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Whom did we lose

As vacations have ended and politics reemerges from its holiday hiatus, a number of “analyses” of Election ’04 have appeared in various publications. These theses on the Democratic Party’s future direction seem to be based more on the authors’ personal ideologies than on careful examination of the electoral results. Indeed, most of these directives are data-free.As vacations have ended and politics reemerges from its holiday hiatus, a number of “analyses” of Election ’04 have appeared in various publications. These theses on the Democratic Party’s future direction seem to be based more on the authors’ personal ideologies than on careful examination of the electoral results. Indeed, most of these directives are data-free.

Some have argued for revamping what we stand for — abandoning some core view or embracing another, but I’m not yet ready to engage in wholesale rethinking of the party’s direction. Presumably, our fundamental positions are dictated by deeply held values and not by political calculations.

But the very purpose of political parties is to aggregate interests, to bring together voters and activists with different values in the service of developing a majority coalition.

As Democrats engage in these now-ritual debates, it is helpful that everyone have a fact or two at their disposal. One important set of facts concerns whom it is we have won and lost.

In previous columns, I’ve written about some of the demographic groups among which Democrats gained votes, as well as those among whom we lost ground. Today, let’s step back and look at the electorate in its broadest and most political terms — party and ideology.

I’ve long denigrated the utility of self-proclaimed ideology. I don’t know what it means, and I’m not sure voters do either. I do know it doesn’t necessarily mean what pundits assume. Finding out that a voter is a moderate does little to predict that voter’s views on most issues. Voters don’t fit their issue positions together in easy liberal, moderate and conservative boxes.

But ideology clearly means something to voters. Together, party and ideology tell most of what you need to know about a voter to predict the voter’s candidate choice in presidential elections.

From this perspective, Kerry and Bush supporters presented nearly mirror images. John Kerry’s margin was exactly the same among liberal Democrats as Bush’s was among conservative Republicans. The two candidates posted precisely the same margins among moderate adherents of their respective parties. Bush did just a couple of points better among liberal Republicans than did Kerry among conservative Democrats. About half of each of these cross-pressured groups defected to the other party’s candidate.

Moreover, Kerry actually won the segment that should be decisive, moderate independents, by a healthy 12-point margin.

How did he lose, then? The answer is relatively simple. There are twice as many defection-prone conservative Democrats as liberal Republicans. The result? More defections from our side than from theirs.

Both parties’ bases were equally rock-hard. The problem? Conservative Republicans outnumber liberal Democrats by one and a half to one. Kerry’s support in the liberal Democratic base was solid — higher than Jimmy Carter’s when he won, higher than Al Gore’s when he won the popular vote. Only Bill Clinton did a bit better with the base.

Kerry’s defection rate among moderate and conservative Democrats was low by historical standards. Kerry’s margin among swing moderate independents was 22 points higher than Gore’s and 14 points higher than Carter’s when he won in 1976.

Taking into account the joint impact of partisanship and ideology, then, their base is bigger while our swing is larger.

Having done as well in our base as Bush did in his, and as well as Democrats have hitherto, getting a larger margin from the base is pretty hard. That leaves three logical possibilities:

1. Create more Democrats.

2. Create more liberals.

3. Do even better with moderates.

Personally, I favor all of the above.

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