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August 06, 2005

A Candlelight Election Dinner

By Ezra

Nick's post below on Bush's declining support among white men with a high school education or less is important stuff. This is the demographic that kicked John Kerry in the teeth. In 2000, Gore won the non-high school educated by 20%, Kerry took them by 1%. In 2000, Gore lost the high-school educated by 1%, Kerry lost them by 5%. The only place Kerry made gains, in fact, was among the post-doc crowd, taking Gore's 8% advantage and turning it into a 10% lead. We traded beer bellies for egg heads and found out, just as Adlai Stevenson did decades ago, that electoral arithmetic is the one sort of math that the working class figures better than the knowledge class.

But we know we need to win whites, the question is, why did we lose the,? Here you've got a few things going on. First and foremost, there's a respect for authority, particularly in times of national duress. This is the don't-change-horses-midstream crowd, and so they saddled up with Gore in 2000 but galloped off with Bush in 2004. But more to the point, this is the heuristics crowd. Less likely to be educated, less likely to be politically informed, less likely to pay close attention to news stories, etc. That's no criticism, it's just the numbers. And so this group's decisions are made off impressions, body language, character, appearance, composure, bearing, background, and all the other human data that we unconsciously download during every interaction, conversation and sighting.

And Bush kicked our ass on that.

The reason Bush is their boy is because Bush seems like their boys. And so, even if their support for his policies are dropping, I guarantee you he'd horsewhip Kerry among this group again if we were to call a do-over. Pols do a lot of polling to find out what people want to hear, but, at least among Democrats, very little thought is given to what voters want to see. That's a nasty oversight. Because elections, contra Clinton, aren't like a job interview. They're more of a first date. And on a first date, you can tell your date all the sweet nothings he always wanted to hear; if he doesn't want to be seen with you, the end of the night will find you separate. Worse, you can say everything wrong and fling more food than an angry monkey, but if you've got the right look, your date can still be a success.

Shallow, yes. But we know it's true. The real question is why we ever thought politics would be different.

August 6, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


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This also says a lot about why Hackett succeeded, why Schweitzer is succeeding, and even why Sanders succeeds. I know relatively little about Evan Bayh and haven't seen how he portrays himself in Indiana, but it could very well explain him as well.

In fact, my biggest problem with the DLC is that it doesn't understand this type of "identity politics." It thinks that nuanced changes in policy stance (or even large changes in policy stance) play out on a major level with the electorate. There's very little truth to that statement.

To an extent, this also says that Sirota is wrong, clearly, standing up for working families is not the recipe for getting elected. But he is correct insofar as he argues that it is possible to win while fighting for working families. Dean has now proven it is also possible to fundraise.

I've got some other thoughts on this, but I've probably wasted enough of your allotted disk space.

Posted by: Matt Singer | Aug 6, 2005 5:09:24 PM

Sirota gets something important right in that clear and declarative policies can create a narrative personality. Incrementalism doesn't tend to lend itself to a tough storyline. People v. powerful populism (which may partly explain Gore's massive bettering of Kerry in these groups) does much more. Policies can be used to inform heuristics, to influence media coverage which operates on a more sophisticated level and then informs reptilian judgments. You also don't want to abandon good policy because simple policy is good politics.

The DLC does get this, oddly enough. They realized that, 15 years ago, certain Thrid Way policies could create a narrative of "newness" that worked very well for Clinton. But that moment has passed and the Dean style of power populism (though it needs a better suited pol, I think) has a lot of relevance.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 6, 2005 5:14:11 PM

Ezra, I'm not sure about your demographic analysis here, particularly for high school dropouts (high school completers only gave Kerry 1% less of their total vote than they had given Gore.) Three things:

1) High school dropouts only made 4% of the voting population (compared to postgrads at 16%). At those levels of voting, in an exit-poll sample of 13,000 total voters, I bet the margin of error is so big we really can't know.

2) I'm guessing (no supporting stats) that high school dropout voters are disportionately older people and their return to the GOP fold was part of the return of seniors to the Republican fold (well, that's assuming you're using VNS and not the Los Angeles Times poll for 2000). If so, prescription drugs could tell the story both times.

3) Until the 90s, women were slightly less likely to complete high school than men (the trend has now radically reversed). So Bush's dramatic gain here might be as much or more a part of the story of Bush's improvement among women -- and his huge-ass, eye-popping improvement among working women who were Gore's best (and, according to surveys, most enthusiastic) voters -- than a question of him "seeming like their (F-you) boys".

Posted by: tlaura | Aug 6, 2005 6:19:12 PM

...at least among Democrats, very little thought is given to what voters want to see.

Ezra, you took up a whole page to say that people want to vote for those who hold their same interests. All of this wordy analysis just to say that.
The Democrats, instead, make up their own agenda amongst themselves without giving the people what they want and expect and then wonder why they can't sell it.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 6, 2005 6:30:49 PM

tlaura: just to be clear, we're talking about both dropouts and those with a high school diploma but nothing more.

Ezra, I largely agree with you that Bush would still whip Kerry among this demographic. But it would not be quite so bad. The aura of invincibility surrounding Bush has been punctured, and that's probably enough to take 5-10% of this demographic.

And Bush versus someone like Bayh, Warner, or Clark, who doesn't have the unfavorables that Kerry had, might end up being a horsewhipping in the other direction.

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot | Aug 6, 2005 6:39:35 PM

Nick -- what is confusing or confused in my post? I assume Ezra is following up on the idea that Bush is losing support among one of his core demographics -- white working class men -- and argues that Bush's dramatic gains among high school or less voters means that we need to start running candidates with appeal to these groups.

What I'm arguing is that that might not be a good way to back up the point because high school or less voters might not be representative of shifts in the downscale white male voter. Among high school completers, the Dem result didn't really change in four years, and the 2-party margin increased possibly just because of the lack of protest voting. Meanwhile, Bush's improvement among people who haven't completed is likely to be part and parcel of his (possible, depending on your source) improvement among seniors and his huge, fundamental, massively important improvement among working women. But I've only seen the publically available numbers.

My reading of the last two elections is that the damage among white men -- the "F-you crowd" -- was done in 2000. Men didn't flee from Kerry; they fled from Gore and by 2004, they'd already voted for Bush once, which is hard to reverse. Rather, it was damage among women voters, particularly working women voters, that was the "identity politics" debacle of 2004.

Posted by: tlaura | Aug 6, 2005 7:08:26 PM

The "heuristics" of the uninvolved, uninformed middle-of-the-road voter were the key in 2004, and the key to the heuristics is not so much the demographics as corporate right-wing control of the media, combined with some serious shortcomings among the Democratic campaign consultant types. Bob Strum is a loser, but so is Joe Trippi, just in a different way.

Two examples of Democratic incompetence stand out in my memory:

In the V-P debate, Cheney gambled that he could make his opponent look small with a big lie about never having met him, and what did our Democratic hero do? Nothing. That was a heurisitic moment, especially for the key segment of voters, who were watching at that moment, but would not read the newspapers the next day.

Rove is a master of the heuristics, and his typical ploy is to project, in the psychological sense, accusing his opponent on issues, where his own candidate is weakest. Bush invaded Iraq with no plan, so Rove orchestrated a long media campaign criticizing Kerry for having no plan. Kerry soon had so many plans, it was downright comical. But, when Kerry was asked what he would do differently in Iraq, he gave long-winded, pious bits about involving our allies -- battering Bush, where Bush was strongest, that is, on the unwillingness of our allies to help, and Bush's willingness to do what needed to be done, with or without help -- an example of what passes for a "good attitude" in middle America. Kerry, if he wasn't a moron, could have attacked Bush effectively by saying, "First, I'd fire Halliburton." Why didn't he?

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 6, 2005 7:35:03 PM

Men didn't flee from Kerry; they fled from Gore and by 2004, they'd already voted for Bush once, which is hard to reverse. Rather, it was damage among women voters, particularly working women voters, that was the "identity politics" debacle of 2004.

The numbers I've seen suggest you're right. Kerry was able to consolidate all the "angry liberal men" who voted for Nader, but Bush made a 3-4% gain among white women (by the time of the GOP convention, it was pretty clear that Bush was courting women very hard. I don't know if this is the result of "identity politics" in the way Ezra describes or not.

I had just read your first post in haste, and thought you thought Ezra was talking about high school dropouts only, and not counting high school diploma holders (but those who hadn't tried to go to college).

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot | Aug 7, 2005 1:29:34 PM

I can't believe it, my co-worker just bought a car for $88236. Isn't that crazy!

Posted by: Betsy Markum | Nov 14, 2005 5:02:29 PM

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