The directly political story of each national party convention, Democratic and Republican, year by year, is captured in the themes that convention planners want to emphasize and in the themes they feel they have to emphasize, as well, of course, in what they talk about in doing both. Some of these themes are remarkably consistent for each party, year after year. Conversely, some of them are largely dependent on the issues of the day, on concerns that blow up in one election year and disappear by another. This is the sense in which most of us understand ‘politics’—explicit policy-related warfare between two major political parties. But conventions also embody, very concretely, a much larger aspect of democratic politics. This involves nothing less than the links between the general public and party activists. The latter are disproportionately influential in shaping political choices. The former ultimately get to choose.
The evolution of these relationships—“elite-mass linkages” to a social scientist, “parties and voters” to the man in the street—is reasonably well-understood territory and constitutes the deep background to most of what will be observed at the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 2012. Accordingly, we ought to visit it today, the day that the Democratic Convention moves into the hall and up to the podium. The year 2012 has, however, presented a nasty problem in this regard. For all the years that I have been attending national party conventions, one of both of the newspapers that would be the ‘national press’ in a European nation, the New York Times or Washington Post or both together, have been supplementing the resources of formal social scientists through extensive delegate surveys, which informed the Sunday editions of these papers at convention time.
Unless I have truly been asleep at the switch, there have been no such surveys in 2012. I am aware of some counterparts involving state delegations, and these are consistent with much of what has already been observed here. But for 2012, we need to set out the world leading up to this year, and then invite observers to bring their own impressions to bear. I shall do the same with mine, starting tonight. Before that, however, it seems worth setting out the world as we have come to know it, the deep background to modern convention politics, in the belief that while it can change—indeed, looking back, we know key points when it did—it qualifies the real backdrop to all that we observe.
Partisan Activists, Their Rank and File, and the General Public
It was Herbert McClosky, political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who taught us all—including those much-later generators of delegate surveys at the Times and the Post—how to track these relationships, and why they matter. Beginning with the 1956 conventions, McClosky et al. unearthed a world in which rank and file Democrats were moderately to the left of the general public as a whole; rank and file Republicans were moderately to the right of that same general public; Democratic delegates were moderately to the left of the Democratic rank and file, and hence farther off from the general public; and Republican delegates were sharply off to her right of the Republican rank and file, and thereby wildly off to the right of the general public.
In the immediate postwar period, it was not clear whether this reflected damage inflicted by the Great Depression and the New Deal, where the Republicans had remained in a pre-New Deal condition while the Democrats had moved on, or whether it reflected just one clear majority and one clear minority party, where the minority was condemned to ideological isolation. But it was a recurrent pattern into the 1960s. Not all subsequent research was as geographically far-reaching and as intellectually rich as that from McClosky and colleagues, but most came to similar conclusions.
Ideological Representation at National Party Conventions
|Republican Delegates||Republican Identifiers||All Voters||Democratic Delegates||Democratic Identifiers|
The topic received renewed attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the institutional arrangements for selecting delegates to national party conventions (and hence for nominating presidents) received intensive, self-conscious, root-and-branch reform. Almost everyone who watches contemporary nominating politics is aware of the biggest single piece of this. Old-fashioned state party conventions were replaced by modern presidential primaries. But in fact, both conventions and primaries were further reformed. Conventions were no longer closed gatherings of the official party to select its delegates to the national convention. Instead, they began with open meetings at the grass roots, attended by anyone who claimed to be a Democrat or a Republican. Likewise, many existing primaries had featured the direct election of delegates to the national convention, but without any connection to presidential aspirants. Reformed primaries emphasized precisely this link, often putting the names of presidential contenders but not of delegates on the primary ballot.
A New World of Activists, Identifiers, and the General Public?
Because these reforms were directly associated with catastrophic upheavals inside the Democratic Party, with an inescapable backwash for Republicans, it was not always clear what was chicken and what was egg in the new relationships that emerged between party activists and their rank and file. Did new relationships drive reform, or did reform give rise to new relationships? But a return to systematic study in 1972—1968 had been the upheaval; 1972 was the first available test of the combined effect of upheaval and reform—suggested an actual upending and reversal of the old world. Democratic identifiers were still modestly to the left of the general public; Republican identifiers were still modestly to the right of that same public. But now, it was Republican delegates who were modestly farther to their right of their rank and file, and Democratic delegates who were wildly off to the left of theirs. It looked, for one election, like a world turned upside down.
Yet within one further election—and note that 1976 is itself a long time ago—the shape of what would be the obvious progenitor of the modern world had come sharply into view. The oldest part of the picture did not change. Rank and file Democrats were still modestly off to the left of the general public as a whole. Rank and file Republicans were still modestly off to the right. But Democratic delegates were again wildly off to the left of their rank and file, and hence even farther away from the collective general public. While Republican delegates returned to being wildly off to the right of their rank and file, and hence likewise even farther away from that collective general public.
Lest observers be allowed to believe that the world had simply become more volatile overall, the same surveys in 1976 told the same story. Even with Jimmy Carter as their nominee, surely the most conservative Democratic nominee in the entire postwar period on the basic issues of social welfare that had formed the party system of the New Deal, Democratic delegates remained wildly off to the left. Even with Gerald Ford as their nominee, probably the most moderate Republican nominee in all the years since his nomination, Republican delegates remained wildly off to the right.
There was to be one major, further twist to this alignment as it reached the modern era, though there are two possible ways to talk about its coming. One way is to say that those increasingly polarized convention delegates, as representatives of the active political parties in general, pulled their rank and file farther left for the Democrats and farther right for the Republicans. The other way is to say that as active Democrats and active Republicans drew sharper and sharper lines between the two parties, more and more of the rank and file sorted itself into the party whose preferences were closer to their own. The point here is that either explanation leads on to the modern alignment.
In this, rank and file Democrats were now clearly and distinctively left of the general public, comparatively farther off to the left than their delegates had been in the 1950s. Likewise, rank and file Republicans were now clearly and distinctively right of the general public, to an apparently greater degree than rank and file Democrats were to the left but certainly farther to the right than their convention delegates had been in 1972. Democratic delegates remained farther to the left of their rank and file, while Republican delegates remained farther to the right of theirs.
What about 2012?
To the best of my knowledge (and that of the colleagues whom I have queried), there are no systematic surveys of this sort for the Republican and Democratic delegates of 2012.
There is, however, one focused but still substantial survey which suggests that nothing major has changed: these contours remain the basic story of 2012. There are also two single-state surveys that qualify the implications of these results in a major way: the same basic story may not always conduce toward the same strategic outcome. And there is, of course, the convention behavior that we are about to observe, this evening, tomorrow evening, and Thursday evening. One side of this behavior comes from the podium, as shaped by the convention leadership. The other side comes from the delegations, in what the delegates would do if they were shaping podium presentations. I shall attend to both of these latter forms of evidence in my next two posts.
In the meantime, note that the issue of Bloomberg Insider for yesterday reports a survey of delegates from what are classified as the battleground states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Partisan differences of opinion are remarkably stark: 99% of Democratic delegates see rescue of the auto industry as a success, while 90% of Republican delegates call it a mistake. 67% of Democratic delegates point to insufficient tax revenues as the main cause of the federal deficit, while just 1% of Republican delegates make that choice. Conversely, 90% of Republican delegates make the growth of entitlements to be the biggest deficit driver, while only 5% of Democratic delegates do so.
Given its focus on business, Bloomberg does not ask about social issues: abortion policy, gay rights, immigration policy, and so on. But there have been two other, individual-state surveys—of Illinois and Pennsylvania, which are at least large states—and each reinforces a different, further implication from these surveys in 2012. In these states, both Republican and Democratic delegates agreed overwhelmingly that the great issue of the 2012 contest is the economy. No doubt, as with the Bloomberg story, they perceive both the fundamental problem and its appropriate solution differently, once they have agreed on this central concern. But these two state surveys do suggest that there is less surprising about the success of the Republican Convention in having economics move to center-stage and social issues recede than might otherwise appear to be the case. Though whether the Democratic Convention will follow suit, or whether it will upweight social issues to deal with perceived economic weakness, is something to be observed over the next three convention sessions.