American elections have long best been understood as
referenda on the economy, but last November the economy didn't seem to matter to
voters. By most traditional measures 1992 through 1994 were years of strong
economic performance, yet the incumbent Democrats took a historic beating. For
exultant Republican pollsters, this was evidence of a genuine ideological
victory. For social scientists who touted models of voter behavior geared to
economic aggregates such as growth in gross domestic product, it was another
professional embarassment. For Democratic strategists, or anyone interested in
something better than Contract politics, it should be a wake-up call for a more
careful analysis. Either the economy really does not matter, in which case
Democrats need to find new ideological appeals to an increasingly conservative
voting public. Or it matters in ways that traditional analyses do not detect,
in which case Democrats need a new electoral strategy based on new economic
Which is it?
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ECONOMY
Wisdom here begins with an analysis of which voters deserted the Democrats in
1994, by categories of voters. Compared to 1992, Democratic support declined 10
percentage points among high school dropouts, 11 points among high school
graduates, and 12 points among those with some college. Support held perfectly
steady among those with college degrees. The same basic desertion pattern
applies if the basis of comparison is the 1990 mid-term election. The decline
in Democratic support again comes mostly from among the noncollege educated:
down 9 points for high school graduates and 11 points for those with some
college. The chief difference is that the 1990-1994 comparison shows very
little change among high school dropouts. Merging the results, Democratic
support appears to be curvilinear. Democrats are doing better at either end of
the education distribution while collapsing in the middle.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, the middle is where most of the voters are.
Exit polls, heavily used by strategists, understate the Democrats' problem.
These polls showed the Democrats maintaining their support among college
graduates, which appeared to be the largest single education group in the
electorate (43 percent of voters, according to the Voter News Service [VNS]
exit poll). But exit polls overcount better-educated voters. Evidently,
college-educated voters are more articulate and more willing to cooperate with
exit polls, which accounts for their overrepresentation. The more reliable
voting data available from the Census Bureau indicate that college-educated
voters were only 29 percent of the electorate in 1994. This is actually a
smaller share of the active electorate than voters with just a high school
diploma (31 percent), and far smaller than the overall noncollege-educated share
Among whites, where the decline in Democratic support between 1992 and 1994 was
concentrated (black Democratic support actually went up slightly), the shift
away from the Democrats among noncollege-educated voters was even more
pronounced, especially among men. Between 1992 and 1994, Democratic support
declined 20 points (to 37 percent) among white men with a high school education
and 15 points (to 31 percent) among white men with some college.
Contrary to the hopes invested in the "gender gap,"
noncollege-educated white women also deserted in droves. For both white women
with a high school diploma and those with some college, Democratic support
dropped 10 points. Thus, to ascribe the falloff in Democratic support to "angry
white guys," as many commentators did, is to miss the point. Large numbers
of noncollege-educated white men and women alike abandoned the party.
What is true of the electorate as a whole is also true of the 1992 Perot
voters, a key swing group. Adjusted to reflect voting patterns in the Census
data, their ranks are even more dominated by noncollege-educated voters. And
they moved massively against the Democrats, down 17 points from 1992 to just
32 percent support. If repeated in 1996, this astonishingly low level of
support will doom Clinton's re-election bid. Indeed, recent polls show 1992
Perot voters breaking two to one against Clinton in trial heats for 1996.
And what does this all have to do with the economy?
Approximately everything. As indicated in table 1,
it is precisely noncollege-educated Americans, in particular noncollege-educated
men, who have suffered the largest wage declines over the last two decades.
Furthermore, this miserable experience of wage (and income) decline continued
apace in the first two years of the Clinton administration, providing little
relief to voters who have seen their living standards erode over time. (See
Lawrence Mishel, "Rising Tides, Sinking Wages,"
) Finally, analysis of wage data cross-linked to the VNS data indicates
that the Perot voters who voted Republican in 1994 were the ones under the most
economic stress, with estimated post-1979 wage losses more than double those of
Perot voters who voted Democratic.
In short, the economy matters as much or more than ever, even if how it matters
is missed by traditional election forecasting models that stress overall
growth. These models mistakenly presume a "rising-tide-lifts-all-boats"
economy that no longer exists. In today's economy, some boats get swamped by the
same tide that elevates a few. Therefore, we need to look below the surface to
see what is really going on.
HOW THE ECONOMY AFFECTS SOCIAL ISSUES
To be sure, wage data are only crude measures of how the economy affects
individual voters, and narrowly material concerns hardly exhaust voter
motivation. Along with their income, voters are naturally concerned about the
stability of economic arrangements, the amount of time they get with their
families, the quality of schooling that their kids are getting, the safety of
their streets, the stability of their neighborhoods, even the robustness of
those civic values on which any society depends.
Indeed, a broad definition of "living standards" would encompass all
these factors, since they all influence the material quality of everyday life.
All of these factors, noneconomic and economic, can and do independently
motivate voter choice, with the noneconomic sometimes outweighing the economic.
Still, social life is materially conditioned, and the basic material of social
standing is income. Job security would be less of a worry with higher economic
growth and full employment. Relentless abuse and stress at the workplace would
not be tolerated if they were not thought necessary to maintaining income.
Public goods would be more abundant if the taxes to pay for them were
available, and taxes would be better tolerated if incomes were rising. Families
and community life would get more time if less time needed to be spent working.
Thus, however enlarged a conception of "living standards" one favors,
family-supporting wages and income are central. And a central fact of life for
the vast bulk of noncollege-educated voters is that, increasingly, American
politics does not assure it. Do that long enough, and you have an angry
electorate. Do it again, and they will throw you out, almost whoever "you"
happen to be.
Our quarrel is not with those who wish an expanded understanding of living
standards and thus a Democratic focus on both economic and noneconomic issues.
Indeed, we believe that such a synthetic approach is suggested by the 1994
election results and would be a big improvement over both the narrowly economic
focus of traditional liberals and the basically noneconomic focus of orthodox
New Democrats. Our real quarrel is with those who argue that 1994 marked a
newly ideological turn in American politics, from which the decline in living
standards can presumably be divorced. This is a widespread view in the mass
media, which take 1994 as a general right turn. It's true that the percentage of
self-identified conservatives increased from 30 to 37 percent between 1992 and
1994. Republican pollster Fred Steeper points to the unusually high Republican
House vote among self-identified conservatives (81 percent) in 1994--a 9-point
increase over 1992--as evidence of this broad conservative shift. But we are
unimpressed, for two reasons.
First, this ideological shift was dwarfed by shifts reflecting voters'
perceptions of the economy. Steeper's 9-point anti-Democratic shift among
conservatives (37 percent of the electorate) pales compared to the 25-point
shift against the Democrats among those who thought the economy was not so good
or poor (about 60 percent of the electorate) and the 36-point Democratic shift
among those who thought their family financial situation was getting worse
(about a quarter of the electorate).
Second, 1992 and 1994 exit poll data do not show a large
change in the effect of conservative ideology on the House vote. More
substantial shifts take place on economic variables like family financial
situation, long-term wage decline, and especially assessment of the national
economy. And the most important shift of all takes place in the relationship of
partisanship to the House vote, particularly among independents.
ALIGN="RIGHT" SRC="/tap_images/print/V6/images/23teixf1.gif" ALT=" [See Figure 1] " VSPACE="5" WIDTH="202" HEIGHT="404">
Controlling for their general anti- Democratic swing, there appears to be no
significant difference in the relationship between conservatism and the House
vote in 1992 and 1994. What might appear to be an ideologically driven shift
was really a pragmatic shift based on economic and other concerns. (See figure
1, Ideology or Economics?)
If long-term (and uninterrupted) declining living standards are indeed the
basic story of 1994, making progress beyond it requires clarity on two
questions: Why do such declines seem to disadvantage the Democrats uniquely?
And what might the Democrats (or any other progressive political formation out
there) do about that fact?
Who takes the political blame for long-term changes in economy and society
depends on which story the average person believes about these changes. Here,
long-term changes like steadily declining living standards differ from
short-term changes in the business cycle (booms and recessions), which simply
benefit (or hurt) the party on whose watch the growth (or decline) takes place.
The Democrats keep getting hurt by declining living standards because the story
the public believes about these long-term changes casts them as the villain.
The dominant story among the general public is that the long-term decline in
living standards has to do with wasteful government spending (especially on the
poor, minorities, and immigrants), high taxes, inefficient and obtrusive public
administration, selfish behavior by interest groups, and excessive social
tolerance and loss of values. Since all of this is readily identifiable with
the Democrats, as the party of activist government, poor people, minorities,
liberal interest groups, and social tolerance, Democrats get the blame. Because
the thrust of current Democratic strategy, especially its "New Democrat"
variant, implicitly accepts this dominant story, the Democrats start every
election with two strikes against them. Under extraordinary circumstances they
can win. Under ordinary circumstances they tend to lose.
The only way out of this box is by offering a convincing alternative in which
the government and the poor don't take most of the blame for declining living
standards and in which dismantling the government isn't the main policy
recommendation. Certainly this alternative includes policies to reverse wage
erosion, increase job security, and rebuild communities. But perhaps most
important is an alternative story that shifts the blame to other targets.
The obvious candidates for such targeting are irresponsible corporate power--the
source of declining living standards and feeble government response--and its
political allies. An alternative story would begin by declaring that these
forces have chosen a path for the country that does not inexorably accompany
economic progress (globalization, the "new economy," and so on), but
does inexorably drive down living standards by eroding the material basis for
family and community life. It is therefore possible and necessary to choose
another path--a task from which dominant corporations and politicians have
disqualified themselves by their behavior.
That such alternative paths are available is obvious from the experience of
virtually all other rich nations, which have survived in the new economy with
vastly better income distribution and growth patterns than our own. But this
alternative account does not come easily of late to Democrats. Perhaps this is
because of the fight with business interests (including Wall Street, the bond
traders, and Alan Greenspan) that would be necessary to advance this
alternative story and agenda. Perhaps, in our private-money system of campaign
finance, it reflects the Democrats' reliance on wealthy donors. Perhaps it has
to do with the current weakness of organizations that represent groups that
have been losing out (for example, unions or other institutions of workplace
Whatever the reasons for its current timidity, unless the Democratic Party
embraces an alternative story and shows a broader willingness to contest
business interests and encourage mobilization along class lines, Democrats will
continue to be on the defensive and Republicans will continue to have the high
ground. President Dole, anyone?o
Figure 1. Ideology or Economics?
The largest decline in Democratic support was among those who thought the
economy was not good or their personal financial situation was worse, not among
those who identified themselves as conservatives.
Source: 1994 VNS Exit Poll, 1992 VRS Exit Poll.
White Flight at the Polls
In 1994, whites with less education and larger wage losses were most likely
to desert the Democratic Party.
% CHANGE IN DEMOCRATIC SUPPORT 1992-94
high school dropout..-11%
high school graduate.-20%
high school dropout...-5%
high school graduate.-10%
% CHANGE IN REAL HOURLY WAGE, 1979-1993
high school dropout..-26%
high school graduate.-17%
some college ........-11%
high school dropout..-12%
high school graduate..-2%
Source: Authors' analysis of Voter News Service and Voter Research and Surveys
exit poll data, and Current Population Survey data.
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