January 12, 2008

Voting Patterns May Favor Clinton and McCain

Forty years ago I worked briefly for the Eugene McCarthy campaign in New Hampshire. That was a heady experience, because the primary became, in effect, a referendum on the Vietnam War. And McCarthy did something no one had thought possible. He embarrassed a sitting President, who won with 49%, by getting more than 42% of the vote. This was hardly an expected result in a conservative state. It was only possible because of massive support from college students and other young people. It did not hurt McCarthy that he had a good education in Catholic universities, so he could appeal to that constituency as well.

Working in the campaign made me acutely aware of the differences between voters. The problem for any candidate is, "How can I appeal to as many groups as possible?" The usual practice is to come up with a general campaign slogan, such as "New Deal," "Fair Deal," "New Frontier" or, this year, simply, "Change," and then develop a variety of specific proposals, which the candidate trots out or barely mentions, depending on the particular audience being addressed. Yet, in the end, each candidate appeals more to some social classes, religious faiths, or racial groups than to others. Some appeal more to men than women, or vice-versa. If only men could vote, then Bill Clinton would never have been president.  What can we learn about the major candidates' constituencies, based on Iowa and New Hampshire? 

Who voted for Obama instead of Clinton? For Huckabee or McCain?  Iowa and New Hampshire voting behavior suggests some patterns to think about. Consider that Hillary's New Hampshire victory essentially was won in small industrial towns, where she got twice the support Obama did. She is also emerging as a working-class candidate who speaks to bread and butter issues. Since the American economy is fading at the moment, with falling house prices and higher unemployment, this aspect of Hillary's appeal bears watching. Another area of strength for her is in terms of religion. The Catholics clearly preferred Hillary (44%) to Obama (27%), with Protestants more evenly divided. In New Hampshire, these Catholics are mostly French-Canadian and Irish. Will Obama find a way to reach out to such voters? Will he have more success with Catholics that have other ethnic backgrounds? He will have to re-think his basic message a bit if he wants to appeal to the less educated and to the working-class. To put this in a more positive way, Obama outpolled Clinton among college students, the better educated, and the wealthy. Among those who have gone to graduate school, he defeated her soundly, 46% to 27%. But could he win a Presidential election primarily based on that kind of support? Perhaps, for Obama seems to attract votes from people with higher incomes, many of them Independents. Among voters earning more than $50,000 a year, Obama had a margin over Clinton of 43% to 27%. 

These kinds of preferences are not written in stone, and candidates can modify their speechs and presentations to woo voters whom they failed to attract early on. For example, Hillary discovered in Iowa that the young were flocking to Obama by a radio of 2 to 1, while she was busy targeting women over 45. To improve in this area, in New Hampshire Hillary began surrounding herself on stage with young people. That may seem a rather minimal change, but it seems to have helped her. 

Overall, one can see that while the total vote for Obama and Clinton was close, support varied greatly within specific groups. Men strongly preferred him, but women brought her the victory. Clinton may be a bit better positioned, with strong support from Catholics, women, and the working class. But Obama will presumably adjust his campaign messages in an attempt to reach more of these voters, all of whom traditionally have been more Democratic than Republican. If he fails to do this, he will have troubles down the road that may undercut the boost he can expect to get from Black voters, who were scarcely present in Iowa or New Hampshire.

On the Republican side, for the last three decades religion has been a particularly important influence on voters. New Hampshire Catholics taken as a whole are rather conservative, and in 2004 gave more support to Bush (52%) than to Kerry (47%). In theory, Huckabee could do as well as Bush. In practice, he did far worse. Huckabee received most of his support from Evangelical Protestants, while in New Hampshire only 8% of the Republican-voting Catholics selected him. McCain literally got five times more Catholic votes, suggesting that he is far more electable in a national contest. More to the point, in the Michigan Primary next week there are three Catholic voters for every two Evangelicals. Furthermore, if one looks at Protestants as a whole, McCain has roughly the same appeal as Huckabee.  In short, Huckabee's born-again Baptist religion ultimately may be a limitation, not a strength. Nevertheless, the latest Michigan polls show Huckabee and McCain in a dead heat along with Romney, with all three getting about 20% of the vote.