TOPICS > Politics

Demographic, Cultural Dividing Lines Complicate ’08 Race

May 19, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Political analysis of the presidential race this year has focused on voter divisions along race and gender lines. But some analysts think that other cultural dividing lines are even more important. Three political analysts examine newly emerging voter alliances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With the presidential primary finish line in sight, Kentucky and Oregon are ready to take their turns.

According to a pair of new polls, tomorrow’s Democratic primaries could produce widely different outcomes. One survey of Kentucky voters shows Hillary Clinton with a commanding 25-point advantage over Barack Obama, while an Oregon poll has Obama with a narrow 4-point lead.

Clinton barnstormed across the Bluegrass State today, beginning with a morning rally in Maysville, where she again claimed the race for the Democratic nomination is far from over.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: We have a very close contest. The votes, the delegates, and this is nowhere near over. None of us is going to have the number of delegates we’re going to need to get to the nomination, although I understand my opponent and his supporters are going to claim that.

The fact is we have to include Michigan and Florida. We cannot…

We cannot claim that we have a nominee based on 48 states, particularly two states that are so important for us to win in the fall. So part of our challenge is making sure that we nominate the person most able to win, and I believe I’m the stronger candidate against John McCain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, Obama added five more super-delegates today, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd among them. According to the Associated Press, Obama’s lead in the overall delegate count now stands at 194.

He spent the day campaigning in Montana, which holds its primary June 3rd, and he resurrected his criticism of John McCain for refusing to talk with leaders of rogue nations.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: For all their tough talk, one of the things you have to ask yourself is, “What are George Bush and John McCain afraid of?”

Demanding that a country meets all your conditions before you meet with them, that’s not a strategy. That’s just naive, wishful thinking.

I’m not afraid that we’ll lose some propaganda fight with a dictator. It’s time for American to win those battles, because we’ve watched George Bush lose them year after year after year.

It’s time to restore our security and our standing in the world. And you can vote for John McCain, and nothing will change.

We’ll keep fighting a war in Iraq that hasn’t made us safer. We’ll keep talking tough in Washington, while countries like Iran ignore our tough talk, or we can turn the page.

We can restore the tradition of tough, disciplined and principled direct diplomacy that we’ve always used to protect the American people and advance America’s interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain addressed the same issue during a speech to a Restaurant Association meeting in Chicago.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Senator Obama has declared and repeatedly reaffirmed his intention to meet the leader of Iran without any preconditions, likening it to meetings between former American presidents and the leaders of the Soviet Union.

Such a statement betrays the depth of Senator Obama’s inexperience and reckless judgment. These are very serious deficiencies for an American president to possess.

An ill-conceived meeting between an ill-conceived meeting between the president of the U.S. and the president of Iran and the massive world media coverage it would attract would increase the prestige of an implacable foe of the United States, and reinforce his confidence that Iran’s dedication to acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting terrorists, and destroying the state of Israel had succeeded in winning concessions from the most powerful nation on Earth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: More and more, the two candidates appear to be battling on general election turf, with McCain today also singling out Obama for his opposition to trade deals, and Obama criticizing McCain for the number of influential lobbyists running his campaign.

A politically segregated electorate

Bill Bishop
Co-author, "The Big Sort"
We're less likely to be around people who are not like ourselves. And social psychologists will tell you that like-minded communities become more extreme in the way that they're like-minded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We've already heard considerable talk in this campaign about divisions among voters along the lines of race and gender, but some argue divisions along certain cultural lines make the challenge for candidates this year even harder.

For a look at this question, we are joined Bill Bishop. He's co-author of a new book titled "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart." He join us from Austin, Texas.

And with us here in Washington are Ron Brownstein, political columnist at the National Journal, and Karen Tumulty, she's national political correspondent for Time magazine.

Thank you all three for being with us.

Bill Bishop, let me start with you. You've identified some pretty interesting shifts in the American electorate over the last 25 or so years. Tell us about those.

BILL BISHOP, Co-Author, "The Big Sort": Right, I worked on the book with a statistician, Bob Cushing, and what we found was that America over the last 30 years is becoming more politically segregated, so that in 1976, which was a really close election, about a quarter of the people lived in a landslide county, where one of the candidates won by 20 percentage points or more. And by 2004, it was about half the country that lived in one of these landslide counties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what does that say? I mean, what bearing does that have on how people vote?

BILL BISHOP: Well, we're less likely to be around people who are not like ourselves. And social psychologists will tell you that like-minded communities become more extreme in the way that they're like-minded.

So I think a lot of the extremity that we're seeing in the electorate comes from the fact that we are talking to ourselves and we live in kind of ideological echo chambers that are not only our neighborhoods, but our churches and the clubs that we belong to, and the Internet groups that we belong to.

And our whole lives are being shaped by our lifestyles. And we are aligning our lifestyles with the two political parties. And the two political parties are aligning with the lifestyles that are appearing in the American public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Bishop, did you come away with an understanding of why people are doing this?

BILL BISHOP: Oh, I think it's perfectly natural. You know, birds of a feather flock together.

But what we found was that the country fell apart in the 1960s and early 1970s. And when it came back together again, the old institutions, such as the neighborhood church, the mainline churches began losing membership in the mid-1960s.

And when they came back, when people came back to church, they came back to churches that were more ideologically focused. When they left, the Masons and the old-time clubs that really helped form America, when they came back in to those kinds of civic institutions, they were clubs that had an ideological bent. They became the Sierra Club or Common Cause.

And we found ourselves directing even our news-viewing to papers and Web sites that reinforced our beliefs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ron Brownstein, to the extent this is what's been going on, how does it change the challenge for the presidential -- for anybody trying to get elected across this land?

RON BROWNSTEIN, Political Columnist: Well, I think it is largely what's happening. And we've seen the parties, in effect, partition the country into spheres of influence increasingly over the last generation, where there's been a hardening of the lines in presidential elections and also a growing parallel between the way states vote for president and the way they vote down ballot for Senate and Congress.

I mean, if you look, we have 34 states that have now voted the same way in each of the last four presidential elections. You've got to go back to the early part of the 20th century to see that level of consistency.

As Bill suggested, we have more landslide counties, we have more landslide states. We also, as I said, have a growing tendency of Republicans to win Senate seats in the states that vote Republican for presidential level and Democrats to win in states that vote Democratic at the presidential level.

And the net effect of all of that, Judy, is for each party, I think, to write off large portions of the country as areas where they cannot compete. And I think that is ultimately dangerous to the democracy.

I think the democracy works better when both parties are trying to compete everywhere for all kinds of voters and feel they have to be inclusive to a wide range of viewpoints.

When you get to this kind of partitioned politics, there is a tendency to narrow and be insular, because you say, "Look, I can't reach those voters anyway."

Issues that cross ideological lines

Karen Tumulty
Time Magazine
This year there's a set of issues [...] that are important to voters that go beyond partisan and ideological divisions. You know, gay marriage and abortion and these kinds of issues don't do much to lower the price of gasoline.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So basically we're talking about like a balkanization of the electorate into little groups. Karen, you've been talking to these campaigns, covering these candidates. How aware are they that the American electorate is dividing itself up like this?

KAREN TUMULTY, Time Magazine: Well, certainly, this is the model that has drove politics through the '90s. It was the Clinton model. It was certainly the George W. Bush model.

But I find it really interesting this year that both parties have chosen or are on the verge of choosing candidates who are actually known for being able to expand their reach with the electorate.

I was speaking today to Republican pollster Dave Winston. And he said that maybe part of the issue here has been not the size of the middle, how small it is, but how small the reach of the candidates are.

So I think with John McCain and Barack Obama, who now looks like he's way far ahead to take the Democratic nomination, we may be testing the proposition.

And I also think that this year there's a set of issues out there that are important to voters that go beyond partisan and ideological divisions. You know, gay marriage and abortion and these kinds of issues don't do much to lower the price of gasoline or to provide health care.

And these are the kinds of issues that are in the forefront of voters' minds this year, along with economic insecurity on all sorts of levels.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Bishop, just help us understand a little bit more about how voters have chosen to divide themselves up. Are we talking mainly along educational lines of difference, income lines of difference? I mean, help us understand how that's happened.

BILL BISHOP: I talked to a marketing guy who did work for Nike and for Apple. And he said, you know, Steve Jobs told me directly, don't use any demographic data, because that's not how people live.

People define themselves now as -- I had one person from San Diego define herself as an "ocean-oriented person." On the front of the New York Times today, there was a woman who defined herself as a "yoga-mom."

People aren't standard demographic groupings. We've divided into lifestyle communities. And lifestyle and what we want out of life has become more important than class or income or education, but basically we've divided in all these ways.

I mean, the economy is driving a lot of this. In 1970, people with B.A. degrees were relatively evenly distributed around the country. And since, over the last 30 years, they've become more clustered in particular places.

So regional economies begin to diverge and groups of people begin to diverge. Young people leave rural America and come to cities. We're really sorting in every way you can imagine.

Cultural affinities predict votes

Ronald Brownstein
National Journal
We are seeing cultural affinities replacing class as the principal glue of these parties' electoral coalition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ron, essentially what I'm hearing is that this -- the candidates in the past, whether it was Karl Rove under George Bush or whether it was Bill Clinton, have been able to play to their base by, in effect, using these groupings.

RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think Clinton had a different strategy than Bush. I mean, I think Clinton did try to -- his goal with -- the new Democratic agenda was to try to reach out to the voters who had abandoned the party over the previous generation.

And I agree with Karen, that in Obama and McCain you have two candidates who have the potential to transcend some of this. They are pushing against these currents, but that doesn't mean these currents don't exist for them to have to push back against.

And I would just sort of -- what Bill was saying, you know, there are -- what's really happening is we are seeing cultural affinities replacing class as the principal glue of these parties' electoral coalition.

You go back to the middle of the 20th century, the period before "The Big Sort," you could probably draw a line somewhere in the income ladder and most people above it voted Republican, most people below it voted Democratic. That's much less true today.

Today, how often you attend religious service is a better predictor of the vote than income. There's an enormous gap between the way married people vote and the way single people vote.

Obviously, place, as his work suggests, rural voters very different from suburban vote -- inner suburbs, and they, in turn, different from exurbs. All of these cultural affinities now increasingly define these parties' coalitions.

And it will be interesting to see whether two candidates with potentially transcendent appeal, like Obama and McCain, can really change these groups, which seem to be pretty deeply cut in the electorate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It'll be fascinating.

Given all of this, Karen, I mean, how do you define the Democratic base anymore or the Republican base? What are those bases today?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, it really is harder, I think, in some ways to define. For instance, the Iowa caucuses, which are really where Barack Obama was launched -- I was talking to the Obama campaign just last week, and they said, you know, if the exact same demographic mix of people had shown up this year for the Iowa caucuses who had shown up the last time around, he would have come in third, not first. But it was a huge surge of younger people primarily that made the difference for him.

RON BROWNSTEIN: And upper-income people, also.

KAREN TUMULTY: And upper-income people, as well.

How much "wiggle room" is left?

Bill Bishop
Co-author, "The Big Sort"
One of the things that's happened over the last 30 years is that the group of people who are truly undecided has been shrinking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Bill Bishop, what's to stop -- I mean, for the sake of argument, Barack Obama or whoever the Democratic nominee is, we don't know officially who it's going to be, from doing that in November, from reaching out and expanding what was the Democratic base?

BILL BISHOP: Well, they'll have to decide to do that. The Bush campaign in '04 looked around in January and realized that only 8 percent of the electorate was undecided.

One of the things that's happened over the last 30 years is that the group of people who are truly undecided has been shrinking. We just did a poll of rural voters in swing states, and they were between 4 percent and 8 percent who were undecided almost six months before the election.

And it's interesting, also, to look at the Obama -- where Obama is doing well versus Clinton. I've looked at Missouri before I came. And Clinton -- I mean, Clinton won the Republican counties. Obama won the Democratic counties.

And that was generally true in the Super Tuesday states. It was true in Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Pennsylvania, it was interesting. We talked about half the people living in landslide communities in the 2004 election.


BILL BISHOP: In the election between Clinton and Obama, 70 percent of the people lived in landslide counties in the Pennsylvania primary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much, I guess, wiggle room, how much space is there going to be for a McCain or Obama or Clinton, whoever is the Democratic nominee, to appeal along the edges here?

RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think the reports of the demise of the middle are, you know, exaggerated. In fact, in 2006, we saw there was a swing vote that swung against the Republicans. It wasn't a base election.

There was an independent vote that moved against them, that moved Democrats to control of Congress. And there is, in fact, I think, still a persuadable center in American politics that both Obama and McCain have a claim on.

And I do think the country is better off when the parties are competing for all voters across the spectrum. And I think you -- historically, the historic, the best function of political parties is to harmonize, you know, the divergent interests of a very diverse country.

And that function erodes when they basically say, "Here are our voters; here are your voters. There are fixed, immutable lines. There's no point in reaching out, because no one will reach back."

I think too often that was the governing and political strategy of President Bush, and I do think you will see Obama and McCain both move away from that. And both campaigns believe, as Karen said, that a lot more is in play this year than has been in recent years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they're confident of that at this point, Karen?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, certainly, the Republicans are very nervous, because we have now just had three special elections in three of those, I would presume, landslide counties that have normally been going to the Republicans cycle after cycle that the Democrats have picked up. And I think that is a very loud message, particularly for congressional Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So they're worried, but they're still looking in that direction. The Democrats maybe have more confidence at this point?

KAREN TUMULTY: The Democrats are feeling pretty good, but, again, the Republicans have decided that they need to do some regrouping here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. Karen Tumulty, Ron Brownstein, Bill Bishop, thank you all three.