Saturday, May 05, 2007

Obama's Sixty Percent Solution

I had the good fortune to attend a speech by the junior Senator from Illinois yesterday. (Okay, it was a fundraiser. I paid for the privilege, but it was still good fortune.) In response to a question about his red state appeal, Sen. Obama referred to a very positive profile by Lisa MacFarquhar in the current issue of the New Yorker. The article, which Obama himself acknowledged was quite insightful, suggests that he is by nature a conciliator because he values dialogue and compromise for their own sake. He took issue with this point. To paraphrase loosely, Obama said something like: Sure I think it's better if people get along than if they don't, but the main reason I want to broaden my appeal is because a strategy of appealing to 50%+1 of the voters wins you an election, but it doesn't enable you to do anything once in office. To govern effectively you need more like 60%. (To be clear, that's my rough recollection of the gist of what he said; not an actual quotation.)

The 60% figure is a reference to the votes necessary for cloture (i.e., to end a filibuster) in the Senate, but I don't think Obama meant the point in a strictly technical sense. After all, given the equal representation of each state in the Senate, you can win the support of more than 60% of the People and still not have 60% or even a majority of the seats in the Senate. I think that what Obama had in mind was something a little different.

Political scientists have noted how, in recent elections, the major parties have pursued a strategy of polarizing the electorate and then aiming to turn out the base, rather than what for years had been the standard strategy of trying to appeal to the median voter. The new strategy has, in turn, contributed to the appearance of a highly polarized electorate. Yet while there are regional differences of opinion on various policy issues, these tend to be small. (For a good account of how small, see Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, by Morris Fiorina, Samuel Abrams and Jeremy Pope.) Only by making these issues salient precisely along the axis of greatest disagreement do politicians pursuing a polarize-and-turn-out strategy create the appearance of a red state America and a blue state America. Obama offers the promise of a kind of politics in which the cultural divide (gun rack on red-state pickup versus save the whales sticker on blue-state volvo) is simply not relevant to the great issues of the day.

Whether anybody can accomplish the sort of political transformation/realignment that Obama seeks remains to be seen, but he pretty clearly is better suited for the job than either of the other top-tier Democratic candidates. Edwards, in talking about two Americas, is not trying to polarize, and certainly does not imagine that the divide between the two Americas is red/blue; it's rich/poor. But the very trope invites a kind of polarization. Meanwhile, Clinton's anti-base of about 40% unfavorables means that right off the bat she needs to hold the base to win election, and even though she has been a fairly centrist Senator and as much of a triangulator as the first President Clinton, she is, fairly or not, a polarizing figure. By contrast, Obama, from his first entry onto the national political stage, has been deriding the idea of a polarized America. In the wake of Howard Dean's controversial but successful midterm election strategy of trying to compete nationwide rather than securing the base and going after the most winnable swing states and districts, the Democratic party may be coming to realize the wisdom of a depolarizing strategy.

George Bush said he was "a uniter, not a divider," but Barack Obama means it. And that's the closest Dorf on Law will come to endorsing a Presidential candidate!


egarber said...

Living in suburban Georgia, I can tell you that in my view, this is a red state in a meaningful way. It may be that the divide is overstated at times, but it is there.

Having said that, I typically come across two types of red staters: 1) an evangelical wing, and 2) a more libertarian flavor. Of course, there are also shades in between.

My advice to any Democrat running nationally is to basically forget about the first group. Most can't get past Roe or the idea that homosexuality is acceptable.

The second group however is intriguing, because I think it is possible to connect, especially since I tend to find that these folks are more likely to be independent when it comes to party affiliation.

Not that there's any formula, but one of the first things you have to do with this group is neutralize the gun issue. Like in the West, it's culturally engrained -- and combined with the mis-information out there about Democratic desires on guns, it's a showstopper for many who are otherwise open to discussion.

*If* you can get past guns, there are several areas of common interest. One that seems to play very well is the idea of energy independence for national security purposes; it's painful to accept the idea that we're funding our enemy each time we fill up our SUV's. Another interesting finding is that these folks tend to be more skeptical of global trade than I might have thought -- so (imo) there is fertile ground for any candidate who makes trade agreement reciprocity a big campaign item.

And the libertarian types are hardly fond of Bush's over-spending, on top of their concerns (and in some cases, outright anger) about the war in Iraq.

Anyway, I think it's possible to break through the barriers to a degree, if Democrats -- while not compromising on their true beliefs -- show the right levels of respect for certain elements within the red state culture.

The challenge is how to do that without achieving DINO status, vs. sincerely being a Democrat who is both pro-privacy AND pro gun-rights (as I am).

Michael C. Dorf said...

Interestingly, Obama said that he has pretty good favorability ratings with white Evangelicals, attributing this to the fact that he takes their views seriously and does not talk down to them. It remains to be seen whether that will continue as the campaign unfolds.

Benjam said...

i think that is the point. rudy and obama both have amazingly high favorable/unfavorable splits. that is precisely because we are so early in the campaign and because their views are not well-known. both of them are trying to stay vague on issues, but both will need to commit at a time when voters are paying attention. at this stage in american politics, no candidate will come close to achieving 60% of the popular vote.

the republicans know they have problems for 2008, namely bush and iraq, and they will focus on "electability." accordingly, they will nominate thompson or romney. barring some unforeseen contingency the election will be a nail-biter. if the next president GOVERNS from the center, he or she may be able to become a uniter in a second term.

egarber said...

That is interesting Mike. And I think Obama is on to something when he shows respect for everyone in his unique manner.

Another complicating factor is the question too sad to ask, but valid nonetheless -- is rural America ready for a black president?

Sobek said...

"...and they will focus on 'electability.' accordingly, they will nominate thompson or romney."

I've seen the same argument draw the opposite conclusion. Among the Republican front-runners (plus Thompson), it's pretty much Giuliani v. McCain for the moderates and Romney v. Thompson for the conservatives. Conventional wisdom is that you need to be more conservative to win the primary (favoring Romney and Thompson), but more moderate to win the generals (favoring Giuliani and McCain). That being the case, some early primary voters might decide to hedge their bets and go with Giuliani or McCain, not out of preference, but because of electability.

Craig J. Albert said...

For a highly theoretical approach to supermajorities, see Caplin & Nalebuff's 1988 paper in Econometrica entitled, "On 64%-Majority Rule".

The partisan moderate said...

Perhaps the good professor as an Obama supporter and fundraiser can comment on Mickey's Kaus' post over at Slate ( and the NY Times article he is referring to (

Perhaps, you can also comment on how you think someone who has one of the most liberal members of the Senate and was generally considered the liberal in the Illinois Senate Democratic Primary, can in anyway appeal to 60% of the population in a very divided country.

"Old CW: Not Black Enough; New CW: What's All This Black Business? Tom Maguire wonders why Jodi Kantor's front-page NYT piece on Barack Obama's pastor, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, hasn't generated more controversy. Having now read it, I tend to agree. I'd certainly be more comfortable with a presidential nominee whose main spiritual man 1) hadn't visited Col. Qaddafi (even back in '84); 2) talked less about "oppression" and "this racist United States of America;" 3) when discussing the solution to poverty, talked more about individual achievement and less about the role of "community"--including maybe even celebrating "middleclassness" instead of using it as shorthand for selfishness; 4) in general wasn't so obsessed with race--as evidenced most negatively in talk of "white arrogance" and derogatory reference to the "Great White West." ... I suspect Rev. Wright is going to be a bigger problem for Obama's campaign than has been conventionally perceived. When Obama declared "we worship an awesome God in the blue states," were voters expecting."

The partisan moderate said...

As John McCain is finding out you can be everything to everyone. Once, Obama has to clearly delineate his positions, his favorable/unfavorable ratings will be less attractive.

Egarber, that is gross oversimplification of Republicans. Georgia Senators such as Saxby Chambliss nor Johnny Isakson fit into this neat characterization. Furthermore, you seem to have some warped definition of what constitutes a libertarian. If you look at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank with a conservative bent, one of their biggest issues is free trade.

In fact, it is more likely that Democrats can reach evangelical voters, who typically were aligned with the Democratic party and more be susceptible to humanitarian interventions in Darfur and increased aid to Africa. There are many black Democrats who are very religious, so there is no reason why Democrats cannot get a share of the white evangelical vote.

However, as a Republican, I don't think Bush nor Iraq will be as much of a liability in 2008 as other posters are postulating. I suspect the economy (we have inverted yield curve) may be in trouble though. Look for Edwards to challenge Hillary for the Democratic nomination.

Brian Huddleston said...

"...and even though she has been a fairly centrist Senator and as much of a triangulator as the first President Clinton..."

The FIRST President Clinton? The election is still twenty months away - and you say you're not endorsing any candidate. :)

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