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Is The ‘Yoga Vote’ A Thing?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s time for our weekly Slack chat, and I have a doozy for you all: yoga!

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): 🙄

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Nathaniel, if you dis yoga I will fight you. With my calm mind.

micah: According to a report in The Intercept, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is considering running for president in 2020. But, as The Intercept writes, “he won’t be running on a stereotypical working-class persona; instead, he believes his path to the White House runs through the ‘yoga vote.'”

So, the question for your consideration today: WAH!?!?!?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): It’s interesting!

micah: We’ll take this in a few parts:

  1. Clare brags about correctly predicting that Ryan would make 2020 noise.
  2. What the hell is the “yoga vote”?
  3. Is the “yoga vote” a viable path to the White House?

clare.malone: Yes, I called my home state congressman’s running not once but TWICE in 2020 contenders chats.

nrakich: Good pick.

julia_azari: I am humbled by your skill, Clare.

clare.malone: And the reason that I was bullish on him running had to do with the way he positioned himself after the 2016 election as a progressive white guy looking to shake up the party establishment — remember, he went against Nancy Pelosi in a leadership election — but also as someone who could win back the Obama-Trump voter.

I think, actually, the “yoga voter” thing is interesting

julia_azari: But man, that yoga vote thing wades right into a bunch of Democratic coalition problems. First, there’s the perception of it, which is gonna make people think of rich white women. I think we have some research on whether that’s accurate.

micah: So, yeah, let’s start there … what is the “yoga vote”?

clare.malone: If you look at some of the studies on who’s being activist-y in the Democratic Party — who’s in the “liberal tea party” — one demographic singled out is college-educated white women. People who do yoga, I guess. So, yeah, you’d want to court those people.

It’s a silly framing, along the lines of “soccer moms” back in the late ’90s/early 2000s, but I get what they’re going for.

nrakich: I spent some time researching the demographics of people who do yoga. #thestateofpoliticsin2018

To quote from an article in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy: “The practice of yoga is largely dominated by Whites, women, those with higher education and incomes, and young and middle-aged adults who represent a very narrow segment of the population.”

clare.malone: So, can I give a big long link here from the article I linked to above?

Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol wrote this:

We tell their stories not because college-educated white women are the most Democratic slice of the electorate (they aren’t) or because they are the most progressive voices within the Democratic Party (they aren’t) or because they have a special claim to lead the left moving forward (they don’t: nor do they pretend to). Rather, what we report here is that it is among these college-educated, middle-aged women in the suburbs that political practices have most changed under Trump. If your question is how the panorama of political possibility has shifted since November 2016, your story needs to begin here.

Basically, what they’re saying is that these college-educated white women have been politically recharged by Trump, and they want to work against him. That’s interesting.

Maybe we’re chafing against the irritating label “yoga vote”?

julia_azari: Yeah, there’s a whole set of tensions around that stereotype, that essentially pits affluent, cosmopolitan, white yoga practitioners against other parts of the Democratic coalition. There are issues around exclusion of different demographic groups, particularly those that are economically disadvantaged. And there’s the question of cultural appropriation — Westerners making money off a spiritual practice that started in India.

So regardless of where one falls in those debates, talking about the “yoga vote” sorta wades right into a bunch of coalitional tensions.

micah: But is that what people mean by the “yoga vote”? Well-off, well-educated white women?

nrakich: Ryan’s supporters seem to think the yoga vote goes beyond educated white women.

micah: What do they mean, Nathaniel?

nrakich: Well, in that Intercept article, the publisher of a magazine about mindfulness who is friends with Ryan described it as anyone dealing with the “emotional land mine of modern day living.”

Ryan himself has written a book called “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.”

clare.malone: (As a sidebar, why haven’t we come up with some cutesy name for college-educated white men who work at white-collar jobs and live in the ‘burbs? Always gotta do it to the ladies.)

nrakich: Clare, how about “latte dads”?

clare.malone: It’s sort of hilarious to me that Ryan, whose mentor was infamous Ohio congressman Jim Traficant, is now into yoga.

No shade, it’s just super incongruous. (And please, if you’re not familiar with Traficant, treat yourself to a read of his Wikipedia page.)

micah: It’s also incongruous with the blue-collar appeal he had been pitching, no?

nrakich: I am itching to get into Ryan’s politics. Is it too early?

micah: Hit it.

nrakich: Right, Micah, very incongruous.

I think Ryan’s problem is that his past is actually pretty conservative.

He was against abortion rights until 2015.

clare.malone: And he’s definitely a guns culture guy.

nrakich: And he occupies a Youngstown-based district that swung HARD for Trump. According to Daily Kos Elections, Clinton won it 51 percent to 45 percent — four years after Obama won it 63 percent to 35 percent. The media is already starting to attach a label to Ryan as the white-working-class-voter whisperer.

But if Ryan is planning on running on the yoga vote, that’s very different from the white working class.

clare.malone: I will say that I found Ryan’s backing of Jaime Harrison for Democratic National Committee chair back in 2017 interesting.

Harrison was a black party chair from South Carolina (an early primary state).

julia_azari: Ryan’s description of the yoga vote is also a way of wading directly into disagreements in the party.

I’d be surprised if he meant this, but there’s a narrative in which “identity politics” is juxtaposed with a more … cerebral model of thinking out one’s position rather than basing it on identity.

nrakich: Also, Ryan has hired Pete D’Alessandro to be his Iowa liaison. D’Alessandro ran Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign in Iowa, and he ran for Congress this year as a die-hard progressive.

So to me, Ryan’s campaign is already sounding pretty dissonant.

micah: Yeah, these signals are a bit all over the place.

clare.malone: I think Ryan is trying to position himself as an old-school Midwestern Democrat. Which used to equal working-class union politics … and in Youngstown and Northeast Ohio broadly, that meant you also had a lot of Catholic voters (see: against abortion rights till 2015).

nrakich: But don’t the D’Alessandro hire and the “yoga vote” thing contradict that, Clare?

clare.malone: Oh, I think it’s a sort of poorly worded way for him to say, “I’m not just the guy who’s going to be appealing to other white guys.”

Like, it’s not great messaging, but I do understand the campaign’s fears of getting blowback for being the guy from YOUNGSTOWN who only appeals to beer-drinking Obama-Trump voters.

nrakich: Yeah.

clare.malone: “Yoga voters” was not the most artful way to phrase things, in my humble opinion.

nrakich: So it sounds like we all agree that the “yoga vote” thing is silly?

julia_azari: I don’t know that I think it’s silly, but it’s bad messaging because it’s going to be received wildly differently than it seems like it was meant, and it pokes at a number of divisions in the coalition.

micah: Well, the common denominator between winning back working-class whites and focusing on yoga voters (white liberal women) is … white people. That may not be a coincidence.

clare.malone: That’s what I mean in bringing up the Harrison thing, though.

julia_azari: Here is Ryan going anti-identity politics, quoted by Maureen Dowd.

clare.malone: Right. I talked to Ryan during the DNC race time period — he was big on saying that Democrats needed to find candidates who fit districts; basically a “let’s win the 2018 map by putting in cultural gun people where that sells well” strategy.

This is from our interview in 2016:

In Ryan’s view, the Democrats just stopped trying to win over certain voters, ones who they felt had perhaps been lost to the other side of the American culture war, which has been raging for longer than the Plantagenets were ever at it and which in 2016 featured a renewed battle over police violence.

“I think people got enamored with this idea that we could slice and dice the electorate up and run the numbers up with African-Americans, run the numbers up with Latinos and rich liberals and we’re somehow going to be able to piece together a victory,” Ryan said. But “if I don’t fit in your little political calculus then you just ditch me? That’s what people hear.”

nrakich: Do we think there’s a danger in trying to appeal to TOO MANY people?

Kind of like Scott Walker in 2016. You become nobody’s first choice.

julia_azari: Yeah, that’s a good point.

clare.malone: Yeah, I do think that’s a danger.

nrakich: Ryan’s strategy is pretty smart in 2018, when Democrats have 435 House races to run in. But in 2020, they have to pick one person.

micah: So that was gonna be my next question. This actually seems like a good 2018 strategy and not a great 2020 strategy?

julia_azari: Yeah. Winning the Democratic nomination is winning approval from the groups that make up the party.

clare.malone: And minority communities might be turned off if you’re seen as kowtowing to the idea of “economic anxiety,” which some people see as a just a way of excusing working-class white Trump voters’ racism.

It’s going to be hard to shake identity politics in 2020.

micah: Well, if that’s the case, maybe yoga voters aren’t a bad place to start?

Re that Putnam/Skocpol study — they’re engaged.

julia_azari: I’m not sure that it’s even so much identity politics as that coalescing is how people gain political influence. This has happened around race and LGBT issues, for example, because those are groups that have been marginalized.

nrakich: I go back to what you said before, Micah. The common denominator in the groups Ryan is trying to appeal to is that they’re white. (Notwithstanding Clare’s good point about Harrison.) I’m not sure that’s a good strategy for a Democratic primary.

julia_azari: That’s a terrible strategy for a Democratic primary.

nrakich: Bernie Sanders’s 2016 bid was basically doomed because he only appealed to white voters.

There may be a path to victory for a white candidate/someone who appeals mostly to white voters in 2020, but it relies on the minority vote being split among several other candidates.

clare.malone: I mean, you guys, Democrats LOVE “safe” progressive white guys.

nrakich: But a guy like Joe Biden, with his existing name recognition and goodwill, is a lot better positioned to capitalize on that than an unknown like Tim Ryan.

julia_azari: One thing to mention here is that the Democrats are reforming their primary process, possibly. Final votes on the changes take place at a DNC meeting in August. If they change things so that superdelegates can’t vote on the first ballot, one of the objections has been that it might disempower minority voices in the party.

So it’s possible that 2020 rules changes will shift more power to white voters — and possibly not-registered-as-Democrats primary voters.

clare.malone: Which makes you look at candidates like Stacey Abrams in Georgia more closely — i.e., progressive platform, strong appeal to minority voters. Or if you’re Kamala Harris or Cory Booker, say.

julia_azari: Right, Clare — if we think about nominations in coalition terms, that would seem to be a winning combo.

nrakich: There are also already going to be way fewer caucuses in 2020. That hurts the Sanderses of the world and probably helps amplify the voice of minority voters.

julia_azari: That’s true and might wash out the other changes. The net result might just be a less-predictable Democratic contest in 2020 because no one has competed under these particular rules before.

nrakich: Darn, because it was shaping up to be so predictable already.

micah: How about this: Let’s forget Ryan for a second; I don’t hate the idea of “yoga voters” just as a group to kinda pay attention to.

julia_azari: I hate all such labels, but that may be a personal thing and not a political science assessment.

But there’s broader danger in treating politics too much like a marketing campaign. It’s not just about appealing to a demographic group. How about representing people and finding ways to represent multiple groups at once?

clare.malone: I mean, we’ve spent tons of time talking about the “Year of the Woman.” That’s what we’re talking about with this (derisive) label. They’re activated by Trump. They’re older, they’re educated, and they vote.

nrakich: They’re an important constituency. But you need to branch out to win a Democratic primary.

Also, the “Year of the Woman” so far in 2018 has manifested itself in female candidates doing well.

Another strike against Ryan (if the 2018 pattern holds in 2020).

clare.malone: We’re not just talking about Ryan now, right?

We’re talking about yoga voters broadly as a group you need to activate in the primary. I think you see them getting excited by a number of the candidates out there.

Elizabeth Warren being the No. 1 example, I’d say. I’m interested in how Warren does with nonwhite voters. Like, does she face the same white-voter-only appeal problem that Sanders originally did?

nrakich: She does well with minorities here in Massachusetts. She got great turnout out of heavily minority precincts when she first won her Senate seat in 2012. Turnout in the majority-minority city of Boston (where Warren won 74 percent of the vote) was 60 percent higher in that race than it was in the 2010 special U.S. Senate election; statewide, the increase was only 37 percent. In Lawrence and Chelsea, two predominantly Hispanic cities where Warren won 79 and 76 percent respectively, turnout doubled.

clare.malone: Yeah, I mean, I think what’s key is knitting together these racial/demographic groups. Frankly, the way that Obama did in 2008 and 2012.

nrakich: Yep. And educated white women is a pretty good place to start. But other candidates are going to start with solid bases too, and in my opinion, the winner will be determined by how well each candidate builds on his or her respective base with a disciplined and convincing message over the course of the 2020 campaign.

julia_azari: This is the conventional wisdom and makes good sense. But I see a pretty big wrinkle, which is that something seems to have broken open in nominations, and in a crowded field, you don’t just have identity politics vs. economic anxiety or whatever, or moderates vs. liberals. You also have multiple people competing for essentially the same turf within the party.

That combined with new rules strikes me as the potential for a real mess.

nrakich: Agree wholeheartedly. I know we say this every primary cycle, but I think there is a real chance we see a brokered convention.

Democrats don’t play by Republicans’ winner-take-all rules. We could see 10 candidates coming out of Iowa with delegates.

julia_azari: Some little girls dream of their weddings; I dreamed of getting to see a brokered convention. And still do.

These dreams get pretty weird.

clare.malone: Oh god, I’m getting flashbacks of writing about delegate hunting.

What a time.

micah: And I don’t think Ryan starts with yoga voters.

clare.malone: Right.

julia_azari: Can I go back to what Ryan seems to have actually meant by yoga voters? He seems to have been trying to indicate something about people who want to contemplate life slowly and quietly. That’s lovely, I suppose. But it’s not especially well-adapted to campaign politics, especially a frantic and crowded primary season.

nrakich: Yeah, “slowly and quietly” aren’t the first words that come to mind when describing the hardcore partisan activists who make up the primary electorate.

julia_azari: Or to what political scientists have referred to as a “factional candidacy” that kinda became a thing after the primary reforms of the 1960s.

If you were gonna ask me what kind of candidate is gonna get a passionate faction behind them, it’s not the one whose platform is about breathing. And if educated women are the factional base, my money would be on Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris.

clare.malone: I agree with that.

nrakich: Me too.

These chats are so boring when we agree. 😝

julia_azari: Sorry not sorry to harp on this, but I think that’s what Ryan is trying to get at: urging people to vote not with their demographic identity but with their minds. I don’t think that distinction will play well in this environment.

micah: Oh … that’s interesting. And it squares the circles between liberal college-educated women and white working class.

nrakich: I will say, though, that Ryan is a pretty plausible VICE presidential pick for a Warren or Harris.

If a nonwhite man sits at the top of the ticket, you can bank on a lot of speculation that the VP pick will be someone “safe” (read: white and male) like Ryan. And there will be a perception that he can deliver the Midwestern voter who defected to Trump in 2016.

clare.malone: Here’s a question: Why aren’t we talking about Kirsten Gillibrand anymore when we’re talking about candidate appeals to well-educated women?

Is it because she’s lost the confidence of some major donors?

julia_azari: My theory on the Gillibrand brand is probably terrible.

But I think you don’t want to be the front-runner (in some nebulous perception sense) three days after inauguration. Too much time for people to get angry with you.

clare.malone: Yeah, I wrote about how I found it interesting the way she was channeling the left wing of the party’s anger. But I think the “souring on her” speaks to … dare I say it … the power that men still wield in the party? George Soros and a lot of older, male donors aren’t thrilled that Gillibrand took a hit out on Al Franken for his distasteful behavior.

nrakich: Yep, Clare, I think there’s definitely something to that. But I also think she’ll be right there in the mix when we get down to business. Her candidacy is kind of in hibernation right now, but that might not be a bad thing — as Julia said, you don’t want to peak too early.

julia_azari: Yeah, that’s part of it, too, Clare. It’s one thing to be a woman and it’s another thing to challenge men directly. But I agree with Nathaniel that she’s probably not gone.

micah: I’m still on the Gillibrand bandwagon.

nrakich: The Gillibrandwagon?

micah: The Gillibragon.

nrakich: Sounds like an aquatic Harry Potter creature.

julia_azari: Friend-of-the-pod (actual friend of mine) Jonathan Bernstein said that Gillibrand was pandering too much when she came out in favor of abolishing ICE, and he got dragged by a ton of people for being sexist.

Friend of the chat?

micah: Friend of the site!

julia_azari: Anyway, there was an ensuing discussion about whether pandering is a gendered accusation, and I bet we’ll hear it again if she becomes a serious contender for the nomination, and it opens up some interesting questions about how to critically cover a female politician on the national stage.

nrakich: I think there are going to be a lot of missteps there — possibly dooming some candidacies along the way — before the media figures that out.

julia_azari: I don’t think pandering is a gendered accusation, but I do think that Gillibrand is likely to get called out for doing politician things that, say, Tim Ryan may be able to do without attracting commentary.

clare.malone: Women pander.

Politicians pander.


micah: Even pandas!

clare.malone: This idea that we can’t criticize women politicians drives me NUTS.

Yes, some criticism can be sexist. But we HAVE to be able to critique people in power, regardless of gender.

micah: Let’s start to wrap …

Are we keeping the “yoga vote” as a thing?

nrakich: Micah, I think we all agree that the “yoga vote” thing was a poor choice of words — but also that educated white women are an important constituency in the Democratic Party.

I’m just not sure that they’re Tim Ryan’s natural constituency.

julia_azari: It’s not a useful term. The peer-reviewed research we linked earlier suggested that some of the income assumptions about who does yoga are wrong. It assumes that educated white women are different politically from educated women of other races, which might be true but also might not be.

micah: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a good label — even by the lax standards of catchy demographic labels.

Though, it is catchy!

Also, “college-educated white women” isn’t that hard to say!

julia_azari: Journalists and scholars and whoever should avoid labels that collapse demographic categories in ways that make assumptions.

clare.malone: Hear, hear.

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.