Category Archives: 2012 election

me on Morning Edition, talking about young people and the Republican Party

I wrote yesterday’s long post about the Republicans’ youth problem after taping an interview with NPR’s Don Gonyea. He was working on a March 1 “Morning Edition” story. The audio is here, and these were my key points:

For two elections in a row, Democrats have enjoyed a huge edge among [young] voters. And while many think that’s the way it’s always been, Levine says that’s not so.

“As recently as 2000, the youth vote was evenly split between the Democrats and the Republicans. So the phenomenon of the Democrats getting a lion’s share of the youth vote is new, and it’s really problematic for the Republicans because this generation will continue to vote for 50 years,” Levine says.

And, he says, Republicans shouldn’t simply think it’s a matter of young voters idolizing Obama.

“Young people in the exit polls really aligned with Barack Obama on the issues as well. So I don’t think they just voted for him because the Black Eyed Peas liked him. I think they actually voted for him in both ’08 and ’12 because they agreed with him,” Levine says.

Levine says that is the reality Republicans truly need to confront when it comes to the newest generation of voters.

youth opinions of immigration policy

(from an airplane) Last week, CIRCLE released our analysis of young people’s views of the immigration debate. The headline was not surprising. Only 8% of young adults chose immigration as their top issue in 2012, but those young people were overwhelmingly on one side of the debate, wanting to create paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. More than twice as many (16.8%) young adults from recent immigrant backgrounds chose immigration as their top issue. And among young immigrants of Latino background, 29.0% chose it. Thus there is a youth constituency for immigration reform–and hardly any  youth opposition to it–but it is mainly a top issue for Latino immigrant youth.

One thing that surprised me a little was some misinformation about the candidates’ positions on the DREAM Act–or else a miscommunication caused by our survey question.* Forty-two percent of the first- and second-generation respondents thought that only Obama (not Romney) would veto the DREAM Act. When combined with the respondents who thought that both 2012 candidates would veto the DREAM Act, nearly half believed that Obama was against it. Just about one quarter of recent immigrant youth (23.1%) and other youth (27.9%) correctly thought that only Mitt Romney would veto the DREAM Act. Nevertheless, the immigrant youth were notably favorable to Obama and opposed to Romney.

One possibility: our question was too complicated or obscure, and people misunderstood it. But another possibility is that people actually do not know that Obama favored the DREAM Act. I can see that happening because he is the president and yet no DREAM Act has passed. This means that Obama could gain youth support by signing legislation that included elements of the DREAM Act. It also means that Republicans do not have as serious a disadvantage with young immigrant voters as might be expected. Their candidate’s official opposition to the DREAM Act does not seem widely known.

*Which 2012 presidential candidate argued that The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act rewards criminal activity by undocumented residents and that he will veto it should the DREAM Act passes

what did young voters know and understand in 2012?

Many people assume that young adults are not prepared to vote knowledgeably. Only 24% of 12th graders scored at the “proficient” level on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics. But, as CIRCLE explains in a new fact sheet (one of two that we released today), the NAEP Civics assessment only measures certain kinds of knowledge, and its definition of “proficient” is open to debate. The proficiency level looks like a precise statistical finding but is actually a value judgment.

Therefore, starting on the day after the 2012 Election, we surveyed 4,483 young Americans (ages 18-24), including oversamples of African American and Latino youth. We asked the entire sample whether they had voted (and for whom) and posed some general factual questions about the US political system.

We also asked respondents to choose one issue of particular interest to them. They were then asked to express their own opinion on this issue and to answer two factual questions about where President Obama and Governor Romney stood on the issue. Detailed information is here, but these are some major findings:

  • On some topics, young people were informed. More than three in four young voters could correctly answer at least one out of two factual questions about the candidates’ position on a campaign issue that they had chosen as important. And on many questions about the structure of the US government, they performed as well or better than older adults who have been asked similar questions in other polls.
  • On other topics, most young people were misinformed. For instance, a majority (51.2%) believed that the federal government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security, when in fact Social Security costs about 20 times more. But again, older adults have also been found to be widely misinformed on the same topics.
  • About one quarter of young voters were poorly informed about the campaign’s issues, and young people who did not vote were generally uninformed.
  • Young people who recalled that they had received high-quality civic education in schools were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, to know campaign issues, and to know general facts about the US political system.That does not mean that civics causes higher turnout and more knowledge, because students who experience better civics may also have other advantages in their schools and communities. But the correlations are very strong and at least demonstrate that active and informed citizens tend to be people who had good civic education. Civics education was not related to partisanship or choice of candidate, and that may allay concerns that civics affects young people’s ideologies.
  • The level of misinformation was almost identical among young Romney supporters and young Obama supporters. But many more Romney voters held positions on issues that they knew contradicted the candidate’s positions. More than one quarter of Romney supporters chose the liberal position on the issue that they considered very important for the country. Even though Romney was defeated among 18-24s by 54.7%-28.1%, according to our poll, he got some of his votes despite his stance on issues.

The survey was funded by the Spencer Foundation, and the accompanying fact sheet was funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Both foundations, along with the W.T. Grant Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, are supporting CIRCLE’s Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, which will consider the data released today as well as other research on the 2012 election in developing its recommendations for how to enhance young people’s informed voting.

(Most of this post is cross-posted from CIRCLE’s site).

how conservatives can reclaim the civic ideal

In constructing a position for one’s own side, one must always debunk a caricature of the opposition. That seems to be an iron law of political rhetoric. Thus I don’t take it too seriously or complain too strongly when Yuval Levin argues that the “progressive view of government has long involved the effort to shrink and clear the space between the individual and the state.”

In a Weekly Standard article, Levin asserts that both the Democrats and the Republicans in the 2012 campaign recognized only the state and individuals. Both missed the value of “religious congregations, civic associations, fraternal groups, and charities, especially in providing help to the poor.” The Democrats, in particular, “fail[ed] to grasp” the value of civil society.

Although that may be an accurate portrait of some liberal political theorists (see my critique of Martha Nussbaum), it is manifestly not true of President Obama (a former member of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America and a theorist of community action), nor is it a fair description of the administration’s policies, which tend to favor independent local groups, from local health centers and charter schools to service programs like City Year and YouthBuild. Obama adopted the position that Levin recommends, about as explicitly as one can, at the conclusion of his Convention speech:

We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty program alone. We don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves, and we certainly don’t want bailouts for banks that break the rules. … We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems.

Nor is Levin right that the “ballooning growth of government” has damaged civil society. On the contrary, the correlation between the size and robustness of independent voluntary groups and the size of government is positive, whether at the state or international level. Unfortunately, the government is generally shrinking along with civil society in the US.

All that being said, Levin is trying to restore to conservatism a genuine respect for voluntary associations, self-sufficient and self-governing communities, and “government as a preserver and protector of the space in which our society thrives—of the social architecture of American life.”

This is all to the good. We need a conservative movement that offers positive ideals (including positive but genuinely conservative ideas about government). We need conservatives who can enter public deliberations, making arguments that can appeal to everyone, including the poor. And specifically, we need conservative voices in the debate about civil society.

After all, enthusiasm for local, voluntary, explicitly-value laden and tradition-bearing associations is a conservative heritage, although nowadays its strongest proponents are leftists like James C. Scott. It would benefit American civil society if the parties began debating how best to support voluntary associational life—whether by shrinking the state (as Levin argues—although that’s not his only proposal), by directly funding social enterprises (as the Obama Administration has done), or by other means entirely.

In this debate, the conservative side would defend associations against regulations that restrict their value-choices, such as anti-discrimination laws applied to religious congregations. Conservatives would also defend local groups that make conservative choices, such as charter schools that teach creationism. For their part, liberals would emphasize the material needs of grassroots groups and the benefits of government aid and would defend the liberal decisions of local groups (such as charter schools that teach gay history). The net effect could be quite good.

At a recent Hudson Institute event on Civil Society and the Future of Conservatism, participants discussed Yuval Levin’s article along with two of Harry Boyte’s recent pieces. During the campaign, Boyte had argued that the Republicans were forgetting the ideal of a commonwealth in favor of a pure rhetoric of privatization. He also argued that the language of work—much invoked during the campaign—could create common ground between right and left. Work is not just a matter of holding a job and collecting a paycheck; it creates public goods and builds the commonwealth. People want to work and they can do valuable work in the public, private, or nonprofit sectors. But meaningful, productive, collaborative work is scarce, and liberals and conservatives should offer competing ideas for how to change that.

the battle within the GOP

On Sept. 20, I told Lee-Anne Goodman of the Canadian Press (the national wire service of Canada):

“Trying to interpret why a party lost a campaign is always a blood sport, in every country, and anyone pushing an ideological agenda will say it’s because the candidate failed to embrace that agenda,” says Peter Levine. …

“But this time it’s all complicated by the fact that Romney is a such Rorschach blot of a candidate — he used to be pretty liberal, then he was very conservative in the primaries, and now he’s not specific about anything, so that will just add to the ambiguity if Republicans have to figure out what went wrong. …

“There will be at least two years, if not four, of bloody battle over what the election meant if they lose,” he said.

I still agree with the above, which seems pertinent right now. I am not sure if the following prediction of mine remains plausible:

“But I don’t think the traditional, moderate Republicans are going to keep quiet any longer. They may not have wanted to provoke any fights during primary season, when a presidency was within reach, but they’re anxious about what’s happening to the party, and if Romney loses, you’ll see organized efforts to take back control.”

That’s bad news for Democrats, he added.

“Democrats will be much better off if conservatives get their way, but my best guess is the Republican party will nominate a much more moderate candidate in 2016, thanks in large part to what’s happened in 2012.”

Right now, it’s not hard to find denialism about the election results and a continued desire to demonize the president. I was a guest on conservative talk radio in Philadelphia last week, and that’s where I first heard that the whole Petraeus sex scandal is actually a cover to prevent congressional investigations into Benghazi. On the other hand, you also see Republicans like Ross Douthat and Trey Grayson starting to push back. Up until now, one of their biggest problems has been differentiating themselves from Barack Obama. After all, imagine that a moderate Republican had been elected in 2008: what would she or he have done? I would guess: 1) stimulate the economy through a mix of temporary tax cuts and spending increases, Keynesian-style, and 2)  reform health care to universalize coverage and cut costs by requiring people to buy private health insurance, while subsidizing that cost for low-income people. This is exactly what Obama did.

That point is usually made by liberals who are dissatisfied with Obama’s moderation, but I think the president’s strategy had achieved liberal ends better than his two Democratic predecessors, Carter and Clinton, combined. So I applaud his record, but it still poses a challenge for moderate Republicans, who can’t be seen to occupy the same space. That challenge will become less problematic for them as the years pass, the Affordable Health Care Act becomes popular (but needs tweaks), and the country moves on to new issues, including immigration and the environment.