Democratic teflon, the story I’m sticking to

12 Nov

Some personal friends, pundits, and academic types alike are arguing that Democratic success is as tenuous and temporary as it always has been, that this election and future ones are surely to be similar to the past in terms of outcomes and causes.  They say, elections haven’t changed all that much.  After strong partisans make their choices, the election still turns on economic conditions fundamentally, with an occasional national security crisis confounding things.  All this talk of polarization, demographic shifting, cultural change, producing an insurmountable advantage for the Democrats both this election cycle and the ones to come is exaggerated.  I’m not buying it.  I’ve argued (and I’m not the only political scientist saying so) that that the Democrats are benefiting from a 20-30 year partisan and cultural polarization process that they have won, producing for them an emerging electoral “firewall” of sorts against Republicans (at least as we now know Republicans).  The firewall is made up of unmarried folk (a majority for the first time), women, non-whites, means-tested government welfare recipients, less or non religious, and ideological liberals (including extremely wealth whites).  These groups are simply growing in number while the coalition groups for the GOP are diminishing in number.  This enabled Obama to win despite a horrible economy (however much or little it may have improved the previous 6 months or so) and a war gone bad (both have been highly significant, but conventional factors, in harming presidential incumbency chances).  In fact, the President won reelection with 40% of the white vote, a share of the electorate no Democratic presidential candidate will need to win in the future, given current voting and demographic patterns.

But others, as I say, are not convinced.  They don’t think this election marks anything particularly different or special and certainly doesn’t forecast anything major to come like a realignment or partial realignment.  Rather, their narrative is that the economy improved somewhat in the months prior to election day and those economic fundamentals carried the election for Obama (don’t change horses in midstream, so to speak).  Even if that were the case (it certainly didn’t hurt), this conventional wisdom But the the problem with this narrative is it proves too much.  If the economic fundamentals still matter more than anything else, then why did they do little to seriously impact the president’s job approval rating throughout his term in office?  The president’s job approval never dipped lower than 42.3% (RCP Mean) and nearly the entire time stayed in the upper 40’s, sometimes in the lower 50’s, no matter what the economy was doing.  Obama actually increased his share of support among youth, women, and minorities in 2012 vs 2008.  I just can’t believe that with 14% real unemployment (percent seeking but not finding employment), this could happen because of a very modest and recent improvement in some sectors of the economy, especially when Obama was 4 years removed from the Bush memory.  No, this was about loyalties, new loyalties  strengthening loyalties, an emerging firewall.  If my hypothesis is correct, we should see Obama’s job approval less sensitive and less erratic than previous presidents (discounting in previous presidents moments of national security crises).  Can’t embed it, but just eyeball job approval ratings for Obama and previous presidents.  Here, you see that Obama’s job approval numbers are indeed less erratic.  There is a constancy here, I’d argue, that is bolstered by firewalls on either side that persist and are less sensitive to the economic fundamentals than previous presidents.  A good case-in-point of this was the recession under George H.W. Bush, which turned his approval from 85% to just over 30% in a year and a half.  Now, all of the economic downturn occurred under Bush, Sr whereas the recession occurred in the last year of Bush Jr. and carried over, so one might say this is apples and oranges.  However, the sheer size of the recession is apples and oranges too and also, the steepest worsening of the recession occurred entirely under Obama as well, but yielded nothing like the same dramatic shifts in approval that we saw in previous lesser recessions.



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