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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Will ‘Identity Voters’ Decide ’08 Outcome?

Jeffrey Feldman’s post “Frameshop: The Identity Voter” at his website frameshopisopen.com sheds light on an elusive group Democratic campaigns may need to consider in developing strategy. Feldman defines the identity voter thusly:

A person who chooses to support a political candidate primarily for the social and cultural aspects of the person (e.g., gender, race, geography, class, etc.), and only secondarily if at all for the policies of the politician.

It would be difficult to come up with a meaningful estimate of how many identity voters there are in the U.S., since many would not like to admit that issues and policy are not their top priorities. Yet we probably all know a few identity voters.
It’s not as simple as supporting candidates who have the voter’s background, as Feldman explains:

Being an identity voter does not mean, of course, voting for a candidate who is the same identity as oneself. Blacks vote for blacks, women for women, whites for whites–this would be more a form of mechanistic political tribalism than identity voting.
…There are, in other words, plenty of white identity voters, for example, who will support Barack Obama “because he is African-America” and plenty of male identity voters who will support Hillary Clinton “because she is a woman.”

Feldman could have added middle class liberals who support Edwards because they like his working class background, or WASPs who like Richards because they want to see more Hispanic leadership. Feldman sees both good and bad sides to identity voting — good that more Democratic voters are open to greater diversity of candidates, but bad that issues and policy are subordinate or worse, distant priorities.
Because of the diversity of the field of Democratic presidential candidates, Feldman believes that identity voters may play an unprecedented role in determining the ’08 outcome. If he’s right, the Democratic ticket will be challenged to craft an appeal to identity voters that doesn’t alienate those who vote for different reasons — not an easy task. (The first chapter of Feldman’s new book “Framing the Debate,” appears in today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review and a review of the book appears here.)
Meanwhile, Dems should vigorously deploy a grand strategy directed at all voters. In his book “Being Right Is Not Enough,” Democratic strategist Paul Waldman argues, for example, that Dem candidates must above all communicate character and values to voters, with policy and “framing” serving as tools to support this greater goal. Candidates who master this challenge will likely win the support of most identity voters, since good character and values are respected in all cultures.