Friday, January 07, 2011

Obsessed with race

Ron Brownstein, whose wife worked for John McCain, has a long article called White Flight National Journal 01/07/2011 on what he calls the "daunting and even historic" level of "white voters’ rejection of Democrats in November’s elections".

We saw in the 2008 Presidential race that our star pundits were obsessed with the race factor in the election. But since most of them live in the strange world in which Beltway Village wisdom defines reality, and since most of them seem to be completely unable to read and interpret polling results on any sound basis, much of that chatter was just bad, dumb and misleading. Thye one that sticks in my mind as the silliest I heard was Jon Meacham earnestly saying that Republicans were perplexed on how to approach a campaign against Obama, since they didn't know how to campaign against an African-American. This was in 2008, when the Republicans had already spent over four decades actively campaigning against African-Americans!

Digby analyzes Brownstein's article in Rebuilding The Coalition Hullabaloo 01/07/2011, citing this post by Duncan "Atrios" Black, Old White People Eschaton 01/07/2011, in which he says:

For some reason I seem to be one of the few people who noticed that Republicans ran on the truthy claim that Obama & Dems had cut Medicare. Combine that with the looming catfood commission making it impossible for Dems to style themselves credibly as defenders of Social Security and you have a bit of the reason they voted for Republicans. I'm not discounting the impact of the various race-infused freak show stuff that were tossed around, but if you want old white people to vote for you maybe you should give them a reason.
Before I wade into Brownstein analysis, I'll refer back to the topic I covered last year in The Republican Southern Strategy 04/22/2010.


There I discussed the findings of Nicholas Valentino and David Sears in their study of white racism in Southern voting patterns, "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South" American Journal of Political Science 49:3 (July 2005). This was a careful study which distinguished between "Jim Crow racism", which would be open support for segregationist laws, and "symbolic racism". They define the latter in a comment about the evolution of the academic discussion of the concept (I'm omitting the cited references in this quote):

In recent years ... it has consistently been conceptualized and measured in terms of four themes: the denial of discrimination [against blacks], criticism of blacks' work ethic, and resentment of blacks' demands and [resentment of blacks' supposed more favorable] treatment by the broader society, which together form a logically, psychologically, and statistically coherent belief system. Its origins were said to be obscure, but now have been shown to lie, at least partially, in the theorized mixture of antiblack affect and individualism. Its distinctiveness from Jim Crow racism was questioned, but whites' support for the latter has been sharply diminished while support for symbolic racism remains quite widespread, and the political effects of symbolic racism dwarf those of Jim Crow racism.
Valentino Sears show that "racial conservatism", aka, white racism, was a decisive factor in shifting white votes from the Democrats to the Republicans in elections as a result of the Republicans' anti-black Southern Strategy. That partisan shift in voting patterns was the focus of their study. It found that white racism was significant in Southern shifts of Party in a way that was not the case in other parts of the country. It did not try to measure race as an overall factor in voting.

I'm citing that because it's an excellent example of a reality-based, systematic study on the issue which makes clear that it is possible to isolate the effects of white racism/racial conservatism on voting patterns and also that it is a difficult task to do it right.

Which brings us to Brownstein's article. It's easy to state a case like this from his second paragraph:

Fully 60 percent of whites nationwide backed Republican candidates for the House of Representatives; only 37 percent supported Democrats, according to the National Election Poll exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Not even in Republicans’ 1994 congressional landslide did they win that high a percentage of the white vote.
It's much harder to say what that means in terms of voter motivations. And it's even more difficult to say what meaningful strategies to change those patterns might be. Of course, the Democrats don't have a decade to analyze such studies before they draw some conclusions for political strategy. But warning bells go off for me when a pundit like Brownstein in good graces with the Beltway Village bases a voting analysis on raw breakdowns of racial voting patterns. With an opening like that, Brownstein defines the problem as one of race.

For Democrats the real question is, what are the issues that move their base and the reachable swing voters in 2012 and beyond?

Because, as Digby indicates in her post, the more likely conclusion that our more timid Democratic leaders are likely to draw from an analysis like Brownstein's is that they should work harder to pander to conservative white people. But last year's election results with Harry Reid in Nevada and Jerry Brown in California suggest that a straightforward defense of minority rights on the current racial-hot-button issue of immigration can deliver a big win. The fact that X percent of whites voted such-and-such a way doesn't in itself tell us anything about what issues are most important in moving persuadable swing voters. Nor does it get to the "enthusiasm gap" and base turnout.

This isn't encouraging, from Brownstein's article:

David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, said in an interview that "it would be a mistake to take exit polls from a midterm election and extrapolate too far" toward 2012. Conditions—and the composition of the electorate—will change a great deal by then, he said. But he acknowledged that Obama must "reset" the public perception about his view of government’s role. Axelrod, who plans to return to Chicago next month to help direct the president’s reelection campaign, also made it clear that he sees as a "particularly instructive" model for 2012 the case of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, who won his contest last fall by mobilizing enough minorities, young people, and socially liberal, well-educated white women to overcome a sharp turn toward the GOP among most of the other white voters in his state. [my emphasis]
It's depressing that the point man on Obama's 2012 campaign is saying that Obama needs to reset the public's perception of about Obama's "view of government's role". Not that Obama needs to make the case for the Democratic view of government's role", but that Obama should package himself to agree more with the Republicans' view of the government's role. At least that what it sounds like to me.

None of this Jerry Brown talk about wagon trains and Josiah Royce's philosophy of community solidarity. No George Lakoff strategy about changing the framing. No paradigm resets or "transformative" politics for Axelrod and Obama.

But if that's the conclusion you're operating on anyway, as Obama and his team apparently are, it doesn't matter what data you get or how it's packaged, whether it's Brownstein's way or some other. We're let with the same dead-end strategy for the Democrats, which is to act more like Republicans.

Without sorting through the raw results of the Edison Research polling data on which Brownstein relies, I'll just make these observations:

  • It's worse than sloppy not to make it clear whether the Edison Research data on political attitudes of whites and blacks was a survey of actual voters; the way he describes it, that's the only reasonable conclusion, but it isn't entirely clear. And it makes a big difference how you read the results whether we're talking about people who voted in 2010 versus the general public.
  • Brownstein offers no comparison of comparative turnout to 2008 until many paragraphs into the article. The off-year electorate is normally older, whiter, more affluent and more conservative. When he gets around to mentioning it, he says the Edison results showed that "among minorities and young people", "both groups fell off even more than usual in 2010, producing an older and whiter electorate that compounded the GOP’s advantage." This actually suggests a different framing of the results, which is to ask why more than the average amount of the Democratic base stayed home, thus making it proportionately an even "older and whiter electorate" than in most mid-term elections.
  • Citing national trends of Latino voters doesn't mean much unless the Florida votes in particular are analyzed separately; the Cuban-American voting trend there has a very different political history than Latino voting in Arizona, California or Nevada. Nevada Latinos voted very heavily for Reid, as California Latinos did for Brown.
  • Saying that Republicans had their "best congressional result among white voters in the history of modern polling" (he means 30 years or so) is meaningless unless it's put in terms of the changing percentage of whites to all voters and unless the South is analyzed separately. He does some of that regional analysis late in the article, but doesn't seem to recognize that it mitigates some of his generalizations about race.
  • The approval/disapproval figures on Obama's Presidency seem skewed toward the disapproval side compared to other recent polling.
  • The analysis of people's view of the health care law doesn't deal with what aspects of the law people approved or disapproved; it also implicitly assumes that the split described is primarily based or race and not only some other factor like income, party affiliation and amount of time spent watching FOX News, all of which are very relevant factors.
  • Brownstein leaves the most interesting single poll finding he cites with no real analysis: "Minorities were almost exactly twice as likely as whites to say that life would be better for the next generation than for their own; whites were considerably more likely to say that it would be more difficult." Especially if the Edison results were of 2010 voters only, this suggests a very different perception among the older and more affluent that is related to wealth and class.
Finally, I would note in something that doesn't apply just to Brownstein's article, I wonder how good a representation of "working class" or "blue collar" votes it is to use "non-college-educated" as a stand-in.

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