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December 04, 2007

How Polarizing Are They?

John Sides' effort to quantify how polarizing the various candidates are is interesting but, ultimately, quite flawed. "Polarization" is not a quality intrinsic to the various candidates. There is no evidence that, if 10 individuals had dinner with someone perfectly approximating the characteristics and opinions of Hillary Clinton and then 10 individuals had dinner with a working replica of Barack Obama, that there would be any difference in how extreme the dinner guest's reactions would be.

Rather, candidates become polarizing as the press, and the political world, polarizes reactions to them. Hillary has been in the public eye for decades, endured all manner of smears and controversies, and is thus quite polarizing. But that's a function of her time before the spotlights, not her personality. As Sides notes, "The candidates with the lowest polarization score were also the candidates with the highest percentage of respondents who couldn’t rate them." Weirdly, though, he goes on to try and compute the scores for these lesser known candidates by assuming "the respondents in each party who could not rate the candidates would come to have preferences with the same ratio of favorable to unfavorable responses to each candidate."

That's not how this works. Take John Kerry. In January of 2004, his ratio of favorable to unfavorable ratings 1.26, meaning he was net favorable, even though relatively few Americans knew his name. In the final poll before the election, his ratio was .87, meaning he was net unfavorable, despite almost everyone knowing his name. Currently, his ratio is .45, meaning people wouldn't spit on him if he were on fire. During each of these periods, public awareness of Kerry has increased. And during each of these periods, that awareness has fundamentally shifted the electorate's aggregate opinion of him. So too with Obama, or Huckabee, or Edwards. If any of them emerge their party's nominee, they will be smeared, and attacked, and lied about, and derided. They will become polarizing, not because they are polarizing people, but because they are participating in a polarizing process.

That's why I'm so uninterested in these arguments that so-and-so can bring us together. Anyone can look unifying and safe now. I'm sure that Bill Clinton, in 1992, running as a moderate Southerner atop promises to rid the Democratic Party of 80s-era orthodoxies, seemed like a pretty likable figure. By 1994, that wasn't so much the case. Obama, for all his virtues, will be smeared as a Muslim, or a former coke user, and undergo the same process. Edwards will be derided for his haircut, his house, his looks. Polarization happens. The question is who can endure it, survive it, and win despite it.

December 4, 2007 | Permalink


The strange thing is Bill Clinton isn't much of a polarizing figure with the American people. He did unite people and he ended his presidency with great approval ratings. But, surprise, surprise, he is hated by right-wing talk radio -- mostly for winning. He is only polarizing within the strange world of the Beltway pundit class.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 4, 2007 4:02:02 PM

Might I add the one factor that goes into "polarization" and perceptions in general is how someone speaks?

HRC does sound a bit grating at times (as does Nancy Pelosi). Obama does have a "smooth" way of speaking that can sound a bit slick. Edwards, Gore and L. Graham (among others) have a certain kind of Southern accent that sounds a bit cartoonish. Kerry's Middle Atlantic English may have won him an election 50 years ago, but now it's beyond out of style.

Part of the reason why so many people liked Reagan and why (outside of the beltway insiders that never could accept such a scalawag) Clinton was so well received is that both Reagan and Clinton were very good at modulating their voice and generally sounding warm and caring yet strong.

As Woody Allen put it in his take on the Akedah: “[S]ome men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

Not that our current President is winning any awards in this regard (and outside of the beltway crowd who has a mad crush on a President of the proper class after 8 years of a scalawag in office, Bush is very "polarizing") -- nor is the current crop of GOP candidates all that good -- but part of the problem we Democrats have is that much of our leadership simply doesn't sound "Presidential".

Posted by: DAS | Dec 4, 2007 4:33:26 PM

I think you're likely correct about institutionalization of polarization in American politics. Perhaps we could attempt to compile a list of long serving Democrats who are not seen as polarizing figures. I imagine it would be a short list.

But the most important effect of the process, which I don't think you touched on in your post, is the length of time needed by the process to lock political figures into a point on a scale of polarization. I think the 'bring us together' arguments we're seeing in the campaign, i.e., from the Obama camp, are sincere in their belief for a long-term positive outlook, but most importantly, they say that the candidate is not polarizing right now. I find it hard to believe that the right-wing attack machine could do to Obama in 10 months what they've done to HRC in over a decade. In your example above, its true that by 1994 Bill Clinton was painted in far different light than in 1992, but, what I take away from this is that the polarization of Bill became an issue in 1994 and not by November 1992. Your point then the attractiveness of a candidate who can endure and survive the polarization process (how is that measured by the way? HRC claims to have endured it, but unless she gets the nomination and wins nationally despite her polarization she hasn't overcome anything) may be applicable for governing but less so for the next 11 months.

Posted by: JStarr | Dec 4, 2007 4:47:03 PM

I find it hard to believe that the right-wing attack machine could do to Obama in 10 months what they've done to HRC in over a decade.

He's young. He's black. He's not particularly well-experienced. He's an admitted user of cocaine. He's got an Arabic middle name. He spent some of his childhood in a country known for Islamic extremism, and even attended a Muslim school. Repeat and rinse.

Not that such attacks would definitely cause Obama the election. I like any of the major Democratic candidate's chances next November. I'm just saying it's silly to say the right won't attack Obama. They'll find plenty of things to attach any of the major candidates about. My worry about Obama is that we're not sure what we're getting. If I were part of the RW attack machine, I DEFINITELY wouldn't be using anything I might have on Obama now. I'd wait until after Labor day. Clinton, for all her negatives, might well be the most thoroughly vetted presidential candidate in history. Edwards is pretty-well vetted, too.

Posted by: Conan | Dec 4, 2007 5:04:19 PM

Actually, the Clintons ARE polarizing figures. And the reason has EVERYTHING to do with their conservative politics.

Essentially, the Clintons know that to get elected as right wing Democrats, they need to keep the base happy. To do that, they make sure they have the right enemies, and that means that they have to pick fights where they can say that they have a right-wing conspiracy lined up against them.

The base eats up this sort of us-against-them posture. If the Clintons didn't polarize, the base might either force them to be more liberal or actually choose liberals over them in primaries. Polarization is thus key to their ability to enact the conservative policies they favor.

Thus, an actual liberal like Obama DOES have the potential to be less polarizing, because he can have ideological fights (like on the Iraq War and the proposed Iran War) with the Republicans which will keep the base happy, giving him more room to work with the Republicans in those situations where there is really common ground. This is why Reagan, for instance, while very conservative, was surprisingly effective at getting bipartisan legislation through a Democratic-controlled Congress.

This, to me, is one of the most compelling reasons why Hillary Clinton must be defeated in the primaries. Not only does her election guarantee another four years of hard-right governance, but we also get needless political polarization as a necessary correllary to it, with liberals constantly being mobilized to fight unimportant defensive fights against whatever right wing smear campaign the Clintons are contending is ongoing at the moment.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Dec 4, 2007 5:10:16 PM

He's young. He's black. He's not particularly well-experienced. He's an admitted user of cocaine. He's got an Arabic middle name. He spent some of his childhood in a country known for Islamic extremism, and even attended a Muslim school.

Note that I didn't say the wingnuts couldn't find ammunition to attack Obama with. Rather, I stressed the importance of time and the fact that far-right agitators have had over a decade to refine and hone their attacks on HRC. The point is that the process of polarization is a...process. It will take time for the attack machine to figure out what sticks and what doesn't. Maybe not much time, but at least they wouldn't be running off a script like with you know who.

On that point, the right's fixation on HRC during this campaign - never mind since 1992 - would serve as a disadvantage to their narrative were Obama to be their challenger. The right has a lot invested in their focus on Hillary; more than a few people think that that's they only cohesive device left in the modern GOP. If Obama or Edwards win the primaries, that is to say, if HRC loses, a lot of talk-radio hosts and their ilk are going to be quite disappointed and so will their listeners. This disappointment has the potential to parlay into a diminished efficacy of their attacks, which, is part of the point isn't it?

Posted by: JStarr | Dec 4, 2007 6:14:03 PM

I think "polarizing" is an odd choice for discussing what's going on here, and I think the definition seems rather middled - the question here seems to be "who can be made to seem, through media presentations, as not mainstream" but combined with some question of "who can bring people together" that seems to me very separate - Bill Clinton, I think, was and is a Politician who believed fundamentally in finding common ground and compromise solutions - I think that tendency to negotiate, and make everything negotiable, is what progressives have never forgiven. The fact that Bill Clinton was demonized by the right, and made to seem "polarizing"... is a related, but different, point.

And I think with the right media presentation, pretty much anyone can be made to seem "polarizing" or out of the mainstream. That's why I always thought Kerry's people set themselves up for problems by assuming a respectable war record would protect their candidate from attacks; and it's why I'm leery of anyone who thinks that one of Edwards or Obama or Clinton is superior because he or she "won't be as vulnerable" to attacks. They can all be attacked, and they can all be made to seem out of the mainstream, if the "mainstream" decides it to be so.

I would however, like to reserve a spot for defending the notion that what we do lack in politics these days is the coalition-builder, the compromiser, the negotiator. I think some candidates want to be that, but I don't think our culture, right now, makes a lot of room for compromise, middle ground, and give and take. It's not that candidates are polarizing; it's that we are polarized. And there are people who like it that way, and know how to make it work for them. So the question isn't who can bring us together... it's whether we even want to be. I'm not sure we do.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 4, 2007 7:02:36 PM

Bush is incredibly polarizing. He also won 1.5 Presidential elections. If you win and get your agenda enacted, it's not particularly important whether the other party's base hates you intensely. What matters is whether you can convince your base to turn out and enough independents to vote for you to win 270 electoral college votes. The Republican party is fully invested in the politics of polarization so it's foolhardy to respond to vague concerns about polarization by trying to nominate a Rodney King wannabe.

Posted by: Ron | Dec 5, 2007 10:22:34 AM

Just to clarify, by "Rodney King wannabe" I mean a candidate who just wants everybody to get along -- avoiding polarization as a goal in itself.

Posted by: Ron | Dec 5, 2007 10:23:55 AM

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