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 17, 2018

How Influential Is The Netroots? or, You Want Links?

by Scott Winship
Over the past few weeks, the blogosphere has been debating the influence of the netroots on the Democratic Party, mostly inspired by the Lieberman/Lamont race. (For examples, click on any word that’s in this sentence.) At issue are two questions: how influential will the netroots be in elections, and will it help or hurt Democrats at the ballot box? I was going to follow up on yesterday’s post, but I couldn’t resist the urge to examine these questions with some data. Disclaimer: I’m not taking sides here and I claim no expertise on the netroots or the ways in which it exercises influence. Should snark, disdain, profanity, or sacrilege proliferate as a consequence of this post, I claim no responsibility.
I’ve located a few surveys of the netroots that are quite interesting. But the data geek in me began drooling when I learned that the Pew Internet & American Life Project lets anyone with access to statistical software download the raw data. I – like so many other people – spent yesterday evening creating crosstabulations on my laptop as I rode the bus home from my gym.
Moving right along, how influential can we expect the netroots to be? For my part in this debate, I’m going to just look at its size as one indicator. I’ll (mostly) leave it to others to elaborate on how my findings do or do not affect the influence the netroots wields. Using a post-election survey from 2004, I defined “the Democratic netroots” as those adults who “regularly” get “news or information” from “Online columns or blogs such as Talking Points Memo, the Daily Kos, or Instapundit” and who are either self-identified Democrats or liberals. Blogs were one of twelve media sources that were asked about, and each of the twelve was a separate question (so respondents didn’t have to choose between competing sources). Rather than answering that they consulted a source “regularly”, respondents could say that they did so “sometimes” or “hardly at all”. Everybody happy?
What does your gut tell you when you think of the percentage of adults that can claim membership in the Democratic netroots? The answer, according to this survey, is 1 percent. One percent of adults translates into 2.24 million people. At first glance, one percent may sound pathetic. But let’s provide some context. Since one strand of the blogosphere debate has compared the netroots with various special interest groups, it might be instructive to consider how large those groups might be. But first we need to isolate the activist subset of the Democratic netroots so that the comparisons below are apples-to-apples. Take a look:

• Democratic netroots members who either attended a campaign rally, donated money to a campaign, knocked on doors, or worked a phone bank – 1.6 million adults (0.7 percent of adults)
• Union members – 15.7 million
• NOW – 500,000 contributing members
• NARAL Pro-Choice America – 900,000 members of their “Choice Action Network”
• Sierra Club – 750,000 members
• National Resources Defense Council – over 1 million members
• ACLU – over 500,000 members
• Human Rights Campaign – nearly 600,000 members

It’s difficult to make comparisons because these groups do not include all activists in a given issue area. Plus there’s obviously substantial overlap among the groups. But it’s safe to say that there are more Democratic netroots activists than civil liberties or gay rights activists, at least as many as there are feminist activists (and hence probably minority activists), but fewer than there are environmental activists or (especially) union members. Given the influence these groups have had on the Party, it seems reasonable to conclude that the netroots really is a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, these interest groups draw their strength from the popularity of their mission. I would argue that the netroots’ “mission” is to elect candidates who are as uniformly liberal as public opinion in the relevant electorate allows. If I’m right, then mobilizing popular support for an across-the-board liberalism is likely to be significantly more difficult than assembling support for a liberal position on a single issue.
I’ll try to address whether I’m right or not tomorrow. But no big promises that it’ll be possible.


Dems Benefit from ‘Enthusiasm’ Gap

Despite the glut of articles decrying the Democrats lack of vision, message, unity etc., when it comes to rank and file “enthusiasm” for voting for Democratic candidates, the Party is in exceptionally-good shape. According to the most recent Pew Research Center poll conducted 6/14-19, Democrats hold a “sizable” voter enthisiasm advantage over the GOP, with 46 percent of Democratic RV’s saying they are “more enthusiastic about voting than usual,” compared to just 30 percent of Republican RV’s saying the same. As the Pew report concludes:

…the level of enthusiasm about voting among Democrats is unusually high, and is atypically low among Republicans. In fact, Democrats now hold a voter enthusiasm advantage that is the mirror image of the GOP’s edge in voter zeal leading up to the 1994 midterm election.
…What is particularly notable this year is the anti-incumbent sentiment expressed by independent voters. Fully 38% of independents want their member of Congress to be replaced, significantly more than said the same in 1994 (29%).

The poll also found that 51 percent of Americans favor the Democratic candidate in their district, compared to 39 percent favoring Republican candidates.


How Many Liberals and Conservatives?

by Scott Winship
Y’all ready for this? Another Data Day! (Admit it, when you read the first sentence that synthesizer-and-drum instrumental that they play at the baseball stadium between innings started playing in your head. And you kind of danced along.)
My vast legion of regular readers should know by now that I am dangerously obsessed with the distribution of liberals and conservatives in the U.S. The obvious first cut at this question is to look at polls that ask people how they identify. You should sit down if you’re not familiar with how these results turn out. Here is a representative set of findings:

• Adults, late 2004, based on my own analyses of the 2004 National Election Study: 35% liberal, 55% conservative (remainder are moderates, non-identifiers, or reported inconsistencies before and after the election)
• Adults, late 2004, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: 19% liberal, 39% conservative (remainder are moderate)
• Voters, late 2004, based on my own analyses of the 2004 National Election Study: 33% liberal, 56% conservative
• Likely Voters, January 2006, Democracy Corps: 19% liberal, 36% conservative

My own analyses are different from the others in that I have two responses from each person – one before and one after the election – and because the NES tries to get as many people as possible to choose either liberal or conservative rather than moderate. Anyway, the bottom line is that when respondents can choose “moderate”, roughly twice as many people identify as conservative as call themselves liberal. If moderates are forced to choose, they split roughly evenly, leaving 55-60 percent more conservatives than liberals. And these statements hold whether one is looking at adults, voters, or likely voters.
OK, the response from those who don’t like these facts is invariably that a lot of people really are liberal, but the term has been made into a dirty word by conservatives. If you ask people about their policy preferences and values, liberals would be in the majority.
Of course, saying it doesn’t make it so, but this assertion could be true. To test it, I used the NES from 2004, first choosing questions from the survey related to values and values-laden issues; foreign policy and national security; economic and social policy; and fiscal policy.* Within each of these four domains, I created weights for each question based on how well it predicted the presidential vote. Then I categorized everyone as a liberal or conservative in each domain by seeing whether weighted liberal responses to the questions out-numbered weighted conservative responses. Finally, (de-glaze your eyes) I weighted the four liberal/conservative designations based on their predictive power and categorized everyone as an “operational” liberal or conservative.
Now the good stuff. Based on my weighting scheme, the country is evenly split between operational liberals and conservatives. Adults are conservative on foreign policy and national security (52 to 48) and values (62 to 38), but liberal on economic/social policy (57 to 43) and fiscal policy (60 to 40). Consistent with the idea that liberal is a stigmatized word, just 56 percent of operational liberals self-identified as liberal, while 30 percent self-identified as conservative. In contrast, 79 percent of operational conservatives said they were conservative.
I divided the electorate into five groups. The biggest group consists of self-identified conservatives who are also operationally conservative – 42 percent of the electorate. These folks are solidly conservative in all four policy domains, and solidly Republican. Self-identified liberals who are also operationally liberal constitute a smaller group – 27 percent of the electorate. They are the mirror image of their conservative counterparts.
Another 13 percent of voters say they are conservative but are operationally liberal. Forty-three percent say they are Democrats, while just 26 percent indicate they are Republican. Solid majorities voted for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. They are consistently liberal in the four policy domains, except that they are split down the middle on values. It’s unclear whether values trumps the other policy domains or whether these are the voters for whom liberal is a four-letter word.
Voters who say they are liberal but are operationally conservative amount to just 5 percent of the electorate. Most of these voters are independents. They gave Bush 49 percent of their vote in 2000, but 59 percent in 2004. Tellingly, they are conservative on foreign policy and national security, as well as on values. They split on economic and social policy and on fiscal policy.
Finally, 13 percent of voters do not consistently describe themselves as a liberal or a conservative. This is actually a diverse group. They lean slightly Democratic, but they gave Kerry a solid 59 percent of their vote. Over half are operational liberals. They split on foreign policy and national security, lean right on values, and lean left on economic and social policy and fiscal policy.
There’s much more I could write, which I’ll save for a future post. One point I will eventually expand on is that the fact that so many people identify as conservative even when they tend to prefer liberal policies may imply that they are voting on “character” rather than issues. The liberal/conservative gap in self-identified ideology means something. For now, I’ll just note a couple of take-home points for Democratic strategy.
First, consistent with conventional wisdom, attracting swing voters means emphasizing values and national security. These issues are crucial to improving performance among inconsistent identifiers and liberal-identifying conservatives. Values issues also appear key to keeping and improving performance among conservative-identifying liberals.
It is possible that an economic populist message would be effective among inconsistent identifiers, who appear primed for both economic and cultural populism. Populism doesn’t appear particularly likely to resonate among liberal-identifying conservatives, who became much more likely to support Bush between 2000 and 2004, during which time the al Qaida attacks seem to have pushed them toward Bush. Nor does it appear to be promising as a strategy aimed at conservative-identifying liberals who, after all, call themselves “conservative” mostly on the basis of their views on values issues.
Finally, increasing turnout could be successful, but I found that nonvoters had pretty much the same ideological distribution as voters did. So it wouldn’t necessarily yield a bumper crop of new Democratic votes.
*Space prevents me from going into details, but if you are interested in a memo summarizing my analyses and additional results, send an email to swinship-at-gmail.com and I will do my best to get it to you within a couple of weeks.


Addressing Immigration Issues — Mid-terms and Beyond

Nicholas Riccardi and Mark Z. Barabak illuminate the GOP’s immigration strategy dilemma in their article in today’s L.A.Times. The authors discuss the hard-liners vs. moderates internal conflict among Republicans and their efforts to avoid being viewed as Latino-bashers, while appearing tough on illegal immigration. They also provide revealing examples of how it’s playing out in different mid-term campaigns.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Rick Santorum has launched an ad accusing his challenger of favoring amnesty for people in the country illegally and giving them “preference over American workers.” Rep. Bob Beauprez criticizes his Democratic opponent in the Colorado governor’s race for supporting state benefits for illegal immigrants. In the Chicago suburbs, congressional hopeful David McSweeney is attacking Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean on immigration — even though she voted in favor of the crackdown bill that passed the House in December.

Barabak and Riccardi note that part of the Republican hard-liners mid-term strategy is to demonize the more moderate Senate immigration legislation by branding it the “Kennedy-Reid” bill, even though GOP Senator John McCain is a primary co-sponsor. Not likely to work, as Jonathan Singer notes in his MyDD post on the LA Times piece:

If the Republicans believe that they can throw red meat to their nativist base while at the same time continue to court Hispanic voters, they are in for a rude surprise.
The Los Angeles Times might believe that Republicans can get away with talking out both sides of their mouths on immigration reform, but every time Republican politicians go out and bash immigrants in quasi-racist terminology they counteract the superficial Hispanic outreach pushed by Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove.

Despite the GOP spin machine, Democrats currently enjoy a double-digit lead on “handling of immigration issues,” favored by 34 percent of respondents in a L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll conducted 6/24-27, compared to 23 percent expressing more confidence in Republicans. Further, Ruy Teixeira’s Democratic Strategist article cites a Latino Coalition poll showing the Dems with “a stunning 61 percent to 21 percent lead over the GOP” among Hispanic registered voters.
For a more in-depth discussion of longer-range immigration politics, demographics and economic policy, read Roger Lowenstein’s “The Immigration Equation” in the NYT Sunday Magazine. Reuters has an interesting WaPo article on what is being done to increase the Latino vote by 3 million in ’08 over the 7.5 million Latino ballots cast in ’04. Reuters says 8 million “legal resident” Latinos now qualify for naturalization — 3 million in California alone.


HRC vs. GOP: Victory?

by Scott Winship
Mark Schmitt recently took issue with this op-ed by James Carville and Mark Penn asserting Hillary Clinton’s electability in the 2008 presidential election. Criticizing them for their lack of any empirical case, Mark cites approvingly the Strategist’s philosophy of “facts, not factions”. Matt Yglesias followed with a piece examining Clinton’s performance in New York relative to Chuck Schumer, Al Gore, and John Kerry in arguing that she would be a weak candidate. Now Garance Franke-Ruta has linked to a new Gallup poll that sheds additional light on this question. So let’s look at some facts.
While Garance’s post revolves around the views of Democrats toward Senator Clinton, what really matters for the electability question is how independents view her. According to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 48 percent of indies have a favorable opinion of her, while 46 percent view her unfavorably. (The rest are unsure.) This is remarkably close to John Kerry’s 49-48 margin among independents in the 2004 election. So an initial conclusion is that with Clinton heading the Democratic ticket, we will be dealing with another nail-biter in 2008. (Of course, much depends on the Republican ticket.)
On the other hand, Clinton’s favorability among Republicans – 26 percent – is significantly larger than Kerry’s performance among Republicans (a whopping 6 percent). Presumably she would end up getting substantially less than a quarter of the Republican vote in 2008, but it may be that she can attract enough Republican women to improve on Kerry’s performance.
That said, when respondents get the chance to say they are undecided as to Clinton’s favorability, just 11 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of independents are favorable toward her while 62 percent and 37 percent view her unfavorably. So, much of her support is tenuous.
That means a big question is whether Clinton’s popularity would go up or down over the course of a primary and general election campaign. Of course there is the possibility that many independents and Republicans who view her favorably will ultimately decide they do not want to relive the battle between the Clintons and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Many of them may not approve of having Bill Clinton back in the White House, particularly as First Gentleman.
I suspect, however, that Republicans would shy away from the sorts of attacks unleashed against the Clintons in the 1990s. One has to believe that the losses they sustained in the 1998 elections taught them that it is possible to go too far. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings have fluctuated between 44 and 54 percent since the start of Bill’s second term…except during and after the Lewinsky scandal, when they jumped 8 points in the first days that it broke and remained at 59 percent through mid-1999 (when she revealed she was considering a Senate run). If the Republican nominee has had an extramarital affair, alluding to the Clintons’ marital dramas will prove risky too.
No, they will have plenty to work with without having to prime swing voters to remember the various Clinton scandals. For one, there is HillaryCare. With health care as a major campaign issue in 2008, I suspect that the Republicans would rather face Clinton than other Democrats (who will have their own health care plans and no baggage from 1994). But the Gallup poll Garance links to reveals a second promising front for Republicans.
Among independents, the most common reason given for disliking Clinton was, “Wavers too much on issues to her advantage/wishy-washy.” If the campaign began today, she would go into it with 12 percent of independents believing she’s Clintonesque and a flip-flopper. These are basically the same characterological flaws that Republicans used effectively in the past four Presidential elections. Twelve percent may not seem that high, but keep in mind that this is before the GOP slime machine kicks in. You can bet the 527 groups will be out in full force, if not Rove or his protégés.
Furthermore, Clinton will face strong pressure in the primaries to change her Iraq position and to move to the left generally. As Howard Dean’s candidacy did to Kerry, Russ Feingold’s will set Clinton up to be more effectively portrayed as a flip-flopper in the general election. Indeed, it may be worse for Clinton. She will have much more successfully portrayed herself as moderate going into the primaries (before she zigs) than Kerry did, and because the netroots are feeling far less accomodationist today than in 2003 (at least on Iraq), she will have at least as far to zag in the general election.
So is Clinton electable? Sure. Is it likely she’d be elected? Much less clear. The evidence above gives reason to think that with Clinton as the nominee, 2008 could be the third carbon-copy presidential election in a row for Democrats, which would leave them agonizingly short of victory again. But with the current 50/50 Nation, it’s impossible to say with much confidence what would actually happen.
Update: Regarding Mark’s main question as to whether Clinton is likely to attract strong support from women in general and married and non-Democratic women specifically, I’ve tabulated some evidence from the 2004 National Election Study. Women, but not men, rated Clinton higher than they did Kerry on a “thermometer” scale where 0 equals very cool feelings and 100 equals extreme warmth. The average for Clinton was 59, versus 54 for Kerry. Men rated both between 50 and 51. So Carville and Penn seem correct here. On the other hand, Clinton’s boost among married women was no larger than her boost among married men, and much smaller than among single women. Married women rated Clinton 53 and Kerry 50, compared with 48 and 46 for married men and 66 and 59 for single women. Among Republican women, there was no boost, and she was barely any more popular than among Republican men. The average score for Clinton was 31, compared with 32 for Kerry. The figures for Democratic women were 80 and 73; for Republican men, 28 and 29. Finally, Clinton averaged 63 among independent women, while Kerry averaged just 55. Among independent men, on the other hand, she averaged 52 to Kerry’s 54. So while there’s some evidence a Clinton presidency would energize independent women (including married independent women, which I don’t show here), there’s little to indicate that it would convert other married women or Republican women. Furthermore, these numbers would probably fall over the course of a campaign, given GOP smear tactics.


A Dem Exit Strategy —Via Afghanistan

Former Assistant Secretary of State James P. Rubin has an interesting suggestion for Democratic strategists in his NYT op-ed “A War Democrats Can Win.” Rubin says:

Back in Washington last week, partisan warfare had erupted over a Democratic proposal to establish a timeline for withdrawing American forces from Iraq. Even though the top commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., was working on just such a plan, Republicans battered the Democrats as quitters, unwilling to hang tough in the fight against terrorism.
Next time, the Democrats should try a different strategy. Instead of calling for troop cuts in Iraq, they should call for transferring forces and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.

It’s not a new idea, and it has been suggested from time to time by different Dem leaders in recent years. But making it a major, unifying theme just might provide a credible exit strategy for Democrats. Rubin argues further:

By forcing a debate on transferring American forces back to Afghanistan, the Democrats can avoid the trap of allowing Republicans to claim they are weak. They can argue that their proposal is not a withdrawal from the front, but rather a deployment to an equally important front where American leadership can make the difference in securing a long-term victory….If nothing else, such a debate would focus attention on the Bush administration’s failure to finish the job in Afghanistan.
Americans know that Iraq has become a drain on our resources and reputation, but they are wary of giving up. On the other hand, since the Sept. 11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan, public support for finally finishing off the Taliban and their allies in Al Qaeda can be sustained for a long time to come.

Rubin doesn’t explore the political fallout of different scenarios we might leave behind in Iraq. But the merits of Democratic candidates talking about transferring troops instead of withdrawing them deserve consideration.


Should Dems Play Redistricting Hardball?

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision upholding most of DeLay’s redistricting scam, WaPo‘s Charles Babington assesses the Democrats’ opportunity and willingness to pursue a more aggressive redistricting strategy of their own. Babington’s article, “Democrats Not Eager to Emulate Texas’s Redistricting,” says that the list of states where a stronger Dem reapportionment strategy is feasable is “remarkably short”:

Several states assign the redistricting task to commissions, shielding the process from partisan control. Some states, such as Texas, are controlled by Republicans. Many others have divided government, in which neither party controls both the governorship and the two legislative chambers, making blatantly partisan redistricting impossible. Finally, some Democratic-controlled states have already carved out all the Democratic-leaning House districts they can, leaving no room for gains.
The result, redistricting experts say, yields perhaps four states where Democrats conceivably could try a mid-decade gerrymander comparable to that of Texas’s: Illinois, North Carolina, New Mexico and Louisiana. In each one, however, such a move seems unlikely because of factors that include racial politics, Democratic cautiousness and even a hurricane’s impact.

However, the balance of power in the states could change significantly in November if the Dems pick up a few key state legislatures and governorships, opening up fresh redistricting opportunities. (For a map depicting which states have both of their state legislatures controlled by the Dems or GOP, click here.) More disturbing is that the Democratic will to play redistricting hardball may not be there, according to Babington. He quotes DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel describing the response to his efforts to get some pro-Democratic redistricting in the states: “I couldn’t get enough fellow Democrats to see the benefits of that.” Babington cites similar reluctance on the part of Democratic leaders in other states.
The SCOTUS decision serves notice that the rules of redistricting have changed. We can be sure only that the Republicans will not hesitate to ruthlessly exploit every possible chance to tweak reapportionment maps in their favor in the years ahead, and their Texas pick-ups could be replicated in several other states. If Democrats don’t respond with equal fervor, securing and retaining a stable majority of congress is unlikely.
For a comprehesive guide to the redistricting methods of the 50 states, click here, and then select states in the left-hand column.


The Era of Terror

by Scott Winship
Lately hawkish Democrats have been disparaged for wanting to prioritize terrorism over other problems. Some object to privileging terrorism on substantive grounds. Other objections are strategic. I’d like to address both here with some data. But before I do, I’ll ask that we set aside the debate over Iraq for the purposes of this discussion. Terrorism was only tenuously related to Iraq before we invaded, in the sense that hostile regimes such as Saddam’s could potentially cooperate with jihadists to inflict damage on the U.S. One can oppose the Iraq War, favor redeployment, and still believe that terrorism ought to be the primary concern of the federal government.
First a brief substantive defense (since I’m supposed to be focusing on strategy). Lots of observers, bloggers, and pundits debate to no end how serious the terrorist threat is. But Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress just released findings from a poll of 116 experts. (Hat tip to Kevin Drum, who hat-tips Eric Martin.) One in three believes it is “likely” or “certain” that a 9/11-sized terrorist attack will occur in the United States by the end of this year. A majority of 57 percent believes we will experience a Madrid-sized attack by the end of the year. Four in five believe that by the end of 2011 another attack as devastating as 9/11 will occur.
While it is true that in terms of sheer capacity for destruction, the jihadist threat does not approach that of the Soviet Union during the decades of the Cold War, there is an important difference between the two cases. Mutually assured destruction can serve as a deterrent within the framework of nations acting as rational actors. But it will not deter stateless men who are committed to martyrdom. The same argument may be made when comparing terrorism to other foreign policy threats such as China.
Terrorism is also unique today in that it has the potential for violently disrupting the lives of civilians on American soil. I tend to agree with Newt Gingrich, who fears that another 9/11 would make the Patriot Act look like it was written by the ACLU. Don’t like federal snooping, sanctioned torture, extraordinary rendition, or enemy combatant treatment? Better hope that we manage to stop that single person it would take to detonate a dirty bomb in Washington D.C. and render it uninhabitable for several hundred years.
As for the strategic defense, many have pointed to recent public opinion polls showing that terrorism has declined in importance in the minds of voters. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, terrorism ranked last behind Iraq, the economy, health care, immigration, and gas prices as a national priority. The last CBS News poll that asked this question was in May and was open-ended. Iraq, the economy, and immigration clearly were deemed more important than terrorism. Polls from NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Fox News come to similar conclusions.
On the other hand, a recent CNN poll asked respondents to rate the importance of a number of different issues rather than having them choose one as the most important. In this case, more people deemed terrorism very important than said the same of Iraq, the economy, gas prices, corruption, immigration, or spying. The Pew Research Center has asked adults a similar question for a number of years. Terrorism has ranked first every year since 2002.
Taken together, this evidence indicates that while terrorism may not consistently be the single most important issue for voters, it is consistently very important. Crucially, a Gallup poll from last month indicates that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on all of the issues noted above…except for terrorism, where the advantage for Republicans is as large as the advantage for Democrats on Iraq [subscr. only].
In other words, Democrats have an advantage on most of the issues that are important to voters, except on terrorism, which is clearly a threshold issue for them. More to the point, terrorism was clearly the issue that drove the 2004 election, despite the infamously poorly-worded exit poll question that indicated moral values to be the main factor. In the National Election Study, when asked open-endedly about the single most important issue from the past four years, 43 percent of adults chose terrorism, followed by 19 percent who chose Iraq, and 12 percent who chose the economy.
When a number of issues are all important but the Republican advantage on one is relatively large, that single issue may dominate the others even if it’s not the most common issue mentioned when voters are asked for their most important issue. Joe Swingvoter may go to the polls thinking that education is his most important issue but feeling that the candidates are equally good (or bad) on it. But Joe may think that the Republican candidate is clearly better on terrorism, which is also important to him, and so he ends up voting for the GOP.
Uniting the substantive and strategic case for addressing terrorism more prominently, if we do have the misfortune of experiencing another terrorist attack, terrorism will surely reside unambiguously at the top of the agenda. And if a Republican is elected, he or she may not botch things the way our current commander-in-chief has. That could put us in the political wilderness for a generation.


Changing Hearts and Minds

by Scott Winship
We here at the Strategist pursue objectivity like Star Jones pursues TV cameras. The whole point of the magazine is to – as much as possible – use evidence to adjudicate between competing political strategies, putting our biases on the shelf. Obviously, we feel like there’s not enough objectivity out there among our fellow partisans and that evidence can persuade people to change their minds.
But what if putting our biases on the shelf is extraordinarily difficult? What if opinions are strongly resistant to change? Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge of Stony Brook University examine these questions in their new paper, “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs” (American Journal of Political Science, July 2006). Their work is sobering, and should be particularly so for Democrats who advocate strategies of “leadership”, “education”, or other approaches intended to change public opinion rather than accommodate it.
Taber and Lodge report a number of fascinating results from experiments they ran using their students as subjects. Subjects were asked to evaluate the strength of different arguments in favor of or against affirmative action or gun control after answering a battery of questions on their political views, including their views on those two issues. The arguments were based on statements by interest groups involved in the policy debate over these issues and edited to ensure that the pro and con versions were equivalent in terms of structure and length.
There was a notable tendency to evaluate more positively arguments that were congruent with one’s position. Subjects spent more time reading the arguments that they were predisposed to disagree with than the arguments that were congruent with their position. And when asked to evaluate the arguments, they criticized the incongruent ones much more often than they did the congruent ones, which they tended to speak well of. The implication the authors draw is that all that extra time spent reading the arguments that contradicted the subject’s view was devoted to poking holes in the arguments.
Students were also asked to evaluate eight out of sixteen possible arguments for or against a policy, which they chose by clicking on one of sixteen boxes to reveal an argument. The only information they had on the arguments was their source – two being organizations in favor of the policy (affirmative action or gun control) and two being opposed organizations. The students were told to seek out information in an unbiased manner so that they could educate other students on the issue. Nevertheless, subjects were more likely to choose arguments (boxes) associated with a source that espoused their own view than arguments from an organization with the opposite view.
Finally, students answered a second battery of questions on affirmative action and gun control. Taber and Lodge found that people generally became even stronger supporters of their original position after completing the experimental tasks. That is, even though the tasks were neutrally presented, these subjects made choices that reinforced their beliefs rather than challenging them, and their beliefs grew even stronger as a result.
An interesting footnote to all of this research is that the patterns were strongest among those students who had the strongest initial beliefs and the most political knowledge. Results for subjects in the bottom third in terms of strength of beliefs or political knowledge were less pronounced and rarely statistically meaningful, though they usually followed the same pattern as for subjects in the upper third.
Taber and Lodge’s paper points to the strong resistance we all have to questioning our beliefs. Anyone who has ever had extended discussions with conservatives trying to get them to concede that people really don’t have equal opportunities in life has experienced this phenomenon first hand. To abandon a belief in equal opportunity would force a complete restructuring of economic conservatives’ politics, if not their entire identity. But liberals and centrists can be just as guilty of self-delusion.
More importantly, if people tend to seek out information, news, and friends who tend to confirm their own beliefs, it will be quite rare for anyone to change their political views in any profound way. That means that political strategies rooted in bringing public opinion around, changing minds, or “leading rather than following” face significant psychological hurdles. This all accords with my own gut belief (bias) that political elites rarely change public opinion; they instead exploit situations where policy doesn’t accurately reflect public opinion. Anti-abortion activists haven’t moved people to the right on abortion; they have groped for restrictions that bring abortion policy more in line with public preferences (e.g., no partial-birth abortion, no public funding, etc.). There remains solid majority support for the Roe v. Wade decision, and no amount of framing will alter that.
This question of how malleable attitudes are couldn’t be more important – if accommodating moderates continually moves the median voter ever rightward, then center-left strategies need to be rethought. But if parties don’t change public opinion, there’s no basis for the claim that Republicans can simply keep moving the “middle” in their direction. On this question itself, all of us must strive to overcome our own psychological barriers to seeing the world clearly.


Dems’ ‘Edgy’ Campaign Leaders Break Tradition

L.A. Times reporter Janet Hook’s “Meet the Powers Behind the Democrats’ Strategy” profiles DSCC Chair Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel, chair of the DCCC. Hook credits both men with “an aggressive intensity.” She also discusses their conflict over campaign spending with Howard Dean and the politics behind some of their controversial decisions on strategy, including Schumer’s tradition-breaking endorsement of primary candidates.