Sunday, August 17, 2008

When Two Tribes Go to Polls

After the 2006 midterm elections my department put on a post-mortem where my colleagues and I discussed the ramifications of the elections for American politics. I was in the minority among my colleagues in thinking that the era of the median voter theory in American politics was over. I thought Roveism, or the idea that the middle doesn't matter as much in American politics as mobilizing the bases, was in acsendance. I expected a politics of polarization where "tribes" on either side would dictate the outcomes in presidential politics for the forseeable future. What that meant is that as long as the tribe of people who identified as conservative is larger than the tribe of people who identify as liberal, that group will win regardless of objective factors like economic indicators or performance of past administrations.

Initially, the Obama campaign made me rethink my initial view. His call for "bringing people together" seemed to have struck a chord in the American electorate. But 80 days from the election, I'm starting to settle back into my initial view that strong party identification will win out over facts on the ground. I was struck watching the Saddleback Forum yesterday at Pastor Rick Warren's church that voters are beginning to sort into their tribes. For all the talk of new, young evangelicals giving Obama a chance in November, it was apparent from the difference in responses given to the two candidates that Obama stood no chance of connecting with this group of potential voters. Indeed, among White evangelicals, Obama is faring no better than John Kerry did in 2004. That is stunning given that Bush is widely regarded as the "evangelical candidate" and Kerry was viewed as a largely secular figure.

Now the table seem reversed, Obama is an avowed Christian, albeit at one of those "liberal" churches and McCain is a traditional Western Republican who is reticent to talk openly about his faith. But it hasn't moved the needle one inch. I think this is because we have two core constituencies on either side of the political divide that have starkly different world views. I'll be interested to see if his "change" theme works in the face of this continued polarization.

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