Amazing what the inattentive can miss.
Once again, we are close enough to an election that every newscast is likely to offer us a new poll on one race or another. The thing about many of these polls is, they always seem to come in handy to prop up the media’s accepted narrative of an election cycle. Of course, the media’s accepted narrative this year is that the Democrats are going to be buried in an avalanche of Tea Party enthusiasts who are all upset about Democratic accomplishments in health care, financial regulation, and preventing the recession from becoming a Depression.
What has been lacking in all this coverage is a little Political Science 101. Yes, the Tea Partiers make for amusing news coverage. For TV news, they are better B-roll material than the media have enjoyed since Chicago 1968. But the first question should be: what, exactly, do they bring to the GOP table? Look (if only briefly) at the crowd at the typical Tea Party event. The first thing you notice is, they are overwhelmingly white, and the handful of blacks the TV cameras find often look like they’re out past their curfew from the nursing home. If you do listen to interviews, or even the speeches of the “leaders,” you realize pretty quickly that the educational standard of these mobs is ... a little lacking. But they do show up for rallies and political events, so we know they have an above-average level of political participation. Finally, they obviously express extreme, not to mention confused (“Keep the government away from my Medicaid!”) conservative ideals.
Just to put it simply, if we put this data before a competent political scientist who had just emerged from a three year coma, and never heard of the “Tea Party,” what would he or she predict about these Tea Partiers’ 2008 voting behavior? If you guessed first, that this group probably voted ≥ 98% for McCain, you get a free pint of Publius’s BBQ Sauce, when I get around to a production run. Perhaps equally importantly, given their current high level of activism, our political scientist would tell us that these people were already in the active voter pool in 2008. Modalities of activism may change - 2008’s phone bankers are 2010’s Tea Party demonstrators - but overall participation levels are more stable. Somehow, though, it is always the unspoken assumption not only of media commentators, but of the “experts” they trot out for their stories, that these protesters are all newly emergent voters who will bolster the GOP’s weak 2008 and 2006 showings. All too often, this “analysis” has gone unchallenged by Democratic spokespersons.
What has stricken me so far in this election cycle is how dominant has been the presumption that Tea Partiers represent a response to widely held views, and not that widely held views have been formed by the misleading narrative of Tea Partiers as a “populist groundswell of opposition to the Democrats.” Voters with shallow ideological roots (an impolitic way to describe “swing voters”) are easily swayed by the dominant themes they see in news coverage, and the Tea Party has been Story One in the media since mid-2009. One thing we do know about these voters is that their attention to politics sharpens as an election approaches, and they begin behaving more consistently with their interests and prior predispositions, than with the wind that was blowing them around in the spring and summer.
Which brings us to what the inattentive may have missed.
In all the impending-Republican-deluge hype, one little story has been overlooked. This week, the Gallup Poll released a poll indicating a sudden shift in the generic Congressional ballot. Whereas the Republicans had moved out to a 51%-41% lead a week earlier, the poll this week shows a dead heat at 46%. Part of this is that the 10% GOP lead may look a little like one of those outliers that from time to time intrude on the best polls. It was something of a jump in the GOP total when we look at the poll’s results so far this year:
Then, something funny happens on the way to the local precinct. As ads fill the airwaves, and yard signs dot the drive to work, the voter becomes more aware of the impending election. On the margins, voters begin paying more attention to the detailed news coverage of the election, not all of which is horse-race drivel. Suddenly, the reality of Ron Paul or Sharron Angle wanting to dismantle Social Security makes it to the radar screen of the lower-information voter, and suddenly those previously expressed GOP preferences start dropping off. The end result starts looking more like November 2008.
There are two important points to take away from all this. One is that it is important for us to push back, as Democrats, against the accepted wisdom of a GOP tsunami. A majority of voters - I hate to quote Nixon, but the silent majority - agree with our positions on the issues, when they are focused on them. The second thing, and this may be more important, is to keep heart. There are doorbells to be rung, and envelopes to be stuffed. 2008 wouldn’t have happened if we’d given up when McCain was “ahead” in September.
Today’s post is dedicated to the memory of JR (1945-2010) - union man, and a proud Democrat.