Real disposable income is the dominant swing voter ideology

by: Chris Bowers

Tue Jul 13, 2010 at 15:23


One of the main problems facing the Democratic Party on a national level is that it caters to the 20-30% of its elected officials who are primarily center-right when it comes to public policy. (For a list of the ways the party caters to this 20-30%, read my article "BREAKING: I am now a conservative Democrat.").  In the upcoming 2010 elections, the net result of this catering is likely to be a a minimal electoral boost for that 20-30% of the party, and a massive electoral setback for the entire party, including that 20-30%.

This prediction is based on available empirical studies on electoral outcomes.  It rests first on a study showing that candidates who appear moderate gain about 2% at the polls.  Andrew Gelman:  

There is definitely some evidence that moderate candidates do better. Steven Rosenstone discussed this in his classic 1984 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections, and others have looked into this as well.  For example, my 2008 paper, "Should the Democrats move to the left on economic policy?"

We also have some graphs in chapter 9 of Red State, Blue State, one showing the (estimated) benefits of moderation in congressional elections, and another graph for presidential elections.  The short story is that moderation can get you something like 2 percentage points of the vote (or, if you want to look at it another way, extremism can lose you something like 2 percentage points).

Now, 2% isn't nothing, and can make the difference in many campaigns.  However, this 2% swing is dwarfed by the impact that changes in real disposable income has on elections. Ezra Klein:

"In presidential elections," Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels says, "a 1 percent boost in election-year income growth has typically increased the incumbent party's vote share by about 2 percent. So an incumbent party that won 51 percent of the vote in an average economic year like 2004 would be expected to win only 46 percent in a recession year like 2008." Which is, as you may remember, pretty much exactly what happened.

Congressional elections are a bit more difficult because they're more local, but they end up being predictable, too. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, has a model that uses the number of seats the majority party holds, the approval rating of the president and the change in real disposable income, and predicts about 70 percent of the change from one election to the next.

The accompanying graph that Klein produced is also worth a look.  The bottom line is that changes in real disposable income can, and do, have much more impact on electoral outcomes than does the appearance of moderation.

Real disposable income is the dominant ideology among swing voters.  This should not come as a shock, or even a mild surprise.  The mushy middle is not full of political junkies, but it is full of people who worry about their pocketbooks.  As such, whether things get better or worse for their pocketbooks, those voters will blame the governing party, and vote accordingly.

In an ideal world, Democrats would get credit for moderation, and institute public policies that significantly increased real disposable income nationwide, thus creating a massive electoral landslide in their favor.  Readers of Open Left might remember this as the old eleven-dimensional chess strategy of appearing to be moderate in public, but in fact being a secret progressive when it came time to write legislation (Chris Matthews supported that line of thinking in the first question he asked me back when I appeared on Hardball).  However, following the current "moderate" line of slashing stimulus spending to reduce the size of the deficit is antithetical to getting more money in the hands of voters.

Blocking unemployment benefits will result in less money in the hands of voters who are unemployed.  Blocking the Medicare "doc fix" will result in less money in the hands of doctors who vote.  Blocking an extension of COBRA and a public option will result in voters who have to purchase individual insurance having less money in their hands.  Cutting aid to states to prevent layoffs will result in state workers who vote having less money in their hands.  Blocking a cap on ATM fees means less money in the hands of voters.  Blocking $100 billion in the first stimulus resulted in voters of all sorts having less money in their hands.  And that is just a partial list.

As a governing party, if you want to win elections, you have to get more money in the hands of voters than they had the year before.  That is simply impossible if your policy focus is on cutting spending, which is the current, dominant mantra of being a "moderate."  Those same "moderates" even want to cut Social security and Medicare payments in order to slightly cut the deficit, which would be a truly disastrous electoral move. Talk about taking money out of the hands of voters!

Democrats want to help the center-right members of their party win by allowing them to appear "moderate" to swing voters, and thus water down every piece of legislation the party proposes.  However, all Democrats, including the center-right Democrats, are all going to lose big because they failed to enact progressive public policies that would have resulted in putting more money in the hands of voters.  Whatever benefit the blue Dogs get at the ballot box for appearing "moderate" will be canceled out, several times over, because voters are pissed that they have less money in their wallets.

The dominant ideology of swing voters is disposable income.  As such, enact public policies that increase real disposable income, or else face defeat at the ballot box.  It really is that simple.

Chris Bowers :: Real disposable income is the dominant swing voter ideology

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Great Post (4.00 / 2)
and it jibes fairly similarly with a terrific column by Robert Reich: http://www.salon.com/news/grea...

Can't we get this post published as an editorial in some paper somewhere? (4.00 / 4)
I mean, geez, this is the single best piece of political advice out there. Every single elected Democrat should read it.

Klien (4.00 / 1)
The link to Klien was a link to an actual editorial in the Washington Post, not a blog entry.

But yeah, it should be repeated over and over again.


[ Parent ]
So the G.O.P. isn't even rolling the dice anymore… (0.00 / 0)
...sounds more like a stealth strategy for revamping Congress. Umm, why can't center-right Dems and "swing" voters (whoever they are) see this?

"This ain't for the underground. This here is for the sun." -Saul Williams

The elites are channeling Milo Minderbinder: (4.00 / 3)
1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: I want to serve this to the men. Taste it and let me know what you think.
[Yossarian takes a bite]
Yossarian: What is it?
1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: Chocolate covered cotton.
Yossarian: What are you, crazy?
1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: No good, huh?
Yossarian: For Christ's sake, you didn't even take the seeds out.
1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder: Is it really that bad?
Yossarian: It's cotton!

Maybe the Democratic Party should rename itself the Monster Raving Looney Party, just to keep things clear.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


Wait A Second! (4.00 / 1)
After quoting that passage, it's clear that the Dems should rename themselves the "Chocolate-Covered Cotton Party."

Screaming Lord Sutch entirely lacked Milo Minderbinder's earnestness of purpose in pursuing the mundane insane.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
True dat. (4.00 / 3)
It's a toughie for me. On the one hand, Minderbinder's earnestness is good enough to pass for a "very serious person," which other "serious people" naturally gravitate to... and he'll look terrific on television while selling David Gregory some chocolate covered cotton.

But the Screaming Lord Sutch is vastly more entertaining. I mean, who would you rather have leading the orchestra on the Titanic?

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


[ Parent ]
If the goal is to reelect democrats and strengthen the party (4.00 / 2)
well, they are going about it in entirely the wrong way.

However, if the goal is to help out their donors and wealthy Wall street pals at the expense of everyone else, then we're on the glide path, baby!

Giving the Money party whatever it wants has become the priority and the policy agenda of the Democratic party. The only way to slow this process down is for the blue dogs to lose big in November, and for every elected democrat to their left to win their respective races.


Tragedy of the commons (0.00 / 0)
This is kind of a play out of the classic "tragedy of the commons".  Democratic politicians want it both ways.  They want their party to be liberal, but themselves moderate.  That way they get credit for liberal policies that help people, but also get credit for being a moderate.

The problem with this strategy is that then ALL democratic politicians want to appear moderate and suddenly there are no votes left to pass the liberal legislation that will improve people's pocket books and therefore all of them lose.

Our Dime Understanding the U.S. Budget


so why is it that anyone thinks the 2010 version of the Democratic Party is worth supporting? (4.00 / 1)
There's absolutely nothing you can do or say that is going to convince whatever governs the party (whether it's people's wills or something else) that they should pay attention to things like unemployment rather than arbitrary and ideological (and economically and politically moronic) considerations like long term debt.  that is either because they're dumb or in someone's pockets or there are historical / institutional forces that are making them one or both of the first two.

so what is the point?  it's a sincere question.  the only one i can think of is mitigation (i.e. keep the next congress as minimally rightwing as possible).

but it would have been nice if some more work had been put into building individual challenges after the primaries to democratic politicians (or if you don't like third parties, issue based campaigning that would shift local elections even if the national picture is still governed by people you effectively paint as dimwits).  it's not like unemployment is going away - it's just that the people who are going to get the votes off of it are people like rand paul rather than the progressive democrats who don't yet exist in many places and may not ever.


well, some people are pretty comfortable in their role as DC insiders (0.00 / 0)
and hangers on

others refuse to believe that being right is more important than winning

and still others are just plain willing to believe whatever they're told so long as it fits the two party dynamic which they've spent their entire lives believing in as if the Democrats were Santa and Republicans are the Grinch

and, as David Sirota (god I hope he comes back soon) once mentioned, it's all about seeing "your team" win, who cares if they don't actually work for you?


[ Parent ]
I don't think that's entirely fair (0.00 / 0)
There are certainly people whom it describes quite well, but in the same vein that I can't intellectually understand why the Democratic administration and many other countries' leaderships are hell bent on cutting public investment at a time of recession and following thirty years of the same, I don't understand intellectually why there are large swathes of the progressive intelligentsia that go along with this.  

Not the unthinking, team-player, partisan kind, but the kind that can actually figure things out...except this...is it like a class bias?  I don't actually think that a third party is the long term answer, but I do think that a lot more flexibility and creativity about tactics (including but not limited to a third party) could be considered seriously?

I mean, what happened to EFCA?  Or really anything that would help build social democratic infrastructure besides waiting for the next Katrina-Palin-BP-Goldman Sachs disaster?  Maybe other people don't think the sky is falling as much as I do...who knows?


[ Parent ]
Excellent analysis... (0.00 / 0)
...that every voter knows by heart.


Sorry to beat a dead horse (4.00 / 6)
but the people running the White House and the party won't listen.

I have more hope for non-leadership members of Congress, governors, state legislators, mayors, etc., (not tons of hope, but some.)

They will listen to people demanding action on the economy. They will listen to people demanding jobs as a matter of right. Especially the latter group (and the first group would listen to them.)

Or at least, there is a far better chance they will listen to that.

If there is one thing that has been clear for a long, long time, it's that relying on Democratic consultants and their clients to act in the interests of partisan success simply won't work.


Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


It Is Not A Matter Of Failing (4.00 / 1)
However, all Democrats, including the center-right Democrats, are all going to lose big because they failed to enact progressive public policies that would have resulted in putting more money in the hands of voters.

They didn't fail to enact progressive policy; they simply weren't allowed to enact it. By claiming that they failed to do something implies that they simply made a mistake or a miscalculation. The reality is that they simply did what their donors told them to do. Isn't it silly to keep excusing their policy decisions by claiming over and over again that they're too weak or scared or incompetent to enact sensible legislation?  


You made a statement, (0.00 / 0)
and Digby picked it up and repeated it:

Real disposable income is the dominant ideology among swing voters.

That statement needs a link to support it.  Otherwise, it's because you say so?


Did you read the post? (0.00 / 0)
See the box where Ezra Klein reports on Larry Bartels's research. While I don't have links handy, many other political scientists have come to similar conclusions.

Make things better for the average person, and you win. But mainstream Dems are far too focused on fellating their paymasters, so that they can use the swag to pay their expensive, useless political consultants, to get this. The result will be a Republican House next year.


[ Parent ]
Yes, (0.00 / 0)
(a) I did read the post.
(b) I did look at Ezra's graphs.
(c) And, many do "report" the same argument that swing voters vote their pocketbooks.  As in,

And then there's the third group: actual swing voters, many of whom supported Obama in '08. They are a small group, but their defections are most tied to the economy and jobs. Losing them is the reason Obama's approval is somewhere in the 40s, even though he was elected with 53 percent. -  Steve Kornacki; Salon

All I'm asking for is the data to back that up.  Out of all eligible voters, how many are "swing" voters?  And, then, some analysis that ties these "swing" voters to electoral outcomes.

I don't disagree with the second point(s) you want to make, but repeating the first over and over doesn't make it true, no matter how many people say it, if there is no empirical evidence to back it up.  

I'll proceed on your recommendation to Bartel's research.  It's good if it's there, and if it is, a link to substantiate the claim,

Real disposable income is the dominant ideology among swing voters.

isn't too much to ask for.  On the other hand, if it's not there, then Chris, and Digby, and Steve Kornacki are echoing conventional wisdom without an empirical basis for doing so.

[ Parent ]
Do your own Googling. (0.00 / 0)
Election models that use purely economic data make very accurate predictions. It's not hard to find this information.

[ Parent ]
Do my own Googling? (0.00 / 0)
LOL.  I didn't write the diary, and I'm not the one making the claim, Steve.  With the number of graduate credits I have in economics, you really don't need to sell me on the influences of the economy on political outcomes.  

Let me make my complaint somewhat more explicit...

What percentage of eligible voters ignore their pocketbooks irrespective of their political affiliation as reflected on their voter registration cards?

We have polls that tell us x% are registered Democrats, y% Republicans, z% unaffiliated/independent.  And, we have polls that tell us, of those registered as unaffiliated/independent, whether they tend to vote more reliably for Democrats or Republicans (ie; the "myth" of the independent voter).  Of, x, y, and z what percent are swing voters?

In the context of our current levels of U3 and U6 what does swing even mean?


[ Parent ]
There Are Models That Are Pretty Damn Good (0.00 / 0)
But it's also true that there are outliers, and with the economy as bad as it is right now, it's one of those times when the main trendline of models may be less helpful than normal. That's what commonly happens in extreme times/situations with even the best of models.

You are right to be distrustful, generally, but in this case there is a solid empirical foundation.  The problem lies more in the interpretations that fail to take as much note of the caveats as they might.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
We Don't Want to Win! (0.00 / 0)
As a progressive I have NO desire for Democrats to hold the House in 2010.  There is absolutely no value in us holding the House at the moment.

No matter how progressive house members legislate they have NO power anymore due to the new Senate filibuster policy.  The House is no longer anything but a stamp of approval or denial for the Senate. I debate they actually will ever do anything in the future of our country again.

The one thing the House can do, under Republican leadership, is what Republicans are really good at; NOTHING.

We REALLY need the Republicans to get control of the House and show us that they will not introduce ANY legislation.  I don't mean their old, let's make the rich richer legislation.  I mean they will write NO NEW legislation.  Their new policy of anti-government prevents them from actually attempting to solve anything.

This will be our chance to show Americans that Republicans really have no ideas they haven't tried terribly unsuccessfully before.

The sad thing is, if they recently had the House, the Senate, and the Presidency and did NONE of the things they are running on, yet get elected anyway, there may simply be no hope, because Americans are just too dumb.


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