Sunday, August 31, 2008

Despite Accounts, Democrats All on the Same Page in Denver

By Stuart Rothenberg

Even a few journalists have started to wonder whether the dominant narrative of the first days of the Democratic National Convention is entirely accurate.

Sure, a chunk of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) supporters initially didn’t completely embrace Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) as the Democratic Party’s nominee, but isn’t it merely a matter of time before most of them do, especially given Clinton’s full-throated endorsement of Obama?

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, thinks they will. Although she was an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton throughout the primary process, Weingarten has had no trouble switching her allegiance to the Illinois Democrat.

“I will be as fiercely supportive of Barack as I was for Hillary,” she told me during an interview in the Pepsi Center even before Clinton’s call for party unity.

There is plenty of anecdotal and survey evidence that not all Clinton supporters have been as quick as Weingarten to switch her allegiance, and some liberal women may never get over what they regard as the party’s snub of the New York Senator or the way they believe that the Obama campaign mistreated Clinton.

But in all likelihood, most liberal-leaning former Clinton supporters will slide over to the Obama column rather quickly after they are bombarded with information about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) positions on abortion, taxes and Iraq, as well as Obama’s personal story.

On the other hand, while Clinton also won the support of downscale Democrats during the primaries, many of them will be harder to sway — and few of them were in the Pepsi Center to hear Clinton on Tuesday night.

The one thing that jumps out after any detailed examination of delegates in Denver is that while they are a diverse group when it comes to race, sexual orientation and age, they are unabashedly liberal and upscale.

While 42 percent of Democratic voters have a high school education or less, a miniscule 5 percent of delegates match that education level according to polling done for CBS News and the New York Times. And while only 13 percent of Democratic voters did post-graduate work, a stunning 55 percent of delegates to the Denver convention have done post-graduate work.

While Democrats often portray themselves as the party of “working families” — and 44 percent of Democrats have a family income of less than $50,000 — only 10 percent of delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention had a family income of less than $50,000 per year. Fifty-four percent of delegates came from families with an income of more than $100,000 a year.

This isn’t entirely surprising. Each party has elites who are disproportionately active and can afford the time and expense of attending a national convention. Still, the once-typical image of Democrats as downtrodden, struggling workers isn’t reflected in the makeup of national convention delegates, and it’s not yet entirely clear that this group of Merlot-drinking Democrats truly understands what white, Catholic, working-class Democrats in Michigan really want in a presidential nominee.

Still, these delegates, party strategists and operatives have figured out that they need to sell themselves as a “big tent” party, and they have effectively done so with a variety of high-profile candidates and officeholders around the country.

Whether it’s pro-life statewide officeholders, such as Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey or Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, or culturally conservative Congressional candidates, such as incumbent Reps. Heath Shuler of North Carolina or Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, or recent special election winners, such as Reps. Travis Childers (Miss.) and Don Cazayoux (La.), the Democratic Party has gone out of its way to woo potentially electable candidates who don’t fit a single mold.

At the same time, Republican strategists have found themselves boxed in by party ideologues who seek to purge GOP incumbents who are less conservative on taxes and social issues. While Republican delegates will be nominating a “big tent” Republican next week, moderate Republicans increasingly have problems getting nominated and elected in House races even in districts where a moderate is a better fit.

Democrats have simply become more pragmatic when it comes to nominating and supporting candidates for higher office. Much as Republicans during the 1980s dropped their calls for eliminating the Department of Education and for a total ban on all abortions, Democrats have addressed their weakness on gun control, faith and even government spending by changing their rhetoric.

Obviously, we will see over the next few years how serious they are about those changes, but there is no doubt that Democrats over the past four years have changed their tune in such a way as to make the party more appealing for voters. That’s a lesson that Republican activists and interest groups might study.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on August 28, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.