washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ruy Teixeira

Democrats Need to Be the Party of and for Working People—of All Races

And they can’t retake Congress unless they win over more white workers.
by Robert Griffin, John Halpin & Ruy Teixeira

Read the article…

Matt Morrison

Rebuilding a Progressive Majority by Winning Back White Working-Class Moderates

From the findings of Working America, the AFL-CIO’s outreach program to non-union working people.
by Matt Morrison

Read the article…

The Daily Strategist

January 16, 2018

No End of Ideology: A Partial Response and Addendum

by Scott Winship
I wasn’t going to take the time to respond to the criticism of my piece in the American Prospect from last week, but then two prominent bloggers questioned my honesty and the quality of my work, which I can’t abide. This response is intended to be a defense of my motives and research. The American Prospect will soon publish has published a companion response piece to substantive criticisms levied at my essay by commentators affiliated with the magazine. I urge you to read both responses if you are interested in this debate.
I do want to emphasize from the outset that the arguments I have made and make below are mine and not the views of The Democratic Strategist. The Strategist takes no stand on this or any other issue, being dedicated to empiricism and to engaging all factions of the Democratic Party in order to build an enduring majority. As managing editor, one of my jobs is to solicit contributions from a diverse pool of political professionals, astute observers, academics, and activists. As blogger, I am responsible for providing my own perspective on the events and issues of the day. As it turns out, I have spent far more time on the issue of the netroots than I ever intended, and I hope that with these responses I can move on to other important topics.
First, I need to make two exculpatory clarifications by way of defending myself. The first is that I was not responsible for the “slug” used to promote my piece (“Netroots members insist that they’re non-ideological pragmatists. They’re wrong.”). While I don’t disagree with the point it conveys, the way it was expressed is more antagonistic than I would have begun my piece. The title that the Prospect’s editors gave to my friend Mark Schmitt’s piece – “Putting Down Netroots” – also had the unfortunate effect of making me look hostile to the netroots. I don’t fault the American Prospect for this – the provocative words the editors used likely brought more readers to my piece, and they need to attract eyeballs themselves.
I tried as best I could to make my piece as dispassionate as possible while still making the points I intended to argue. I hope that whatever the reader thinks of my piece, he or she will agree that it is written in a respectful tone. Indeed, nowhere do I indicate that I think liberalism is bad, and truth be told, I have quite liberal views myself (see this introductory post to my blog).
All of this is a preface to denying Chris Bowers’s assertion that I “clearly [take] sides with” the view that the netroots are “amateurish ideologues whose across-the-board liberalism will drive the party off a cliff.” In hindsight, it’s regrettable that after laying out the two opposing views among the most vocal participants in the Lieberman debate, I preface my analysis with “Who’s right?” which implies that I must choose one or the other side. To clarify, I do take the views that the netroots are almost uniformly liberal, that this liberalism affects their politics, and that it may have implications for the Democratic Party’s electoral success. On the other hand, nothing in my piece argues the netroots are “amateurish”, and I acknowledge in the final paragraph of my piece that even if I am right about the netroots’ ideological predisposition and the role it plays in their decisions, it may not be problematic for the party.
The second clarification is that I would like to have addressed more points than I did in the piece, but I was already well over the word limit I had been given. Space limitations were the reason I did not discuss Chris’s survey, and as will become clear, I don’t believe my omission of any mention of it makes my case “flimsy”. I strongly object to any insinuation that I omitted mention of it out of dishonesty.
On that note, while I have enjoyed my email discussions with Chris and while I admire the value he places on bringing data to netroots discussions, I am unpersuaded that his BlogPac survey of MoveOn.org members is the “best” data available. (Incidentally, I previously had explained this opinion and defended my reasons for using the Pew survey here and here.) Chris is right that my initial objection was to the low response rate in his survey, which may not be low by the standards of internal campaign polls but is very low indeed by the standards of academic research. Chris dismisses the risk low response rates pose to the validity of his results, calling my concern “preposterous”, but low response rates are generally a very big problem.
By way of example, let’s say one had wanted to conduct a survey of the views of Democratic voters in 2004. But to do so, one conducted a survey of delegates at the Democratic National Convention – a very small and unique group of Democratic voters. From this survey, one would have concluded [pdf] that only 12 percent of Democratic voters believed the federal government was too involved in private life. In actuality, the figure was 45 percent. The problem is that convention delegates do not represent Democratic voters as a whole.
When the decision to participate in a survey or not is up to the individual, if only a small number of them agree to participate, then there’s every reason to worry that those people are unrepresentative in the same way as DNC delegates are unrepresentative of Democratic voters. Indeed, this is almost surely the biggest problem with presidential exit polls – the people who agree to stop and take the survey are different from those who do not (in particular, they are more Democratic).
The problem of sample self-selection is potentially worsened in Chris’s case because he has – not inappropriately – been a strong advocate of the view that perceptions of the netroots are inaccurate. If the MoveOn.org members who received a request to participate in the survey were informed that the survey was sponsored by BlogPac or involved Chris, I would worry that this would disproportionately attract those who share Chris’s desire to prove the MSM wrong about netroots demographics and politics. The result would be a very select group of respondents that didn’t represent MoveOn.org members as a whole.
The Pew survey I used in my piece has a response rate twice that of Chris’s, but even so, it falls well short of academic standards too. I previously defended the Pew survey on the grounds that the researchers had conducted checks to see how biased their select sample might be. I have since learned that Chris’s survey involved similar checks, and so my concerns are somewhat alleviated. Nevertheless, for Chris to argue that in principle low response rates couldn’t bias his results is just all kinds of wrong.
My bigger concern about Chris’s results, though, is that he defined the “netroots” in a peculiar way. Chris and I disagree, but my own starting point was that the netroots consist of political blog participants. That is also Markos Moulitsas’s view, as indicated by the quote I included in my piece. Chris disagrees and would extend the definition to include, for instance, anyone who ever signed a MoveOn.org petition or donated money to a campaign online. (He expressed this view to me via email.) The problem is that this definition doesn’t pass the mom-and-dad test. My parents have been quite active with their local MoveOn.org chapter, but until I started writing about them a few weeks ago, they had no idea what the netroots were and only read blogs if I pointed them toward one.
If one agrees with Markos and me that one needs to participate in political blogs to be in the netroots, then Chris’s working definition makes it impossible to interpret his results as representing the netroots. According to the figures on his “50-State Strategy” chart here, those who “regularly” read “blogs such as Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, or MyDD” amount to just 19 percent of his sample. Nearly 4 in 10 said they never read blogs.
I should say that even if I did not disagree with Chris, I don’t have access to his data, so I have to make do with what is available. Chris clearly has information on blog participation in his survey, so it would be easy for him to re-run his results looking only at that sub-group. Do I know that his results would confirm mine? No, but I’d be more inclined to take them seriously. Heck, if he wants to give me the data, I’ll look at the results and summarize them myself, whether they support or contradict my conclusions. I have no dog in this fight.
That said, beyond Chris’s data and sample, I do dispute a few of his other conclusions. (From here on out, I will take the above data and sample issues as unproblematic.) Consider first his chart showing that 73 percent agree that the party should run inspirational candidates who communicate clearly, while 24 percent agree that it should run candidates who are liberal across the board. I’ll first note that the fact that one-quarter of the netroots – by Chris’s definition – is unambiguously ideological is not to be dismissed lightly. Furthermore, if we compare the percent who strongly agree with each position – and the netroots are nothing if not strong-minded – the split is not 73/24 but 32/18. Restricting the definition of “netroots” to blog participants would surely produce a result showing that a larger share is unambiguously ideological.
Another problem with Chris’s interpretation eludes the basic issue at hand. What is inspirational to the netroots is likely going to elicit their liberalism or populism (see Governor Schweitzer). While it may be, as Chris’s poll finds, that in the abstract the netroots prefer inspiration to (uniformly) liberal positions, in practice they are not likely to find inspirational candidates who do not share the bulk of their views. If netroots members assume that these liberal positions or populist attitudes will inspire other voters, as I claim a substantial share does, then this assumption may affect the fate of the party.
Who should the party run in conservative and swing districts? One in five of Chris’s respondents asserts it should run liberals no matter what the chances of winning. The rest say they would tolerate a moderate if “a liberal or progressive candidate may have little chance of winning.” Put this way, the fundamental problem is again eluded. The issue is when and where a liberal has little chance of winning. And one point that I make in my piece is that two-thirds of the netroots seems to believe either that voters are more liberal than they are or that a candidate’s ideology doesn’t matter. Finally, I’ll again note that the breakdown among those who strongly agree that the party should run moderates in moderate areas is not 78/19, but 36/12.
Regarding Chris’s emphasis on the diverse Democrats supported by the netroots, I’ll first note that of the six most favorably-rated politicians in his data, none voted for the Iraq resolution (either because they voted against it or because they were not in Congress at the time of the vote). Furthermore I think the two most relevant findings are that Russ Feingold leads all potential presidential candidates except Al Gore and Barack Obama – both of whom claim they are not considering running – in the number of people giving them a “very favorable” rating (and Jack Murtha and Barbara Boxer out-poll him), and that less than four in ten of the people in Chris’s sample gave very favorable ratings to any candidate save Gore and Obama.
Before putting Chris’s criticisms aside, I have to emphasize that his post ironically demonstrates one of the central points of my essay: that the ideology of the netroots – masked as pragmatism – serves to stifle critiques from moderates. Chris worries that if (when?) Lieberman loses, my piece will be used to bolster negative views of the netroots. Put aside the fact that I claim nothing about the netroots other than that they are liberal and ideological; my piece begins with the sentence, “Tuesday’s Connecticut primary race between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont is not about the netroots.” (emphasis in original)
To be clear: It’s not that I don’t care whether my piece is misused by ideologues on the center or right; it’s that I care more whether the ideology of the netroots will hurt the party. The netroots can’t rule out on principle critiques from the center because they “reinforce Republican talking points.” To do so is to use partisanship as an excuse for opposing an ideological critique that runs counter to their liberalism.
To Stirling Newberry’s charge that “people like [me]” are ideological, I can only say, “Guilty!” Note that nowhere in my piece do I say being ideological is inherently bad – I just raise the issue of whether a particular ideology is helpful or hurtful to the party. The only relevant question about my own ideology is whether it supersedes my objectivity, and if Newberry wants to argue it does, then bring…it…on…
It seems that Newberry needs a guide to rhetoric, which I’m happy to provide here. The belief that his TPMCafe photo is pretentious, for instance, would be an opinion. The major arguments in my essay would be supported factual claims, even if we might disagree about the extent to which they are adequately supported. The bulk of Newberry’s blog post consists of opinion and unsupported factual claims. For example, he writes that I assume that moderates aren’t ideological. This is a factual claim about me, but unsupported by anything I wrote in my piece. About moderates, he writes,

They are more willing [than the netroots] to engage in violence to defend their interests and world view, they are more hostile to outsiders and they are more rigid in their thinking. They have an ideology which they use to force fit everything into a very small view of the world.

For Newberry and the similarly confused: this is a mix of unsupported factual claims and opinion. The claim about violence is also – opinion coming – bizarre.
Newberry has the right to call me “sloppy”, but he could not have picked a more offensive epithet to throw at me. Hopefully it’s clear from this defense and my companion response that he wouldn’t know sloppy if it gave him a wet kiss.
Moderates care about the party as much as liberals do and in fact share most of their views. The question of whose strategic assessment of the electorate is more correct is an empirical one that all of us ought to be working to get to the bottom of. That was the intent of my piece, and it is the intent of everything that I write in this blog. Aside from the side-splitting humor.


Rising Environmental Concerns Boost Dems

A major new L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll addressing global warming and other environmental concerns brings more bad news for Republicans. The poll, conducted 7/28 to 8/1 in the midst of a nation-wide heat wave, indicates that Dems have a strong advantage on the entire range of environmental issues. For example, when asked which party “does a better job in Congress when it comes to handling environmental issues, the Democrats of Republicans?,” 50 percent favored Dems, with only 22 percent chosing the GOP. The poll also showed heightened concerns about global warming, with 73 percent of respondents agreeing that is is “a serious problem,” compared to two-thirds back in 2001. The poll addressed a broad range of major environmental issues, and none of the statistics favor the GOP. The issue is a huge winner for Dems.


Pundits See Dems Chances Improving

Heat wave got you feeling a little limp and ragged? Hie thee to Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, where Sabato and U. Va. Center for Politics colleague David Wasserman have an energy jolt for battle-weary Dems in their article “The 2006 Midterms: Guilt by Association? Trends show an impact on contests across the nation.” The authors paint an encouraging picture of campaign ’06 as the 100 day countdown begins:

Surer signs are emerging that something more substantial than a “micro-wave” is heating up this summer. Historical trends and big picture indicators–generic congressional ballot tests and approval ratings of President Bush’s job performance in particular – have always been heavily stacked against the GOP in this “sixth year itch” cycle, but aggregations of more race-specific indicators are now suggesting that Republicans are headed for their most serious midterm losses in decades.
…more voters and local Democratic leaders than ever before seem ready to cast aside their personal affections for longtime GOP incumbents for the sake of sending Congress and the Bush administration a message. Possible Democratic takeover seats such as Rep. Johnson’s and Virginia GOP Rep. Thelma Drake’s, which seemed implausible targets as recently as a year ago, have slowly moved down the pipeline into contention, are now fully engaged by party committees alongside the nation’s most competitive. These are the kinds of movements that are characteristic of “macro-wave” elections, the only kind of election that would flip the leadership of Congress to Democrats this year.

Sweet. And it gets even better, say Wasserman and Sabato:

In the past month or so, it’s appeared as if Democrats have been on the upswing almost effortlessly as members of the GOP have suffered under the burden of the administration’s sagging numbers. More individual races are attracting the attention of voters and donors as Election Day comes into closer view, the overwhelming preponderance of finance reports and voter surveys released in the last month have shown races moving in principally one direction–towards Democrats.
…But often the story is best told by the polls that aren’t released: in the past month, the Crystal Ball has encountered a veritable ocean of polling data released by Democratic candidates and consultants touting substantial (if unbelievable) advances, but GOP firms haven’t been nearly as eager to release private polling. As long as this remains the horse-race storyline, it won’t be hard to tell which party is entering the final stretch of 2006 with confidence in their prospects.

And the authors are jacking up their assessment of Democratic prospects in November:

In this inhospitable climate, the GOP could well get burned worse than initially expected. At this stage, the Crystal Ball is shifting its outlook from a Democratic gain of 6-8 to a Democratic gain of 12-15 seats in the House. We also believe that our original guestimate of a Democratic gain of 2 or 3 seats in the Senate is probably too low; we now expect a Democratic Senate gain of a minimum of 3 seats and a maximum of 6 seats…In the governorships we will now be surprised if Democrats do not pick up at least 4 net governorships, bringing them to a total of 26 of the 50 statehouses. The Democratic gubernatorial gains could even be as high as 6 statehouses.

But, echoing the conclusion of an earlier DCORPs study, Sabato and Wasserman have a cautionary proviso:

Democrats cannot truly capitalize on the withering political climate faced by the GOP unless they succeed in convincing large numbers of voters to evaluate their home-state Republican candidates through the powerful lens of national displeasure. In other words, the size of Democrats’ gains will be contingent upon how well they play the game of guilt by (Bush) association as Republicans seek to escape the shadow of their unpopular chief executive.

Fair enough, and we suspect that there will be no shortage of Democratic candidates eager to accept this challenge.


American Prospect Piece on Netroots

by Scott Winship
For those who just can’t get enough of my netroots obsession, the American Prospect has published a piece by yours truly that synthesizes the various posts I’ve written here and refines the points I’ve been trying to make. Like everything in The Daily Strategist, my opinions and perspectives do not represent The Democratic Strategist, and I suspect that only one of my bosses would fully embrace the article. I still like the other two though.


Dem Turnout Concerns Tempered by Evaporation of GOP Safe Seats

Jim VandeHei’s WaPo article “Democrats Scrambling To Organize Voter Turnout” reports growing concern among Dems that their GOTV program is lagging behind the GOP’s ground game. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has joined the critics, says VandeHei:

Pelosi — echoing a complaint common among Democratic lawmakers and operatives — has warned privately that Democrats are at risk of going into the November midterm elections with a voter-mobilization plan that is underfunded and inferior to the proven turnout machine run by national Republicans.
…”What the party really needs is to get serious about local, volunteer-based” operations, said Jack Corrigan, a longtime Democratic operative. “The last-minute, throw-money-at-it approach . . . does not really solve the fundamental failure to organize that is there. The DNC is moving in the right direction, but needs to do more, fast,” he said.

VandeHei quotes DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s reply that “What many people do not realize is that…we are turning our operation into a 50-state, get-out-the-vote effort.” Dean is asking donors for $25 per month for the Dems’ GOTV effort.
The GOP turnout program does sound better-coordinated in VandeHei’s description. But pro-Democratic groups, including the AFL-CIO, America Votes and MoveOn are also gearing up for a major turnout effort. In addition, it appears that GOP resources will be stretched a bit thinner in November. L.A Times staff writer Janet Hook reports mounting evidence that a good many of the GOP’s historically “safe” House of Reps seats are now being aggressively contested — and more vigorously defended.


Who You Callin’ Obsessive?

by Scott Winship
OK…which one of you guys is responsible for this? Believe it or not, I had no role in putting that together.
As you may recall, I’ve been pretty tough on the demographic research firm American Environics. (see here, here, and here). My biggest criticism has been that their data appears to contradict the respected American National Election Study, showing strange trends and implausible levels of authoritarianism. The statistic that always seemed craziest to me was their claim that in 2004, 52 percent of Americans – not 52 percent of men, mind you – agreed that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house”. Fifty-two percent? Surely no more than, say, 30 percent of women would agree with that, meaning that 70 percent of men would have to agree. No way.
And the NES justified my disbelief: 78 percent of adults agreed that “women should have an equal role with men in running business, industry and government”. Only 16 percent agreed in the General Social Survey that “women should take care of the home, not the country”. My current boss, Ruy Teixeira, and I came up with a number of other reasons to question their data.
Well, let me backtrack a little bit. I recently saw AE’s principals, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, give a presentation on their research. The first “interesting…” moment came when they announced that their survey had a question that matched the NES “equal role” question I just cited. They found that 87 percent – compared with our 78 percent – agreed that women should have an equal role. In other words, both surveys implied that Americans think men and women should have equal opportunities outside the home, but AE’s implied that a majority believes fathers should rule the home.
But I still wasn’t buying it. I next went to a breakout session that Nordhaus and Shellenberger gave. This was one of those times where I just couldn’t let go of something. So when I saw an attendance sheet being passed around the room, I got an idea that I shouldn’t have pursued…but I did. The conference was mainly comprised of state and local elected officials. All of them had seen Nordhaus’s and Shellenberger’s first talk. I wrote at the top of a sheet of paper, “What percentage of your constituents would agree that the father must be the master of his home?” I made three columns: State, Male Constituents, and Female Constituents. And then I passed it to my right, telling my neighbor that, “We’re supposed to pass this around.”
Then I watched as the survey made it to Nordhaus’s immediate left, was walked over to the attendee on Shellenberger’s immediate right, and eventually made it back to me. You can’t imagine how much I enjoyed this. I held onto the survey and later tallied up the responses.
Well, in the end I found that the average attendee thought that 43 percent of her or his constituents agreed with male supremacy in the home. “Interesting…” moment number two.
Of course, there were umpteen million problems with my “survey”. So late that night, when I should have been sleeping, I was instead looking for more evidence. Eventually I stumbled upon a polling data archive [$] that included a question that was worded almost just like the AE question. This question – in a 2000 survey administered by the marketing research firm DDB Needham Worldwide – asked whether respondents agreed that “the father should be the boss in the house.” And you just know what’s coming, don’t you? “Interesting…” moment number three. The survey found that 44 percent of adults agreed.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger found that people were becoming more male supremacist between 1992 and 2004, so the AE figure for 2000 is presumably lower than 52 percent. That puts the DDB Needham figure and the AE figure reasonably close – maybe eight points apart – but it’s still a fairly notable discrepancy.
Similarly, while AE’s data showed that 40 percent of Americans agreed that “men are naturally superior to women” in 2004, the DDB Needham data put the figure at 30 percent in 2003.
Now this sounds like I’m poking another stick in the eyes of Nordhaus and Shellenberger, but actually, I’m feeling a little better about their data. Their survey includes Americans as young as 15, and I suspect that if N&S excluded the 15-17-year-olds, their male supremacy figures would drop a little bit more, basically because a lot of teenagers are immature or disproportionately come from families and cultures with more traditional family roles.
Nonetheless, there are still a number of discrepancies between the AE data and the NES, including trends that go in opposite directions. In a perfect world, AE would provide access to their data, or at the very least more detail about their survey methods. But AE’s data is understandably proprietary, given that they operate in a competitive market. It should be easy enough, though, for them to provide additional basic tabulations so that others can compare them to other polls.
Anyway, how depressing is it that something like one in three American adults basically believes that women are inferior to men?….


Battle for the House – The GOP Scorecard

For a revealing look at the GOP skinny on some specific House of Reps races, read Kos’s post “House 2006: Reynolds names names.” Kos provides NRCC head Tom Reynolds’s assessment of endangered GOP incumbents, along with the NRCC perspective on vulnerable Dem incumbents, both culled from Reynolds’ recent Roll Call article. Kos reports the DCCC’s take on Reynolds’s analysis, noting that Reynolds, who has eliminated all mention of the word “Republican” from his own campaign’s website, is also vulnerable.


Dems Rethinking Redistricting Demographics

In the wake of the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, The Boston Globe‘s Joseph Williams has an article discussing the pros and cons of “majority-minority” districts from a progressive point of view. As Williams explains, celebrations of the Act’s renewal are tempered with a growing concern about the dilution of the African American vote:

But the renewal overshadowed a quiet but growing debate among Democrats: whether mostly black voting districts in cities like Petersburg — which helped elect the state’s first African-American House member in more than 100 years — should be diluted to spread around liberal voters and help elect more Democrats get to Congress.
While most black politicians and activists agree with the concept of “majority-minority” districts, others say they’re a mixed blessing: By sweeping a concentrated number of black voters into fewer districts, the Voting Rights Act’s unintended effect may be to increase racial polarization and help preserve Republican congressional power

Williams adds,

Some Democrats, including some African-Americans, believe their party has better odds of retaking Congress if African-American voters are divided among many districts, leaving just enough of a percentage in any one district to elect minority candidates while helping more Democrats run competitively in surrounding districts.

Since African Americans vote about 90 percent Democratic, finding the right balance is a difficult challenge. Democrats squeemish about addressing such raw political calculations should take note that Republicans’ are more than eager to overload districts with African American voters. As Williams notes:

…Republican-dominated legislatures try to design districts with the maximum possible number of minorities — such as the 2d district of Louisiana, which is 63.7 percent black and elected Representative William Jefferson to Congress with 79 percent of the vote.

The point is echoed by University of Virginia elections expert Larry Sabato “The Democrats have an enormous number of excess votes in these majority-minority districts.” Maryland Political Scientist Ron Walters disagrees, pointing out that 60 percent African American voters may not be enough to secure minority representation in some districts.
The debate will continue to intensify at the state level, where congressional districts are redesigned. (For a more in-depth analysis of the issue, see Thomas F. Schaller’s article). If Democrats do as well as expected in the gubernatorial races this fall, and win a few key state legislatures, they will soon be faced with increasingly difficult redistricting decisions to secure the Party’s future.


Kansas, Duke, and Relative Income

by Scott Winship
Apologies for the lack of posts, but I’m realizing that when I have a roundtable discussion to coordinate, posting has to take a backseat. I’ll do better though. Please. Don’t go.
What’s the matter with Kansas? Possibly nothing, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Duke economist Jacob Vigdor [pdf] (go Blue Devils!). This conclusion isn’t that novel, but rather than pointing to cultural issues as the reason that working class voters vote Republican, Vigdor argues that voters’ well-being depends not only on their standard of living but on their living standards relative to others in their reference groups.
I’ll be honest with you – you don’t want to read this paper unless you love the Greek alphabet. It has a deceptively catchy title – “Fifty Million Voters Can’t Be Wrong” – but a whole lotta math. But here’s the gist. Research indicates that individual evaluations of well-being depend on how others are doing. Vigdor considers two types of “others” you and I might compare ourselves to – people in a similar economic situation as us, and people who are geographically near us. He proposes a mathematical model relating political preferences to income and income relative to a reference group. Theory predicts a number of ways that relative income could affect political preferences, and real-world trends and patterns can be cited that are consistent with these predictions. If the predictions are borne out and accurately reflect reality, then the finding that relative income affects political preferences can explain why the working and middle classes tend to vote Republican and why they have not become more Democratic than they have as inequality has increased in recent decades.
Whew! Got that? OK, let me break it down more slowly.
Vigdor’s theory of relative income predicts that the more income inequality there is in a geographic area, the more support there will be for redistribution among the poor and among the rich who are altruistic. The idea is that when a poor person looks around and sees rich people, she is more inclined to support redistribution than if she looks around and sees only poor people. When an altruistic rich person encounters lots of poor people, she will be more likely to support redistribution than if she only comes across other rich people. Among the working and middle classes, support depends on how many rich people there are, how many poor people, and how altruistic voters are. With more rich people, for instance, the working and middle classes will support redistribution because they will benefit. When Vigdor estimates the key “parameters” in his mathematical model using statistics, he finds that the estimates are consistent with these predictions.
An implication of Vigdor’s findings is that one reason support for the Democratic Party among the working and middle classes failed to increase more as inequality grew is that segregation between the rich and everyone else has been on the rise for several decades. That means that today, the poor and the working and middle classes are less likely to see rich people when they look around than they were in, say, the 1960s.
Additional support for Vigdor’s theory comes in his finding that the relationship between income inequality and support for Al Gore in 2000 is stronger in urban counties than in rural ones. That is, in cities, people can look around and see whether there are many or few rich people, while in rural areas with low population density, it’s more difficult to do so.
Vigdor’s theory also predicts, and his data supports the predicton, that poor, working-class, and middle-class voters should have been less likely to vote for Gore the more poor people there were in their county. Rich individuals should have been – and were – less likely to vote for Gore the more high income people there were.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the Kansas question, Vigdor’s theory predicts that if voters compare themselves to people who are in a similar economic situation, then working- and middle-class voters should be less likely than poor or rich voters to support the Democrats. That’s because of the particular way that income is distributed in the U.S.
As income increases from $0 to a working-class income, the number of people at each income level gets larger and larger. That means that more often than not, when people in this income range (“the poor”) compare themselves to other poor people, they will find that there are more poor people doing better than them than worse. They will thus tend to support redistribution.
On the other hand, as income increases from a working-class income to an upper-middle-class income, the number of people at each income level gets smaller and smaller. When people in this income range (“the working and middle classes”) compare themselves to other similarly-situated people, they will find (more often than not) that there are more working- and middle-class people doing worse than them than better. Consequently, they will tend to oppose redistribution.
Finally, as income increases from an upper-middle-class income to an upper-class income, the number of people at each income level continues to get smaller and smaller, but the decline is not very steep. When the rich compare themselves to their peers, they will tend to find that there are nearly as many people doing worse than them as there are doing better. The rich will tend to be indifferent toward redistribution.
These predictions about support for redistribution are also supported by Vigdor’s data. Vigdor notes that since the New Deal, the income distribution in the U.S. has changed so that more people fall in the “working and middle classes” range where comparing oneself to one’s peers will produce opposition to redistribution. He also speculates that if, in the post-Civil-Rights-era South, poor whites began to compare themselves not to other poor whites but to even poorer blacks (who would not have been considered a proper reference group during Jim Crow), then southern whites would have become less redistributionist and would have moved into the Republican column, which is of course what happened.
It’s important to note that – as with all models – the estimates produced are accurate only to the extent that the model accurately depicts reality. The point of Vigdor’s analysis is not that his estimates are the final word or that relative income is the be-all, end-all, but that under fairly basic assumptions about how different factors affect political preferences, a relatively simple model applied to real-world data confirms the predictions made before he began playing around with the data. The evidence implies that Democratic underperformance among working- and middle-class voters is due in part to the tendency of people to compare themselves to others and to a number of social patterns that made this tendency prevent people from becoming more Democratic.
Incidentally, I remain a Blue Devils basketball fan even though a) their engineering school denied my undergraduate admissions application and b) Coach K is allegedly a big conservative. Don’t forget to check out the roundtable discussion on redistricting, electoral competition, and targeting of districts.


New Group to Help Chart Dem Victories

Democrats interested in longer-range strategy should check out a Sunday WaPo article by Chris Cilliza and Zachary A. Goldfarb, “Atlas Group Strives to Map Out Success for Democrats.” According to the article, three veteran Democratic strategists, Mary Beth Cahill, Steve Rosenthal and Michael Whouley are launching “The Atlas Project” to design a “comprehensive strategy” to win votes in a dozen ‘battleground’ states. The authors say the innovative project will “analyze election data, interview local Democrats, and mount a polling and targeting effort” beginning right after the November elections. Rosenthal, former head of America Coming Together (ACT), says the Atlas Project will provide

a more thorough targeting analysis than has ever been done before…In the heat of an election, it seems we’re always playing catch-up…Our goal with this project is to bring together the best strategic thinkers — the innovators at the state and national level — to learn from what’s been done over the past several elections.

Polling firms Garin Hart Yang Research Group, Penn Schoen & Berland and Brilliant Corners have already been retained, and Copernicus Analytics has been recruited to analyze the data so political messages can more effectively win the support of specific constituencies. The first Atlas Project strategy ‘road maps’ should be available by January ’08.