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Name that voter


They are at it again. Every election cycle, some pollster or pundit tries to capture complex dynamics by providing a cutesy name to some segment of the American electorate that is deemed to be dispositive of the election’s outcome.

“Security moms” is the latest iteration in a long line that began with Dayton housewives and wound through yuppies, waitress moms, soccer moms, office-park dads and NASCAR dads, to name a few.

These groups generally share three common characteristics. First, they are coined or retailed by individuals seeking the attention of the chattering classes in the service of their own favored political agenda. Second, they are usually so vaguely defined that it is almost impossible to know who fits in the category. Third, they almost never, in fact, determine the outcome of elections.

The “Dayton housewife” was identified and used by Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon to advance an early version of the neoconservative agenda. Yuppies were introduced by supporters of younger, new-generation candidates. “Office-park dads” was the slogan of the Democratic Leadership Council, which wanted to aim at upscale men. “NASCAR dads” was a response from those who wanted the party to focus its message on more downscale voters.

With the naming rights comes some power over the concept. More important, it helps shape political discourse itself, colors the interpretation of the electoral outcomes and sets future agendas.

If elections of the early ’70s were to be decided by Dayton housewives who hated sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and war protesters, Democrats had to be wary of George McGovern and his young activists. After the fact, interpretation of McGovern’s pasting was shaped by this notion. The idea that the economy was great in 1972 or that the negative income tax sounded foolish or that throwing Thomas Eagleton off the ticket made McGovern look inept never really entered the mainstream debate.
1972 was about culture because the election was decided by Dayton housewives.

If “soccer moms” were the swing voters, issues such as choice and gun control should be at the top of the agenda. If it’s NASCAR dads, both issues should be ignored. Those who see office-park dads as the focal point want deficits and welfare reform atop the agenda. Advocates for waitress moms argue for a focus on health and childcare.
Those advancing the primacy of security moms want the public to be focused exclusively on terror.

In short, these labels, beloved by the press and pundits, are, for the most part, thinly disguised ideologies.

The real people who fit under these metaphorical rubrics are often hard to find. As Jacob Weisberg wisely asked in Slate eight years ago, are soccer moms “well-heeled superparents” or “financially stressed”? Are security moms those who put the fight against terror above all else, or anyone who is concerned with the threat at all? Rigorous definition rarely accompanies these labels.

Perhaps most important, the electoral significance of these segments is almost always exaggerated. Office-park dads were rather clearly described as 25-50 years old, independent men, who are nonunion and suburban. That group represents about 1 percent of the electorate. Excluding the suburban requirement, office-park dads are just under 4 percent of the voters. College-educated suburban women with kids at home (one definition of soccer moms) constitute less than 3 percent of the voters.

Post-election data rarely bears out the pre-election focus on the segment. Nobody would seriously argue that McGovern’s landslide loss was a result of his being deserted by Dayton housewives. Nor was Walter Mondale’s loss attributable to losing yuppies. Dole lost soccer moms (whomever they may have been) but he also lost seniors and the young, while doing poorly with men. And in ’02, Democrats lost a lot more than office-park dads.

Whether it’s security moms or soccer moms, beware of ideology masquerading as swing-voter analysis.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) this year.

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