It’s Most Definitely Not 1996

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I have one other data point to share on the argument over HRC’s strategy for 2016 not being the same strategy her husband pursued in 1992 and 1996.

I happened to run across a 2006 op-ed by Mark Penn, famously Bill Clinton’s pollster in 1996 and soon-to-be HRC’s pollster and “strategist” in 2008. As the headline–“Swing is Still King at the Polls”–suggests, Penn made a supercharged version of the argument Martin and Haberman made in the Times over the weekend. For all I know, Martin and Haberman read it and relied on it. But almost every assertion Penn made was soon to turn out to be wrong, and he describes a different political world than the one we inhabit today.

Here’s my favorite:

According to the American National Election Studies at the University of Michigan, the number of split-ticket voters in the electorate — meaning people who vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress, or vice versa — has gone up 42 percent since 1952. That shows a radical new willingness on the part of Americans to look at individual candidates, not party slates. It is a sign of a thinking electorate, not a partisan one.

I don’t know if Penn’s numbers are accurate through 2004 (perhaps they were from 2000, a rare recent high-ticket-splitting year). But by 2012, ticket-splitting has dropped precipitously. The number of “split decision” congressional districts which went one way in the presidential count and another downballot dropped to a 92-year-low.

Penn also relies on the growing number of self-identified independents in the electorate, a number that has not grown smaller since 2006. But we now are increasingly aware that a very large chunk of indies are functional partisans, and that “true independents” are the partisan category least likely to vote.

As someone who paid pretty close attention to the 1996 election, I found it interesting that by 2006 Penn was citing that campaign’s targeting of “soccer moms” as an example of swing voter appeals. The soccer moms were more formally called “Swing 1 voters” by Penn and his Clinton campaign colleagues in 1996; they were mostly Democrats and independents with some Republican women, and the message aimed at them was pretty much standard-brand though customized liberal commitments to medical and family leave, education, health care for kids, etc. Penn does not, however, mention “Swing 2” voters, who were culturally conservative voters, including some Republicans, for whom the campaign designed teen curfews, school uniforms, more cops, and of course, welfare reform. Why? Probably because they did not exist as “swing voters” by 2006. And they’re sure gone with the wind–sure GOP “base” voters–today.

Also gone with the wind is Mark Penn as an HRC pollster or “strategist.” There’s really no reason she should go back to taking his former advice, from which I bet he would backtrack more than a little by now.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.