Exit polling implies we should revise conventional wisdom given the age of polarization

7 Nov

Joseph Knippenberg comments on exit polling results and agrees with me that polarization has dramatically changed what we can expect from presidential elections these days.

From First Things blog:

Here are the exit polls, which I’ve spent some time contemplating.

First, let’s count our blessings. We didn’t have to stay up late, and we likely won’t have a nightmarish recount anywhere. The country can move on knowing who its leaders will be, and (for both sides) any lingering ambiguity about the division we face has been dispelled.

My first thought based on the results and the exit polls is that the conventional political science wisdom–that when incumbents run for reelection, the election is a referendum on them, in which people basically vote their pocketbooks–seems to have been wrong this time. It was the foundation of the Romney campaign, which reduced Obama’s margins almost everywhere, but not enough to produce a victory. Perhaps the economy wasn’t quite bad enough, but I’m not satisfied with that excuse.

Obama’s electoral strategy was based upon what one would have thought were political luxury goods (the kinds with which people are likely to dispense in bad times)–ideology and identity. He puts together the roughly 40 percent of the white electorate who are self-conscious or functional liberals with various identity politics appeals to African-Americans and Hispanics and gets a majority of the vote. The former can be said to be immune to pocketbook appeals either because they are reasonably well-off or because they can explain their situation as the fault of either George W. Bush (as do a majority of the exit poll respondents) or the obstructionist Republicans. I don’t have to agree or disagree with their analysis to note that the Romney mantra that times are tough and everyone is hurting didn’t stand much of a chance of changing their minds.

I should also note that the identity politics appeals to non-whites aren’t merely symbolic. There are government programs and benefits attached to at least some of the appeals, which helps them stand up to any economic stresses.

Connected with this “identity politics” analysis is another consideration. Romney did very well with white voters (59-39) and even with white women (56-42) and white young people (51-44). But whites comprised only 72 percent of the exit poll respondents (down from 74 percent in 2008). That number will continue to decline, so simply doing very well with white voters probably won’t ever again lead to the White House. Republicans can’t simply cede the growing proportion of non-white voters to the Democrats (the growth this time was among Hispanics and Asians). In this connection, it seems to me they have two choices. They can either hope things get so bad that people come to their senses–they hurt so much that they realize that a president who feels their pain (Obama wins that category 81-18) doesn’t mean much and government lacks the resources to help them. Or they can work on the symbolism to procure a hearing for their arguments.

I wouldn’t wish the first strategy on anyone, so I’m left with the second. Let me be clear: While a Draconian immigration policy might slow or even reverse these demographic tendencies, it is politically a non-starter. So Republicans have to work hard to get past the impression that they’re anti-immigrant and/or racist. The press won’t help them there, so they have to recruit candidates and craft policies that can help open the minds of this growing percentage of the electorate. There are a lot of Hispanics, for example, who are entrepreneurial and socially conservative. They’d seem to be natural Republicans. What would it take to win their votes?

Since this is a blog on religion and public life, I should say something about the religious vote. Romney won Protestants and narrowly lost the Catholic vote (taken together, these two groups comprise 78 percent of the responents). If you refine those categories, he did even better, winning white Protestants 69-30 and white Catholics 59-40 (taken together, 58 percent). Romney won weekly attenders (42 percent of the electorate) by 59-39 and white evangelicals (26 percent of the respondents, same as 2008) 78-21. In every instance I’ve noted, Romney outperformed McCain. But, again, this is a diminishing portion of the electorate. The Catholic/Protestant share of the vote is down 3 percent from 2008; weekly attenders are holding their own, but the “never attend” proportion is ticking upward.

Romney also won the married vote (56-42), outperforming McCain (52-47), but the married vote declined by six points from 66 percent to 60 percent of the respondents. Obama won the unmarrieds 62-35, down slightly from 65-33 in 2008. This is a demographic trend–one that I hope isn’t irreversible–that will likely continue to help efforts to expand government.

Lastly (for now, at any rate), the exit poll respondents were pro-abortion (59-36) and pro-same sex marriage (49-46). Unsurprisingly, those on one side of the issue favored Obama and those on the other side favored Romney. I doubt that either was a high-salience issue for many, but Obama’s stances on both were part and parcel of his ideology/identity campaign. To be sure, since exit polls weren’t conducted in all states (and so a number of safely red states were excluded), it may be that these numbers overstate support for abortion and same-sex marriage in the electorate as as whole. Nevertheless, because the states that were polled are likely to remain battlegrounds for the foreseeable future, these are the numbers that those of us who oppose abortion and favor traditional marriage will have to confront, at least to the degree that abortion and same-sex marriage remain national issues. As long as the sort of coalition the Obama campaign assembled either persists or flourishes, our opponents have everything to gain and nothing to lose by stoking the fires of the culture wars.

The exit polls also tell us much about the candidates and the campaigns, but I’ll save that for another post later in the day. (Sneak preview: if the polls are to be believed, Obama’s response to Sandy swamped Romney’s debate performance as a factor in people’s voting decisions. There’s more to this and to some other considerations, but, as I said, later).


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