Is America a Conservative Country?

That’s what pundits would have you believe, that we’re a “center-right” nation, that Reaganism is deep in the electorate’s bones, yadda yadda yadda.  But does the data bear it out?  Well, no.


James A. Stimson is a political scientist at the UNC-Chapel Hill, and one of the most well-respected public opinion researchers in the nation.  For years, he has developed a factor analysis of public opinion, developing a measure of the public’s ideological “mood”: the higher the number, the more liberal the public is.  Here is his most recent plot:

Does This Look Like a Reagan Revolution to You?


Whatever this graph tells us, it certainly belies the notion that Reaganism has had a major impact on US public opinion.  Currently, the public’s “mood” lies somewhere between 57 and 58, slightly above its level in 1972, and far above where it stood in 1981, the apex of the Reagan era.  Indeed, if anything, it shows that as soon as the public got a taste of the Gipper, it turned sharply in the other direction, as it did when George W. Bush was appointed by the Supreme Court.  That doesn’t mean that Reagan came from nowhere: the 70’s represented a sharp rightward shift.  Ditto with Gingrich ascendancy, which essentially caught up with great conservatism in the 1990’s.

Note well, however, that current opinion is not even close to the heights of conservatism, and is closer if anything to the Great Society of the mid-60’s and Nixonian liberalism of the early 70’s.  So this is a period when the public mood is somewhat sympathetic to progressivism.

Why during such a period the Right has been successful at framing and dominating the policy debate is an exercise left to the reader.


Newt Won’t Wilt, Reprise

Last week I wrote that Newt Gringrich was different than the prior GOP surge-and-burn crowd (Bachmann, Cain and Perry) because he has long experience in the national spotlight and would not make the high-profile stumbles that brought down his largely untested opponents. As I expected, Newt indeed hasn’t wilted under the kleig lights. But as I didn’t expect, he’s crashing in the Iowa polls anyway.

Steve Benen also finds Newt’s fate intriguing:

What I find interesting about Gingrich’s precipitous fall is how different it is from the other former frontrunners. Bachmann, Perry, and Cain were each riding high for a short while, but were brought down by self-inflicted wounds — gaffes, awful debate performances, controversial policy positions, and in Cain’s case, sex scandals. Gingrich’s collapse is very different. The former Speaker didn’t do anything in particular to derail his chances…

Maybe nothing in particular about each individual frontrunner is causing this remarkably fast cycle of GOP rise-and-fall candidacies. Whenever any of them gets sustained media attention about who they are and what they believe, a large portion of the electorate learns that they don’t like this latest frontrunner too much either. It’s another indication that we are looking at the weakest field of candidates the GOP has fielded in a generation or more, and the voters in Iowa know it.

My Fearless Prediction of the Republican Iowa Caucus Winner

One of the Republican presidential candidates is headed to a victory in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses that could be historic, and I don’t mean that in a nice way.

Since the Iowa caucuses became important in the 1970s, the lowest proportion of votes captured by the winning candidate in either major political party was 26%. That was Republican Bob Dole’s total in his ill-fated 1996 campaign. This year’s GOP “winner” has an excellent shot at breaking Dole’s unenviable record.

A feeble Iowa win hurts a political party in several ways. First, weaker candidates are less likely to drop out, meaning that time and money that might have been used to attack the other side are instead burned up in an internecine primary (Dole was being bloodied by Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes into early March of 1996). Second, it raises doubts in the party about the front runner at a time when coalescence around an eventual nominee is the desired outcome.

Given the evident inability of any of the current candidates to generate enthusiasm in even one third of Iowa Republicans, and the fact that the caucus “winner” could well be someone that 3/4 of the voters rejected, I am comfortable predicting right now the winner of the GOP Iowa Caucuses: President Obama.

Newt Won’t Wilt

Jonathan Bernstein is skeptical of the Newt surge, noting correctly that we have already had a failed Bachmann surge, Perry surge and Cain surge.

Fair enough, but as I wrote in August when Perry was being hailed as the next big thing:

I am less sure than many observers that Rick Perry will sweep aside all the other Republican candidates and march triumphantly to a Presidential nomination. A national campaign is an inferno to which no state-level campaign compares, and many people who look composed and powerful in their own neighborhood wilt or burst into flames at the next level.

And wilt Perry did, as did Bachmann before him and Cain after him. None of them had been put under that much scrutiny and that much media glare before, and they weren’t ready for it.

Not so with Newt. He has been living under the klieg lights for decades, and in that sense can’t be lumped in with the prior surge-and-crash crowd. If he fails to get the nomination, it’s going to be due to his lack of a disciplined ground operation (especially in Iowa), not because he can’t stand the heat in the kitchen.

African-American Liberals Know How to Love Their President

Jonathan Chait’s much-discussed essay in New York magazine indicted the left for being perennially, loudly and unrealistically disappointed in Democratic Presidents. In Chait’s view, much of the left ignores the constraints on Presidential power (e.g., Congress, of which Drew Westen et al seem to be in ignorance) and doesn’t have the stomach or attention span for the slow, daily grind of governance. He also charges the left with crippling their own leaders with faithlessness and then blaming them when they are thereby forced to compromise with the other side. Chait sees these patterns as almost entirely independent of Obama, being instead a style, outlook and set of norms among liberals that goes back for decades. In short,

Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president — indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious –but not with the real thing.

Related themes were sounded by Nicholas Kristof, who attacked the “hold your nose as you vote” chic fashionable among some leftists (emphasis mine):

Many Democrats and journalists alike, feeling grouchy, were dismissive of Al Gore and magnified his shortcomings. We forgot the context, prided ourselves on our disdainful superiority, and won eight years of George W. Bush.

All of this is true of a certain type of liberal in the U.S., but I wish Chait and Kristof had taken the time to exempt from criticism the most stalwart segment of liberal America: African-Americans. Perpetually indignant white liberals could learn a lot from them.

The Power of Love

Opinions polls continue to show extremely high approval ratings for President Obama among Black Americans. But even the high proportion of Black people who tell pollsters they “approve” of the President doesn’t begin to capture the feelings that go beyond approval and extend to love and admiration (after all, if you think the President is, you guess, doing okay on balance, you say “approve” to a pollster). It’s not hard to see these intense emotions in many African-Americans if you know where to look. Continue reading “African-American Liberals Know How to Love Their President”

Herman Cain’s Meteoritic Campaign

The Daily Beast’s main page is trumpeting their coverage of Herman Cain’s “Meteoric rise and sudden fall”. We discussed the strange (though old) phrase “meteoric rise” here some time ago, which generated this priceless comment

Kent Fisher says:
July 28, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Pedant alert!

Meteors neither rise nor fall. They’re not rocks, they’re flashes of light in the sky that trace the passage of the rock as it passes through the atmosphere. If the rock hits the ground, it’s a meteorite.

Some rocks that eventually become meteorites here on Earth do indeed rise: they’re launched into space from the surface of the Moon or Mars by impacts.

“Meteoric” is apt for describing a brief, intense flash. Meteoritic” would mean something that fell to the ground.

I don’t think Noah Webster would approve, but I have been wanting to use this neologism ever since, and here is my chance: Herman Cain’s Meteoritic Campaign is now over.

Another Reason Why British Politics Work Better

I have previously discussed some of the factors that make British politics more functional than U.S. politics at the moment, such the smaller gap between the parties’ views and the greater prevalence of cross-party friendships.

Bagehot points out another critical force for good in UK politics: Non-partisan redistricting commissions that command wide public respect. Bagehot describes a public meeting of the district Boundary Commission of England at which politicians of all stripes make their varied self-serving pleas for gerrymandering but nonetheless accept the legitimacy of the independent commission’s ultimate findings.

Contrast this victory for democracy and decency with the situation in Arizona. A bipartisan resdistricting commission refused to gerrymander in a fashion that satisfied Republican Governor Jan Brewer. The Governor and her allies in the state legislature therefore promptly removed the commission’s chair from office.

Worst Debate Gaffe: Mitt Romney

People will be talking for years about Rick Perry’s cringe-inducing inability to remember what he thinks (assuming he does) in the Michigan GOP debate. But his campaign has been such a disaster that this particular moment can hardly be called a turning point.

In contrast, Romney has an excellent shot at being the Republican nominee. If he could win Michigan in the general election, President Obama’s electoral map would look very bleak indeed.

But he blew it by saying that he wished that GM and Chrysler had gone bankrupt. Based on my years living in Michigan, I would liken this remark to walking into the Vatican and telling the Pope to go to hell.

Expect some brutal ads featuring his bankruptcy gaffe in the year to come.

The Country Wants a Republican President in General, but Not in Particular

I once won $100 on a political sucker bet. During the early part of the 1996 election cycle, before the Republican nominee had been selected, a fellow I know said that Clinton’s approval ratings were so low that his defeat was certain. This guy rashly offered 5:1 odds to anyone who believed Clinton would win; thereby was my double sawbuck transformed into a C-note come Election Day. As I explained to my victim, he had forgotten that no ballot offers a choice between one candidate and no President at all for the next 4 years. Generic disapproval thus doesn’t matter as long as people disapprove of you less (or approve of you more) than they do whoever runs against you.

This same phenomenon can be seen in this collection of polls today on Real Clear Politics. President Obama loses in the average of polls about a generic Republican candidate, but wins every average of polls when the poll question names a specific Republican opponent. The generic poll is clearly picking up some popular dissatisfaction with the President, but the rest of the polls show that whatever voters’ reservations about Obama, they are less severe than those they have about anyone who might run against him. That’s good news for President Obama.

The Obamas Should Campaign as a Couple

There is an old saw among political consultants that the perfect politician’s wife waves warmly to the crowd of potential voters…as her boat drifts away on a long trip down the Amazon that lasts until the election is over. This perspective is embodied in the common campaign strategy of sending political wives to lower stakes events while hubby covers the major venues solo. If the Obama re-election team is smart, they will completely reject this approach, for two reasons.

First, the Obamas have a magic about them as a couple to which most people respond positively. If you go to any event where the Obamas are standing next to each other, turn around and look at the crowd and you will see many people — especially women — smiling. Male political operatives often underestimate how much women like to see genuinely happy couples in politics. Political wives are invisible to many male voters, but women voters tend to observe them carefully, sussing out whether a political wife is going through the motions out of duty or ambition rather than love. And their perception of the wife’s emotions and role influences their judgment of the qualities of the candidate to whom she is married (which in my opinion, is perfectly rational).

When Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff, he asked the President to get Betty Ford to shut up, because she went off message with strong support of women’s rights, among other issues. The President did say “shut up” — to Cheney — and contrary to what the men around President Ford expected, the uncensored First Lady became one of the most beloved people in the country. And many women liked the President more because he so visibly loved and stood by his strong and intelligent wife. When the Obamas are together, those same emotional forces work on voters in the President’s favor.

The other reason to keep the Obamas together during the campaign is captured in the wonderful photo on the left. When John Kerry was running for President in 2004, Mark Shields remarked that Kerry’s events with his Viet Nam veteran buddies were his best not because of how the veterans affected the audience, but because of how they affected Kerry. He was simply a more relaxed and appealing person when they were around.

Last week a friend and I were reminiscing about a White House holiday party that we both attended. My friend jumped up from his chair and asked “Did you notice how differently he stands when Michelle is next to him? He then mimicked the President perfectly, standing stiffly and intoning “Here I am the boring, aloof, professor alone at the lectern”. Then, shifting his feet as if he were mid-strut, throwing back his shoulders and smiling broadly he said “And here I am with this incredibly fabulous babe that I got to marry me — oh yeah!”.

That’s the truth of it. When the President is with his wife, his humanity comes out in a way that it often does not in other circumstances. The facade of the distant academic cracks open, revealing that skinny, accessible and idealistic young man who is still happily ensorcelled by his brilliant companion. And at that moment, many people in our cynical, brutal and heartless electoral process pause for a moment and remember that Barack Obama is a human being, and they like him.

Photos above courtesy of The White House.