It takes an attitude adjustment

Back in December, a friend and I were talking about the midterm elections, and noted how unhappy many of our Democratic friends were with Obama. I said that while I was as depressed as anyone, I didn’t blame Obama. In fact, I said, he’s doing an incredible job under very difficult circumstances. Imagine what we’d be saying if John McCain had won in 2008!

I think that was why she invited me to speak at her Democratic women’s group’s February meeting.

As I prepared for the talk, which I gave a few weeks ago, I was reminded that it wasn’t just our friends who were unhappy with Obama. A McClatchy-Marist poll taken December 2 – 8 put his approval rating at 42%, the lowest of his presidency.

But here’s what struck me: The biggest reason for Obama’s fall was a sharp decline among Democrats and liberals, apparently unhappy with his moves toward the center since the midterm elections.

That’s why I chose “What WE must do to win in 2012” as the title of my talk. If we Democrats don’t adjust our attitude and recognize that a move toward the center is absolutely essential, there’s no doubt about it. We WON’T win.

Election 2008

I began with a review of the circumstances of Election 2008. Going in to the election, President Bush had one of the worst approval ratings in the history of the U.S. (34%). It had been below 50% since his reelection in 2004. For the first time since 1952, neither the incumbent president nor incumbent vice president was running. Age was a factor: the 25-year disparity between the two parties’ candidates was the largest in history (Obama was 47, was McCain 72). Race was also a factor: Obama was the first African-American ever to have been nominated by a major political party. And of course, there was the economy.

By the fall of 2008, the economy was suffering its most serious downfall since the Great Depression. John McCain seemed strangely out of touch. He couldn’t answer a reporter’s question about how many houses he owned (8/20/08), and on the day of the Lehman bankruptcy (9/15/08), he said, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.” He suspended his campaign to go to Washington to help craft a bank bailout, then sat at the televised meeting and said nothing at all, while Barack Obama asked pointed, intelligent questions and appeared calm and presidential (9/24/08).

The New York Times called the election results a “rejection of the Bush Legacy,” while the Wall Street Journal cited “turmoil in the economy” as cause for the election of the first African-American president amid record turnout.

That record turnout – 131.3 million voters – was an important factor in Obama’s win. But the percentage of eligible voters who voted – 63% – fell short of the record set in 1960 – 67%. Analysis showed that disappointment over McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, combined with a perception that the ticket would lose, prompted many would-be Republican voters to stay home on Election Day.

Diversity of the electorate was another important factor. Turnout among eligible voters increased from 2004 to 2008 for African-Americans (+5%), Hispanics (+3%) and Asians (+2%) but decreased for whites (-1%). 20% of African-American registered voters and 8% of White registered voters said race was the single most important factor when voting. Hispanics made up 7% of the vote, up from 6% in 2004, as the number of eligible Latino voters rose 21%, vs. a 5% rise among general population.

Youth turnout (18-29) at 51% was up 2 percentage points from 2004. Contrary to popular opinion, the youth vote was not crucial to Obama’s victory but their get-out-the-vote effort likely drove the large increase in Democratic turnout. Importantly, 66% of voters under age 30 voted Democratic, producing the largest disparity between young voters and all voters (13 percentage points) since exit polling began in 1972. And according to exit polling, a 19-point gap separated youth party affiliation: 45% said they were Democrats; 26% said they were Republicans. In 2000, youth party affiliation was nearly evenly split.

Another key factor was money: presidential candidates spent $1.7 billion, more than double the 2004 level and exceeding $1 billion for the first time ever. Obama both out-raised and out-spent McCain, spending $7.39 per vote to McCain’s $5.78 per vote.

As exciting as the win was for Democrats, however, 2008 was not a “base” election. This was the voter breakdown by party:
  • 39% Democrat … voted 89% for Obama
  • 32% Republican … voted 9% for Obama
  • 29% Independent … voted 52% for Obama
  • 22% Liberal … voted 89% for Obama
  • 34% Conservative … voted 20% for Obama
  • 44% Moderate … voted 60% for Obama
It’s clear that Obama owed his win to the majority of Independent (by registration) and Moderate (by ideology) voters who voted for him.

The 2010 Midterm Elections

In the next part of my talk, I turned to the 2010 midterms, to show how drastically things have changed in the last two years.

As with all midterm elections, 2010 voter turnout was down from 2008. But significantly, most of the no-shows were Liberal, young, Black or Latino. One analyst wrote that “If [just half] of these no-shows had voted, Democratic losses would have been in the normal range and they’d still control the House.”

Whereas as 2008, 18% of the votes came from people 18 – 29, only 11% came from that group in 2010. And the decline disproportionally hurt the Democrats: a smaller percentage of young Obama voters voted in 2010 than young people who had voted for McCain or other candidates. That loss in youth vote was entirely offset by an increase in those 65+, who made up 23% of the votes in 2010, up from 16% in 2008.

Another factor was a big shift by Independent voters. Although Independents’ share of the electorate was unchanged from 2008 (29%), how they voted was very different. In 2008, a majority (52%) of Independents voted Democratic. In 2010, there was a major shift, with only 37% of Independents voting Democratic and the majority (56%) voting Republican.

The ideology of the voters shifted significantly, too. Here’s a comparison of voters’ Liberal-Moderate-Conservative split according to exit polling:

  • 2008 – 22% / 44% / 34%
  • 2010 – 20% / 38% / 42%

Note the ideological shift, with a large number of Moderates in 2008 shifting to the right in 2010, and the share of Liberals declining slightly. In fact, 42% is the highest percentage of self-identified Conservatives in the decade.

The economy, and the Administration’s response to it, had a big effect.  According to exit-polling, 56% of voters said government is doing too much that is better left to businesses and individuals, 40% said reducing the deficit should be the highest priority for the next Congress, and only 37% said spending to create new jobs should be the top priority.

What it will take to win in 2012

Based on the lessons and trends of the last elections, here’s what will be needed to win in 2012:

  • Independent voters’ support, which means shifting toward the center.
  • Re-engaging the young, both so they will vote themselves, and also help get out the vote as they did in 2008.
  • Focusing on African American and Hispanic voters.
  • Raising lots of money.

OK, but what can WE do?

We can help re-energize base, starting with ourselves. Remember, the biggest reason for Obama’s fall to a 42% approval rating in December was a sharp drop in approval among Democrats and Liberals.

We have to start with the facts. Obama accomplished a lot in his first two years in office. These are the talking points and we all need to know them:

Obama dealt masterfully with his inherited challenges: an economy in freefall, a health care system in crisis, and two wars. This was a necessity, not (as I heard one Democrat say) a waste of time.

Democrats made three huge investments in the future with the Recovery Act, which was the largest infrastructure investment since President Eisenhower, the largest education investment since President Johnson, and the largest clean-energy bill ever – rolled in to one law. The Recovery Act saved or created 3.7 million jobs while creating a foundation for future growth.

The Administration also took many other actions to rebuild the economy: Wall Street reform. Middle-class tax cuts. Lower taxes for 95% of working families. Credit card reform. New emissions and fuel efficiency standards for cars. Prevented the failure of America’s auto industry.

Congressional Democrats passed historic health care reform, providing stability and security to those who have insurance and affordable options for those who don’t, and putting an end to the worst insurance industry practices (pre-existing conditions, life-time caps). Expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to another 4 million low-income kids.

The Administration took important steps to improve our national security. Ended combat operations in Iraq and made troops available for a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Reached the most significant arms control agreement with Russia in two decades that will reduce nuclear arsenals and put inspectors on the ground in Russia.

It made major investments in education to prepare us for the future, by funding programs like “Race to the Top” to spur innovation and provide needed funds to schools, reforming student lending to make more available at less taxpayer cost, and funding a new GI Bill to make college more affordable for returning veterans.

It also took important steps to protect civil rights by repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act making it easier for women to challenge unequal pay practices, and signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act giving law enforcement new tools to prosecute those who commit hate crimes.

Yes, the Administration has accomplished a lot at a time when the electorate has moved ideologically against us. Remember:
  • Independents now make up 29% of the electorate – and 56% of them voted Republican in 2010.
  • Conservatives now make up 42% of the electorate – and 84% of them voted Republican in 2010.

I concluded my talk by respectfully suggesting that what WE must do is make an attitude adjustment. We must be realistic: the mood of the country has changed, and so has its ideology. We must be pragmatic: 53% of registered voters believe the top priority for Congress should be deficit reduction. 60% of Independents say so, and 57% of Conservatives say so. Obama has is focused on deficit reduction because that’s what the majority of the people are concerned about.

And finally – we must be proud: the Administration and Congress have accomplished an incredible amount under extraordinary circumstances.

So that was my talk. There were lots of questions and comments, and several weeks later, I’m hearing that people are still talking about it.

A lot has happened in the last two years, and no doubt a lot will happen in the next two years as well.

Hang on to your hat – the Iowa caucuses are less than a year away!

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