Timing Is Everything

Sometimes clichés become old clichés because they have enduring value.  Here’s one that puts the consequences of the 2010 election in perspective: “Timing is everything.”  That is because the Democrats didn’t just lose hundreds of important elections here in Ohio and across the nation, they lost the future as well.

Of course some may argue that I’m being far too pessimistic.  After all, we have elections every two years, and candidates always say that the next election is the most important one that’s ever been held.  Often such rhetoric is pure hyperbole.  But the truth is that there are elections and then there are ELECTIONS—like the one in 2010.

2010 was one of those elections because people around the country not only voted for candidates, they also decided who would control the process of drawing new state legislative and Congressional district lines based on the results of the just-concluded Census. And, as any student of American history will acknowledge, the party that draws the lines—that “holds the pencil” to use the vernacular–employing a combination of gerrymandering, state-of-the-art technology, and the exercise of raw political power almost always dominates public policy formation for the next decade, if not longer.

In case you haven’t noticed, the GOP won the pencil and the nearly limitless power that goes with it.

Was it just bad and/or dumb luck that caused the Democrats to catch a serious beating at the polls in this critical election?   Was it the brilliance of the GOP’s platform and marvelous campaigning that convinced working and middle-class Americans to once again vote against their own self-interest after two straight cycles in they seemed to have finally read and understood Thomas Franks’s seminal work, What’s the Matter With Kansas?

Of course not.

Fact is, Democrats lost because Democrats—and particularly the Obama administration–blew it.  Bad policies, worse messaging, and disastrous strategic planning and execution enabled the GOP, pronounced dead in the wake of the Democratic deluge of 2008, to convince voters that liberalism had failed—even though the Obama administration’s policies were abhorred as much if not more by the left than the right.

It didn’t matter that Obama was not a liberal, however, because Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and other conservative talking heads along with the GOP House and Senate caucuses and the business community, managed to convince the electorate that he was.  As a result, working- and middle-class voters in Ohio and other states with high jobless rates blamed liberalism for their troubles.  On November 2 they voted in droves for Republicans who displayed their gratitude by launching an all-out attack against them on November 3.

In some years the GOP might have feared so quickly turning it guns on the constituency that resurrected them, Lazarus-like, from the political hereafter. After all, screw up the way the Dems had, and the folks who put you in could just as easily toss you out a short 24 months later.  Yet, despite the threat of swift retribution at the polls, the GOP charged on boldly, fearlessly, and in the case of new House Speaker John Boehner, often tearfully, promising to do things, including revising Social Security, that would inevitably enrage the working and middles classes.

That’s where the old cliché “Timing is everything” comes in.  The GOP rushed ahead because they had just won elections in state after state that would enable them to institutionalize their hold on power and make themselves practically impervious to the changing mood of the electorate.  They knew they could safely blast away because they held the pencil and with it the power to draw legislative and Congressional districts they could never lose—no matter how irate the voters might become in the years ahead.  They recognized that all things being equal, they wouldn’t, they couldn’t really be held accountable in most states until sometime in 2022, which gave them plenty of time to do what they damn well pleased.

While the CWCS is researching and will release in the spring an extensive study on the effect the 2010 election will have on reapportionment and redistricting and the policy making process  across the nation, Ohio serves as a prime example of what everyone else can expect. On November 2 the Democrats lost all statewide offices —  they had held three of four going into the election — and with them control of the Apportionment Board.  Governor-elect John Kasich—again, why wait until you’re actually in office when you know you’ve got the state by the throat—warned everyone to get on his bus or be run over by it.

Not surprisingly, everyone Mr. Kasich really cared about was already on his bus—it’s a limo really. After all, the guy was a director at Lehman Brothers.  The people who have to worry about being run over are public employees including police officers, firefighters, and teachers, poor families who depend on Medicaid for health care, building trades unions and their members, seniors, local governments and libraries that depend on a variety of revenue sharing dollars from the state, and just about anyone else who looks to government for help.

Look closer and you’ll see that there’s a little more method than just an aversion to government in the new governor’s madness.  He and the rest of the Republicans know that while holding the power to draw the lines is great, being able to defund the Democratic Party by essentially gutting one of its primary funding sources, public sector unions, is absolutely marvelous.  Go after the public sector by privatizing everything in sight and the next thing you know the Dems won’t have the money they need to run even moderately credible campaigns in the few legislative and Congressional districts that may be created in when they draw the lines.

Now there’s a recipe for cooking up a permanent majority both in Columbus and in Washington that’s hard to beat.

And that’s why timing is everything.

Leo Jennings

Jennings is a political consultant who has worked with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters

Empathetic Indifference: Why the Democrats Lost

In 2008 white working-class voters in Wisconsin and Iowa gave Barack Obama 52% of their vote – and that was pretty important because in both states, working-class whites were a majority of all voters.   In 2010 they were even larger majorities, but they gave Democratic candidates  only 40% of their votes in Wisconsin and 32% in Iowa.

Though especially striking, these huge swings are pretty typical of Midwestern states – where, except for Illinois, whites without bachelor’s degrees (the reigning definition of the electoral “working class”) constitute a majority of all voters.  In the Great Lakes states over the past two decades, there has been a slow but substantial drift of white voters, including working-class whites, toward the Democratic Party.  That drift halted (or at least paused) big time this year.  Why?

First, as Democracy Corps has documented (see “Graphs,” p.7), nearly every demographic group swung against Democrats in 2010, including declines of 3 and 4 percentage points among the core of the Party – African-Americans, Latinos, and union households.  The swing was just larger, more dramatic, and potentially more damaging among working-class whites in the industrial Midwest.  Given the ubiquity of the swing, any explanation needs to focus on large overarching causes that affect the entire electorate but have special force in the Midwest where the working class of all colors is such a large majority.

The consensus causal explanation among analysts and pundits on this score is, of course, the state of the economy.   But there are several variations of this explanation with important differences.

One variation is arithmetical mechanics:  an official unemployment rate of nearly 10% automatically leads to whoever is in charge being thrown out by voters, regardless of what they have or have not done.   With the inauguration of President Obama, the Democrats were clearly in charge in January 2009.  The official unemployment rate then was “only” 7.7%, and it steadily rose to 10% by the end of the year, where after a very slight improvement it has remained.   That economic number and its trajectory are highly predictive of electoral outcomes.  Period – end of story.

There is wisdom in the simplicity of this mechanistic explanation, and it should not be forgotten.    I am among those who think that Democratic economic policies in 2009 averted a much worse economic situation than would have occurred had the Republicans been in charge – or if there had been complete, instead of partial, gridlock.  That’s why I voted for Democrats, but I can understand why the “wisdom of crowds” might see voting as a kind of thumbs up – thumbs down affair, and not a comparison.  Indeed, as I voted for Democrats (a few of whom, like my Representative Danny Davis, are actually very good),  it felt like I was saying “everything is okay.”

Another variation of the it’s-the-economy explanation holds that the Obama administration was simply ineffective in explaining its various economic policies.  Endless punditry about “messaging” and “narratives” ranges from the mildly insightful to the disgustingly superficial and manipulative, but there is undoubtedly truth to the general proposition.  In particular, the President bragging on his accomplishments (which, as Rolling Stone has comprehensively summarized, are many) as life got palpably worse for workers and homeowners, not to mention the poor and unemployed, was certainly counterproductive when it was not outright maddening.

The third it’s-the-economy analysis points to the actual Obama macroeconomic policy, the “stimulus plan”: it was not big enough and too much money was spent on the wrong things to get the economy growing vigorously enough to bring down unemployment.  This is tricky territory, and I’m not competent to make the kinds of combined economic and political judgments that politicians have to make.  But if the mechanistic relationship between unemployment rates and electoral outcomes is as important as decades of statistics indicate, then a President and his party have to actually move the numbers – or at least try.

They did try in 2009.  Indeed, the Obama mistake was not in the original stimulus plan, which we now know averted a Great Recession but was not sufficient to move the economy forward.  Rather, the key mistake was later, in the President’s first full budget at the beginning of this year. After promising “to focus like a laser” on jobs and the economy when health care reform was passed, the President presented a budget that accepted 9% or 10% unemployment as the best he could do.  Eschewing a second stimulus plan, he rejected an economically robust and politically shrewd stimulus plan that was developed for him by the labor movement and its allies.

That plan would have invested $400 billion of borrowed money in job-creating activities, paid for over time by a permanent Financial Transactions Tax designed to reduce the kinds of speculative activity on Wall Street that helped drive our economy into the ground.  After the $400 billion stimulus was paid for, that tax on Wall Street would have produced more than $100 billion a year in government revenues, which could have been used to reduce the national debt.

It was not too late then to make a significant dent in unemployment, and it is not too late now.  The President could pursue a similar plan outlined by some of his most important allies.  Even the Federal Reserve Board is now pleading for a large deficit-financed job creation program in the short term that will reduce government deficits and debt in the long term, in part by growing the economy faster and stronger.

It’s true that Republicans will form a phalanx of opposition to any such plan, and even with a full-throated, whole-hearted effort by the President and his party, the chances of passage are well south of 50/50.  But the alternative for Democrats is to do what they did this year: to do next to nothing about unemployment and to be seen again as doing nothing as the jobless rate edges down to a projected 9.2% by the end of next year and not much below that in 2012.

The white working class, in the Midwest and elsewhere, swung decisively against Democrats in 2010 for pretty much the same reasons as almost everybody else did:  As they went to vote, there were not enough jobs for one of ten people who want to work and need to work, and the governing politicians in charge, all Democrats, didn’t seem to give a shit.  It’s not just the fact of such outrageously high and painful rates of unemployment.  It’s the passive acceptance of them, the serene, if empathetic, indifference.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies




The Democrats and Social Classes

It’s more than a little frustrating trying to follow Democrats’ analysis of social classes in this country.  Most of the time now, there are only two classes – the rich (very precisely defined as those with at least $250,000 in annual family income) and the middle class, which includes everybody else.  But in the analysis of elections a “working class” shows up, one which is invariably “white” and, it seems, predominantly male.

Most Democrats, and especially the more progressive ones, know that moving the white working class away from its decades-long lopsided loyalty to the Republican Party is crucial to achieving a long-term governing majority.  But instead of appealing to this demographic electoral block directly, it seeks to lump them in with what Dems think is a universally beloved “middle class.”  This is a tactical mistake, as in many working-class precincts calling somebody “middle class” is meant as a put down and an insult – somebody who doesn’t live “real life,” lacks common sense, and yet thinks they’re “all better.”  Believe me, I’ve been on the front end of this insult, sometimes deservedly so.

Of all the ways of defining class in America the one that gets the least attention is how people self-identify – that is, what class people see themselves as being in.  In exit polls, for example, you get a choice of “White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Other” in defining your race.  There is no such question for class.  Rather, pollsters ask questions about education and income, and then analysts assign people to various classes based on the analysts’ own definitions.  As is often pointed out on this site, the one national survey that consistently asks people to identify themselves by class has for decades found about 46% self-identify as “working class” and another 46% as “middle class.”  Nobody has any idea how voters who see themselves as working class have actually voted — ever.

Over the last decade, through what has often been a rich debate among political scientists, journalists, political operatives, and statisticians, the presence or absence of a bachelor’s degree has come to be used as a marker identifying voters as either “working class” or “middle class.”  Because having a bachelor’s degree correlates pretty strongly with having a professional or managerial job and because these jobs correlate with higher incomes, this is a serviceable marker for “middle class.”  Likewise, because the two-thirds of jobs that are not professional or managerial usually do not require bachelor’s degrees and have lower average incomes, the absence of a bachelor’s degree is a good-enough way of locating the “working class” among voters.  Until exit-pollsters provide voters with a range of choices on class, as they do now for race, this education marker is the best we can do in measuring how social class affects voting.

Problem is that in the last two elections, these two broad classes voted almost exactly the same way.  In 2008 both “college graduates” and “no college degree” voters voted for Barack Obama by a margin of about 53% to 46%, whereas both groups in 2010 voted 52% to 46% for Congressional Republicans.  So, there was a big swing in the last two years, but both the working class and the middle class swung exactly the same way and to the same degree. Thus, class by itself seems not to affect how people vote.

If, however, you measure class along with race, then class matters a bit more.  Neither class of whites gave Obama a majority in 2008, but middle-class whites gave him 47% of their vote, while working-class whites gave him only 40% of theirs.  Meanwhile, among non-white voters (lumping together all “Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Other” voters), there was a similar degree of difference by class but in the opposite direction – working-class non-whites gave Obama a larger majority (83%) than middle-class non-whites (75%).  A similar race-class pattern occurred in the 2010 Congressional elections, with working-class whites giving Republicans 62% while middle-class whites gave them 57%, whereas working-class non-whites were more decisively Dem at 77% than middle-class non-whites at 71%.

Two conclusions emerge from this breakdown:

One is that race matters way more than class.  In fact, very few large groups of whites have voted majority Democratic at the national level for decades.  Using only the exit polls, which do not cover all possible groupings, the only whites who gave Obama a national majority in 2008 were Jews (83%), whites with “no religion” (71%) or “other religion” (67%), and 18-to-29-year-olds (54%) – though it is important to add that Obama won white majorities in 19 states and in the Northeast as a whole.

The other conclusion is that the single largest race-class grouping, the base of the base of the Republican Party in America, is working-class whites.  Even though declining as a proportion of the electorate (as non-whites increase faster in the population and as more whites get bachelor’s degrees and are, therefore, no longer considered “working class”), working-class whites are still almost two of every five voters, and until 2010 they had been voting in the neighborhood of 60/40 for the GOP in national elections.

In parts of the country outside the South, however, the white working-class, like whites in general, has been drifting toward the Democrats over the past few decades, culminating in the 2008 election when, for example, Obama won majorities of white workers in 14 states and got into the high 40s in four others.  That drift was reversed big time in the 2010 Congressionals.  According to the guru on these matters, Ruy Teixeira: “The most significant shift against the Democrats [in 2010] occurred among the white working class.  Congressional Democrats lost this group by 10 points in both 2006 and 2008.  Yet that deficit ballooned to 29 points in 2010.”

That’s a huge move toward Republicans who were against saving the American auto industry and who voted against infrastructure investments and jobs, (very) partial bailouts of state governments, extensions of unemployment insurance, and health care reform and tax policies that benefit working-class whites more than any other race-class grouping (in absolute numbers though not proportionately).  And this massive swing occurred nowhere more strongly than in the Great Lakes states, including strong union states Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

What accounts for this swing of previously Democratic white working-class voters in 2010 will be the subject of my next blog.  Until then, I can do no better than recommend  that all Democrats look at a conservative Republican’s class analysis of “Midwest at Dusk.”
Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies