The following article by John Russo, former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University and visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, first appeared at cleveland.com:
In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tied in battleground Ohio. This suggests a very close race in Ohio in the fall.
Economic issues, especially trade, led many former Democrats to cross party lines to support Trump in the Republican primaries. Many who hadn’t voted in recent elections joined them. We’re likely to see a repeat of this in November unless Democrats change their trade policies.
None of this should surprise Democrats, especially those in Ohio.
By Will Marshall and Ed Gresser
Populism has a checkered history, but that hasn’t stopped a new crop of American politicians from embracing it in reaction to the supposed scourges of trade and globalization.
Today’s neo-populism has right and left strands. Republican populism is mainly anti-immigration: Think Patrick Buchanan or Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Ariz). Democratic populism, personified by two newly elected Senators, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is vehemently anti-trade. The two strands converge in the person of CNN blowhard Lou Dobbs, who blames immigrants and corporations for either taking American jobs or sending them overseas.
U.S. progressives ought to think twice before adopting the “populist” label, and not just because it’s commonly hung on such noxious demagogues as Jean Le Pen, Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The homegrown American populism of the 1880s and 1890s–the horny-handed-sons-of-toil faith identified first with the People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s and, later, three-time Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan–also is a dubious model.
The old populism, after all, was a curious amalgam of cultural reaction and worker-farmer radicalism, mixing calls for important democratic reforms–public regulation of corporations, the progressive income tax, labor union rights, direct election of U.S. Senators–with nutty obsessions like “bimetallism,” and nastier tinges of nativism, racism and religious bigotry.
A better model for today’s Democrats is the Progressives, who came after the populists. They agitated for fundamental reforms in government and society that went with, rather than against, the grain of industrial transformation and urbanization. That is why they succeeded where populists failed–in gaining power and governing.
Neo-populists are right to focus on growing economic insecurity and inequality in America. But they need to offer more realistic diagnoses of their causes as well as remedies.
Americans today face an economic paradox. U.S. industrial output is booming, consumers have their choice of the world’s goods, jobs are reasonably plentiful and unemployment is fairly low. But middle class workers simultaneously see their wages stagnating and old guarantees of security eroding–not only in the sense of stable jobs, but more fundamentally in their families’ security against financial disaster.
The combination is difficult for either party to manage.
On one hand it spells trouble for Republicans. Their tendency to discount well-grounded anxieties appears callous and out of touch. And the Bush administration’s answer to the global competitive challenge is principally tax cuts–‘more money back in your pocket.’ But that is irrelevant to fear of a sudden and sharp fall in income and security, especially when it favors the wealthy more than middle- and lower-income families. It is easy to see why the public gives the White House little credit for economic policy.
On the other hand, a phobic reaction to foreign competitive pressures carries risks for Democrats. Simply railing against the pain and unfairness of economic change didn’t work in Bryan’s time. (The Great Commoner, somewhat inconveniently, was an ardent champion of free trade.) It is likely to fare no better for today’s “Lou Dobbs Democrats,” as the tele-populist modestly calls them. They need only think back to the 1980s, when pessimistic rhetoric about decline and deindustrialization helped ensure Democratic presidential defeats.
Confronting the quandary, the center-left has fragmented into three main schools of thought: neo-populists who blame trade for economic woes; social Democrats who want to import the Nordic model of capitalism from Scandinavia; and progressive modernizers in the Clinton-Blair mold (like us), who want both to raise America’s game in global competition and raise the floor of security beneath ordinary working families.
The neo-populists, allied with industrial unions and a rump group of surviving protection-minded business lobbies, are convinced that foreign trade pressure is unfair and that the U.S. cannot compete against low-wage countries. A typical approach is to demand an indefinite halt to trade liberalization (a “strategic pause,” as Jeff Faux terms it) along with trade protection through tariffs on Chinese goods and strict labor-standards tests on all imports, and to rail against offshoring without offering a policy-based way to block it–because, short of somehow turning off the Internet, none exists.
Whatever its political utility, populism fails as policy. Higher labor standards in developing countries are a worthy goal, but they wouldn’t make countries with vast reserves of low-cost labor less competitive. And the experience of high-tariff U.S. industries like textiles and shoes gives little reason to believe new trade barriers would keep U.S. industries competitive. To the contrary, they would lower living standards and damage our companies’ ability to compete, by raising input costs, depressing the purchasing power of their local customers, and jeopardizing access to foreign markets just as America’s housing boom fades and we need to rely more heavily on exports to generate growth. Rather than offer a new path to the future, populism simply offers complaint.
A more sophisticated critique comes from what might be called the “social democratic” wing of U.S. liberalism. The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, for example, points out that trade is a much bigger part of European economies than our own–yet Europe has managed to avoid the job churning and worsening income disparities that have made globalization so contentious here. The reason? Europe has more lavish social welfare policies, more extensive labor market regulation, and stronger unions. Kuttner advises Americans to look to the Scandinavian model–the Danes are the popular flavor this year–in which solid growth rates and low unemployment coexist with high-wage policies and generous social spending. In this telling, America needs not old-fashioned protectionism but a healthy dollop of European-style social democracy.
Prospect editor Harold Meyerson likewise is no fan of free trade, but he stresses its impact on wages rather than jobs per se. He identifies the real problem as “global convergence of wages,” as U.S. workers lose bargaining power with employers thanks to shrinking unions and the surge of millions of low-wage workers from countries like China and India into the global marketplace; and the solution as a much enlarged form of global governance designed to create social democracy on a world scale.
But–even leaving aside the improbability of Americans voting in European tax burdens and state paternalism, or a global regulatory program–there’s a hitch. The U.S. social democrats seem determined to hold progress on trade liberalization hostage to highly ambitious and sometimes unattainable goals–a dramatic expansion of America’s welfare state; a miraculous revival of militant trade unionism; global governance mechanisms; and full implementation by low-income countries, enforced by trade sanctions, of labor and environmental standards which took Washington decades to develop. This means growth, efficiency, and trade reforms to help the poor must wait for a social-democratic millennium.
Which brings us to the third camp, the progressive modernizers. They reject claims that Americans can be shielded from technological and structural forces affecting the whole world, and hope instead to replace the industrial-era safety net with a new social contract that helps working Americans manage the risks of global competition and share in the rewards of growth. They agree with social democrats on a key point: as U.S. businesses and labor provide less security for workers, government must step into the breach and provide more.
Where they differ is in insisting that robust economic growth and open trade policies are not bargaining chips, but crucial policies for generating the resources and political support for a new social contract with American workers. They backed Bill Clinton’s trade liberalizing initiatives, which played a vital role in the prosperity of the late 1990s, support new trade initiatives that build upon Clinton’s work. But they also recognize that changing terms of global competition pose new risks for working Americans which demand new responses.
In short, they believe America must both fashion a winning strategy for global competition and build a more solid foundation of economic security beneath working families. The strategy can be summed up in four points:
- Trade liberalization remains crucial to growth, economic efficiency, rising living standards, and amicable relationships among great and rising powers.
- The integrated global economy and the technological revolution are the result of structural forces–economic reform in places like India and China, container shipping, the Internet–as well as government-to-government negotiations. Their benefits outweigh their costs, and in any case they will not be repealed.
- For workers, globalization brings risks, as many businesses can no longer provide the health, pension and other quasi-welfare state functions they did in earlier years. And independent of global competition, changing American patterns of work, with quick shifts among companies now far more common than careers at single firms, means neither businesses nor Wagner Act-style unions are as well-suited to providing these protections as they once were.
- Imaginative policies can ease these problems. Government should step in where businesses no longer can, ensuring that job loss does not mean loss of health care, pensions, or hopes for college and home ownership. And social institutions, in particular a reformed and reshaped labor movement, have an essential part to play in finding solutions.
Democrats in Congress can begin to craft an agenda based upon these premises this year. A progressive, optimistic-but-realistic-and-empathetic legislative program for 2007 would open markets, by supporting completion of the Doha Round with a grant of fast-track authority focused on the WTO rather than small-scale free trade agreements. It would simultaneously begin strengthening family security. Recognizing that unions and liberals are right to say the Trade Adjustment Assistance program is wholly inadequate to the modern scale of disruption, it would also draft a broader Economic Adjustment program open to all dislocated workers, including broadened support for health insurance and job placement services. Accompanying both would be a competitiveness package to extend R/D tax credits, bolster investment in basic research, and ensure that visa policy allows American businesses and universities to attract the world’s brightest students and scientists. As we write, Congressman Charles Rangel is leading a courageous effort to develop such a broad policy synthesis, beginning with a formula for approval of several pending trade agreements and revival of the Doha Round.
A modern Progressive presidential candidate, in turn, can use this agenda as a foundation for a much more ambitious social contract, including fundamentally changed domestic policies and modernized civil-society institutions. By 2010, this would include guarantees of universal health insurance, portable pensions, and new forms of insurance to ensure that job loss does not mean inability to pay college tuition and mortgages. It would call upon unions to adopt a new role for the decades ahead, modeled on the approach of their most successful colleagues abroad, such as the Scandinavian unions.1 Their memberships are the world’s highest and their attraction for young workers uninterested in conflict with employers rests upon through career development, unemployment assistance and job training and placement programs.
In the 19th century, populism faded and died–unable to preserve a fading agrarian order, and offering more complaints than realistic solutions. Bryan, its great champion, lost three presidential elections. Rather than take this as their model, today’s Democrats would do better to look again at the Progressives who succeeded the populists. They struggled not to preserve a fading agrarian order, but to update old political and social arrangements to meet the new structural challenges emerging from industrialization and urbanization. The Democratic candidate who offers the modern version of this program may well be the one who can win; and will certainly be the one offering the new social contract that anxious workers and a puzzled country need.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute and editor of With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty.
Ed Gresser has served as Director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Project on Trade and Global Markets since February, 2001. In this capacity, he writes and speaks on the value of open markets, internationalism and social responsibility in the global economy. Gresser joined PPI after ten years of service in the Clinton Administration and as a senior Congressional staffer.
1For a discussion of alternative models for modern unions, see the recent TDS discussion.
By Amy Chapman
The months since the election have been filled with a variety of polls and opinions explaining why Democrats were able to sweep both the House and the Senate. In reality, each of the most commonly-cited factors–war fatigue, Republican corruption, a coordinated media effort and boots on the ground–contributed to winning this year. However, as we look deeper into the results, Democrats at every level of government won in this election, and it is clear that the Party infrastructure built early in states was critical to this result.
Besides the obvious change in congressional control, one of the most exciting–and important–results of the 2006 election was that Democrats won up and down the ticket in states across the country. Though most of the national focus rested on the House of Representatives and the Senate, the large number of Democrats who were elected to state legislatures, statewide offices, city councils and school boards will be of tremendous value to the Party and the nation for years to come. These newly elected leaders will function as our farm team for higher offices, as leaders for progressive policy, and as liaisons to a new generation of activists. The Party as a whole won in this election.
Critical to this success was the focus on creating a permanent Democratic Party infrastructure. State parties played a vital role in recruiting down-ballot candidates, training precinct leaders to implement a ground operation, and providing vital communications, research and voter file resources to candidates and to county and local parties. It was this ‘build-up’ of a permanent party structure that helped to elect the state and local candidates and support the many federal candidates who won or came close. In many states, the state parties provided the fabric that extended coattails beyond House and Senate victories and made sure that local candidates had the attention and resources they needed.
One example of this success was Kansas. The Kansas Democratic Party worked hand in hand with the Governor’s office, candidates, county parties, the national committee, faith organizations, and other allies and activists—including Grassroots Democrats, the organization I head–to make unprecedented gains at the local, state and national levels. The State Party knew what was happening on the ground, understood the electorate better than anyone outside the state, and used every tool at its disposal to win.
As a result, the Party kept the Governor’s office, picked up the Attorney General spot, increased the number of Democrats in the State House by double digits and beat a popular incumbent in the 2nd Congressional District–a race no one outside of the state was giving attention a month before the election.
In Indiana, the Democratic State Party was fighting on every level to rebuild after what had been a devastating 2004 cycle, in which the state had voted for Bush and Republicans had taken the Governorship, Lieutenant Governorship and the state House of Representatives. The state legislature then removed the dedicated funding source state parties had received, leaving the Party with a $750,000 budget shortfall.
Financial support from Grassroots Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and staff subsidies from the DNC Partnership Program—along with the political atmosphere in Indiana going into 2006–gave the State Party the opportunity to organize support for the strongest candidates early in the cycle. They were able to then build an efficient on-the-ground organization to mobilize voters on Election Day. In just two short years, the State Party was able to build a financially self-sufficient operation, take the lead in communicating the overall message to the electorate, coordinate events and field operations for candidates across the state, and lead the Party to unparalleled electoral success.
As a result, Indiana Democrats gained three Congressional seats, regained control of the state House, and are positioned to successfully defend the eight Democratic mayors in the state’s ten largest cities in 2007 as well as to field challengers in the two remaining mayoral races. Because the Indiana State Party remains fully-staffed, active, and focused on the long-term strategy of winning, more Democrats are competitive earlier in the cycle and on more levels than in previous years.
In Washington state, Democrats have steadily expanded their reach as the State Party built stronger ties to its volunteer community during the heat of the victorious, yet bloody, 2004 gubernatorial campaign. That year, the State Party was instrumental in delivering the win to Governor Christine Gregoire. The Party made the critical decision to insist on a recount, then assumed the debt associated with the recount and raised the necessary funds to cover its cost. They also provided most of the volunteer observers to staff the recount and shepherded the entire Democratic community through the effort, basically acting as the coordinated campaign leader for the recount.
The quick and able maneuvering by the State Party gave Democratic voters in Washington a vested interest in their party. This carried into the 2006 cycle with more grassroots candidates and volunteers participating in the election and more success at every level. Democrats in 2006 successfully defended Senator Maria Cantwell’s Senate seat, improved their majority in the state Senate and picked up seven seats in the state House.
The importance of early investment in states has been the subject of heated conversation over the last two years. The DNC’s “50-State Strategy” highlighted the importance of what Grassroots Democrats has been working on since January 2003.1 Strong organized state parties with professional staff and year-round operations will lead to more Democratic victories. While the results of the 2006 election will not end the debate, they have certainly strengthened the argument for building infrastructure and long-term investment.
What needs to be done before the next election?
Despite the progress that has been made over the past four years by Grassroots Democrats, and since the last presidential election by the DNC, we have really just begun the process of genuine state party infrastructure building. In contrast, the Republican Party has focused on building from the ground up for over 30 years. They have invested money and training in their state and local parties; recruited, trained and paid for key state party staff; and, most importantly, have made state parties an important part of their electoral strategy.
The 2006 election showed that investment by our side will work and that when Democrats talk to people in every county of every state, they listen. We need to make sure Democratic state parties are well-funded and reasonably self-sufficient in their fundraising. Although most states can use non-federal money to pay for up to 72% of their costs, most state parties instead principally rely on federal dollars from national sources in order to operate. By forgoing non-federal money, which ordinarily can be raised in greater amounts than federal dollars and from a wider variety of sources, state parties are using precious federal dollars for operational costs like electric bills and paperclips. This means there is less money to advocate for federal candidates and undertake direct voter mobilization during election season, which federal funds are uniquely able to underwrite.
Additionally, we need to make sure state parties have well-trained professional staff on a year-round basis. It doesn’t work to have a volunteer receptionist for 18 months of an election cycle and then a huge, temporary staff for the last six months. It especially doesn’t work if you want to elect Democrats up and down the ticket. The field and communications staff provided by the DNC was a good start in helping states build a strong, stable staff. However, we must continue to invest as a complete organization should consist of professional staff that is trained in compliance, communications, research, field operations, online strategy, political outreach, information technology, fundraising, and volunteer recruitment.
We need to make sure each state party develops clear goals and a detailed strategy to elect Democrats up and down the ticket using the best available targeting, enhanced voter files, and research. In addition, parties need to be at the forefront of both traditional on-the-ground field work as well as new forms of online grassroots mobilization in order to maintain an electoral edge.
Finally, we need to make sure that all Democratic elected officials and allied organizations are partners in building strong and useful full-time state party infrastructures. There is too much work to be done to leave it to one organization, the Governor or the Presidential nominee.
The only way to sustain the Democratic wave of 2006 into the next election and beyond is through dedicated grassroots action with state parties as the key building block.
1In contrast to the 50-State Strategy, which focuses on federal expenditures, Grassroots Democrats helps states with their non-federal expenditures in the areas of compliance, finance, online strategy and communications, technology, and political management. In compliance with the current campaign finance law, Grassroots Democrats and the DNC do not coordinate efforts but, by nature, work towards the same goal–strong state parties. For more information on federal and non-federal expenditures, visit www.grassrootsdemocrats.com/faq
Amy Chapman is Executive Director of Grassroots Democrats. She is a seasoned political strategist specializing in campaign management, coordinated campaigns, field programs, labor and constituency group outreach. Amy has extensive experience managing all levels of Democratic campaigns, including many local and state races in her native state of New Jersey, and in both federal and non-federal races throughout the country, from presidential to senate, and gubernatorial.
By Cornell Belcher and Donna Brazile
The 2006 midterm elections brought about monumental change in the nation’s power structure when Democrats, bolstered by the support of Black and Hispanic voters, took control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1992. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 8) made history when she was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House, and a record 87 women are now serving in Congress (16 in the Senate and 71 in the House of Representatives) plus three female Delegates to the House from Guam, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. Of the 74 women Representatives and Delegates, 23 are women of color (14 African Americans, 7 Latinas and 2 Asian Pacific Islanders).
Although the number of African American candidates elected to federal office did not change during the 2006 midterm elections, Duval Patrick was elected the first Black Governor of Massachusetts (the second African American to serve as Governor in the history of the U.S.). Record numbers of Black candidates ran for public office at all levels of government, and targeted races for higher office included Black candidates from both major parties.
White voters broke 51 percent to 47 percent for Republicans this past midterm election. As the white vote grows increasingly polarized, the outcome of more and more elections will rest in the hands of Black and Hispanic voters nationally. In this polarized environment, the ability of either party to win and hold together a majority coalition rests heavily on its ability to compete for and win over minority voters by both serving their interests and running more minority candidates.
The Republican effort to be a truly “big tent party” took a huge step backwards this November 7th. Despite making valuable inroads with the Hispanic community in 2004, and despite an unprecedented outreach campaign to minority voters in ’05-’06 that saw former GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman making speeches apologizing for the notorious race-baiting GOP “Southern strategy,” Republicans lost considerable ground among both Hispanic and African American voters this past midterm election. Democrats actually garnered a larger share of the African American and Hispanic vote in 2006 than they had in the previous election.
After losing ground with Hispanics in 2004, Democrats improved their performance by an astonishing 16 points among Hispanic voters in 2006. And while we thought Democrats had perhaps reached a ceiling among African American voters, they managed to improve their performance with Black voters by 3 points this past fall. Our ability to expand the base vote helped in several key battleground areas where we squeaked past Republicans in races that were toss-ups going into the closing week. Democrats were also able to improve their performance in the African American community despite the fact that Republicans fielded a number of very high-profile Black candidates for statewide office in key states this past election cycle.
In two states with major implications for the 2008 presidential race, Senate Republicans experienced major disaffection from African American voters as their support dropped by 6 points in Missouri, and by a startling 17 points in Ohio. This erosion is a profound step backwards given the fact that Republicans had such high hopes and employed such aggressive strategies for courting African American voters coming into this cycle.
Losing (more) Black voters
The Republican persuasion campaign targeting African Americans ultimately collapsed under the negative weight of President George W. Bush. In our post-election polling by Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, Bush ended the election cycle with a nine (yes, nine) percent job approval rating among African American voters. That is eight points below the job approval rating of Congress among African Americans. By contrast, in our national poll of all voters, Bush’s job performance, while low, was consistently higher than that of Congress throughout 2006 meaning that while voters as a whole were most upset with Congress, African Americans were most displeased with Bush himself.
On Election Day 2006, African Americans’ primary focus was a desire for change. In our post-election poll, when we open-endedly asked voters what was on their minds as they entered the polling booth to vote, a 32-percent plurality of African American voters said they wanted to change the state of the country or get Republicans out. Twenty-two percent said they were thinking about Iraq, 21 percent said they were thinking about who would do the best job, and 10 percent said they were thinking about the economy.
In this environment of intense dissatisfaction with the Bush/Republican status quo, the power of the Black Republican candidate to appeal and attract more African Americans to the Republican Party failed to materialize in 2006. In Pennsylvania, GOP gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann might have actually set Republicans back further. Even Senatorial candidate Michael S. Steele in Maryland–who presented the greatest threat to the Democratic hold on African American voters early on–ultimately failed to sever the coalition. Indeed, failing to garner even one-third of the Black vote, these high profile Black Republican candidates were simply outside the mainstream of Black political attitudes.
Democrats dodged a bullet this cycle, as few Republicans in tough races were able to escape the burdensome weight of President Bush’s albatross. But the story could have been very different. Early on in the year, Republicans were well positioned to compete for the considerable swath of African American voters who were questioning their support for Democrats and seeking alternatives. Heading into the summer of 2005, about three-fourths of the Black electorate nationwide said they would support the Democratic candidate in November 2006. While not a substantial drop from the 88 percent Kerry secured in 2004, Republican efforts appeared successful enough to at least have given some African American voters pause. That window of opportunity for Republicans soon closed, however, as the end of the summer saw the disastrous Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. And by our February 2006 poll, 83 percent of African American voters were once again supporting Democratic candidates.
While the Katrina debacle clearly undermined Republican efforts to court African American voters, there were plenty of other issues important to African Americans that proved problematic for Republicans. According to our internal post-election polling, health care, education, Iraq, the minimum wage, and the economy/jobs topped the list of issues that Black voters said most guided their vote. From wages and the economy to Iraq, Republicans were not on the same side of the issues as the broader African American community. In the summer of 2006, a 61 percent majority of African Americans wanted an immediate removal of all troops from Iraq. Consequently, Republicans were not well positioned to pick up African American votes.
Furthermore, over the past few years Republicans have attempted to win over African Americans by focusing on so-called “moral issues.” While that strategy may have reaped some benefits for them in 2004, Republicans, caught up in a culture of corruption two years later, found no traction on those issues in 2006, in part because they ranked among the lowest priorities for African American voters. Public exit-polling showed the economy (57 percent), corruption (51 percent) and terrorism (44 percent) were the strongest issues tested, while values and immigration (33 and 26 percent, respectively) fell toward the bottom of the list with Black voters.
The Rise of the African American Swing Vote
Early in 2006, our polling among African American voters in the battleground states of Missouri, Ohio and Maryland revealed the possibility of an erosion of Black base voters in the Democratic Party. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of Black voters in these battleground states were identified as persuadable swing voters, compared to 61 percent who were strong Democrats and 9 percent who were strong Republicans. Younger voters and men, in particular, are less wedded to the history of the Democratic Party and, therefore, more willing to do some comparison-shopping. This is especially true of independents and drop-off voters. The following graph illustrates just how up-for-grabs important subgroups of the Black base were back in the spring of 2006 in these states.
Early on in Maryland and Ohio (both of which had relatively large swing components), we initially felt that both Steele (Maryland candidate for U.S. Senate) and Blackwell (Ohio candidate for governor) gave some African American voters pause in their support for Democrats, and had the potential to extend Republicans’ reach statewide.
In Maryland, for example, there were an equal number of swing and base voters among African Americans (Strong Democrats: 43 percent; Persuadable/Swing: 44 percent). We cannot overemphasize how deeply Steele’s candidacy could have carved into the Democratic Party’s African American base (and taken him on to victory, considering he carried white voters in the state) if not for the implementation of a well-orchestrated Democratic persuasion program aimed at swing African American voters. A conventional GOTV-only communication program would have been particularly inept in both Ohio and Maryland, because the African American vote there (not to mention around the country) is increasingly undecided. In our polling, we found that less than a year out from the election, while 74 percent of African American voters in Missouri could be considered base Democratic voters, just 54 percent in Ohio could (that is, they were certain of their support and there was little chance of them switching their vote). The situation was even worse in Maryland, where just 43 percent of African American voters could be considered base Democratic voters.
All three states experienced some unique movement of African American voters when comparing the Senate contests of 2004 to those of 2006. In Ohio, African American voters moved in large numbers to the Democratic candidate. In Missouri, there was also some growth in African American support of the Democratic Senate candidate, although this growth was constrained somewhat by the high level of support African Americans gave the Democratic candidate in 2004. Maryland, however, shows that Republicans do have the ability to cut into the level of support Democrats normally enjoy if a credible candidate (someone who can at least argue that he or she can give convincing voice to the concerns and values of the community) is on the ballot and he or she makes an effort to court the African American vote. The 2004 results in Ohio also show this ability. If Democrats treat African American voters simply as turnout targets, it is likely that the results seen in Maryland this year and in Ohio in 2004 will become much more the norm, rather than the exception.
Nationally, turnout of all voters increased slightly from 2002 to 2006. And while the lack of 2002 exit poll data makes it impossible to make estimates of 2002 Black voter turnout, there is evidence to suggest that the Black share of the off-year electorate has held steady at 10 percent since 1998. It is reasonable to assume then, that Black turnout also experienced the same slight bump since 2002 that overall turnout did.
That said, Black turnout continues to lag behind overall voter turnout, though the gap appears to be shrinking. In 2006, about 38 percent of the U.S. voting age population turned out to vote, compared to about 34 percent of the Black voting age population. That gap of 4.1 percentage points, while wider than the historically small 1.4-point gap of 2004, represents a significant narrowing since 2000, when the gap was 6.3 points.
Perhaps the most important point to be made about Black turnout in 2006, however, is that there were several states where Black turnout increased significantly and had profound impacts on contested statewide Senate and gubernatorial races.
In Missouri, for instance, the Black share of the electorate increased from 8 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2006. That surge of Black electoral participation likely made the difference in Democrat Claire McCaskill’s victory over Republican incumbent Senator Jim Talent. Similar surges in the Black share of the vote also occurred in Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, helping to propel Democratic statewide candidates to victory. Finally, the increase in the Black share of the vote in Tennessee (from 11 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2006) likely made the Ford/Corker Senate contest closer than it otherwise might have been.
The real story of the 2006 election is the re-emergence of the Democratic Party as a national party, competing for voters in every section of the country among more demographic groups. Our current majority rests on Democrats’ ability to expand the playing field and compete strongly in all counties, states, and regions in 2006. This phenomenon reveals a roadmap for 2008 and should also call into serious question the wisdom of the traditional Democratic battleground-state strategy. Too often in past elections, narrowly casting our political net has left us hungry. The so-called “battleground-state strategy,” as it is currently constituted, not only makes Democrats captive to an increasingly small group of interests, but also effectively disenfranchises segments of the Party’s strongest blocs of voters. Progressives will not build an effective movement in this country until they broaden their strategies to allow for greater engagement and mobilization of Black and Hispanic citizens in the South and West.
Cornell Belcher is the founder and president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies and functions as the principal strategist on all of the firm’s projects. Belcher is experienced at campaign politics and has over a decade of expertise in quantitative and qualitative research, message development, and product and behavioral insight. His clients include the Democratic National Committee and the Barack Obama for President campaign.
Donna Brazile is Founder and Managing Director of Brazile and Associates, LLC. Brazile, Chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute (VRI) and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, is a senior political strategist and former Campaign Manager for Gore-Lieberman 2000–the first African American to lead a major presidential campaign. Prior to joining the Gore campaign, Brazile was Chief of Staff and Press Secretary to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia where she helped guide the District’s budget and local legislation on Capitol Hill.
By Chris Bowers
As someone who spends a great deal of time both reading through and writing “meta” commentary on the impact of the progressive netroots and blogosphere on the Democratic Party and broader progressive ecosystem, I think I can safely state, without setting up a straw man, that one of the most common lines of thought in these discussions is how the netroots and the blogosphere are a destructive force upon the Democratic Party. This idea was particularly rampant during the weeks immediately preceding the Connecticut Senate primary between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman, but is not exclusive to discussions of that campaign. Five weeks before the election, Time magazine published a piece that directly implied if Democrats won the election, it would be in spite of the progressive netroots, and if we lost the election, it would be because of it. During CNN’s coverage on Election Night, the impact of the netroots was considered entirely in the context of the Connecticut Senate race, and as such it was deemed that the netroots’ 2006 election effort was an ineffective failure.
As someone known not only as a prominent figure within the progressive netroots, but also as someone with a tendency to base much of my writing on quantitative research, I have often been asked to try and measure the positive impact of the netroots on the Democratic Party and the 2006 elections in order to counter these arguments. This is not an easy thing to do, but I believe there are a number of more or less objective ways in which the contribution of the progressive netroots to the Democratic victories in 2006 can be documented. Taken together, these contributions reveal just how mature a political force the progressive netroots have become, and how indispensable they are to continued Democratic success in the future. Here are six such areas:
1) Closing the fundraising gap. In 2004, a post-election study by MoveOn.org documented that their members gave more than $180 million to Democratic candidates in amounts greater than $200 from 2003-2004. (Had it been possible to measure all contributions, including those in amounts under $200, the totals would have been far greater.)
In the 2005-2006 election cycle, according to the FEC, Democrats significantly closed the fundraising gap on Republicans. Already established as a significant source in Democratic fundraising circles, much, if not most, of these gains came from the still-growing pool of online donations. Act Blue, for instance, recorded $16.8 million in donations to Democratic candidates this cycle, an increase of $16 million from 2003-2004. Although exact numbers are unavailable, undoubtedly Democratic congressional candidates raised tens of millions more through email lists, campaign websites, and blogs than they raised in 2003-2004. Every last cent of this massive increase in online fundraising for Democratic congressional candidates came from netroots activists, since the definition of a netroots activist is someone who takes political action online. Further, through the netroots-driven Use It Or Lose It program, the progressive netroots also provided a crucial role in directing millions of dollars into key races during the final weeks of the campaign.
2) Campaigning on Iraq. Long before it was adopted as the central campaign issue by the party leadership, the progressive blogosphere persistently urged–begged–Democratic candidates to make the failed and unpopular war in Iraq the centerpiece of their campaigns. In late 2005, when asked about the Democratic platform in 2006, Rahm Emmanuel listed five important domestic issues. However, the war in Iraq was conspicuously absent from his list of campaign topics. This is despite the fact that open-ended polling on the most important issues facing the nation–that is, polls that did not prompt respondents with a list of issues–had consistently shown Iraq to be the number one issue in the mind of the electorate. At the national level, Democrats were in danger of avoiding the issue altogether. Without continued grassroots and netroots pressure, including the defeat of Senator Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary, it is less likely that the Democratic leadership would have largely based the 2006 campaign on what remains the primary issue of our time: Iraq.
3) Keeping the base motivated. During the past two years, the average daily audience of the progressive blogosphere was more than twice its size in 2004, and twenty times its size in 2003. During the height of the campaign season, the progressive blogosphere was reaching more than five million Americans every day (for more on the demographics of these readers, click here). While alternative, progressive media is still dwarfed by the conservative media empire, and while important advances in progressive talk radio cannot be underestimated, the progressive blogosphere forms of the heart of emerging progressive media. Its rapid expansion provided a new platform from which a progressive and Democratic message, including the message of Party leaders and candidates in key districts, could reach millions of influential Democrats everyday. For too long, Democrats had ignored the importance of motivating the base, and many even criticized the progressive blogosphere for “preaching to the choir.” However, the fruits of keeping the base informed and motivated, largely accomplished through the blogosphere, were revealed in 2006, as all polls repeatedly showed Democrats more motivated to participate in the elections than Republicans.
4) Influencing establishment media coverage. Once again, new partisan media showed its worth by challenging, altering, and even creating establishment media coverage of Republican scandals and Republican spin. On every major legislative fight over the past two years, from Social Security to the attempt to end judicial review and habeas corpus, the netroots and the blogosphere provided an important amplifying effect for the Democratic message. On major Republican scandals, from the Administration’s payola to Armstrong Williams until the congressional page scandal, the blogosphere helped increase the length of coverage, adding new wrinkles and buzz to the stories. From Jeff Gannon to George Allen’s “Macaca” moment, the blogosphere and the netroots actually uncovered and pushed new Republican scandals into the more-established “mainstream” press. By now, there isn’t a single political news department that does not read the left-wing blogosphere on a daily basis, and the positive influence this has had on press coverage for Democrats compared to that from other recent election cycles cannot be underestimated.
5) Stretching Republicans’ resources thin. From the special election in the Ohio 2nd Congressional District last summer to Gary Trauner’s surprisingly close challenge for Wyoming’s at-large congressional seat, the blogosphere and the netroots worked to provide resource and media support to candidates not given much in the way of direct support by Party committees or considered to have much of a chance by the established media. Additionally, with significant help from all Party committees, the online perpetuation of the spirit of the fifty-state strategy helped recruit and encourage more Democrats to run for office in more districts than at any time since the 1970s. With Republicans forced to defend more seats than at any time in thirty years, and with numerous Democrats in supposedly long-shot districts receiving surprising support, many GOP resources were pulled away from key swing districts where the election was largely won.
6) New infrastructure, new ideas. Nationwide, new netroots organizations, most notably MoveOn.org, provided tens of millions of dollars worth of resources of all sorts to Democratic candidates. Further, from precinct captains to members of the Democratic National Committee, an ongoing netroots project known as the silent revolution has aimed to place netroots activists in Democratic Party offices where positions are either currently vacant or held by ineffective incumbents (the former is far more commonly the case). This project has injected the Democratic Party with tens of thousands of new activists, forming an important supplement to existing Democratic Party infrastructure and GOTV efforts. When it comes to utilizing new media and campaign tactics, the netroots are also testing new forms of voter contact, as was the case with BlogPac’s Internet search optimization campaign in 2006. For only around $500, this campaign of Googlebombing and Google AdWords, made voter contact with nearly 700,000 people in 50 key congressional districts. The subsequent publicity it received will allow this easy and inexpensive means of voter contact to spread to many other campaigns in 2008 and beyond.
By this late date, most members of the Democratic and progressive leadership recognize the netroots and blogosphere as vital parts of our coalition and campaign infrastructure. As such, congratulations and thanks have been appropriately given all around. After all, we would not have succeed in retaking majorities in both Congress and the states without the grand, unified effort of all ideological and advocacy factions within the broad Democratic and progressive ecosystem. I hope that this piece will encourage the remaining holdouts to come around on the value of the progressive netroots. If it does, then we will have moved one step closer to making permanent the party unity that was so successful in 2006. In victory, we cannot start tearing ourselves down, or we will once more find ourselves on the wrong end of elections in the very near future.
Chris Bowers is the managing editor of MyDD.com and is on the executive committee of BlogPac. He has a BA in English from Ursinus College, where he taught for two years, and an MA in English from Temple University, where he taught for five years and completed his coursework for a Ph.D. Chris has also worked as a political consultant and as a union organizer for the American Federation of Teachers.
by William A. Galston and Pietro S. Nivola
Excerpted from Chapter 1, “Delineating the Problem” in Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady, eds., Red and Blue Nation? Volume One: Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics (Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace and Brookings Institution Press, 2006)
What do people mean when they say that politics in the United States are polarized? Polarized in what sense? How pervasively? The U.S. Congress is more polarized ideologically than it was just a generation ago. In the House of Representatives, ideological overlap between the political parties has all but disappeared, and the rise of “safe” districts with partisan supermajorities has tended to push representatives away from the center. Activists in both parties have long been extremely polarized, and there are indications that the gap between them has widened even more in recent decades.
While there is no evidence that the electorate’s overall ideological balance has changed much over the past three decades, voters are being sorted: fewer self-identified Democrats or liberals vote for Republican candidates than they did in the 1970s, fewer Republicans or conservatives vote for Democratic candidates, and rank-and-file partisans are more divided in their political attitudes and policy preferences. Also, religiosity (not to be confused with the denominational hostilities of the past) has become a telling determinant of political orientations and voting behavior. All else equal, individuals who attend church frequently are more likely to regard themselves as conservatives and vote Republican.
Put simply, in a polarized America most Democratic and Republican voters are, if not increasingly segregated geographically, decidedly at odds over a number of salient policy issues. While the severity of the country’s “culture wars” is overstated, the preponderance of evidence does suggest that some significant fissures have opened in the nation’s body politic, and that they extend beyond its politicians and partisan zealots.
As Morris P. Fiorina of Stanford University has observed, polarized politics are one thing, close division or partisan parity quite another. An election may be closely divided without being deeply polarized, as it was in 1960, or deeply polarized without being closely divided, as it was in 1936, or neither, as seems to have been the case in the famous “Era of Good Feeling” between the war of 1812 and Andrew Jackson’s arrival on the presidential stage. The conventional wisdom is that the electorate has been both deeply and closely divided during most of the national elections of the past decade. We argue that this proposition is valid to an extent. Its proponents often go on to claim, however, that the interaction between deep and close division is bound to create inertia. But as George W. Bush’s first term demonstrated, a president elected with a minority of the popular vote and working with only a razor-thin margin in Congress could achieve legislative successes even amid polarized politics–at least as long as the majority party was purposeful and unified.
Here is another important distinction: “polarization” is not synonymous with “culture war.” Intense political conflict can occur along many different dimensions, of which cultural issues form only one. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took dead aim at “economic royalists” at the height of the New Deal, his politics polarized American society. But an economic crisis, not a cultural one, was at the root of the polarization.
Polarization in Perspective
A plurality of the U.S. electorate continues to profess moderate political persuasions. In 2004, 21 percent of the voters described themselves as liberals, 34 percent said they were conservatives, and fully 45 percent were self-described moderates.1 These numbers were practically indistinguishable from the average for the past thirty years (20 percent liberal, 33 percent conservative, 47 percent moderate).2 Contrary to an impression left by much of the overheated punditry, the moderate middle swung both ways in the 2004 election. Both presidential candidates amassed support from these voters. Fifty-four percent of them went to the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, 45 percent to George W. Bush. In fact, the reelection of President Bush was secured chiefly by his improved performance among swing voters such as married women, Hispanics, Catholics, and less frequent church attendees–not just aroused Protestant fundamentalists.
Nor did a widely anticipated “values” Armageddon materialize over the issue of same-sex marriage. President Bush endorsed the concept of civil unions in the course of the campaign, and about half of those who thought this solution should be the law of the land wound up voting for him. Initiatives to ban same-sex marriages were on the ballot in three battleground states, yet John Kerry still managed to carry two of the three. Political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III carefully examined county-level election returns and discovered an irony: by motivating voters and boosting turnouts, initiatives to ban gay marriage ended up aiding Kerry more than Bush.3
With respect to the most persistent wedge issue–abortion–there have been some unexpected twists as well. In the midst of the continuing partisan schism, a recent analysis shows that Republicans are consistently winning among those voters (more than 60 percent of the electorate) who believe that policy on abortion should be more selective. Republican presidential candidates carried this group in 1996, 2000, and 2004–despite the fact that a clear majority of the group leans pro-choice and prefers that abortion be “mostly legal” rather than “mostly illegal.” The staunchly pro-life Republican Party seems to be persuading millions of moderately pro-choice voters that its positions on specific abortion policies are reasonable.4
And what about the TV maps that depict “red” America clashing with “blue”? They are colorful but crude. Plenty of states ought to be purple.5 There are red states–Oklahoma, Kansas, North Carolina, and Virginia, for instance–that have Democratic governors, just as the bright blue states of California, New York, and even Massachusetts have Republican governors. Some red states, such as Tennessee and Mississippi, send at least as many Democrats as Republicans to the House of Representatives. Michigan and Pennsylvania–two of the biggest blue states in the last election–send more Republicans than Democrats. North Dakota is blood red (Bush ran off with 63 percent of the vote there), yet its entire congressional delegation is composed of Democrats. On election night, Bush also swept all but a half-dozen counties in Montana. But that did not prevent the Democrats from winning control of the governor’s office and state legislature–or stop, we might note, the decisive adoption of an initiative allowing patients to use and grow their own medicinal marijuana.6
To these prefatory observations one more should be added: for all the hype about the ruptures and partisan rancor in contemporary American society, the strife pales in comparison with much of the nation’s past. There have been long stretches of American history in which conflicts were far worse. Epic struggles were waged between advocates of slavery and abolitionists, between agrarian populists and urban manufacturing interests at the end of the nineteenth century, and between industrial workers and owners of capital well into the first third of the twentieth century. Yet what those now nostalgically pining for a more tranquil past remember are the more recent intervals of consensus.
Any serious exploration of today’s political polarities has to be placed in historical context. We have to ask: compared to what? Four decades ago, cities were burning across the United States. A sitting president, one presidential candidate, and the leader of the civil rights movement were assassinated. Another sitting president was driven from office, another presidential candidate was shot, and a hail of bullets felled antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University. George W. Bush is, by current standards, a “polarizing president.” But in comparison with, say, Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson, the divisions of the Bush era appear shallower and more muted.
Badly in need of a reality check, popularized renditions of the polarization narrative were subjected to a more systematic assessment a couple of years ago in a book provocatively titled Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. In this intriguing study, rich with survey data, Stanford’s Fiorina and his associates reaffirmed the oft-obscured fundamental fact that most Americans have remained centrists, sharing a mixture of liberal and conservative views on a variety of presumably divisive social questions. Ideologues of the left or right–that is, persons with a Weltanschauung, or whose politics consistently form an overarching world view that tilts to extremes–are conspicuous on the fringes of the two parties and among political elites, but scarcely among the public at large. Indeed, sentiments there appear to be moderating, not polarizing, on various hot-button issues.
Moreover, the authors argued, the moderate consensus seems almost ubiquitous. The inhabitants of red states and blue states differ little on matters such as gender equity, fair treatment of blacks in employment, capital punishment, and the merits of environmental protection.7 Majorities in both places appear to oppose outlawing abortion completely or permitting it under all circumstances, and their opinions have changed little over the past thirty years.
No knowledgeable observer doubts that the American public is less divided than the political agitators and vocal elective office-seekers who claim to represent it. The interesting question, though, is, how substantial are the portions of the electorate that heed their opinion leaders, and thus might be hardening their political positions? Here, as best we can tell, the tectonic plates of the nation’s electoral politics appear to be shifting more than Fiorina and his coauthors were willing to concede.
Even though the mass electorate has long formed three comparably sized blocs (29 percent identifying themselves as Republicans, 33 percent as Democrats, and almost all the rest as independents), the attributes of the Democratic and Republican identifiers have changed. They are considerably more cohesive ideologically than just a few decades ago.8 In the 1970s it was not unusual for the Democratic Party to garner as much as a quarter of the votes of self-described conservatives, while the GOP enjoyed a nearly comparable share of the liberal vote. Since then, those shares have declined precipitously.9 In 2004 Kerry took 85 percent of the liberal vote, while Bush claimed nearly that percentage among conservative voters.
Further, as their outlooks tracked party loyalties more closely, Democratic and Republican voters became far less likely to desert their party’s candidates. As Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels has demonstrated, party affiliation is a much stronger predictor of voting behavior in recent presidential elections than it was in earlier ones.10 In 2004 nearly nine out of every ten Republicans said they approved of George W. Bush. A paltry 12 percent of Democrats concurred. In an earlier day, three to four times as many Democrats had held favorable opinions of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Dwight Eisenhower.
Of course, the use of the terms liberal and conservative can be squishy–and if, at bottom, there is still not much more than a dime’s worth of difference (as the saying used to go) between the convictions of Democrats and Republicans, the fact that partisans are voting more consistently along party lines says little about how polarized they might be. What counts, in other words, is the distance between their respective sets of convictions.
On the issues that mattered, the distance was considerable. Consider the main one: national security and foreign policy. The Pew Research Center’s surveys found, for example, that while almost seven in ten Republicans felt that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, fewer than half of Democrats agreed.11 In October 2003, 85 percent of Republicans thought going to war in Iraq was the right decision, while only 39 percent of Democrats did.12 When asked whether “wrongdoing” by the United States might have motivated the attacks of September 11, a majority of Democrats, but just 17 percent of Republicans, said yes. Democrats assigned roughly equal priority to the war on terrorism and protecting American jobs (86 percent and 89 percent, respectively). By comparison, Republicans gave far greater weight to fighting terrorism than to worker protection.13
Popular support for the Iraq war has sagged since these surveys were taken. Yet, as of March 2006, nearly seven out of ten Republicans still perceived the U.S. military effort in Iraq as going well, while only three out of ten Democrats agreed. Two-thirds of Democrats (but only 27 percent of Republicans) felt the United States should bring its troops home as soon as possible.14 Not surprisingly, fully 76 percent of the electorate saw important differences between the parties in 2004, a level never previously recorded in modern survey research.15
Among so-called active partisans, who represent a nontrivial fifth of all voters, the gap was even more dramatic.16 Reviewing 2004 National Election Study data, Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University and Kyle Saunders of Colorado State University report that 70 percent of Democrats, but just 11 percent of Republicans, typically favored diplomacy over the use of force. On major questions of domestic policy, the difference was only a little less pronounced. The issue of health insurance, for example, ranked high for 66 percent of the Democrats, but for only 15 percent of the Republicans.17
Then there is the matter of abortion. Following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, no domestic issue has been more contentious. And no other issue has played a bigger role in mobilizing observant religious voters (a force about which we will have more to say later). A majority of Americans accept abortion under various circumstances. But the majority wobbles when abortion is framed as an absolutely unrestricted right to choose. The persistence of this dichotomy is noteworthy. Fiorina and his colleagues, in fact, provide perhaps the most emblematic evidence of the ongoing rift. When people were asked in 2003 whether abortion should be called an act of murder, 46 percent said yes and exactly 46 percent demurred.18 No doubt, if the question had been directed only at persons who identified themselves as Republican or Democratic loyalists, the percentages would have been even higher, and the underlying passions even more polar.
Redder Reds, Bluer Blues
In assessing these deepening disagreements we must also consider the territorial contours of today’s polarization. The question is of importance because if voters tend to migrate geographically toward like-minded voters, the resulting political segregation of Democrats and Republicans could increasingly lock in their differences: a person’s partisan inclinations seem more likely to deepen and endure if he or she is spatially surrounded by fellow partisans.
According to Fiorina and his associates, no wide gulf separates the residents of Republican-leaning (red) states and Democratic-leaning (blue) states. But states are large aggregates in which the minority party almost always obtains one-third or more of the vote. This raises the question of what constitutes a significant difference among states. Consider some of the data Fiorina himself presents from the 2000 election. In red states, Republican identifiers slightly outnumbered Democrats, but in blue states, Democrats enjoyed an edge of 15 percentage points. In red states, the share of the electorate that was conservative was 20 points larger than the share characterized as liberal. Blue state residents were 15 points less likely to attend church regularly, 11 points more supportive of abortion rights, 12 points more likely to favor stricter gun control, and 16 points more likely to strongly favor gays in the military.19
Using a slightly different definition of red and blue states (namely, states that Bush or Kerry won by at least 6 percentage points), Abramowitz and Saunders find differences in excess of 20 points along numerous dimensions, from church attendance to gun ownership to attitudes on hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.20
There are indications, moreover, that red states have gotten redder and blue states bluer, at least in this sense: presidential vote tallies in more states in recent years have strayed from the national norm. In 1988 there were only fifteen states in which George H. W. Bush won with a vote share greater than 5 percentage points above his national average, and only nine states in which his share was more than 5 points below his national average. Put another way, twenty-six states were within a 5 point range of his 53.4 percent share of the national vote. By contrast, in 2004, George W. Bush carried twenty states with a share of the vote more than 5 points above his national share, in twelve states he ended up more than 5 points below it, and in just eighteen states his share fell within the 5 point range.21
These results are not an artifact of an arbitrary selection of elections. In the election of 1960, which produced a near tie in the popular vote between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, a remarkable thirty-seven states yielded results within 5 percentage points of the national margin. In 2000, another election year with a razor-thin popular vote margin, only twenty-one states ended up within this range. These results do not reflect only the polarizing consequences of George W. Bush’s campaign and style of governance. In the 1996 race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, only twenty-two states were within 5 points of the national margin, nearly identical to the 2000 result. In fact, the past three presidential elections have produced three of the four most polarized state results in the past half-century. (The Reagan-Carter election of 1980 is the fourth.)22
There also has been evidence of increasing dispersion at the substate level. One way to get closer to developments on the ground is to examine the share of the population living in places where voters sided with one party or the other by lopsided margins. Compare the three closest elections of the past generation. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat incumbent Gerald Ford by a scant 2 percentage points, only 27 percent of voters lived in landslide counties (where one candidate wins by 20 points or more). In 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush fought to a virtual draw, 45 percent of voters lived in such counties. By 2004, that figure had risen even further, to 48 percent.23
In 2004 a mere fifty-nine congressional districts went in opposite directions in presidential and House elections. Compare this low figure to 2000, when there were eighty-six such districts, or 1996 and 1992, when there were more than a hundred.24 In 2004 the percentage of states won by the same party in that year’s Senate and presidential races rose to a level not seen for forty years, and the percentage of Senate seats held by the party winning that state in the most recent presidential election rose to the highest level in at least half a century.25
What has happened in the electorate has much to do with how sharply political elites have separated along their respective philosophical and party lines. That separation is not in doubt. In the 1970s, the ideological orientations of many Democratic and Republican members of Congress overlapped. Today, the congruence has nearly vanished. By the end of the 1990s, almost every Republican in the House was more conservative than every Democrat. And increasingly, their leaders leaned to extremes more than the backbenchers have. Outside Congress, activists in the political parties have diverged sharply from one another in recent decades. Meanwhile, interest groups, particularly those concerned with cultural issues, have proliferated and now ritually line up with one party or the other to enforce the party creed. Likewise, the news media, increasingly partitioned through politicized talk-radio programs, cable news channels, and Internet sites, amplify party differences.
These changes, the reality of which hardly anyone contests, raise an important scholarly question with profound practical implications: what are the effects of elite polarization on the mass electorate? One possibility raised by Fiorina and others is that the people as a whole are not shifting their ideological or policy preferences much. Rather, they are being presented with increasingly polarized choices, which force voters to change their political behavior in ways that analysts mistake for shifts in underlying preferences.26 A plausible inference is that if both parties nominated relatively moderate, nonpolarizing candidates, as they did in 1960 and again in 1976, voters’ behavior might revert significantly toward previous patterns. Another possibility is that changes at the elite level have communicated new information about parties, ideology, and policies to many voters, leading to changes of attitudes and preferences that will be hard to reverse, even in less polarized circumstances.
On the one hand, there is no reason to believe that today’s voters are unresponsive to changes in choices that the parties offer. The Democratic Party’s decision to nominate more moderate presidential candidates in 1960, 1976, and 1992 (in the wake of more liberal but failed candidacies) did shift mass perceptions and behavior. On the other hand, there is evidence suggesting that as party hierarchies, members of Congress, media outlets, and advocacy groups polarize, so gradually does much of the public. Voters become more aware of the differences between the parties, they are better able to locate themselves in relation to the parties, and they care more about the outcome of elections.27 Abetting people’s receptivity to political cues is the increased influence of education. In 1900 only 10 percent of young Americans went to high school. Today, 84 percent of adult Americans are high school graduates, and almost 27 percent have graduated from college. “This extraordinary growth in schooling,” writes James Q. Wilson, “has produced an ever larger audience for political agitation.”28
Thus far we have discussed issue-induced or partisan shifts among voters with prior positions. But elite polarization has another dimension–namely, its effects on young adults entering the electorate without fully formed preferences and attachments. In an important analysis of 1972-2004 National Election Study data, M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker find evidence that the increasingly polarized parties and their activists tend to polarize young adults whose attitudes, once formed, are likely to remain stable over a lifetime.29 Especially in the case of the young, partisan polarization not only sorts but also shapes basic political orientations and party allegiances.
The cue-taking that has helped fuse ideology with party loyalty at the grass roots, in turn, reinforces the hyper-partisan style of candidates for elective office and their campaign strategies. Given the increasing proportion of the electorate that is sorted by ideology, mobilizing a party’s core constituency, rather than trying to convert the uncommitted, looks (correctly or not) more and more like a winning strategy.30 And that means fielding hard-edged politicians appealing to, and certified by, the party’s base. This electoral connection–and not just endogenous partisan incentives within institutions such as the House of Representatives–may help account for the increasingly polarized Congress of recent decades. And, as Gary C. Jacobson has suggested, it may even account for a tendency of Democrats and Republicans to move further apart the longer they stay in office.31
It would be a mistake, however, to see only one-way causality in the relation between changes at the elite and mass levels. History supports Jacobson’s contention that political elites in search of a winning formula anticipate voters’ potential responses to changed positions on the issues and are therefore constrained to some extent by that assessment. The Republican Party’s southern strategy reflected a judgment that Democratic support for civil rights had created an opportunity to shift voters and (eventually) party identification as well. The Democrats’ transition from a moderate stance on abortion in 1976 to a less nuanced one by 1984 rested on a judgment that this move would attract the better-educated, younger, more upscale voters who had been activated politically by Vietnam and Watergate.32
A feedback loop that mutually reinforces polarized comportment up and down the political food chain has at least a couple of important implications. For one, the idea that self-inspired extremists are simply foisting polar choices on the wider public, while the latter holds its nose, does not quite capture what is going on. While it is possible to distinguish conceptually between polarization and sorting, the evidence suggests that over the past three decades these two phenomena cannot be entirely decoupled. Polarized politics are partly here, so to speak, by popular demand. And inasmuch as that is the case, undoing it may prove especially difficult–and perhaps not wholly appropriate.
1William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, The Politics of Polarization (Washington: Third Way, 2005), pp. 3.
2These numbers are based on exit polls. The National Election Studies (NES) suggest that the percentage of moderates has remained stable over the past three decades, while the percentage of both liberals and conservatives has risen modestly. Complex methodological debates among the authors in this volume cloud the conclusions we feel confident about drawing from these data. Suffice it to say that there has not been a huge swing away from the center since the 1970s.
3Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III, “Truth in Numbers,” Boston Review 30 (February/March, 2005): 40.
4Jim Kessler and Jessica Dillon, “Who Is Winning the Abortion Grays?” (Washington: Third Way, 2005).
5Estimates of “purple” states vary considerably according to the methodology employed. Abramowitz and Saunders provide a tally of only twelve, but other estimates suggest a near plurality of states. For example, seventeen states fell into the category according to a preelection analysis that weighed (a) the percentage margin of victory in the 2000 and 1996 election, (b) whether a state voted consistently for one party in the past four presidential elections or swung back and forth, and (c) whether trends in the previous two presidential elections made a state significantly more competitive or less. See Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, 2005, “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Reality of a Polarized America,” The Forum 3(2). See also Richard S. Dunham and others, “Red vs. Blue: The Few Decide for the Many,” Business Week, June 14, 2004.
6The Montana Medical Marijuana Act won the approval of 61.8 percent of Montana voters, faring 3.5 percentage points better than Bush, according to statewide election data.
7Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, and Jeremy C. Pope, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 2d ed. (New York: Longman, 2006), p. 16.
8Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Democrats Gain Edge in Party Identification,” July 26, 2004. These shares have varied over time, but those in 2004 were almost identical to those in 1987. Some analysts stress that within the three-part division, the fastest growing group has been persons registering as independents or “other.” Even if everyone in this category were a genuine centrist–a big “if”–the main thing to remember is that most registered voters continue to identify as either Democrats or Republicans, and, as we shall show, their views are diverging in a number of important respects. Moreover, in a significant recent analysis, Keele and Stimson show that the share of “pure” independents (voters who do not consider themselves closer to one party than to the other) has fallen by half since the early 1970s, from 14 percent of the electorate to just over 7 percent. More than three-quarters of self-declared independents now admit to being closer to one party than to the other. See Luke J. Keele and James A. Stimson, “Polarization and Mass Response: The Growth of Independence in American Politics,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
9Galston and Kamarck (2005, p. 45). A generation ago, party identification and ideology were weakly correlated. Now the two are much more tightly intertwined. See also Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, 1998, “Ideological Realignment in the U.S. Electorate,” Journal of Politics 60(3): 634-52 and “Rational Hearts and Minds: Social Identity as Party Identification in the American Electorate,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, September 2-5, 2004.
10Larry M. Bartels, 2000, “Partisanship and Voting Behavior, 1952-1996,” American Journal of Political Science 44(1): 35-50.
11Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “2004 Political Landscape: Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized,” November 5, 2003.
12By December 2003, the percentage of Republicans holding this view rose to 90 percent. The percentage of Democrats went up to 56 percent, before dropping back again later on. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “After Hussein’s Capture . . . ,” December 18, 2003.
13Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq,” August 18, 2004 .
14David Kirkpatrick and Adam Nagourney, “In an Election Year, a Shift in Public Opinion on the War,” New York Times, March 27, 2006. The polling data reported in this article were also based on Pew surveys that queried respondents on whether the war was going “very well or fairly well.”
15For data on this going back to 1952, see the American National Election Studies.
16Active partisans are defined as voters who are engaged in two or more political activities other than voting.
17Abramowitz and Saunders (2005).
18Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, p. 81).
19Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, pp. 43-44).
20Abramowitz and Saunders (2005, p. 13).
21Galston and Kamarck (2005, p. 54). Using a different methodology, Abramowitz and Saunders (2005) reach a parallel conclusion. Comparing two presidential elections (1976 and 2004) with nearly identical popular vote margins, they found that the average state margin of victory rose from 8.9 percentage points to 14.8 percentage points, the number of uncompetitive states (with margins of 10 points or more) rose from nineteen to thirty-one, and the number of competitive states (with margins between 0 and 5 points) fell by half, from twenty-four to twelve. Not surprisingly, the number of electoral votes in uncompetitive states soared from 131 to 332. These numbers merely confirm what every contemporary presidential campaign manager instinctively understands: in normal political circumstances, when neither party has suffered a major reversal (a big-time scandal or policy failure, for instance), the actual field of battle has tended to be small and concentrated in the Midwest.
22William A. Galston and Andrew S. Lee; tabulations on file with the authors.
23Bill Bishop, “The Great Divide,” Austin American-Statesman, December 4, 2004. See also Bill Bishop, “The Cost of Political Uniformity,” Austin American-Statesman, April 8, 2004; Bill Bishop, “Political Parties Now Rooted in Different Americas,” Austin American-Statesman, September 18, 2004; Bill Bishop, “The Schism in U.S. Politics Begins at Home,” Austin American-Statesman, April 4, 2004.
24Dan Balz, “Partisan Polarization Intensified in 2004 Election,” Washington Post, March 29, 2005.
25Gary C. Jacobson, 2005, “Polarized Politics and the 2004 Congressional and Presidential Elections,” Political Science Quarterly 120(2): pp. 208-10.
26See Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, pp. 165-86).
27For evidence and discussion on these points, see Mark Brewer, 2005, “The Rise of Partisanship and the Expansion of Partisan Conflict within the American Electorate,” Political Research Quarterly 58(2): 219-29; Gary C. Jacobson, 2003, “Partisan Polarization in Presidential Support: The Electoral Connection,” Congress and the Presidency 30(1): 1-36; Donald C. Baumer and Howard J. Gold, “Party Images and Partisan Resurgence,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
28See James Q. Wilson, “How Divided Are We?” Commentary, February 2006, pp. 15-21.
29Laura Stoker and M. Kent Jennings, 2006, “Aging, Generations, and the Development of Partisan Polarization in the United States,” Working Paper WP2006-1, Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
30Matthew S. Levendusky, “Sorting in the U.S. Mass Electorate,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
31See Gary C. Jacobson, 2000, “Party Polarization in National Politics: The Electoral Connection,” in Jon R. Bond and Richard Fleisher eds., Polarized Politics: Congress and the President in a Partisan Era (Washington: CQ Press): pp. 9-30; Jacobson, 2003; Gary C. Jacobson, 2004, “Explaining the Ideological Polarization of the Congressional Parties Since the 1970s,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 15–18. Importantly, Jacobson’s findings apply to both the House and the Senate.
by Anna Greenberg and Amy Gershkoff
In the wake of the 2006 elections, advocates for youth engagement trumpeted the increase in turnout among young voters: voters under 30 years of age turned out in higher rates than 2002, making it the second election in a row with increased turnout among the younger voters. Oddly, fewer commented on the fact that Democrats made an incredibly strong showing among these voters, winning 60 percent of their vote.1 This result was 6 points higher than John Kerry’s share of the vote (54 percent), and the highest for Democrats in a House election in more than a decade.2
Democrats should feel good about this result, though it is not clear that it had much to do with a systematic, national Democratic outreach effort.3 Most of the contact with young voters (and potential voters) came from non-partisan, non-profit organizations who worked out in the field, registering young people and getting them to the polls. Moreover, there are long-term trends, such as the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of young people, and short-term events, such as the war in Iraq, that may explain much of the growing Democratic trend.
Of course, it would be easy to just accept that we have a new generation of reliable Democratic voters and leave them to their own devices. As much of the early research on political behavior shows, partisanship remains relatively stable over the course of people’s lives.4 But this laissez faire approach does not grapple with the fact that despite Democratic voting proclivities, young voters are relatively disconnected from the Party; their support for Democrats does not come from a sense that the Democratic Party has delivered anything meaningful to their generation or that the Democratic Party’s policies perfectly reflect their issue agenda (e.g., a majority of young voters favor privatization of Social Security). In fact, the Democratic Party is not significantly better positioned than the Republican Party among younger voters.
Some of this disconnection reflects a larger cynicism about conventional politics, and there are limits to what any party or candidate can do when addressing the mood of a generation. At the same time, outreach to younger people that reaches them where they are, addresses and produces on the issues they care about, and approaches them in a style they can relate to, could go a long way towards forging a significant and lifelong relationship.
The Clinton Generation
In 2006, young voters supported Democrats by a larger margin than any other age cohort. This showing builds on an earlier increase in the early 1990s. Certainly there have been low moments for Democrats among younger voters in big GOP years such as 1994 and 2002. Moreover, third-party candidate Ralph Nader diminished the Democratic margin in 2000. Regardless, it is hard to dispute that since Bill Clinton’s first election, young voters have been solidly in the Democratic column.
While there are short-term factors (e.g., the war in Iraq) that impacted younger voters in 2004 and 2006, there are larger demographic trends that drive the recent Democratic character of younger voters. First, Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most racially diverse cohort in the country with only 62 percent identifying as white, 14 percent identifying as African American, 18 percent identifying as Hispanic and 5 percent identifying as Asian American.7 In contrast, in 1968, 88 percent of young people called themselves white.8 Non-white Americans continue to more strongly support Democrats than Republicans, and given the movement of Hispanic voters to the Democratic Party in 2006, this pattern is not likely to change.
Second, changes in family structure have profound political consequences. As the divorce and single parenthood rates rise, fewer and fewer children are growing up in “nuclear” families. In 1960, 88 percent of children under the age of 18 lived in a household with two married parents; in 2005, this number had declined to 67 percent.9 Because of increasing divorce rates and childbirth outside marriage, close to half of children will live in a single-parent household at some point before the age of 18.10 As we reported in our Youth Monitor research, young people growing up in “non-traditional homes” are more likely to support Democratic candidates–67 percent of young people growing up in homes with divorced, separated or unmarried parents voted for John Kerry in 2004, compared to only 49 percent of young people in homes with married parents. Young people growing up with divorced, separated or unmarried parents also have more progressive attitudes on social issues, such as gay marriage: 66 percent of young adults who grow up in non-traditional homes support gay marriage, compared to only 53 percent who grow up in traditional homes.11
Moreover, an increasing number of younger people are delaying marriage themselves. Forty years ago, nearly half of all adults under age 25 were married; today the number is just over 15 percent.12 There are huge political differences between married and unmarried Americans, with more than 60 percent of unmarried voters casting their votes for Democratic candidates in 2006 (compared to 48 percent among married voters),13 and with unmarried voters giving Democratic candidates more than a 20-point margin in every presidential election for nearly 20 years.14
The Bush Moment, Passed
Even with these long-term trends in place, there was a Bush moment–September 11th. It was a traumatic experience for everyone, but this cohort grew up in a post-Cold War period of peace and prosperity. They struggled to make sense of the attack; they were ready to listen–to gain an understanding of the larger meaning of the attack and what it means to be an American. This cohort was open–as many were–to hear what vision President Bush had to offer. In fact, despite strong Democratic trends in the 1990s, young voters split their votes evenly between the parties in 2002.
On the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan, 79 percent of college students supported taking military action there, with 68 percent supporting the use of ground troops. College students registered high levels of trust in the military (75 percent) and the president (69 percent.)15 Young people were also initially supportive of the war in Iraq: right before the invasion, 72 percent supported the invasion.16
In the past three years, we have witnessed a dramatic shift, with young people now offering among the most negative views about the war in Iraq: 62 percent disapprove of the war in Iraq, with 43 percent disapproving strongly. In contrast, 56 percent of all voters disapprove of the war.17 A Pew Research Center report shows 54 percent of Americans under 30 want to bring the troops home ‘as soon as possible,’ compared to only 44-46 percent of adults in all other age groups.18 College students’ trust in the president has dropped to only 31 percent, and 59 percent would give the president a grade of “D” or an “F” on his handling of the Iraq war.19 Voters under 30 are also more likely than any other cohort to report that they know someone currently serving or who recently served in Iraq or Afghanistan, which undoubtedly contributes to their souring views about our engagement in that conflict.20
The war in Iraq was the number one issue in this past election for younger voters, as it was for the rest of the electorate. But their rejection of the Republicans also reflected real concerns about their economic security: 23 percent of voters under 30 cited the economy as the most important issue in their vote, outpacing mentions of any other issue except Iraq (27 percent). Contrast these numbers with those of the electorate at large, among whom only 14 percent cited the economy as the most important issue in their vote.21
Unlike their older counterparts who worry about retirement security and prescription drugs (54 percent of seniors cite this as their top economic concern), younger voters are more concerned about having salaries that keep up with the cost of living (37 percent).23 Younger adults not only worry about having a well-paying job, but also about having one that they like and that is secure: 16 percent cite career advancement, job security, and job satisfaction as the most important problem in their lives today, compared to only 6 percent of adults over the age of 25.24
Republicans also lost with younger voters on other issues such as the environment: nearly half of younger voters said their biggest doubt about the Republican Congressional candidate was that he or she would do nothing about oil companies and gas prices, compared to only 28 percent of voters overall.25 Younger voters may be the ‘Greenest Generation’: 83 percent support government investment in alternative energy, far outpacing interest in this issue by other cohorts.26
I’ll Vote for You, but Don’t Call me a Democrat
In spite of these short- and long-term drivers, younger voters are actually not solidly Democratic nor do they have a uniformly progressive worldview. Young voters’ trend towards Democratic voting ought to be matched–at least in part–with a trend towards Democratic partisan identification; instead, the percentage of younger voters identifying as Independents has increased.27
While changes in partisan identification often take many years to catch up with trends in voting behavior, opinions about the parties themselves are more responsive, showing changes in underlying attitudes about the parties before they appear in partisanship. On the eve of the 2006 election, barely 40 percent of younger voters had a positive view of the Democratic Party (35 percent negative), the same percentage that had a positive view of the Republican Party, despite the fact that younger voters gave Democratic Congressional candidates a 22-point advantage in the vote.28
In fact, younger voters are more likely than older voters to say that they see “no real differences” between the parties (41 percent of voters under 30, compared to 29 percent of voters overall)29 . They are no more likely to think Democrats will fight corruption (46 percent) as Republicans (50 percent), and they believe neither party will fight corruption particularly well.30
While younger people are on the left side of American politics, younger voters do not harbor monolithically progressive or liberal values. Unlike previous generations, Generation Y does not fit neatly into the uni-dimensional liberal-conservative political spectrum. Instead, this generation has liberal views on some issues and holds conservative positions on others, accumulating views like so many MySpace friends and producing an “ideology” with some important contradictions.
Younger people, for instance, are the strongest supporters of gay marriage, but they are no more likely to support abortion rights than older people. (In fact, Baby Boom women are the most supportive of a woman’s right to choose).31 In general, younger people favor an expanded rather than limited role for government, but they hold decidedly non-progressive values on some specific economic issues, including privatization of Social Security (74 percent of young adults support privatization, compared to 41 percent of adults over the age of 60).32 In keeping with the racial diversity of this cohort, they have quite liberal views on immigration, and interracial marriage is decidedly non-controversial, but they also harbor reservations about the feminist movement.
Communicating with the “MySpace” Generation
Neither of the two major political parties as they are currently constituted offers a bundle of issue positions that neatly fits younger Americans’ worldview. But perhaps even more importantly, neither of the major parties has figured out how to communicate with young people in terms of medium, content, or style.
The two major parties continue to broadcast their messages through channels that younger Americans do not utilize. Unlike their older counterparts, younger adults do not regularly watch network television news. Among younger adults that do watch network television, many are likely to be among the growing number of households (now 23 percent nationwide) that has a TiVo or other Digital Video Recorder, meaning that even if they watch network television, they are not watching the political advertisements. They tend not to subscribe to or read daily newspapers. Many do not have a landline telephone and many move frequently, making direct voter contact over the phone or at the door difficult.33
For this generation, the Internet plays an unprecedented role in the acquisition of political information. The most recent Pew survey finds that 1 in 4 adults between the ages of 18 and 25 reported getting their news from the Internet.34 During the 2004 elections, half of voters under 30 used the Internet to find candidates’ positions on the issues, nearly 40 percent watched video clips of the candidates online, and 1 in 4 voters under 30 looked up information about the candidates’ voting records and endorsements online. Blogs have increasingly become a source of information for this generation, with 16 percent reporting that they got their political news from blogs during the 2004 election.35 Younger Americans also access the Internet from devices other than computers: 13 percent of adults under 30–and 19 percent of adult males under 30–get their news from their PDAs, mobile phones, or Blackberries.36
Perhaps in part because they do not know what medium to use, the two major parties communicate less frequently with younger voters than they do with the rest of the electorate. Younger voters were the least likely of any age cohort to report being contacted by either of the major parties during the 2004 presidential campaign.37 Younger voters’ mobility certainly impedes campaigns’ ability to contact them, as does the high percentage of cell-phone-only households, which makes contact by phone difficult and expensive at best, and unattainable at worst.
Even when the parties get the medium right and are able to reach these mobile voters, the Democratic Party sometimes misses the mark on the message. The issues emphasized during recent campaigns tend to concern older voters, such as Medicare and Social Security, while younger voters’ issues are less prominent or not addressed from their perspective. For instance, while young people have deep economic anxieties, they are more focused on wages and finding a career path than on healthcare costs. While younger voters are concerned about the quality of public education (and have experienced it more recently than other voters), they care equally about paying for a college education and debt. There is also the possibility of targeting communication to younger voters around their socially progressive values, something that Democrats currently avoid in reaching out to voters more broadly. For example, this cohort sees diversity as inherently valuable and is reviled by the exclusionary and extremist rhetoric of the far right.
Finally, even when the parties get the medium and the message right, they often get the style wrong. Younger voters don’t want to be “hyped” or “played,” and many adults in this generation see both parties as inauthentic. Their aversion to the style that both parties currently espouse may explain, in part, why Independent candidates like Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, and Ralph Nader garnered such support from younger voters. These candidates appeared to be more authentic, less corrupt, and outside the traditional political establishment, all of which found favor with this generation.
Forging ties with a new generation of Democrats
If Democrats want to forge a stronger set of ties to younger voters, they need to think about making a major investment in understanding Generation Y and to develop respectful and authentic strategies for reaching them. There are a number of places to start–in no particular order:
- We know how young people feel about different issues–they hate the war in Iraq, care about the environment, want government to help people, and want improved public education–but is there a core set of values that defines Generation Y? What divides younger people–and are they the same issues that divide older people–and what brings them together? Is there a core identity for this generation that moves beyond the individualism and atomization that characterizes much of this cohort’s experience?
- We need to map how young people see themselves politically, allowing for the possibility that their often apolitical or anti-political orientation can still have political consequences. Volunteerism, which is high for this generation, is a critical part of their self-identity, and young people are finding ways to connect to community outside of traditional institutions. For example, younger people are more likely than older people to boycott products if associated with bad labor practices or detrimental environmental impact. Is it possible to harness this energy into more traditional or partisan politics or do Democrats need to think about a new kind of politics?
- Younger people are voracious consumers of pop culture, but what exactly do they learn from it? Is it nothing but the “market” working, or are younger people potentially exposed to a progressive set of values though music or movies? The Democratic Party and its candidates often draw upon celebrities to reach out to younger audiences, but do they view celebrities as credible or authentic spokespeople? Are younger people more likely than older people to listen to celebrities, simply because they are young?
- We need to do a much better job figuring out the right communication media to reach younger people. News agencies and newspapers are little used by Generation Y, and they are even moving beyond Meet-Ups and websites (though they remain important); people are text- and instant-messaging, downloading videos on their cell phones, and playing video games with people across the country. Would young people pay attention if we reached them through these media?
- For many young people, candidates and political parties simply lack credibility. Some of this skepticism reflects, in our view, a legitimate assessment of what the current political system has to say to them (i.e., not very much). But it also relates to style. Just talking about tuition tax breaks or global warming is not going to make young people Democrats. How can we develop a style that is sincere, genuine, and speaks to their desire for authenticity?
The answers to these questions–and others as well–would help the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates begin to build a relationship with younger voters that will last and maybe even be passed on to their children. But this relationship needs to be reciprocal. Young people do not want to be pandered to, and they want to believe in something bigger than themselves. Younger people are voting Democratic because they are out of step with Republicans ideologically, they want to get out of Iraq, and they are worried about their economic security. Let’s work to provide them a reason to not only vote Democratic, but also to become lifelong Democrats.
Anna Greenberg is Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
Amy Gershkoff is the Director of Analytics at MSHC Partners/Predicted Lists LLC.
1National Exit Pool’s Exit Poll, conducted by Edison Mitofsky, November 2006.
2Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) Report “Young Voters in the 2006 Elections,” December 12, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
3There were efforts by candidates and state parties in some states such as Virginia and Montana.
4See for example Campbell et al., 1960, The American Voter, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
5Data in Tables 1-3 were taken from the United States General Election Exit Polls, 1990-2004. Polls conducted by Voter News Service and Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International; data compiled by The New York Times.
6In 1992 Perot voters (22 percent) were allocated evenly across the two candidates. In 1996, all Perot voters were allocated to Dole. In 2000 and 20004, all Nader voters were allocated to the Democratic candidate.
7CIRCLE Report, “Youth Demographics,” November 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
9“The State of Our Unions,” The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University. Last accessed March 9, 2007. (Subscription required.)
10Furstenberg, Frank F., Jr., 1994, “History and Current Status of Divorce in the United States,” Children and Divorce, Vol. 4, No. 1. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
11GQR+Polimetrix Youth Monitor, September 2005, based on an Internet panel of 892 18-24 year olds.
12U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2005. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
13National Exit Pool’s Exit Poll, conducted by Edison Mitofsky, November 2006.
14United States General Election Exit Polls, 1990-2004. Polls conducted by Voter News Service and Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International; data compiled by The New York Times.
15“Campus Attitudes towards Politics and Public Service Survey,” Institute of Politics, Harvard University, 2001. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
16Pew Research Center for the People and the Press News Index Survey of 1254 adults, conducted February 12-18, 2003. Data can be downloaded here. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
17CIRCLE Report “Young Voters in the 2006 Elections,” December 12, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
18Pew Research Center for the People and the Press News Index Survey of 1506 adults, conducted August 9-13, 2006; this is the latest Pew Research Center survey about Iraq in which the data is publicly available. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
19“The 11th Biannual Survey of Politics and Public Service,” Institute of Politics, Harvard University. Survey conducted October 4-16, 2006, N=2546. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
20Democracy Corps national surveys of likely voters, October – November 2006.
21Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
23Democracy Corps national survey of 1000 likely voters, conducted October 1-3, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007; see also Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics,” January 9, 2007 for a similar finding. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
24Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics,” January 9, 2007. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
25Democracy Corps national survey of 1000 likely voters, conducted October 1-3, 2006.
26All other cohorts registered between 60 and 67 percent support for investment in alternative energy. Source: Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
27American National Election Studies cumulative data file Last accessed March 9, 2007. Similar trend analysis can be found in Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) Report “Young Voters in the 2006 Elections,” December 12, 2006. http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS-Midterm06.pdf. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
28Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future Post-Election Survey of 2,020 voters, conducted November 7-8, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
31See, for example, Hulbert, Ann, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” New York Times Magazine, March 11, 2007. Last accessed March 12, 2007.
32Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, and Politics,” January 9, 2007. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
35Pew Internet and American Life Project and Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “The Internet and Campaign 2004,” November 22, 2004. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
36Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 20, 2006. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
37Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Report. “Voters Liked Campaign 2004, But Too Much ‘Mud-Slinging’; Moral Values: How Important?” November 11, 2004. Last accessed March 9, 2007.
by Michael Davies
While the state legislative elections are not covered to the extent that control of the U.S. House or Senate is, control of these 98 state chambers has a long-term impact on national Democratic success. Here’s why smart strategists are looking to the state elections:
A good year materializes
The thing most people don’t know–and that we never mind telling them–is that state legislative Democrats scored major wins in the 2004 elections. State legislative Democrats and the DLCC bucked national trends and gained 6 chambers on net.
We began the 2006 cycle on the defensive, having to protect narrow majorities in a number of chambers. Fully twenty of the thirty-six states in which the legislature controls redistricting were within four seats of changing hands. We knew our challenge was figuring out a way to defend our narrow majorities, many of them new and many in “red” states like Colorado and North Carolina, while still having enough resources to play offense elsewhere.
But as the 2006 cycle unfolded, we began to see several signs this would be a good year for Democrats. We could see the Democratic base was more engaged and organized than it had been in years. In candidate recruitment, Democrats were out-filing Republicans, both in terms of quantity and quality. Indeed, of the 35% of legislative incumbents who were unopposed in 2006, 60% were Democrats while only 40% were Republicans. We could also see proof of the splintering Republican base–popular moderate Republican incumbents in swing districts were losing their primaries to hard-right candidates.
A localizing strategy
For all the talk about the lack of a Democratic “brand,” state legislative Democrats have been winning elections by localizing them. The DLCC works to strengthen local operations. We give our caucuses tools, best practices, expert advice, and resources, but a large part of our success rests on recruiting candidates who are grounded in their communities and encouraging them to talk about issues and common-sense solutions that resonate in their communities. By empowering state caucuses we are implementing a national strategy to localize state legislative races.
Our strategy stands in stark contrast to the Republican strategy of nationalizing state legislative elections. Republicans attempt to nationalize these races primarily by resorting to divisive social issues. Whether or not these issues were even dealt with in a particular legislative session or whether the particular Democratic candidate is even assailable on the particular issue is of little consequence: Republicans seek to define these elections largely on a nationalized values-and-taxes message. In some cycles, this Republican strategy has been successful at the state legislative level, most notably in 1994 and 2002.
In 2006 our localized strategy met their nationalized strategy and the combined results were stunning. This was clearly not the year for the Republicans’ “one-trick” nationalized strategy. After an almost endless string of scandals and missteps, the national Republican message had little resonance in legislative elections. While this surely hurt the Republicans, the true extent of the legislative Democrats’ victories was just as much a result of our localized strategy which propelled us to victory.
In 2006, Democrats made huge gains at the state legislative level, gaining 10 new Democratic majorities:
- Indiana House
- Iowa House
- Iowa Senate (from a tie)
- Minnesota House
- Michigan House
- New Hampshire House
- New Hampshire Senate
- Oregon House
- Pennsylvania House
- Wisconsin Senate
Republicans, in contrast, shifted just two chambers: the Oklahoma Senate from a Democratic majority to a Democratic-controlled tie, and the Montana House from a tie to a narrow Republican majority. (Two chambers have switched control since the election due to party-switchers: the Tennessee Senate from Republican control to a tie and the Mississippi Senate to a Republican majority.) Democrats now control 55 chambers to the Republicans’ 41, with two chambers tied. This is up from the pre-election spread of 47-49-2.
Democrats gained nearly 350 seats in the 2006 elections, moving the national advantage to 3,984 Democrats to 3,326 Republicans. This is up from a statistically negligible 21-seat advantage pre-election.
We made gains in every region of the country:
CHAMBER AND SEAT SWITCHES IN THE 2006 ELECTIONS**
Some other highlights:
- Democrats picked up seats in almost all of the chambers we won in 2004 including: 2 seats in the Colorado Senate, 4 seats in the Colorado House, 5 seats in the Iowa Senate, 5 seats in the North Carolina House, 10 seats in the Vermont House, and 6 seats in the Washington Senate.
- Democrats also kept majorities in other targeted chambers, including the Kentucky House, Maine House and Senate, Minnesota Senate, Montana Senate, Tennessee House, and Washington House.
- We had a blowout in the New Hampshire House, picking up nearly 90 seats.
- We moved the Minnesota House from 52 Democratic seats after 2002, to 85 Democratic seats, a 33 seat gain.
- In chambers where we’re in the minority, we’ve narrowed the gap,, including the Alaska House and Senate; Florida House; Pennsylvania House; North Dakota House and Senate; Ohio House; Tennessee Senate; and Wisconsin House.
Federal sweep does not tell the whole story
Of the more than six thousand legislative elections in 2006, the DLCC tracked 438 races particularly closely. These were the most-strongly targeted state legislative races in the most-strongly targeted states. The chart below details the Democratic wins in these 438 races across different categories of seats, including Democratic incumbents, Democratic open seats, Republican open seats, and Republican incumbent seats.
The win rate in these seats is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that the win rate was only one percentage point lower in areas not targeted by the DCCC or the DSCC. In fact, 270 of the 438 seats detailed above had no crossover with Democratic-targeted Federal campaigns, while just 168 did. State legislative Democrats won 67% of the seats without Federal crossover and 68% of seats with crossover. This rate is even more striking as the areas not targeted by the Congressional committees tend to be in states and districts more hostile to Democrats.
Implications for long-term Democratic success
There are five reasons why winning at the state legislative level is more important than ever in its long-term impact:
First, when we win a state legislative chamber, the conversation in the state changes overnight. Before Democrats took over the Colorado House and Senate, the conversation playing out in the papers and on the news was between the Right and the Far Right. When we won both chambers, suddenly we were discussing balancing the budget and funding education. By dealing with the bread-and-butter issues that matter most, state legislative Democrats are showing that state government can work, and are undercutting the Republicans’ tired talking points about the lack of a Democratic agenda.
Second, we’re preparing Democrats for redistricting, both Congressional and legislative. Winning at the state legislative level is the only way to make sure Democrats will have a seat at the table when district lines are cut and to ensure competitive districts.
We made some gains this cycle which will impact redistricting for years to come, including our new majorities in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. We also won the Indiana House, preventing a potential Republican mid-decade redistricting that could have made the three newly-Democratic U.S. House seats unwinnable for Democrats.
Third, we’re showing that Democrats can win–anywhere. We’re continuing to make gains at the local level in traditionally “red” and “purple” states, adding this cycle’s gains in Indiana and New Hampshire to last cycle’s wins in North Carolina, Montana, and Colorado. We’ve made gains in every region of the country–in “red” states and “blue” states and in urban, suburban, and exurban districts. We’re showing that when Democrats roll up our sleeves and work to solve problems, people will respond, no matter where they live.
Fourth, we’re standing up for Democratic values at home. State legislatures make more policy decisions that affect citizens’ daily lives than Congress, such as ensuring access to a quality education and healthcare. For every one law that Congress passes, state legislatures pass seventy-five. The role of legislatures has been more important since the Republican Congress slashed federal funding and pushed more of the fiscal burden to the states.
And lastly, as much as the state legislatures are the policy major leagues, we are the “farm team” for statewide and Federal races. About half of today’s governors and Members of Congress started at the state legislative level. Some of this cycle’s key wins were won by former state legislators:
- Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe
- New York Lieutenant Governor David Paterson
- Montana U.S. Senator Jon Tester
- Maryland U.S. Senator Ben Cardin
- Colorado’s 7th District Representative Ed Perlmutter
- Indiana’s 9th District Representative Baron Hill
- Ohio’s 6th District Representative Charlie Wilson
- Connecticut’s 2nd District Representative Joe Courtney
The bottom line is that Democrats must win at the local level to build towards long-term success.
2007 and 2008
In 2007, we have elections in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. In this next cycle, we have twenty-three chambers in twenty states within five seats of changing hands.
We’ll work with our caucuses, legislative leaders, and strategic partners to continue our record of success in 2008 and prepare for 2010, the last election before redistricting. We are proud to be partners with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) in a new redistricting nerve center, Foundation for the Future.
We picked up all four chambers in two early presidential states, Iowa and New Hampshire. We’re looking forward to seeing how this will shape the presidential debates. Instead of debating Republicans’ favorite topics, we could be asking presidential candidates about building infrastructure for sustainable energy, improving education by attracting and keeping the best teachers, and supporting rural America.
And there will be at least one former state legislator in the running–Barack Obama started as a state legislator.
Our Party will announce our nominee for the presidency in Denver, Colorado which was chosen largely because of the gains Democrats have made in the Mountain West, including at the local level.
While many Democrats will be focused on winning back the White House, our challenge at the DLCC in 2008 will be making sure that Democrats are walking and chewing gum at the same time–working to build the foundation for long-term success. And long-term success starts at the state legislative level.
Michael Davies has served as the Executive Director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) since December 2002. The DLCC is the one national Democratic committee charged with electing Democratic majorities in state legislatures and with raising the quality of Democratic legislative campaigns nationwide.