By John Zogby
Barack Obama’s second book is titled The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. Is it possible that Obama, whose campaign message centered on hope, won the election by winning the votes of those who have lost hope in that American Dream? That is just what I’ve discovered after looking back at both 2008 post-election polling and years of surveying attitudes about the American Dream.
Zogby International’s most recent test of attitudes about the American Dream came in a post-election interactive poll of 24,964 voters, which shows the dream is very much alive across the public landscape. Overall, 67% of those we surveyed believe the American Dream is attainable for them and their families, 19% believe it does not exist and another 14% said they are not sure.
At Zogby, we measure more than two dozen demographic variables and subsets within our surveys, helping us to further examine how views on the American Dream differ from one group to the next. One finding holds true for every subset believers in the American Dream outnumber non-believers. The only groups where believers do not reach 50% are the poorest - those with household incomes below $25,000 and homes valued at less than $50,000. Even for the lowest income earners, a plurality believes it is possible they can achieve the American Dream. However, preliminary findings from work currently in the field indicate there may be a decline in the number of people who still believe in the American Dream.
John McCain carried those who believe they can attain the American Dream with 55%. Even though those believers account for two-thirds of voters, McCain still lost. The reason: Obama won 71% of those who say the American Dream does not exist. He also took 68% of those who were not sure. These numbers are not a reflection of Obama’s strength with minorities. We found no racial difference on whether the American Dream is attainable.
As a concept, the American Dream speaks about our aspirations, and those are not the same for everyone. The same can be said for voting choices. Since 1998, Zogby International has further explored the evolving American Dream by asking people to define what best represents their goals in life, offering them four very different choices.
For some, the American Dream means material success, and they believe it is possible for not only themselves and their family, but also for most middle class Americans. I refer to them as Traditional Materialists. Others define the American Dream through spiritual fulfillment rather than material success. Call them Secular Spiritualists. A third category, the Deferred Dreamers, agrees the American Dream is defined by material success, but they believe it is more likely to be attained by their children than by themselves.
The fourth group has given up on the American Dream altogether, and believes they cannot achieve it at all - be it material or spiritual. They also say the American Dream is out of the reach of most middle class Americans. They are the Dreamless Dead.
Our November post-election poll showed these percentages for the four categories: Secular Spiritualists 37%, Traditional Materialists 27%, Deferred Dreamers 8%, and Dreamless Dead 12%. The rest, 16%, were not sure.
McCain won a majority of both Traditional Materialists (55%) and Secular Spiritualists (54%). This is probably because materialists skew towards being wealthier and spiritualists toward more frequent religious attendance. Both are pro-Republican profiles. Obama did win 45% of Secular Spiritualists. His policies on the environment and “sharing the wealth” fit neatly into their beliefs. Republican attempts to shout “class warfare” will fall on the deaf ears of many Secular Spiritualists.
What are Obama’s chances of winning over the Secular Spiritualists who did not support him? It is easy to see Obama’s choice of Rev. Rick Warren, author of The Spirit Driven Life, to deliver the invocation at his Inauguration as an effort to reach out to not only the Religious Right, but also to the kinds of people I define as Secular Spiritualists. Look for Obama to talk a lot about economic stimulus not just being about wealth, but also about allowing people the freedom to nurture family and community.
The growing numbers of Secular Spiritualists puts more pressure on the personal qualities of political leaders. A December 2008 Zogby International poll conducted with the Capps Center asked likely voters an open-ended question of what they most wanted from Obama. Leading responses were honesty, integrity, personal responsibility and intelligence.
What about those folks who actually put Obama over the top: People who don’t believe in the American Dream? Because attitudes about the dream cut across demographic lines, there is no definitive profile. There are some tendencies, such as being more liberal and having a lower income. Some may in fact be hopeless cynics. But by voting at all, and choosing the candidate who offered change, I have to think that they have not lost hope in the concept we call the American Dream. Perhaps one of the best barometers of Obama’s Presidency will be whether the number of non-believers decreases. Restoring the American Dream is yet another tall order for the new President; and one we will continue measuring at Zogby International.
John Zogby is President and CEO of Zogby International and the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House)