The Magazine

Symbolitics As Usual

A guide to non-instant election analysis.

Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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For those who thought that Hillary Clinton was through because Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus, or because the polls supposedly proved she would lose in New Hampshire, or because they let the personal, ideological, or partisan wish be father to the thought--and for those who made proclamations about John McCain being kaput, Mike Huckabee having no chance, and Ron Paul staging a surge--herewith a political science recovery plan.

But first, to sugarcoat the academic pills, swallow a catchall election--analysis concept that might help to discipline the discourse from now through November: symbolitics.

The term was coined during the 2004 election season by David Kuo, former deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the White House, and it complements nicely an important contribution by the late, great political scientist Donald E. Stokes, coauthor of the 1960 classic The American Voter.

That book was the first systematic, scholarly look into how Americans vote in national elections. As the data-bearing punch-cards whizzed through first-generation computers, Stokes, the junior member of a University of Michigan research team, noticed that the results of the elections of the 1950s could not be adequately explained by the usual variables: party identification, ideological orientation, and candidates' positions on the issues that mattered most to voters. Another factor, harder to categorize or quantify, loomed large: namely, the degree to which candidates were linked in voters' hearts and minds with conditions, goals, or symbols that were almost universally approved or disapproved by the mass electorate.

Stokes's key insight was that Americans increasingly were choosing parties and candidates not solely or even mainly by their real or perceived differences on policy questions, even questions that powerfully divided the electorate, but, instead, by the candidates' perceived association with broader conditions, goals, or symbols that virtually all voting-age adults either embraced or rejected.

For instance, nearly everybody is for "public safety" and against "lawlessness." No candidate has ever run on a platform promising "more crime" or "less prosperity." Almost everyone resonates to "resolute leadership" and rejects its opposites, including "flip-flopping." There is never one party advocating "corruption" or "special interests" while the other excoriates the corrupt and the greedy. There is no candidate who campaigns against "change" or admits being light on "experience" or scoffs at calls to make government "work better" or "cost less."

In post-1950s national campaigns, the difference between steady electoral success and sudden electoral disaster has increasingly turned on each contender's ability to strengthen voters' perception of his link to what the public generally considers good and weaken their perception of his link to what the public deems bad. Kuo dubbed this symbolitics, and today, with television and 24-hour cable news networks and the Internet, it matters more than ever.

For starters, think about Ronald Reagan's 1984 "morning in America" (patriotism, peace, prosperity) popularity among not only "Reagan Democrats" but also some issue-minded political progressives who nonetheless liked his strong, sincere, and sunny public persona. Recall how George H.W. Bush dinged Michael Dukakis for wavering on flag-waving. Revisit the volatility in the 1992 polls that at various points gave "outsider" H. Ross Perot ("You see, you just look under the hood and fix it!") a plurality. Or analyze the content of John Kerry's 2004 speeches ("reporting for duty") and count how often he made "security" his tough-on-terrorism mantra.

Again, it's not all pure symbolitics. Stokes took pains to stress that presidential elections always blend symbolitics ("I'm the candidate of change!") with position-taking ("I'll give health care coverage to the uninsured!"). Thus, even if Obama should turn out to be not merely the latest, but truly among the greatest masters of symbolitics, he will still have to take positions on the issues in the end. Will this weaken or widen his symbolitics appeal? Probably weaken it--but stay tuned.

Overestimating Obama--if, indeed, he has been overestimated--can at least be chalked up to the fact that he has been in the public eye for only a few years, and that even many conservative cold fish warm a bit to his uplifting rhetoric. What is amazing, though, is that after Clinton's loss in the Iowa caucus by nearly 8 points, veteran Clinton watchers, longtime friends and foes alike, discounted or disregarded the Clintons' proven skill in symbolitics.