MARCH 19, 2012, 1:35 AM
The Uses of PolarizationBy T. B. EDSALL
A primary goal of a presidential campaign is to incrementally increase margins of support among volatile and persuadable demographic groups like single women angered by attempts to restrict access to contraception or voters with long commutes worried about gas prices.
A second goal is increase turnout among supportive voting blocs — conservative whites in the case of Republicans, African-Americans in the case of Democrats. This goal is accomplished most often with polarizing tactics like the exploitation of wedge issues.
The target constituencies can be huge — white men, Hispanics, seniors – or, with the emergence of sophisticated micro-technology, smaller slices of the electorate, ranging from laid-off manufacturing workers to women golfers.
This is not news, but how does such a strategy actually work? A source who was willing to be identified only as a Republican strategist with extensive experience in national campaigns described to me in an e-mail how he looks at an election in which there are no significant independent candidates:
- White Independents. G.O.P. needs to win by double-digits.
- Moderates. G.O.P. loses by 20 or less, you win, lose by 30 or more, you lose.
- Latinos — what percent of the electorate do they represent? What’s the margin? Nationally, if Latinos are 8 percent of the electorate, and the Democratic-Republican spread is within 25 points [37.5 Republican – 62.5 Democratic], that’s good. If in 2012, it’s Latinos are 10 percent of the electorate, and the Democratic-Republican spread is voting Democratic 35 points or more [32.5 R – 67.5 D], that’s serious trouble.
- White women. Win by 5 to 9 percentage points, you win. Break even or lose, serious trouble. Overall, in 2012, we are looking at the G.O.P. having to win white voters by +19 points if Latino composition is unusually high.
- That actually means white men over 60 have to be huge for Republicans — and you can’t let Dems make serious inroads among white women over 60.
- Downscale whites — Obama approval has to be roughly in the mid-30s and he has to get whooped — while white college grad job approval cannot be higher than the low 40s.
- Whites age 18-29 — you have to carry them. McCain lost by them 10 percentage points and he got totally swamped.
While the thinking of professional operatives may seem cynical or excessively calculating, it is a key element of election preparation by both Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats, for example, consistently seek to raise turnout among union members, urban voters, Hispanics and, since the emergence of the gender gap in the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, female voters.
In the 2004 election, the Bush-Cheney campaign explicitly sought to polarize voters to increase turnout among potential supporters.
Matthew Dowd, who ran polling and much of the planning for Bush, explained the 2004 Republican strategy to me just after the election. “Most voters looked at Bush in very black-and-white terms,” he said. “They either loved and respected him, or they didn’t like him.” In the face of this reality, “we systematically allocated all the main resources of the campaign to the twin goals of motivation and persuasion. The media, the voter targeting, the mail — all were based off that strategic decision.”
Politically, the 2004 strategy was a striking success. Four years earlier, in 2000, when Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” with the goal of minimizing polarization, he had not been so fortunate, losing the popular vote by a margin of 500,000, and taking the ballots of voters calling themselves “independent” by only 2 points. He won the Electoral College by a slim 271-266 margin (or 5-4, as some liberals like to say).
In 2004, Bush did much better, losing independent voters by one point, but carrying the Electoral College by 286-251 and winning the popular vote by 3 million. In other words, polarizing tactics that divide the opposition party, pitting pro-gay-rights Democrats against anti-gay-rights Democrats, for example, may have contributed to Bush’s diminished support from independent voters. Those losses, however, were more than made up for by gains among voters already inclined to cast a ballot for Bush, but who needed stronger motivation to go out and do it.
“Those Americans whose attitudes and behavior most closely reflect the ideals of democratic citizenship are the most partisan and the most polarized.”
— Alan Abramowitz
The Bush 2004 campaign and its allies made heavy use of wedge issues — from stem cell research to attacks on John Kerry’s Vietnam war record — to raise Republican turnout and depress Democratic voting.
The basic approach of building support among key demographics does not, however, always require divisive maneuvers. There are multiple ways to deal with diverse constituencies, including raising the numbers of ballots cast by members of reliable groups, suppressing turnout among hostile groups and keeping margins of defeat, where possible, to a minimum.
It is almost certain that President Obama will not carry a majority of white voters without college degrees, a basically Republican bloc. He can, however, try to keep his losses among these voters to, say, 42-58, instead of a more damaging 33-67 margin. The possibility of making gains with this group has been improved for Obama by the prospect of running against Mitt Romney, whose campaign has struggled in the primaries with this sector of the electorate.
The Obama campaign’s attempt to cut into the Republican advantage among white working-class voters was on display last Thursday when Vice President Biden appeared at a United Auto Workers rally in Toledo. “Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich — these guys have a fundamentally different economic philosophy than we do,” Biden told the cheering crowd. “In 2009, no one was lining up to lend General Motors or Chrysler any money or, for that matter, lend any money to anybody. That includes Bain Capital. They weren’t lining up to lend anybody money.”
Over the past decade, campaigns have been taking giant steps forward in their use of technological advances like micro-targeting, improved analytical and statistical models and other data-heavy mechanisms, which they use to identify and locate key supporters and persuadable voters. Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, argues that Obama’s aggressive development of predictive modeling, data mining, social networking and other fine-grained techniques may prove crucial. “If the 2012 election comes down to a battle of inches,” Sifry writes, “where a few percentage points change in turnout in a few key states, making all the difference, we may come to see Obama’s investment in predictive modelers and data scientists as the key to victory.”
The power of campaigns to create and motivate new swing voters dovetails with the political strategy of driving polarization. Information science has geometrically improved the ability of campaigns to accurately identify specific voters who are angry or threatened and most easily motivated by hard-edged, divisive messages, on such issues as race, taxes, welfare and other hot-button subjects.
The key is that this technological innovation is taking place within the larger context of increased ideological consistency across the two parties. “Since 1960, the two parties have evolved from miscellaneous coalitions of regional interests spanning the ideological spectrum into two unified and ideologically coherent political parties, on the European model,” Michael W. McConnell, a professor of law at Stanford University, writes. The Democratic Party was formerly made up of “two distinct and ideologically incompatible elements: a white, conservative, largely racist Southern Democratic Party, and a mixed-race, more progressive Northern Democratic Party,” McConnell points out. Motivated by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the two parties began to reconstitute themselves as consistently left and right, a process that continues to this day.
Bitter social, moral and cultural conflict has driven up turnout: as voters become more ideological, they develop a stronger interest in the outcome of elections, and a greater likelihood of going to the polls on election day. “Those Americans whose attitudes and behavior most closely reflect the ideals of democratic citizenship are the most partisan and the most polarized. In contrast, it is among the uninterested, uninformed, and uninvolved that moderation and independence flourish,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, wrote in his recently published book, “The Polarized Public.”
At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that can accurately be described as independent — without partisan allegiance — has shrunk to about 7 percent, according to Ruy Teixeira of the Brookings Institution. While the importance of such voters has diminished, in a closely balanced contest these relatively uninvolved men and women have the power to determine the outcome: in the 12 presidential elections from 1964 to 2008, four – 1968, 1976, 2000 and 2004 – have been decided by 2.5 percentage points or less.
Perhaps the most important factor going into the 2012 general election will be the most difficult to gauge: the degree to which the candidates themselves motivate or turn off voters. A detailed analysis of the 2008 presidential turnout by Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, concluded that “when considering whether or not to support John McCain in 2008, a number of Bush voters decided, ‘No We Can’t.’ The number of 2004 Bush voters who decided to stay at home, or to support a Democrat, in 2008 did not grab the same kinds of headlines as new voter stories, but they were a sufficient condition for Obama’s Electoral College victory.”
Democratic voter enthusiasm has been running well below 2008 levels, indicating that this time around, Obama faces a substantial hurdle in replicating the surge in turnout that helped propel him into the White House four years ago – although there has been some improvement recently. Conversely, Mitt Romney, the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination, has so far demonstrated little ability to inspire Republican loyalists, showing weaknesses similar to those that characterized Bob Dole’s 1996 and McCain’s 2008 campaigns.
The strategic choices facing both Obama, who has moved to the left in recent months, and Romney, who is well to the right of where he was in 2008, are not easy. Every approach presents significant dangers.
In each of the 12 to 15 battleground states, from New Hampshire to Nevada, the campaigns will have to make a decision. If they choose to focus on the small fraction of independent or swing voters, then a more centrist strategy wins out; if they choose to galvanize the base, then a more ideological and polarizing strategy will dominate, putting their standing with independents at risk. But if they focus on their core voters, independents may be repulsed.
As the electorate itself becomes more and more polarized, the balancing act gets harder and harder. In this sense, as each candidate seeks to incrementally increase margins of support among key constituencies and to intensify participation not only among “pure” independents but also among loyal voting blocs, Obama and Romney face the same problem.
Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of the book “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics,” which was published in January.