The Fourteenth Annual Seminar:
June 23- 26, 2005
STANFORD POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR
MORRIS P. FIORINA
SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2005
The day after the last election was an interesting one. Social conservatives were exalting and liberals were gnashing their teeth and beating their breast about the outcome. Supposedly, President Bush had been re-elected on the basis of moral values. David Brooks’ colleague, Maureen Dowd wrote in her column that Karl Rove had unleashed the forces of darkness in the U.S. That we were entering a new Dark Age. The New York Times also published a piece by Gary Wills, and maybe there’s a pattern here, called “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out,” in which he asked where else but in the Red States do we find fundamentalism, rage, intolerance, fear and hatred?
Well, in Al Qaeda and in Sadaam Hussein’s loyalists.
If the Democrats had spent more time analyzing and less time emoting, they could have seen that this story really held no water. The “moral values” story was based on a single exit poll item that people ran away with. In the national election poll, the item was “What was the most important issue in how you voted today?” About 22% of the respondents said “moral values.” And on the basis of that item, the story took hold and spread.
Survey analysts barely know where to begin in critiquing this particular item. In the first place, given the levels of sampling and measurement error in the exit polls, there’s really no difference between 19% and 22% [the difference between respondents who answered xx and those who chose “moral values” as the defining issue in their voting]. The only conclusion you could have reasonably drawn, is that people went to the polls with a lot of different things on their minds. Moreover, you’ll notice that “moral values” is a category or a collection of things, whereas other potential poll responses like “taxes” and “education” are discrete, single issues. Now, we could reasonably combine “Iraq” and “terrorism” as the Bush administration wanted us to do and say, call that “security issues.” This “security issues” category got 50% more of the total vote than did “moral values.” The Kerry campaign could have reasonably combined taxes and economy, jobs and health care to call those “domestic economic issues” and that category would have had 50% more responses than “moral values.”
You can go the other direction. Instead of combining other issues, you could deconstruct [the category of] “moral values” and ask, “Is it the case that everybody who said ‘moral values’ meant ‘abortion’ and ‘gay marriage’?” The answer is clearly “no.” The Pew Foundation did a follow-up survey in which they asked half their sample this exact question and they got the same sort of response, with about 25% saying “moral values.” The other half, they asked to respond in their own words and, in that half of the sample, only 9% said “abortion” or anything having to do with gays. So probably less than half of [the moral values] category had anything to do with abortion or gay marriage.
Moreover, people don’t vote just on the basis of issues. When people go to the polls, they vote on the basis of the capacities and characteristics of the candidates and the records of the candidates. The LA Times also did an exit poll. In their poll they asked people “What did you like most about your choice for President?” The runaway favorite was “strong leader,” with over a third of the sample and Bush had a huge margin in this category. Bush also had a big margin in the next category, “honesty and integrity.” The charge that Kerry was “flip-flopping” hurt him. “Keeps country safe from terrorism.” Kerry noticed that “shares my values” had the same 22% as “values” in the other survey, but it broke evenly for Bush and Kerry voters, neither one got an advantage. So had all the media types seen this question, the story they would have written would be that “this election was decided on the basis of on leadership in a dangerous age.” That, in fact, was much closer to the truth of the 2004 election.
I’d like to step back for a few moments to the 2004 election. In the book we did a year ago, a little book on the culture war that was written in response to the 2000 election and in the run-up to the 2004 election [Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope (2004)], we argued that the divisions among the American population are grossly exaggerated that the population, as a whole, remains centrist and ambivalent in what it believes, and not at all divided in the way commentary often suggests. We argued that there are four reasons for the misconception: (1) that people had misunderstood a closely divided electorate for a deeply divided electorate, (2) that political activists who constitute the public face of politics in America are not normal people, (3) that the notion of a divide is reinforced by the prevailing news values where the press wants to emphasize colorful conflicts that are almost by definition unrepresentative, and (4) that there’s confusion between the positions people hold and the choices they make.
Let me run through those very briefly. First, there’s the distinction between a closely- versus an equally-divided electorate. After the 2000 election, the assumption was that because it was such a knife-edge election we must have a large number of Democrats out here on the left, a large number of Republicans on the right, and nobody in the middle. While you could get a close election that way, a close election could also result from the traditionally-held view that most Americans are centrists with a large number of people in the middle, some Democrats on the left and some Republicans on the right.
In other words, you could get a 50-50 election if you have two polar groups or if you have everybody flipping coins. Without knowing the actual positions people have, you can’t decide which is true. And, in fact, we then went on to look at public opinion in the Red and Blue States and we were in fact surprised ourselves to learn how little differences there were.
Nobody had ever really done this. You see all kinds of sociological factoids. There are so many born-agains in the Red States. There are so many gun owners in the Red States and you’re invited to think that all born-agains or all gun owners are Republicans. It’s not true. Almost any sociological characteristic divides by 60-65% to 40-35%. So the actual voting patterns of those groups are much less distinct than the original sociological characteristic would suggest.
Looking at 2004 data from the national election surveys, divided into Red and Blue State voters, Red and Blue State voters agree on immigration. They agree on the tradeoff between environment and jobs. They agree on school vouchers. They agree on the death penalty. There is a statistically significant difference between Red and Blue State opinions insofar as Blue Staters are less likely to support the death penalty, but two-thirds of them still do support it, so it’s a distinction without a political difference. They agree that government should ensure the fair treatment of blacks in employment, but they also agree there should be no racial preferences in hiring. The biggest single difference we found in 2000 and 2004 is on gun control. In 2000, we found no difference between Red and Blue States larger than 12 points. In 2004, there was a 16 point difference. But even in the Red States, a near majority of the population says that gun control ought to be stricter than it is now. Equal women’s role, they agree on that. Red State people don’t want to keep their women pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen as you sometimes infer from the commentary. They agree on the condition of the moral climate of the country. They agree on tolerance.
Even when you get down to the heart of the “culture war” issues we get the same sorts of differences we found in 2000. Here’s a 15% difference, between Red State and Blue State opinions on whether abortion should be available on demand. But notice that even in the Blue States, a majority does not believe in unrestricted abortion. On the issue of homosexual adoption, Red and Blue State majorities are on opposite sides, but notice that even in the Red States, 43% agree that gays should be able to adopt. Majorities don’t agree with homosexual marriage in either kind of state. They agree that gays should not be discriminated against in jobs, again a 12% difference, but even a two-thirds majority of Red Staters agree with that. The issue of gays in the military has also gotten much less controversial than it was 10 years ago. All the gay issues are moving steadily in a more tolerant direction.
So the picture we’ve gotten from the data was that the country remains largely centrist.
The big thing, about political activists not being normal people, the fact is, we’ve known for over 50 years (since Phil Converse’s late work in the 1950s) that most people in America do not care a whole lot about politics, do not know a whole lot about politics, and change their minds when you give them new information. They’re not very ideological. They’re pragmatic in their orientation.
Activists are different in all these respects. Activists know a lot because they care a lot. They have firm views. They don’t change their minds. They are ideological. Most importantly, activists hold more extreme views than the bulk of the population. When you think about this, it’s just logical. If you’re active politically, it’s because you’re really dissatisfied with something or you really want to change something in some way. This has been demonstrated in studies of contributors, county chairs and convention delegates. The New York Times has been doing a delegates study every year since 1980, in which they interview Republican and Democratic convention delegates. Then they do parallel studies of the population so that they can them compare Republicans and Democrats in the population with their respective party’s delegates. On the general question of “active government,” there is a 72 percentage point difference between the Democratic and Republican delegates. It’s hard to get any bigger than that in a survey. In contrast, there’s only a 13 point difference between the beliefs of Democrats and Republicans in the population at large.
When you go to specific issues, the difference isn’t as huge, but as you can see, on issues like taxes, abortion, anti-terrorism, the U.N., and gay relationships, the differences between the activists are typically twice as much or larger than the differences between people of both parties in the general population. Activists just differ in their extremity.
A couple weeks ago, a bipartisan coalition of centrist senators diffused the filibuster controversy and they were attacked as a “Gang of 14” and as a “cabal.” That’s the way that business used to get done normally. Twenty to twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t unusual to have a cross-party or a bipartisan alignment in Congress. So activists are clearly polarized and they probably have polarized even more over time.
To leave you with some perspective on activists, there are, in the last election, if you take out the non-citizens and felons and institutionalized people, there were 200 million eligible voters. About 80 million of these people weren’t even interested enough to vote. A survey released in the summer of 2004 caused a lot of flack because it reported that only 17-18 million people saw “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which was a surprise to many in the media. Now, if you assume that every single one of them was an eligible voter, agreed with Michael Moore, and voted for Kerry, that’s about 30% of his vote. If every single one of the people who listen to Rush Limbaugh was an eligible voter who agreed with him and voted for Bush, that’s about a quarter of Bush’s vote. Democrats and liberals are very paranoid about Fox TV. On a good day, Fox News gets about 3.5 million people tuning into the news. If every single one of them is an eligible, conservative voter who voted for Bush, that’s about 5% of his vote.
Finally, there’s the issue of Howard Dean’s vaunted e-mail list. Remember, the internet was going to revolutionize politics. The New York Times had a big article about how Joe Trippi was the guru of the new age of politics. But, in every campaign, there’s some dawn of a new age occurring. There were roughly ½ million people on this e-mail list. Now in absolute numbers, that’s a big number -- 560,000 people. That happens to be the same number of Americans who own ferrets. And since ferrets are illegal in California and in New York City that number is clearly an underestimate. So, in other words, if you go out and pick out a random American voter, the odds are higher that that person owns a ferret than that that person was on Howard Dean’s e-mail list.
So, when you’re watching your TV and seeing a vigil at the Schiavo bedside or a vigil outside a prison where they’re going to execute somebody or demonstrators yelling at each other outside an abortion clinic or PETA saying that eating cows is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust, just think to yourself: (a) most of my fellow citizens are not watching, and (b) most of those who are are thinking that “Boy, these people are wackos!”
Finally, I return to the idea of the polarization of political choices. In the book, we argued that people’s positions are not polarized; they’re still largely centrist. But, on the other hand, how do you explain why 90% of Democrats are voting for Kerry and 90% of Republicans are voting for Bush. Their choices are polarized. But, importantly, choice is not just a function of my position, it’s a function of the position that the candidates hold as well. So, if I’m not polarized, then the polarization is coming from the candidates’ end.
A little geometrical example shows you how it can work. In the old days, back at the mid-century and I think throughout most of history, the idea has been that you go toward the middle to attract the swing voter. Republican delegates back in 1956 probably still would have liked Taft, but they’d been losing for a long time. This led them to decide that Eisenhower, a moderate Republican, looked better. In 1960, Democrats probably would have liked to run Adlai Stevenson again, a true Democrat, but Kennedy looked like he had a better shot. So, under the strategy both parties employed, you had candidates who moved more in toward the middle.
Now we have candidates invoking the “base” strategy. We had Al Gore going back to the Democratic base in 2000. George W., under Karl Rove’s tutelage, played to the right in 2004. And notice what happens when the candidates move outwards like that. The Democrat will be a little less popular among conservative Democrats, but he’s moving toward the center of gravity for all the Democrats. So he becomes more popular among the party as a whole. Meanwhile, he’s moving away from every single Republican.
The same thing holds for Republicans who invoke this base strategy. Their candidate becomes less popular among the moderate Republicans, but more popular among the conservatives. And he’s moving away from every single Democrat.
So, even though not a single voter has changed their position, each party likes the other party’s candidates less and their own candidate more. Meanwhile, both candidates are moving away from independents. They like everybody less than they used to and they don’t vote. The decline in voter turnout has taken place entirely among the ranks of moderate Americans -- among political independents, among weak Democrats and weak Republicans. The strong people have continued to vote at the same levels they voted at in 1960.
The big issues in the 2004 election were terrorism and Iraq and this war. Once the story of this election is written, it will say that the 2004 election was about leadership, about terror, and that women were the driving force.
Thank you for listening.