groups that follow the DCCC’s lead) on specific candidates from Tammy Duckworth to Ken Lucas and beyond was that these races were deemed “winnable.”14 In contrast, fair trade groups looked beyond the party leadership’s top tier and focused on promoting and lending organizing resources to Democrats who recognized the failures of the NAFTA-WTO model and actively embraced a fair trade message. While several of these races were not deemed winnable by leaders in Democratic circles, nearly all of these candidates ended up winning or coming very close to winning.
Despite stacks of polling data and focus group evidence that a fair trade message resonates, there were also tactical decisions by candidates prioritized by the DCCC to not embrace stronger messages on globalization.
Two such instances are worth recounting. In Pennsylvania’s 6th district, Democrat Lois Murphy has twice come close to winning in a district that incorporates parts of the Philadelphia suburbs and also the manufacturing hub of Reading, which has lost a disproportionate number of jobs to trade relative to both the country and state of Pennsylvania.15 In the 6th district, two-term incumbent Republican Jim Gerlach has taken a lot of heat for voting wrong on CAFTA and other trade deals, with constituents organizing a Valentine’s Day protest and news conference about the increase in sweetheart corporate PAC money Gerlach had received after his CAFTA vote.16 While Murphy’s trade position was decent, it was buried in a 40-page policy document. Efforts to run a trade-specific Reading GOTV program were not met with enthusiasm from the DCCC or Murphy camp, which is unfortunate for the Democrats considering that Murphy’s margin in 96 percent of Reading’s precincts dropped in 2006 relative to 2004.
Indeed, while Murphy carried every Reading precinct in 2004, she actually lost one precinct to Gerlach in 2006. While Murphy had outperformed John Kerry–who was considered very weak on trade–in 92 percent of Reading precincts in 2004, Murphy’s 2006 margin actually sank below Kerry’s 2004 margin in 80 percent of Reading precincts. Meanwhile, vocal fair trader Senator-elect Bob Casey, Jr. carried and outperformed Murphy’s (and Kerry’s) margin in all Reading precincts.17 Casey’s fair trade message clearly resonated in Reading in a way that the more muted Murphy/Kerry message did not.
In a one-point Gerlach victory in the 6th district overall, a better trade message and showing in Reading could have provided Lois Murphy–whose race was considered winnable–with a margin of victory. Meanwhile, Democrat Patrick Murphy–the other Murphy running in the Philly suburbs in the neighboring 8th congressional district–was thought less likely to be able to pull off an upset against GOP incumbent and CAFTA-supporter Mike Fitzpatrick, but achieved a victory in a campaign that prominently and aggressively advocated fair trade and hammered Fitzpatrick for his CAFTA vote.19
A similar fair trade message effort was attempted by fair trade groups in Ohio’s 15th District, where Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy was seeking to oust anti-fair trade GOP incumbent Deborah Pryce, Democratic Party operatives chose not to emphasize a trade message, arguing that the Democrats’ strongest county in the district–Franklin County–was composed of voters who were not displaced manufacturing workers.20 But Senator-elect Sherrod Brown’s campaign, which focused heavily on a fair trade message, received a higher margin of the vote than Kilroy’s campaign in each of the 15th District’s counties, including in Franklin County, where party operatives predicted a fair trade message would not resonate.21 The reason for the Franklin County surprise was that voters are anxious about the economy not solely because of economic damage suffered by them personally, but also because they see people who are one-degree removed from them losing their jobs and health care and realize that Franklin County could be next. In other words, while some voters in Franklin County might be experiencing relatively decent economic outcomes, they are aware of the growing risk faced by the middle class overall in Ohio (which has lost one in five manufacturing jobs during the NAFTA-WTO decade) and fear economic crisis for their own families.22
CONCLUSION: FAIR TRADE IS SMART POLICY AND SMART POLITICS
Stan Greenberg, in the days after the election, said “There was a missed opportunity here… I’ve sat down with Republican pollsters to discuss this race: They believe we left 10 to 20 seats on the table.”23 Indeed, it seems that there were many real Democratic pickup opportunities missed, but it’s unclear if any of these were the top-priority, weak-on-trade DCCC candidates. As one political reporter told Roll Call, the biggest story of the 2006 races in North Carolina was “the Democratic Party’s abandonment of Larry Kissell. The national and state Democrats missed the boat.”24 Democratic fair-traders like Victoria Wulsin, who nearly won her Cincinnati race against “Mean Jean” Schmidt, have publicly questioned why they seemed to fall “through some DCCC cracks.”25
2006 has shown us that fair trade is not only good policy, it’s smart politics. A fair trade position showed that a candidate was willing to fundamentally challenge the outdated corporate consensus that government must be hands-off when it comes to supporting the middle- and working-class, while being hands-on when pushing policies like NAFTA and WTO that redistribute income upwards.26 Contenders and donors in 2008 hoping to sweep even more elected offices will have to recognize that voters are ready to move beyond “staying the course” on the failed trade policies of the past and to embrace an agenda which promotes economic security and mobility for all.

Slevin is deputy director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (GTW), and took a leave of absence in 2006 to run Citizens Trade Campaign’s affiliated political action committee (CTC PAC). Tucker is GTW research director and author of a major post-election report on the role of fair trade in 140 federal and state level races.

1The authors thank Phila Back, Heather Boushey, John Nichols and Lori Wallach for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this piece.
2Thomas Frank, What’s The Matter with Kansas? (Metropolitan Books: New York 2004).
3For our full report on the role of fair trade in 140 Senate, House and gubernatorial races see http://www.citizen.org/hot_issues/issue.cfm?ID=1471.
4Peronet Despeignes, “Poll: Enthusiasm for free trade fades; Dip sharpest for $100K set; loss of jobs cited,” USA Today, Feb. 24, 2004.
5“Outsourcing of Jobs is Top Concern in U.S.,” Posted on Angus Reid Global Scan, March 22, 2006.
6Ana Maria Arumi and Scott Bittle, “Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index 2,” Public Agenda, Winter 2006, at 15.
7Since 1959, the United States has maintained a positive annual agricultural trade balance. But this balance is trending downwards. Since 1979, there have only been 10 months were the monthly trade balance was negative–eight of these were in the past three calendar years. See U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service’s December 2006 trade balance update.
8Steven Greenhouse, “Labor Goes Door to Door To Rally Suburban Voters,” New York Times, Oct. 8, 2006.
9While most in the GOP are unrepentant anti-fair traders, a few have stayed in office a long time by amassing a voting record that is at once socially conservative and pro-fair trade. The Ellsworth and Shuler victories (the latter is listed in Table 1 because incumbent Charles Taylor “took a walk” on CAFTA and significantly angered his constituents) show that that Democrats can “out-fair trade” the GOP’s occasional fair traders.
10Daryll E. Ray, Daniel G. De La Torre Ugarte, and Kelly J. Tiller, “Rethinking U.S. Agricultural Policy: Changing Course to Secure Farmer Livelihoods Worldwide,” Agricultural Policy Analysis Center Briefing Paper, University of Tennessee, September 2003.
11We considered races to be competitive if they were listed in the Cook Political Report of Nov. 6, 2006 as “Toss-Up,” “Lean Republican,” “Likely Republican,” “Lean Democrat,” or “Likely Democrat.” Many important Democratic pick-ups were in open seat races. Given the complex factors at work in a race with no incumbent, however, the following two tables focus only on those races where Democratic challengers faced Republican incumbents. Our grading system was extremely conservative. An F was reserved for candidates who had no known position, or who had a professional record that indicated they would likely be against fair trade, or for candidates that had previously served in the House and had a bad trade-vote record. (Many of these promised to have “seen the light” of fair trade in their most recent campaigns.) A D was for candidates who had a vaguely fair trade position, but who had not made that position public beyond word-of-mouth. A C was for candidates who had a good position who did not put high emphasis on the issue. A B was for candidates who were more public about a good position (i.e. paid ads on manufacturing job loss, etc.). An A was for candidates with strong positions in favor of fair trade; while an A+ was for candidates with excellent, very public positions who made trade a top campaign priority.
12While the DCCC’s ranking of individual races was in flux throughout the campaign season, we consider the DCCC’s very “top candidates” to be the 20 races that were deemed “Red-to-Blue” in early 2006.
13Jill Lawrence, “Party recruiters lead charge for ’06 vote; Choice of candidates to run in fall may decide who controls the House,” USA Today, May 25, 2006.
14“Pelosi and Emanuel want to do what the Republican National Committee is doing–husband the money so it can be pumped in massive quantities into tough but winnable races in the final months… [They oppose strategies that run] counter to the highly tactical approach that Emanuel has pursued, which is to pick winnable districts and candidates who can win them.” See Mike Allen and Perry Bacon Jr., “Whose Party Is It Anyway?” Time, June 12, 2006; see also Steve Kornacki, “Emanuel, Dean Still Sparring,” Roll Call, July 3, 2006.
15According to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Survey, Reading, Pa. lost 25 percent of its manufacturing jobs during the NAFTA-WTO decade, while Pennsylvania lost 22 percent (and the United States 15 percent) of its manufacturing jobs during the same period.
16Douglas W. Wesner, “Citizens Group gives Gerlach scathing valentine,” Westside Weekly, Feb. 23, 2006.
17Reading overlaps more than one congressional district. We only considered precincts in the 6th district. See http://www.co.berks.pa.us/berks/lib/berks/departments/elections/election_results/2006/resultsprecinct2006.html and http://www.co.berks.pa.us/berks/lib/berks/departments/elections/reports/cong_06.htm
18See Bryan Schwartzman, “How Did Gerlach Dodge Disenchantment Bullet?” Jewish Exponent, Dec. 14, 2006.
19Patrick Murphy, “Fitzpatrick Sells Out Bucks County and Sends US Jobs Overseas,” Candidate Press Release, Nov. 18, 2005.
20At the eleventh hour, Kilroy gave the go-ahead to run paid ads that highlighted her good position on trade, but perhaps too late to save her from her eventual loss.
21Brown received 59 percent of the vote in Franklin County, 47 percent of the vote in Madison County and 41 percent of the vote in Union County. Kilroy, by contrast, received 52, 38 and 34 percent of the vote in these counties, respectively. Note that Franklin County overlaps three congressional districts. In the 12th district, Bob Shamansky–who had no stated trade policy–squeaked by with 50.1 percent of the vote in Franklin County but lost the district by 15 percentage points. In the 7th district, Democrat William Connor carried Franklin County by 55 percent, but ultimately lost the district overall. Connor was very strong on fair trade, but his race was not considered competitive by the Cook Political Report and is therefore not featured in our analysis for methodological reasons explained above. See http://www.sos.state.oh.us/SOS/ElectionsVoter/results2006.aspx?Section=1849; http://www.sos.state.oh.us/SOS/ElectionsVoter/results2006.aspx?Section=1846 and http://connerforus.com/Balance_of_Trade.htm.
22For a nationwide analysis of this trend, see Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift, (Oxford University Press: New York 2006), at 68.
23Adam Nagourney, “Flush of Victory Past, Democrats Revert to Finger-Pointing,” New York Times, Nov. 16, 2006.
24Louis Jacobson, “For a Red State, North Carolina’s GOP Is Surprisingly Embattled,” Roll Call, Dec. 11, 2006.
25David Hammer, “Wulsin: Where was Dem support?” Associated Press, Nov. 23, 2006.
26For a more detailed analysis of this pervasive double standard in the policy realm, see Dean Baker, The Conservative Nanny State, (Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2006.)


Purple Reign

By Akshay R. Rao, PhD
Once the tea leaves are read, Democratic pundits will offer at least three “truths” about the 2006 mid-terms.

  • A tsunami, earthquake or tidal wave (pick your geological metaphor) swept corrupt, hypocritical Republicans out of office,
  • Karl Rove was unmasked as less mathematically able than Robert Siegel, has received more credit for political craftiness than is his due, and will therefore be banished to pollster’s Siberia, and
  • There has been a fundamental shift in electoral preferences.

There is merit in all of these claims (though my favorite is the second). But, the evidence suggests that they are a trifle overstated. The Senate went Democratic thanks to less than 10,000 votes (in Montana and Virginia) and its future hangs in the balance. Joe Lieberman could pull a Jim Jeffords and then, all bets would be off. And, the House majority was eked out vote by vote, District by District, and in the grand scheme of things probably represents a marginal shift on the political dial.
It is my suspicion that the story of the November elections is more nuanced and more volatile than meets the eye. I offer below my own diagnosis of the electoral outcome (which, whatever its other flaws, has the virtue of being mine), and draw implications for how future Democratic campaigns ought to be run. I hope what I have to say is provocative. I hope it leads to a debate about tactics and strategy. And, I fervently hope that it results in the recognition that the academic disciplines of Marketing and Psychology have much to contribute to the topic of political persuasion.
Some Background
It is my contention that the Democrats have not won a Presidential election in roughly 40 years. (How’s that for provocative?) Republicans have lost a few. I discount Jimmy Carter’s victory because he won with the gale force winds of Watergate behind him. I discount Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory because Ross Perot demonstrably siphoned off substantial numbers of Bush Sr. votes. And, I discount Clinton’s 1996 victory because he was an incumbent. To be sure, there have not been that many straight Republican victories either (Reagan in 1980 and Bush Sr. in 1988 were two relatively clean wins), but, whether you buy my premise or not, you will agree that their recent electoral record is arguably superior to that of the Democrats. Despite their demonstrable inability to govern, Republicans tend to win more elections. Why?
One important reason for their superior performance at the polls is their superior understanding of the marketplace. No, I am not talking about voter registration lists and data base management techniques that allow one to identify likely voters depending on whether they drink red wine and drive Volvos (though that is an important competence). Nor am I talking about their ability to insert ballot measures such as the prohibition of gay marriage, that then turn out certain kinds of voters who are more likely to vote Republican. I am talking about consumer intimacy, a fine grained and time sensitive understanding of the deep-seated and unstated issues and concerns of different segments in the marketplace that are susceptible to subtle and not-so-subtle forms of persuasion. Consider three areas of spectacular Republican success:

  • The appropriation of God. As Rabbi Michael Lerner has observed, by identifying a profound spiritual emptiness in the lives of ordinary people, Republicans have successfully employed God (more precisely, the Church) as a marketing tactic. This, despite the fact that free-market economics envisions no role for the right or left hand of God, but rather the invisible hand of market efficiency driven by ruthless self-interest, competition, and individual rationality.
  • The appropriation of the Flag (and sundry symbols). On national security, economics, and social policy (read “gay marriage”), the Republicans recognize the power of rhetoric over reality, particularly when communicating with “uninvolved” voters. Bromides such as “stay the course”, “tax cuts”, and “family values” trump the reality of ballooning mortality figures in Iraq, ballooning structural deficits at home1, and the presence of “pink Republicans” in the halls of Congress. President Bush famously doesn’t do nuance, and neither does Joe 6-pack.
  • The appropriation of the media. The Republicans are masters at controlling the media narrative. Whether it be generating disarray among Democrats over Senator Kerry’s slip of the tongue, or inoculating Republicans on the gap between their aggressive and muscular foreign policy and their own woeful lack of military service, the media has displayed a level of pusillanimity rivaled only by its level of incuriosity, largely due to fear of reprisal by the rabid right.

But before ceding the arena of Marketing savvy to the Republicans, let’s revisit November 2006. There exist insights and implications that might level and even tilt the playing field in favor of the Democrats.
The Political Marketplace
The best visual metaphor for the political marketplace is the dumbbell (Figure I). The sizes of the red and blue spheres are (not unimportant) empirical details, as is the magnitude of the multi-hued middle. But, there are three other important features of this picture. First, the base (on both the right and the left) is “brand loyal”. They will either vote for their guy (upwards of 90% in 2006) or not at all. Second, the voters in the middle (independents who are not brand loyal) determine the outcome of elections as much as (if not more than) the base. Independents broke for Kerry by 1% in 2004, while they broke for Democrats by 19% in 2006. Third, the middle is probably more complex than either of the extremes. There are at least three different segments in the middle: the uninterested, the currently uninvolved and the undecided. Each has different reasons for not being a conservative or a liberal, each has different reasons for voting (or not voting), and each is susceptible to different information sets that will persuade them one way or the other. And, it is not clear to me that either party has figured out how to deal intelligently with this new marketplace. There are at least two sets of important prescriptions that emerge, and that I discuss below.
Speaking with the Enemy
The best advice I have for Democrats trying to convert Republicans to their cause, is “Don’t”. It takes a great deal of effort to convert brand loyal customers because they have an emotional attachment to the brand that is difficult to overcome with argument, reason or evidence. Brand loyal voters don’t rely on candidates’ arguments when they support them. They rely on their own feelings. When exposed to the faces of the opposing Presidential candidate, both Republicans and Democrats display enhanced activation in the insula, an area of the brain associated with “disgust” and “feeling threatened”. They also displayed enhanced activation in their Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and portions of the anterior cingulate, perhaps in an attempt to enhance their negative emotions towards the candidate they dislike.2 Attempting to transform deep-seated emotions, at least in the short-run, is an enterprise fraught with pitfalls. Regardless of their expressed preference for Democrats, or opposition to Republicans, brand loyal Republicans will probably find it viscerally traumatizing to cast a vote for a Democrat. It’s difficult for a Hatfield to marry a McCoy. In fact, Democrats are much better off giving Republicans reasons to stay home, as opposed to taking the chance that a left-leaning Republican will revert to form, once faced with making an actual choice in the privacy of the voting booth.
The Middle is not the Center
And independents are not centrists. They care about particular issues, not brands. They are like the price sensitive customer who keeps switching long-distance calling plans because there is a better deal to be had. And, there are two features of these voters that make them interesting. The first is the degree to which they are informed (or not), and the second is the degree to which they are involved (or not). (I am struggling to avoid the temptation to employ the ignorance and apathy metaphor).
Each of these segments merits a different strategy. The “uninvolved” segment pays only peripheral attention to political messages when the election is months away. In research I have been conducting, I find that when the choice decision is temporally distant, advertising messages should emphasize abstract messages such as the “judgment”, the “integrity” and the “character” of a candidate. It is only when it gets close to decision time that concrete messages (such as “I have a plan to fix the budget deficit”) are attended to. Amy Klobuchar (MN) executed this strategy in textbook fashion, announcing a deficit reduction plan about 65 days prior to the election, as voters began to pay attention to detail. Prior to that, her rhetoric emphasized “real change” and “real leadership”. She beat her rival by a handy 20 points, while all other major races in her state yielded much tighter outcomes.
The “undecided” segment is quite another story. They tend to pride themselves on voting for the person not the party (they are brand unloyal), being informed about the issues, and being unpredictable. This is a group that is frequently offended by “politics as usual” including negative advertising and other overt forms of communication. Since they frequently see “both sides of the issue”, they are often faced with trade-offs. “Tastes great” versus “less filling” types of tradeoffs. Should healthcare be weighted more than security? Should the economy be viewed as more important than social issues? There are many Marketing principles that can be employed to break such ties. One non-standard approach called the “attraction effect” employs the introduction of a third (relatively unattractive) option into the choice set (see Figure II). This option is similar to the focal option and its entry influences the weight these voters attach to the attributes that influence choice. Think Ralph Nader — did his presence in the political firmament help or hurt Gore’s message? In research I have been conducting, it turns out that Nader’s presence could have increased attention to those attributes on which he and Gore dominated. (Unfortunately, he eventually stole some votes from Gore; our data show that had he exited the race after having drawn attention to the attributes on which Gore dominated, thus increasing their weight in the decision process, he would have benefited Gore more than had he never entered the race). While there may be other reasons to avoid engaging in such a strategy, one obvious implication is for Democrats to encourage the entry of like-minded candidates into a race, with the proviso that they exit once they have fulfilled their charge.
The “uninterested” segment is politically uninteresting. They are unlikely to vote for several reasons. They don’t believe their vote matters, the opportunity cost of their time is too high, they look down on politics, and the like. This segment represents a serious long-term problem, particularly if it grows, for both parties, not to mention the Union itself. But, in the short run, they are the segment that is perhaps best left alone.
Conclusion
The temptation to over-interpret the results of November 7, 2006, is strong and alluring. Republicans are looking for glimmers of “conservatism” among the Democrats who have been elected, suggesting that they are more red than blue, while Democrats are looking for evidence of a fundamental shift in the body politic, suggesting the country has turned more blue. Most thoughtful observers are focusing on the purple middle, and my caution is that the middle is distinguished by its complexity, the fact that it is not brand loyal, and that it is susceptible to very particular persuasion strategies that are sensitive to time (how temporally distant the decision is) and content (what attributes to emphasize and how). In other words, the middle is not “centrist” (in the DLC sense of the term). It is multi-hued, and it is persuadable, while the right and left are not persuadable because they are emotionally wedded to their political brand.
Figure I: The Political Marketplace

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Figure II: The Attraction Effect Illustrated
Panel A: Bush v. Gore (Before Nader enters)
Voters care about the environment and baseball and rank Gore higher on the former and Bush higher on the latter. The candidates’ shares of the electorate are equal, as reflected by the size of the circles.

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Panel B: Bush v. Gore (After Nader enters)
Nader is ranked lower than Gore on the environment and equally low on baseball expertise. He has little support.

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Panel C: Bush v. Gore (After Nader exits)
Gore’s share of the electorate has grown because Nader made environmental issues more important.

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Akshay R. Rao, PhD is the Director, Institute for Research in Marketing and the General Mills Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management.

1Try explaining what a “structural deficit” means to a college educated voter, without having their eyes glaze over. Go on, try it.
2Kaplan, Jonas T., Joshua Freedman and Marco Iacoboni (2006), “Us versus them: Political attitudes and party affiliation influence neural response to faces of presidential candidates,” Neuropsychologica, (forthcoming).


Abstinence Education

By Jasmine Beach-Ferrara
On a 100-degree day this summer, I took my dog on a run through Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. A mile into it, I looked up to see two teenagers, a guy and a girl, walking toward me, their shoulders brushing. Beyond us, an African drumming circle pounded away as part of an International Festival taking place on the park’s periphery.
My dog stopped abruptly in his tracks to relieve himself and I slowed down to jog in place. This, apparently, was all the prompting the teenage duo needed. In tandem, they veered towards me on the path and the guy — his shaggy bangs fanning coyly over his eyes, the collar on his pink polo perkily up — started talking about Jesus. As in, I’d like to tell you about my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the distance, the pace of the drumming picked up to a frenetic pace. Sweat dripped into my eyes as I blinked rapidly. Jesus?
I mumbled something about being comfortable with my faith and then gestured toward my dog, who was still crouching in a patch of weeds and staring off nobly into the distance. The guy smiled easily, undeterred. He was very calm and tan. Well, maybe you’ll join us for a church service this Sunday? he asked. The girl, much paler, nodded encouragingly as she offered me a brightly-colored, illustrated Jesus pamphlet. Maybe, I said as my dog jerked on his leash and pulled me down the path. Thanks, I called over my shoulder, out of a compulsive, and perhaps pointless, Southern politeness. My partner and I had moved from North Carolina to St. Louis just a week earlier and, in the midst of a Midwestern landscape that still felt foreign to me, there was something reassuringly familiar about crossing paths with evangelists.
Running again, I laughed, not derisively, but rather at the necessary absurdities of our America. Different day, different neighborhood, that could well have been me, waving someone down to talk earnestly about, oh, say, voting against a marriage amendment.
Might the progressive movement have more in common with the Evangelical Right then we like to admit? Like the pair I encountered in the park, we’re relying on door-to-door and in-the-streets evangelism to change hearts and minds about core spiritual beliefs and values. Across the country this fall, for instance, campaigns to defeat marriage amendments sent cadres of volunteers to knock on strangers’ doors and recite a two-minute script focused on conversion. I’ve been that volunteer and I’ve seen the guarded look on the face of Poor Voter X as she tries to shut the door without being too rude. Who can blame her?
Scripted, involuntary interactions with strangers are not an effective way to engage people, much less change their minds, about deeply-held beliefs. Election results, polling data and common sense all support this conclusion. Why, then, are progressive campaigns still relying so heavily on this strategy? I’m honing in on the LGBT movement in this article, but this question must be asked of any campaign attempting to defeat, or pass, a values-based ballot measure.
Since 2004, anti-marriage amendments have passed resoundingly in twenty states, including seven in the 2006 election cycle. The defeat of an amendment in Arizona is a tremendous victory for the movement. The narrowing gap between “yes” and “no” votes in several other states is also noteworthy. But the hard truth is that the LGBT movement is partly to blame for this storm of defeats: we can do better, if only we are willing to change our strategies.
As we knock on strangers’ doors, our opposition is busy preaching about the sanctity of marriage to thousands at a time from the pulpit, and microtargeting voters using consumer data. Putting aside basic democratic values like equality, they deserve some credit for their strategies. A hot button issue on the ballot does indeed boost turnout among your base. And when you put a “yes/no” question about gay marriage to a populace that is still figuring out what it thinks about the issue, most people will stick with what’s safe and familiar. Once again, the Right is playing smart offense while the Left cobbles together a formulaic — and ineffective — defense.
In the long view, anti-marriage amendments — and even the marriage issue itself — may come to seem incidental in the LGBT community’s journey towards civil rights. But in the short-term, we face a real, pressing dilemma in figuring out how to defeat these amendments. A holistic solution involves restructuring the LGBT (and the broader progressive) movement and adopting an approach to community and political organizing that is rooted in values and relationships rather than strategies of questionable effectiveness like canvassing and phonebanking. These are bigger picture topics for another day, though.
The question on the table today is how to engage meaningfully — and strategically — with the American public about values-based issues, including the charged question of whether full civil rights should be extended to LGBT individuals. Surprisingly, the short-term answer may be adopting another strategy from the Far Right: Abstinence Education.
Currently, when an anti-marriage amendment goes to the ballot, campaigns on both sides compete ardently for swing voters. Meanwhile, voters face the flawed, dichotomous choice of voting either for or against an amendment. For those on either extreme of the issue, these options are a good match. But what is that coveted swing voter, who, after all, isn’t quite sure what she thinks about gays getting married, to do? Anti-amendment campaigns expend tremendous financial and human resources trying to convince her — through short, scripted interactions with strangers — to cast a “no” vote. But, time and again, they fail to change her mind, her heart or her vote.
This should come as no surprise; after all, as people change, they typically do so slowly and idiosyncratically. Conversion takes time and the sooner we accept this, the better off we’ll be. In the short term, we’re not going to win the swing vote; so why not destabilize it?
For the time being, let’s say we’d still knock on a swing voter’s door to contact her. But when she opens it, our message, tone and goals would be different. Instead of simply exhorting her to vote “no” against an amendment, we would instead start a conversation acknowledging the complexity of the issues at stake. While still encouraging her to vote “no,” we would also present her with another option: to abstain from voting on this one ballot measure. As the election cycle progressed, we would use increasingly tailored messaging for a) our base, b) swing voters that seemed likely to vote “no” and c) swing voters who seemed likely to abstain. The only voters excluded from targeting efforts would be those who were certain to vote “yes,” a much narrower pool than is currently being excluded.
At first, the idea of abstaining from voting chafes against the basic democratic impulse that it’s always good to vote. But give it a few minutes. The questions being posed to voters by values-based ballot measures (about gay marriage, about stem cell research, about abortion) are inherently flawed; they don’t allow room for the nuanced and even conflicting belief systems that polling and anecdotal evidence suggest so many people hold. There’s no reason for us to continue to be complicit in this. Why not, instead, give voters a proactive option — abstinence — that actually correlates with their beliefs.
If sufficient numbers of swing voters abstained and if a campaign’s base turned out robustly, it could impact election results. Implemented successfully, this strategy would increase the likelihood of defeating an amendment by (1) reducing the number of votes necessary to defeat a ballot measure and (2) pulling swing voters away from the opposition. (For the sake of brevity, the details of implementation are not enumerated here, but they are available on request.)
A quiet piece of 2006 Election Day data from South Carolina points to the potential of this strategy, and the fact that some voters are also acting on the impulse to abstain. The South Carolina Equality Coalition reports that a total of 26,021 people who voted for governor abstained from voting on Amendment 1. Could this number be grown if a campaign were willing to adopt abstinence education as a proactive strategy?
Polling data and election results from 2004 and 2006 provide insights into the tension between actual beliefs, beliefs reported to pollsters, and voting behaviors. National polling conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates International in the months leading up to the ’04 election showed that 29% of people favored gay marriage, 60% opposed it and 11% were unsure. However, when asked whether they favored or opposed a legal agreement that would grant gay couples many of the same rights as married couples, 48% were in favor, 45% opposed, and 9% unsure. In 2004, amendments passed with at least 60% of the vote in ten states; in Mississippi alone, a full 86% of voters supported the amendment. In other words, many of the people who reported believing in equal rights, or who weren’t sure what they thought, ended up voting for amendments. Why? In part, at least, because our campaigns failed to engage them meaningfully, and failed to provide them with a way to accurately express their beliefs.
With the notable exception of Arizona, these tensions held true in 2006 as well. According to July 2006 polls conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 56% of people polled opposed gay marriage, 35% favored it and 9% were unsure; meanwhile 54% of people reported favoring a legal agreement that would grant equal rights to gay couples, with 42% opposed and 4% unsure. On Election Day, amendments passed by margins ranging from 4% (South Dakota) to 54% (South Carolina).
Public opinion is changing, and our strategies need to change along with it. The question is whether our movement is nimble enough to do this.
The problem with “Abstinence (Voting) Education” is that it’s a new strategy and thus challenges established methods of political organizing. But a variation on this approach has proven effective in public health work, a field that is also concerned with changing human behavior. The “Abstinence (Voting) Education” model is rooted in the public health theory of harm reduction, which years ago redefined how we think about treating addiction. In a harm reduction approach, a person gradually reduces her risk-taking behavior, such as drug use, and each reduction in risk is defined as a success. If a person uses drugs once a week instead of three times a day, for instance, they are making progress. In public health and in political organizing, the polarized choices — to vote yes or no, to be sober or relapsed — leave out that great swath of people who are in flux, who are in the midst of the (beautifully) messy and human process of change.
If any community knows about the change process, it’s the LGBT community, and it’s time to extend the lessons learned in our personal lives to the political sphere: people change, but they tend to change slowly, and what they need through this process is choice and latitude, not exhortations and polarities. “Abstinence (Voting) Education” meets people where they are and, like the most effective political strategies, plays to human nature instead of trying to change it.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the Director of The Progressive Project and is a consultant to non-profits and political campaigns. She is currently working on a novel and her writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Advocate, The Bellevue Literary Review and on Alternet.org. Those interested in discussing this strategy can reach her at jelibe@hotmail.com.