Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Obama Support Holding Among "Bitter" Voters

It's seems like a juicy conundrum, but the very voters who Barack Obama dissed last weekend as bitterly clinging to their guns and bibles have yet to defect from the Illinois Senator's column.

Jeff Jones at Gallup has the report:

As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton prepare for Wednesday night's debate in Philadelphia, Gallup's daily tracking indicates that Obama's support has yet to suffer following his widely reported remarks about small-town voters being "bitter." The remarks were first reported on April 11.

Obama said in essence that small-town voters are bitter because the government has not been able to help their economic plight. As a result, they "cling" to religion and drift toward narrow issues such as gun rights, and anti-trade or anti-immigration policies, instead of their larger economic interests.

Clinton has criticized Obama's comments on the campaign trail in recent days and is sure to remind Pennsylvania voters of those remarks in the debate Wednesday night.

Clinton and other Obama critics have characterized his remarks as being insensitive to less-well-educated, lower-income, and religious voters. If his comments are to affect any voters, presumably it would be voters in these subgroups. But an in-depth analysis of Gallup Poll Daily tracking data collected both before and after the controversy shows little or no change in support for Obama as the Democratic nominee among these types of Democratic voters.

The analysis is based on tracking data of Democratic voters' nomination preferences immediately before (April 8-10) and immediately after (April 12-14) Obama's remarks became a major campaign issue. Although Gallup's tracking data do not have a variable that identifies small-town residents per se, it can identify a number of groups that have suffered economically and are presumably the types of voters to whom Obama was referring.
Jones breaks down the data into variables for income, education, financial status, religion, and black versus white ethnicity.

So far, Clinton's been running stronger with lower-income and less-educated constituencies, but her numbers relative to Obama's with these groups are roughly unchanged, so apparently Obama's gaffe hasn't made much of a difference.

Also interesting is Jones' suggestion that despite Obama's comments most likely being directed at working-class whites, the data show no decline in support among these voters.

Here's the conclusion:

It certainly appears that, as of April 14 interviewing, Obama's remarks have not hurt him -- either among the Democratic electorate as a whole or among the Democratic constituencies Obama was referring to. Wednesday night's debate may shine a spotlight on those comments and make them known to a wider audience, so the possibility remains that Obama has not completely weathered the storm.

Conceivably, Obama could be hurt more in a general-election context, where voters with the characteristics he describes might already have an inkling to vote Republican, and such remarks could nudge them more in that direction. But Gallup's general-election tracking data -- like that for the Democratic nomination -- have so far shown no deterioration in Obama's standing versus presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
Be sure to look at John Judis' analysis yesterday at the New Republic, where he cited new research indicating prior weaknesses for Obama among traditional working-class, rustbelt states in the November election.

Given that Republican and allied 527s envision a gold mine of "black liberationist-bitterness" attack-campaign fodder, the numbers on general election matchups bear watching closely if (and more realistically, when) Obama secures the nomination.

The Wright controversy's America-bashing sermons, followed up by video-snippet campaign-spots of Obama's "clinging" comments to the San Francisco socialist set, will provide a big one-two punch likely to rival in significance the GOP's "
Willie Horton" ads from 1988.

Note here as well that there's been some very stimulating analytical online debates surrounding the possible socio-political implications of Obama's bumbling.

In particular, see Ross Douthat, "
What Obama Really Got Wrong":
Timothy Noah, surveying the literature on the white working class and its voting behavior in the wake of Obama's San Francisco fiasco, tiptoes close to an important point about the roots of culture-war politics but doesn't quite get there. Citing a fascinating new paper by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz....
Apparently Noah's review of Teixeira and Abramowitz found working-class Americans to be decidedly upbeat about their economic chances - they are more "aspirational" than downtrodden - and the least likely to find appeals to economic "bitterness" attractive. It's among the more affluent and educated constiuencies where "bitterness" pandering would find more traction.

Douthat takes this further:

If well-educated voters are more likely to base their party ID on culture-war issues than are voters without college degrees, then what's happening within the non-college educated contingent? Which working-class voters are most likely to base their party ID on culture-war issues? Well, given that the working class has trended away from the Democratic Party overall, even as - pace Thomas Frank - the relationship between party affiliation and income has grown stronger, not weaker, it seems like it's the more prosperous members of the working class who are responding to culture-war issues and trending GOPward. (And yes, much of the working class has grown more prosperous during the long GOP ascendancy, contrary to what you may have heard.) In other words, both within the no-college/some-college demographic and in the country as a whole, the Obama line has it exactly backward: Voting on issues like "God, guns and gays" is an artifact of (relative) prosperity, not immiseration....

One can argue, plausibly, that the Republican Party's response to these cultural anxieties of late has been insufficient or misguided, more concerned with finding scapegoats than solutions, and that the country needs
a pro-family agenda that goes deeper than opposing gay marriage. But Obama didn't make an argument along these lines. Instead, he said something that wasn't just politically dumb - it was analytically dumb, as well. And that, pace Ezra and Andrew and sundry others, is why these comments matter: Because they suggest that Barack Obama buys into a narrative of American politics, and American life, that simply isn't true.
This debate will ring true to those familiar with the "post-materialist value change" hypothesis, which suggests that those at lower levels of material well-being have been driven toward conservative social issues in the post-WWII era, as the hardships of earlier crisis like the Great Depresssion and 1940s war-rationing have faded amid increasing societal abundance and relative economic security.

The more economically-secure, better educated (condescending) cohorts have gravitated to "post-material" issues such as gay rights, environmental protection, and gender equality.

What Douthat seems to be getting at is that the old party alignments - where the Democrats naturally were the party of unionized blue-collar voters - have become unsustainable when the traditional partisan cleavages of class standing have disappeared and hot-button social issues emerged as more compelling for traditional middle American constituencies. The "
Reagan Democrats," for example, were voters who shifted to the GOP in the 1980s on questions of national defense, and particularly on polarizing wedge-issues such as race, rights, and taxes.

I think Douthat's right to suggest that Obama's words are more signifcant than some commentators have allowed.

I don't think that the Democrats are going to be able to make much additional headway into working-class GOP support, particularly if Obama's the nominee.

The Illinois Senator is badly out of touch with "fly over" America, and once we get into full general election campaign mode, Bittergate's going to come back haunting the Democrats like the devil.