Obama, Working Class Voters, and the MA Election

by John Sides on January 20, 2010 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Yesterday, I cautioned against interpretations of the MA election. Brendan Nyhan has a nice post on that subject today. Then someone sent me John Judis’ piece in the New Republic, “Does He Feel Your Pain”? Judis—previously complimented here for his effort to engage political science—provides a thoughtful interpretation, but one that doesn’t convince me.

Here, I think, are the key bits from Judis:

Where he has lost ground—and where the Democrats have lost ground—is primarily among white working and middle class voters and senior citizens…
…If you look at national polls, Obama has suffered the greatest loss of approval among exactly the same groups. In the Pew polls, Obama suffered a drastic drop in support in the $30,000-$75,000 income group, from 63 percent to 17 percent approval in February 2009, to 53 percent to 35 percent disapproval in the January 14 poll. Among respondents over sixty-five years old, he went from 60 percent to 17 percent approval to 54 percent to 31 percent disapproval. In its January 2010 poll, Pew has a breakdown by race that is even more disturbing. Whites with some or no college—a rough designation for working-class whites—disapprove of Obama’s presidency by 54 percent to 36 percent.
…These two groups of voters have not viewed Obama’s presidency in a fundamentally different way from many other voters, but they, and particularly working-class whites, have been the prime source of a populist anger against the Obama administration. They have perceived Obama as robbing Peter to pay Paul—or more concretely, taking benefits from and imposing higher taxes on them in order to provide greater income and benefits to others.

Here are my thoughts. First, trends in income groups or age groups don’t mean anything unless we can show that these trends don’t simply derive from the fact that the groups differ in their underlying partisanship. People think about candidates and leaders largely as partisans, and 90% of Americans identify with or lean toward a party (see here). I would always, always start with trends among partisans, and then show if there are differences within partisan group based on income, etc.

Second, we should not assume that trends in the “working class” mean that voters are thinking about politics in terms of class (i.e., populism). For the most part—and political science has 40 years of findings in this regard—people don’t think about politics in terms of their individual self-interest. So I tend to doubt this claim:

The middle class and senior citizens see it as a program that taxes and takes benefits away from them in order to help those without insurance—the out groups—and to enrich the insurance companies themselves.

People may agree with such sentiments when pollsters prompt them to do so, but that doesn’t mean they have arrived at these sentiments on their own. These may only be rationalizations for beliefs that derive from much simpler reasoning processes (i.e., “I oppose health care because I’m a Republican and I don’t like Obama”). See Lee’s old post on rationalization.

Third, there is an implication in John’s article that policy trumps performance—that is, that voters are reacting to the Obama administration’s policy proposals rather than to the weak economy. But performance tend to matter more. Judis’s graph of the unemployment rate against Obama’s approval shows the apparent effect of performance. But then he makes this claim:

What I found in Obama’s case is that at the beginning of last fall, when Washington began debating his health care plan in earnest, his level of disapproval began to exceed the rise in the unemployment rate.

Click the graph to see what he’s talking about. I’m far from persuaded that the extremely mild divergence between Obama’s approval (declining) and the unemployment rate (steady) tells us anything. Political science suggests that is difficult for voters to cast votes based on policy.

And then, of course, there is the problem of figuring out why Massachusetts voters in particular made the choices they did—the subject of my first post. The Fabrizio exit poll is no help here, because we cannot we trust the stated reasons they gave (and, of course, we have no details as to the poll’s methodology anyway).

Ultimately, we can content ourselves with back-of-the-envelope math like Nate Silver’s. Really, we can’t do any more. But fundamentally, we know very little about why Massachusetts voters made the choices they did.

Yes, I know political science is a buzzkill. And no one gets paid to say “We don’t and can’t know.” But that’s what we should be saying.

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