Who Knew: The Clinton Surprise

Who knew? All this time we’ve been told about how “divisive, unelectable, ‘radioactive'” Hillary Clinton is, but it seems there’s something statistically wrong with what the pundits have been telling us. Go figure…

Judith Warner explains in her Domestic Disturbances column:

The shocks just keep on coming:

Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic field with 51 percent of the vote.

She beats Barack Obama by 24 percentage points among black Democrats.

She is projected now to beat Giuliani – or at the very least to be in a statistical dead heat with him in the general election.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. According to the received wisdom of those in-the-know here in Washington, Hillary was supposed to be divisive, unelectable, “radioactive.”

It was the fault of Bill and Monica, and the fact that you never knew when there was going to be another Bill and Monica. It was the fault of Hillary – for not taking the hard line on Bill and Monica the way a woman of her stature and standing was supposed to do. And it was the fault of voters – those people out there who would never, ever elect another Clinton.

Why? Because … everyone said so.

(“I think the one thing we know about Hillary, the one thing we absolutely know, bottom line, [is] she can`t win, right?” is how MSNBC host Tucker Carlson once put it to New Republic editor-at-large Peter Beinart. “She is unelectable.”)

The “we” world of Tucker Carlson knew what they knew about Hillary Clinton — right up until about this week, I think — because they spend an awful lot of time talking to, socializing with and interviewing one another.

What they don’t do all that much is venture outside of a certain set of zip codes to get a feel for the way most people are actually living. They don’t sign up for adjustable rate mortgages, visit emergency rooms to get their primary health care, leave their children in unlicensed day care or lose their jobs because they have to drive their mothers home from the hospital after hip replacement surgery.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters, it turns out, do.

Warner explains that “alongside the newest set of poll results showing Clinton’s surprising levels of popularity among lower- and middle-class women, white moderate women, even black voters, was another story this week, based on a new set of data from the I.R.S.”

It showed that America’s most wealthy earn an even greater share of the nation’s income than they did in 2000, at the peak of the tech boom. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the Wall Street Journal reported, earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005 (the latest date for which these data are available), up from the high of 20.8 percent they’d reached in the bull market of 2000. The bottom 50 percent of people earned 12.8 percent of all income, compared with 13 percent in 2000. And the median tax filer’s income fell 2 percent when adjusted for inflation (to about $31,000) between 2000 and 2005.

More and more people are being priced out of a middle class existence. Because of housing prices, because of health care costs, because of tax policy, because of the cost of child care, The Good Life – a life of relative comfort and financial security – is now, in many parts of the country, an upper-middle-class luxury.

Given all this, you would think that Clinton’s big policy announcement this week on improving life for working families would have been big news.

After all, it contained a number of huge new middle class entitlements: paid family leave and sick leave, most notably. There were a number of tried-and-true triggers for outrage from the right wing and the business community like government standards and quality controls for child care. There could have been debate stoked among the many childless workers who now feel parents are getting too much “special treatment” in the workplace (Clinton supports legislation to protect parents and pregnant women from job discrimination). At the very least, someone could have accused Clinton of trying to bring back welfare. (She supports subsidies for low-income parents who wish to stay home to raise their children.) Or someone could have questioned how realistic it really is to pay for all that – to the tune of $1.75 billion per year – simply by cracking down on the “abusive” use of tax shelters, as Clinton proposes to do.

But there was none of this. Clinton’s family policy speech in New Hampshire all but sank like a stone. If it was covered at all, it was often packaged as part of a feature on her attempts to curry favor with female voters. (“Clinton shows femininity,” read a Boston Globe headline.) It was as though the opinion-makers and agenda-setters, waiting with bated breath for Bill to slip up, just one more time, couldn’t see or hear the message to middle-class voters.

(“I do see you and I do hear you,” Clinton said in a speech on “rebuilding the middle class” earlier this month. “You’re not invisible to me.”)

So why the disconnect between what the pundits report about Hillary and how the voters feel? Try using a little Maslov theory to figure it out:

In contemplating the disconnect, as I often have done, between Hillary and her upper-middle-class peers, I find myself thinking of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In Maslow’s theory of human motivation, needs were mapped out in a pyramid form. The broad array of physiological needs was at the bottom, followed by the almost equally wide range of safety needs: things like bodily and financial security, secure physical health and work, and property ownership. Transcendent needs, like truth, justice, wisdom and self-actualization, were in the tiniest triangle up at the top. As their “lower-level” needs were met, Maslow theorized, people moved up the pyramid; they did not – unless the material circumstances of their lives changed dramatically – move back.

The American middle class, it seems to me, is looking to politicians now to satisfy a pretty basic – and urgent – level of need. Yet people in the upper middle class — with their excellent health benefits, schools, salaries, retirement plans, nannies and private afterschool programs — have journeyed so far from that level of need that, it often seems to me, they literally cannot hear what resonates with the middle class. That creates a problematic blind spot for those who write, edit or produce what comes to be known about our politicians and their policies.

Having used that Maslow pyramid analogy, I want to make clear that I do not mean to impute to upper middle class people a “higher” (in the sense of “better”) form of political reasoning. I am merely trying to say that the wealth gap has brought an experience gap that is in turn producing a gap in perception — one that, I predict, will yield a wealth of surprises in this election period.

Hopefully, they’ll be good ones.

When Hillary Clinton tells voters, particularly lower and middle income voters, “I do see you and I do hear you,” that resonates into their core, because we all want and need validation.

When she tell voters, “You’re not invisible to me,” that too resonates. The fatigue that many voters feel in battling the day to day trying to get by in the BushCo economy with no health insurance is wearing them down. At this point people want to know that some changes will be made with a new president in the White House, and Hillary speaks directly to those voters when she tells them that she does hear them.

Throw conventional wisdom out the door. Hillary Clinton hasn’t relied on catchy “Two Americas” type slogans, she’s simply gone for the gut. And apparently it is working.

RELATED POST: Hillary Draws a Crowd in Fresno, Speaks of Change (Video)

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9 Responses to Who Knew: The Clinton Surprise

  1. Pingback: Who Knew: The Clinton Surprise | Political news - democrats republicans socialists greens liberals conservatives

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  3. Darrell Prows says:

    Can a non militaristic, non aggressive person get elected to run this country? That is something we will not find out in 2008. One thing we will find out is that conditions are such that a Republican cannot win this coming race, and a Democrat cannot lose it. And we may well find out that it is finally time to have a woman in the top spot.

  4. SunBummer says:

    Interesting story about a Democrat by another Democrat! It’s true, Hillary’s a runaway train for the party nomination against her Democrat rival politicians. Unfortunately, the average American citizen won’t ever vote to have another Clinton in the White House – thank God! Reference the attached recent poll.

    Best regards from Naples, FL

  5. Jan says:

    I find it funny that, when Senator Clinton is running away with the polls, the anti-Clinton supporters suddenly find a poll they like!

    And this poll (NOTE: interactive) “proves” beyond a shadow of a doubt that (drumroll, please), more than a year before the election, 50% say they wouldn’t vote for Clinton.

    Does it matter to you whatsoever that, in the other polls that you aren’t mentioning, she is beating every Democratic candidate, every Republicans cnadidate, winning in all the state polls, AND the one candidate on the Democratic side trending UPWARDS?

    No, I guess those polls are to be ignored because of your one interactive polls. right?

  6. Darrell Prows says:

    Jan, Thank you. I always enjoy reading something as astute as this.

  7. Canaan says:

    Very good article, and nice point about Tucker Carlson being ‘zip code challenged’. A week before the 2004 election, Carlson said Kerry would win because the Dem base was so fired up. We were fired up, but conservative beltway boy Carlson had no idea what was going on in the heartland — Ken Mehlman territory. The Clintons know what’s happening outside of the beltway. Hillary’s message is not elitist. She knows what’s going on in people’s lives.

  8. Nick says:

    Good God these polls are all over the map. It seems the best conclusion that can be drawn is that Americans are deeply divided (no headline there).
    I don’t question that HIllary can be elected president. I do question whether HIllary’s support among lower to middle class voters runs as deep as it did for Kerry in 2004 or for Dems in general in 2006. As Pamela correctly notes
    “Clinton’s surprising levels of popularity among lower- and middle-class women, white moderate women, even black voters.” Great, but what about the men? No I don’t expect Hillary to win the male vote, but if she’s wiped out there she has little chance of winning (for the record I don’t believe Mark Penn’s assertion that Hillary would win 20% of the GOP female vote. God no wonder Al Gore fired this guy in 2000).
    Insofar as black voters are concerned Democrats have won the black vote in every election post-1932 and have won over 85% of the black vote in every election post-1960. Is it really all that shocking that Hillary wins the allegiance of the most Democratic of racial subgroups?

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