Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Obama's vs. McCain's strategy for Victory

Now that pundits have exhausted themselves asking and answering the question, "Why did Hillary lose?" it's time to turn to the much more important question, "Why did Obama win?" Asking that question encourages a look beyond the tactics of the just concluded primary campaign to the broader strategic and historical trends that made him victorious. Examining those trends, which we did for our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics, demonstrates that the 2008 election is a realigning event marking the end of one political era and the start of another.

Historically, when these types of realignments or makeovers occur, they produce changes in the voting coalitions that support the two parties, and this year’s political transition is no exception. For example, the previous realignment in 1968 shifted the South from the Democratic bastion that it had been for well over a century to a solidly Republican region, while at the same time former GOP strongholds in New England, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast moved toward the Democrats.

Despite the clear historical evidence that these makeovers, which occur regularly about every forty years, are as American and normal as apple pie and baseball, many observers seem unable to recognize the changes in party coalitions that are a part of this year’s political dynamic. As New York Times columnist, Frank Rich, perceptively noted, this sometimes leads commentators to ignore their own polling data. NBC did this recently when it emphasized the unwillingness of most white males to support Democrat Barack Obama--in spite of the fact that the last time a majority of white men had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1964, prior to the last political realignment.

What NBC and others seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge is that the Democratic coalition (indeed that of both parties) continues to evolve. As the title of a recent article by Alan Abramowitz put it, "This is Not Your Father's (Or Mother's) Democratic Party." The Democratic coalition is no longer the New Deal coalition of the Deep South and urban white blue-collar workers assembled by Franklin Roosevelt. It is now a coalition heavily comprised of both the most downscale and upscale ("gentry liberal") voters; ethnic minorities, not only African-Americans, but also the rapidly growing Latino and Asian populations; and young people. Geographically, at this early point in the general election campaign, Barack Obama has a solid lead in the East and Pacific Coast blue states, more than hold his own in the "swing states" of the Midwest and Florida, and is even competitive in a number of formerly red states in the upper South (Virginia and North Carolina) and West (Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Nevada and Alaska).

What is underpinning the newly emerging Democratic coalition and propelling the unfolding political makeover are the same two elements that have produced all of America’s earlier realignments: a new generation of voters and a new communication technology that mobilizes that emerging generation. The 2008 realignment is being fueled by the Millennial Generation, born 1982-2003, and the social networking communications Millennials use so well. The Millennial Generation is the largest in American history. There are nearly 100 hundred million Millennials, about 40-percent of whom will be eligible to vote in November. This will give the Millennial Generation the capacity to have as much impact in 2008 as that of the more frequently touted senior citizens (those age 65 and older).

Like their GI Generation forbearers who fueled FDR’s New Deal realignment, the Millennials are a "civic" generation, focused on basic economic and foreign policy matters, rather than the cultural wars of the Baby Boomers. In the economy, Millennials are "liberal interventionists." In foreign affairs, they are "activist multilateralists."

Upwards of seven in ten Millennials agree that "government should take care of people who can't take care of themselves," favor "a bigger government that provides more services," and believe that "government should guarantee health insurance for all even if this requires raising taxes." Two-thirds of them favor increased environmental protection even at the cost of higher prices. While, like other generations, most Millennials have now come to believe that the Iraq war has hurt the fight against terror, virtually all favor active American participation in world affairs. However, they believe that such activism should be based on building international ties rather than relying primarily on U.S. military strength.

As a result of these attitudes, Millennials identify as Democrats over Republicans by a greater than 2:1 margin according to a March 2008 Pew survey Barack Obama led John McCain among Millennials nationally by a similar ratio (54% vs. 34%) in a June 2008 Rasmussen Survey.

Obama and the Democrats may be assembling a new majority voting coalition, but recent surveys indicate that important numbers of some groups important in recent Democratic victories, such as white suburban women, have not yet fully warmed to the Obama candidacy. And while Obama and the Democrats hold the advantage on most issues, national security and John McCain's military and governmental experience offer McCain opportunities to win over the Millennial Generation--if he can break decisively with current Republican Party orthodoxy. His Vice Presidential choice and the role George W. Bush will play at the Republican national convention in September will reveal just how much political courage this war hero will bring to the fall campaign.

Focusing on the broader historical and societal trends that helped propel Obama to victory in the primaries also makes clear the strategic path that he must take to be victorious in November. Who he chooses for Vice President and how he orchestrates the Democratic National Convention will reveal whether his own campaign understands, and is willing to ride, the wave of change that has lifted his candidacy so far. A new political tide is rising. Whichever side takes advantage of the changing tide will claim victory in November--and political dominance in America for the next four decades.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Will the Democrats Look Forward or Backward in 2008…and Beyond?

Makeovers or realignments occur about every four decades in American politics, resulting in forty years of partisan advantage for the party that catches the next wave of generational and technological change. For the other party, it means spending forty years in the minority. Whether a party prospers or loses ground at the time of a realignment depends, in large part, on whether it is willing to embrace a new coalition of voters that is aligned with the larger changes taking place in society or whether it remains locked in the divisions and debates of the past.

In 1896, the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan looked back to an agrarian America and to Jefferson's and Jackson's "yeoman farmer", leaving it to Republicans William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the Carl Rove of his era, to appeal to an emerging urban America. The result was GOP dominance of U.S. politics for the next forty years.

The Democrats got it right in 1932. That year, spurred by the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt built a coalition based on the economic egalitarianism of the GI Generation, many of whom were blue-collar workers and the children and grandchildren of the last great wave of European immigrants to the United States.

But as late as 1968, many Democrats still wanted to rely on the New Deal coalition even as a young idealist generation, Baby Boomers, attempted to get the party to focus on a different set of concerns including civil rights, women's rights, and opposition to the Vietnam war. The resulting divisions presented an opportunity that the Republicans have exploited ever since.

Now, forty years later, American politics is undergoing another period of political and generational change just as it did in 1896, 1932, and 1968. If the Democratic Party has the courage to embrace a new generation of young voters and the group-oriented values it favors, it can once again recapture the political advantage for the next four decades.

Unfortunately, most of the advice the party is getting on what constitutes a winning coalition in 2008, is being provided by pundits and candidates who seem locked in the politics and divisions of the past. Some tell the party to focus on the "white working class," or "hardworking white people." On the other hand, a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that the focus should be on "senior citizens," virtually all of whom vote and who, together, comprise about 20-percent of the electorate. But these approaches to coalition building neither recognize the major demographic changes continuing to take place in America nor the factors that lead to political makeovers or realignments.

Throughout history, realignments have been produced by the political coming-of-age of a large, dynamic generation and its use of a new communication technology that mobilizes the opinions and votes of that generation. Today's realignment stems from the emergence of the Millennial Generation (Americans born 1982-2003) and its use of Internet based social networking technologies.

The Millennial Generation is the largest in American history. There are over 90 million Millennials, about four in ten of whom are of voting age, making them just as powerful a force in the 2008 election as the much more frequently touted senior citizen cohort.

The Millennial Generation is also the most diverse in our history. Four in ten are non-white and about 20-percent are the children of at least one immigrant parent. Reflecting their gender-neutral behavior, a majority of college undergraduates are women, for the first time in U.S. history. Solid majorities of Millennials are tolerant on social and racial issues, favorable to governmental intervention and egalitarian policies in the economy, and an activist, but multilateral, approach in foreign affairs. With few exceptions, Millennials have overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in this year's presidential primaries and caucuses.

At the same time, changes in America's economy and the composition of its population serve to continue the half-century long trend, noted recently by Alan Abramowitz in the Rasmussen Report, of the diminishing contribution of "white working class voters" to the American workforce overall and to the Democratic electorate specifically:

"In the 1950s, manual workers made up 47 percent of the white electorate in the United States while sales and clerical workers made up 21 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 32 percent. By the first decade of the 21st century, however, manual workers made up only 24 percent of the white electorate, while sales and clerical workers made up 33 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 43 percent. Since the 1960s, however, Democratic identification among both white manual workers and white sales and clerical workers has declined sharply while Democratic identification among white professional and managerial workers has risen. Today, white professional and managerial workers are actually more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than either white manual workers or white clerical and sales workers."

As Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel wrote recently, the Democratic Party is rapidly becoming a party of "gentry liberals", minorities and youth with little resemblance to the working class-based party coalition assembled by FDR almost eighty years ago.

This shift in America's economic dynamics and demographics, coupled with the generational and technological changes the country is experiencing, produces an historic opportunity for the Democratic Party in 2008. In a March 2008 Pew Survey, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a greater than 2:1 margin. Millennials are the first generation in more than forty years in which a larger number say they are liberal rather than conservative. In contrast to older generations that are sharply divided by sex and race in their ideology and party identification Millennials are united in their political leanings, a fact that serves to enhance the potential decisiveness of this powerful new generation.

All of this gives the Democrats a clear leg-up in the Millennial makeover that's under way. Whether the Democratic Party takes advantage of this historical opportunity largely depends on the choices it makes in building its electoral coalition. Will it look backward, as it did to its detriment in 1896, or forward, as it did in 1932, to its benefit? The consequences of that choice will shape the fate of the party and the nation, not just in 2008, but also for the coming four decades.