In an interview with The Hill, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs goes after the left:
The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”
Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”(…)
Progressives, Gibbs said, are the liberals outside of Washington “in America,” and they are grateful for what Obama has accomplished in a shattered economy with uniform Republican opposition and a short amount of time.
Oy, on many levels.
If the White House really doesn’t think it has any problems among self-identified liberals or progressives, and that all the complaints are coming from a grasstop elite, it needs to look at the data again. From 2008 to 2010, President Obama has suffered far more erosion of support among self-identified liberals than among self-identified moderates or conservatives:
- In 2008, according to exit polls, 89% self-identified liberals voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating among self-identified liberals has averaged 74%. That is a decline of 15 points.
- In 2008, according to exit polls, 60% of self-identified moderates voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating among self-identified moderates has averaged 54%. That is a decline of 6 points.
- In 2008, according to exit polls, 20% of self-identified conservatives voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating has averaged 24% among self-identified conservatives. That is an increase of 4 points.
So, according to Gallup, disapproval among self-identified liberals accounts for the majority of President Obama’s approval rating underperformance compared to his 2008 vote share (from the perspective that the smaller decline among moderates is partially canceled out by the small gain among conservatives). If it were not for President Obama’s decline among liberals, there would be virtually no difference between his 2010 approval rating and 2008 voter performance.
Maybe the White House knows that its problem among self-identified liberals is not confined to the grasstops. Maybe it is “reaching out” to liberals in this insulting manner because it figures that while it has lost more support among liberals than among any other group, those liberals are still going to vote Democratic anyway.
If that is what Gibbs is thinking here, he is quite foolish. Self-identified liberals are a large swing voter group, and their vote for Democrats is neither static nor guaranteed: (more in the extended entry)
[F]rom 2004 to 2008, Democrats appear to have gained more votes from self-identified liberals than from any other ideological group.
- In 2004, according to exit polls, 17.85% of the electorate were self-identified liberals who voted for Kerry
- In 2008, according to exit polls, 19.58% of the electorate were self-identified liberals who voted for Obama.
- From 2004 to 2008, exit polls estimate that the Democratic Presidential nominee improved his overall vote percentage by 1.73% entirely through self-identified liberals.
By way of comparison:
- In 2004, according to exit polls, 24.84% of the electorate were self-identified moderates who voted for Kerry.
- In 2008, according to exit polls, 26.40% of the electorate were self-identified moderates who voted for Obama.
- From 2004 to 2008, the Democratic Presidential nominee improved his overall vote percentage by 1.56% entirely among self-identified moderates.
So, according to exit polls, Democrats actually gained more from 2004 to 2008 among self-identified liberals than among self-identified moderates. Conservatives were not far behind, either:
- In 2004, according to exit polls, 5.44% of the electorate were self-identified conservatives who voted for Kerry.
- In 2008, according to exit polls, 6.80% of the electorate were self-identified conservatives who voted for Obama.
- From 2004 to 2008, the Democratic Presidential nominee improved his overall vote percentage by 1.36% entirely among self-identified conservatives.
Swing voters from 2004 to 2008 were spread fairly evenly across the ideological spectrum, with liberals, moderates and conservatives all making up significant portions. Although it is within the margin for rounding error, exit polling actually suggests that liberals were the largest swing voting block of all.
The size of the liberal vote for Democrats is not static. It never was static. Why anyone ever thought that the exact same number of self-identified liberals turn out to vote for Democrats in every single election is pretty mystifying. Of course the percentage of self-identified liberals within the electorate changes from election to election, and of course the percentage of self-identified liberals voting for Democrats changes from election to election. Liberals are swing voters, too. If you want to perform well among these swing voters, you need to tend to them. If high-level Democratic operatives don’t understand this, then their ignorance is a massive disservice to the Democratic cause.
Still, the insulting and dismissive attitude that Robert Gibbs takes in this interview is hardly surprising. For one thing, many establishment media types go fishing for caricatured “left vs Obama” stories like this. The story in today’s The Hill was a perfect example. Check out this crazy paragraph:
In late July, Obama made a surprise video appearance, with an assist from Maddow, at the NetRoots Nation convention in Las Vegas, where the professional left had gathered to grouse about its disappointment in the president.
Wow. The Hill defines the purpose of a convention where 84% of the attendees approved of President Obama’s job performance as the gathering “to grouse about its disappointment in the president.” Facts be damned. The intentions of this story are obvious.
It is not just The Hill, either. Personally, I have been on MSNBC three times since the 2008 election. On every occasion, during the pre-interview, the first question I was asked was to list the many ways I am disappointed with Obama. They wanted me to be a left-wing caricature hating on the administration. When I actually appear, and cite facts like the ones above, they find it so boring and far from what they wanted that they didn’t even post my last two appearances on their website.
Secondly, and more sadly, reaching out to the left by hating on it has a long, established tradition in Democratic politics. Many Democratic elected officials feel that reaching out to moderates and conservatives means bending over backward to show those voters that they share their views. However, many of those same elected officials consider left-wing outreach to be telling progressives to shut the fuck up and get in line. With outreach like that, it is probably no wonder that President Obama’s main problem with his approval rating right now is among self-identified liberals.
Update: PPP’s polling showing Obama with a higher approval among self-identified liberals is irrelevant. Gallup’s four-week sample is based on over 14,000 registered voters, producing a self-identified liberal subsample of 2,500 to 3,000, with a margin of error of less than plus or minus 2. By contrast, PPP’s last monthly survey was based on 667 registered voters, thus producing a liberal subsample of about 100-140, with a margin of error of plus or minus 9.
The PPP numbers are irrelevant given their astronomical margin of error.