what happened to the new Obama voters?

Project Vote is pushing an important line of argument. They say that our policy debate is distorted because the media is fascinated with the Tea Partiers (“Who are they? What do they want? Will they affect elections?”) and is ignoring the huge number of new voters who turned out in 2008. Those new voters tended to be younger, less wealthy, more racially diverse, and more politically progressive than the typical US electorate, and they won a national election. If the press today would constantly ask, “Who are they and what do they want?” the whole policy debate might be quite different.

Lorraine C. Minnite writes, “heading into the 2010 congressional midterm elections the views of traditionally under-represented groups who were mobilized in record proportions in 2008 have been drowned in tea.” See her “What Happened to Hope and Change? How Fascination with the ‘Tea Party’ Obscures the Significance of the 2008 Electorate” (PDF) and a soon-to-be released Project Vote survey.

Reporters focus relentlessly on predicting the next national election. (I’ve quoted the former CNN political director, Tom Hannon, saying, “the most basic question about [an] election … is who’s going to win.”) From that perspective, it’s somewhat rational to focus on the Tea Partiers and not the recent Obama voters. Current polls that screen for likelihood of voting in 2010 suggest that the electorate will shift rightward again in 2010 because of who turns out. Thus, if you want to predict the next election, it makes sense to focus on the new conservative voters. Two important caveats, however, will probably be missed. First, the Tea Party will not represent the median voter, who will be moderate; and second, the electorate will probably swing back leftward in 2012.

Assuming that the media (and the blogosphere) continue to focus on predicting the 2010 election, the only way to shift the discussion is for progressive constituencies to threaten to vote. They need to tell pollsters that they are excited to vote, and they need to take public steps–like marches and protests–that indicate mobilization. That’s how the game is played right now, and they’re not playing well.

But the game isn’t satisfactory. “The most basic question” about politics is not “who’s going to win.” The most basic question is: What should we do? Although the press can’t answer that for us, they could provide information relevant to our decisions.

From that perspective, “Who will win the next election?” shouldn’t matter much. At most, it should have a modest impact on our strategic plans, but it should not cause us to change our own goals. (Thus the relentless focus on the horse race is problematic.) Who voted in the last election is perhaps a bit more relevant, because the winners presumably have some democratic legitimacy as the current governing coalition. Who might vote if we changed our politics is more interesting, because it invites us to consider a wider range of strategies. I’ll be looking forward to the Project Vote survey for that final reason–it will suggest ideas about how we might be able to mobilize new progressive voters with new progressive policies.

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