Faith in Math
February 21st, 2012
by Jim Kessler
Nate Silver makes a meticulous mathematical argument that President Obama would be better off gaining downscale whites even if it costs him many upscale white voters (“Why Obama will embrace the 99%”). But for his math to add up, he has to make a giant leap of faith: that populism will win over working class whites. But where’s the compelling evidence for this populist proposition?
In our surveys of this same group of voters, there is certainly anger directed toward Wall Street, Congress, and special interests, yet we keep hearing a much more resonant emotion: anxiety. These and other swing voters are deeply concerned that the country is in decline. They fear that they, and especially their children, may not be able to successfully swim against an ebbing tide of American greatness. They don’t know what America does or makes anymore that represents a solid chance for opportunity and growth for themselves and their communities.
Among arguably the most important swing block of the electorate – those who voted for Obama in 2008 but switched to the Republicans in 2010 – this anxiety about America is palpable. In our 2011 survey we asked them to imagine that the world economy were the Olympics, and only one-third said that America would earn the gold 10 years from now. An equal amount said we would not be on the medal stand at all. Michael Ford, who directs the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University, found that middle income Americans overwhelmingly believe “the future is being created elsewhere” and that the middle class has lost faith in every major institution in America except the military. A pessimistic populism focused mainly on fairness, income inequality, and anti-corporatism does not speak to, much less answer, these profound anxieties.
Whether he runs as a populist or centrist, President Obama may be reelected no matter the rhetorical framework. As Mr. Silver notes, the economy is improving, bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is in tatters. And let’s not discount the fractured primary on the Republican side. But ultimately, an anger-based “people versus the powerful” argument has been tried, time and again, in the modern political era – by Mondale, Gore, Kerry, and Edwards, among many others – and it always comes up short. What voters along the income spectrum want is a leader who eases their anxieties and speaks to their aspirations, not one who echoes their anger. If Nate Silver has persuasive evidence to the contrary, he didn’t include it in his mathematically astute piece.