Targeting suburban “Wal-Mart moms” in 2012 elections

Similar to the 2010 elections and echoing an analysis from November 2011, a commentator suggests the 2012 elections could be decided by suburban “Wal-Mart moms”:

Those voters most likely to remain undecided about their presidential preference are taking on a distinct profile, according to pollsters on both sides of the aisle: They’re suburban white women, between the ages of 35 and 55, who probably haven’t attained a college degree and who have kids under the age of 18. They very likely voted Democratic in 2008, then turned around and voted Republican two years later — if they voted at all. And polling and consumer research shows their focus is on their own household rather than national events…

Bratty and Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster, have extensively surveyed a group they call “Wal-Mart moms,” part of a clever campaign by the retail giant to associate itself with this year’s ultimate swing voter, similar to the oft-cited NASCAR dads of 2004, the soccer moms of 1996 or the hockey moms of 2008. The retailer has avoided getting too specific in terms of race, educational attainment, or geographic area — it defines the women as mothers who are registered to vote, have at least one child under 18 at home, and have shopped at Wal-Mart in the last month — but the group tracks closely with suburban, noncollege whites…

Consumer data backs up that sentiment. Wal-Mart moms are three times more likely than the average American to be interested in family or animated movies, dogs, and products like ketchup, frozen vegetables, and air fresheners, according to data collected by the consumer research firm Lotame. That indicates the women are the ones shopping for their families and are interested in saving pennies wherever they can. They are more interested in information on cruises, too, suggesting they’re eager to get away when their economic situation improves…

With such weighty economic situations on swing mothers’ minds, both pollsters say neither Obama’s nor Romney’s campaign has truly reached these voters yet. And both candidates face challenges in relating: Obama contends with a sense of disappointment that his first term hasn’t sped the economic recovery as much as they expected or that the recovery is leaving them behind. Romney contends with a growing sense that his business experience demonstrates he would favor the wealthy over the middle class.

For all of the talk about big money in elections, the American voter tends to be suburban and working/middle-class people looking for deals at places like Walmart.

One issue I have with analyses like these: they rarely give us the numbers to truly know the size of this group (how many Walmart moms are there really, particularly compared to other cleverly named demographic groups). Additionally, is this group distributed in such a way to really swing an election (in other words, are they located in sizable numbers in the swing states that matter)?

Might Target want to get in on this and start discussing “Target moms”? I assume these might be more educated, slightly more wealthy shoppers…

Republican secret to success: “a rich-poor alliance of affluent suburbs and poor rural counties”

In discussing the outcome of the recall election in Wisconsin, one analyst argues Republican electoral success is based on combining votes from two geographic areas:

McCabe argues the secret behind Walker and decades of Republican success nationwide is “a rich-poor alliance of affluent suburbs and poor rural counties.” In the recall election, Walker swept Milwaukee’s suburbs by huge margins and dominated the countryside. McCabe says in 2010, “Walker carried the 10 poorest counties in the state by a 13% margin”; these counties used to be reliably Democratic. He elaborates:

“Republicans use powerful economic wedge issues to great impact. They go into rural counties and say, do you have pensions? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs, referring to public sector workers. Do you have healthcare? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs? Do you get wage increases? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs.”

The scenario was far different 50 years ago, explains McCabe:

“The Democrats were identified with programs like Social Security, the G.I. Bill and rural electrification. People could see tangible benefits. Today, they ask, ‘Is government working for us?’ And often their answer is no. They see government as crooked and corrupt. They figure if the government is not working for us, let’s keep it as small as possible.”

Another way to look at this would be to say that Democrats tend to get votes from large cities and less affluent suburbs. This is not the first time this suggestion has been made: Joel Kotkin has discussed how Republicans appeal to suburban voters  and others noted in the 2004 election how George Bush won a clear majority of votes in fast-growing exurban counties.

In the lead-up to the November 2012 elections, when there is commentary about geography, it tends to be about which states are toss-ups between the two candidates. But you can rest assured that the advisers for the candidates are looking at much finer-grained data and how to get more votes from more specific geographic areas like inner-ring suburbs, monied burbs, and the metropolitan fringe. States are too large to analyze quickly: think of Illinois and the differences between Chicago, Chicago suburb, and downstate voters. The analysis in the media could at least be about the areas in the states where there are greater population concentrations. Will Mitt Romney primarily campaign in “affluent suburbs and poor rural suburbs” while Obama will stick to the big cities and middle to lower-class suburbs? Is Romney making a suburban/rural pitch in a majority suburban nation while Obama is promoting a more urban campaign?

Sociologist Duncan Watts helped come up with the idea for the Huffington Post

Here an interesting sidelight to sociologist Duncan Watts career: he helped create the Huffington Post.

The origins of the now famous Huffington Post began at a lunch in 2003 between AOL’s Kenneth Lerer and author and sociologist Duncan Watts. The two met to discuss Watts’ book, and left with the beginnings of the Huff Post.  The Columbia  Journalism Review recently gave its own take on Watts’ book, Six Degrees, that inspired Lerer from the get-go and on the history of The Huffington Post as we now know it. According to CJR, before AOL’s purchase of HuffPost in 2011, the company was not known for revenues or breaking news stories. However, the website had managed to master social media integration and search-engine optimization.

Here are more details from the story in the Columbia Journalism Review cited above:

He brought the book with him and Watts would recall that the copy was dog-eared, the flatteringly telltale sign of a purposeful read. Lerer had a plan and he wanted Watts to help him. He had set himself an ambitious target. He wanted to take on the National Rifle Association.

He told Watts: “I know the answer to this is somewhere in these pages.”…

Ken Lerer listened, and he was not deterred. Networks did, in fact, occur—vast networks through which previously disconnected people suddenly found themselves joined together, perhaps to share an idea, a song, a sentiment, a cause. Why not then try to create a network that could challenge the vast and powerful and sustaining network of the NRA?

“I know the answers,” Watts told him. “I am confident they are not there.” Then, having deflated Lerer, Watts threw him a lifeline: “Maybe my friend Jonah can help you.”

An interesting read: in order to fight the NRA and counter the DrudgeReport, people wanted to make the Huffington Post both viral and sticky.

However, from his Twitter account, here is Watt’s Apr 18 take on the CJR piece:

Six degrees of aggregation: A fascinating (in my biased opinion) take on the origins of the Huffington Post.

The implications of discontinuing the American Community Survey

This didn’t exactly make the front page this week but a vote in the House of Representatives about the American Community Survey could have a big impact on how we understand the United States. Nate Berg explains:

So the Republican-led House of Representatives this week voted 232-190 to eliminate the American Community Survey, the annual survey of about 3 million randomly chosen U.S. households that’s like the Census only much more detailed. It collects demographic details such as what sort of fuel a household uses for heating, the cost of rent or mortgage payments, and what time residents leave home to go to work.

In a post on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website, Director Robert Groves says the bill “devastates the nation’s statistical information about the status of the economy and the larger society. Modern societies need current, detailed social and economic statistics. The U.S. is losing them.”

While the elimination of the ACS would take a slight nibble out of the roughly $3.8 trillion in government expenditures proposed in the 2013 federal budget, its negative impacts could be much greater – affecting the government’s ability to fund a wide variety of services and programs, from education to housing to transportation.

The issue is that the information collected in the ACS is used heavily by the federal government to figure out where it will spend a huge chunk of its money. In a 2010 report for the Brookings Institution, Andrew Reamer found that in the 2008 fiscal year, 184 federal domestic assistance programs used ACS-related datasets to help determine the distribution of more than $416 billion in federal funding. The bulk of that funding, more than 80 percent, went directly to fund Medicaid, highway infrastructure programs and affordable housing assistance. Reamer, now a research professor George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, also found that the federal government uses the ACS to distribute about $100 billion annually to states and communities for economic development, employment, education and training, commerce and other purposes. He says that should the ACS be eliminated, it would be very difficult to figure out how to distribute this money where it’s needed…

And it’s not just government money that would be wasted. Reamer says many businesses are increasingly reliant on the market data available within the ACS, and that without it they would have much less success picking locations where their businesses would have market demand. It would affect businesses throughout the country, “from mom-and-pops to Walmart.”

Some history might also be helpful here. The United States has carried out a dicennial census since 1790 but the American Community Survey began in the mid 1990s. There has been talk in recent years of replacing the expensive and complicated dicennial census with a beefed up American Community Survey. There would be several advantages: it wouldn’t cost as much plus the government (and the country) would have more consistent information rather than having to wait every ten years. In other words, our country is rapidly changing and we need consistent information that can tell us what is happening.

In my mind, as a researcher who consistently uses Census data, dropping the ACS would be a big loss. The government funding is important but even more important to me would be losing the more up-to-date information the ACS provides. Without this survey, we would likely have to rely on private data which is often restrictive and/or expensive. For example, I’ve used ACS data to track some housing issues but without this, I’m not sure where I could get similar data.

This is part of a larger issue of conservatives wanting to limit the reach of the Census Bureau. The argument often is that the Census is too intrusive, therefore invading the privacy of citizens (see this 2011 story about an insistent ACS worker), and the Constitution only provides for a dicennial census. I wonder if these arguments are red herrings: there is a long history of battling over Census counts and timing depending on which political party might benefit. For example, see Republican claims that inappropriate sampling techniques were used to correct undercounts for big cities, claims that the Census “imputes” races to people (so mark your race as American!), or efforts by New York City to ask for a recount in order to boost their 2010 population figures, which are tied to funding. In other words, the Census can turn into a political football even though its data is very important and it uses social science research techniques.

Collective effervesence: from Man U. vs. Man City to voting

An editorial in The Guardian suggests we seek out more moments of collective effervescence:

As every Mancunian football fan will tell you, tomorrow evening sees the most hotly awaited derby in Premier League history when Manchester City and Manchester United square up for the last time this season. Whatever the outcome, what we will witness in abundance – at least while the ball is in play – is what the father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, called “collective effervescence”, a ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds.

Given the current Europe-wide epidemic of melancholia induced by various crises, financial and political, and not helped in the UK by an April deluge, predicted to last through May, the good news is that we are all about to experience opportunities for a veritable season of effervescence. We report on these pages how three giant puppets walking the streets of Liverpool as part of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic have attracted 250,000 people on to the streets and raised the spirits of the city hugely. Over coming months, even arch cynics – those allergic to red, white and blue, republicans and lifelong couch potatoes – may find themselves succumbing, just a little, to communal and classless pleasures as, for instance, the celebrations connected to the Queen’s diamond jubilee gather traction. The Olympics become ever more imminent and the prospect of a gold medal or two potentially binds stranger to stranger regardless of income, ethnicity and background, in the alchemic way that victory in sport can…

Any festivity, inevitably in this day and age, comes saturated in commercialism. It will be difficult over the next several months to find a china cup and tea towel that isn’t festooned with crowns, coronets or concentric rings. Nevertheless, there will be events and occasions – many of them free –which will proof themselves again commodification and remain beyond the reach of the marketplace simply because they require only our time and interest….

This week sees London mayoral and local elections in addition to a referendum on elected mayors in 10 English cities. Inertia, rather than effervescence, is likely to mark the experience. But while dancing in the streets strengthens our collective sense of solidarity, we improve its health still further by exercising our hard-won right to vote. As Professor Michael Sandel pointed out in his Reith lectures on BBC’s Radio 4 in 2009: “The virtues in democratic life – community, solidarity, trust, civic friendship – these virtues are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are, rather, like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.”

Translation: while the world may look like it is in bad shape, there are still moments in which we can come together, advance the common good, strengthen relationships, and be part of something bigger than ourselves. It is interesting, however, to note that some of these examples require choosing one side or another. For example, will fans of Manchester United or Manchester City be celebrating the game of football together or hoping the other side loses disastrously? In voting, is everyone pursuing the common good or hoping their side gets enough political power to force the other side to kowtow to its interests? Perhaps there are still moments where people can come together in larger settings, such as at the Olympics (national pride? celebrating humanity?) or at large rock concerts or a few other places.

Also, I’m having a hard time imagining an American newspaper editorial invoking Emile Durkheim. Would many newspaper editors in the United States know who this is?

Controversy in using sampling for the dicennial Census

In a story about the resignation of sociologist Robert Groves as director of the United States Census Bureau, there is an overview of some of the controversy over Groves’ nomination. The issue: the political implications of using statistical sampling.

Dr. Robert M. Groves announced on Tuesday that he was resigning his position as director of the U.S. Census Bureau in order to take over as provost of Georgetown University. “I’m an academic at heart,” Groves told The Washington Post. He will leave the Bureau in August. Unlike some government officials who recently have had to resign under a cloud, such as Regina Dugan of DARPA and Martha Johnson of the General Services Administration, Groves received universal praise for the job he did directing the 2010 Census, a herculean task he completed on time and almost $2 billion under budget.
At the time of Groves’ nomination, Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-California), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said that he found it “an incredibly troubling selection that contradicts the administration’s assurances that the census process would not be used to advance an ulterior political agenda.” However, by the time Groves announced that he was leaving, Issa had changed his tune and issued a statement that “His tenure is proof that appointing good people makes a big difference.”
When President Barack Obama nominated Groves on April 2, 2009, he was viewed as a generally uncontroversial professor of sociology.  However, his nomination turned out to be contentious anyway because his support for using statistical sampling, a statistical method commonly used to correct for errors and biases in the census, raised the ire of Republican critics, who believed that sampling would benefit minorities and the poor, who generally vote Democratic…
A specialist in survey methodology and statistics, Groves was no stranger to the Census Bureau, whose decennial census is one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated statistical exercises.  Groves served there early in his career as a visiting statistician in 1982, and later as associate director of Statistical Design, Standards, and Methodology from 1990 to 1992.  It was during the latter period that Groves became embroiled in the controversy over the proposed use of statistical sampling to correct known biases and deficiencies in the Census head count.  Groves and others at the Census Bureau proposed using sampling techniques to correct an admitted 1.2% undercount in the 1990 Census, which failed to include millions of homeless, minority and poor persons mainly living in big cities, which lost millions of dollars in federal funds when Republican Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher vetoed the sampling proposal.

Considering Groves’ track record in sociology, I’m not surprised that he is now regarded to have done a good job in this position.

Perhaps this is a silly question in today’s world but does everything have to become politicized? Is the ultimate goal to get the most accurate count of American residents or do both parties simply assume that the other side wants to use the occasion for political gain? If you want to limit funding to cities based on population, why not go after this funding rather than try to skew the count?

Of course, this is not the first time that the dicennial Census has been politicized…

Another note: a sociologist apparently saved the government $2 billion! That alone should draw some attention.

Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins has a master’s degree in sociology

I’m always on the lookout for famous people with sociology degrees. Being the President of a country counts: Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins is considered a sociologist.

Higgins holds a graduate degree in sociology.In his academic career, he was a Statutory Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at University College Galway and was a Visiting Professor at Southern Illinois University. He resigned his academic posts to concentrate fully on his political career.

Higgins received a master’s degree in sociology from Indiana University in 1967:

“On behalf of Indiana University, I would like to congratulate IU alumnus Michael D. Higgins upon his election as the ninth president of Ireland and culmination of a long and distinguished career as a politician, lecturer, author and human rights activist,” McRobbie said. “Over the course of four decades, President-elect Higgins has dedicated himself to championing Irish culture and passionately defending human rights causes in many parts of the world. He is also renowned for the many intellectual contributions he has made to modern political, philosophical and literary discourse. All of us at IU wish him the greatest success as he prepares to apply his extensive knowledge and experiences to his new role as Ireland’s senior ambassador.”

Higgins received a master of arts degree in sociology at IU Bloomington in 1967.

Higgins is also apparently an honorary life member of the Sociological Association of Ireland.

I wonder if anyone has done a study on the effectiveness of leaders with sociological degrees. Sociology is an unusually broad field, containing insights for many areas of social life as well as for social interactions. I would hope that sociologists can do unique things because of their training…

Evangelicals and Catholics first joined forces in the suburbs

In the middle of an article about how Rick Santorum has appealed to evangelicals, one of the factors mentioned is geographic: evangelicals and Catholics both moved to the suburbs after World War Two.

The plate tectonics of social mobility also figure into the Santorum surprise, note scholars like the political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron. In the post-World War II years, many Catholics moved out of insular urban neighborhoods while many evangelicals left their rural and small-town homes for the suburbs and exurbs. In subdivisions, in office parks, in colleges, the young people of the two religions began to encounter one another as benign acquaintances rather than alien enemies.

It is no coincidence, then, that a Santorum voter like Carissa Wilson has grown up in the suburban sprawl between two cities with strong Catholic heritages, Dayton and Cincinnati. Like the Michigan autoworkers in 1980 who made a break with Democratic tradition to vote for Ronald Reagan, Miss Wilson just may be the embodiment of a new wave.

In other words, evangelicals and Catholics met and learned to like each other in the suburbs. United by suburban values and perhaps a dislike for both cities and rural areas, these two groups settled into the land of single-family homes and found that they could find common ground on some social and theological issues.

This brings several questions to mind:

1. Are Catholics and evangelicals more interested in preserving suburban values than finding common theological ground? Perhaps this is crassly put but the way the argument is written in the article, it suggests that the suburbs came first before the social and theological common ground.

2. How do race and class play into the process? In other words, while both groups came from different places to the suburbs, they were probably mostly white and the educational status of both groups was rising. Does this mean that the older city/rural divide was transcended by common status interests based on race and class?

Sacred narratives of American liberals and conservatives

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues American liberals and conservatives have powerful and “sacred” cultural narratives:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

I wonder at times if any public political debates are really about the particular issues at hand or are really proxy battles between these large cultural narratives.

It does seem easy to suggest that politicians and others needs to get outside of their own narratives and be able to compromise. However, there are benefits to being part of a larger narrative: the individual has purpose and meaning plus there is strong social support in being part of a larger group. If it were easy to cross these boundaries, people could do it more easily but there are also sanctions that groups can impose on members who stray. Current conditions suggest there may be little benefit for politicians who stick their neck out. See this recent story about how some members on both sides tried to reach a deal over the debt ceiling last summer but the larger parties helped it fall apart.

Post political content on Facebook and risk losing friends

Results from a new study show that 18% of adults on Facebook say they have responded to political posts by friends by dropping those friends or blocking their posts:

Eighteen percent of the 2,253 adults surveyed by Pew said they had blocked, unfriended, or hidden a friend on a social network over a political post. It isn’t hard to see why: The Pew survey found that because people who post about politics tend to be very liberal or very conservative, the offending posts are more likely to be out of line with other people’s views. Indeed, only one in four users surveyed by Pew said they “usually” or “always” agree with their friends’ political posts; 73 percent said they only sometimes or never do.

Though most people—roughly two in three—take no action over political posts they disagree with, some 28 percent said they counter with a comment or competing post, another behavior the Pew survey said leads to friends going their own way.

Despite everyone’s apparent distaste for other people’s political views, the survey found most users continue to post their own: 75 percent of adults who use social sites said their friends post political content, and 37 percent said they post at least some of their own.

My interpretation (filtered through my own research): political comments (and some discussion?) are common on Facebook but it doesn’t appeal to everyone and some people can go over the line (either through posting more “extreme” political posts or posting too many political comments).

I would be interested to hear a lot more about this: what is the threshold for appropriate political posts? Why are some users so uninterested in political posts to go so far as to block/drop friends? Are there similar areas of discussion, perhaps religion, that evoke similarly strong reactions from other users?