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Hullabaloo


Friday, January 16, 2004

 
The Base

I know I'm going to get royally flamed for posting this, and I'm sure I'll regret ever thinking of it, but I was waiting for it to get circulated and it never did, so I guess it's up to me.

By Susan Page
USA Today

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean is leading in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, but a demographic portrait of the voters he's drawing nationwide shows he'll face major challenges when the opening contests are over and the Democratic field narrows.

An analysis of the Democratic electorate indicates that Dean's major rivals are likely to be in a better position than he is to appeal to voters whose candidates drop out of the race.

And many of the contests next on the calendar are in states dominated by the sort of voters Dean has had relatively little success drawing, at least so far.

USA TODAY combined responses from 3,238 Democrats surveyed in the USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll since September, when retired general Wesley Clark got in the race. They were sorted into the 14 demographic groups devised by the marketing firm Claritas, which uses Census data to characterize Americans.

The contrast between Dean and Clark, who lead the field, is stark:

Dean's support is disproportionately drawn from affluent, college-educated voters who live in big cities and their suburbs. His largest single group of supporters is called "Urban Uptown."

He is weakest in a group called "Rustic Living," a mix of young and old people who live in rural areas and small towns.

Clark's support is the most balanced among the six major contenders, generally tracking the distribution of Democratic voters among cities, suburbs and rural areas. He draws strong support from a group called "Second City Society," affluent, college-educated voters who live in medium-size cities. His single largest group of supporters is in "Rustic Living."

The "Rustic Living" group looms large in the Democratic contests. It makes up the biggest bloc of Democratic voters, comprising one in 10 U.S. households but one in six Democrats. It is the greatest single source of support for Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.


This is the first I've seen of any serious demographic analysis of the various candidates' support. I've not seen the underlying data but assuming it is basically correct it validates the questions many of us have with Dean's "turn out the base" strategy, since he doesn't seem to be clicking quite yet even with Democrats outside of big cities. Maybe these "Rustic Living" Democrats who make up six in ten members of the party will vote ABB no matter what, but I don't think that's clear. More importantly, it's not a very good way to deal with the electoral college challenge. Big turn out in blue state big cities simply isn't going to get it done.

Dave over at Seeing the Forest linked to this comment by Dean in
US News and World Report
about his "crank the base" strategy:

Though Dean did not enter the race with the expectations of winning, he did see a way to win. "Karl Rove [President Bush's political guru] discovered it, too, but I discovered it independently," Dean says and adds that the theory is embodied in the writings of George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley. "What you do is crank the heck out of your base, get them really excited and crank up the base turnout and you'll win the middle-of-the-roaders," Dean says. The reason, according to the theory, is that swing voters share the characteristics of both parties and eventually go with whatever party excites them the most. "Democrats appeal to them on their softer side--the safety net--but the Republicans appeal to them on the harder side--the discipline, the responsibility, and so forth," Dean says. "So the question is which side appears to be energetic, deeply believing in its message, deeply committed to bringing a vision of hope to America. That side is the side that gets the swing voters and wins."


I have expressed my doubts about the usefulness of Lakoff's framing of the two parties for any kind of electoral strategy or message. It is simply a descriptive frame, and I think Dean aptly uses it here. However, I have absolutely no idea, and frankly neither does he, if this theory about swing voters is true. Certainly, it has not been true in the past.

In 1992, the Republican convention showcased a party of energy, one that deeply believed in its message and portrayed a strong vision of hope for America. Pat Buchanan made a case for taking the country back from the moral relativists who were ruining the country. It was much too strident and ended up sending swing voters running. I am not comparing Buchanan to Dean, so save your fury for someone else. I am merely pointing out that there is some evidence that Dean's theory, at least sometimes, does not work.

Indeed, contrary to what Dean asserts in his comment, after the overt partisanship of that convention and the divisive leadership of Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove went in the opposite direction and ran George W. Bush as if he were a card carrying member of the NAACP and the ACLU. Apparently, they thought that being too "deeply believing in its message" was turning off voters. (Of course, he lost by half a million votes, so perhaps that theory doesn't work either.)

So, maybe it is the message that counts with swing voters, after all. Or perhaps it's a matter of cultural affinity or a "good feeling" for the candidate. I'm not sure anyone really knows what moves swing voters. Whatever the case, Dean's theory cannnot be tested if he cannot stir the base beyond the big cities. The next two months will tell that tale.

I know that I will get some comments about Dean's bringing in new voters and his organizational prowess. I am not dismissing that. However, as with the demographic data I referenced above, I have been waiting to see whether Dean is, in fact, bringing in new voters and whether his organization is, in fact, powerful. I've only heard campaign boasts and anecdotal evidence from his supporters that this is true. The press repeats it as if it were gospel, but I haven't seen any actual evidence from them either. The proof is in the pudding and I presume that actual real life voters will confirm whether his campaign has broken new ground beyond its obvious success with fundraising and internet communication.

I hope that it has because gawd knows we Democrats need all the help we can get.




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