Lessons for Next Time

After trailing for almost all of the last six weeks before the election, Al Gore wound up the victor in the popular vote on November 7, nosing out George W. Bush 48.6 percent to 48.3 percent. Where did all these Gore voters come from?

First and foremost, they came from the Democratic base. According to the Voter News Service (VNS) exit poll, blacks supported Gore over Bush by a whopping 90 percent to 8 percent, a margin 10 points larger than the Bill Clinton-Bob Dole margin in 1996. Hispanics supported Gore 67 percent to 31 percent, and union household members went for the vice president 59 percent to 37 percent--strong figures, albeit somewhat smaller margins than in the Clinton-Dole election.

Exit polls suggest that black turnout nationally was about the same as in 1996 (though certain targeted states like Florida may have had substantial increases). But the national Hispanic and union turnout was probably higher; poll samples indicate increased proportions of these voters (7 percent and 26 percent, respectively). It seems clear that a highly mobilized base was central to Gore's popular-vote victory.

Another area where Gore achieved some success was among highly educated and affluent white women. Among white women with $75,000 or more in household income, Gore received 8 points more support than Clinton did in 1996, carrying the group 50 percent to 48 percent, whereas Clinton had lost it 42 percent to 51 percent. Remarkably, Gore almost eliminated the Democratic disadvantage among the most affluent white women--those with household incomes of $100,000 or more--bringing it down from 18 points in 1996 to a mere 2 points in 2000. Gore also increased an existing Democratic advantage among college-educated white women, from 7 points in 1996 to 8 points in 2000. This included an impressive advantage of 59 percent to 37 percent among white women with a postgraduate education. Evidently, whatever other problems the Gore campaign may have had, reaching upscale soccer moms was not one of them.

Finally, Gore managed a mediocre but not disastrous showing among white women from the working middle class--those of moderate-to-low income and education. Until the Democratic convention, Gore was running about as poorly among these groups as among their male counterparts--a showing that would have doomed his presidential candidacy. Besides mobilizing the Democratic base, the most notable and lasting result of his postconvention surge [see Ruy Teixeira, "Gore's Tenuous Bond with Working Voters," TAP, November 20, 2000] was to elevate his average support among these women to a more respectable level, roughly from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. Because of this, he managed to carry the most downscale groups of white women (though with reduced margins relative to 1996) while keeping it close among midscale white women (though he lost among these voter groups by varying margins, and the Democrats had won them in 1996).

Of course, Bush practically tied Gore in the popular vote. Where did his support come from? First, Bush maintained Republican domination among white affluent and highly educated voters, rolling up a 15 point margin among white voters with $75,000 or more in household income (matching Dole's margin in 1996) and a 9 point margin among college-educated whites (somewhat larger than Dole's margin). The key here for Bush was the overwhelming dominance of men in this group. Affluent white men gave Bush 62 percent of their votes and a margin of 28 points over Gore, up from a 20 point Republican lead in 1996. Similarly, college-educated white men gave Bush 61 percent support and a margin of 26 points, up from 17 points in 1996.

But the trends were strongest for Bush among whites of more modest standing. He won white voters with household incomes under $75,000 by 13 points, compared with Dole, who lost the same group in 1996 by a point. And he carried noncollege-educated whites by 17 points, while Dole had lost them by a point. This lead included a strong performance among white women from the working middle class, despite Gore's comeback among these voters after the Democratic convention. Among white women with household incomes below $75,000, Bush held a 2 point lead (up from a 9 point Republican deficit in 1996), and he carried white women without a four-year degree by 7 points (Dole had lost the same group by 7 points).

Still, these figures pale in comparison to Bush's most remarkable electoral achievement: his complete domination of midscale-to-downscale white men. For example, among white men without a four-year college degree, he received 63 percent support and a whopping 29 point margin over Gore, up from a mere 7 points for Dole in 1996. Similarly, Bush carried white men with household incomes under $75,000 by 23 points, up from an 8 point Republican advantage in 1996. Clearly, Bush was the candidate of the white working middle class in this election, most especially its male component, which supported him at landslide levels.

So what explains these patterns? How did Gore do well enough to beat Bush in the popular vote, but not well enough to prevent Bush from achieving a virtual tie?

Some argue that the election was Gore's to lose and that he was "too much of a populist," concentrating single-mindedly on programs to help working families. There are several problems with this line of analysis. First, the timing is wrong. Gore's best period in the campaign by far was the month after his speech at the Democratic convention, when his populist profile was sharpest and freshest. And his surge in the final few days before the election coincided with a renewed emphasis on defending Social Security against Bush's privatization plan, a key component of his populist issues package [see Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon's instructive article "Gore's Closing Surge" in the November 27 issue of The Weekly Standard].

Second, "populism"--the mild-mannered Gore version, at least, which consisted chiefly of attacking a small set of corporate special interests widely detested by the public and emphasizing Democratic programs to help working families in areas like Social Security, health, and education--was actually quite popular. A BusinessWeek/Harris poll taken right after the Democratic convention showed that three-quarters of the public agreed with Gore's attacks on Big Oil, pharmaceutical companies, and HMOs. And the VNS exit poll showed Gore winning majorities of the vote on all the issues he emphasized as part of his populist approach; indeed, among voters who said issues, rather than "qualities," mattered most, Gore ran up a healthy lead of 55 percent to 40 percent.

A post-election poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Research for the Institute for America's Future fleshes out the picture. The poll shows that core Democratic messages of investing in Medicare, Social Security, and education rather than a massive tax cut were more popular among voters than Bush's basic approach. Voters also preferred Democratic messages of providing prescription drug coverage through Medicare and standing up to HMOs and drug companies. Further analysis of the poll data reveals that these Democratic messages were popular not just among the Democratic base, where one might expect them to be, but also among voters from the white working middle class. For example, by 60 percent to 32 percent, whites with household incomes under $75,000 preferred the Democratic approach to prescription drug coverage; by 59 percent to 37 percent, they preferred the investment-oriented Democratic plan for the budget surplus; and by 54 percent to 42 percent, they sympathized with the Democratic message of standing up to HMOs. Not surprisingly, women from this group were more positive about these Democratic messages than their male counterparts, but for both men and women, support for such messages ran 15 to 20 points ahead of their actual support levels for the Democratic ticket.

Given these data, it seems hard to convict Gore's populist stance and issue focus of hamstringing his campaign. Rather, his approach clearly helped energize the Democratic base. It apparently did not turn off the upscale voters, and it had considerable appeal to midscale-to-downscale white women, whose support was critical to Gore's electoral chances. One can reasonably argue that the populist themes were not enough to achieve dominance with these latter voters and, of course, their male counterparts, among whom Gore was notably unsuccessful despite some sympathy for his issue positions. But all this suggests that Gore's approach was less wrong than incomplete.

Another criticism raised of Gore's campaign--generally linked to the antipopulist criticism--is that he didn't run on the achievements of the Clinton administration, particularly the strong economic growth and rising incomes. The extreme version of this criticism, usually buttressed by reference to some well-known election forecasting models, suggests that the economic situation plus Clinton's high approval ratings should have made it virtually impossible for Gore to avoid winning by a landslide. Therefore, Gore should have ignored voters' problems and focused almost exclusively on cheerleading for the administration's record.

Such a stance is not justified by the strength of the academic models, which are typically based on only a handful of elections. Indeed, economist Ray Fair--whose forecasting model includes no job approval ratings but goes back much further than the other models--predicted that Gore would win only a bare majority of the popular vote, which, of course, is what happened. As Fair put it, in explaining why his model had such low expectations for candidate Gore: "The economy, while it has been good, is not the best it's ever been... . [The growth rate] has been higher in previous elections."

So maybe the economy didn't give Gore such a lock on the election, after all. This seems especially plausible when one factors in the "vice president effect" (the tendency of sitting vice presidents to get relatively little credit for an administration's achievements) and the "Greenspan effect" (the tendency of the public to credit other factors, like Alan Greenspan, more than they do administration policies for recent prosperity).

Finally, the idea that the Clinton record should undoubtedly have been a strong suit ignores the undeniable legacy of the Clinton scandals. Being associated with these scandals--either indirectly, in the case of the Lewinsky incident, or directly, in the case of the campaign finance difficulties--made it harder for Gore simply to run on the Clinton record. In fact, nearly two-fifths of voters who gave Clinton a positive job evaluation but disapproved of him as a person wound up voting for Bush.

Yet even if the economy didn't give Gore quite the lock many thought it would and even if Gore probably did need to put some distance between himself and Clinton, there is a reasonable case that he overdid it. Despite these constraints, surely there were ways to both advocate for working families and claim some credit for past improvements. But that happy medium seemed to elude Gore, a candidate whose strengths did not lie in nuanced message development and the ability to tell a compelling story that linked voters' pasts with their futures.

If populism did not hurt Gore and failure to run on the past eight years was not his fatal flaw, what does account for the ceiling on his popular support? Here one needs to turn to problems of trust, cultural conservatism, generic antigovernment sentiment, and Gore's personal limitations as a candidate. In the Institute for America's Future poll, distrust--for example, regarding "[Gore's] exaggerations and untruthfulness"--was strong among all white voters: This difficulty was rooted in the Clinton administration's problems but was presumably exacerbated by Gore's campaign style. Qualms based on cultural conservatism--these were chiefly about gay marriage, abortion rights, and gun control--were notably stronger among noncollege-educated whites and among those with household incomes under $75,000. In contrast, generic antigovernment sentiment--"[Gore's] support for federal big government solutions" and the like--was weaker among these voters, even the men, and stronger among the affluent and well-educated.

These findings underscore the brilliance of Bush's strategy. By systematically blurring differences on crucial policy issues--issues where voters tended to favor the Democrats--Bush was able to bring more personal reactions to the fore. Since Bush also offered a prescription drug plan, proposed increases in education and health care spending, pledged to save Medicare and Social Security, and supported a patients' bill of rights, confused voters might well have chosen the candidate they felt more comfortable with from the standpoint of trustworthiness, cultural values, or general feelings about government. And Bush's advisers well knew this.

The Institute for America's Future poll shows just how successful Bush's issue-blurring strategy was. While voters who could make a distinction tended to favor Gore's approach in the areas of education, a patients' bill of rights, and prescription drugs, about half could not see enough difference between Gore and Bush to form a judgment. Similarly, over two-fifths of voters could not see enough difference between the candidates' plans to form a judgment on the Social Security issue. This pattern is consistent with a variety of pre-election polls that showed Bush narrowing Gore's issue advantage over the last two months of the campaign as he rolled out his own versions of Democratic programs and emphasized the broad themes of trust, values, and big government.

These findings on the 2000 election suggest several lessons for the political future. First, some key Democratic difficulties seem episodic, so the Republicans may not be able to take advantage of them next time. Will the stars align in the future so the Republicans can cash in on past Democratic scandals and on a flawed candidate who has such difficulty handling the trust issue? It seems unlikely.

Second, social issues--gun control, gay rights, abortion--are a problem for the Democrats. Yet it would be unwise for them to back away from their basic positions on these issues, which are not only fundamental commitments but are also surely responsible for a good part of the party's recent success with upscale white women. As the recent campaign suggests, soft-pedaling these issues, as Gore did in some ways, is not particularly effective in reaching culturally conservative midscale-to-downscale white voters, especially men. It's more plausible that these voters need a compelling reason to overlook their cultural conservatism, a reason this past campaign did not supply.

Third, there is no good reason for the Democrats to back away from their basic focus on working families and the economic issues that concern them. This is still where Democrats need to generate the biggest increment in support--mainly among white voters--and their approach to education, retirement, and health care appears to be quite attractive to these voters and, of course, to the Democratic base. What is needed is not to abandon core Democratic issues but rather to clarify the very real differences from the Republicans on these issues.

Fourth, while the Democrats should not back away from their core issues, it may be time to rethink how these issues are approached and emphasized. For example, education was the issue most cited by voters during the campaign as their chief concern, yet the Democrats had only a modest advantage of 52 percent to 44 percent on the issue in the VNS exit poll. Education was also the economic issue (aside from taxes) on which voters most consistently failed to give Gore's approach much, or any, preference over that of Bush. So defending and extending social insurance, the Democrats' chief emphasis in the 2000 campaign, may not be the way to go in the future. While social insurance must remain a bedrock commitment of the party, it is difficult to argue that this commitment constitutes a convincing approach to the unfolding problems of the new economy. For precisely this reason, the Democratic approach may have failed to appeal to many working families. It may take a more forward-looking approach--one that focuses on the new economy in critical areas like education, training, child care, work/family stress, scientific research, and, of course, health and pension coverage--to convince these voters that Democrats really have a vision for the future and their families.

Such a program could help build an emerging liberal majority in this country. The key elements of this majority would be (1) the Democratic base--chiefly blacks, Hispanics, and union households but also smaller groups like Jews with historic ties to the party; (2) socially liberal, upscale, white women, particularly in areas where the new economy is emerging; and (3) a majority of midscale-to-downscale white women and a strong minority of their male counterparts, not particularly socially liberal but attracted to the Democratic Party by its economic commitments and vision. The results of this election suggest such a majority is possible, but only with more work on attracting voters from the working middle class and only with a stronger vision and program for the new economy. If Democrats can overcome these weaknesses, the general progressive project will be able to make considerable gains in the next few years. ยค