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.

Recall the image makeover Bill Clinton's campaign undertook in 1992, as revealed in an internal document uncovered some months later by Michael Kelly and reported in the New York Times shortly after the election, on November 14. After five months of adverse publicity and sagging poll numbers, the Clintons' advisers "proposed the construction of a new image for Mr. and Mrs. Clinton: an honest, plain-folks idealist and his loving wife." As Kelly documented, this symbolitics strategy "required a campaign of behavior modification and media manipulation so elaborate that its outline ran to 14 single-spaced pages." It explicitly called for depicting Bill Clinton as an "agent of change," plus holding town-hall style forums and events "with her friends where Hillary can laugh, cry, do her mimicry." This year it took the Clinton operation only five days to react to bad news.

Whoever the candidates are this fall, the general election campaign will see unprecedented spending on television ads. Ted Brader, a young political scientist at the University of Michigan, has analyzed thousands of ads produced by presidential and congressional campaigns. In Campaigning for Hearts and Minds (2006), he details how most ads appeal either to voters' fears or to their enthusiasms. Among his many fascinating findings, it turns out that emotion-tugging ads are more, not less, effective among voters who are fairly well informed about and attentive to particular policy differences between the candidates.

In the current primary campaign, Obama is like a nonstop enthusiasm ad. Hillary hit back in New Hampshire with some teary enthusiasm of her own (sincere, I think), even as she pushed the symbolitics fear button via references that seemed calculated to get voters worrying over whether Obama will combat terrorists. Obama is gifted at speaking "poetry" on the stump, but he has probably seen the last of an uptight Hillary mumbling wonkish "prose" in reply. Indeed, he is almost certainly in for a symbolitics counteroffensive the likes of which we have never seen.

But symbolitics isn't everything. Even given all the great firsts that Obama's electoral success would represent, if he beats Hillary for the Democratic nomination, he will still need to flesh out his intelligently left-leaning (as opposed to boilerplate liberal) positions. Obama will need to rebut, say, a conservative John McCain's policies on Iraq, border security, school reform, tax cuts, abortion rights, and other matters. Hand-to-hand combat on policy details may or may not turn out to be another Obama strength.

This much, however, is certain: Spirited sermons echoing Obama's book The Audacity of Hope (2006) will soon wear thin, and above-the-fray appeals to bipartisanship will ring ever more hollow. At present, compared with every other major hopeful in both parties, Obama does seem short on policy-relevant, change-making experience. The analogy with the young John F. Kennedy will carry him only so far (see PT 109), nor can he coast indefinitely on narrative notes from the Harvard Law Review, his years as a community organizer and state legislator, his support for congressional ethics legislation, or even his opposition to going to war in Iraq.

Next, to free oneself from excessive deference to opinion surveys, it is also necessary to really and truly understand that no poll is perfect, and that averaging results from polls taken by different organizations, at different times, in different ways, with different samples and sample sizes is no sounder than relying on what the few biggest, best, and latest polls record.

Consider a poll's margin of error. Keep in mind that "plus" and "minus" count, as it were, on each side. To wit: If a legitimate poll--one with an adequate sample size, non-biased wording, and so on--finds that Obama leads Clinton by 8 points, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points, it has ascertained something significant but far from oracular: to wit, that on the date the poll was taken, Obama would have beaten Clinton by 16 points (plus 4 for him, minus 4 for her) or tied her (minus 4 for him, plus 4 for her) or reached a result anywhere in between.

Polling, including exit polling, has improved, but sampling is still an art, not a science. It may happen only rarely, but Election Day factors like door-to-door canvassing and other turnout tactics can beget actual returns that deviate from forecasts based on even the finest "likely voter" survey.

Finally, the ostensibly pivotal moments in recent electoral history weren't actually the product of huge electoral swings. For example, the Republicans' victory in the 1994 House elections--the Gingrich revolution--wouldn't have happened but for narrow victories in 13 House districts, while nationally GOP House candidates took just 52.4 percent of the votes cast. Similarly, the Democrats' 2006 victory in the House occurred even though most voters liked or trusted Democrats only slightly more than they liked or trusted Republicans. Each and every electoral-analysis bromide since 1980--the "new conservative bloc," the "angry white males," the "soccer moms," the "security moms," the "NASCAR dads," to name a few--has proven to be bogus as an explanation of election outcomes.

In sum, symbolitics is a clarifying concept, not a predictive explanation or theory. Political science tells us that polls are imperfect. There is, alas, no substitute for state-by-state, election-by-election analysis, undertaken with well-informed circumspection. The prerequisite is patience.

John J. DiIulio Jr. is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future (2007).