It's Not Only the Economy, Stupid

Americans are divided on the role of government, immigration, foreign affairs and the family.

It’s “the economy, stupid,” said former Clinton strategist James Carville when asked to define the issues of the 1992 campaign. Carville is an excellent strategist, a good friend and a good man. But he knows that voters are never one-dimensional when they choose a presidential candidate. Even when the economy is bad, voters are ultimately deciding on their hopes and dreams, both for the present and for their children’s future. Thus, if it is about anything, voting is about values, about principles that we hold closest to our hearts.

Back in December 2003, I came out with a poll that defined the election of 2004. I asked a large number of values questions related to God, guns, sex, babies, the Clintons and the Bushes, and so on. In assessing the data, I used the purely artificial construct of “blue states” (those that voted for Al Gore in 2000) and “red states” (those that voted for George W. Bush). Remember, some of those states fell into one category or another by only hundreds of votes. Still, what was remarkable to me was actually how different the reds and blues were. In red states, 61 percent of voters owned a gun; only 36 percent in the blue states. Most voters believed in God, but in the red states, three in four identified their God as omniscient and omnipresent, while 51 percent of blues saw God principally as The Watchmaker. Voters were 9 points more likely to be single and never married if they lived in a blue state.

After that divisive 2000 election, the United States had a healing period. By late 2006, a critical mass of voters was telling us that they wanted their next president to be a “problem-solver” and a “consensus-builder.” Despite the rhetoric of the Democratic and GOP primaries of 2008, both parties nominated two candidates who could legitimately claim those traits: one by vision and sentiment, the other by legislative experience.

On the table were issues of war and peace, security and status anxiety. Fear of terrorism, loss of health benefits, even perceived threats of border insecurity and the sanctity of marriage were on people’s minds. And while there was never a consensus on the best approach to resolve these problems, at least for a while the prevailing view was that, in the famous words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “we have to try something.”

The Current Divides

Today, a values divide has taken center stage. There are plenty of areas where political leaders can find common ground, but this campaign is nearly all about feeding red meat to the base of ideological supporters. And in recent polling by JZ Analytics, I got a close look at how Americans remain deeply divided on some basic values. Here are just a few instances.

Which of the following statements comes closer to your opinion?

1. Statement A - The US experienced a very serious economic recession. In an economy based on private investment and consumer spending, it is necessary during a crisis for the federal government to pump money into the economy to hire unemployed, increase consumer spending, and invest in new directions like green collar jobs and infrastructure renewal.

2. Statement B - The US is drowning in government debt and taxpayers will be saddled with paying it back for generations. This has fostered a dangerous cycle of dependence on the government which must be stopped. The best resolution is a combination of spending cuts, lower taxes to encourage private spending and investment, and reduced government regulations to encourage new business.

3. Not sure

This is so much more than a question about the role of government. This is about how Americans define responsibility, citizenship and values they want their government to express. Overall, only about one in three voters (35 percent) agreed with Statement A, the Keynesian/New Deal/Great Society/Obama version of government, where Washington plays an activist role in relief, recovery and reform.

Half (50 percent), on the other hand, identified with the Reagan/Republican view of government as the enemy, the engine that causes debt, dependence and disincentive to growth. About half of Democrats (48 percent) agree with A, but one-third (33 percent) agreed with B and almost 19 percent were not sure. Democrats seem to have soured a bit on big government. Almost three in four Republicans agreed with B and only 19 percent with A. This appears to be a unifying theme for GOP voters. Independents tilt toward the anti-government-spending view—47 percent to 35 percent. Only 18–29 year olds are tied on this issue, while support for the Republican view grew with age.

Another question on immigration paralleled views on government.

Which of the following statements comes closer to your opinion?

1. Statement A - The US is a nation of immigrants. Immigration has been the source of renewed spirit for the nation and the American Dream, a sign of a culture of tolerance, entrepreneurial growth and productive labor.

2. Statement B - Immigration is a key part of the American tradition of tolerance but in a time of serious economic crises there is a need to place limits on immigration in order to protect American jobs.

3. Not sure