Where you live, how you vote.

Oct. 17 2008 9:08 AM

This Campaign Has Gone Positively 19th Century

This election is getting out of hand. For one rally, I read, the locals rigged up six horses to a wagon big enough to carry a pipe organ and a glee club with 40 singers.

Was this a prop for another Barack Obama mega-rally? Or maybe a Sarah Palin revival? Nope. The six white horses were put to the service of Republican William McKinley in 1896. A two-score political singing group was nothing special back then. Campaigns were exercises in organizing large groups of marching partisans. In Sullivan County, Ind., that year, both parties organized glee clubs for their candidates—although only the Republicans thought of the wagon.

The parties discarded the mass rally as a political device before the turn of the last century, replacing the energy of the throng with a more isolated, individualistic kind of campaign advertising. The grand political rallies went missing for more than a century, but now they're back, and the raw expressions of political anger and feeling produced at these massive gatherings have shocked both candidates and the press. We're simply not accustomed to having people play such an active part in presidential political campaigns.



Just after the Civil War, campaigns were based on these mass movements. The war shaped both the language and the tactics of political campaigns. "Elections were treated like battles in which the two main armies (parties) concentrated on fielding the maximum number of troops (voters) on the battlefield (the polls) on election day," wrote historian Richard Jensen. Party organizers had been in the military and so that organized their parties like Civil War armies. The language we still use in politics came straight from the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam: the "opening gun," party "standard bearers," "last ditch stands," "war horses," "precinct captains," "rank and file" voters and "spoils of victory." Voters would chant battle cries, wave signs and flags, and they would march.

Voters (only men had the franchise) were extraordinarily loyal to their parties then. "Men spoke of political attachments in the same breath as loyalty to religion," Jensen wrote, "for as one Presbyterian historian explained, 'Every man ... is expected to stand up for the creed of his church as he does for the platform of his party.'" Nine out of 10 Americans were firmly committed to one party or the other. Local elections became proxies for the national battle between the parties.

All this roughly describes politics today, a time of intense party loyalty, increased straight-ticket voting, and stark political divisions directed, in part, by theology.

And, of course, the most visible sign that we have developed a 19th-century attitude toward politics is the return of the mass rally.

We should keep following this parallel between the 19th century and today because, as I said, the parties found reason to abandon the mass rally as a political device. The change began after Benjamin Harrison won with a military-style campaign in 1888. Harrison appointed John Wanamaker as his postmaster general, and Wanamaker set out to change the way Americans ran their elections.

John Wanamaker opened in Philadelphia what was considered the nation's first department store, and he brought his sales skills to Harrison's White House when he introduced the merchandizing style to politics. Wanamaker, by the way, is the guy who first said, "The customer is always right" and that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted but that he didn't know which half.

The military approach to political campaigns was unpredictable, Wanamaker realized. The problem with mass marches and parades led by horse-drawn wagons, according to one Wisconsin Democrat, was that the events "stir up the other side almost as much as their own. The trumpet that sounds the note of battle not only inspirits its friends but awakes its enemies."

The alternative was a campaign of "education" and isolation—that is advertising. Instead of relying on torch-lit parades, the merchandizing style printed pamphlets and newspaper ads. War cries were replaced with reasoned arguments. Instead of inspiring dependable supporters, the merchandizing campaign concentrated on identifying and then appealing to independents and waverers.

The goal wasn't to increase turnout. It was to control the vote. And it was effective. The merchandizing style replaced the mass marches and rallies within a few election cycles.

Voters were unimpressed. "The voters' reaction to the new style educational campaigns was lethargic," Jensen reported. Partisan loyalty declined, apathy increased, and voter turnout plummeted. Advertising was more expensive than torch lights, so fundraising became a political preoccupation. The parties had more control over the electorate, but voters were dispirited. Isolated by the merchandizing style, they stopped coming to the polls.

Now we have two candidates who began this campaign as leaders of a post-partisan future running in an election that has become partisan in the extreme. Nine out of 10 Republicans say they'll vote for McCain, and nine out of 10 Democrats say they'll vote for Obama—party loyalty that matches that of the military campaigns of the late 19th century. Local elections have become nationalized, and people show willingness to march and demonstrate in ways that have been missing for the past 100 years. Funny how things work out.

/blogs/bigsort/2008/10/17/this_campaign_has_gone_positively_19th_century/jcr:content/body/slate_image0
Video Advertisement

Oct. 16 2008 1:45 PM

Answers of a Political Sort

Bill has just finished a vigorous online chat with readers, and here's the

 of the discussion. See what readers have to say about the diversity of political leanings in Alaska or the attitudes of people in the suburbs toward urban life. They also touch on the demise of the polite political argument. Good stuff.

Oct. 15 2008 2:44 PM

Questions of a Political Sort

"Big Sort" blogger Bill Bishop will chat online with readers about political segregation and voter trends on Thursday, Oct. 16. Follow the chat starting at noon at Washingtonpost.com or pose an advance question now .

Oct. 15 2008 10:50 AM

Where Are All The Good Men?

Political polling parses data according to broad demographic categories—by sex, age, education, race, religion. The polls have been run this way for years, which makes it easy to compare results from election to election. It doesn't matter that these demographic descriptions are only a faint approximation of how people define their lives and politics. This is the tool political reporters have, and so they use it. (What's the line about having a hammer makes everything look like nails?)



Marketing people tell me they use demographic data only when they can't get the good stuff—the polling that much more precisely identifies how people will buy (or vote) based on more detailed lifestyle preferences. But when they can't get the lifestyle data, then sometimes demographic data provides an approximation of what's really happening.



So it is with women, who over the past generation have become more likely to vote Democratic. The numbers go up and down with the dynamics of a particular campaign, but the trend is there. To stop with gender is to stop too soon.



Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson wrote

in 2000 based on polling they had conducted over the years. They identified a cultural shift taking place, a change in values. A growing number of people were more concerned with protecting the environment than with expanding the economy. Cultural creatives sought deep relationships and were rolling their own spiritual lives rather than turning religion over to the establishment church.



Other researchers were finding the same trends. Daniel Yankelovich in the marketing world saw the ascendance of values over class, education, or work.

wrote about a "culture shift" from his perch at the University of Michigan. Ruy Teixeira and John Judis predicted a new Democratic majority coming out of the culture being created in the fast-growing tech cities.



What Ray and Anderson realized is that this culture shift was taking place faster among women than men. More women were interested in alternative religions, holistic medicines, individual rights, and environmental protection than men. When the two researchers counted up the core group of "cultural creatives," they found that two-thirds were women.



More single women are Democrats because more single women are cultural creatives. "It's not 'the demographics,' " Ray and Anderson wrote. Sure, it's simple to separate people by gender, education, income, and the color of their collars, they wrote, but "those conventional categories show only a thin slice of people's lives." To understand why people act and vote the way they do, you had to find their values.



So, where are all the good men? Demographically, of course, there are just as many men as there have ever been. But when Ray and Anderson examine values, not demography, they find a serious shortage of culturally creative men. "The bad news (for women) is that there aren't enough men to go around," Ray and Anderson write. There are lots of women looking for a new kind of relationship and too many men dropping out of college, watching mixed-martial-arts matches on television, and voting Republican.

Oct. 14 2008 9:05 AM

Enough Already With Political Categories Like "White Women"

Let's get something straight. There is no "women's vote." Women vote, of course. But

of white women as if it has meaning. It doesn't. Elections aren't about demography. They are about ways of life.



Marketing people have known that large demographic categories like "white women" are meaningless since at least 1973, when a New York adman asked in the

Journal of Advertising

, "Are Grace Slick and Tricia Nixon Cox the same person?" Both were white, young, urban, rich, former Finch College alums and women. Conventional market research in the early 1970s would have plugged in all this demographic data and concluded that, yes, the blond-haired daughter of the president and the lead singer for the psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane and author of the acid anthem "White Rabbit" were the same.



All of which made conventional market analysis meaningless, wrote John E. O'Toole, president of Foote, Cone & Belding Communications. It was so obvious the two had nothing in common that you didn't even need to go ask Alice. Tricia Nixon married a Republican White House aide on the White House lawn. The one time Slick was invited to the White House (a reception for Tricia's Finch classmates), she brought along her "bodyguard," Yippie founder and Chicago Seven defendant Abbie Hoffman. The two said they intended to spike the iced tea with LSD. The Secret Service didn't let them past the front door.



/blogs/bigsort/2008/10/14/enough_already_with_political_categories_like_white_women/jcr:content/body/slate_image0

O'Toole wrote in '73 that statistics on income, age, and education—all the demographic "facts" we still use to divine presidential elections in 2008—had lost relevance because there had been a "Revolution of the Individual." People weren't living according to class or education or age. They were "forming liberation groups: black, feminist, gay, consumer, anything." Marketers had snoozed through the revolution and insulted people by discounting "their intelligence in favor of some vast common denominator."



People didn't define themselves by demographic markers, O'Toole wrote. They lived in groups "united by common attitudes or lifestyles or perceptions of themselves."



Marketing people long ago abandoned most of the demographic data that we still use to talk about politics. I talked with Chris Riley, a Portland, Ore., marketing guy who has worked for both Nike and Apple. Riley said people were forming communities of interest that had nothing to do with categories such as single, white, college-educated women. "I'm not allowed to use market research information, by dictate of (Apple founder) Steve Jobs," Riley said. "They don't trust it."



They don't trust it because demography—classifications such as a favorite from the Democratic primary, the "white working class"—doesn't get at how people live. "There is no (demographic) category for somebody who shapes his entire life around his concern for the environment," Riley explained.



After all, how many white, single women describe themselves that way. A San Diego woman told me recently that she was an "ocean oriented person." That's a more accurate political description in 2008.



/blogs/bigsort/2008/10/14/enough_already_with_political_categories_like_white_women/jcr:content/body/slate_image1

Young ministers in the 1970s began designing churches for what one marketer called "image tribes." They created the modern American megachurch by catering to ways of life, not demographic types. Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church wears flowered shirts in part because his "target" audience, "Saddleback Sam," "prefers the casual and informal over the formal." Megachurches tailor their services to lifestyles. One California megachurch advertises different lifestyle venues for its Sunday morning service—a "Country Gospel" hoedown, a gathering known as "The Edge" (with Starbucks coffee and Mountain Dew), and a "Traditions" hall with music from a baby grand piano.



The Bush campaign in 2004 was the first to catch up with marketing techniques that had been refined over the past three decades. Bush identified individuals by how they lived—the cars they drove, magazines they read, television shows they watched, ring tones they downloaded.



John O'Toole in 1973 told marketers they misunderstood society by continuing to "shout at a crowd rather than talk to persons." Bush's campaign was the first to run a campaign aimed at individuals rather than crowds.



Barack Obama has essentially copied the Bush approach, identifying the "image tribes" we travel in rather than the bleak and only occasionally meaningful demographic categories that appear in exit polls and are coughed up in stories about politics.



So why do women seem to like Obama more than men? (Pew had women favoring Obama 54 percent to 37 percent at the end of September, while men backed McCain 47 percent to 43 percent.) We'll take that up tomorrow, and also answer the eternal happy hour question "Where are all the good men?"

Oct. 13 2008 8:50 AM

Extremism at McCain Rallies Comes Naturally

French students who disliked America (and loved Charles de Gaulle) were once asked to talk about the United States for an hour or two. At the end of the session, conducted as part of experiments in the 1960s, the students disliked America and loved de Gaulle even more.

College kids who join a conservative fraternity move to the right during their four years in college. Liberals from Boulder asked to discuss some issues of the day, such as global warming and gay marriage, are more liberal at the end of their discussion than before. Racists brought into a room to discuss race grow more intolerant.

Social psychologists have conducted scores of these "group polarization" experiments since the '60s, and they all come to the same finding: Like-minded people in a group grow more extreme in the way they are like-minded.

Homogeneity creates extremity or, in the news of the day, a McCain rally.

Republican rallies this past weekend grew heated. The headlines tell the story: " Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally "; "Panic Attack: Voters Unload at GOP Rallies "; " McCain: Obama Not an Arab, Crowd Boos "; "Supporters Jeer as McCain Calls Obama 'A Decent Person.'  "

What's going on? The talk-show talk has been that John McCain and Sarah Palin incite this kind of behavior. They certainly haven't helped, but blaming the candidates misses what's happening, and why.

Social scientists have proposed several reasons for why like-minded groups tend to polarize. Two have survived scrutiny. The first is that homogenous groups are privy to a large pool of ideas and arguments supporting the group's dominant position. Everybody hears the arguments in favor of the group's belief, and as they're discussed, people grow stouter in their beliefs.

The second reason like-minded groups polarize has more to do with how we see ourselves. We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It's a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

"It's an image-maintenance kind of thing," explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

"One way to make sure you aren't mistaken for one of those 'other people' is to be slightly ahead of the pack in terms of your Republican-ness," Baron said. "It's hard to be a moderate Republican or a moderate Democrat, in other words, because you're afraid that other people will call you whatever. In racial terms, you'd be called an Oreo if you were black." At a John McCain rally, if you say Barack Obama is a "decent family man," you are booed ... even if you're John McCain.

This is social psychology as old as the Bible. Recalling his days as a devout Jew, before his conversion to Christianity, Paul said, "Beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it." Paul realized that his extremity paid dividends, that he "profited in the Jews' religion above many of my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers." (Galatians 1:13-14)

Or, as Holly Golightly put it in Breakfast at Tiffany's , "It's useful being top banana in the shock department."

Experiments confirmed Paul's and Golightly's conclusions. "An extreme communicator on one's side of an issue tends to be perceived as more sincere and competent than a moderate," social psychologist David Myers wrote. Hello, talk radio.

Those at the McCain or Palin rallies who talk about "hooligans" and "treason," who call Barack Obama a "terrorist," "bum," or "socialist," aren't simply responding to speeches from the candidates. They are acting as members of a like-minded group exactly as social psychologists would predict, which is a less-than-comforting thought.

In his textbook on social psychology, David Myers writes, "Terrorism does not erupt suddenly. Rather, it arises among people whose shared grievances bring them together. As they interact in isolation from moderating influences, they become progressively more extreme. The social amplifier brings the signal in stronger. The result is violent acts that the individuals, apart from the group, would never have committed."

It's not just groups on the right that polarize, nor are Republicans the only people to gather in like-minded groups. For the past 30 years, Americans have been sorting themselves into politically like-minded neighborhoods, churches, and clubs. Matching like with like has been often been entirely intentional. Ministers have been taught to attract new members according to the "homogenous unit principle" of church growth. (One book in the church growth literature is titled Our Kind of People .) Subdivisions have designed for certain cultural types a Christian school in one section, a Montessori school in another.

The antidote to group polarization is mixed company. Cass Sunstein and David Schkade reviewed the rulings from three panels from the U.S. Court of Appeals. They found that when the panels consisted of all Republican or all Democratic appointees, the rulings were more extreme than when the panels had members of both parties. Mixed panels produced more moderate judgments.

The lesson is pretty clear. Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain individual excesses. Homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.

/blogs/bigsort/2008/10/13/extremism_at_mccain_rallies_comes_naturally/jcr:content/body/slate_image0

Oct. 9 2008 9:00 AM

Learning a Lesson From the "Redneck Caucus"

Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker went to "central casting" in the spring of '06 to find the candidate who could win in Bush-red communities. Goldberg recounted a stilted encounter between the Kerrys (John and Teresa Heinz) and a Missouri hog farmer, concluding that Democrats needed candidates who "speak in language familiar to, among others, the disaffected hog farmers of Missouri."

Like Claire McCaskill, a U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri who fit easily in rural communities.

McCaskill won in '06, as did two other Democratic Senate candidates in traditionally "red" states: Jim Webb in Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana. It's a cool threesome. Webb packed heat. Tester sported a flattop. McCaskill could talk to hog farmers, and she looked good at a campaign event standing next to Willie Nelson. Webb dubbed the group the "redneck caucus," and the myth began.

The theory was that central casting had come through. Democrats had found candidates with the style that could take the edge off Republican margins outside the cities. Just a few weeks ago, The New Yorker wrote about Barack Obama's "Appalachian Problem," the Chicagoan's inability in the Democratic primary to find favor among white, rural residents of southwest Virginia. The magazine visited with Sen. Webb about what it takes to win Virginia outside the District of Columbia suburbs.

Webb is good. And it's good for Obama to go to Bristol and Lebanon and Abingdon . But if Virginia, Missouri, and Montana are still close by Election Day, then Obama needs to consider how the Redneck Caucus really won in '06.

They won in the cities. Democrats in urban counties turned out, and their votes sent Webb, McCaskill, and Tester to the Senate.

It amounted to the geographic opposite of the strategy George Bush used in 2004. Ron Brownstein and Richard Rainey reported after the 2004 race that Bush won by turning out the vote in 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the United States, in exurban communities outside the suburbs. They wrote:

In states like Ohio, Minnesota and Virginia, Republican strength in these outer suburbs is offsetting Democratic gains over the last decade in more established—and often more affluent—inner-tier suburbs. As Democrats analyze a demoralizing defeat in this month's presidential election, one key question they face is whether they can reduce the expanding Republican advantage on the new frontier between suburbs and countryside.

In 2006, in these Senate races, Democrats expanded their advantage in the cities.

You can see here that no member of the Redneck Caucus won in rural communities. They won by piling up majorities in the more populous urban areas.



The point isn't to win in deeply Republican communities, of course. It's to cut the margins. But Webb, McCaskill, and Tester didn't do much better in rural parts of their state than other recent Democrats. Here's a comparison of McCaskill in '06 with Jean Carnahan in 2002. Jean Carnahan was running against Republican Jim Talent to continue filling the term won by her late husband. You can see in the chart below that McCaskill bettered Carnahan in small towns and rural counties by only a fraction of a percent. The real vote margin in rural Missouri was unchanged from 2002 to 2006.



But in the cities, where most voters lived, Claire McCaskill did much better. McCaskill lost rural and exurban Missouri by 71,000 votes. She won the cities by 113,000.

/blogs/bigsort/2008/10/09/learning_a_lesson_from_the_redneck_caucus/jcr:content/body/slate_image0

Talent increased his rural vote by 9,712 votes from 2002 to '06. The Democrats increased their rural vote in Missouri by 9,492.

Talent increased his vote in the cities by 28,000 from 2002 to '06, or 4 percent. But McCaskill bettered Carnahan's city vote by 94,000, a 13.3 percent increase.

Missouri, Virginia, and Montana all had turnout above the national average in 2006. The increased turnout came mostly from excited city voters. And the Democrats won.

Oct. 8 2008 9:09 AM

Realignment? Nope. Just More of The Same.

A few days after the 2006 election, the Washington Post announced , " 'God gap' in American politics has narrowed substantially."

By 2006, so went the theory, evangelicals were disgruntled with George W. Bush. All the fundamentalists, charismatics, megachurchers, and Southern Baptists were shifting away from the Republicans. The evangelical church was undergoing some kind of fundamental change, and their votes were there for the Democratic taking.

Oh yeah? Seventy percent of white evangelicals voted Republican in House races in 2006, according to exit polls. Back in 2004—when it was abundantly clear to every angry lefty that the religious right was taking over the country—Republican support among white evangelicals was only four percentage points higher.

There was no shift among churchgoers, despite the hype. White evangelicals voted for Democrats in 2006 in the same percentage as gays and lesbians voted for Republicans, both at about 25 percent.

Reporters wanted there to be a big story in 2006, something besides the Democratic takeover of Congress. But, really, the tale of 2006 wasn't about big changes. Instead, the election was decided by small shifts that reached across the board. Democrats picked up three points, five points, seven points among each of the demographic or geographic subgroups of the American electorate. Gallup found the 2006 vote to be a "rising Democratic tide that lifted support in almost all key subgroups."

The few true independents remaining in the electorate voted Democratic, explained Gary Jacobson at U.C. San Diego. Talking with MSNBC.com, Jacobson said the election was "more of an accumulation of small shifts of a few points that added up to a larger trend. ..." There was no one group that switched allegiance, that realigned from Republican to Democratic. Democrats were a bit more loyal. Republicans a bit less.

Well, maybe Ds were a lot more loyal. In my old hometown of Louisville, Ky., Democrat John Yarmuth beat a five-term incumbent. Louisville has a large black population, and Yarmuth won that vote, but in no greater margins than usual. And he didn't make any broad inroads in Republican parts of town. Yarmuth didn't carry a single precinct where Republicans had a majority of registrants, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal .

Yarmuth won in '06 because white, liberal neighborhoods "got even more liberal," giving the Democrat "astounding" majorities, according to a former chair of the local Republican Party.

Democratic voters got rid of all those with Rs behind their names. Ideology, policy, voting records—none of that mattered. Liberal Iowa Rep. Jim Leach lost. So did liberal Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chaffee. Before 2006, Republicans had held 18 seats in House districts where John Kerry won in 2004. After 2006, Democrats had reduced the number of so-called split districts to eight.

Partisanship in the country didn't begin to break down in 2006. It hardened.

Tomorrow: Democrats like to think that their Senate candidates in Missouri, Virginia, and Montana won in '06 because of a special ability to connect with rural voters. Nice story, but what's the real lesson for Obama from the "Redneck Caucus"?

Oct. 7 2008 7:56 AM

If This Is a "Change" Election, Then What's Changed?

Let's consider what's not new in this election.

There's a lot. The last five or six elections have been pushed along by trends that have been in place since the mid-1970s. Despite the extraordinary circumstances this year, the basic political contours of the country haven't changed (or haven't changed yet!).

If anything, 2008 appears to be more an extension of the 2006 midterms, an election that changed little in the country's basic political makeup from 2004—except, of course, for the name of the winning party. More on that tomorrow. Today, let's consider how static our politics have been.

Churchgoers Are Still Republicans
Thirty years ago, how often you went to church didn't mark you as a Democrat or a Republican. Evangelicals didn't have a party.

As the parties sorted according to lifestyle instead of class, weekly churchgoers and evangelicals became reliably Republican voters in presidential races. There's no evidence this is changing. Oh, there have been plenty of stories about the breakup of the evangelical vote. I'd read the stories, but the more hardheaded pollsters and religion scholars would find, as John Green did last month , that "Barack Obama's attempt to reach out to Christian voters ... is failing."

In the fall of 2004, George Bush had a 60.4 percent to 19.6 percent edge over John Kerry among evangelicals. This year, Green found , McCain leads Obama 57.2 percent to 19.9 percent. Maybe that will change, but it hasn't yet, according to Gallup . Evangelicals and churchgoers may be " lukewarm " about McCain, but they are still supporting him in numbers just a smidgen below 2004 levels.

Women Voting Democratic
In the 1970s, more women voted Republican than men. Over the past 30 years, they have increasingly voted Democratic. Again, there was a spate of stories about a reversal in this arrangement, but by late September Gallup had women supporting Obama  52 percent to 39 percent.

Fewer Genuine Independents
Political reporters love the story about the rise of the independent voter and the "decline of parties." But over the past 30 years, the number of true independents has declined, and allegiance to party has grown stronger. (Princeton's Larry Bartels wrote the  most important paper  on this phenomenon.)

Yes, there are more people who register as independent or tell pollsters they are independent. But almost all these people vote reliably for one party or the other. People tell pollsters that they are independents, but when pressed, they admit that they almost always vote for the same party.

Split-Ticket Voters Disappearing
Split-ticket voting has been declining for the past 30 years, too. We are less inclined to pick and choose between parties. People are picking sides and voting that way up and down the ballot. That was especially true in 2006, when Democrats, especially, cast large numbers of straight-ticket votes in New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Rural Is Still Republican
Rural voters have been moving toward the Republican Party since the '70s. That trend continues, too .  

Replay 2006
Democrats thought the 2006 midterms were a turning point. They weren't. All these trends stayed in place. Just the results changed. Tomorrow we'll see why 2006 is a good model for 2008.

Oct. 6 2008 8:24 AM

What Change Means: It's Not Policy; It's Process

"Palin and Biden Stake Their Claims on Change," rang the lead headline in the Times after the vice-presidential debate. Who could blame them? With several wars, Great Depression II, a blistering civil conflict in Pakistan, and European economic collapse, change would be welcome.

But there's something else going on with this "change" business, the reason why "change" is such an appealing message to Americans. It's not that an overwhelming number of voters want a change in particular policy. What Americans want universally is a change in the way government works.

Political writers say voters don't give a rip about governmental process. But these two campaigns are mostly about process, about how government works rather than what government does. Maybe that's because we care more about process than results, more about the way government operates rather than the policies government enacts.

That's the argument of two political scientists from the University of Nebraska, John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Policy doesn't drive people's vote, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse. People want good schools, peace, and a strong economy, certainly. But they don't have overwhelming concern about how these ends are achieved.

"What do people care about if they don't care about policy?" the two ask, and then answer. "We argue that people care deeply about process." (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse lay out their argument in their 2002 book, Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs about How Government Should Work .)

People "despise pointless political conflict and they believe pointless political conflict is rampant in American politics today." And they overwhelmingly see a "political system in which decision makers—for no reason other than the fact that they are in a position to make decisions—accrue benefits at the expense of non-decision makers. Just as children are often less concerned with acquiring a privilege than with preventing their siblings from acquiring a privilege, citizens are usually less concerned with obtaining a policy outcome than with preventing others from using the process to feather their own nests."

OK, I'm like many of you. This sounds wrong, belittling. (The "children" reference is over the top.) Hibbing and Theiss-Morse aren't exactly thrilled about what they've found as they've polled and focus-grouped voters. But the Nebraska professors' thesis does explain why outsiders (governors from Georgia, California, Arkansas, and Texas) have won the presidency based largely on their outsiderness, that they didn't live "inside the Beltway."

Now we have the "maverick" (plus his Alaskan sidekick) and the guy who will deliver the "change we need/can believe in." Both candidates have promoted themselves as outsiders who promise to sweep out a government rotten with partisanship and corruption.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse don't think people want to get rid of "insiders" so "the people" can take more direct control of government. They argue Americans have little interest in most policy proposals and even less interest in the day-to-day work of government. (Largely that's because people shy away from conflict, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write, and politics is all about conflict.) What they want is for government to be open, accountable, and representative. Their perception is that government is none of those things, and so dissatisfaction with government  "usually stems from perceptions of how government goes about its business, not what the government does."

Therefore, people's "main political goal is often limited to nothing more than achieving a process that will prevent decision makers from benefiting themselves."

The Nebraskans contend that the great power vested in government inevitably leads to this sense that politicians are "overpaid lackeys of special interests."

"[P]eople are amazingly sensitive to being played for suckers," they write. "Politicans are often in a position to do this, and as a result the people love to hate them." We are psychologically wired this way. It's not the policy positions politicians take that lead to our distrust, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write; it is the power they hold.

Most people don't care about politics or policy. They just don't want to be ripped off. And so they vote, time and again, for the outsider, the maverick, the man from Hope, the peanut farmer, the Perot phenomenon in '92, the uniter not a divider, the guy who will deliver change from the bottom up.

This isn't the way I like to think about politics. And given the remarkable failures of the last eight years, it's hard to believe policy isn't a primary concern right now. But eight out of the last nine elections (including this one) have been shaped by the sense among voters that Washington is corrupt, politicians are crooks, and it will take a newcomer to get rid of the corruption and the partisanship.

I can't think of a single policy proposal that has had a similar impact.

(Top) Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images; (Bottom) Photo by Peter Tompson/Getty Images

READ MORE STORIES