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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Daily Kos Interview with Bill Galston on the 2012 election

This interview by DemFromCT is cross-posted from the Daily Kos:
William Galston is a noted scholar (formerly the Saul Stern Professor and Dean at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland) and experienced political hand (Bill Clinton’s Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy in the ’90s) who is currently the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
This past week, Dr. Galston released a white paper, titled “Six Months to Go: Where the Presidential Contest Stands as the General Election Begins.” It caught my attention since that’s a topic of great interest to us, and I was pleased to see some familiar themes (see Things that matter in the presidential election, and things that don’t) covered in the paper.
Six topics in particular were the focus:
• An examination of polling results and public attitudes toward both candidates and important issues of the day.
It remains to be seen whether the negative perceptions of Romney that resulted from the nominating contest will endure. For the time being, at least, Obama enjoys a sizeable advantage on a host of personal qualities. He has a narrow edge in most of the key swing states. And his path to 270 electoral votes is easier than Romney’s. In short, he begins the general election contest with a modest advantage, which adverse developments at home or abroad could eliminate or even reverse. The 2012 election will be hotly contested, and the victor’s margin is unlikely to approach Obama’s seven-point edge in 2008.
• The mood of the country
Reflecting diminished confidence in government and public life, younger Americans are more likely to view the American dream as resulting from personal achievement. They are also less likely to give priority to ensuring opportunity for all members of society. Because they cannot rely on government for financial security, they experience increased pressure to provide for themselves and their families. But they are not confident that they will be able to do so if current trends continue.
• The issues
Every survey finds that economic issues dominate public concerns. The most recent survey of the Pew Research Center asked respondents to rank eighteen issues on a four-point scale from “very” to “not at all” important. Eighty-six percent said that the economy was very important, with jobs a close second at 84 percent. By contrast, four hot-button social issues–immigration (42 percent), abortion (39 percent), birth control (34 percent), and gay marriage (28 percent)–came in at the bottom.
• Ideology
The election of 2012 takes place against the backdrop of a political system that is more polarized along partisan and ideological lines than it has been for many decades–indeed, if standard political science measures are correct, since the 1890s. This fact has already reshaped the campaigns of both the president and his challenger.
• What kind of election will 2012 be?
It appears that 2012 will be more like 2004–a classic mobilization election–than either 1992 or 1996. Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama has turned out to be a polarizing president who has induced many voters to choose sides very early in the process. So the enthusiasm of core supporters–their motivation to translate their preferences into actual votes–will make a big difference.
• The Electoral College
The focus of this paper thus far has been on the national electorate. But of course we do not have national elections. As the 2000 election painfully reminded us, the structural difference between the national popular vote and state-by-state results can sometimes be consequential.
But it is important to keep 2000 in perspective. The Electoral College comes into play only when the popular vote is narrowly divided. If a candidate wins the popular vote by as little as 2 percent, it is very unlikely that the loser can win a majority of the electoral votes.
Dr. Galston was kind enough to respond to further questions we had about November 2012.
Daily Kos: A variety of sources (economic forecast models, online betting forums, pundits, polls) agree with your assessment of a close election, but one that Obama modestly leads. Short of a change in the economy (i.e assuming we continue with a slow but steady recovery and no euro shock), will this be the way it winds up? Is there any way this will not be a referendum on Obama? Can Obama make it a choice between him and Romney as in 2004?
Bill Galston: In my article, I argue for two basic propositions. (1) Elections involving incumbents are first and foremost referenda on their records. (2) In 2012, it’s Obama record on the economy that matters more than everything else put together. Compared to other recent elections with incumbents running, the economy right now is neither strong enough to guarantee victory nor weak enough to ensure defeat. If it gains momentum, Obama will win with room to spare. If it weakens further in response to the European crisis, the odds are that he’ll lose.
This is not to say that the public’s judgment of Romney is wholly irrelevant. If the people decide that he’s not an acceptable replacement for Obama, the president will be reelected despite widespread disappointment with his performance. But that’s not why Kerry lost in 2004. The right analysis, which I lay out in my paper, is that Bush did just well enough during his first term to earn an approval rating of about 50 percent, which turned out to be his share of the vote.
Daily Kos: Why the discrepancy between the state polls (Obama, e.g., leads in OH and VA) and the (currently close) national indicators (see above)? When do the state and national polls start to be meaningful, given that 2/3 of the electorate say they have made up their mind?
Bill Galston: The state polls are starting to reflect the tight national race. Obama is behind in Florida and North Carolina and is no better than tied in Ohio and even Wisconsin. In the end, the electoral college majority can diverge from the national popular vote majority only when the national margin separating the major party candidates is very thin–say, one percent. If the margin is even two percent, the odds that the popular vote loser will win an electoral college majority are extremely low.
I’d start paying attention to the polls right about now, because they are leading indicators of the kind of election this will be if the underlying conditions don’t change much between now and November.
Daily Kos: Pew’s Center for Excellence in Journalism notes a steady diet of unfavorable news coverage of Obama. Does this matter?
Bill Galston: Not much. When an incumbent is running, the people already have a ton of information, so additional information via the press is less significant than it would be if the candidate were running for the first time. In addition, most people are more inclined to trust the evidence of their own senses than they are the judgments of journalists.
Daily Kos: Why does Obama have so much trouble with the older white vote? Does the recent polling from Stars and Stripes suggesting Obama does well with military voters surprise you?
Bill Galston: There are a number of factors. From the start, Obama’s appeal was strongly generational. Older voters don’t understand him, and vice-versa. In addition, older white voters are less accepting of the new multi-ethnic America that Obama symbolizes. The recent Census Bureau report that a majority of births are now to non-white parents will strike some older white voters as a threat that the country they have known all their lives is slipping out of their grasp.
As for military voters, two points: (1) Obama is getting much higher marks for his conduct of defense and foreign policy than for his stewardship of the economy. Along with other Americans, military people like his aggressive conduct of the war on terrorists. Indeed, it appears that Obama has neutralized–at least for now–longstanding Democratic vulnerabilities in this area. And (2), the Obama administration has worked hard to earn the trust and support of veterans. It has been particularly forceful in areas such as health care and rehabilitation for wounded veterans, and in recent months it has been emphasizing employment opportunities for former military personnel as well. Gen. Shinseki is getting high marks as the VA Secretary.
Daily Kos: What story is the media missing in the early going? What should we be paying more attention to?
Bill Galston: On the substantive front, the performance of the housing market and Obama’s record in dealing with it are sleeper issues. From an electoral standpoint, reporters should be asking some hard questions about key “blue states” such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If Obama can hold them, then Romney’s path to victory remains narrow. If not, the challenger’s options multiply.
Thank you, Dr. Galston.

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