If there is only one person in the world for whom the oil spill disaster in the Gulf is a blessing in disguise, that man is Charlie Crist.
From photos of the Governor surveying the spill to soundbites of him demanding full compensation for Florida's spill related damages, Crist's handling of the spill has offered him the chance to look like a leader, above politics, fighting for Florida.
But his favorables, according to Quinnipiac's June 9th survey, haven't changed dramatically from the more difficult days of early 2010 and late 2009. His current job approval, at 57%, is lower than it was in October 2009 when Rubio's insurgency was underway. His favorables today are lower than the October poll as well, currently at 52%.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio has struggled to pivot out of primary mode and into a general. The shift from running as "the true conservative" to a general election candidate will not be an easy one, and it becomes more and more critical with each tough poll that the Rubio campaign make that transition and begin to build his case to an audience beyond Tea Parties and local GOP groups.
There are a number of things going in Crist's favor - but don't count Rubio out. Five months is an eternity in politics. Looking at the recent polls and exit polling data going back to 1994, there are a variety of factors that will keep this race interesting through November.
1)Florida's unemployment rate is the fifth highest in the nation at 11.7%. There's an anecdote my colleagues and I have been using recently to describe the current political environment. Imagine a run-down house on that is on fire. Sure, the windows need repair, the house could use a coat of paint, the lawn needs to be cut. But until you put out the fire, the rest of that is irrelevant. The fire in politics today is the unemployment rate; until jobs come back to Florida, everything else is a distraction. When you can't drive down a suburban street without seeing foreclosure signs, voters have bigger issues they are voting on than whether or not former party chair Jim Greer had an illegal consulting arrangement with the Florida GOP. The temptation will be high for candidates to get into discussions about party credit card statements and backroom deals but things in Florida are very serious, and voters will respond to the candidates that take the economic crisis seriously.
2) Around one out of four voters in 2010 in Florida is likely to be independent. In the 2006 election, 24% of voters in the Governor's race were independent - a number that jumped to 29% in the Presidential race in 2008, in congruence with the nationwide trend of a small bump in independents. Capturing these voters is key. Currently, Crist is winning 51% of independent voters according to the June 9 Quinnipiac poll. This is not particularly surprising - both Meek and Rubio have been fighting for their partisan supporters - but if Crist continues to sustain a majority of the independent vote, he will be incredibly formidable heading into November.
3) As a result, Rubio must improve his brand with independents. Republicans know Marco Rubio. They love Marco Rubio. Only a quarter haven't formed an opinion about him, and only 11% don't like him. When it comes to locking down his side, he's good. His bigger problem comes from independents, where his fav/unfav is roughly even at 31-30. He absolutely needs to have favorables that are over 50% among independents in order to be competitive with Crist.
4) Kendrick Meek still doesn't have a statewide brand, and if he develops one, he will slightly erode Crist's share of the vote. Crist currently pulls in a whopping 37% of Democratic voters. I believe this has a lot to do with the fact that 69% of voters, including 59% of Democrats, say they haven't heard enough about Meek to form an opinion. As the election proceeds and all candidates hit the airwaves one can expect Crist's advantage to erode. These days, a candidate can build a brand almost overnight - consider that Rick Scott came out of nowhere and now boasts 53% of Florida voters who have an opinion about him. Meek may not be armed with the same kind of war chest, but by election day it is highly unlikely that Meek will still be an unknown to 7 out of 10 voters.
5) Painting Crist as an opportunist is not enough - people think everyone does what's popular. The conventional wisdom is that if Rubio pulls down Crist's favorables and brands Crist as a political opportunist, he can gain ground. The Quinnipiac poll showed that almost half of Florida voters (48%) think Crist makes decisions based on "what's popular" - a charge they also believe about Marco Rubio (42%). When the question is asked generally about "most public officials", 74% say they usually do what is popular. Fighting the battle over whether or not Crist is "principled" isn't fighting a battle on which Rubio has some major advantage in the general electorate. Furthermore, it's not as if Florida voters didn't associate Crist's defection from the GOP with ulterior motives - 60% said he left the Republican party because he couldn't win the primary, including 57% of independents. Voters aren't naïve on this point. If Rubio spends five months beating up on Crist as an opportunist and neglecting to build his own favorables among independents, it's not likely to be as productive as he'd like.
Most folks I talk to say that in order for Rubio to have a fighting chance against Crist, he needs to bring down Crist's favorables. Of course, that strategy might yield a slight bump in standing, but I don't believe it is nearly enough to win. Voters already assume politicians do what they need to do to get elected. They already assume Crist has made politically motivated moves in this race. And they vote for him anyways. The problem isn't Crist's favorables, the problem is Rubio's neutral brand image among independents. And the way for Rubio, Crist, or Meek (or any candidate in any race, for that matter) to build that brand is to become the leader on the issue of the economy and jobs.
Crist may be getting a break in the press with his handling of the oil spill. But the ultimate impact of the oil spill is more than environmental, it is economic. If tourism dollars start leaving the state and the economic situation grows more dire, the primacy of the economy in this and all races will become even greater. In January 2007 when Crist was sworn into office, Florida's unemployment rate was 3.5%. Besides March 2007, every month that Charlie Crist has been Governor, Florida's unemployment rate has gotten worse. Even the national unemployment rate doesn't have a trend as dramatically consistent as that, and even though the national rate has levelled off, Florida's keeps getting worse.
If Rubio wants to take Crist head on, he should - but with economic policy contrasts that demonstrate both how Crist failed to ameliorate the jobs situation and with how Rubio would propose to fix the problem. Rubio rose to fame as the "ideas" man in Tallahassee, and it is that same focus on "ideas" that can be his ticket to Washington in November.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The conference featured presentations from private sector, government, and academic researchers about their methods and findings, in addition to the release of reports by two AAPOR task forces - one on online panels, one on cell-phone surveying.
On the whole, I had a phenomenal experience. I truly enjoyed the spirit of collaboration as attendees and presenters shared best practices and supported each other's research. I had an opportunity to meet an impressive group of established public opinion researchers, and also got to meet many young students and professionals who are doing fascinating work. (I now believe that pollsters are excellent conversationalists precisely because they're so good at asking questions.)
I think that one of the great benefits of attending AAPOR came in seeing how research is conducted by those in other industries. For example, political pollsters deal with a variety of pressures that are lessened in academic research: the speed of data production, the need to insert your findings into the conversation quickly, as well as client demands and cost pressures. While a major academic study may consume years of a doctoral candidate's life, a campaign poll typically needs rapid turnaround and subsequent immediate release in order to remain "fresh." A campaign rarely if ever has time to improve its coverage and conduct in-person face-to-face interviews of populations missed by land-line and cell-phone surveys, for instance. Weeks or months of post-stratification are a luxury not afforded to those in the world of campaign polling.
At AAPOR, you get exposure to "the ideal" - projects refined by the most advanced and rigorous techniques, exploring the toughest challenges of sampling, processing and analysis that the survey research field faces. It highlights ways to improve your methods, regardless of field, and helps a researcher facing time and cost pressures make informed decisions about what is critical to producing useful data. And for a political pollster, AAPOR is a great time to focus on these issues exclusively, away from discussion about whose clients won more races or who got which race predictions closest.
There was one thing that surprised me a bit about the AAPOR conference, and I'd love to hear comments on this from those who have been to the conference before or who have been involved in the organization more deeply. Essentially, if AAPOR is the "American Association for Public Opinion Research," one might logically assume the conference would devote a substantial portion of time to the findings of public opinion research in addition to the methods of collecting data.
A great example of a panel that balanced these two was the Gary Langer/Matthew Warshaw presentation about ABC News' "Where Things Stand" research in Afghanistan. I walked away with a greater understanding of how to conduct research in the most incredibly challenging circumstances, but I also learned what the people of Afghanistan think about the future of their nation.
However, the vast majority of content from the conference was about the process of social science research. In some cases, it was not necessarily even about opinion research in the strictest sense of the word "opinion", but rather the collection of demographics. This is understandable, given that at a professional conference, everyone is trying to figure out how to do what they do better, but I felt there was a very narrow focus on the methods of research and less attention paid to what we're finding.
Why do we conduct opinion research in the first place? We do it to learn about certain groups of people and audiences. Developing a research methodology that perfectly captures cell-only populations is as useful as the research findings it generates. So what are we finding? Opinion research conducted by another organization about, say, shifting attitudes in America about the media, have a great deal of application to my work as a political pollster, even if that research presentation does not impact the methods of how I do my work in the future.
With the wealth of knowledge possessed by the various professional and academic organizations in AAPOR, it would be great to see more panels highlighting the findings of public opinion professionals.
In the end, I think it is critical that more political pollsters take the opportunity to focus on their methods in order to create the highest quality data. We often measure political pollsters by the accuracy of their results and how often their numbers are "on the money" when final ballots counts are in. A conference like AAPOR gives researchers the tools to make sure they are right rather than lucky. There is a great deal that political polling professionals can learn from their counterparts in other industries and I feel very thankful that I had the opportunity to attend this conference and learn from their experiences.
Some of the items I was most interested in learning about at AAPOR this year were the findings of the task force on cell phone survey research. Given my particular interest in understanding young voters, I am particularly concerned about the lack of coverage among that group with landline-only research. The task force presented a number of findings that acknowledged the increased costs and challenges of cell-phone sampling (cognitive shortcutting, potential risks to respondent safety, response rates, etc.) Courtney Kennedy's award-winning student paper on whether or not cell phone respondents employ cognitive shortcuts when responding to surveys. Essentially, are respondents paying attention and giving us good data? As the recipient of the Seymour Sudman student paper award, Kennedy tackled a critical question in understanding how to conduct better research using this sample frame. I was lucky enough to be able to ask her about her work for a moment at the AAPOR conference this weekend in Chicago.
One of the things I loved most about the AAPOR conference was the opportunity to learn from pollsters of different disciplines. The lessons one organization learns about how to reach a unique population are often useful to researchers of all varieties. In this case, Pew presented its findings about how best to reach Hispanics in general public opinion surveys. From issues in language and translation to interviewer hand-offs to the prevalence of cell phone use, Pew's findings highlighted the challenges in ensuring Hispanics are properly represented in survey research. For campaign pollsters, particularly those operating in states with a high proportion of Hispanic voters, knowing how to get a representative snapshot is becoming more and more critical to monitoring political attitudes. I had a chance to chat with Jocelyn Kiley about the research and its importance to political polling.
While AAPOR's panels are predominantly comprised of academics and professional non-partisan researchers, it was nice to run into a handful of political pollsters who had presentations as well. Chris Wilson and Bryon Allen from Wilson Research Strategies dug into the ANES data to answer a basic question: what matters more, persuasion or turnout? Is it more critical to move the middle or to energize your base? Their research points to persuasion as key. I pulled them aside for a moment before their panel to find out about their research.
On the second day of the AAPOR Conference in Chicago, I had a chance to catch up with Jennifer Agiesta of the Washington Post who chaired a panel session on candidate preferences and election outcomes. The panel featured presentations on a number of topics that impact how public opinion measures elections, including third parties and whether or not having your name at the top of the ballot gives you a distinct advantage. I caught up with Jennifer after the panel to chat with her about the presentations and to find out what challenges she's anticipating as a media pollster heading into the 2010 elections.
If you think pollsters in the US have it rough - difficulty getting folks to agree to participate, difficulty finding good samples given the rise of cell phone only households, etc. - try conducting public opinion research in Afghanistan. Over the last few years, ABC News has worked with research firm D3 Systems and the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research to pull together some unique and fascinating research on shifting public opinion in the country. Their Emmy award-winning work was presented in the first session here at AAPOR and I was there to hear what they'd done and what they'd learned.
Research of this nature is of interest not just because of its unique nature but also because of its impact. For instance, their research found that beliefs about civilian casualties were linked to optimism about the country's situation and a variety of other indicators. With the "winning the hearts and minds" item so integral to the conflict in Afghanistan, research like that conducted by ABC/D3 highlights key links between public opinion and things like the conduct and outcome of a war effort.
I had the opportunity to chat with ABC News' Gary Langer and D3's Matthew Warshaw about their research - take a look to hear more about the findings of their research and the challenges they encountered.
The team of writers behind "The Daily Show" released a book in 2004 by Jon Stewart entitled America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. On page 112 (for those of you following along at home), Stewart and company lampoon the traditional roles found in an American campaign. The pollster is not spared.
"Pollster: No one will meet him. He does not exist because you, as a candidate, pay no attention to polls. You do not do anything until you talk to him first."
Well, not anymore.
The Monday morning column in National Journal from Pollster.com editor Mark Blumenthal collected up the incredible number of references to polls used by those on both sides of the aisle in last week's Health Care Summit at Blair House. The conventional wisdom that politicians are supposed to pretend they don't care about polls has been turned on its head.
I, for one, am glad. In a post a year ago during the forum about Stan Greenberg's Dispatches from the War Room, I applauded his defense of polling as an important part of democratic government nowadays, and suggested that pollsters get to serve as the "reality check" against policymakers who remain hopelessly out of touch with the experience of real Americans.
Polling is an often maligned discipline, seen by some as a crutch for unprincipled politicians to figure out how to be successful political chameleons. And in fairness, I don't doubt that there are some politicians looking to polls to "tell them what to believe." For decades, politicians have often taken the position that they ignore polls and govern from their principles.
Which makes it somewhat refreshing, as a pollster, to see polling serve as an integral part of a major public policy debate.
The challenges of public policy polling are numerous. Do a survey that is too complex on a topic where the public knows little, and the wrong type of question can yield a worthless answer. Almost any positioning of a policy will be objectionable to one or both sides of the political spectrum. (For a great example, see the Pollster.com rundown of a somewhat recent duel over card check polling.) Plus, polls don't happen for free, and the funding for a poll can certainly impact the study's credibility.
But a well-executed survey that tests basic beliefs and attitudes can tell an important story to elected officials and policymakers. It can highlight fears and concerns that might not otherwise be heard absent a wave of letters and phone calls to congressional offices. It can help identify clear, simple ways to engage the public in policy discussions.
A great example comes from a missed opportunity from my own side of the aisle. In 2006 and 2007, Republicans were often seen touting economic growth, proclaiming that the Bush tax cuts had improved the economy. Yet their approval ratings weren't budging. No amount of messaging about a rosy economic outlook was convincing Americans, and folks inside Washington couldn't figure out why. Yet when pollsters and focus group experts took to the field to unravel the mystery, the answer was simple.
From the linked WSJ piece: "The reality, of course, is that the investment tax cuts did help create seven million jobs and did steer the economy out of recession. That doesn't matter to these "stressed out" voters, as Mr. Thau calls them."
The reality was that cost of living increases created real pressure being felt by most Americans, and as a result, the creation of millions of jobs didn't have an impact on the day-to-day American experience for many. Maybe folks weren't calling their Senators en masse, but there was anxiety out there. Research provided a window to the concerns of Americans.
Republicans finally came around with a somewhat successful moment in summer of 2008 focused on lowering gas prices, but by then it was too little too late.
All of which is to say that yes, there is an important place for quality survey research in a public policy debate. The "inside the beltway" distortion field is difficult to escape even for the most earnest policymakers. So long as polling is used appropriately, it can provide helpful clarity and direction to those whose decisions have a major impact on the lives of Americans.
Last November, young voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama over John McCain by a 2 to 1 margin and broke heavily for the Democratic Party, leading many strategists and pollsters (myself included) to believe that long-term damage had been done to the GOP's standing with a new generation of voters. Columnists began writing the Republican Party's obituary; Democrats cheered while stunned Republicans asked "what now?"
But a year is a long time. With Obama's approval ratings having fallen dramatically since he took office and with Republican victories in VA and NJ statewide elections, both states that Obama had won a year earlier, the question now is: is the GOP back?
I would argue "not yet", and that has quite a bit to do with young voters. Bear in mind that young voters made up woefully slim portions of these off-year electorates (9% in NJ, 10% in VA, compared to 17% and 21% in 2008 respectively).
These groups were also less friendly to the GOP candidates. Exit polls showed Chris Christie won every age group except 18-29 year olds, who broke for Corzine 57-36. (It is a remarkable credit to the McDonnell campaign that they won 18-29 year olds by 10 points, though that margin is slimmer than his overall 16-point victory.)
Young voters have not come back to the GOP and there hasn't been a major effort to win them back. For those who are focused on the short-term fortunes of the Republican Party, young voters seem an irrelevant distraction. It's also easy to dismiss these margins as inevitable. But 18% of the electorate breaking 2 to 1 for your opponent creates a steep uphill climb to victory no matter how you slice it.
Remember, while the conventional wisdom is that young voters are "always" more Democratic, that's definitely not the case; take a look at Patrick Fisher's excellent work on the age gap. He notes that young voters were the strongest supporters of Reagan:
"Dividing the electorate by age into 18-34, 35-64, and 65 and older age groups demonstrates that younger voters tend to vote differently from the rest of the population, but not necessarily more Democratic. In every presidential election from 1960-1976 the 18-34 age group was the most Democratic age group, but in the presidential elections from 1980-1992 the 18-34 age group was the most Republican age group."
Young voters today are still leaning more Democratic and this still presents a problems to the GOP's long term hopes of reassembling a majority coalition. Young voters remain the group that gives Obama his highest approval ratings, and his decrease in approval among voters 18-29 has been only 13 points from January to November, compared to 19 points among voters 30-49.
Even young Republicans nowadays themselves differ from older Republicans. For those young people who do call themselves Republicans or Republican leaners, Washington Post's Jennifer Agiesta finds that there's a greater willingness to want to keep working with Obama, as well as an ideological gap between old and young Republicans. She finds that pluralities of young Republicans think the GOP needs to talk more about the environment (44%), federal spending (57%), illegal immigration (55%), economy and jobs (60%), and - perhaps surprisingly - same-sex marriage (33%).
Yet on a handful of the issues (including the controversial social issues), the Washington Post poll can be described in a number of ways that can seem contradictory. For instance, it is perfectly accurate to say that more young voters than older voters think the GOP focuses too much on abortion. (26% of 18-34 say abortion is focused on "too much", compared to 15% of those 65+) It is also perfectly accurate to say that more young voters think the GOP is not focused enough on abortion (34%) than those who say it is talked about too much (26%). To win young voters, do you talk about it more or talk about it less?
Not to mention the fact that this question doesn't convey how these young Republicans actually stand on these issues; 33% of young Republicans saying the party should focus more on gay marriage doesn't necessarily mean those 33% think the party should fight harder against gay marriage.
I've posted here before about the age gap on the social issues. But what I find more interesting in the data set in Agiesta's piece are the crosstabs about the economic issues. Want to find a way to unify the age groups? Take a look at the economy and jobs, where 60% of Republican voters 18-34, 61% of Republican voters 35-64, and 59% of Republican voters 65 and up all say the Republican Party should focus more on the economy. How about federal spending? With 57% of young Republicans saying the GOP focuses too little on spending (60% overall), it seems to me that the fiscal and economic issues are really where the heart of the potential is for the Republican Party to win these voters back without getting tripped up in the GOP's generation gap.
Beyond the high unemployment rates affecting young Americans, there are other polls have shown why young voters are so focused on spending and the economy. In July, Zogby found that only 18% of voters 18-29 think they are going to see social security checks one day. Young voters understand that growing entitlement spending is creating a long term nightmare for their generation and that high deficits will wind up being on their tab when the bill finally comes due. Winning back young voters starts with the economic issues, and though young voters have not returned to the GOP, the opportunity is ripe for the party to speak to their concerns.
One year later, young voters are still giving Obama a chance and have not returned to the GOP. But the Republican Party now has an opening on issues that do not create an age rift in the party: spending and the economy. It will be up to GOP leadership to take this opportunity and invite young voters to join a Republican majority coalition in greater numbers. Young voters are not lost to the GOP forever, but proactive steps need to be taken to capitalize on the opportunity to drive an economic message.
During these August weeks when Washington has all but shut down, I thought this would be a good opportunity to do a brief run-down of polls in my beloved home state of Florida. (I was born and raised in Orlando and keep a close eye on how things are evolving back home.)
In the GOP Primary, Crist has maintained over 50% in the ballot test against Rubio, who started with little name ID and has risen to the the mid-20's.
The story here is not particularly surprising: Rubio's numbers began low and had nowhere else to go but up. The race also does not appear to be shifting dramatically or wildly; rather we see the slow and steady increase of Rubio's numbers as more people learn who he is. For example, the Quinnipiac poll released today has the race at 55-26, a very modest gain for Rubio over its 54-23 finding from June.
Buried within the numbers that have come out over the last few months is both good and bad news for Crist. On the upside for Crist, his job approval is good: 60% is a pretty strong number for a Governor in a state that is going through a rough time that is actually shrinking in population for the first time in recent memory. Crist is also not a polarizing figure and general election opponents should be very afraid: Crist's job approval among Democrats is 54%.
Yet there are weaknesses Crist will have to address: namely, the way the ballot test looks when name ID isn't an issue, and the way GOP primary voters stand on items like the stimulus. A poll conducted for Club for Growth in June showed 75% of FL GOP primary voters say the "stimulus was bad" - given Crist's support for the stimulus, this presents a major weakness. Furthermore, a June poll conducted by Mason Dixon showed that among Republicans who know of both Crist and Rubio, the race tightens significantly and Rubio pulls near even. Crist has held onto his share on the ballot test overall but as more Floridians hear Rubio's message, Crist's numbers are vulnerable.
On the Democratic side, the primary is crowded and the candidate who performs the best on the ballot test is Kendrick Meek who still comes in around the teens and 20's.
Because the Democratic field is full of a variety of candidates with regional or district-based appeal but without large statewide name ID, a ballot test is difficult at this point in the game and perhaps not highly illuminating. Nonetheless, the polls show Crist with a large margin over current Democratic frontrunner in the polls Kendrick Meek.
While much of the discussion around the Senate race focuses on the primaries, the Governor's race looks like it will likely come down to Attorney General Bill McCollum and state CFO Alex Sink. The aforementioned Quinnipiac poll out today shows McCollum leading the race 38-34 among registered voters, with a 38-23 advantage among independent voters. This is similar to a Mason-Dixon poll from June that showed McCollum with a 41-27 advantage among independents.
While these numbers - and in particular, the advantage among independents - must be seen as reassuring news for Team McCollum, voters don't have an enthusiastically favorable view of either candidate. In that June Mason-Dixon poll, McCollum's name ID was 87% - unsurprising given his long electoral career in the state - but his favorables were only at 29%, with 45% saying they are "neutral". Today's Quinnipiac poll shows better numbers for McCollum, with 42% favorable and 13% unfavorable.
Picture the scene: a fairly popular President, having amassed a significant amount of political capital, decides its time to cash in and spend some on a tough reform effort for a failing, inadequate system. Many Americans agree that the status quo isn't acceptable long-term but hesitate to sign on to changes that they deem too risky. Members of Congress go out to their districts and are confronted at town hall meetings with frustrated, vocal constituents worried about the risks of the plan. The President's popularity outpaces his policies and in particular, this major reform package. Even with control of both houses of Congress, the package can't survive. The reform fails.
If you feel like you've seen this story before, you're not wrong. The trajectory of the 2009 health care debate seems eerily similar to that of the 2005 battle for Social Security reform. Taking a look at the polling from then and comparing it to the data of today shows the parallels in the situation and shows why the health care debate feels all too familiar.
Similarity #1: Presidential Popularity
First, take a look at a bit of a throwback post from 2006 at MysteryPollster.com where Bush's job approval from January 2005 forward is tracked. Bush began 2005 with job approval over 50% - slightly below where Obama started at the beginning of July (Gallup's 7/05-07/2009 poll had Obama at 56%). The trends are not dissimilar: Charles Franklin's plot of Bush job numbers from January 05 forward shows a similar shrinking of support that looks an awful lot like the Obama job approval chart on the front page. This isn't a particularly surprising finding, but provides context to the other more striking comparisons.
Similarity #2: The Agreement that the Status Quo is Unacceptable
In both the Social Security debate and the health care debate, Americans agree: the system needs major overhaul. While so many other issues fail to get Americans to agree with the crucial "we need to do something" sentiment, both Social Security and health care had that extra boost from a public that agreed: maintaining the current system is not workable long term. In February 2005, Gallup found 73% of Americans said Social Security was "in crisis" or "has major problems". (18% said Social Security was "in crisis").
Compare that to the health care debate of today. Gallup has found that 20% of Americans believe health care is "in crisis" and at least a majority believe it has major problems (unfortunately, Gallup doesn't tell us how large a majority). To flesh that out a bit, Gallup asked the question in November 2008 and found 73% of respondents said that health care was either "in crisis" or had "major problems". Does that number sound familiar?
Similarity #3: Issue Handling
By March 2005, Bush's numbers on issue handling of Social Security were brutal, with an ABC/WaPo poll showing only 35% approving and 56% disapproving. CNN/Gallup had even worse news with only 1 out of 3 approving. Compared to 49% approval shortly after Bush took office, once the issue became a hot topic, Bush's number tanked.
In both cases, the President began his administration with the trust and support of the people to fix their given "crisis". In both cases, once the debate flared, their numbers dropped significantly. But it is worthwhile to point out that the comparison is not perfect - the Obama honeymoon numbers were immediately followed by the debate, while Bush had a full four years before tackling Social Security.
At any rate, this is just the basic side-by-side look at the reasons why this health care debate may seem like a bit of a "glitch in the Matrix", giving those who watch politics a sense of deja vu.
Yesterday's departure of Sen. Arlen Specter from the Republican Party re-opened the debate over the ideological direction of the Republican Party. Did the GOP move away from Specter, or was it Specter that left the GOP? Where do the American people fall?
My focus on this site over the last few weeks has been on young voters. And most of the news I have had for the Republican Party has been bad news, presenting a picture of a young cohort less convinced of the virtues of limited government, more supportive of gay marriage, and more inclusive of minority groups less prone to voting Republican.
In all of this, the overall ideological makeup of young voters has not yet been examined. Are young voters more liberal than older voters? Are they more likely to identify as Democrats? Recently on The View, Meghan McCain declared that 81% of young voters identified as Democrats. Though I appreciate Ms. McCain's efforts to draw attention to the GOP's troubles with young voters, the number is greatly exaggerated (and I would argue that exaggerating the problem does the cause no favors).
But the actual numbers are not much more pleasant for the GOP. According to the EMR exit polls at the presidential level, in 2008, 45% of voters 18-29 identified as Democrats while only 27% identified as Republicans. The gap between Democratic and Republican identification has not been so wide since 1976 when only 19% of voters 18-29 identified as Republican. Yet in 1976, young voters did not flee the GOP for the Democratic party. The above figure shows that voters left the Republican Party and became independents that year; Democrats actually saw a 7 point dip among 18-29 year olds in 1976 as well.
The 2008 shift is most concerning for the Republican Party in two ways. First, it shows the highest proportion of young voters identifying as Democrats since 1972. Second, it shows the largest gap between 18-29 year old party ID and overall party ID in that same time frame. Consider 1976, when the post-Watergate voters abandoned the GOP. In that year, Democrats enjoyed a 16 point advantage over Republicans overall. The gap among 18-29 year olds was 21 points - large to be sure, but not so different from voters overall.
Yet in 2008, there was a more marked difference between young voters and the overall electorate. While Democrats held a 7 point advantage over Republicans in terms of party identification overall, that advantage jumps to 18 points among voters 18-29.
However, in terms of ideology, while young voters are quite different from voters overall, the major change did not occur this year or even this decade. In 2008, "Liberal" made a one point gain among young voters, "conservative" a one point loss. The change in young voters didn't look terribly different from the change (or lack thereof) overall, a surprising finding given the major shift in partisan identification.
What is interesting is to take a look at 1992, when liberal overtook conservative among young voters. Conservatism took a five point hit that year, but took an 8 point decrease among young voters. Meanwhile, "liberal" picked up three points overall, but picked up seven points among young voters. Ever since 1992 re-calibrated the ideological makeup of the young electorate, the "liberal" label has outpaced "conservative".
Even odder, take a look back at the first chart of party identification. In 1992, the year the young electorate began identifying "liberal" more often than "conservative", the partisan makeup of young voters was actually more Republican than voters overall. So is ideology simply not as linked to partisan behavior? Or did the ideological shift in the early 1990's simply wait to manifest itself in 2008 as a party identification shift due to a different ideological alignment of the parties themselves? The Republican Party in the 1990's and early 2000s was able to attract young voters despite the fact that young voters were more likely to be liberal than conservative. Even as recently as 2004, Democrats only had a 2 point advantage among young voters.
Between 2004 and 2008, young voters' more liberal ideology started to match up with their partisan identification. A center-left young electorate (emphasis on center) was no longer evenly divided between the parties. As for reasons why, there are countless theories that have been offered to explain the shift. Some say young voters felt out of touch with a GOP that had nominated an older candidate (indeed, look at 1996 when the Republican Party ran the older Bob Dole against Bill Clinton). Some say the Republican Party moved to the right and became an unacceptable option for young center or center-left voters. Some may point to Obama himself as a large driver of young voters affiliating with the Democratic Party.
In order to evaluate the claim that young voters left the Republican Party because of the allure of the Obama candidacy, it is helpful to look at the 2006 election and a handful of midterms preceding it. If the Obama candidacy itself was driving young voters to become Democrats, we would expect to see young voter party identification that was similar to overall party identification, or at least we would expect to see behavior that makes sense in the context of the previous election or two. Yet while in 1998 and 2002 there were roughly equivalent numbers of young Republicans and young Democrats showing up at the polls, in 2006 there was a massive shift toward the Democrats ending in a twelve point Democrat advantage in party identification [in the electorate overall, that advantage wound up being two points, a far smaller gap].
As it turns out, young voters began abandoning the Republican Party long before Barack Obama was even a serious contender for the presidency. Those pinning the Republican Party's poor fortunes among young voters on the Obama candidacy miss the source of the problem and certainly underestimate its severity.
I've been troubled in recent months when discussing the issue of young voters with some fellow Republicans. There seems to be a sort of conventional wisdom that we should expect young voters to trend liberal and Democratic, that the behavior of young voters in 2008 is not serious cause for concern. This stems from a belief in partisanship as a life-cycle factor, that voters start liberal and Democratic and wind up older, conservative, and Republican. But the data paint a very different picture. Take the graph of partisan identification for instance; over the last few decades, young voters have not identified with the Democratic party in substantially higher numbers than voters overall. Even conservatism had its moment among young voters in the 1980's. Yet with the end of the Reagan presidency, young voters shifted toward liberalism. This ideological shift did not play out into actual partisan identification in a meaningful way until 2006 and 2008.
Another bit of conventional wisdom I hear from my fellow Republicans about the youth vote is that they need to vote Democratic twice before they are "locked in for life", supporting the notion that there is still time to turn the tide among this generation. Unfortunately, given that the shift began in 2006 and not 2008, for many voters the GOP may simply be too late. For the rest, if the Republican Party does not take immediate action to repair its brand, this generation may exhibit similarly low levels of Republican identification for years to come.
Last week, I took a look at two issues where young voters tend to diverge with older voters. Traditional Republican messaging about the gay marriage and the perils of big government is quite different from the ways young voters tend to look at the issues and if the Republican Party wants to prevent a generation of voters from becoming solidly Democratic, they should assess both the policies and messages that are used to reach out to younger voters.
But beyond these two topics, the Republican Party is facing changing demographic forces that present a challenge to its long term growth. This is not a new notion, and I am obliged to give credit where due: Ruy Teixeira and John Judis' 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority looked at political and population trends and predicted that in 2008 these trends would come together produce a Democratic majority.
While I haven't looked extensively at whether or not Teixeira and Judis' predictions have come to pass (2008 Democratic victory aside), I can certainly agree that the racial makeup of young voters supports their conclusion. In short, young voters are less likely to be white than voters overall and are becoming increasingly more diverse. While 77% of voters overall in 2004 were white, only 68% of voters under age 30 were white. By 2008, that number was only 62%. Both African-Americans and Hispanics were found in higher proportions among young voters. In 2004, African-Americans made up 15% of young voters while making up 11% of voters overall; 13% of voters 18-29 were Hispanic compared to 8% of voters overall. By 2008 those numbers had increased, with African-Americans comprising 18% of voters 18-29 and with Hispanics comprising 14%.
So what does this mean for a Republican Party that has been branded (fairly or unfairly) as a party of "old white guys"? Put simply, the party cannot survive with this label attached. The recent demographic changes in the United States have been extraordinary; between the 1990 and 2000 Censuses, the number of Hispanics in the United States increased from 22.4 million to 35.3 million, and increase of over 58%. In 1980, 80% of the population identified as white (non-Hispanic); by 2000, that number had fallen to 69% of the population. These changes have expressed themselves in the demographic makeup of the younger voting cohort. With future generations of voters less and less likely to be made up of overwhelming proportions white non-Hispanics, the issue of expanding the Republican Party's appeal to younger voters is inextricably linked with the issue of expanding the party's appeal to minority communities.
In addition to the makeup of the voters themselves, today's young voters have grown up in a society that handles race in a dramatically different way than previous generations. Take for instance college campuses across the United States. In October 1985, there were some 10,846,000 Americans enrolled in college, 9,323,000 of which were white and just over 1,000,000 were African-American. Hispanics made up 579,000 of those enrolled in college as well. By the 2000 Census, those numbers had exploded; just over 17.4 million Americans were enrolled in college and of those, about 11.6 million were white non-Hispanic, while another 1.9 million were Hispanic and 2.2 million were African American. While college enrollment overall was up by 62% in 2000 over 1985, enrollment among Hispanics had more than tripled and more than doubled for African-Americans.
Universities across the United States today boast more diverse student bodies than in decades prior and students in those institutions are far more likely to interact with people of other races and cultures than previous generations. A party that appears to be uninterested in the concerns of (or votes of) African-Americans or Hispanics does not only risk forfeiting a growing segment of the population (and educated population) as a whole. But as white students attend schools and universities with more diverse student populations, the needs and concerns of the African-American and Hispanic communities will not be the abstract concerns of a group of citizens with which they have little contact; quite the contrary, a generation more accustomed to a multicultural America will be likely to find a racially homogenous party to be out of touch. So long as the Republican Party appears inattentive to the needs and desires of minority communities, the Republican Party can be almost certain to retain its minority party status.
President George W. Bush appointed numerous African-Americans to his cabinet during his eight years in the White House - National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell to name some of the most prominent appointees. Yet despite the prominent placement of African-Americans in the Bush cabinet, no gains were made among African-American voters. The impact of the election of former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, an African-American, to the leadership of the Republican Party has yet to be seen. Indeed, Steele was largely derided early in his term for such statements as his expressed desire to take conservative principles and "to apply them to urban-surburban hip-hop settings".
African-Americans and Hispanics need to be given reasons to believe that their concerns are being legitimately heard and addressed by the Republican Party. Republicans have had a great deal of success with the Hispanic vote in Florida (particularly the Cuban community) in the past in part as a result of the Republican Party's tough stance on Cuba. In the 2000 campaign,80% of Cubans in the state of Florida voted for George W. Bush, proving a key component of the victory in that state where a margin of 537 votes ostensibly handed Bush the Presidency. By authentically addressing a concern of a portion of the Hispanic community, Republicans helped to develop a credible base of support.
Yet the Republican Party continues to stumble in terms of its handling of the Hispanic and African-American communities. For instance, in late December 2008, candidate for RNC Chair Chip Saltsman, the former campaign manager for the Huckabee presidential campaign, distributed a CD of songs including a track entitled "Barack the Magic Negro", prompting outrage and a rather public and embarrassing moment for the Republican Party. Perhaps even more surprising, some leaders within the Republican Party rushed to Saltsman's aid as POLITICO ran a story with the headline "'Magic Negro' flap might help Saltsman".
Just a troubling is the perception that the GOP ignores minority communities; in 2007, the four major contenders for the Republican presidential nomination declined to attend a forum on issues relevant to the African-American community, and Univision had to cancel a discussion it planned when only McCain agreed to attend.
This incident is to say nothing of the damage to the Republican Party's standing among Hispanics that occurred as a result of the immigration debate that flared in the Summer of 2007; according to a Pew Research Center study, while in July of 2006 Democrats enjoyed only a 21 point party identification advantage among Hispanics, by December of 2007 that had widened out to a 34 point Democratic advantage, alongside a sharp increase in the importance of the immigration issue among Hispanics. In 2004, Bush lost Hispanic voter 44-53, a 9 point margin, yet by 2008, McCain lost Hispanics to Obama by a 36 point margin, garnering 31% of the Hispanic vote compared to the 67% that voted for Obama.
Younger voters are more comfortable with immigration reform than are older voters. In a May 2008 New Models study, age was a significant factor in terms of belief in the statement "Illegal immigration is significantly hurting the country". While a majority of young voters still believe the statement (51%), there is a softening of opinion among young voters compared to the overall (62%) and particularly compared to older voting groups. Furthermore, in a Spring 2008 Harvard Institute of Politics study of 18-24 year olds, when presented with an immigration reform proposal that would give "illegal immigrants now living in the U.S. the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements", 46% of the respondents in the Harvard study supported the proposal while 30% opposed it and 24% neither supported nor opposed. This is not to say younger voters are not concerned about illegal immigration, but rather that they are likely to be more open to reform.
The importance of addressing the needs of minority groups is clear. As a younger and more diverse cohort seeks a party to identify with, the Republican Party must authentically address issues of concern to minority communities. As African-Americans and Hispanics seek opportunities for socioeconomic mobility, efforts such as those to reform education and improve opportunities for small business should be promoted. These policies, such as efforts to improve teacher quality and to reduce needless regulation and taxes on small businesses, would not be a stretch for Republicans to support and speak to the concerns of minority communities.
Moving forward, in order to remain a party that is acceptable for young voters, the Republican Party must shed its image as the party of "old white guys". This includes a change in tone and messaging from those who are the face of the party (in an official or unofficial capacity) as well as an emphasis on policies that have proven, positive outcomes for minority communities. America is quickly becoming an increasingly diverse nation, and the Republican Party must evolve its message and agenda to address these changes in order to have relevance with young voters.
Across the country today, conservatives, libertarians, Republicans and those concerned about taxes will gather for "tea parties" in protest over increased government spending and over taxes. After all, today is April 15th, tax day, and the tax issue proved successful for the Republicans in the 1990s; under a new Democratic administration, Conservatives are hoping that the tax issue can again be a winner.
Many in the GOP that I've spoken with are quite confident that, despite differences between the party and young voters on some social issues, young voters are far more libertarian on fiscal issues. The idea that young Americans are largely "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" is one that many Republicans hold on to as a hope that the these voters will reject big government spending, high taxes, "wealth redistribution" and expanded government programs and regulation. On Monday, I posted about the divergence in attitudes toward homosexuality between younger voters and older voters. Indeed, the beliefs held by young voters on gay marriage and homosexuality also differ greatly from the position of the Republican Party, presenting a challenge to the party's ability to grow long-term. However, this was tempered with the reminder that issue salience is key; just because a group of voters disagrees with the GOP on an issue does not preclude those voters from voting Republican or becoming Republican if the issue is not a high priority. While gay marriage may be important to many voters, one issue alone is unlikely to make or break a voter's decision to affiliate with a party unless that issue is clearly dominant in the issue mix.
So what issues are dominant in today's issue mix? The economy. Poll after poll has shown that Americans care about the economy as a top priority and the same is true of young votes. The Harvard Institute of Politics in April 2008 found that the economy was far and away the top issue to 18-24 year olds; 41% of respondents named it as one of the top two national issues that concerned them. And in today's public discourse, the economy has become inextricably linked to taxes and spending. Between TARP, the stimulus package and now the budget, national coverage of government efforts to repair the economy come down to issues of taxing and spending.
Unfortunately, as I noted on Monday, the Republican Party may have bigger problems on its hands in terms of reaching young voters that the differences on the issue of gay marriage. Fundamental principles of the Republican Party - smaller government, lower taxes - are not embraced by younger voters at the same level as voters overall. Fiscal conservatives and Republicans have quite a bit of work ahead for them in terms of winning young voters, as well.
Let's begin with the role of government overall. In a May 2008 national survey conducted by The Winston Group* for nonprofit New Models, respondents were asked if the believed the statement "Government should help people". To be sure, a high positive response rate was to be expected; even many serious libertarians can see a role for government in helping people in some limited cases. Sure enough, 79% of respondents believed the statement. Yet age was a significant factor in looking at responses to this question; 92% of those 18-34 believed the statement compared to 71% of those 65 and older. Younger voters are simply far more likely to believe the government has a role in helping people.
Then there's the issue of the efficacy of tax cuts as economic policy. In the aforementioned Harvard IOP study, when asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement "The best way to increase economic growth and create jobs is to cut taxes.", some 36% agreed with the statement, 23% disagreed, and another 41% said they neither agreed nor disagreed. (Had I put together the questionnaire, I would not have used the same language; I likely would have changed "the best way" to "a good way", as the stronger language here I believe is responsible for the high "neither agree nor disagree" response.)
Looking at a question with a similar aim but different wording, the May 08 New Models study asked if respondents believed that "lowering taxes will benefit the economy". Some 60% of respondents overall believed it, as did 57% of voters 18-34 indicating that young voters do see the efficacy of tax cuts. However, the uncertainty shown in the responses to the Harvard IOP study shows that young voters are uncomfortable with the idea that tax cuts are the only answer or the best answer. While this should give heart to conservatives, it should also serve as a warning that there is work to be done if the right wishes to convince young voters that tax cuts are usually the best option.
Finally, and perhaps most troubling, the conservative notion that the free market tends to hold the answers is not as widely accepted by this new generation. In the May 08 New Models study, respondents were asked if they believed that "the free market is a better way to solve problems than the government". On the whole, the results supported the notion that America tends to be "center-right" - 56% believed the statement while 34% did not (10% did not know or refused to answer). Yet the trend among voters 18-34 was cause for concern - 46% believed the statement while 48% did not believe it. In this case, age was a statistically significant factor. All other age groups found more support for the free market than government.
So what do young voters think about government? Pew's values surveys have shown a shift in how young voters view government efficiency. In their 1987-88 and 2002-2003 studies, respondents were asked "when something is run by the federal government it is usually inefficient and wasteful". In the '87-'88 study, younger respondents were evenly divided with 47% agreeing and 47% disagreeing. Among those 26 and older, some 67% agreed while only 28% disagreed, showing an age gap and a more positive impression of the government among the young. Yet in 2002-2003, impressions of government were more positive overall, particularly among those 18-25. Only 32% of those 18-25 in the 2002-03 study agreed that the government is usually inefficient and wasteful, while 58% of those 26 and older agreed. While these numbers are a few years old, they show an important shift over the last two decades that deserves attention. In short, young voters have a more positive view of the government and its ability to handle responsibilities.
So where should the Republican Party or conservative movement go from here? There is a belief structure among young voters that is slightly in conflict with a core principle of the Republican Party - the belief that the free market trumps government. Young voters have a more positive view of government and are not as convinced that the free market provides better solutions than government.
Yet on the issue of taxes, young voters do believe tax cuts can improve the economy, despite their uncertainty about whether or not tax cuts are the best option. If the Republican Party wants to win young voters in the future, an understanding of the ways that young voters view the economy is essential. Messaging that focuses on the need for less government and lower taxes is not likely to be as well received or convincing to this generation. This isn't to say these messages won't work, to be sure. But the spectre of Big Government is not as frightening to young voters, nor is the devotion to the free market so prevalent. In order for the Republican Party to grow long-term, they must work to impact these belief structures and spend the effort convincing a new generation of the sorts of beliefs that are taken for granted among older cohorts.
In today's Daily Beast the daughter of Sen. John McCain, Meghan McCain, wrote about the need for "a gayer GOP" in order to expand the Republican Party's hopes of winning back a majority coalition and in particular in order to appeal to young voters.
I recently completed research on the topic of young voters and the GOP: where the Republican Party is losing young voters, how serious the threat is to the party, and how the Republican Party should respond. And on this point, Ms. McCain has it right - the issue of gay marriage is one on which young voters and the Republican Party diverge significantly.
Yet this is not to say that a Republican Party that embraces socially conservative policy stances is unsustainable; indeed, on some issues, such as abortion, young voters have beliefs similar to those of voters overall. When pressed in the 2008 General Social Survey with the question "Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason", 41.6% of those 18-34 said "yes" as did 41.2% of respondents overall - hardly a distinction. The GSS also asks about six particular instances in which a woman may seek an abortion; on all six instances, roughly equivalent numbers of those 18-34 supported a woman's right to obtain an abortion in each instance as did respondents overall.
Yet issues relating to homosexuality find vast differences between the young and older voters. In terms of the issue of whether or not homosexual sex is wrong, 44.3% of respondents to the General Social Survey 18-34 believe it is "never wrong" compared to 33.5% of respondents overall. Furthermore, 47.3% of respondents 18-34 said homosexual sex was "always wrong" compared to 55.6% of respondents overall. A Harvard Institute of Politics study in Spring of 2008 of 18-24 year olds also corroborated the findings that young voters are more tolerant concerning homosexuality; when asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement "homosexual relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong", 50% disagreed while 30% agreed and 20% neither agreed nor disagreed.
On the issue of homosexual marriage the distinction is even greater. Some 39.3% of respondents in the 2008 GSS said that they "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that homosexuals should have the right to marry. That number soared to 53.4% among those 18-34, with one out of four in that age group strongly agreeing. As one looks at each age group, as age increases so too does opposition to marriage for homosexuals.
To be sure, not all Democrats are supportive of gay marriage or homosexuality. Some 48% of those who identified as "strong Democrats" said that homosexual sex was "always wrong" as did 50.7% of Democrats overall. Furthermore, while support for gay marriage is more common among Democrats, 38.1% of Democrats do not believe that homosexuals should have the right to get married.
Yet regardless of how narrow or wide the chasm is between the two parties is on the issue, the differences between the beliefs of young voters and the beliefs of the older segments of the electorate - particularly the modern day Republican electorate - are significant.
While these numbers don't necessarily shed light on why it is specifically that younger Americans are more accepting of homosexuality or why they are less opposed to gay marriage, one can think of a number of reasons why this may be the case. When looking at a generation that has grown up with Ellen DeGeneres and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" as normal fixtures on the television set, it isn't hard to imagine why younger voters are more accepting of homosexual behavior.
This is not to further imply that a change in position on gay marriage would mean droves of young voters signing up for the GOP. A number of other factors have to come into play, not the least of which is how important gay marriage is relative to other important political issues in the minds of these voters. As I'll discuss in future columns, the Republican Party may have much bigger problems on its hands than the perception that it is out of touch with young voters on the issue of gay marriage.
Yet whether the Republican Party amends its actual policy stance on gay marriage or whether it simply makes efforts to be more tolerant and inclusive of homosexuals generally, the Republican Party cannot ignore the vast differences in public opinion between young and old voters on the issue. This difference certainly presents a serious challenge to the party's long-term ability to swell its ranks among young voters. In the words of Dr. Morris Fiorina and his co-authors in Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America (p. 124), "If the commandants on the 'orthodox' side hope to win a culture war over homosexuality, they had better do it soon - their potential ranks are being thinned by mortality."
Over the last few months, I've focused a great deal of attention on researching the youth vote, digging into the factors that influence partisan identification and voting behavior among these young voters. As a Republican pollster, I'm primarily interested in diagnosing "what went wrong?" in terms of young voters in the last few cycles. Some of the possible answers seem obvious - the charisma of Obama, the age of McCain, the disillusionment with the GOP, the Iraq war, President Bush, the GOP's differences with young voters on issues like the environment and "moral issues" - and in the coming weeks, I hope to examine these factors. But first, I'm interested in starting a discussion with Pollster.com readers about the topic.
As a starting point, let's take a look at the electorate from 1972* through 2004. This comes from media exit poll data and the universe for "overall" in this instance is those respondents who provided their age. Additionally, "independent" does not include "other/something else". I am currently waiting on the data set for 2008, and thus I'm not yet able to break down 2008 by age, so it has been omitted from this chart. (Democrats did better in terms of partisan identification in 2008 than they did in 2004.)
This chart shows that prior to 1984, partisan identification was more fluid, with Watergate turning massive quantities of Republicans into Independents, particularly among young voters. Yet once 1984 rolls around, young voters behave quite similarly to voters overall in terms of partisan identification. With the exception of the 1996 election (featuring the Republican nomination of Sen. Bob Dole), trends in partisan identification among young voters look quite a bit like they do for the electorate overall.
Yet ideologically, a very different story is told about elections since 1984. While partisan identification among young voters has very closely followed that of the overall electorate since that time, the youth vote has been ideologically very different ever since the 1992 election of Bill Clinton. In this case, I use 1984 as the starting point because media exit polls prior to 1984 ask their ideology question in a different manner, omitting "moderate" and instead using "somewhere in between" as a response option. For the sake of comparing apples to apples, I've chosen to begin the chart where the question wording becomes consistent.
In 1984 and 1998, the 18-29 cohort contained more "conservative" identifiers than "liberal" identifiers. Yet in 1992, this changes and more 18-29 year olds identified as "liberal" than they did "conservative". Yet among voters overall, conservative still found many more identifiers than liberal. This trend has continued since Clinton's election; while the overall electorate has more conservatives than liberals, the young electorate has more liberals than conservatives. Something happened in 1992 (perhaps the election of the young governor of Arkansas?) that changed the ideological makeup of the young electorate. It will be extremely interesting to see what the ideological makeup of the 2008 electorate is in terms of young voters.
So what does this mean for the Republican Party moving forward? In 2004, young voters looked a lot like voters overall in terms of party ID, but looked further to the left in terms of ideology. What does this party ID/ideology discrepancy mean?
Once we get a chance to dig into the 2008 data, we will know more about how the youth vote changed in the environment that was nothing short of toxic for Republicans. But even the ideological post-Clinton shift that endured into the Bush years should be a fact that the GOP considers as they craft a strategy moving forward to rebuild a long-term majority coalition.
*In the interest of disclosure, 1972 is not an arbitrary starting point, it is rather the oldest data set I currently have, and I would welcome the input of any scholars or readers with data from media exit polls prior to 1972).
This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book,Dispatches from the War Room.
Perhaps the two most appropriate topics for the young Republican pollster participating in this discussion are 1)the idea that younger consultants are more tactics-focused and that 2)the role of ideology hand in hand with opinion research that guides the creation of a public agenda. I'll attempt to give my thoughts on each.
First, I truly appreciate Greenberg's defense of the role of the pollster in advising leaders and participating in the cultivation of public support for policy goals. The Bush Administration was not the first political operation to proudly declare they aren't looking to polls to set their agenda, nor will they be the last. But Greenberg is spot on in noting that in a democratic society, gaining the trust and support of the people is essential to effective governance.
When I explain "what pollsters do" to acquaintances and family members who are not closely familiar with what pollsters do (besides call them during dinner time), I like to say that we are the "reality check".
In the case of pollsters, we are a special group of intermediaries between Americans and their leaders. Constituent mail, phone calls...these things show what the most activated pieces of the public are thinking. Democratic elections may be the purest expressions of public opinion between a public and its leaders. But it is the job of a pollster to provide an accurate and representative picture of what the electorate is thinking in the mean time. We provide the reality check. There's a lot of talk about "inside the Beltway thinking" - as a pollster, we get to be the antidote. If my work as a pollster enhances a leader's connection to the electorate and helps those in Washington maintain a focus on the important priorities of the people who elected them, I can feel good about what I've done.
A disturbing trend I've noticed however is a trend toward finding the "silver bullet", the very tactical focus that Greenberg references in particular relation to younger consultants. There is an idea that has been made popular by some pollsters that all you need are the right words...that an idea, regardless of that idea's merit, can gain traction with the public and can become the Next Big Thing if only the right alliterative device is used to name and define the problem. The right words and rhetorical gimmicks will win over the public, regardless of the merits of the policy.
This isn't just in the polling/messaging/strategy realm. I've seen the belief that the right piece of opposition research or the right witty negative ad is all that is needed for victory. And so these tactics are the focus, because they are exciting, they provide the "thrill" of the game that Greenberg mentions. I'm heartened to read that Greenberg identifies the importance of a bigger vision, the importance of issues and sound policy, and his reference to V.O. Key's quote that "voters are not fools". Today, that belief still remains unorthodox in too many places in the world of the political consultancy.
What is missing all too often is the idea that polling can help cultivate public support by focusing on those big ideas. Another way I like to think of a good pollster is like a debate coach. So you as a leader have decided to pursue a specific policy goal. What are the best arguments to use to build support? Note, I'm using the term "arguments". Not words. Not to diminish the importance of framing, but I believe a pollster is far more effective when helping to craft arguments that are sound and intelligent. There's a big difference between good positioning and gimmicks. Pollsters should be in the business of the former, not the latter.
Where I'll disagree with Greenberg slightly is in his criticism of some other contemporary pollsters. He cites another pollster's belief in "the not-so-silent majority of Americans who reject ideological soundness in favor of the sound center" and goes on to discuss the problem of pollsters who try to craft tactics (and maybe strategy) without any endgame greater than...well, put simply, winning. Fair enough. But I don't think that a belief that most Americans are not strongly ideological or in search of ideological purity diminishes the role of ideas. I'm an enormous fan of Dr. Morris Fiorina's work in Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized Electorate where he explores just how large the Big Middle is. And from what I've seen in research I've been a part of, Americans rarely see ideology as the endgame. Americans want outcomes.
My mentor in survey research, David Winston, often says that ideology itself is like a screwdriver. By itself, it's just a screwdriver. Its worth comes from what it can be used for, what outcomes it can create (building a swing set, etc.). I'd venture that the electorate is full of more Americans who are looking for outcomes than processes. And thus the existence of a "big middle" doesn't necessarily mean polling should become focused on the little tactics or the dumbing down of politics. Quite the opposite.
I'd be interested in the comments of the other participants in this forum on the question - to what extent does the size of the "big middle" in American politics help or hinder the ability for politicians to pursue the big ideas?
Prior to the 2008 Presidential Election, there was an incredible amount of discussion about the extent to which Senator Barack Obama's massive voter registration and turnout efforts would dramatically impact the election. Young voters and African-Americans in particular were believed to be the two groups that would deliver the Presidency to Barack Obama.
However, on election day, the proportion of young voters and African-Americans as a percentage of the electorate was not dramatically different from 2004. First-time voters made up 11% of all voters - the same as in 2004. Furthermore, the number of voters overall at the ballot box at the Presidential level was not significantly higher than turnout in 2004. (The ballots are still being tallied and recounted in some places, but I am seeing just a little over 3 million more votes this year.)
So what did it? I would argue that even though the numbers appear somewhat stagnant in the aggregate, Obama's ground game created some gains among Democrats (3.6 million more in 08 over 04), while 5 million fewer Republican voters came out (or, perhaps even worse for the GOP, many these voters likely identified as Independents - turnout among Independents was up by about 4.5 million voters). This party ID gap played a role, and this -paired with the economic collapse and a loss of the youth vote - enabled Senator Obama to overtake Senator John McCain by a wide margin, turning a host of formerly "red" states into "blue" states.
First, to the makeup of the electorate. Senator McCain's nomination as the Republican Party's candidate for President is said by some to have been the only chance the GOP had for victory in 2008. Others in the Republican Party claim that Senator McCain's moderate stances on many policies may have hurt him with the Republican base. One of the biggest questions that will face pollsters breaking down this year's exit polling - of the 5 million Republican voters who turned out in 2004 but did not show up as Repubicans in 2008, how many stayed home versus those who voted but did not identify as Republican?
Republicans fell as a proportion of the electorate, something unsurprising given the massive registration efforts waged by the Obama campaign. In the end, Democrats only went from being 37% of the electorate to 39%. This wound up being an extra 3.6 million Democrat voters. But consider that in 2004, nearly 3.9 million more Democrats came out to vote than in 2000 (in part a product of the overall increased turnout that year). Yet the GOP dropped by 5 million voters in 2008 compared to 2004. On face, it looks like the Republican Party did a far better job of scaring away its own voters than the Democrats did creating new ones, sending many formerly Republican voters to the polls only to tell exit pollsters that they consider themselves to be "independents". Those independents broke 52-44 for Obama.
Some will say that we lost the election because McCain was unable to energize the base, despite his selection of Sarah Palin for Vice President. I disagree that a more conservative candidate would have fared better in the election. In fact, it isn't so much that the "base" sat home - for instance, in 2004, 23% of the electorate identified as "white evangelical/born-again Christian". In 2008, that jumped to 26% - larger than the jump in those identifying as 18-29 (18%, up from 17% in '04) or the jump in African-American turnout (13%, up from 11% in '08).
The base didn't sit home. They came out. Many Republicans just weren't calling themselves Republicans anymore, and many weren't voting like Republicans either. This speaks more to moderates and independents fleeing the GOP than a lack of turnout on the part of the base. Take a look here at my firm's website for two instructive charts that show the trends over time (the last 24 years - not the totality of political history to be sure - but the time frame since 2002 is particularly instructive).
McCain could have fought this election in the middle and perhaps stopped or at least stifled the exodus. Instead, the McCain campaign fought a traditional turn-out-the-base campaign - a tragic failure of strategy in a year where McCain's money and organization would barely be able to keep up with the Obama juggernaut. The way to win was to appeal to independents - something that it looked like might happen following the conventions, when some polls briefly showed a glimmer of hope that the maverick narrative would take hold. Instead, the campaign was fought on a battlefield where there was little way McCain could win short of a miracle.
The big change everyone was preparing to discuss after this election was the surge in youth and African-American turnout. This change was not at all as dramatic as many expected. Additionally, the Republican base doesn't appear to have stayed home in large numbers - in fact, they may have come out better than anticipated. The big shift in the makeup of the electorate came in the decreased percentage of the electorate identifying as Republican - something that requires a great deal of attention given the usual stability of party ID. Democrats only gained another 2% of the electorate, far less than many public polls had predicted or had shown in their own party ID breaks, but this election did show that while Party ID is still "sticky", it is also malleable as a variable in elections. The GOP needs to take action - and soon - to win those Independent voters back who have strayed if it wants to improve its electoral success any time soon.
Even more troubling for Republicans should be the youth vote this year - not in terms of higher turnout, but in terms of a very high level of support for Democratic candidates at the Presidential and House level. In 2004, young voters (18-29) broke for Kerry 54%-45% and voted for Democratic House candidates 55%-44%. In 2008, those margins swung dramatically toward the Democrats - 66% for Obama vs 32% for McCain and translating down to the House level at similarly troubling margins - 63% for Democrats vs. 34% for Republicans.
Scholars have noted that early adulthood plays a key role in the creation of political generations. In 1974, Beck described that young voters are primarily responsible for the birth of electoral realignment.(1) Billingsley and Tucker (1987) follow this analysis with the claim that political generations are often defined by political events occurring during young adulthood. (2) Indeed, the generation of voters in the 18-29 age group for the 2008 election were made up of those whose young adult political life would likely have included the events of September 11th as well as the expansion of political news availability via cable news and the Internet - not to mention the entire Bush Administration. The long term impact on the GOP of this swing will be felt for years to come in young voters are not appealed to with a positive, modern agenda that speaks to their concerns - the environment, energy, the economy, education, and entitlement reform. (Perhaps there's something with the letter "e"?)
So the electorate didn't look too much different than it did in 2004. But the likelihood that members of that electorate would call themselves a Republican or that they'd vote for Republicans was dramatically different.
The other factor that put the nail in the McCain campaign's coffin was the economy. Dr. Robert Shapiro (formerly of the Clinton administration) spoke with Johns Hopkins University graduate students before the election at a symposium event and reminded the attendees of a belief held by many social scientists - that more than slogans or advertising or anything the candidates themselves say or do, factors like the current president's job approval and the economy drive elections, and that when the economy is in a recession, it becomes incredibly difficult for the party in power to hold control. Indeed, there are no shortage of charts that highlight the massive divergence in polling numbers that happened right around the day Lehman Brothers shut its doors.
When the economy is the top issue for voters, it's best to have the confidence of those who are worried about it. Unfortunately for McCain, his forte is foreign policy - not the economy. Even more unfortunately, the Democrats quickly blamed the downturn on the sorts of economic policies associated with Republicans.. Being a Republican meant losing major footing on this issue, and as stocks went down, Obama's poll numbers went up.
On election day, McCain won the whopping 7% of Americans who said the economy was "excellent" or "good". However, the 93% who said the economy was "not so good" or "poor" broke for Obama 54%-44%. The 18% who didn't think the economic crisis would hurt their family broke for McCain; the 81% who were worried broke for Obama 62%-36%. Simply put, with economic turmoil gripping the nation, the McCain campaign needed to make a strong case for why he would be the best candidate on this issue. Given the results, it appears he was unable to accomplish this. And so went the election.
The Republican Party has two major challenges that jump from these numbers that must be tackled. First, the GOP must win back the youth vote. There's little reason to believe that this year was an aberration - that young voters came out for Obama but will fade away and become apathetic in years to come. However, barring major life events, young voters who leave a pattern of habitual non-voting by voting for the first time will be carried "inertia" to continue voting in future elections. As more and more young voters go to the polls, the norms surrounding voting among that age cohort will change the social costs of voting in a way that provides positive peer reinforcement, contributing to higher turnout. (3) Furthermore, the longer the GOP waits to try to win these voters back, the harder it will be - prior study has already established that as voters age, their partisan identification grows stronger. (4)
Second, the GOP must expand their "big tent" rather than contract. There is a great debate among many right now on the Right about whether or not the McCain candidacy represented stretching too far to reach to the middle, attempting to forge such a broad coalition that nobody wound up being happy with it. I would wholeheartedly disagree with the sentiment that we'd be better off focusing on the base; in fact if the concept of the Republican "base" is not expanded and in fact the tent of the Republican Party is pulled inward, this gap in partisanship will only increase in future years.
This election was preceded by much talk of a complete realignment, a massive wave of turnout from particular voter groups and a complete repudiation of the Republican Party. While this election may not have been realigning, it is a loud and clear wake up call for the GOP. Make no mistake - the data show a number of trends that ought to be very troubling for the Republican Party. The next two to four years will be crucial to making up deficits among young and independent voters. Without progress on these two fronts, we very well may be looking at the start of a very long, dark night for Republicans at the ballot box.
*Overall turnout figures compiled from CNN. As ballots from 2008 are still being counted, these numbers are obviously subject to vary.
1) Beck, Paul. (1974). A socialization theory of partisan realignments. In Richard Niemi and associates (eds.), The Politics of Future Citizens. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2) Billingsley, K., & Tucker, C. (1987). Generations, Status and Party Identification: A Theory of Operant Conditioning. Political Behavior, 9(4), 305-322
3)Plutzer, E. (2002). Becoming a habitual voter: inertia, resources, and growth in young adulthood. American Political Science Review, 96(1), pp 41-56.
4)Claggett, W. (1981). Partisan acquisition versus partisan identity: life-cycle, generation, and period effects, 1952-1976. American Journal of Political Science, 25(2), pp 193-214. and Campbell, A., Converse, P., Miller, W., and Stokes, D. (1960). The American voter. New York; Wiley.
The selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as Sen. John McCain's running mate came to many as a surprise, and was deemed [by folks on the right and the left, to be fair] a pitch to conservatives. The convention, it seemed, would be a pep rally for "the base"; many proclaimed (and lamented) that the McCain team had given up on the middle, on the independent voters, and instead had decided to pursue a strategy of turning out the base.
I'll set the relative strengths and weaknesses of Gov. Palin aside for the purposes of this piece - there are plenty of places to debate that topic, and my initial gut reaction to the pick was posted here at The Next Right, if you're interested.
What I am more interested in is where the independent voter truly stands, post-conventions. If the selection of Palin and the tone of the Republican convention were purely polarizing - off-putting to most Independents and grown from a base-centered strategy - one would expect independents to break away from the GOP and the McCain-Palin ticket in these polls just after the convention.
Plenty of polls have shown a tightening of the race since the conventions in the aggregate, or have even put McCain ahead. CBS has McCain up, ABC has the race a dead heat. Is it because the GOP is more energized? Is it because the base "came home"? Or is it because of independents? Discussion of blue collar voters, married women with children voters and the like is all important, and it's those voters who make up important swing sub-groups. But for an easy breakout with a large enough cell size to matter, its the independents I want to track. I believe that where the independents go, so will go the White House.
So let's take a look at the after effects of the conventions:
CBS's poll asked independents if watching Obama's speech made them more or less likely to vote for Obama. Half of those who watched (29% overall) said it made them more likely to vote for Obama. The other half said it made no change (17% overall) or that it made them less likely to vote Obama (12%). They then asked if McCain's speech made them more or less likely to vote for McCain. More independents watched McCain's speech - 67% of independents surveyed, compared to 58% for Obama's...and among those who watched, the impact was far more positive. 43% of independent voters watched McCain's speech AND said it made them more likely to vote for him. That's nearly 2 out of every 3 independents who watched the speech.
This bodes well for Team McCain.
(Also? 61% of independents said they thought McCain/Palin would bring real change to Washington, compared to 33% who disagreed...a bigger margin for change than Obama/Biden, where 57% of independents said they'd bring change and 37% disagreed).
Let's take a look at another poll. The most recent Diageo/Hotline poll, conducted September 5-7, 2008 of 924 RVs (data here) splits up party ID including "independent leaners" into their respective partisan breakouts. Independents make up 20% of the sample, with another 8% of "independent/lean Republicans" and 7% "independent/lean Democrats". While I'd love to see how things change in the "independent" breakout if the leans were also included, taking a look at how the 20% non-leaning independents broke should shed some interesting light on this key group of voters. Indeed, independents behaved a lot like Democrats at the ballot box in 2006 - they broke for the Dem house candidates 57-39 according to the exit polls. Winning back this key group is an essential challenge for the McCain team.
Taking a look at each candidates' fav/unfavs, McCain holds an oh-so-small advantage over Obama. While 61% view McCain favorably, 57% view Obama favorably (each have 31% unfavorables). Palin also holds a small lead over Biden, with her 49-15 fav/unfav to Biden's 45-26. (Palin's fav/unfav will of course be more interesting and relevant once more people have been able to form an opinion about her, but I felt it was worth mentioning here).
So now let's turn to policy. It's no secret that recently, on nearly every policy question with the exception of, say, national security, Democrats have held a serious advantage over Republicans - usually by wide margins, particularly on issues such as health care. The Diageo/Hotline poll asked the respondents which candidate they preferred on the issues. The results, in my opinion, were stunning.
Let's take a look at two issues where respondents predictably choose one party over another - health care for the Democrats, national security for the Republicans. On the question of national security, Independents prefer McCain over Obama 62-24 - little surprise there. But on health care, which should be an Obama home run, Obama's lead over McCain is 36-35. That's right - one point.
But the good news for fans of McCain doesn't stop there. Let's take a look at the two intertwined issues that are chosen by Independent voters as their top voting issue topic: economy and gas prices. As Susan Page's piece in USA Today pointed out, Obama has previously led McCain on the economy...but that post convention, things have changed. In the Diageo/Hotline poll? Among Independents, McCain leads Obama on the economy 37-33, and leads on energy 40-32.
As I said in the Next Right piece, I think this is going to be an election about energy/economy and an election about reform. It's not a revolutionary statement or a bold assertion, the environment just seems primed for those two items to drive the race. So here's why these numbers among independents are important.
First, McCain has made important steps in jettisoning the negative brand of the Republican party. As Brian Schaffner's excellent post on the topic of Obama's advantage on the economy notes, while generic Republicans have performed worse against generic Democrats on these issue handling questions, the gap is now smaller between Obama and McCain, and Obama's lead on the economy has correlated with his lead on the ballot test.
Second, the McCain/Palin "reform" message is working. The fact that more independents believe McCain/Palin can bring reform to Washington than Obama/Biden is astounding to me. Not because I don't believe it's true (again, trying to set aside my partisanship), but because it runs so contrary to what one would normally expect given the terrible job approval ratings of Bush and the abysmal right track/wrong track.
Maybe what we're seeing is the after effect of a "bump", but the fact that independents have come all the way from kicking Republicans out of Congress by enormous margins in 2006 to looking at McCain the way these polls indicate is something worthy of an incredible deal of study. If independents truly are the key to this election, the McCain campaign has more than a little to smile about, and a much more favorable environment heading into the final two months than many could have predicted.
[Editor's Note: We are pleased to add yet another contributor to the Pollster.com lineup. Kristen Soltis is currently the Director of Policy Research for The Winston Group, a Republican affiliated public opinion research and strategic consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Welcome Kristen!]
The debate over party ID and whether or not weighting for party ID is appropriate has raged on for years, with a very thorough treatment by Mark Blumenthal and others that raises good questions about whether or not party ID is stable at the individual level. Recent media polls with wide ranging spreads between Republicans and Democrats make it all the more appropriate to bring this debate back.
Those on the side favoring weighting say that it is important to compare "apples to apples", to see if more people actually are voting for Obama than last month, or if we just happened to get a sample more favorable to him. On the other side, you have folks who view partisan identification as a question response, not a demographic group, and view weighting by party as methodologically unsound.
Though it's controversial, I believe that weighting for party ID is appropriate if done in a manner consistent with historical norms. I fall into the camp that believes party ID is far more static - that voters can change their preferences and the intensity of their partisanship often, but do not as frequently take the step of giving themselves a new party with which to identify. To me, party ID falls somewhere in between "demographic fact" and "variable question response". Preventing wildly fluctuating data outside historical norms provides a better picture of what real movement is occurring in the electorate on questions like the ballot test.
On Election Day, the partisan makeup of the electorate is rarely dramatically different from the election four years prior, and the exit polls from the last twenty years corroborate this. The National Election Study at the University of Michigan back in the 1960s showed party ID was stable at the individual level, but some have dismissed this as an example that works today. So let's take a look at more modern day politics, with a time frame of last twenty years (presidential elections since 1988). Washingtonpost.com has a great, simple table of this exit poll data.
In 1988, Democrats had a three-point party ID advantage over Republicans (38-35). In 1992, Democrats still had a three-point party ID advantage over Republicans (38-35). In 1996, that advantage increased to four - a shift of one point (39-35). In 2000, Democrats were steady, up by four (39-35), and in 2004 they dropped to even (37-37).
During presidential years, over the last five presidential elections, the biggest party ID gap was four points, and the greatest swing was four points as well.
Arguments can certainly be made that in this environment, Democrats should be expected to have a huge partisan shift in their favor. But note that in 2006, when Democrats clearly found enormous success at the ballot box, that the advantage in party ID was only three points (38-35). Polls leading up to the election showed party ID gaps as big as eleven points (Newsweek's poll on Oct 5-6, 2006), rarely showing party ID gaps of less than +5 for the Democrats.
On Election Day, as measured by the exit polls, the party ID divide was just three points.
Just because people are voting Democratic doesn't mean they are becoming Democrats.
Truth be told, the decision to use weights for party ID has everything to do with whether or not a pollster views party ID as a "response" or a "demographic", and when it is a fairly stable characteristic of the electorate, I feel comfortable placing it on the spectrum closer to "demographic". It's not perfect, to be sure, but I'd rather compare surveys month to month and observe movement by comparing apples to apples.
However, whether or not weighting is used, the partisan makeup of a poll must factor into the understanding of whether the poll is presenting a realistic piece of information. I certainly don't believe all polls must weight for party ID in order to be useful. But regardless of whether the party ID is organic or weighted, it should still look reasonable.
So let's take a current example that I have trouble with. As "bambi" noted in the comments (taking quite a bit of heat, and with some calculations that I do disagree with) just this morning about the most recent CBS poll, after weighting for demographics, the difference between Republicans and Democrats nearly doubles. While the unweighted sample has 317 Republicans and 381 Democrats (out of 1034 adults), the weighted sample has 284 Republicans and 406 Democrats. This changes the spread from a 6 point spread (31-37) to a 12 point spread (27-39).
Truth be told, if a poll shows a six-point party ID spread, I wouldn't immediately dismiss it. Furthermore, the CBS poll is of adults, not registered or likely voters, so that gives it freedom in my opinion to veer a bit outside the norms. I'm not dogmatically tied to historical precedent, though I think it's very instructive in determining what is "reasonable".
But a twelve point spread? Whether this is a blip or what consistently turns up in the numbers, I have incredible difficulty believing that a margin of that magnitude is an accurate reflection of the electorate. A six-point lead is within the realm of possibility given a really great year for Democrats. But a twelve-point spread is simply outside the bounds of history, given that in twenty years of political change and history, the greatest margin has been four.