Saturday, November 25, 2006

The American Political Condition, November 2006

The mid-term elections of 2006 are over, but the arguments continue. Democrats have gained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, for the first time since the early years of Bill Clinton’s first term as President. This condition quite naturally has convinced Democrats and Liberals that America now prefers their leadership to that of the Republicans and Conservatives. The Republicans and Conservatives contend that the election was the result of a combination of Democrat misportrayal of their policies and ideals, and public disgust of the Republican failure to deliver promised reforms. Each side claims that the other is doomed to irrelevancy and a loss of position in government. It now appears to me that such prophets are unaware of the demographics.

Demographics is one of those fancy words people use when they want to sound smart, and that includes me at times. Put plainly, the study of demographics is just studying who the people are and what they believe. Those beliefs are the ideals and values they hold, and those determine which party serves them best. Knowing the trends of demographic behavior helps show which party has the most potential “turf” for election contests, and suggests the strategies necessary to win control of the government.

Two notions which are over-used and subject to rational challenge, are the notion or denial of a “mandate”, and the belief that any one election makes a change which cannot be undone. The data from past elections shows that every election is a mandate of a sort, though never an absolute one, and that the public always reserves the right to change its mind. A big part of the problem is that more and more, the public perceives elected officials as alien to the public norm; candidates always appear to be people of relative wealth and influence, which is no surprise given what is needed to endure a campaign, but it also creates a separation from the public and their elected officials. While no one seriously wants a person of only average intelligence, ideals, and ability to be in charge, there is a great mistrust of a class of persons who appear to not have direct experience of real world conditions. People who never appear to deal with rush hour traffic, physical work and the sheer aggravation of government bureaucracy, are not seen as completely able to address the concerns and needs of ordinary people. This condition is well-known by politicians, which has primarily led to a flood of commercials every election showing the candidate as a regular guy – who just happens to be rich, in perfect physical shape and who thinks his management of the bureaucracy will solve many problems.

As a result of this mistrust, there is a limit to how many people will vote each election cycle. Only a part of the public is eligible to vote, and of those only some will register to vote. And only some of the pool of registered voters will vote in a given election. Many consultants are hired every election to find a way to get desired voters to the polls. Getting sixty percent of the popular vote is considered a landslide, which should tell you how difficult it is to win a majority at all. Generally, either a Republican or Democrat can expect to collect between 35 and 55 percent of a vote, depending on the nominal characteristics of the district or state in which they are running. This can be altered by either drawing in a higher portion of your own “base”, or by convincing your opponent’s base to stay home somewhat. Nick Lampson, for example, won the 22nd Congressional District race in a heavily Republican district, by motivating his base while the Democrats worked hard to dismay the Republicans from supporting the write-in candidate, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. The Democrats managed this election by not only motivating their base, but also by depressing Republican turnout.

Polls, as we know, can be misleading if the results are manipulated rather than viewed in context. Among the myths being presented this year are claims that Republicans voted for Democrats rather than staying home, or that Independents showed up in large numbers and swayed the elections. The best way, I think, to sort out such claims is to look not only at the claims, but the hard numbers.

Let’s start with an important number from 2004; more than 62 million American voters chose to re-elect President George W. Bush. That sets a standard; while midterm elections generally produce a much lower turnout than elections in Presidential election years, 2004 establishes an important benchmark. The Census Bureau noted that turnout in 2004 was the highest in U.S. elections since 1968, and a four-point jump in overall participation from 2000, which itself showed strong turnout on both sides.

Between 1978 and 2004, on average 62.9 percent of eligible citizens vote in Presidential election years, versus 48.5 percent in mid-term elections. For registered voters in that same time frame, 72.3 percent vote in Presidential election years and 67.6 percent vote in mid-term. So for starters, people who keep up their registration are more likely to vote than people who have to be motivated to renew their registration. It also suggests that about 48 million Republicans would reasonably expect to vote in the 2006 election under nominal conditions. George Mason’s numbers show national voter turnout at the 39% level, far below expectations and a salient factor in the possibility that a specific sector of the demographic could sway the election results on the national scale.

Using CNN’s exit poll results for the 2004 and 2006 House of Representative national voting sample, the demographic numbers did not change much at all. The 2004 balance of party identification seems to have been the key; Democrats kept their share of the vote at 38%, but Democrats who only voted for their party 90% of the time in 2004, did so 93% of the time in 2006. A small measure, but it could make the difference in tight races. Also worth noting was the decline in GOP voting. Republicans declined slightly, representing 38% of voters in 2004 but only 36% in 2006. Voting by Conservatives also dropped by two points, indicating that the stay-at-homes were conservative Republicans, which would explain why votes for Democrats by Republicans rose from 7% in 2004 to 8% in 2006. Again, each of these is a small matter, except that they add up. Self-described Moderates increased their share to 47% in 2006, up 2 points from the 45% they represented in 2004. Those moderates swung more to the Left, voting 56% for Democrats in 2004 but 60% in 2006.

The real key is to understand that the voter pool for 2006 was not static from 2004, but dropped significantly. CNN noted that 11% of voters in 2004 said they were voting for the first time, but they showed no results this time, which is consistent with a voter pool largely disillusioned and inclined to give this round a miss. For all effective counting, more than a third of 2004’s voters stayed home in 2006, from both parties and all ideologies. This election came down to three factors which played against the Republicans:

Most open seats were Republican, and the most incumbent seats at risk were Republican;

The Democrats were largely unified in purpose, while some leading Conservatives advocated abandoning Republican candidates; and

The Mainstream Media made a hard push against Republicans, as exemplified by highlighted focus on DeLay and Foley, who had each already resigned, while ignoring in-office criminals like William Jefferson and Harry Reid.

I would like to say that this was a one-time aberration, but instead it’s more of a wake-up call. Democrats proved they could win by uniting on a common theme, using the media to their advantage, and protecting fellow party members from loss. Fortunately for Republicans, the Democrats have shown no inclination to correct deep-seated errors in their strategy and focus, the nation is significantly more conservative than liberal, and Democrat blunders and quick moves to increase taxes and abandon duty in the Middle East are already making ripples in the national opinion; Pelosi burned the honeymoon early on, and the dealmakers have shown the Democrats for frauds, to talk about reform when in fact they intended only to improve their graft technique. The Republicans have lessons to learn, but presuming they do so now, the damage to be done by the Left may be, if not prevented, at least repaired somewhat later.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Two Retail Chains, Two Philosophies

It’s a long story, but I did not own a Christmas tree before today. Oh, I’ve had one every now and then over the years, but something always seemed to happen to them – maybe aliens with bad eyesight abducted the tree instead of me, but I always seemed to lose the things. So for a number of years I have made do without one. It never seemed important to respecting the birth of my Lord Jesus Christ to put a tree up in my living room anyway. But, tradition being what it is, and my daughter loving all aspects of holidays, especially the shiny kind like Christmas, I was thinking of getting a tree this year.

So it was, that when Lowe’s advertised on the television last night a six and a half foot tall artificial tree with lights for $25, I took notice, and so I took my daughter to Lowe’s today to try to get a tree. The short version is they ran out fast of the advertised trees. That, in itself, was not a big deal, although I noticed that there was no obvious empty space where the bargain trees had been, which told me they did not have many to start with – while Lowe’s gets out of legal trouble with a “while supplies last” disclaimer in the printed ad, they clearly had no intention of meeting the moral obligation to provide the product they advertised, and I noticed that the next cheapest trees available were nearly a hundred dollars. What we have here is a company lying to people in a dishonest trick to lure them into the store for a promotion they have no intention of honoring.

Frankly, this stunt by Lowe’s is a disappointment. Compared to Home Depot, I have generally found Lowe’s to be a better and more responsible chain, but every now and then they do pull something like this, and why they think that counts as good business seems to me to indicate a mild mental aberrance in their board room. I would also note that, unusual for Lowe’s, the employees were abrupt and hostile. I put that down to the employee’s natural dislike of being told to lie to the public.

But that is only half the story. After getting lied to by Lowe’s, I went to my next stop on today’s errands, which happened to be Wal-Mart. Going into a Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving was not something I looked forward to doing, but I had to get more cough medicine for Jagan, and the most effective and cheapest stuff was Wal-Tussin at Wal-Mart, so in we went.

Wal-Mart was crowded all right, but orderly, clean, and with a relatively happy atmosphere. The employees were polite and cheerful, and wonder of wonders, I saw a display by the door advertising artificial trees for $19.84. I did not want to trust too much that such trees would still be in stock, but when I asked, they had them in plenty, and it was easy to get the tree in addition to my other purchases. In fact, Wal-Mart had plenty of extra employees ready for the rush, they were well-positioned to assist customers and answer questions, and generally the place was very well run, front to back.

I could put that down to a happy coincidence, except that now I think about it, this is always the case at Wal-Mart, enough that Wal-Mart is often my first stop when I need to buy something. Whatever “it” is, Wal-Mart is likely to have it, and at a good price, and if I should need to return it, there has never been a problem so long as I have the receipt. I mean really, in the past three years I cannot remember Wal-Mart ever being badly stocked, overpriced, or rude. Individual stores are better-run than others sure, but in the main I would have to say that if you need to go buy something, start at Wal-Mart. And no, neither I nor anyone in my family, nor any of my personal friends works at Wal-Mart, just in case you were wondering.

PS – I apologize for the light blogging, but it appears that Blogger is also taking vacation. The write/edit pages take forever to load and process, and fail repeatedly. I can’t decide whether they have decided to follow the Ford motorcar or Lowe’s marketing method for their template.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Dark Marker In History

Forty-three years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas during a motorcade to a speaking event. The consequences of that day still affect our nation and culture, from security mindset (no President has ridden in an open-car motorcade since that day) to our trust in government. This second feature is most notable in the fact that a large portion of the population does not believe the findings of the Warren Commission were truthful, a condition which has been strong since 1967. Whether Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK on his own, with accomplices, or was an unwitting stooge as some maintain, is not the focus here, but rather the enduring controversy, which refuses to go away and which therefore has undermined trust and confidence in the federal government. Mistrust of President Johnson hurt his credibility to the point that he chose not to run for re-election in 1968, and no President since the Kennedy assassination has been completely free of suspicion of some kind.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Myth of Joe Average

As a Republican and as a Conservative, the election results from two weeks ago are still as painful as my stitches from surgery that same day. By any rational perspective, replacing the Republican majority in Congress with a Democratic one is sure to raise taxes, give away our rights to government control, and subject the nation to even larger doses of “Blame Bush” dysfunction. Perhaps thirty percent desires the last point, but I sincerely doubt that even one-fifth of the nation wants those other aspects of Donkey Rule. Yet the Democrats won, by playing on concerns about the Iraq War in many places, and by out and out lying to voters in many other places. It will be interesting to see how many of these “conservative” Democrats, elected in close races because they promised to avoid the extremism of Pelosi and Rangel, choose their word over their party, and who realizes that they cannot be Leftists and still be re-elected. But that is not what I am writing about today. Today I am writing about the myth of the average American.

I am an individualist. One reason I became a Conservative instead of a Liberal, was that in actual practice the Liberals demanded conformity to the party line far more often than Conservatives did. For all the claims by Liberals that they alone represented the people overall, it was always the Conservatives whose actual behavior encouraged me to think for myself, to express my opinion even when it was not in line with some national headquarters, and to advance new perspectives rather than just sit and listen to some appointed figurehead. That’s why I always found it so funny that Liberals accused Conservatives of supporting Bush in lockstep, when in actual fact the Republicans had trouble maintaining control at times because of the wide range of opinions on the key issues within their ranks. We are, by nature and by choice, far better in practice than they are, and truer to our promise than the Liberals have been for more than a generation.

But we failed. We let pettiness separate our different parts, and a struggle for supremacy pit us against each other. I have said before that a signal symptom of our weakness this year was that so many Republicans chose not to support President Bush, never realizing that the man who collected more votes in 2004 than anyone in history was key to their own survival – not because Bush was so popular, but because the Democrats’ plan was always based on pitting the Republicans against themselves, making Right-side voters choose between their President and their Congressman, which was finally resolved by so many who threw up their hands and stayed home, leaving the government to the people least trustworthy for the job.

This means we have a hard task ahead of us. First, the GOP has to get over its ego, stop playing territorial games and remember the lessons taught by Goldwater, Reagan, and George W. Bush. Then they have to listen to America, because even when the GOP comes back into power, it will be useless unless the party is serious about making promises which matter, and keeping them. Fortunately and unfortunately, the Democrats are fools.

There was a time when Democrats were formidable adversaries, who not only knew how to win elections but who had serious commitment to the health and welfare of America. Those days, however, were long ago – the Democrats have fallen into thinking that the win is everything, that popularity of the moment will somehow magically provide the legacy they crave, and that telling enough lies about Republicans will always fool enough people to keep them in power. That possibility exists, of course, as evidenced by the last election, but there is a crucial flaw in the Democrats’ thinking, one which could also hurt the Republicans, but to my mind not so much: The myth of Joe Average.

James Carville is pretty mad, but then, that’s normal for him. This time though, he’s blaming Howard Dean because he thinks the Democrats could have done much, much better in the elections, perhaps to the point of claiming veto-proof majorities now or in the near future. But Carville is wrong on this point. Not that the Democrats could not have enjoyed greater numbers than they gained; that could have happened if certain things had gone their way. But the Democrats made one crucial error; they looked at the collective demographics in each race and tried to appeal to what they saw as the Average American in each case. This was a mistake, and it says a lot about how the Democrats think of Americans, as if they were merely pawns rather than individuals. If you look at the ads the Democrats ran during the late campaign, along with the predictable slime attacks and lies about Republicans, there was a clear theme which tried to sell the Democrats as strong on National Security, dedicated to traditional American values, and determined to listen to the public, three key traits which in actual practice the Democrats as a whole and especially in their leadership have clearly not embraced in memory. So while resentment and anger in the guts of Republicans caused many of them to stay home, and bitterness about Iraq caused many Independent voters to forget about the strong economy, all the good done in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lack of terrorist attacks since 9/11 – three things we cannot expect a Democratic Congress to pay much attention to, either – and “send a message” by voting in the Party of Fa├žade, not many people at all bought into the Donk ad campaigns. The Democrats won in spite of their advertising, not because of it. And while the actual ads will soon be forgotten, there is a taste in the mouths of the voters, best expressed in the sentiment sent to Democrats - ”You’d better not be lying to us again”.

Habits are hard things to break, though. For the Republicans, that means getting away from the turf fights and back to what made the party work – grassroots focus and listening to the people, all of them. Because there are tens of millions of people willing to speak their mind to the Republicans, and once they realize that the Democrats are only interested in selling to the theoretical “average” guy, with no mind to what real people need and demand, many more may be willing to give the Republicans a second chance, provided the Republicans show they won’t blow it.