Don't Blame the Voters

Newsweek reports that John Kerry met his fate last Tuesday with a howl of incomprehension: "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot." In the days after the election, the same clatter of fury and condescension rang through blog chat boards and pro-Dem websites, and it was directed ultimately not at "this idiot" but by implication at the tens of millions of idiots who voted for him. As the Mirror of London put it, echoing popular European sentiment, "How Can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?"

The tabloid cover bearing that headline has become a smash-hit download in the U.S. as well as the U.K. One Floridian member of an e-mail list I receive added this remark by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling to her mail signature: "We live under the Confederacy. We're a podunk bunch of swaggering pious hicks." So great was the indignation that the empty plaints of a few celebrities who groused about leaving the country in 2000 became a popular badge of outrage last week. It took little imagination to see that the would-be émigrés were not fleeing their government so much as their countrymen, the troglodyte fundamentalist horde that imposed this result on them. Bush Republicans seemed pleased at this: "Americans Flock to Canada's Immigration Web Site," the Drudge Report gloated. And why shouldn't they be pleased? They recognize the growing polarization of the country and they mean to exploit it. No appreciable number of people is really leaving, but if they are made to forswear any attention to or involvement in the whole sordid mess going forward, something similar is accomplished.

For the opponents of Bushism to vent this way, to think this way, is profoundly dangerous. Also wrong, not just as a matter of principle but as a matter of fact. But it is also consistent with a long line of Democratic apologia whose specialty is blaming the victims of the party's own abdications and failures. To put it another way, it isn't possible to discuss what the voters said last week absent some reckoning with what they were never given the chance to say.

But first a little about what the numbers do say. Turnout, in the end, met extravagant predictions: By the time absentee ballots are processed, nearly 120 million votes will have been tallied, reflecting the largest percentage of voter participation since 1960. The Evangelicals have been boasting all week that they carried the election for Bush. They certainly helped--in retrospect, it seems clear that Karl Rove's most consequential move was to ensure that gay marriage became a ballot referendum in so many states, and especially Ohio--but to say they won it is a very large stretch. Oddly enough, the percentage of self-identified Protestants supporting Bush declined by 4 points from 2000 to 2004. According to exit polls, 17.9 percent of voters were white Evangelicals who voted for Bush. But that number is almost exactly offset by the percentage of voters who said they came to the polls to cast a vote against Bush (17.5). So it's hard to make the case that religious conservatives all by themselves gave the race to Bush. The fabled "middle" had something to do with it too.

The website compiled this list of how the president and the Republicans fared with 19 different segments of the population. Bush, you will note, improved his standing in 16 of 19 common demographic categories. I've tagged the ones where Kerry and the Democrats gained share with a bullet for easy reference:


Bush vote % in 2000 / Bush % in 2004
African Americans: 8/11
Whites: 54/58
Hispanic: 41/44
Married: 53/56
Not married: 38/40
Union members: 37/40

  • Gays:

Gun owners: 61/67

  • Protestants:

Jewish: 19/25
Catholics: 45/52
Republicans: 91/93
Democrats: 10/11
Men: 51/55
Women: 43/48

  • 18-29 year olds:

30-44 year olds: 49/53
45-59 year olds: 49/51
60+: 47/54

"Bush's gay base is eroding," said CP's Paul Demko in a sepulchral croak when he got a look at these numbers. And so it is, along with the Republicans' share of the aforementioned Protestants and of 18- to 29-year-olds (though barely, and by less than the margin of Bush's improved share among 30- to 44-year-olds). Otherwise most key demographic markers trended slightly more Republican than in 2000. Of course, there are countless ways to parse a pool of numbers this large, and one of the most felicitous for Democrats is to note that first-time voters broke for Kerry 53-46. The trouble is, this merely restates a premise to which everyone assented going in: The election had shaped up to be a referendum on Bush and would be settled in part by the magnitude of the anti-Bush turnout among people who don't usually vote.  

Over four in ten Kerry voters said their ballot was cast not so much for its recipient as against Bush. What to make of this number? From a tactical standpoint, was the Anybody But Bush vote too great or too paltry a portion of Kerry's total for him to succeed? Applied in retrospect this is a trick question, but perhaps a useful one. Certainly we can say that with respect to the campaign Kerry chose to conduct, it was too low. From springtime until "Kerry the closer" finally reared his head in the October debates, scarcely anything memorable--much less rousing--emanated from the Kerry camp. That was basically the plan: Stand back and let Bush be Bush, then move in to claim the spoils. As for building a sustained case against Bush, well--why? He was far too coarse and obvious to make that necessary, wasn't he? Everyone could see what was going on--the Times and the Post were full of dire stories from Iraq! There is class hauteur in this, but there is also a generation's worth of evidence that something else is in play. The loudest clue is a matter of silence and omission--of all the things Democrats running for president refuse to say even when there is a fairly clear electoral advantage to be had by it. And that gets to this week's most fondled statistic, the values question.

Early in the evening on election night, network anchors noticed that the number one issue to voters was something called "moral values," not jobs and the economy, not terrorism, not Iraq. It remains the most fruitless obsession of pundits in last Tuesday's wake. Dick Meyer, writing at the CBS News website, put the matter into perspective as a bit of poll-craft: "While the nexus of issues boiled into the words 'moral values' certainly were a big factor in this election, it's being exaggerated...partly because the Big Theory conforms with what Republican strategists want you to believe. If the poll had been worded or constructed only slightly differently, moral values would not have been the top issue....

"If, for example, one of the issues on the list was a combined 'terrorism and Iraq,' it would have been the top concern of 34 percent of the electorate and nobody would be talking about moral values. If 'taxes, jobs, and the economy' was on the list as one item instead of two, it would have been the topper at 25 percent. If, say, abortion rights, gay marriage, and moral values were all on the list separately, the numbers would be very different."

But if "values voters" is mostly just a less inflammatory way of saying "Christian conservatives," the phrase still nudges the conversation in the right direction. Last Wednesday morning Vin Weber stood before a gathering of Republican movers at the Center of the American Experiment and told them the Democrats had lost the election over the values question, and not just the cluster of conservative values everyone was talking about. They had lost, essentially, because they didn't have any values: "The Democrats are going to go through a real soul-searching period," he said. "They'll conclude they lost the election because they didn't have a liberal enough candidate." Weber wasn't sneering at the idea, though some of those present were said to laugh. He was serious.

There's a reason Republicans win elections: They see the composition and the exploitable wishes and prejudices of the possible voter pool much more clearly. The Democrats are by no means in agreement on the point, however. While there are calls for a putsch to depose the party's old guard once and for all, the dominant institutional voice in the party remains the Democratic Leadership Council, spawned in the Clinton era and nurtured by him, whose credo is that no Democrat ever stands so tall as when he or she is outflanking a Republican on the right.

Since the election, DLC chair Al From has been exhorting Democrats to redouble their efforts in this regard: to "do a better job with connecting with those people who go to work every day and play by the rules.... Let's get a message and redefine our party in a way that people will want to vote for us, ... [and] a candidate who eliminates the 'culture gap,' eliminates the 'security gap,' is willing to compete all over this country." In the space of a couple of sentences, that is, From pledges to swallow religious-right values--spitting up, most likely, only a categorical reversal of Roe; chipping away at access is fine--military budgets (and actions?) in line with the example of Bush, and indeed to run conservative enough to compete in Southern states, places where Kerry scored as little as 37 percent of the vote this year.  

Back to values. I can already hear the protests that the people have spoken, they are mean buggers on the whole, and Democrats have to face reality. Yes, but which reality? It's true that surveys of the American populace as a whole (rarer than you think; the voting pool is where all the money lies for pollsters) indicate that we are a more conservative lot in our social outlook than the federal government has been for the past 40 years or so. But it is also true that these same studies show the people as a whole to be considerably more liberal on economic issues--the things for which they are willing to tax and spend--than the federal governments of the post-Nixon era, Republican and Democrat alike. There is an enormous opening to talk about economic values.

But I doubt this news will send Al From or any other Democrat back to the drawing board. They already know it, as do Republicans, which is presumably why Vin Weber drew the conclusion he did. Yet the game plan of the DLC is nothing if not unswerving. It involves tinkering on the margins of the voter pool--while making few if any concrete promises, at least to those who are not major donors--and minimizing any substantive differences with Republicans. To say it boils down to hoping that enough voters will feel like a Pepsi on election day to turn the result would be oversimplifying, but not by much. (Ironically, the Democrats are so deaf to popular concern that they neglected two issues in which they could have legitimately claimed a difference attractive to many voters: the privacy rights of Americans, a.k.a. the domestic war on terror, and the future of the court system.)

This us-too gambit has really not worked so well, especially if one is honest and admits that the "Clinton era" would never have been but for two factors beyond the Democrats' control: the unique wild card presented by Ross Perot in 1992, and later the incredible public meanness and arrogance of the Gingrich gang, which took the heat off a White House then on the skids in public approval.

Why? The answer is not hard to grasp, though so far it has remained absolutely unthinkable to a dwindling but still large number of what you might call the party's emotional loyalists, the lifers who agonize every four years about bringing the party back to its roots. The answer is, Follow the money. The primary object of the Democratic Party's efforts is not to win elections, or to secure a future base, or for that matter to secure any base at all. They would like to do all those things, of course, but the first order of business is to build and maintain a party responsive to its cash clients, the donor base, and to work at putting a popular face on the real narrowness of their interests.

As New York Times tax writer and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Cay Johnston said at a Minneapolis luncheon recently, both parties' core policies are dictated by a class of political donors that constitutes about 1/100th of a percent of the U.S. population, Democrats scarcely less than Republicans. The Republicans are already the public face of this group's political interests; the GOP owns the brand, as it were, and to compound the Democrats' troubles, Republicans also do a better job selling it to the working class. The problem of modern electioneering is mainly one of marketing, and the game will continue to tilt Republican until a political party emerges from the wreckage of the DNC, likely as not bearing the name Democrats but somewhat more dedicated to wooing--and earning--voters as compared to dollars. I'm not holding my breath, but don't let me stop you.


Molly Priesmeyer contributed reporting to this story.

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