Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dems, not Independents, Dominate 21st Century Electortae

Now that President Obama has signed the historic health care reform legislation that pundits claim would never pass, it’s time to put to rest another DC myth —the importance of independent voters. A February 2010 survey commissioned by NDN with a far larger than normal national sample of more than 2700 American adults paints a picture of an electorate that is, in fact, far more partisan—and Democratic—than the one the D.C. punditry describes almost daily. Here are three truths the survey reveals about the American electorate in the 21st Century that everyone concerned with progressive politics should know:

• The American electorate is highly partisan. In spite of inside-the-Beltway assertions to the contrary, independent voters do not dominate U.S. politics or determine the results of most elections. No more than a fifth of Americans are completely unattached to one of the two parties. At least 80-percent identify with or lean to the either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.
• The large majority of independents are partisans in their attitudes and voting behavior. About two-thirds of independents say they lean to one or the other major parties. Independents who lean to a party vote overwhelmingly for the candidates of that party. They claim adherence to the ideology normally associated with the party to which they tilt—Democratic liberalism and Republican conservatism. And, their opinions on key issues reflect those ideological leanings. Democratic leaning independents favor governmental activism in the economy and support policies promoting economic equality. Republican leaning independents oppose those things.
• The American electorate tilts strongly Democratic. Overall, nearly half (47%) of the national electorate identify with or lean to the Democratic Party as opposed to a third (34%) who identify or lean Republican. The Democratic Party’s decisive edge overall in party ID should give pause to easy acceptance of the memes that America is a “center-right” or even equally divided nation.

Using a seven-point scale developed by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, that first formulated the concept of party identification in the 1950s, to more fully capture the actual complexity of party identification, the NDN February survey reveals that almost two-thirds of those who call themselves independent lean to either the Democratic or Republican Party. This leaves no more than one in five American voters completely unattached to a party. This is more than a statistical quirk or a matter of academic importance: independents who lean to one of the parties are far closer demographically, attitudinally, and behaviorally to those who identify outright with that party than they are to independents who lean to the opposite party or do not lean to either the Democrats or Republicans.

Strong Democrat 18%
Not strong Democrat 12%
Independent, lean Democrat 17%
Independent, not lean 20%
Independent, lean Republican 13%
Not strong Republican 8%
Strong Republican 13%

Democratic identifiers and leaners are clearly different demographically from their GOP counterparts. A majority of those who identify with or lean to the Democrats are female and drawn from the two youngest generations of voters: Millennials (18-28 years old) and Gen-Xers (29-45). Also, upwards of one-fifth of the Democratic groups (and one-third of the Strong Democrats) is minority. By contrast, a majority of those identify with or lean Republican is male and comes from the two oldest generations—Baby Boomers (46-64 years old) and Silents (65+ years old). About nine in ten Republican identifiers and leaners are white and a disproportionately large share resides in the South.

Strong Democrat Not strong Democrat Independent, lean Democrat Independent, not lean Independent, lean Republican Not strong Republican Strong Republican
Male 48% 38% 46% 53% 60% 56% 53%
Female 52% 62% 54% 47% 40% 44% 47%
Millennial 19% 22% 23% 21% 14% 16% 12%
Gen X 34% 34% 29% 31% 26% 22% 29%
Boomer 32% 31% 32% 34% 34% 38% 35%
Silent 14% 14% 16% 15% 27% 24% 24%
White 61% 68% 76% 83% 93% 85% 87%
African-American 21% 12% 7% 4% 1% 2% 2%
Latino 11% 12% 10% 8% 3% 7% 9%
Northeast 21% 22% 18% 19% 13% 21% 14%
Midwest 22% 19% 26% 25% 30% 17% 17%
South 31% 37% 26% 32% 37% 38% 44%
West 27% 22% 30% 24% 20% 24% 25%

Not only do the independent leaners look like those who identify outright with the two parties demographically, they also think like them. Within the more ideologically cohesive GOP, a majority of Strong Republicans (75%), Not strong Republicans (55%), and Republican-leaning independents (53%) perceive themselves as conservatives. Among Democrats, a majority of strong identifiers (55%) and a plurality of independents that lean to the party (41%) say they are liberals or progressives. In fact, the independent Democrats are significantly more likely to label themselves as liberals or progressives than are weakly-attached Democrats.

Strong Democrat Not strong Democrat Independent, lean Democrat Independent, not lean Independent, lean Republican Not strong Republican Strong Republican
Liberal/progressive 55% 33% 41% 21% 7% 13% 7%
Conservative 10% 16% 11% 23% 53% 55% 75%
Moderate 26% 37% 39% 33% 33% 25% 15%
Not sure 9% 13% 8% 18% 5% 7% 3%

These ideological preferences are clearly reflected in the positions on issues held by party identifiers and leaners. Along with those who identify as Democrats, independents that lean Democratic decisively favor activist government (74%) and policies designed to promote economic equality (72%). Like outright Republican identifiers, those that tilt to the GOP overwhelmingly prefer a laissez faire approach to economic and societal concerns (66%) and rugged individualism (73%). In fact, Democratic-leaning independents are more “liberal” and Republican-leaning independents are more “conservative” than those who identify only weakly with either party.

Strong Democrat Not strong Democrat Independent, lean Democrat Independent, not lean Independent, lean Republican Not strong Republican Strong Republican
Government Economic/Societal Activism
Favor government attempting to solve economic/societal problems 81% 71% 74% 50% 25% 42% 24%
Favor government staying out of economy/society 11% 15% 15% 36% 66% 47% 67%
No opinion 8% 14% 11% 14% 9% 10% 9%
Economic Equality
Favor government guaranteeing living standard & income 75% 61% 72% 48% 19% 30% 23%
Favor government letting each person getting ahead on their own 14% 23% 15% 34% 73% 60% 64%
No opinion 11% 17% 13% 18% 8% 10% 13%

Ultimately, the clearest indicator of partisanship is the party for which one votes and, by this measure, independents that lean to a party clearly pass the test. In 2008 upwards of eight in ten independent Democrats and independent Republicans voted for both the presidential and congressional candidates of the party to which they lean. In fact, those who lean to one or the other of the parties were as likely to vote for those candidates as were weak identifiers.
At this early date, vote intentions in the 2010 congressional midterm elections are less clear. More than a third of independent leaners and a quarter of weak identifiers say they have not yet decided how they will vote in November. Even so, a majority of independents that lean Democratic (56%) or Republican (55%) still expect to vote for the congressional candidate of the party to which they tilt. Only two-percent of each party’s independent leaners expects to cross party lines. If past history is any indicator, most of those who say their congressional vote is not yet determined will vote for the congressional candidate of the party to which they now lean.

Strong Democrat Not strong Democrat Independent, lean Democrat Independent, not lean Independent, lean Republican Not strong Republican Strong Republican
Presidential vote in 2008
Obama 96% 82% 87% 45% 9% 19% 6%
McCain 3% 16% 8% 40% 85% 75% 93%
Other candidate 0% 1% 3% 8% 4% 5% 0%
Congressional vote in 2008
Democratic candidate 97% 80% 78% 29% 7% 9% 3%
Republican candidate 1% 9% 4% 26% 83% 85% 94%
Other candidate 0% 1% 3% 16% 2% 1% 0%
Did not vote for Congress 3% 25% 6% 8% 3% 0% 0%
Congressional vote intention 2010
Democratic candidate 90% 60% 56% 9% 2% 5% 2%
Republican candidate 1% 5% 2% 11% 55% 65% 90%
Other candidate 1% 4% 5% 21% 11% 3% 1%
Undecided 9% 30% 37% 58% 34% 27% 7%
Certain to vote in 2010 76% 51% 61% 52% 74% 67% 83%
Believe result of 2010 election is very important 75% 32% 37% 19% 48% 41% 81%

These numbers indicate that the biggest problem facing the Democrats in the 2010 elections is not that those who identify with or lean to the Democratic Party are about to desert it. Nor is it the possibility that non-leaning independents are going to vote overwhelmingly for GOP candidates. Neither of these outcomes appears likely. Rather the major concern for Democratic candidates is a relative lack of intensity among Democratic voters as compared with Republicans. All three Democratic subgroups (Strong Democrats, Not strong Democrats, and Democratic-leaning independents) are substantially less likely to be certain voters or to have great concern for the outcome of the 2010 voting than are their GOP counterparts.
The Democratic Party’s large advantage in party ID puts it in position to dominate U.S. elections and shape public policy for decades to come. Attempting to rally the support of an elusive—and small—bloc of unaffiliated independents will not accomplish that. Inspiring and enlisting Democrats will. President Obama’s signing last week of the HIRE Act jobs bill, the passage of health care reform legislation this past weekend, and the major overhaul of the college loan system passed by the House and contained in the budget reconciliation package that the Senate will approve are all important first steps in rallying Democratic voters to the majority party’s banner this fall and in the years to come.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

raising quality, lowering cost of education

Millennials (young Americans born 1982-2003) rate the quality of education and the cost of college near the top of the list of issues about which they are most concerned, just behind jobs and the economy. President Barack Obama responded to those concerns with the release of his plan to fix the No Child Left Behind Law and focus the federal government’s efforts even more on ensuring school’s deliver the results and outcomes that Millennials and their parents expect from America’s institutions. The announcement capped a remarkable series of events that saw Democrats joining parents and educators across the country in taking important steps to address those educational needs, providing Millennials new hope that their investments in politics and civic engagement will finally pay off.

NDN’s newest survey research indicates that Millennials, unlike all other generations, rate education generally, and the cost of a college education specifically, as two of the top four critical problems they believe government must address and fix. Clearly, Millennials, like older generations, see a need to improve public education in America. And, in fact, Millennials perceive this need from a very personal perspective. While the Millennial Generation is slightly more positive about the overall quality of education in the United States (41% positive/50% negative) than older generations (32%/62%), they give significantly lower grades to the education they have personally received than older generations. Seventy percent of Millennials believe that the poor quality of public education stems from a lack of money and the way schools are managed and organized. Unlike the majority of older generations, Millennials are about evenly split on whether or not unions and work rules are a major problem in our system of public education. In response to attitudes like these, an increasing number of urban school districts are beginning to abandon the strategy of incremental reform and adopting more radical and dramatic changes to address the concerns of Millennials and their parents.

In Rhode Island, the Central Falls school board fired all the teachers, the principle and the administrators in an underperforming high school where half the 800 students were failing every subject and only seven percent were proficient in math. Unable to reach agreement with the teachers on how to pay for the changes needed to break this cycle of mediocrity, the board invoked the “turnaround option” sanctioned by the Obama administration’s school reform initiative, which allows school boards to start over at failing schools with a brand new set of teachers and administrators. Given the President’s unwavering support for systemic reform of schools that fail to educate children embodied in his Race to the Top initiative, the White House’s support of the school board’s actions should not have come as a surprise to those still trying to protect the status quo.

In Kansas City, Missouri the school board, that previously had stood in the vanguard of those believing primarily in racial integration and increased per pupil spending as the solution to the problems of education in urban environments, decided to try a completely different approach. Less than third of Kansas City elementary school students are now reading at or above grade level and no more than a quarter of most of their schools’ students have achieved the levels of proficiency required for the skills they will need in life. Faced with these results, and the prospect of running out of money by next year, the board voted to close about half of the district’s schools in order to “dramatically enhance education for each of our students by combining our very best teachers and very best resources in fewer schools,” as Kansas City’s School Superintendent put it.

But perhaps the most dramatic news of the week came from Detroit where a coalition of nonprofit organizations, Excellent Schools Detroit,
announced its plan to replace Detroit’s failing public schools with 70 new ones and make a $200-million investment over the next ten years in order to achieve its goal of graduating 90% of Detroit kids from high school by 2020 and having 90% of graduates go on to college. Currently, about 58% of students in Detroit’s school system and 78% of those enrolled in charter schools in the city graduate from high school, while fewer than 25% enroll in college.
The plan includes a push for mayoral control of Detroit Public Schools, but more importantly the establishment of an independent commission to grade every school in the city, including charters, every year against a uniform set of standards and outcomes focused on achieving educational excellence. The new Standards and Accountability Commission will establish a competitive public education marketplace complete with report cards grading each school’s progress against an agreed upon set of standards that will enable parents to become smart shoppers for their child’s education. The commission will also suggest closures in order to weed out failing schools, half of which, under the plan, would be closed or replaced with schools under new management by 2015. Like the Kansas City solution, the plan does not rely on increased funding from the state but rather the commitment of Detroiters to the future of their children. The idea was greeted with cheers from everyone except the members of the current school board.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. Senate, a flurry of phone calls and emails from Millennials across the nation,convinced a majority of Democratic Senators to join in an effort to rescue Pell grants for students attending college from dramatic cuts that would have reduced payments by 60% for eight million students and eliminated the money altogether for another half a million. The House had already passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would reform the student loan program by eliminating the current subsidies to private lenders who make student loans guaranteed by the federal government and invest the money saved in increasing the size and availability of Pell Grants. But six Democratic Senators, who should know better, had argued that the nation couldn’t afford to continue to make these investments in its future and should instead continue to underwrite the bank’s profits, even as students on campuses across the nation demonstrated to protest increases in tuition at cash strapped state universities.

Since Republicans were united in defending the interests of banks over Millennials, the only way to enact President Obama’s student aid reform proposal was to include the concept in the budget reconciliation package, central to efforts to finally pass health care reform, which only requires a simple majority in the Senate for passage. After hearing from their House colleagues on the political benefits and policy importance of the concept, even budget hawks like North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, chairman of the Budget Committee, agreed to find a way to bundle the two items by adjusting the education portion to account for a revised Congressional Budget Office cost analysis. The principle driver of the increased costs of the program is the popularity of this type of college financial aid among Millennials struggling to stay out of debt and still get the education they need to get a good paying job. By combining ways to reduce the cost of college with a major expansion of health care in the reconciliation package, Democrats have taken a major step forward in solidifying the support of all elements of the Democratic Party’s 21st Century majority coalition—from young voters to minorities.

This new coalition presents the best opportunity for Democrats to solidify a dominant majority coalition since FDR and the New Deal. But key members of the coalition, especially Millennials, are currently not convinced that voting in 2010 will make much of a difference, given the results they have seen from Congress in the first year of the Obama administration in the election of which they played such a significant role. But these recent events suggest the country is finally beginning to listen to the voice of this new generation and address its concerns. As educators and parents at the grass roots of this revolution
begin to have an impact in cities across the nation, the best thing that Democrats in Congress could do before this week is out is pass both health care and student aid reform as part of their budget reconciliation process. Doing so would finally begin to align the nation’s budgetary priorities with its future and bring hope for Millennials that changes they can believe in will continue to flow from their investment in the country’s political process.