Saturday, May 21, 2016

The story beneath

There are reasons why Hillary Clinton is doing better among Democrats than is Bernie Sanders, and also reasons why it wasn’t a cakewalk for her. Some of those reasons were revealed in a new poll from Gallup, and it also hints at what’s ahead in the coming presidential campaign.

Gallup reported that Democrats are likely to describe themselves as liberal on social issues—57% as opposed to 28% who are moderate and 13% who are conservative. On economic issues, however, Democrats are less liberal, with 41% choosing that word, 37% choosing moderate, and 21% choosing conservative. These results give us a glimpse into what’s going on in the current Democratic nomination process.

Both Hillary and Bernie are liberal on social issues. In fact, in most cases, their positions are virtually identical. Sure, there are nits to be picked about both their records, but, overall, they’re pretty much the same. Their economic positions, while very close in most respects, do have more differences than their positions on social issues.

While neither candidate has a clear advantage on social issues, other polls (exit polls in particular) have shown Hillary with an advantage among LGBT, African American, and female voters, while Bernie has an advantage with younger voters and Democratic-leaning Independents. So, while on paper there’s not much difference between them on social issues, and Democrats generally are likely to back their positions, Hillary has a slight advantage on social issues.

Bernie’s strength has always been on economic issues, and he’s centred his campaign on a call for massive economic reform—a “revolution”, as he often describes it. Here he’s actually on shakier ground with Democrats.

While 41% of Democrats say they’re liberal on economic issues, that’s not a majority. The difference in many state contests has come down to the 28% of Democrats who consider themselves moderate on economic issues. If they side with Bernie, he gains a majority of their support, but if they side with Hillary, she does.

Put in practice, in some states Democrats who describe themselves as moderate on economic issues may actually lean conservative, and if neither candidate has a clear advantage on social issues, then economic issues can help determine which candidate they supported. Bernie’s economic policies scare those who are conservative, and sometimes even those who call themselves moderate. Even in states that Bernie has won, this factor seems to account for why Bernie hasn’t scored a knockout blow.

Come November, the Democratic nominee will face a general electorate that is more conservative than are Democrats: 20% call themselves liberal on economic issues, 35% moderate, and 41% conservative. So, in the general election campaign, economic conservatives start with a plurality, and are twice as numerous as economic liberals. Economic moderates, who are often more conservative-learning than liberal-leaning, can easily tip the balance toward support for conservative economic policies, and less easily toward liberal policies.

This is why some Democrats who aren’t particular fans of Hillary nevertheless back her because, given public attitudes, they reason that the economic reformist agenda of Hillary will be easier to sell than the economic revolutionary agenda of Bernie. Whether one agrees with that assessment or not, this is where it comes from.

Social issues provide a very interesting picture. Americans are almost evenly divided, with 32% choosing liberal on social issues, 31% moderate, and 34% as conservative. The Gallup chart at the top of this post shows the overall trend over the past 15 years, and how Republicans and Independents have remained relatively consistent over time, while Democrats are becoming more liberal on social issues (the anomaly of 2010 notwithstanding).

This relatively even split on social issues means that they’re unlikely to be a major issue in the November election, though they will be for some groups that favour Democrats, anyway, like pro-choice voters, as well as LGBT, African American, and Hispanic voters. Similarly, those who are strongly opposed to abortion, LGBT rights, etc., are probably unlikely to vote Democratic.

This means that, as with economic issues, the battle will be for those calling themselves “moderate”. The Republicans may calculate that they already have an advantage on economic issues, and may be divisive on social issues to try and rile up those voters. My guess right now—and at the moment it IS only a guess—is that except in already conservative areas, Republicans are likely to stay away from social issues and concentrate on economic issues.

Both presumptive party nominees will have support from their respective bases, though Hillary may not necessarily excite the most leftward side of left in her party, and Drumpf may not necessarily excite the most rightward side of right in his party. However, if they both win enough support from the ends of their parties’ ideological spectrums, they’ll be in a good position to go after the moderates’ votes.

And so, the polling data shows why Bernie is so strong among Democrats, yet also why he couldn’t win the nomination: Not enough Democrats consider themselves liberal on economic issues, and his positions on social issues aren’t different enough to overcome some of Hillary’s advantages. At the same time, Bernie's positions resonate with a large enough percentage of Democratic voters that he's been able to deny Hillary and easy win of the nomination. The same polling data also suggests why so many Democrats have concluded that Hillary will be the stronger candidate against Drumpf.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll see more analysis of where voters are at on various issues, and that will help us work out more of what’s likely to happen in November. In the meantime, a good place to start is to look at attitudinal polling to find out where US voters’ predispositions are, and what the story beneath the campaign reporting really is. This latest report from Gallup is a helpful step toward doing exactly that.

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