Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Wave?

The Democratic victory in the special election in Pennsylvania 12 might not be the upset that many in Washington believe it to be. That’s because, as we have been saying in this space for the past year, 2010 is not 1994 and the chances of a Republican wave building off shore are far lower now than they were then. The country's demographics have shifted dramatically in the intervening years; the Republican brand is much more tarnished than it was in the 90s; and Democratic governing successes are gradually being recognized by the electorate.
The United States is a much different country demographically than it was in 1994. A decade and a half ago, over three quarters of Americans were white. That number has dropped to just over 60% now and is on the way to falling below 50% by the midcentury. In particular, the percentage of Latinos in the U.S. population has nearly doubled (from about 9% to 16%) over the same period. In addition, half of a new generation—Millennials (born 1982-2003), the largest and most diverse generation in American history—has joined the electorate.
All of these changes have worked to the advantage of the Democratic Party and are should continue to do so in the future. In NDN’s February survey of the 21st century American electorate, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin (42% vs. 21%) and non-Caucasians did so by over 4:1 (57% vs. 14%). Women also strongly identified as Democrats (44% vs. 24% Republicans). By the way, the other half of the Millennial Generation, all those now under 18, already live in a world where whites are in the minority, promising an even larger Democratic edge in the future.
At least in part as a result of these major demographic changes, the Democratic Party now holds a clear lead among voters in party identification, something it did not have in 1994. In the most recent Pew national survey released earlier this week, the Democrats enjoy a nine-percentage edge over the Republicans in party ID (45% vs. 36%).In 1994, the two parties were tied at 44% each and in 1995, the year after the GOP won control of Congress, more Americans identified with or leaned to the Republican Party than the Democrats (46% vs. 43%).
Moreover, while it is true that attitudes toward the Democratic Party have declined during 2010, contrary to 1994 the Republican Party is not seen as a viable alternative by most voters. In 1994 favorable ratings of the Democratic Party fell in Pew’s surveys from 61% when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 to 50% by the time of the midterm election. In that same time period, positive perceptions of the Republican Party increased dramatically from 46% to 67%. While Pew’s March, 2010 survey showed Democrats with only a 40% favorable rating, down from 57% in the fall of 2008, positive attitudes toward the GOP also declined since President Barack Obama’s election from 40% to 37%, still leaving the Democrats with a slight advantage.
These demographic changes and attitudinal configurations have put the Democratic Party in a stronger position now than in 1994 to hold off a possible Republican wave. Furthermore, as they have enacted major portions of the Obama agenda, Congressional Democrats have improved their standing in comparison to Republicans on the generic ballot since earlier this year. All of the public surveys conducted during the past week show the Democrats with at least a modest lead. Over the last few months there has been a net shift of six-points toward the Democratic Party.


An examination of a few key findings from some recent polls shows why that shift has occurred.
First, while voters do not yet believe that America has returned yet to prosperity, there is a clear perception of progress. In the Quinnipiac survey, the number believing that the nation’s economy is getting better rose from 19% in April 2009 and 28% last December to 32% now. The belief that the economy is worsening is down from 32% to 24% over the same period. President Obama is getting some of the credit for the perceived improvement in the economy. His approval score for handling the economy is up from 39% in March 2010 to 44% currently. More specifically, the percentage approving of President Obama’s performance in creating jobs has risen from a low of 34% last January to 40% in May.
Second, after a year of rancor, voters are increasingly positive about the Democratic health care reform plan that passed Congress and was signed by the president in March. According to a recent CBS News poll, approval of the plan rose from only 32% in early March to 43% in May.
As a result, the president’s approval rating for handling health care in the Quinnipiac poll has risen from a low of 35% in January and February to 45% now.
As proof that nothing succeeds like success, the perception of an improving economy and the increasingly positive reactions to the newly enacted health care reform law have led to the most favorable job approval scores for both the president and congressional Democrats this year. For most of 2010, in the Quinnipiac poll, a slightly greater percentage of voters disapproved than approved of the way President Obama was handling his job. But in May, for the first time since early February the president’s approval score was in positive ground (48% approve vs. 43% disapprove). Over the same time frame, the job performance approval of congressional Democrats has gone up from 28% to 34%. By contrast, the approval score for congressional Republicans is down from a high of 34% in March to only 26% in May.
As a result,the forecast of another Democratic election disaster like that of 1994 seems premature and unlikely in today’s changed demographic and political environment. Those expecting a wave may well be left standing on the shore vainly waiting for a high tide that will never come.

Monday, May 17, 2010

21st Century Electorate's Heart is in the Suburbs

Even as the nation conducts its critically important decennial census, a demographic picture of the rapidly changing population of the United States is emerging. It underlines how suburban living has become the dominant experience for all key groups in America’s 21st Century Electorate.
While suburban living was once seen as the almost exclusive preserve of the white upper-middle class, a majority of all major American racial and ethnic groups now live in suburbia, according to the newest report on the state of metropolitan America from the Brookings Institute. Slightly more than half of African-Americans now live in large metropolitan suburbs, as do 59% of Hispanics, almost 62% of Asian-Americans, and 78% of whites. As a result the country is closer than ever to achieving a goal that many thought would never be achieved—city/suburban racial/ethnic integration. This is particularly so in the faster growing metropolitan areas of the South and West.

The trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. A majority of Millennials live in the suburbs and 43% of them, a portion higher than for any other generation, describe suburbs as their “ideal place to live.”

The nation’s one hundred largest metropolitan areas have grown twice as fast as the rest of the country in the last decade. That growth was heavily concentrated in lower density suburbs, which grew at three times the rate of cities or inner ring suburbs. At the same time, one third of the nation’s overall population growth was due to immigration. As a result about one-quarter of all children in the United States have at least one immigrant parent. In 2008, non whites became a majority of Americans less than eighteen years old, a demographic milestone that underlines just how fast and how dramatically the country is changing. Any political party that wants to build a lasting electoral majority must align its policy prescriptions with these new demographic realities to attract the votes of a younger, more ethnically diverse population, most of which now lives in the suburbs.

Economic opportunity continues to be the major driver in determining where people want to live and work. Five of the six fastest growing metropolitan areas in the last decade were also among the top six in job growth according to data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by the Praxis Strategy Group. The same five metropolitan areas--Phoenix, Riverside (CA), Dallas, Houston and Washington, D.C-- also ranked high in the diversity of their population, differing only in the degree of educational attainment their residents have achieved. With America experiencing the first decade since the 1930s in which inflation adjusted median income declined and job creation slowed to levels not seen in decades, this movement to where the jobs are is hardly surprising. Yet this crucial factor is often overlooked by urban planners who argue that cultural amenities and sport complexes are the key to attracting new residents. In fact, metropolitan areas that focus on job creation for Millennials (young Americans born 1982-2003) and minorities have the best chance of gaining population in the next decade.

Clearly providing higher quality public education experiences is a key part of any such economic strategy. The arrival of stealth fighter parents at local school district meetings across the country only underlines how passionate young families are about the quality of education their children receive and their unwillingness to let Boomer ideological debates delay the changes needed to properly prepare their children for a higher educational experience that increases the odds of economic success. The traditional separation between municipal partisan politics and non-partisan school policy making is increasingly outdated when so much of a city’s economic success depends on the quality of the education its residents receive. In this environment, the educational policies of the Obama administration that focus on results and outcomes and not on process or previous practices should serve as a template for elected officials at every level to follow.

Safe neighborhoods of single family dwellings with a surrounding patch of land continue to attract families of every background to the nation’s suburbs. Metropolitan areas that provide such an environment to all of their residents are the furthest along in achieving a more integrated society. Los Angeles, for instance, which is often decried by non-residents as simply an aggregation of suburbs with no central core, has a suburban population whose demographic profile almost exactly matches the city’s population. The fact that most of its housing reflects the tract developments of the 50s and 60s, and that former Los Angeles police chief William Bratton used his COMPSTAT crime fighting techniques to bring the city’s crime rates down to levels not seen in five decades, are two key reasons for this polyglot profile.

Rather than fighting this desire on the part of America’s 21st Century Electorate to live comfortably in the suburbs, politicians of all stripes should find ways to embrace it and advocate policies that reflect our new economic realities. For instance, rather than insisting on higher density housing and light rail systems as the only answer to the nation’s appetite for foreign oil, the federal government should adopt tax incentives that encourage telecommuting. If all Americans worked from home, as many Millennials prefer to do, just two days a week, it would cut that portion of our nation’s gas consumption by more than a third. The FCC’s recently announced broadband policy will help put in place the infrastructure required to make such a lifestyle possible and even more productive.

Three out of four commuting trips involve a single individual driving their car to work and this isn’t likely to change with the increased growth in suburban living. But putting as much emphasis on making our nation’s highways “smart” as in creating a smart electrical grid would make it possible for the existing highway system to shorten commuting time and reduce the quantity of fuel used in such trips. Recent developments in mobile technology makes this a practical, near term solution if state and local governments are prepared to invest in upgrading an infrastructure that is already designed and deployed to connect people’s homes to their workplace.

Aligning the message at the heart of a party’s programs with the values and behaviors of America’s 21st Century Electorate is the best way to guarantee victory this year and for years to come. As Simon Rosenberg has stated, Democrats need to “embrace the coalition” based on the country’s new demographic realities that Barack Obama used so effectively in 2008. That embrace requires not only focusing the party’s efforts on the growing demographic groups that now make up a majority of Americans, but also rethinking many of the policies it advocates to make them more friendly to the suburban lifestyle that so many members of the coalition desire. As he points out, “crossing the chasm” from the old coalition to the new will “be hard, but it is in the best interests of the country and the best interests of the Democratic Party.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Email is so over

In the 1980s a powerful new communication tool invaded corporate life. It undermined hierarchy, expanded communication channels and enabled huge gains in productivity. The technology was email and its arrival aroused great concerns about security and authority in C suites everywhere. Older leaders refused to use the technology, or at best, told their secretaries to treat it like regular mail, handing it to them printed on paper in their daily inbox.

Younger workers, from the Baby Boom Generation, judged the skill of their bosses based upon their willingness to communicate in email. Boomers also used the technology to create peer networks where they exchanged information about job opportunities and plotted how best to make over organizations they found hide bound and hopelessly out of touch with modern technology. Today, Boomers are in charge, email is a ubiquitous part of corporate life, even following workers home on their smart phones, and no one questions its effectiveness and efficiency.

No one that is except Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, who are now entering the workforce in numbers greater than even the Baby Boom Generation did three and four decades ago. The comfort and facility of Millennials in the use of Internet communication technologies has led many to call people of their age“digital natives,” ready to text or tweet each moment of their young lives. Turning the libertarian, individual autonomy values of the Internet’s creators upside down, Millennials have used social networks to bring their friends, and the rest of the world, closer in communities bound together by common interests, not geography. Having transformed educational and entertainment institutions by insisting on the primacy of peer-to-peer communications, the first wave of Millennials is now entering the workforce and bringing their communication technology revolution with them.

For Millennials, email is a slow, old-fashioned way of communicating, lacking the immediacy and transparency of Instant Messaging (IM). Facebook provides a much more robust way to organize Millennial’s daily dialogue and life (which are the same thing for this generation), than MS Outlook even when its on a Blackberry. Facebook also has the weakest functionality of any email system in the market, which hasn’t stopped it from becoming the de facto contact management system for most Millennials. The generation uses social networks to explore ideas on how to solve any problem presented to them with all of their friends and can’t imagine limiting those questions to only those working in the same company, any more than they can abide China attempting to censor Google searches.

So what has been the reaction of most corporate CIOs to this phenomenon? Much of it resembles the response to email by corporate executives thirty years ago. Citing security risks and the need to protect corporate intellectual property, the use of social networks is routinely restricted or prohibited out right. Older bosses sneer at anyone on Facebook, suggesting it is a drain on productivity and a threat to personal privacy. IMing is permitted, so long as it is done within corporate guidelines, but its inability to convey Microsoft Office attachments makes it less likely to be used in decision-making discussions. Meanwhile, the potential gains in creativity and innovation that would come from having each employee incorporate the ideas of hundreds of their friends in actively solving the company’s problems are ignored. Cut off from the constant chatter of texts and homemade video, corporate hierarchies are as clueless about what this generation is thinking as Boomer bosses were decades ago.

But this kind of outmoded behavior will also fade away. Over the next decade, all of the Millennial generation will come of age. Members of the generation will represent one out of every three adult Americans by 2020. Corporations that wish to survive, let alone succeed, will have to align their governance practices and technology architectures to accommodate the way this emerging generation works.

In a decade or so, CIO’s will look back at this time of transition and smile at the antiquated way business was transacted before mobile computing and social networks became commonplace. For those old enough to remember, it will seem very similar to the way business was transformed by another, now obsolete, technology, email. Millennials and their Internet based communication technologies will have disrupted corporate life, devolving power to the edges of the organization and creating a more group-oriented, transparent culture in tune with the generation’s beliefs. As a result, companies will be much more successful than they are today and the country’s economy will be a lot better than it is now.