Presidential Campaign Decisions and Political Ideology
Both the Obama and McCain campaigns are acutely aware of where this election will be decided, and it is not amongst Liberal voters.
[This post is a fragment of a larger essay on American voter ideological affiliation that is part of an ongoing discussion with the highly esteemed VastLeft, one I’ll roll out after the Convention dust has settled. I’m putting this subsection up now for consideration as we try and digest the VP and Convention decisions of both campaigns in real time.]
There are a lot of different ways to come at this issue, but I am going to restrict myself here to an analysis based on polling data from Gallup. Data from other sources varies somewhat from these, but taken in the aggregate Gallup numbers are pretty much in the middle of the pack and while others, notably Zogby and Rassmussen, have bounced all over the place Gallup’s have been reasonably stable and thus have the appearance, if not the actuality, of being plausibly credible. If nothing else, their stability allows at least a semi-rational discussion.
Historical data going back to early June can be seen at the Gallup link above, but here I will discuss only that from the week of August 18-24.
The most strongly ideological elements of both parties are already fairly settled in their opinions. Both Obama and McCain have 90%+ of their respective Liberal or Conservative voters committed while a small fragment have made contrarian choices and an even smaller subset remain undecided.
For Obama, only 3% of self-identified Liberals (Progressive is not a Gallup identity choice, but I assume that in this constrained selection Progressives would choose Liberal over the others available) are uncommitted, and at no more than 20% of the electorate this Undecided fragment represents 0.6% or less of registered voters. From a strategic standpoint, trying to appeal to such a small number is all but wasted effort and the stands that would need to be taken would risk alienating other, much larger, constituencies. If as a Liberal or Progressive you are anxious because you do not hear Obama speaking directly and unequivocally to you please relax; he isn’t going to do that, not now and likely not ever.
Where Obama can make some headway is with Moderate and Conservative Democrats and Independents.
These are the groups his campaign has looked towards since early June, and their focus group and internal polling results are what produced Joe Biden and the text of Obama’s acceptance speech. (Surely they drove the texts of all of the major convention speakers as well as the choices of the speakers themselves – Wesley Clark probably polled with high negatives. The speech “editing” – none of it demanded but rather suggested – was often discussed here and in the MSM as a sign of authoritarianism but in the eyes of others including myself was seen rather as a sign of competence and coherence, a beneficial change of pace for what has hitherto been an entirely too disorganized Party process.)
With Liberals as committed as they are going to be, Democrats must focus on and convince groups closer to the Middle to select for Democratic policies and promises, and by extension for the promise and persona of Obama himself.
McCain’s campaign sees their opportunity in almost a mirror image:
albeit one with slightly less room for growth than what confronts the Democrats. Self-identified Liberal or Moderate Republicans are few and far between (“Liberal” Republicans are so small and odd a group that pollsters lump them together with “Moderate” Republicans to avoid analysis of the ridiculous.)
Conservative Democrats are from a Republican viewpoint a substantial segment of low-hanging fruit, perhaps 12% of the voting electorate, and inroads have already been made. The Republican Party has, one assumes, been busy with their own focus groups and internal polls along with the strategizing of Karl Rove and the moves by McCain towards increasing military bellicosity, the increased geopolitical tension in Georgia, and selection of A Woman for VP should be considered to be the result of their assessments for a winning combination.
The over-lap between opportunities for both campaigns is with Conservative Democrats and Independents.
Adding what Gallup’s graph does not display, the number of Undecided in each category, makes the point of focus even more evident:
While Undecided Conservative Democrats account for 1% to 1.5% of voters (Undecided @ 11% x 12% approximately of the electorate), the largest group of remaining open-minded voters are the Undecided Independents.
With Independents comprising at least a third of all voters and 40% still Undecided, this group holds a pool representing 13% of all voters and is the key to this election. Their votes are likely to control the outcomes in Swing States, and thus determine the Electoral College totals. So far, the Independent vote has broken equally for McCain and Obama at about 30% each, offering no guidance as to how the remainder may decide.
Everything the campaigns do between now and November 4th will primarily be focused on courting that large block of Undecided Independents and to a somewhat lesser degree the Conservative Democrats, and every move will be most profitably analyzed within that context.
• Does the selection of Joe Biden as VP help or hurt Obama with Independents? (I think it helps; Biden fairly screams “safe” and “experienced”.)
• Did Obama’s speech, which lays out the Democratic Party themes for the remainder of the election more reliably than those of the Party Platform, help or hinder his persuasion of Independents? (I think the economy will be by far the dominant issue and his emphasis on jobs and economic security is what the Malleable Middle wants to hear; he couched everything else, avoiding enmity on any hot-button issues.)
• Does the choice of Governor Palin, a complete unknown, benefit McCain? (I think not; the electorate’s insecurity around his advanced age – shown by multiple polls to be substantial – will not be alleviated by having an untried unknown as a backup, plus her anti-environmentalism, anti-choice, anti-progressive taxation and anti-gun control positions will not IMHO be strong attractants for Undecided Independents. Unless, of course, Independent White Women again decide to vote against their expressed interests, as they did when a majority of them supported George Bush in 2004, even though we can all see now how well that worked out.)
• We will have to wait to see what McCain and the Republicans lay out for their Party pitch, but weakness in addressing the economy plus More and Bigger Wars is not – I think – a winning combination.
So there it is; my analysis of why the Democrats have done what they’ve done. It is very much not the same approach as they have tried before, but these are not the same times and in any event shrill partisanship was not reliably working for them. As Mandos has tried to describe, the way that voters reach electoral decisions has shifted from what once was a newspaper-driven analytical approach to a more modern touchy-feely soft-focus “sense” of “trust” and “affinity”.
The Republicans are approaching this election as they have the last ten, in many ways “fighting the last war” all over again using these same tools of affinity and emotionality but based as before on fear and military bellicosity rather than what the Democrats are banking on, the more positive “Goo-Goo” concepts of “hope” and “change”.
What we will want to watch from an analytical standpoint over the next two months is how each of the campaigns adjusts to shifting poll numbers in their target audiences and to each other’s maneuvering around the Malleable Middle. For a weather-vane indicator, track the Undecided Independents as they move into one camp or another. Who ever wins that latter group will, I believe, win the election.