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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What Happened to the 50-50 Nation?

It’s been lurking at the top of the right-hand nav bar, but I thought I’d draw people’s attention more directly to a piece I recently published in the British magazine, Prospect.
I think it’s a useful summary of where we’ve been and where we’re going, so I offer it as an aid to thinking through political prospects for 2004 and beyond.
To whet your appetite, here are some excerpts:
In 2000, Al Gore and George W Bush divided the popular vote almost evenly (Gore led by a scant half percentage point) and Bush gained the presidency only after some controversial intervention by the supreme court. The Senate was divided 50:50 (until the defection of Jim Jeffords from the Republicans in 2001). And the House of Representatives was divided between 221 Republicans (50.8 per cent) and 212 Democrats plus 2 independents (49.2 per cent).
After the election, John Judis and I argued in our book The Emerging Democratic Majority that, despite currently being a 50:50 nation, America was changing in ways that were likely to produce a Democratic majority within a decade. Here are the trends we thought were leading in that direction.
Professionals Professionals are college-educated white-collar workers who produce ideas and services. They worry about the quality of their product and service, rather than simply whether it produces a profit, and tend to be socially liberal. They include doctors and nurses, software programmers, actors, teachers, engineers and fashion designers. In the 1950s, professionals made up 7 per cent of the working population and were the most Republican of all occupational groups. But as the US economy has changed – as the production of ideas and services has displaced the production of things – professionals in the workforce have more than doubled to 16 per cent. They are even more heavily represented among voters, comprising about a fifth of the electorate nationally; more in some northeastern and far western states. And a majority of them are now Democrats. In the past four presidential elections, professionals on average voted Democrat 52 to 40 per cent.
These are the long-run trends that we believed were reshaping US politics. In the short run, however, things have turned out differently. In the 2002 elections, the Republicans did very well (especially given that the president’s party usually loses seats in the first election of his term), gaining two seats to take back control of the Senate, and six House seats to bolster their majority there. And of course, George W Bush’s presence in the White House gave them unified control of the government – something they had not achieved even during the Reagan conservative revolution.
How did this happen? Start with this: if the elections had been held not in November 2002, but on 10th September 2001, the Democrats would have made impressive gains, increasing their one-seat advantage in the Senate and perhaps winning back the House. At the time, Bush was seen as a weak and ineffective leader, who was most comfortable reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to schoolchildren. His approval ratings, as low as 51 per cent in some polls, were poor for a president in his first year. In addition, the Clinton boom had given way to an economic slowdown. Combine these factors with popular support for Democratic positions on social security, healthcare, the environment and the economy, and you had all the elements for a Republican disaster.
Instead, 11th September happened. Bush res-ponded by abandoning his indifference to world affairs. His initial performance, leading to the ousting of the Taleban regime in December 2001, strongly enhanced his reputation. Bush’s approval rating hit 90 per cent in late September and did not fall below 80 per cent until March 2002. The rising approval of Bush, along with the importance attached to national security, increased support for the Republicans. In August 2001, a Harris poll had found only 37 per cent of voters thought the Republicans in congress were doing an excellent or pretty good job; by mid-October, that number had soared to 67 per cent.
Taking their cue from the White House, Republican candidates repeatedly charged their Democratic opponents with ignoring the war on terror and national security. In the Georgia Senate race, Republican Saxby Chambliss, who had never served in the military, attacked incumbent Max Cleland, a war hero who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, for not supporting the Republican plan for the homeland security department. The Republicans even went so far as to run an ad linking Cleland to images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
Nevertheless, with three weeks to go before the election, Democrats were leading in polls and many of the races. It looked as if they would hold or increase their margin in the Senate while winning seats but failing to take back the House. During those last weeks, Bush undertook a whirlwind national tour that highlighted the threat from al Qaeda and Saddam. In the last week alone, Bush made 17 stops in 15 states. At each stop, after briefly trying to allay voters’ fears about Republican economic policies, he would launch into a jeremiad about the threat from abroad. As he put it during a stop in Charlotte, North Carolina: “You’ve just got to understand there’s an enemy out there that hates America… No longer can we assume oceans will protect us… We must assume that the enemy is coming, and we’ve got to do everything we can to protect the homeland. That’s why I started talking about the issue of Iraq.”
Bush’s final tour turned a dead heat into victory for the Republicans and generated a pro-Republican surge. Republicans had trailed Democrats by three points in Gallup’s poll of likely voters on 21st-22nd October. By election weekend, 12 days later, the Republicans led by six points.
After the election, GOP pollster Matthew Dowd argued that the Republicans had won not because of Bush’s response to 11th September, but because voters trusted them more to improve the economy. If that were true, the election might have augured a new political era. But the war on terror completely overshadowed and in the end defined the terms of the campaign. The key factors in the Republicans’ success were all traceable to the peculiar post-11th September circumstances of this election.
These factors are no longer so strong and will weaken further, which is why November’s election should be very competitive.
Instead of the splendid little war that the president’s advisers thought would ensure his re-election, the invasion of Iraq is threatening to turn into a liability for Bush, despite Saddam’s capture. Bush’s approval ratings have returned to about the level they were before 11th September. Support for the war and Bush’s handling of it have dropped sharply.
January was the second deadliest month for US troops since combat operations were declared over (November was the worst). And then there was the claim made by David Kay, former chief of the US search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that there were no such weapons in Iraq, either now or before the US attacked.
According to recent polls, the US public believes that Bush does not have a clear plan for handling the Iraq situation and considers the level of casualties to be unacceptable.
They believe strongly that the results of the war have not been worth the costs in lives and dollars. They also strongly oppose the extra $87bn that congress allocated in November for the occupation and are very sceptical that they were told the full truth about Iraq and its WMD before the invasion. Most significantly, the public overwhelmingly believes that the war with Iraq has not made the US safer or reduced the terror threat, and that capturing Osama bin Laden and crushing al Qaeda should be the main purpose of the war on terror.
While Iraq may become a liability, Bush continues to enjoy high approval ratings for the broader war on terror. Still, the idea that the GOP will enjoy a long-lasting advantage on foreign policy looks less plausible with every passing month. The public now gives Bush rather poor ratings in the umbrella categories of foreign policy or foreign affairs.
Bush’s problems do not stop with Iraq. The economy refuses to catch fire, despite a 8.2 per cent growth rate in the third quarter of 2003. While growth should be respectable this year, relatively high unemployment and low levels of job creation, and sluggish wage and income growth, are likely to persist. The Bush administration may wind up presiding over a net loss of jobs (particularly in the manufacturing sector), something that no administration has experienced for 70 years.
In contrast, when Clinton was running for his second term in 1996, the economy was firing on all cylinders: strong growth, low unemployment, high levels of job creation and strong wage and income growth. Bush will not have such a record to run on. That will make it more difficult for him to defend his gigantic tax cuts ($3 trillion over the course of the decade), which were sold on the basis of their economic benefits. The public has never been particularly enthusiastic about these tax cuts, seeing them as having little positive effect on the economy and as benefiting the wealthiest. Those views seem unlikely to change.
Intimately linked to these tax cuts is the ballooning federal budget deficit. The idea that it is out of control is sinking in with the US public, and polls indicate that Bush has lost all credibility on fiscal responsibility. His declaration, made as he presented his budget for fiscal year 2005, that he would cut the half-trillion dollar budget deficit in half while also occupying Iraq, reducing taxes by another trillion dollars, increasing defence and homeland security spending, and travelling to the moon, bordered on the bizarre.
Even the two big domestic achievements of the Bush administration – the No Child Left Behind education reform act in 2002 and the Medicare prescription drug act at the end of last year – are proving to have mixed results. The first act, which mandates continual testing and sanctions against low-performing schools, was supposed to give the GOP a “tough love” image on the issue, without much additional spending. But the inflexible testing-based regime has developed a bad reputation as an “unfunded mandate” that fiscally-strapped states have to find the money for. State legislatures are in open revolt against the act; Republican-controlled Virginia, Utah and Ohio have threatened to opt out of it entirely. As a result, the political advantage that the GOP hoped to open up on schools has vanished; Democrats now run double-digit leads on the issue in public polls.
The prescription drugs act was intended to steal a traditional Democratic issue by providing a new drug benefit for senior citizens through Medicare. The provision of such an expensive new entitlement, GOP strategists believed, would burnish Bush’s “compassionate conservative” credentials and immunise him against the charge that he is only willing to spend money on the rich. It hasn’t worked out. The act is expensive (an initial estimate of $400bn over ten years has been increased to $540bn), though not because it is particularly generous. A senior citizen with $5,000 in annual drug costs will still pay about $4,000 out of his own pocket. The government declined to use its bargaining power with pharmaceutical companies to reduce drug prices. Not only did the act include no cost containment provisions, it actually makes it more difficult for US citizens to buy drugs from Canada, where prices are substantially lower. Bush’s approval ratings on healthcare, Medicare and even prescription drugs for seniors remain abysmal.
The two signature achievements, therefore, have done little to alter the perception that Bush and his administration are out of touch with ordinary Americans and tilted towards the interests of the rich – a sentiment that polls regularly record. This is only reinforced by a legislative and executive record that, apart from these acts, is one long effort to promote business interests through tax breaks, deregulation and rolling back environmental protections.
In every area reviewed above – including the invasion of Iraq – Bush has overplayed his hand and is out of step with public opinion. He started his presidency acting as though he had won a landslide in a country that was thirsting for a radical anti-government agenda. That misinterpretation of the public mood was fuelled by 9/11 and its aftermath when Bush benefited from the largest and longest “rally effect” the US presidency has ever seen. In effect, Bush took it as a licence to ignore public opinion and pursue the agenda dearest to his heart, the hard-right agenda of the base of the Republican party.
This is a bizarre strategy for a party that wants to build a new majority in the mode of William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago. Usually, majority-building involves moving towards the centre, not hard right (or left) to pick up moderates and independents. Instead, the Bush team seems intent on firing up its most resolute partisans and assuming that the rest of the voters they need will just follow.
This approach is oddly misguided, given what we know of the leanings of independent voters – the true centre of US politics. Recent opinion data shows clearly that the political views of Democrats and independents (two thirds of the electorate) are converging and pulling away from the Republicans. Democrats and independents are converging in their declining support for an aggressive foreign policy, in their increasingly sceptical attitude towards business and in their increasingly liberal and relatively secular social attitudes. In each case, they hold views much closer to one another than to Republicans.
Some argue that the real divide in the US is cultural. There is modern, secular, socially liberal “blue” America and there is traditional, religious, socially conservative “red” America and that is what political conflict in America is now about. A cultural war has replaced the struggle between economic interests. This is an exaggeration. Conflict around traditional policy issues remains intense. And political divisions by income, occupation and education are still a central part of the political landscape.
However, it is true that cultural divisions are also a key driver of voting behaviour. In the presidential election of 2000, whether a voter owned a gun and how often he or she attended church were good predictors of how that person cast their ballot. According to exit polls, Bush won the support of voters who said they attended church more than weekly by 63 per cent to 36 per cent, and voters who said they attended church weekly by 57 per cent to 40 per cent. These voters made up 43 per cent of the electorate, according to opinion polls.
What makes less sense is the idea that these cultural divisions favour the maintenance of a 50:50 nation or, still less, somehow favour the Republicans. Delving into the church attendance example, start with the point that the exit poll estimate that 43 per cent of US voters attend church weekly or more than weekly is too high, according to more reliable sociological surveys of church attendance. Move on to the fact that the groups in the less observant three fifths of voters in the exit polls – those who said they attended church a few times a month, a few times a year or never – preferred Gore over Bush, with support particularly strong among never-attenders, who gave Gore a 61 to 32 per cent margin.
Most critically, in surveys conducted over the last 30 years, it is the ranks of non-churchgoers that have grown the most. Those who said they never attended church or attended less than once a year grew from 18 per cent in 1972 to 30 per cent in 1998. This group is about twice the size of those who identify themselves as members of the religious right, and tends vigorously to support Democrats.
Much the same story could be told about other cultural divisions separating red and blue America: abortion rights, attitudes towards sexuality, women’s rights and feminism, civil rights and ethnic diversity and gay rights. The trend over time is towards more liberal views on all these issues, so the influence of vociferous opponents will wane and the influence of supporters will increase. Cultural divisions are not a stable basis for a 50:50 nation or a new Republican majority. They signal instead a Democratic majority that accepts and builds on these social changes.
Click here to read the entire article.

5 comments on “What Happened to the 50-50 Nation?

  1. Libertarian on

    I will go further. 19th century capitalism was based on Calvinism. One sign of being among the elect is wealth. One sign of being among the damned is poverty. If you are rich, it is because God has favored you!
    The divide is between those that are individualists and the collectivists, the ones that see the individual as most important and those that see the group as such, and those that see the state as dealing with temporal affairs and protecting individual rights and those that distrust human nature so the state must protect people from themselves.
    This is the divide.

  2. Laura on

    At risk of sounding like a raving paraniod I think Bush is a front for a political/religious movement that would be unpopular with most republicans and self-proclaimed conservatives if they were aware of his real agenda.
    I think Bush is the front for oligarchs who want to seize control of the federal government in order to create a one party state run on nineteenth century capitalist principles and Calvinist religious doctrine. I think this election is far more serious than a choice between policies one agrees with and policies one opposes.
    If Bush is re-elected he will be able to continue the right wing effort to pack all levels of the judiciary with judges who share their reactionary activist values. They will of course seek to gerrymander more districts,and without recourse to the courts it would be next to impossible to undo the gerry mandering. ;The five billion dollar deficet is intentional and designed to distroy medicare, Medicaid, Social SEcurity and other social programs.
    The war agaist Iraq is just the first in a series advocated by Perle, Rumsfield ad Wolfowitz who envision fifty years of war against Middle Eastern Islamic governments in a sort of modern Crusade. Perle, Rusmfield and Wolfowitz have all published articles which express their advocacy of near-perpetual war. The Heritage Foundation has issued position papers which advocate the deliberate making of giganitc debts in oreder to force the withdrawal of funds from social programs. This is a very scarey determined and thorouglhly anti-democratic group of people.
    It is a source of frustration to me that Democrats are unwilling to label Bush as an extremist. Maybe this year Kerry will not only proudly support liberalism but also expose Bush’s extremism. One of the most hopeful signs i see is that some Republicans are beginning to object to Bush. The US might have a 50/50cultural divid between cultural conservatives and secular humanists but there is very little support for years of war, and end to social funding, and a policy of deliberatly creating a society divided into rich and poor with a judicary and electoral system that favors the rich.

  3. Sara on

    Ruy — Thanks Thanks Thanks for highlighting the better studies of American Religious Identity and strength of attachment. These results have been available now for about ten years, but for some reason the mass media cannot get over their attachment to Gallup results based on using those 1940 questions they insist on using. Trying to get political commentators to just read through the more recent studies is ney impossible — they being so attached to their statements about the US being the most religious nation ever, anyplace, etc.etc.
    It has been a self fulfilling prophecy, while all the time those statements have not reflected measurable reality for years. Without question the US is divided among those who have a secular world view, and those who depend on a religious sectarian one — but the secular is clearly growing and developing in interesting ways, even though the leading cultural commentators do not recognize that reality. One little item that always interested me, but has not been explored is that Wall Street issued a strong warning against megachurch bonds about ten years back (They do measure consumer interest, growth of market segment, brand loyality, etc) and their position was that the megachurch market was way overbuilt. I’ve always suspected that his hard factoid was behind the “Faith Based Money Transfer” business. Anyhow, time is to get this information out of the Academic Journals, change the writing style, and get it into play.

  4. Poppy on

    Just a thought — the country appears evenly divided and the Democrats have spent the last 20 years screwing up left and right. The GOP has built a great organization, raises incredible amounts of money, has media out the wahoo and has lock-step followers in elected positons all over the country.
    Assuming we get just a little better, we should take them down. Assuming we start to get it right, we should take back the majority.


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