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Follow-up on Edwards post

I posted some comments on the value I believe Senator Edwards has had on the Democratic Party, helping it shed its belief that all policies and political language must be "universalist," or benefit almost everyone, and then left for four days away with my family, coming back to a dozen or so very provocative comments and links. A few deserve comment:

First, Matthew Yglesias is right to point out that there is a basic error in my assertion that Dean showed that "enthusiasm could be as valuable as converting a swing voter at the 50th percentile." I thought I had written exactly this but I must have deleted it in shortening the post: Yes, it is a mathematical truism that converting a swing voter -- one who is certain to vote but just might go either way -- is always twice as valuable as drawing a a new or unlikely voter to the polls on your own side, since the new voter does not also take a vote away from the other side. Indeed, that has been the basic premise of Democratic party politics through most of the last decade or more, and it, too, has a lot to do with the lack of imagination and inspiration in such politics.

On the other hand, at a certain point the equation changes. When the number of actual swing voters narrows to probably less than 10% of the electorate, and probably much less (how many people do you know who aren't sure whether they will vote for George W. Bush's reelection or not?), then the payoff to converting swing voters becomes more and more constrained. And some other numbers look more appealing: Voters age 18-24 voted at a 32.3% rate in 2000 -- imagine getting that number closer to the overall average of 58% by generating enthusiasm. People in families with incomes below $25,000 voted at a 39% rate -- what about raising that number. Sure, it takes two new enthusiasts from either of these categories to match the value of one swung voter, but there are a lot more of them. And that is the sea change in politics since the mid-1990s -- when the proven electorate is solidly polarized, both parties will move outside, to look for new voters and untested opportunities. It will radically change the language and culture of politics, but for Democrats, probably for the better.

That said, all Dean did -- and this is also true of Edwards -- is to suggest the possibility. He did not in any way prove that such a strategy of drawing new voters in a general election could work, and that's not just because he faded in the primaries. None of them have had a chance to test this general-election premise. E.J. Dionne commented six weeks ago that, "Foundations have spent small fortunes trying to figure out how to connect young Americans to politics. Dean just did it." But that wasn't at all true: all Dean did was show that there was a greater potential to fire up young people with an alternative than some of the other candidates had perhaps imagined.

Second, the commentor "Terry" put together some truly fascinating statistics showing that Edwards did not seem to be reaching the voters he was talking about in his stump speech, as he generally seems to do less well than Kerry with less affluent voters and -- like all Democratic runners-up since Morris Udall in 1976 -- finds his base among the better-educated. As helpful as that analysis is, it misses my point. I'm interested in the fact that Edwards talks about poorer people in the context of our obligations as a society, not in promising benefits to them in exchange for their votes. That's the radical break with the past. Of course every candidate, speaking at an event such as the Center for Community Change's roundtable in Columbia, SC on January 30, will talk about policies affecting poor people. Edwards talks about "the two nations" entirely without regard to his audience. It is a moral claim, not an appeal based on benefits, and that is what makes it distinctive. As a number of commentors noted, there is no proof that this tone, any more than Dean's approach, has truly lodged itself in the Democratic imagination. But just to say it without hesitation, to do well in the primaries, and to have this message be a part of a mainstream Democratic candidacy, rather than one that is perceived as a very liberal one, is a breakthrough.

Needless to say, I appreciate all the comments, which have helped refine this point and many others.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 16, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Thank you for answering Yglesias, these things seem simple until you look closely.

There are follow-on effects to the shrinking swing. Swing voters are traditionally moved with large buy TV ads and a core message that is inoffensive to the rest of the electorate. You have to use red meat to motivate a base voter, and red meat is offensive. So it is delivered in a more targeted way, through radio, direct mail and ground operations.

Dean showed that even in a primary, Democrats do not live by red meat alone. You have to serve the right cuts to the right audience.

Posted by: tib | Feb 17, 2004 3:30:04 AM

In response to the Decembrist's response to my response: I do not think that we disagree. One of the main problems - the main problem? - of American politics is that the less well-off vote in large numbers for leaders whom I (and I assume, the Decembrist) think do not have their interests at heart. The typical left diagnosis is that the problem is cultural: god, guns, gays.

The Dean solution was to explain to the less well-off that they were being duped and they should vote their economic interest. This was an obvious insult. How could a believing Christian be persuaded by the argument that he should abandon God for Mammon?

The much more plausible and successful Clinton strategy was to recognize there is no solution - it's a legitimate conflict of interest - and to try to finesse the issue on the margins: from V-chips to simply saying "God bless you" at the end of his speeches.

The Edwards strategy - if I am interpreting it and the Decembrist's interpretation of it correctly - is to re-frame the economic issue as one of morality rather than interest: not as the Dean strategy of buying votes in exchange for services and ignoring one's values (which Edwards would put under the category of "talking down to people"), but as re-framing the economic issue as one of values, morality, solidarity, identification ("building one America"). To be convincing, of course, this exactly requires that you talk about it to all audiences.

My point is that I'm not surprised or impressed that this reformulation would be attractive to me, would be attractive to the Decembrist, would be attractive to The Nation, would be attractive to the faculties of elite universities. What will actually "change" Democratic politics is if it is attractive to the less well-off themselves, that is if it works and helps win elections. Hence my interest in the empirical data and the evidence that it isn't working yet. I still think it might, in this campaign or another, but the jury is still out as to whether Edwards has changed the Democrats.

Posted by: Terry | Feb 17, 2004 10:00:51 AM

>>as he generally seems to do less well than Kerry with less affluent voters and -- like all Democratic runners-up since Morris Udall in 1976 -- finds his base among the better-educated

What is it about the Republican party that attracts the ignorant? Is it just better marketing?

Posted by: | Feb 17, 2004 2:33:51 PM

Fascinating thread on Edwards. I appreciate your discussion of the relative value of swing vs. new voters. What I think is more interesting about Dean's campaign isn't (wasn't) its ability to bring on board new voters but its ability to bring on board new *donors.* People gave to Dean who had never made political contributions before. My hope is that backing someone who ultimately will have lost will not sour them on the idea.

Posted by: John Lewis | Feb 17, 2004 2:58:57 PM

I've often thought that a moral framework for liberal politics was needed. However, it often seemed needed only in the face of the RNC's framing of social wedge issues in a moral way. Is it because the grass seems greener on the other side?

The Republican approach to courting middle class swing voters has been rather effective. They have enough economic security that they can vote morality rather than interest. These people believe in traditional values like marriage, right? On top of that, they offer tax cuts. Middle class voters don't like to pay taxes. It is a common perception that they pay taxes to support less successful people, while getting little in return.

Then again, people who tend to think the worst about people who happen to be poor generally don't vote democrat.

I think it's important to our message becauses it focuses on something very fundamental that the party hasn't focused on recently. That is, the power of the government to do good things for the downtrodden.

Posted by: Kennedy | Feb 17, 2004 3:17:35 PM

Some questions on the value of getting a vote from your base vs. converting a vote from the middle of the ideological spectrum.

To what degree are these aims exclusive? Does speaking about the poor or energizing the base over the war lead to people in the middle to vote for a Republican (or does it make it easier for W. to make his case that they should do so)? Does moving to the middle discourage the base from turning out (or lead them to vote for Nader)? Which of these effects are more profound? Have either Dean's or Edwards' strategies eliminated these tradeoffs and pointed the way toward pareto superior approaches (improving your chances with one group while not hurting it with the other)?

Posted by: Stuart | Feb 17, 2004 4:50:45 PM

Tonight's Wisconsin results add some interesting stuff to the mix:

http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/primaries/pages/epolls/WI/index.html

Terry and the Decembrist have been commenting on how Edwards finds his base among the educated and well-off, instead of the people whom we'd expect his message to target. Some of this can be attributed to the kinds of media that people are exposed to. Kerry gets much more play in the mainstream media -- Time magazine (he was on the cover) and the TV news networks in particular. The college graduates who are more likely read blogs and go outside the mainstream media for information may be likely to find more information on Edwards. If less affluent voters aren't going for Edwards, it may be because many of them don't know who he is.

Posted by: Neil Sinhababu | Feb 18, 2004 12:31:32 AM

Decemberist, thank you for the very fascinating post. I think you are exactly on target here.

Terry,
From the polling evidence that you provided, it is clear that Edwards over-performs among the well-to-do. This could be the result of residual Kerry-hatred among better-educated former Dean supporters (a hypothesis that I don't think is supported by the polling data in which Kerry's negatives are low). A better explanation for his support, as you suggest, is his powerful and well-delivered message, something that this middle class social liberal finds very appealing. I don't think that we can conclude, however, from his over-performance among better-off democrats that he generally fares poorly among lower-income voters. Rather, I think the intuitive assumption that his populist message would be appealing to those who really do live in the other America probably holds. In fact, I'm sure that he would do better than Kerry among poorer voters (Reps, Dems, and indys) in a general election. It is comforting, moreover, that his populist message is a big winner among middle class voters as well, something that is more counter-intuitive.

The reason that he under-performed among the less well-off is, as Neil suggests, that Kerry has had more publicity in the free media. Moreover, with Kerry being the frontrunner, people who are not really aware of the major distinctions between Kerry and Edwards are inclined to jump on the Kerry bandwagon. The exit polls make clear that it is DEFINITELY not the Edwards message that resulted in his weaker performance among poorer Kerry voters because as Will Saletan points out in a Slate piece, most Kerry voters voted for him solely on the grounds that they believed he was most electable. Certainly, this does not suggest any revulsion to Edwards’ message. Moreover, the exit polling also reveals that the Edwards’ message has some resonance among Republican and independent voters, something that suggests that he is on to something in his brand of politics, which, imho is better policy from practical, moral, and purely political perspectives than Shrum's "universalist" version, which the Decemberist critiques so well.

http://slate.msn.com/id/2095655/

Posted by: Sean | Feb 21, 2004 6:03:49 AM

Decemberist, thank you for the very fascinating post. I think you are exactly on target here.

Terry,
From the polling evidence that you provided, it is clear that Edwards over-performs among the well-to-do. This could be the result of residual Kerry-hatred among better-educated former Dean supporters (a hypothesis that I don't think is supported by the polling data in which Kerry's negatives are low). A better explanation for his support, as you suggest, is his powerful and well-delivered message, something that this middle class social liberal finds very appealing. I don't think that we can conclude, however, from his over-performance among better-off democrats that he generally fares poorly among lower-income voters. Rather, I think the intuitive assumption that his populist message would be appealing to those who really do live in the other America probably holds. In fact, I'm sure that he would do better than Kerry among poorer voters (Reps, Dems, and indys) in a general election. It is comforting, moreover, that his populist message is a big winner among middle class voters as well, something that is more counter-intuitive.

The reason that he under-performed among the less well-off is, as Neil suggests, that Kerry has had more publicity in the free media. Moreover, with Kerry being the frontrunner, people who are not really aware of the major distinctions between Kerry and Edwards are inclined to jump on the Kerry bandwagon. The exit polls make clear that it is DEFINITELY not the Edwards message that resulted in his weaker performance among poorer Kerry voters because as Will Saletan points out in a Slate piece, most Kerry voters voted for him solely on the grounds that they believed he was most electable. Certainly, this does not suggest any revulsion to Edwards’ message. Moreover, the exit polling also reveals that the Edwards’ message has some resonance among Republican and independent voters, something that suggests that he is on to something in his brand of politics, which, imho is better policy from practical, moral, and purely political perspectives than Shrum's "universalist" version, which the Decemberist critiques so well.

http://slate.msn.com/id/2095655/

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