THE BLOG
08/03/2007 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats Stuck in Neutral

by John Kenneth White and John Zogby

These should be heady days for Democrats. The latest Zogby International poll is just one of many surveys that has good news for them. In it, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton beats the leading Republican contender, Rudy Giuliani, by five percentage points. Back in May, Clinton was losing to Giuliani by the same margin. In fact, this poll shows both Clinton and Barack Obama beating all GOP comers. Yet a closer look at the data shows the Democrats are stuck in neutral.

For the past three elections, Democrats have hovered around the 48 percent mark. In 1996, Bill Clinton won just 49 percent -- a low score for a successful president against a lackluster Bob Dole. Four years later, Al Gore got 48 percent against George W. Bush -- a relatively poor showing for an incumbent party presiding over a prosperous economy. In 2004, John Kerry likewise received 48 percent of the vote. This, too, was not particularly impressive, since exit polls showed 53 percent of voters thinking, even then, that the Iraq War was going badly.

One should expect considerable variation in these Democratic totals given the enormity of events between elections. For starters, on September 11, 2001, the U.S. was attacked on its own soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor. George W. Bush used the politics of fear created by Osama bin Laden to update advice Richard M. Nixon once gave to aspiring pols during the Cold War, when he famously said, "People react to fear, not love." This time, however, the politics of fear did not create a Nixon-like electoral landslide in 2004, as only Iowa and New Mexico moved to the Republicans while Kerry picked up New Hampshire. Indeed, the 2004 election is a mirror image of the Bush vs. Gore election, with the needle moving ever so slightly to the president. Bush's winning percentage is the lowest for a wartime president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

The context in which the 2008 election is being fought differs dramatically from 2004. Today, Bush is the 30-something president, as most polls show his approval mired in the low 30s (or even the high 20s). Four years ago, Bush was the 50-something president, as slight majorities consistently approved of his job performance. Voters have rejected Bush because they have come to the conclusion that the Iraq War was a colossal error. A recent Gallup/USA Today poll, for example, found 56 percent thinking the Iraq War was a mistake. Iraq so soured the national mood in 2006 that Democrats took over both houses of Congress, thanks to independents who gave up on the GOP and moved to the opposition party.

These events should tilt the electorate strongly to the Democrats. A July CBS News/New York Times poll found just 47 percent inclined to support a generic Democratic presidential candidate. The latest Zogby International poll shows similar results when real candidates are matched against their opponents. Thus, both Clinton and Obama post scores in the mid-to-high 40s against their fellow Republicans. The highest is Obama's 52 percent against Mitt Romney. The worst is Clinton and Obama's paltry 45 percent against John McCain. Why, then, is the electorate fixed on the 48 percent mark when it comes to the Democrats?

The answer lies in the culture wars. Lifestyle and values issues keep the Democrats stuck in neutral. When Clinton and Obama are matched against their GOP rivals, all of the usual gaps that made their appearances in the past three contests return with a vengeance. These include the gender gap, marriage gap, race gap, regional gap, partisan gap, and God gap. For example, in the Clinton vs. Giuliani matchup, the former First Lady gets 54 percent of the female vote, but receives backing from just 39 percent of men. In a hypothetical race between Obama and Giuliani, the Illinois senator gets just 41 percent of the white vote, while 89 percent of African-Americans back him. Clinton and Obama each win 42 percent and 41 percent respectively from married voters, while singles give them 60 percent and 55 percent support. Born-agains likewise give the two Democrats just 37 percent and 39 percent backing.

In his 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, author Tom Robbins writes: "Until humans can solve their philosophical problems, they're condemned to solve their political problems over and over and over again. It's a cruel, repetitious bore." Robbins depiction of the dilemmas his characters faced, accurately describes today's electorate. No matter how much voters say they want to put the culture wars behind them, when it comes to making a choice between the two parties, values still matter most.

John Kenneth White is a Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America and the author of The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003). John Zogby is president and CEO of Zogby International.