Dr. John Green Meets the Bloggers
Last night I attended a Meet the Bloggers interview at the Crowne Plaza Quaker Square (an intriguing hotel constructed from 19th century grain silos) in Akron with John C. Green, Ph.D., Director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and an expert on political parties, campaign financing, and religion and politics. Other bloggers present were Redhorse of Psychobilly Democrat, Kyle Kutuchief of The Chief Source (whose post on the event is here), Pho of Pho's Akron Pages, Tim Ferris, Gloria Ferris, George Nemeth of Brewed Fresh Daily, and
I arrived in Akron in a timely fashion (har-rumph) but was late to the interview due to taking a wrong turn off the highway, then driving around downtown Akron in a lashing rainstorm, struggling against a network of one-way streets that all go the wrong way (how do they manage that?). When I arrived Green was talking about how the religious left really stepped up during this election cycle. Historically, he pointed out, most religious involvement in politics during the 20th century was on the left. Religious conservatives were largely inactive until very late in the century. Religious liberals had championed civil rights, opposition to war, women's rights, and other left-leaning causes for many years. When the religious right stepped forward, however, the voices on the left became less noticeable. It is possible that there was a generational change of leadership involved. The religious right, he said, benefitted at the end of the century from the diversification of the media, with televangelists and conservative talk radio boosting the right. It was George W. Bush that provoked a resurgence of the religious left, although it took a while.
Green pointed out that the 2000 presidential race was largely perceived as a contest between two "moderates." Both Bush and Gore talked about religion during their campaigns, and Bush used the slogans of "compassionate conservatism" and being a "uniter" rather than a "divider." Bush's talk of federal funding for faith-based initiatives was exciting to religious groups on the left as well as the right. Religious leftists and moderates later became disillusioned with Bush due to three things: their perception that the faith-based initiatives concept was just a cynical effort to get votes, dismay over the Iraq War, and particularly Bush's support for a federal anti-gay marriage amendment. The last of those things came as a surprise because Bush had previously praised the Supreme Court's decision in the Lawrence case, striking down anti-sodomy laws.
Green believes that the religious left received a real wake-up call from Bush's re-election in 2004, when they had expected Kerry to win. They were shocked by that loss into speaking up, and by 2006 had become a significant presence in the political landscape. The 2006 election differed from 2004 by having more competition for the religious vote, with religious left and moderate voices making themselves heard and Democratic candidates talking more openly about values and going after religious voters.
Green pointed out that Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland is a good example of this trend among Democrats. Strickland didn't do that well among the religious right, but that wasn't his target. He wanted to win the support of religious moderates who had voted for Bush, and it worked. Strickland always talked about religion in the context of his own life, and that lent him a sense of authenticity that voters respected. Without authenticity, a politician who talks about religion seems to be merely pandering.
Green conceded that the religious right was discontented with Bush in this election cycle (partly due to Bush's failure to deliver on the right's social agenda, but more because of scandals like Mark Foley and the Abramaoff affair, which involves Christian conservative leader Ralph Reed), but the Republicans managed to hold the core group of evangelical voters together and turn them out strongly. They managed this by persuading them that whatever problems they had with Bush, the Democrats would be worse. However, the Republicans lost ground among the "fringe" of Catholics and mainline Protestants, who were more ready to vote Democratic this year.
We talked a lot about negative advertising, with Green agreeing with the proposition that it is so prevalent because it works. However, the way that they work is more by turning out the base (i.e, scaring them into voting) than by changing minds. The effect of a negative ad on the opponent's supporters is not to win them over, but just to make them wonder about a candidate that they thought they liked. Such ads may eventually cause people to be repulsed, and thus demombilize some voters. However, the effectiveness of negative ads declines as a result of over-saturation. At some point people start to just tune them out.
Another topic brought up was incumbents running as though they were challengers (the 3rd Ohio Senate District race being an egregious example). Green insisted that this phenomenon is not new, although it was done to a greater degree this year.
Green said he thought Sen. Mike DeWine's campaign "got away from him." The ratcheting up of negative ads came after the race was essentially over; they were "hail mary" ads. The poll averages bounced around until the last month of the race, he said. Ads in the summer did seem to move the numbers back and forth, but it was the Foley scandal that seemed to mark the ultimate downturn for DeWine. Although the incumbent senator was not directly involved, that scandal solidified public unease with Republican rule.
The 27th Ohio Senate District race between incumbent Kevin Coughlin (R) and challenger Judy Hanna (D) got some attention. Green remarked that Hanna was not very well known, and her ads helped but not enough. He doesn't think she was a particularly effective candidate. He agreed that Coughlin's barrage of attack ads probably helped raise her name recognition somewhat. Green noted that this is the second close, nasty race for Coughlin.
Green agreed with the idea that the extreme negativity of Republican advertising may have been an attempt to simply kick up dust and confuse the situation. "There was no effective answer to some of the criticisms that Democrats raised," he said, such as government corruption scandals. In the Ohio Senate and Ohio House races Green feels that the Republicans were somewhat successful in creating the impression that "everyone is bad," thus blunting Democratic criticisms.
In the 15th Congressional District race, Green does not feel that challenger Mary Jo Kilroy (D) hurt herself by attacking Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) explicitly over the Foley scandal. He thought that line of attack was probably helpful to Kilroy. The problem, he said, is that the district leans heavily Republican, and this is where good Republican turnout was successful in aiding an incumbent. (He noted, however, that Kilroy has a genuine chance of winning after absentee and provisional ballots are counted.) Republican turnout was actually very good nationwide, and pretty good in Ohio, although it lagged somewhat in a few states, including Pennsylvania. Many Republican incumbents lost by very small margins, a consequence of the good turnout.
Asked about the proportion of voters who are religious conservatives, Green said that it is about 20% both in Ohio and in the nation as a whole. In fact, he said, the only way that Ohio's electorate is really different than the U.S. overall is in having a lower Hispanic population.
Green disputes the current Republican talking point that the majority of newly elected Democrats are conservative, marking a national turn to the right. The Democrats did better in this election by having a more diverse array of candidates (including some that are moderate or conservative on social issues), but it was economic populism and foreign policy that carried the day. As a specific example, the pro-life Bob Casey (D) and conservative Rick Santorum (R) were basically tied on social issues in the Pennsylvania senate race, so the focus shifted to other issues. A lot of Democrats in 2006 were socially conservative but populist in their economic views.
Asked about trends in the next two years, Green summarized this election as being about performance. Americans are unhappy with the preformance of Republicans at the national and state level. Both parties need to respond to this. If Democrats can perform better than Republicans, then they will be in great shape in 2008. If the Republicans can shift gears and persuade the public that they can do things differently and better than before, that will help them. The imponderables are uncontrollable factors like the Iraq War. If as it appears there is no way out of Iraq, and therefore nobody has a good solution, the effect is hard to predict.
Green sees the 2008 election as a wide-open race. The possibilities include the emergence of a third party. (He has even heard talk of a McCain/Lieberman third party ticket.) People are tired of partisanship, so there is potential reward for working together, but working together can be risky as well. It promises, in any event, to be fascinating.
UPDATE: The Akron Beacon Journal published a short interview with Dr. Green on November 20th.