The Electorate’s Priorities

I know that it’s silly season, so whenever I say anything remotely campaign related, it means I’m Objectively Pro (Whoever). Never mind that I’m strongly opposed to both of the major-party candidates. Never mind that I wish, somehow, that both of them could lose, badly, to anyone from a long, long list of other people.

I’m still Objectively Pro (Whoever). By virtue of opening my mouth during silly season.

So with this post, I’m going to take the fun out of reading the tea leaves for all of you. [Flips a coin.] Huh. This post is Objectively Pro Romney. Make of that what you will, but the coin flips will continue as needed.

Anyway. I’ve been trying to model voters’ real preferences based on how they vote. Yes, that’s dangerous, and yes, elections are more managed — by established politicians — than any other mass-participation process in this country, barring maybe only health care.

Let’s set aside the question of manufactured consent, huge problem though it is, and see what we can do without it. I submit that if voters’ real preferences can be discerned based on how they vote, then here they are, in order:

1. I don’t want to lose too often. Losing once in a while is inevitable, but not too often.

2. I care about current political issues, the candidates’ stances on the issues, and the candidates’ characters, background, and experiences. Not necessarily in order.

The place of priority (1) explains why when people change their party loyalty, they so often switch from Team Blue to Team Red, or vice versa. Without this priority, it’s hard to explain why the two major parties don’t just bleed away all their followers, either into the (admittedly growing) pool of independents, or into third parties.

Notably, even the (admittedly growing) pool of independents still overwhelmingly breaks down along party lines. Red-leaning independents think a lot like Team Red, and Blue-leaning independents think a lot like Team Blue. As John Sides put it, “Most independents are closet partisans.” Perhaps as priority (3), some voters want also to appear independent, which our system allows them to do even while still enjoying (1).

It’s still very hard to explain much of American politics without (1) being the highest priority for nearly everyone. But this would be an embarrassing thing to admit. Wouldn’t it? It’s almost certainly irrational when we evaluate it on a means-ends basis, because the reason for politics is surely to be found somewhere among all the stuff in (2).

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52 thoughts on “The Electorate’s Priorities

      • Yep. That’s part of the puzzle here.

        Of course, in Maryland it’s also usually throwing your vote away to pick a Republican presidential candidate. The need to identify with a sort-of, sometimes-winner is important enough that people do it anyway, even if, strategically speaking, their vote might move the conversation more toward their policy preferences if it were spent elsewhere. (This could either be a good thing or a bad thing for the country, mind you.)

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  1. No 2 is too optimistic: Rather, it is about who can I publicly support in order to claim high status among my peers. The appearance of caring about backgrounds and policies etc is mostly more of an excuse to set up oneself as high status and the supporters of the other guy as low status.

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      • Here’s a good paper: Rational Ignorance and political morality. I’ve split it into 2 so here is part1 and here is part 2

        We can tell that people’s voting behaviour as more to do with status games because of the way they use very motivated reasoning. People often support policies more for what the policies symbolise than for what the policies actually do (even though many people will explicitly deny that they are doing this). If we were actually concerned with believing things that was most likely to be true, we would defer more often to the relevant experts in the various fields than we currently do.

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        • If we were actually concerned with believing things that was most likely to be true, we would defer more often to the relevant experts in the various fields than we currently do.

          Under the assumption that the experts are selfless…

          This isn’t to say expertise is meaningless. Veering from truth you don’t like to comfortable truthiness is a problem. However, unless taken very carefully and with the proper skepticism to at least verify, there is as much, if not more unreasonableness in accepting “because I said so” from authority.

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              • We often lack perspective when we think about ourselves looking behind the curtain. Let’s instead talk about this guy Bob who is an average guy in almost every way (few people are actually average in every respect.

                Bob really has 2 options. He could trust a given expert Steve or he could try to figure out things for himself. Given that Bob is not an expert and has not witten peer reviewed papers on the topic or spent years studying this rigourously, Bob is almost certainly less competent in the subject matter than Steve. Given time constraints, Bob doesn’t have the time to spend on the subject matter so that he becomes as competent as Steve (in part because Bob is not an academic and actually has a life). Therefore if Bob were to try to figure out things for himself, he would be more likely to get things wrong than Steve. But given that there is no way for Bob to become as or more competent than Steve other than becoming an expert himself (which we already determined that he did not have time to do) Bob can always improve his chances of getting things correct by relying on the consensus of Steve and all the other experts on the topic.

                Therefore, if Bob wanted to be more likely to reach the truth, he should defer. This would obtain as long as Steve was in a position of relative expertise. How do we determine relative expertise? The institutions of academia have done a good job of producing people who are in fact experts in their own fields. Even if they are nowhere near as good as to be right all if not most of the time, they are still more competent than Bob.

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  2. What about spite as a motivation for voting? I mean this seriously. Sometimes voters, for example, don’t like the kinds of people who support one candidate, even if the voters might agree with that candidate more (or at least no less) than the other on the issues.

    I’m not claiming this is a Democratic thing or a Republican thing. For me, it’s probably taken more votes from the Democrats than from the Republicans. I probably support what Obama supports on policy grounds, at least compared to Romney. So, I’ll probably vote for Obama (but maybe not).

    But I refuse to vote for my congressperson, an incumbent Democrat, for two reasons. One, it’s a safe district and he’ll win by a comfortable margin without my vote or even (probably) without a couple thousand votes. Two, I have a strong distaste for the fact that he is the shoe-in each time around, and I want to vote for his Republican opponent (whoever that is) just because I don’t like the Democrat being a shoe in.

    On a more general level, I grew up in a moderately pro-Republican household, and I bought into the idea that Democrats are a bunch of condescending statists who want to tell everyone how to live their lives while Republicans are straight shooters who stand tall and aren’t snobs toward the average Joe or Jane. I still, on a temperamental level, am inclined to this position, even though on an intellectual level, I know it invokes a (mostly) baseless stereotype of both parties.

    Even so, I still hesitate to identify with the Democrats, even though I support them more than not and even though I can no longer support the Republicans. And part of my hesitancy is that I still buy into this notion of Democrats as snobs. (There are, of course, other, good reasons to oppose the Democrats and to be hesitant about affiliating with them.)

    Maybe this is all just my own idiosyncratic bigotry. But I do suspect a non-trivial number of voters cast their vote more out of spite than for other reasons.

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    • Pierre and James beat me to this — I was wondering why, if this thesis were true, John McCain got any votes in 2008 at all. Particularly in overwhelmingly blue states like California or Massachusetts or Hawaii.

      If I’d been a California McCain voter who is even moderately informed, I knew walking in to the voting booth that, to a near certainty, I will be casting my vote for the candidate who will lose both the vote in my state and nationally. Yet more than five million people did exactly that.

      Did they do it for spite? Did they do it so that they could claim a moral high ground later when things went wrong? Or was this simply one of the acceptable number of losses that they felt their team could absorb? If so, why would they keep on voting for Republicans in California, year after year, election after election, knowing that with only a few exceptions, any Republican candidate here was doomed to lose? The last time California voted Republican for President was 1988, for crying out loud.

      Similar examples can be found elsewhere — James points to his sister, who consistently votes for the Democratic party’s nominee in Wyoming. One way to interpret that is “lighting your vote on fire.” Why would she do it, other than to claim moral superiority to the majority?

      The acid test of the “voting for the winner” thesis would be understanding why a voter would repeatedly vote for a set of candidates that all reason would suggest was doomed to lose.

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      • I was wondering why, if this thesis were true, John McCain got any votes in 2008 at all.
        Because these people do care about (2), somewhat, and they are willing to tolerate a few losses here and there. Just not too many of them, which they would obviously get if they voted third-party or write-in; while McCain lost, the Republican Party clearly can’t be called a totally losing proposition.

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      • Did they do it for spite? Did they do it so that they could claim a moral high ground later when things went wrong? Or was this simply one of the acceptable number of losses that they felt their team could absorb?

        My hypothesis is that all three of these play a role. Personally, I suspect moral-high-ground-claiming has the largest influence, but that’s just my (fallible) intuition.

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      • Well, there may be down-ticket races that your team could win, so while you’re there you may as well vote for the loser; it doesn’t really cost you anything. For example, until she was chosen to be HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius was our governor (KS), a Democrat, and very popular. Part of that could be due to name-recognition; the Sebelius family is something of a Kansas political legacy. I.e., our local reservoir is called Sebelius Lake. Point being that as a Dem, it was worth my while to show up at the polls just to cast a vote for her, and while I was there cast my futile votes for other Dem candidates.

        But really, mathematically ANY vote is futile. It’s going to be an astronomically rare event that you, all else being equal, personally showing up at the polls is actually going to decide the election one way or the other, even for local races. So voting defies any rational utility calculation. (Which, BTW, is why the Republican obsession with the undocumented alien risking a huge fine and jail time followed by deportation to vote is just laughably ludicrous.) But then our democratic system depends on most people not knowing or caring about that reality and showing up anyway.

        I have always looked at it as an opportunity for me to officially express my preference, even if said expression amounts to a fart in a windstorm. I’m a citizen and it’s my right–and something of a duty, I believe–to inform the winner, particularly if I detest the person, that opposition exists and, like it or not, he has some duty to represent my interests as well. Yeah, I know it doesn’t really work out that way. Fifty-one percent is a win, fifty-two percent is a mandate, and fifty-three percent is a landslide. But you do what ya gotta do, you know?

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    • Dear Fabrice,

      I believe this is what the French call, the politics of resentiment and I think it is very real.

      The latest “I can’t believe what Rush said” story illustrates this perfectly. I think the story is roughly that he talked about how the Batman villain Bane is really one-big Hollywood conspiracy against Romney. All my liberal friends hear stuff like this and then spend hours (or at least I spend a while) wondering whether Rush sincerely believes this or is merely selling snake oil. However, a lot of his listeners might enjoy the kind of rage.

      I’ve noticed that both political sides often spend a lot of time in the politics of rage or umbrage and this depresses me. A lot of political fundraising seems to boil down to finding the most offensive members of the opposition and turning them into cartoon bad guys, complete with twirling mustache.

      On your fourth paragraph, I grew up in the opposite household. My family entirely consists of straight-down Democrats who believe that the Democratic party is the party of the working man, civil rights, etc. The Republicans were always the party of the bankers and the rich in my family. Not these mythic straight shooters for the average Joe. Again, the Jewish angle plays in here.

      There has only been one Republican vote cast by anyone in my family and that is when my mom voted to reelect a local judge who married her (he would probably get chased out of the GOP today). My maternal grandparents were so strongly Democratic that they were upset when Adlai Stevenson lost to Eisenhower, twice!* They were also upset when a local park was renamed Eisenhower park. It was very lonely being a Democrat in Nassau County in the 1950s and 60s. Now it is much more blue.

      *I am okay with Adlai Stevenson losing twice if only because it gave us Chief Justice Warren and Justice Brennan.

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  3. 1. I don’t want to lose too often. Losing once in a while is inevitable, but not too often.

    I guess that would explain the non-sequitur of people whose votes aren’t going to have any effect on the outcome (like my sister who votes Democratic in Wyoming) wondering aloud why third party supporters would vote for a sure loser.

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        • Right, but my sister doesn’t always lose in presidential elections–the Democrats do win sometimes. The fact that her vote contributed absolutely nothing to that outcome because Wyoming will give all its electoral votes to the Republican, and the fact that she knows ahead of time that it will contribute nothing to the outcome, matters less than that she sometimes wins.

          I have no idea if she bothers voting in state/local elections, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t bother.

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          • Are you sure your sister doesn’t simply care somewhat what the national popular vote turns out to be? That combined with experiencing utility in the ability to express a preference about national governance when her view is officially sought (something you’ve described as a legitimate reason for voting) seems like it cold be plenty to get her out to the polls.

            If she’s talking about other people in Wyoming “wasting” their vote on a third party, I can see where being concerned with the displacement of those votes from the national totals of the major party candidates seems like a pretty insignificant thing to be concerned about (though I suppose no more than being concerned with her own vote, which for the reasons we discussed or others, she is). But are you sure she’s not simply thinking about it in the abstract, in which case she’s as much thinking of the decisions of people in the tightest swing states as she is of people in Wyoming or California (I.e. if she’s simply thinking about it in terms of being concerned with such voting where it “matters” most (or some, anyway), then she’s thinking of swing states, even if not consciously doing so.)

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  4. I don’t think Jason’s wrong, just that his theory is incomplete.

    I think there are a certain grab bag of folk who vote minor party (rather than independent) as contrarians (see Jaybirds ‘Not Republican’ and ‘Not Democrat’). They’re losing more or less on purpose, routinely, but they identify with the larger caucus of their team.

    “I’m an Orange County Republican and my district has sent a Republican to the House 11 of the last 11 elections” shows up at the polls to vote for the House guy, and then votes party ticket.

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    • I could also restate the whole thing a bit more elegantly in economic terms:

      People have as their highest priority the desire to win, but subsequent wins face diminishing marginal utility.

      Few people say this; most say they want their team to win all the time. But even as they say that, they also take — and demand from candidates — the sort of principled stances that make winning less likely. When they do so, they indicate that they have had enough victories, and that they’re (getting more utility/ranking more highly) the chance to stand on principle.

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    • Of course it’s odd. And I will be the first to insist in most contexts that our election laws are really what produce the permanent two-party system.

      I was hoping to be met with howls of protest, because the system as designed appears to be set up for the priority set that I have laid out, even as — maybe — nobody really wants it that way.

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      • Well, I think I disagree with you almost completely, but I’m not sure I do, because I’m not sure what you’re referring to at every key point. For instance, you begin the main part of your discussion stating an interest in “voters’ real preferences.” Their general preferences? What they think their votes mean? What they want their votes to mean? Their unconscious and authentic preferences as opposed to what they tell themselves they’re doing or are told they’re doing, or what others claim they’re doing or have done?

        I believe that people vote with a range of different expectations and under a range of assumptions, but, overall, the act of voting, like most or all political acts or contacts with the formal political system, can be understood in relation to production of meaning – including performance of identity, affirmation of values: self-constitution. How voters vote, or whether they voted, re-affirms, or doesn’t, who they are to themselves and therefore to each other. If I don’t vote at all, then I am, to myself “one of those people who doesn’t vote.” Who and what I am is usually much more important to me than who wins or loses a particular election.

        The electoral system is highly imperfect, but the mass electoral process is only one part-process within the larger system, or system of systems, only one mode of establishment and re-affirmation of social identity, participation, and mediated influence.

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        • What I mean by “voters’ preferences” is not exactly any of the possibilities you raise. I mean instead – why did they go into a booth and push buttons rather than hanging out at home and drinking a beer? What appears to be the need that voting fulfills?

          And I’m trying to ask this question in the presence of two stylized facts – First, there are two political parties rather than one or ten. And second, political migration is either between these two parties or into “independent” status, where “independent” means “I almost always still identify with one party or the other.”

          If people were putting policy first, these would be very strange results to see.

          I would add further that if people were putting self-construction first, well, why on earth would they want so much to identify with either major party? In virtually every other plausible arena of self-construction, we don’t see two parties. We see a vast array of fads, with some always rising and some always falling. Consider the arts, fashion, food, and choices of housing, religion, and language.

          I’m not saying that politics isn’t an arena of self-construction. I’m only saying that it’s under a pretty strong set of constraints, so much so that we can meaningfully talk about it by reference to the constraints alone.

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          • Now maybe we’re getting somewhere.

            The distinction between politics and those other contexts or fields for self-expression and meaning creation is precisely its decisive, disambiguating and socially-collectively integrating function. To the extent politics proves incapable of decision, disambiguation, integration – as seemingly often, partially by design, in the American political system – we hear references to its dysfunction. The de-politicization of politics, accomplished in part through the self-de-politicizing political system itself, is an aim of modern liberal democracy, and of the American brand especially. The mechanism fails from time to time – and then we experience a return of the repressed, politics, in some form of crisis. The potential for irreparable failure of this type (which might be decisive success from the point of view of some political actors) is implicit in the very measures instituted against it. The analysis becomes more complicated since under many configurations of the return of the political repressed, the aim of political actors will often, perhaps always, be an even more definitive and durable neutralization of the political, or of the political as we generally conceive of it.

            In reference to your interest in the meaning of voting, going to the polls and voting for the D or the R doesn’t prevent me from having whatever opinions about Thai Food, the latest movies, or climate change at variance with other people who vote as I do. Whether I happen to make it to the polls and actually vote may not affect my self-identity significantly at all, though not going to the polls might be virtually impossible for me if those close to me are heavily involved in politics. Since in my case no one cares more than immeasurably microscopically what I do or think, whether I vote is a minor concern to the point of indifference to me, but that doesn’t mean that, if I do vote, which will take a minute or three, the act will be completely meaningless to me, or that I’m likely to vote perversely, secretly affirm the candidates or issue positions I actually am against. I’d estimate that the number of voters who accidentally vote for the wrong candidates is far, far greater than the number of voters who purposely vote for the candidates they do not hope will win. That fact alone, if true – and I have no doubt that it’s true – already tells you something essential about “the meaning of the vote” as a statement to oneself, even a statement about the nature of statements to oneself.

            I’ll still be able to focus on the ballot, and vote for Obama, and think “take that, scoundrels.” Afterward, I’ll be “the kind of person who voted for Obama even though he didn’t really think his vote mattered much or at all.” Other decisions on the ballot will play a supporting role for me in this drama of near-zero, but not quite zero, significance.

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  5. Jason,

    I wonder if part of the dynamic you describe has to do with the fact that absent exceptional circumstances, no single vote in a large election is going to have a big impact one way or another. People tend to follow ( or don’t) whatever preferences we track–such as the desire to win, or the desire to promote one’s policy vision, or the desire to be a contrarian–because each voter, qua individual voter, is not really all that powerful.

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  6. As a country, we love sports – there is something exhilarating about being a fanboy of a winning team; of course the actual value of being a sports fan is, for most (not all), purely one of entertainment. This is why, the moment a team stops being good (read: entertaining) and having a regular shot at the playoffs, the fans start leaving it in droves, perhaps still keeping an eye on the boxscores and the standings, but otherwise not doing much in the way of buying tickets or watching games. If asked, they may even deny that they’re a fan of their no-longer-very-good team. Others in fact may even become fans of a new team. But the thing is that it’s more than entertainment, especially for the die-hards, but also for the fairweather types – it’s a very real emotional investment, and it feels like it matters in a way that watching a movie does not, even if it’s hard to articulate why.

    As a country, we also love celebrity gossip; we love reality shows, and we are entertained by the inanities of other peoples’ lives. We can’t explain why we find this entertaining, but we pretty clearly do. Hell, we even become “fans” of particular celebrities or reality show stars, rooting for them and against their enemies in various petty squabbles, though the emotional investment is perhaps nowhere near that of sports fandom.

    From an entertainment standpoint, politics combines the things that make us passionate about sports with the things we find entertaining about celebrity gossip and reality TV. It is in some ways the pinnacle of pop culture, except that, unlike sports, we can pretty easily rationalize why we seem to care so much. But in reality, just as in sports, what really keeps us interested is the sensation we get when our team wins.

    All those partisan independents? They’re like the average Philly fan, though every team has a subgroup of comparable fans – folks who bitch and bitch about how terrible their team is (even when it’s doing well), complain about how everything’s rigged (or, in the alternative, how talented the other team is), even going so far as to pretend that they’re not really fans of the team when things are going poorly (and when things are going well, grouchily pretending that it’s just because the team finally listened to them, and that otherwise, “they still stink”). But when push comes to shove, they’re watching every game even if they’re not buying season tickets (the sports fan equivalent of registering as a partisan).

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  7. A few things. I think for a lot of voters being “independent” is like when gay guys say they’re “bisexual” en route to coming to terms with their sexuality. It’s sort of a safe stop-over when the party you really support has let you down. I also think this is why so many Republicans I know became “libertarians” in the Bush years- just libertarians who get really, really angry when people criticize Republicans. They’re Democrats or Republicans when the parties are doing things that are fairly non-offensive and “non-partisans” when they’re doing stupid things once more. Of course, this is basically what John Sides said, so uh, +1!

    Secondly, I do think that, when we talk about these things, we tend to overlook the people who vote none-of-the-above by not voting. It’s easy to say they’re apathetic or cynical, but they might just be right in thinking that none of the parties represents their interests.

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  8. I think the desire to attribute to hoi polloi base motivation for civic duty and moral or ethical choice says more about the author than the subjects, but that’s just me.

    Is it not just as likely that people vote because they believe that their vote matters? That they are part of a larger system? That they understand the political realities of our system and thus generally do not “waste” their votes on third parties? I suspect that there will always be blind tribalism in every system but I doubt that it reaches a majority influence as a primary motivation for voting preference. It’s more likely in that mythical 27% range that the folks over at Balloon Juice like to chuckle about.

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  9. I think determining how and why people choose who they vote for is a Sisyphean task.

    I have never been a fan of the Thomas Frank school that yells at people for voting against their self-interest. A person’s self-interest is entirely subjective and it becomes highly offensive to tell people they are voting against it. The reverse happens with Jews. Jewish-Americans still vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. This causes a lot of rage every two to four years about why Jews vote Democratic even though they tend to be top income earners and the Republican Party is allegedly more pro-Israel.

    For me, there are other concerns. The social politics of the GOP is frightening and my stance on the Zionism of Christian Fundamentalists is “with friends like that, the Jews don’t need enemies” I am firm Zionist but also exist in the real world and believe that the Palestinians need and deserve their own state. A poll done several months ago still shows that Jews feel strongly about economic justice. The primary concerns for Jewish voters were not taxes or Israel but economic fairness and welfare. Though the poll used rather antiquated language. The exact line was “Caring for the widow and the orphan” I believe.

    As to the people don’t want to lose all the time. Are you sure? At least on the left, I think there is a certain kind of “noble loser”. They probably exist on the right as well. These are purists who are always willing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and would rather see the opposition win than bring themselves to vote for someone they see as less than pure. There was a recent spat when a Harvard Law professor said that Obama needs to lose for not being liberal enough and Gary Willis railed against said professor in the New York Review of Books.

    I am not fully happy with the Democratic party all the time but I do find their stances much, much more agreeable than the Republican Party or Libertarian stances. I’m also a pragmatist this way. I will always vote for the Democratic candidate over the Republican one even if the Democratic candidate is a party hack. Mavericks vote with their parties more often than not even when being frustrating like Ben Johnson of Nebraska. Plus they add to getting the majority.

    Call me a yellow dog if you will but if someone can be a rock-ribbed Republican with pride, it is perfectly acceptable for me to be a Yellow Dog Democrat with pride. I’m a liberal and Democratic. I will not apologize for these things.

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