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JULY 1, 2002

Group Think

One day last month Democratic pollster Mark Penn unveiled the new
swing voters whose allegiance will shape American politics this
November and beyond: "office park dads." Immediately a demographic
star was born. "Politically pampered `soccer moms' are being
elbowed aside," began a story in USA Today. "Democrats are going
after the votes of 'office park dads.'" How can the party win over
this crucial swing vote? Easy, explains Penn: These voters "don't
want the party to adopt an anti-corporate stance."Office park dads are only Penn's latest creation. A mere two years
ago he declared the election would be decided by another group:
"wired workers." They, too, elicited much media fanfare. "Pollsters
have discovered a class of tech- savvy suburban voters who could
turn the election," declared Newsweek. Eerily enough, wired
workers, like their successors, also craved a business-friendly
Democratic Party. "Class rhetoric is a huge turnoff for this group,"
said Penn at the time. Eerier still, it turns out both classes of
swing voters embrace the very political philosophy Penn was urging
Democrats to adopt long before he discovered either group.

Though much imitated, Penn is the unacknowledged master of this
particular form of ideological-demographic bait and switch. In
contemporary American politics the preferences of swing voters take
on great importance, whereas the preferences of reliably partisan
groups are often consigned to the sidelines. The trick, therefore,
is to find some segment of the electorate whose philosophy jibes
with your own, and then define it as the swing vote.

Take a recent poll conducted by pollster Sergio Bendixen purporting
to show that President George W. Bush has made startling inroads
among Hispanics. The media lapped up the conclusion--"BUSH OUTREACH
TO HISPANICS PAYS DIVIDENDS FOR PRESIDENT," proclaimed The Wall
Street Journal on May 21. Hispanics now constituted a swing group,
explained Bendixen and Cuban-American Democratic Representative
Robert Menendez. "The poll tells us, `Wake up. You're being
challenged,'" warned Menendez. What was the evidence for this
conclusion? Asked how they would vote in a potential Bush-Gore
rematch, Latinos opted for Al Gore by merely two percentage points,
down from a 27-point margin in 2000. What the poll didn't mention
is that, among the public as a whole, Bush leads in a potential
rematch by around 25 points. Moreover, Bendixen's own survey showed
that Hispanics intended to vote Democratic in November's
congressional races by a 30-point margin. In other words, the real
news was that Hispanic voters still skew Democratic by about 30
percentage points more than American voters as a whole. But it
would hardly suit Bendixen's interests to tell Democrats they're
doing relatively well with Hispanics and could more profitably
direct their energies elsewhere.

Nowhere has the manufacture of swing voters been more evident than
in the intramural argument over the future of the Democratic Party.
Both Republicans and Democrats perennially debate the relative
merits of placating the party base versus reaching out to the
center. What distinguishes Democrats is that they can't even agree
on what the center is. "The debate over who the swing voters are,"
observes GOP pollster Whit Ayres, "is more of a Democratic argument
than a Republican argument." And unsurprisingly, within the party
each side's demographic analysis corresponds neatly with its
ideological agenda. The Democrats' moderate faction, associated
with Penn and the Democratic Leadership Council, defines swing
voters as white-collar professionals who are economically moderate
and socially liberal. The liberal faction, by contrast, defines the
swing vote as blue-collar, downscale voters who are economically
populist and socially moderate. Every political season, each side
vies to develop a narrow demographic slice--preferably attached to
a catchy name--that the media will adopt as "the" swing vote. And
so in recent years the political landscape has become populated
with office park dads, waitress moms, wired workers, and other
exotic species.

The most successful recent swing group, soccer moms, emerged
seemingly out of nowhere six years ago; Penn, then President Bill
Clinton's chief pollster, glommed onto them as the perfect target
for his New Democrat agenda. In 2000 Penn rolled out wired workers
before moving on to office park dads this spring. At first glance
it might seem strange that, with each election cycle, control of
the American polity shifts to a new demographic subgroup that just
happens to share Penn's ideology. In fact, it's not clear that his
subgroups are really distinct at all.

Start with office park dads. Penn's presentation describes them as
middle- class, nonunion men ages 25 to 50, with working wives. (By
this definition, I would qualify as an office park dad, despite the
fact that I neither work at an office park nor am a dad.)
Presumably many office park dads are also wired workers (whom Penn
defined as male, tech-savvy office park dwellers), and many of
their wives are soccer moms (defined as suburban working women). To
a significant degree, then, these terms all describe the same broad
demographic group: middle- and upper-middle-class, suburban
professionals.

Still, the press has accepted uncritically Penn's assertion that
office park dads represent "the next electoral target group in the
post-soccer-mom era." (Have the soccer moms died off or moved to
Canada en masse?) Penn's constant ginning up of new groups, and
consigning of old ones to the trash heap of history, conveniently
dovetails with journalists' desire to find fresh, world- remaking
trends every election season. Indeed, the breathless accounts of
new swing voters make American politics sound like a hyperspeed
Marxist dialectic, with new classes of swing voters arising every
two years to overthrow their predecessors. If these classes are
basically interchangeable--if office park dads and their soccer mom
wives share the same political views--then this succession is an
illusion. And even if it isn't--if, by virtue of their gender,
office park dads really do constitute a new swing group whose views
differ from those of their soccer mom predecessors--it's still by
no means clear why Democrats should switch course and start
courting them. Wouldn't that just cause soccer moms--who are
presumably as numerous as ever--to defect?

For their part, liberal Democrats argue that office park dads aren't
swing voters at all, pointing to the fact that according to Penn's
own research, they prefer the GOP by a margin of 25 percentage
points. "Why would you target a group that's 2-1 against you and
also doesn't want your issues? Why don't we go after blue-collar
men?" pollster Celinda Lake asked USA Today. Of course Lake, like
Penn, doesn't limit herself to one gender in her efforts to target
Democratic appeals toward a specific economic bloc. For the last two
election cycles, in fact, she has been touting "waitress moms" as
the real swing group upon whom Democrats should focus. "Waitress
moms are back in charge of the election," she declared in September
2000.

The real problem isn't that Penn is targeting the wrong swing voters
and Lake the right ones (or vice versa). It's that both of them
conceive of the swing vote as a unified bloc. In fact, one
consequence of the political parity currently prevailing in the
country is that the number of potential swing voters has grown in
recent years to the point where, argues Ayres, "you're easily
looking at over half the population defined as swing voters. You
can define swing voters any way you want." A group of voters may be
targeted because they constitute a swing vote; but just as often
they become a swing vote because they are targeted. Coal miners in
West Virginia, for example, only became a swing vote in 2000 after
Bush decided to court them aggressively. If all goes according to
the White House plan, steelworkers in Ohio will respond the same
way to the president's recent tariffs decision.

Which is why arguments over who constitutes the swing vote are
ultimately so pointless. "It all comes down to what your vision of
the party is," says one Democratic strategist. Centrist Democrats
such as Penn no doubt genuinely believe that eschewing economic
populism in favor of pro-market centrism is the right thing to do;
liberal Dems like Lake believe the reverse. So they look for
segments of the population that agree with them and dub them swing
voters-- essentially recruiting millions of proxies to make their
cases for them. In recent years blue-collar workers have grown more
Republican, upscale suburbanites more Democratic. Should Democrats
try to win back the voters who have left them or try to win more of
the voters who are coming their way? There are many ways to answer
that question, but none of them can be found in a poll.

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