Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Alan Abramowitz and Drew Westen
In the first CMBC lunch of the 2013 Spring semester, Alan Abramowitz (Political Science, Emory University) and Drew Westen (Psychology, Emory University) offered contrasting analyses of the results of the 2012 presidential election and what they suggest for future elections. The contrast (mercifully) wasn’t Republican vs. Democrat. It was, in part, a fascinating disciplinary contrast between the perspectives of a political scientist and a psychologist; and, in part, a contrast reflective of internal Democratic angst: could the Democrats, and Obama, in particular, have done more, or is that wishful thinking given current political realities?
From the political science perspective, Abramowitz offered a tripartite explanation of Obama’s larger than expected 4 point margin of victory. First, 2012 saw modest economic recovery. Had the U.S. economy suffered another dip into recession, the results would most likely have been much different. Second, Obama enjoyed the first-term incumbency advantage, which has seen every President to re-election in the last 100 years with the exception of Jimmy Carter. The third reason concerned deep partisan division. It is perhaps easiest to see why Obama won when you couple the fact that 92% of Democrats voted for Obama with what Republican strategists seemed to be blind to or in denial about until (and, in the case of Karl Rove, even after) the election results had become undeniable: thanks to a rapidly evolving demographic landscape, Democratic voters now outnumber their Republican counterparts. Abramowitz explained that Obama’s victory wasn’t due to Hurricane Sandy, or the brilliance of his campaign, but rather to the changing face of the American electorate. Although Romney won the white vote by 20 points, Obama won 80% of the non-white vote, which accounted for almost 30% of the electorate. If non-whites continue to vote in such proportions for Democrats, the prognosis for Republicans is not good: currently 50% of Americans under the age of 5 are non-white. Abramowitz also noted, more generally, that young voters today are more liberal on issues like gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, and abortion than older voters; and that this represents a true generational shift, and is not just a function of age.
Despite this unfavorable demographic outlook, because of gerrymandering, Republicans managed to win a majority of House seats in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where they lost the popular vote in state-wide elections. As for the Senate, Republicans should now control it, too, were it not for the unelectable candidates generated by their primaries. Since rural states like Wyoming (which, Abramowitz pointed out, has a population smaller than DeKalb county’s!) get no fewer Senators than New York and California, and tend to be Republican, there is a Republican advantage built in to the structure of the Senate. For these reasons, it will be difficult for Democrats to win back the House and keep the Senate in coming elections. Moreover, in 2016 the Democrats will lose the advantage of first-term incumbency, so it is possible for the Republicans to take back the White House. Then again, by that time Republicans will face an even more hostile demographic landscape.
From a psychologist’s perspective, Westen’s presentation focused on the role of messaging in explaining the successes and failures of the two parties and their candidates. In addition to echoing Abramowitz’s point regarding demographic disadvantages, Westen noted how Romney ran a particularly myopic campaign, failing to anticipate obvious questions about his wealth and finances. Westen suggested how Romney could have easily dealt with the drawn-out issue of his tax returns, for example, by making clear that while he pays low rates, he gives generously to charitable causes. This would have played to many Americans’ conviction that personal responsibility and charity, not government intervention, is the proper solution to social ills. Beyond Romney’s campaign misadventures, Westen emphasized that there was a deeper, structural factor that accounted for the Republican defeat. Over the past 30 years, Republicans have created a monster of a message machine. According to Westen, Fox News and similar outlets have made 40% of the electorate remarkably disinformed and racist. While the enthusiasm Republican media fuels has helped to win House seats and was instrumental in the elections of George W. Bush, it backfired in 2012. The Republican base proved at once large enough (and vocal enough) to set the tone of the Republican primaries (which Westen compared to a clown show), but too small to ensure the victory of its candidate at the national level, where a non-white electorate had unprecedented clout. In reality, argued Westen, Romney is not that much different politically from Obama. Both the Romney who governed Massachusetts and President Obama have governed from the center-right. (On Obama’s right-leaning governance, Westen cited his failure to stand up for immigrants, his “evolving” views on gay marriage, hedging on abortion coverage in the healthcare bill, and the contraception coverage loopholes therein.) But the Romney who governed Massachusetts could not get elected by the Republican primary process – he needed to pivot hard right to appease the Republican base. By 2040, moreover, the United States is projected to be a “majority minority country,” which is to say, the majority will be made up of non-whites. If Republican presidential candidates continue to have to appeal to a disinformed, racist Republican base, they will have no chance of winning on the national level.
But the Democrats have messaging problems of their own, according to Westen, in particular, the lack of a clear and consistent message. Whereas during the New Deal era, Democrats were defined by a clear commitment to taking care of those in need, the message of today’s Democrats, Westen contended, must pass through the filter of wealthy campaign contributors, and what comes out on the other side is significantly diluted. In this connection, Westen cited Democrats’ talk of cutting social programs, regressive payroll taxes, and fiscal stability. In the end, for Westen, the Democrats’ mixed messaging is a symptom of a deeper problem: lack of strong leadership.
Westen’s critique of Democratic leadership provoked a debate with Abramowitz on the question that has been raised about Barack Obama, even by his ardent supporters, in response to his first term in office: could Obama have achieved more of the progressive agenda he campaigned on in 2008, given the wave of enthusiasm and support that swept him into the White House, if he had been more of an effective leader, or, given Republican recalcitrance and ill-will towards him, expressed, for instance, in Mitch McConnell’s stated commitment to make Obama a one-term President, did Obama do as well as anyone could have?
Westen’s contention that Obama could have done more stemmed from his analysis of political messaging. Westen provided a number of examples of how relatively simple tweaks in the formulation of a political message can make all the difference in how it is perceived by both politicians and the broader public. To take one, Westen said that the White House should never have talked about a “public option,” since the word “public” tends to make people think of overcrowded waiting rooms and mediocre healthcare. Westen said that a message as simple as “we’re going to let people buy Medicare and Medicaid” would have avoided the negative connotations of anything “public” and the ensuing furor provoked by the “public option.” Westen also suggested that the White House could have performed better in the tax debates with a message like the following: “In tough times like these, millionaires ought to be giving to charity, not asking for it.” Westen’s fundamentally optimistic view of what can be achieved with the right message was met with skepticism by Abramowitz, who reiterated his original point about the unprecedented extent of political polarization. Ultimately, it is difficult to say for sure what would have been possible, if only…. One potential basis for such hypotheticals is offered by historical parallels, but there can always be questions about the extent to which historical precedents are actually parallel in the relevant respects. Abramowitz rejected Westen’s invocation of LBJ as evidence that Obama could have done more, on the grounds that LBJ enjoyed much larger Democratic majorities than Obama has had, and enjoyed them for a significantly longer period of time.
It is perhaps not surprising that no agreement was reached on how to assess Obama’s presidency. After all, the history is still being made. I want to underscore, in closing, the significant points on which Abramowitz and Westen agreed. In the first place, there was clear consensus that the Republican party is badly plagued by structural issues, and that these boil down to demographic factors at odds with what has emerged over the past 30 years as the Republican platform. Second, both Abramowitz and Westen agreed that the Democratic message is not as clear and consistent as perhaps it might be, although there was disagreement about what this means. For Westen, it signals a lack of clear, strong leadership of the FDR or LBJ variety; for Abramowitz, on the other hand, it has more to do with the nature of the Democratic party, which has always been more pragmatic than ideological. This raises an interesting question about the kind of choice we face as voters. Assuming a two-party system, would we rather have two parties representing competing ideologies, or rather one ideological party and one non-ideological, but pragmatic party? Which presents the starker contrast? Which affords the greater chance of bipartisan agreement? These are some of the questions that Obama’s leadership style has prompted, and I take it that they remain very much open and evolving.