Gore's Tenuous Bond with Working Voters

As the election goes down to the wire, it's easy to forget how dramatically the dynamics changed in August. Before the Democratic convention, most polls showed George W. Bush with a double-digit lead over Al Gore. Media discourse was dominated by a conventional wisdom about a complacent electorate that Democrats seemingly couldn't crack. Economically contented, centrist and increasingly upscale voters (symbolized by the iconic soccer mom) didn't have much interest in government programs to solve problems. This conventional wisdom fit well with the cautious approach of the early Gore campaign, which seemed more concerned about stressing its commitment to fiscal rectitude and staying the course than about fixing the holes in the new economy and standing up for little people. But that campaign gained little traction.

Gore's convention speech signaled a substantial change of direction. He said, "My focus is on working families: people trying to make house payments and car payments, working overtime to save for college and do right by their kids." He decried the fact that "[s]o often, powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seem stacked against you, even as you do what's right for you and your family." He singled out Big Tobacco, Big Oil, the pharmaceutical companies, and the HMOs, declaring, "Sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say no, so families can have a better life." He vowed to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, regulate HMOs, rebuild and modernize public schools, promote universal preschool, and fund the preservation of Social Security while adding a new supplementary tax-free savings plan and much more.

So long, soccer mom! And good-bye, New Democrat-style rhetoric, which quailed at any suggestion that big business and the average working person might actually have some conflicts of interest and regarded with great suspicion the idea that social insurance programs should be not only preserved but extended. And it wasn't just New Democrats who looked askance at this shift; a considerable section of the punditocracy pronounced Gore's populist appeals a misguided attempt to promote class warfare and therefore doomed to fail.

That attitude changed pretty fast, though, when polls began shifting dramatically in Gore's favor. Suddenly reporters and columnists rediscovered the demographic center of the U.S. electorate and realized that most of these voters weren't doing so fabulously well in the new economy and actually had serious concerns that Gore's rhetoric and programs seemed to address. Hence, Gore's newfound success. Countless stories pronounced this year's swing voters to be of moderate-to-low income and education (with less than $75,000 in household income and less than a four-year college degree), generally white, and bearing a strong resemblance to the voters I wrote about with Joel Rogers in America's Forgotten Majority and whom pollster Stanley Greenberg (now with the Gore campaign) has been talking about for years. These voters, of course, had never gone away, but they were now getting their political due.

Gore may yet lose because of debate dynamics and the timing of events beyond his control, notably the Middle East crisis and the stock market. Or he may lose because the particulars of his pocketbook program were not sufficiently clear. But if he does win, his belated connection to America's working middle class will have been the key to his success.

Gore's convention speech was on August 17. In the weeks afterward, Gore was able to consolidate the Democratic base. Prior to the convention, there had been a widely remarked gap between Bush's support among self-declared Republicans and Gore's among self-declared Democrats. That gap largely vanished after the convention, with Gore's Democratic support levels approaching 90 percent, about where Bush's Republican support levels had been and remained. Blacks, in particular, moved strongly in Gore's direction over this period, increasing their level of support by 10-15 percentage points (even more in some polls). Gore had been trailing badly among independents, but after the convention, he surged past Bush among these voters and built a solid lead. And among whites, Gore achieved rough parity with Bush, moving up 6-10 points, depending on the poll. But among which subgroups of swing voters did Gore have the most success, and why?

Different polls tell different stories; this is a particular problem in the comparison of relatively fine subgroups across polls (e.g., whites with $50,000 to $75,000 in household income). But by looking at as many polls as possible and averaging them out, one discerns certain patterns. First, the bulk of Gore's increased support after the Democratic convention among white voters (and among voters generally, since whites are such a huge percentage of the voting electorate) appears to have come from whites without a four-year college degree and with an income under $75,000. For example, Wall Street Journal/NBC data indicate that whites with less than $30,000 in household income increased their Gore support by 12 points after the convention, those with $30,000 to $50,000 by 5 points, and those with $50,000 to $75,000 by 12 points, while the most affluent whites, with more than $75,000 in income, actually decreased their support by 1 point.

Some reports, bolstered by data from Washington Post/ABC polls and private campaign polling, contend that Gore's sharpest increases in support came from downscale white men. But most national polls suggest that women were even more important and that the gender gap (the difference between women's and men's support for Gore) widened after the Democratic convention, from a relatively modest 5-10 percent to the 10-15 percent that has characterized the campaign since then.

These are the basic demographics of the Gore shift. But why did these voters of modest income and education decide that Gore was the better candidate for them? The answer is simple: Gore's populist stance and promise to direct substantial government effort at everyday concerns in areas like health, retirement, and education is attractive to many of these voters. These are voters for whom standing up to the powerful is hardly an alien idea and for whom the new economy has delivered not high-tech affluence but rather modest improvements that have left many problems unresolved. Gore spoke directly to these problems and sentiments and made it much clearer what the election was about.

Consistent with this interpretation, BusinessWeek/Harris polling data indicate that voters, far from seeing Gore's attacks on corporate interests like Big Oil, pharmaceutical companies, and HMOs as class warfare, overwhelmingly agreed with his criticisms. And Washington Post/ABC polling data show that voters, driven heavily by those with moderate-to-low levels of education, strongly increased their preference for Gore over Bush in the areas of education, Social Security, and prescription drugs in the period after the Democratic convention.

This dynamic can be seen at the state level in two critical swing states that moved to Gore after the convention: Michigan and Pennsylvania. In Michigan two of the top issues in the presidential race are health care and education. According to EPIC/MRA polling, voters most concerned about these two issues--almost half of all voters--surged strongly toward Gore after the convention (an 8-point swing to Gore among health care voters and 22 points among education voters). Both EPIC/MRA polling and the Keystone Poll (Millersville University) in Pennsylvania show similarly high levels of support for Gore among health care and education voters.

Extensive September interviewing of primarily white, working middle-class voters by Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff in a swing area of Pennsylvania (the Lehigh Valley) further illustrates Gore's appeal to such voters. Russakoff has found that though these voters reported doing better in the economy of the 1990s, they also reported considerable doubts about their ability to handle future challenges like college for their children, prescription drugs for their aging parents, and retirement. She describes these voters as uniformly fearing something beyond their control: the impact of the global economy, the fate of children in time-pressured working families, the extent of coverage under HMOs (a particularly common concern among these voters). So an emerging appetite for government interventions is clear among these voters, as is an amazing lack of interest in across-the-board tax cuts.

No wonder these voters moved in Gore's direction after he forcefully addressed most of these problems and criticized corporate interests--like HMOs--that get in the way of solving them. But while the voters seemed to be on Gore's turf, their bond with the vice president was tenuous. Russakoff has found a considerable lack of clarity in what Gore proposed to do about these problems and an uneasy sense that politicians might be substituting easy answers for truly workable solutions.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, therefore, that Bush was able to come back in late September and October by stressing that he too was focusing on these voters and that he too had plans to solve their problems. Prescription drugs, schools, Social Security, managed-care abuses, and health coverage--you name it, Bush had a plan for the problem and was just as committed as Gore (more so!) to solving it. The only difference was that though he didn't believe in big government as a matter of principle (like Gore), he could be trusted to do what he said (unlike Gore).

Where voters became confused about the real differences between Gore and Bush on policy--predictably, given that many weren't clear to begin with--the tie frequently went to Bush since voters tend to favor government action only pragmatically, not as a matter of principle, and they do have a sense (unfortunately enhanced by some of Gore's blunders) that Gore and the Democrats have become a bit too slick for their own good.

Washington Post/ABC polling data confirm a diminished advantage for Gore over this period on some of the key issues in the campaign: education, prescription drugs, and Social Security as well as the broad question of helping the middle class. Judgments about who could handle education, in particular, moved into a virtual tie among voters. The data indicate that the move away from Gore over this period was driven primarily by noncollege voters, particularly younger women among whom Gore had made some of his largest gains after the convention.

The task for the Democrats seems clear, both in this election and beyond. With an appetite for significant government action on issues of economic security and opportunity, voters are increasingly moving into Democratic territory. But they remain unclear, and therefore easily confused, about the content of that government action and how Republicans and Democrats truly differ in their policies.

Voters also lack a sense of the Democratic vision for the new global economy. Where should the country go, and what kind of country should it be? And how does the average person fit in? Such a vision would help voters--particularly the mid-to-downscale whites upon whom Democratic fortunes depend--fix the key differences between the parties in their minds and in their lives. Until then, it's likely to be close combat. ยค