So, New York Times readers, it's time to click your heels together and repeat the mantra, "There's no place like Kansas," "There's no place like Kansas," "There's no place like Kansas," over and over again. I am, of course, talking about the deep-red spiritual state of Kansas as pictured by author Thomas Frank in his book "What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." The thesis, as you may recall, is that blue-collar and red-zip-code Americans keep voting against their own best economic interests in national elections. Why? Because they are obsessed, as one rising politico famously put it in a Left Coast speech, with God, gays and guns.
Meanwhile, rich, elite voters in blue-zip codes often cast their votes in order to defend their progressive, liberal beliefs on similar social, moral and, yes, religious issues.
This is old news and, of course, it brings us to the famous "pew gap" trend. Want to know how Anglo voters will vote in a national election? Ask them how often they attend worship services. It's the best way to predict who will vote for a political leader who is conservative on moral and social issues.
Or maybe this famous quote from a 2004 essay by Tom Edsall in The Atlantic Monthly will ring some bells:
Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.
Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors -- and better indicators of partisan inclination -- than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter (black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic).
It is an axiom of American politics that people vote their pocketbooks, and for seventy years the key political divisions in the United States were indeed economic. The Democratic and Republican Parties were aligned, as a general rule, with different economic interests. Electoral fortunes rose and fell with economic cycles. But over the past several elections a new political configuration has begun to emerge -- one that has transformed the composition of the parties and is beginning to alter their relative chances for ballot-box success. What is the force behind this transformation? In a word, sex.
Of course, Edsall is talking about sex, but the issues discussed in that famous passage are also linked to moral and religious doctrines about public issues linked to sexuality.
All of this brings us to a New York Times piece that was written and edited by folks who, after clicking their heels, were surely chanting, "Politics is all that matters," "Politics is all that matters," etc., etc. Here's the top of this report:
For all of the Democratic attacks painting Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch elitist who will help the rich at the expense of the middle class, he is maintaining the traditional -- and sizable -- Republican advantage among a politically vital constituency, white working-class voters in the states most likely to decide the presidential election.
And despite Republican efforts to use the weak economy to drive a wedge between President Obama and women on Election Day, the president is holding on to their crucial support in most battleground states.
Those findings, contained in the latest batch of Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News swing state polls, highlight the stubborn divisions of this year’s presidential race among two of the most important voting groups in the most hotly contested states. But they also help explain the intense efforts of the two campaigns to alter the balance in both groups, which together will go a long way toward determining the outcome.
So Romney is doing better than he should with working-class Americans and Obama is struggling a bit?
So what is going on here? What forces -- I would stress that this needs to be plural -- are likely to be shaping this drama? It seems that, at the Times, the only issues that matter are economic or feminist. That's it.
Did this poll dig, at all, into questions linked to religion, culture and other "Kansas" issues? Who knows? Who cares?
Not the folks who wrote this story, for sure.