Maxed-out GOP

A look at party loyalties shows that Kerry has a much better chance than Bush of persuading undecided voters.

Published July 21, 2004 3:43PM (EDT)

There are many reasons for the Democrats to be hopeful heading into Boston next week, but the most important of these may be that the Bush campaign has maximized its potential and trails in the polls. There is a boundary to the limits of any political coalition, and the Bush-Cheney campaign is near the edge of its electoral reach.

The Bush campaign has mobilized its core base of conservative white male Republicans very effectively. Now what? Now is when Karl Rove wishes he were Mary Beth Cahill, John Kerry's campaign manager. From nearly every angle that the Bush strategists peer, the turf they view for expanding their coalition is decidedly less friendly than the landscape enjoyed by Team Kerry.

Let me begin with a notion that is very plausible in today's red-state/blue-state, 50-50 nation: This election will be determined primarily by party loyalty. Even two-thirds of the voters who call themselves independents lean toward one of the major parties, leaving 10 percent or fewer voters who are truly independent of party loyalties.

Over time, voters with differing intensities of partisan loyalty tend to vote with varying levels of consistency in favor of their preferred parties. Examining those patterns of partisan loyalty across a span of elections permits one to estimate the likelihood of a Democratic or Republican vote for any such class of partisan identifiers, including true independents. The academic pedigree of this model lies in the work of prominent political scientist Philip Converse of the University of Michigan during the 1960s; its current major revisions and applications belong to the University of Missouri's John Petrocik. My model shares the basic concept but departs methodologically from its prior calculation.

For the nation as a whole, this model of expected votes, premised on the assumptions above, predicts a virtual tie vote in the 2004 presidential election: 50 percent for the Democratic candidate and 50 percent for the Republican candidate. The model basically relies on partisan benchmarks: It assumes that the partisan predispositions of voters will not be dramatically disrupted by seismic shifts on major policy issues, the nomination of a particularly odious major-party candidate, or catastrophic external events that turn the world topsy-turvy.

How does this model suggest that the Bush-Cheney campaign is running out of welcoming, available votes? It does so by estimating the expected Republican vote from key voter groups and measuring President Bush's performance in the most recent polls among those groups. The difference between the expected Republican vote and Bush's observed vote tells a great deal about how well Bush is doing and what his prospects are.

Consider the breakdown of Bush's support by party identification presented in the most recent Newsweek poll: 90 percent among Republicans, 10 percent among Democrats, and 34 percent among independents. The partisan benchmark model estimates the expected Republican vote as 91 percent among Republicans, 12 percent among Democrats, and 49 percent among independents.

Bush nearly matches expectations among Democrats (at 10 percent, only two points below where he should be) and Republicans (at 90 percent, only one point below expectations). But with only 34 percent support among independents, Bush is running 15 points below the objective for a Republican hoping to capture 50 percent of the national vote. Bush's task is thus to make huge inroads among an amorphous group of voters, most of whom do not align with his party.

The same poll shows Kerry with 83 percent of the Democratic vote, 6 percent of the Republican vote, and 53 percent of the independent vote. These numbers suggest that Kerry is running reasonably well -- two points better than expected among independents, three points worse than expected among Republicans, and five points worse than expected among Democrats. The latter figure should give his campaign pause, however, as Kerry should be doing better among Democrats. And it also highlights the value of a meaningful baseline. While 83 percent sounds pretty good, the baseline value informs us that Kerry is not doing as well as he should be within his own party.

But the baseline measure also provides insight about comparative strategic hurdles. Kerry is running behind expectations among the one group that ought to be, and likely will be, most receptive to him as the campaign unfolds. So Kerry needs to make small gains among friendly voters, while Bush needs to make huge gains among relatively unfriendly voters.

A similar picture appears when the focus shifts to ideological orientations, as in Zogby's latest national poll.

Kerry nearly matches expectations among moderates and is running six points better than expected among liberals and five points worse among conservatives. By contrast, Bush reaches expectations among conservatives, with 76 percent of their votes. His shortcomings rest with moderates (six points below expectations) and liberals (11 points below expectations). A typical Republican should expect to do no better than Bush is doing among conservatives.

The votes Bush needs are to be found among moderates and liberals -- hardly an auspicious prospect for him. It is possible, but unlikely, that Bush will amass enough additional votes from conservatives to make up for this deficit.

This finding is the key to understanding the constraints on Bush's behavior. Every other slice of the electoral pie that may be attainable to Bush is prefaced by "moderate and liberal." As an example, consider the electorate by categories of race. The data below are drawn from the most recent ABC News-Washington Post poll.

At face value, these numbers don't look discouraging for Bush. He is running two points below expectations among white voters, and a Republican candidate ought to be facing friendly turf in appeals to that set of voters. But a consideration of the data for the ideological breakdowns discussed above suggests otherwise. Bush seems to have capped his support among conservative whites. The white voters yet in contention for Kerry and Bush are moderates and liberals.

This point is also reinforced by the stillness of Bush's support among white voters in the past four ABC News-Washington Post polls. Between April and mid-July, Bush's support among white voters did not budge: 52 percent in April, 52 percent in May, 51 percent in June, and 52 percent in July.

Viewed from this perspective, the voters still up for grabs -- white and black alike -- are not going to be persuaded by the conservative agenda of the Bush campaign. Some, of course, will vote for Bush based on nonideological grounds -- because they prefer Bush's package of traits and skills to Kerry's package, for example.

Perhaps the one encouraging sign for Bush is that, in purely statistical terms, the African-American vote has been much more volatile in the four ABC News-Washington Post polls between April and July than has the vote of any other demographic category. In only one of those polls did Kerry reach 80 percent support from African-Americans. Kerry's efforts to shore up this important party base in dramatic fashion, such as his appearance at the NAACP convention last week (which Bush shunned), address this vulnerability. But notwithstanding the potential for weak poll numbers with this key Democratic bloc, the ideological environment in which Kerry and Bush must reach out to expand their coalitions augurs a better outcome for Kerry than for Bush.

Over the past two months, polls have also displayed the emergence of the ever-present quadrennial gender gap. The data below come from the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll.

These gender breakdowns reflect mirror images for the two contenders. Kerry leads among women and is close to the expected Democratic vote among females. He trails among men and is relatively more distant from the expected Democratic vote among males. The reverse is true for Bush. In a normal election, one would expect both Kerry and Bush to achieve their expected percentages for each gender, respectively, producing a virtual tie.

It is entirely plausible that such symmetry will not occur in 2004, however. There is a reasonable chance that Kerry will appeal more effectively to nonconservative men than Bush will appeal effectively to nonconservative women.

Finally, the data related to levels of education provide some interesting patterns that illustrate how the use of partisan benchmarks can shed different light on the obvious. These ABC News-Washington Post poll data show that Kerry may be en route to assembling a top-to-bottom coalition. Pluralities of both high school graduates and college graduates support Kerry. By contrast, the middle educational category, those with some college but not a college degree, supports Bush.

As the chart above demonstrates, however, these findings are not totally unexpected. Bush captures about as much of the noncollege vote as a Republican candidate should. The least-educated voters would not be expected to support the Republican candidate and they do not. The middle category does lean Republican, so Bush matches expectations among this group.

Beyond that, this chart demonstrates that nothing is as it would be in a typical year. Kerry leads among the least-educated voters, as a Democrat should, but is running nine points below expectations. He should be trailing among the middle group, but not by a staggering 14 percent -- which is 10 points below expectations. And neither candidate is following the script for college graduates. The Republican should be leading by 10 points there. Instead, Bush trails Kerry by four points and fares nine points worse than expectations. Kerry is running five points better than expected.

Nevertheless, these data reinforce much of the conventional wisdom. Bush's disdain for complexity and nuance is costing him the support of voters with a broader understanding of the world. Kerry's patrician manner has not yet won over voters wary of his background and style. They await nonverbal cues and verbal pledges that he cares about them.

Just as the ideological breakdown of expected votes presages the challenging course the Bush campaign must traverse, the educational breakdown of expected votes maps the creaky bridge the Kerry campaign must cross. Communicating effectively with these voters requires an understanding of who they are and what they know.

All things considered, Kerry (as well as the Democrats through him) has achieved remarkable progress in making himself and his party relevant following the post-9/11 political doldrums and the Republican tsunami of 2002. The data collected for the 2002 American National Election Study portrayed a Democratic Party tattered, fearful on national security matters, and lacking confidence in its own leaders. That Kerry stands poised to win a presidential election in the aftermath of the preceding few years is, in itself, extraordinary.

General trends corroborating the steep climb facing Bush were reported last week by GOP consulting firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. Findings from its survey of battleground states indicate that undecided voters there "are currently poised to break away from President Bush and to John Kerry." By more than 5 to 1, these voters see the country as worse off rather than better off compared with four years ago.

As Kevin Phillips notes in his article ("How Kerry Can Win") in the Aug. 2 issue of the Nation, there is a soft underbelly of the Republican coalition that is susceptible to Democratic appeals. He suggests that tough talk on the set of issues that John McCain, Ross Perot and even Pat Buchanan emphasized in the campaigns since 1992, particularly on the federal deficit, is vital to Kerry's prospects of drawing votes away from what Phillips refers to as the "unbase" of the Bush coalition.

All of these indicators point to the likelihood of a Kerry victory. But it is also important for members of the Kerry campaign to understand the pool of voters they must persuade. The distinguishing characteristic of this audience is that it is not very well educated.

In his book "The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns," Samuel Popkin suggested that the differences between the least-educated and the best-educated voters are not necessarily rooted in depth of knowledge but in breadth of knowledge. Educated voters travel more widely, see things less parochially, and are familiar with a larger world. Less educated voters are more likely to draw political connections from their individual experiences in the smaller world of their own neighborhoods.

It is not clear, therefore, that these voters will respond to tough talk, as Phillips suggests, on issues that may be only peripherally related to their own lives. Such an effort might prove awkward at best on issues such as free trade and the power of lobbyists given Kerry's record on free trade and John Edwards' association with trial lawyers.

For these voters whom Kerry must reach, much of what might matter politically resides in personal encounters at the most rudimentary level -- friends and relatives who have lost jobs, the shuttered businesses on Main Street that they walk by, health problems that go untreated because of the high costs of healthcare, personal knowledge of an increasing crime rate in town, sons or daughters who cannot afford college, nephews and nieces serving anxiously in Iraq, the leaking roof they cannot get fixed, the water that tastes funny, the mounting balances on their credit cards.

To communicate effectively with these voters, Kerry must recognize the limits of what this constituency knows compared with better-educated voters, and he must tap into the reservoir of experiences that inform their outlooks.

Making their experiences matter politically is Kerry's job next week and beyond. To do so, he needs to remind these voters of the icy indifference that has characterized the incumbent president's insensitivity to their daily experiences by asking them: "Who are you going to believe -- President Bush or your own eyes?"

By David Gopoian

David Gopoian is a political scientist who has written widely on elections and public opinion. Now a senior researcher for a nonprofit, he previously served on the faculty of Kent State University's Graduate Campaign Management Program.

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