Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government

By Stephen C. Craig | Go to book overview
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The challenge facing the Democratic Party, then, is to shift its focus away from simple aggregate economic growth (and policies with high marketing content) toward a more clearly substantive approach that can generate middle-class prosperity. This, in turn, may call for a new marketing strategy, since the party's approach probably will call for the use of greater resources and more government than many in the middle class are currently prepared to endorse. 25 Is such a marketing strategy even possible? It is difficult to say with any certainty. What can be said is that it is central to the Democrats' efforts that they implement programs that might substantially benefit their electoral target: white, middle-income, middle-education voters. If unable to implement these programs, they will be thrown back on the politics of symbolism -- a politics well suited to defeating unpopular incumbents but poorly suited to reviving middle-class faith in the Democratic Party and activist government.

In 1992, for example, American National Election Study (ANES) data show that more than 7 in 10 middle-class citizens (roughly operationalized as those with family incomes between $15,000 and $50,000) believed that the national government could be counted on "to do what is right" only "some" or "none of the time." Similarly, 1992 Voter Research and Survey (VRS) exit-poll data indicate that more than 60 percent of middleclass voters preferred a government that provided fewer services and cost less to a government that provided but also cost more.
Consider the following: (1) Suburbanization. In 1960, about one-third of the national vote was cast by suburban residents; by 1988, that share had increased to 48 percent (Schneider 1992b); (2) Sectoral employment shifts. The proportion of the electorate in white-collar occupations grew from 26 percent in 1960 to 37 percent in 1988 (Teixeira 1992); and (3) Generational replacement. According to Abramson ( 1983), about half the electorate is replaced every twenty years.
For an interesting scholarly overview of the formation and evolution of the DLC, see Hale ( 1993).
For some evidence on the electorate's unusually negative evaluations of Bush and the Republicans in 1992, see Abramson, Aldrich, and Rohde ( 1994, chapter 7).
In fairness to Clinton, it should be noted that the VRS exit poll from which these figures are taken indicated that Perot voters were about evenly divided between Clinton and Bush -- suggesting a Democratic victory even if Perot had not run. The fact remains, though, that the Texas billionaire did run and enormous numbers of anti-Bush voters chose to support him rather than the Democratic nominee. There is no way to interpret this as anything other than electoral weakness.
In any given election, regardless of the incumbent party's level of public approval, a certain number of former supporters will choose to switch sides, as will a certain number of those who previously voted for the opposition. This means that even if the party stays in power (perhaps with the same level of support as before) the composition of its electoral base will have shifted at least somewhat.
These figures are derived from the 1992 VRS exit poll.


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