I invited Tom Schaller (author of Whistling Past Dixie) here today to discuss his recent article in the Baltiore Sun because I think what he's saying is extremely important and deserving of much more attention, especially as we head toward the '08 election and misguided pollsters seem to be urging Democratic candidates into a "center" which Schaller contends no longer exists.
I'm going to quote extensively from the article here because I can't say it any better:
We are fast approaching a critical moment in American politics. To fully appreciate what's happening, you need only to understand the difference between a camel and a dromedary.
The one thing media talking heads agree upon is that the center prevails. Turn on almost any of the nation's political talk shows and pretty soon somebody will say how crucial it is for politicians to appeal to registered independents and self-described moderate voters.
They conjure for us an image of the distribution of the American electorate as that of a dromedary's single hump with a large, vital center of thoughtful citizens in the middle, flanked by a downward-sloping share of shrill, radical liberals on one side and grumbling, reactionary conservatives on the other.
In fact, the American electorate has for some time been bifurcating into two rather distinct camps, with fewer centrist voters. The true image is that of the two-humped camel.
On a panel at a Chicago convention of political scientists recently, Emory University's Alan Abramowitz explained what's happening.
"Independents made up 35 percent of the 2006 voters, more than either Democrats or Republicans," Mr. Abramowitz said, based on his analysis of data from the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. "But most of these independent identifiers were not true swing voters – most of them leaned toward one party or the other, and these leaning independents voted overwhelmingly for their preferred party."
Mr. Abramowitz added this key point: "Moreover, Democratic leaners were just as liberal as other Democrats, and Republican leaners were just as conservative as other Republicans."
Sure, millions of Americans refuse to register with either of the major parties, and they avoid the labels "liberal" or "conservative" to describe themselves ideologically. But what matters more than how they fill out registration forms at their county board of elections or define themselves when pollsters call is the policy opinions and attitudes they espouse and how those opinions translate into votes.
On that score, Mr. Abramowitz demonstrates that not only are liberals and conservatives voting more predictably for Democrats and Republicans, respectively, but their social and economic attitudes are becoming more internally consistent. He says it is easier today to predict, say, how a voter feels about stem cells based on her position on tax policy.
"To a much greater extent than in the past, voters' opinions on economic, cultural and foreign policy issues are closely interconnected with Democrats overwhelmingly on the liberal side of almost every issue and Republicans overwhelmingly on the conservative side of almost every issue," Mr. Abramowitz says.
America seems to be coming to the end of a period of partisan dealignment that began with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The so-called vital center is collapsing.
This completely flies in the face of every bit of conventional wisdom (meager though it is) floating around DC which says that the Democrats should stand for nothing, limp toward the center and throw a "big tent" over every principle so as not to "alienate" a constituency it appears does not really exist. Cue the GOP:
Republicans figured this out years ago. Before the 2000 recount had concluded, Bush campaign pollster Matt Dowd wrote Karl Rove a game-changing memo in which Mr. Dowd marveled that the center of the American electorate had disappeared. They had expected split-ticket voters to account for about one-quarter of the electorate, but the figure was closer to 6 percent.
Mr. Rove promptly announced he would target for mobilization millions of evangelicals who did not turn out to vote in 2000.
Bush is monumentally unpopular, the Republicans are still trying to shake off the '06 whipping they got, and yet witness each of the candidates in the GOP debates competing to be more extreme, more authoritarian, more torture lovin' and woman-hating than the next ("double Guantanamo?" Did he really say that?) Not a one of them trying to enfranchise some mythical centrist vote. They know where the numbers are.
Now I realize that it's probably easier for the GOP to come to grips with the fact that their future rests with white males than for Democrats to acknowledge that theirs doesn't. Witness this report by Third Way (PDF) (summed up by Chris Cillizza here ) which concludes that the future of the Democratic party rests with "white, higher-income, male and rural voters." Schaller effectively dismantles this balderdash here, but the report is embarrassing in its short-sighted, shallow massaging of statistics to achieve a conclusion that is breathtaking in its ignorance.
Schaller has another piece up today in the Sun which asserts that single women are a "sleeping giant" for the Democratic party, something we've been pushing for a long time (and a bandwagon onto which Hillary Clinton climbed yesterday).
Whether they are divorced, separated, widowed, not yet married, or legally prevented from marrying their same-sex partner, almost half of all American women over 18 are unmarried. Soon they will be a majority.
But turnout among unmarried women – just 59 percent in the 2004 presidential cycle – was significantly lower than the 71 percent rate among married women. In the 16 states where Women's Voices ran targeted mobilization campaigns, however, the rate of increased turnout for what the group prefers to call "women on their own" was twice the rate of increase in the other 34 states.
Everybody knows Democrats fare better among women than men. But Republicans win among white women and married women.
Even in 2006, the best Democratic midterm cycle since 1974, Republicans narrowly won both groups.
The Democrats' gender gap thus derives from the party's wide support among unmarried women and nonwhite women. In fact, in 2006 unmarried women chose Democratic congressional candidates by the eye-popping margin of 66 percent to 32 percent.
Along with union households and racial minorities, these unmarried women helped the Democrats erase Republican majorities in Congress, among governors and in the state legislatures.
After the election, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research conducted a poll for Women's Voices of 1,000 unmarried American women. They found that unmarried women are particularly motivated by "an agenda for change," specifically on issues related to health care and ending the war in Iraq.
"It is clear that these women can and should be reached," the report stated about the 20 million such women who are either unregistered or who are registered but do not vote. "By gender and marital status, they are the largest group on the sidelines of democracy, and they have an agenda that calls for major change."
Attitudes among unmarried women are hardly monolithic. Younger and minority women, who are less likely to vote, especially in off-year congressional cycles, are more concerned with education and employment issues. Not surprisingly, older women express greater interest in the war, prescription drugs and pay equity.
What unifies this emergent bloc of potentially pivotal voters is their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. They also have a dismal view of politicians and the political system: More than half say that politicians "don't listen to people like me," and almost half agree that "government doesn't do anything to solve my problems, whether I vote or not."
Social scientists call this phenomenon "low-efficacy." But Democrats should translate it into three words: huge electoral opportunity.
Please welcome Tom Schaller in the comments. His political insights are something that the DC establishment resists mightily, but the fact remains that there is a strong argument to be made that speaking to the progressive concerns of the party's base does not drive the Democrats over the liberal cliff but is rather the road that leads to electoral victory.