Sunday, January 8, 2012

Could the Republicans be Out of Touch, and Still Win?

A consistent majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana:

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Both a Pew study and a recent Gallup poll back this up. In fact, if you remove people 65 and older from the polling, we find a young-to-middle-aged America firmly in support of legalization. Who, besides the elderly, are opposed? Republicans, 67%-30% against legalization.

In the same Pew poll, we find that Americans are about evenly split in their views toward gay marriage, an upswing of about 19% since 1996. Democrats and independents favor gay marriage, as do people in the Northeast and the West. Who opposes gay marriage? Republicans (77% opposed) and the Midwest (60% opposed) and South (70% opposed).

Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans support abortion rights, with 65% of Democrats and 58% of independents favoring its legality. Once again, we find only 34% of Republicans in favor of abortion rights. Even Catholics favored it (52%) while white, evangelical Christians tracked Republican support at 34%. There was no breakdown by region in the report.

To complete this examination, let's include the statistics on gun ownership versus gun control. Here the nation is about equally divided, with 48% advocating gun ownership as more important, compared to 47% who believe gun control is more important. Again, party affiliation shows stark differences. Republicans favor gun ownership by 66% as do independents by 54%. Democrats favor gun control by 65%.

So, while America is evenly split on the gun ownership debate, this is the only issue where independents side with the Republicans on what are considered the major social issues of the day. The biggest takeaway from this? On social issues, America is a left-of-center nation.

Let's take a look at another supposedly contentious issue, taxation. Recently, Gallup tells us:

The same polls shows Americans favoring Obama's jobs bill by substantial margins:

A Dec. 20 Pew survey on American views on taxation show a major shift toward feelings of taxation inequality, with a good majority feeling the wealthy don't pay their fair share:

Here again, a majority of Americans support the Democrats' views on taxation, especially on the issue of taxing the rich. Americans, Democrats, and independents want them to pay more, while Republican don't agree.

Interesting aside: How does income and wealth affect voting patterns?

Under $15,000 (7%)
$15-30,000 (12%)
$30-50,000 (21%)
$50-75,000 (22%)
$75-100,000 (16%)
$100-150,000 (13%)
$150-200,000 (5%)
$200,000 or More (5%)

(h/t CNN)

It's no surprise, then, why Republicans don't favor tax increases on the wealthy: They are the wealthy, but they are also the middle class. I chalk this up to expectations. If middle-class Republicans tend to believe in the American Dream, say, more than middle-class Democrats, then they would see themselves as likely in the future to be in that income class that would get hurt by tax increases. This is what we call counterfactual, but it is what it is and decides a lot of voting questions.

So, back to the main question: If the Republicans are out of touch with the general beliefs and core values of most Americans, how can they seriously like their chances of prevailing, either in Congress or the presidency, in 2012?

It's because of what I call the Josh Lyman Conundrum, after the fictional political operative in the vaunted political series The West Wing. I was a huge fan of both the show and the Josh Lyman character, and in one episode Josh lamented that most elections were decided by the least qualified voter group: the undecided!

Here, then, I posit that:
  • Independents decide elections because most undecideds fall into their group. Those who can't pick a political party would have the least capability of choosing a candidate to vote for.
  • These undecided independents don't vote their core beliefs as much as they vote their dissatisfaction. It's why there can be these swings like 2010, for instance. For reasons that worked against their own self-interests, independents -- even the elderly, who were suckered by the Republican Medicare Mediscare tactic -- swung wildly against Obama. Why would they swing back in 2012? Because the independent undecided might likely vote against their representative or senator because they're dissatisfied, not because they know who stands for their actual values.
  • The undecided, whether independent or not, are more prone to swallowing media narratives, like Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee because, ah -- awwwhh, cute cat! These voters are the ones that are likely to swallow the death panels meme or actually listen to Rush Limbaugh and actually believe him when he says that Obama wants to bring America to its knees because Obama is still pissed at slavery or something (even though Obama isn't a descendent of slaves).
There, I've said it: Elections are decided by the most undecided, least informed, and most impressionable among our voters. This is a democracy, and a democracy has flaws. But this flaw is actually fed more by the information machine that surrounds it than any actual weakness in the democratic system. Fight this (mis)information machine, not the voters held captive by it.

Update: I'd forgotten this article by Chris Hayes (of The Nation and MSNBC) I'd read some time ago and which influenced my thinking. Read it. Here's a key takeaway from it:
Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. (This cuts both ways: I met a large number of Bush/Feingold voters whose politics were more in line with the Republican president, but who admired the backbone and gutsiness of their Democratic senator.) But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues--a familiarity that may not exist.
As far as I can tell, this leaves Democrats with two options: either abandon "issues" as the lynchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary--of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues. The former strategy could help the Democrats stop the bleeding in time for 2008. But the latter strategy might be necessary for the Democrats to become a majority party again.
Hayes' point is short-term depressing and long-term hopeful. I wish I was more patient. I just might have to learn to be.

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