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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: February 2008

Are Americans Warming to the War?

A big new presidential candidate survey by the Pew Research folks is getting a lot of attention this week. Its top-line finding was that Obama and Clinton are running seven and five points, respectively, over John McCain. And there’s lots of interesting if somewhat predictable data about the strengths and weaknesses of the three candidates.
But because the survey’s subtitle was “Increasing Optimism About Iraq,” I thought I’d read that section carefully to see if the findings were in accord with the growing CW that the American public is moving toward John McCain’s position on the war.
Turns out the main two findings that support this subheadline are questions that ask how the current military effort is going, and whether respondents think the U.S. will “succeed” or “fail” in Iraq. Compared to a year ago, assessments of the current military effort have shifted from 67-30 negative to 48-48 (they had actually moved to 54-41 positive in September 2007, during all the hype over the Petraeus testimony). And by a 53-39 margin, respondents now say they think the U.S. will “succeed” in Iraq, whatever that means. They said the same by a much narrower 47-46 margin a year ago.
So that all sounds good for John McCain, right? Well, not so fast. On the bedrock issue of whether Americans think going to war in Iraq was the right or wrong decision, the numbers haven’t budged over the last year. In fact, the percentage saying it was the right decision has actually dropped from 40% to 38%, with the contrary position is held by a steady 54%.
But what about the future of the war? When the question is posed as to whether the U.S. should get troops out or keep troops in, Pew shows a modest trend towards “keep them in” (47-49 as opposed to 42-53 a year ago). But in the secondary question, respondents are given four options: remove all troops immediately (14%), bring troops home gradually, over the next year or two (33%), keep troops in but establish a timetable for withdrawal (16%), or keep troops in without a timetable (30%). It’s a highly dubious way to frame the question, since it’s not clear there’s much if any difference between “bring troops home gradually” or “keep troops in with a timetable.”
Those two “out gradually but definitely” options between immediate withdrawal and indefinite continuation of the war command 49%, up two percent from a year ago. And those two options are a lot closer to the positions of Obama and Clinton than to McCain’s.
So far all the growing “optimism” on Iraq, more than half of Americans still think the war was a mistake, and nearly two-thirds want to get the troops out according to some definite timetable, if not immediately.
Meanwhile, John McCain not only voted for the war and supported the war, but has attacked anyone considering it any sort of mistake, or wanting to bring it to an end unless “victory” has been accomplished. After all, he spent quite some time attacking Mitt Romney for being willing to even use the word “timetable.” Moreover, he’s made this a signature issue, which means that he won’t benefit, as some less Iraq-focused candidate might have, from a shift of public attention to other issues that don’t favor the GOP, like the economy or health care.
So even this survey (from an organization whose data has long showed stronger public support for the war than that of others) shouldn’t provide much comfort for John McCain. He’s fighting an uphill battle on Iraq, and just because it’s a slightly less impossible climb than it once appeared is no reason to think he’s going to get to the top.

Younger, More Affluent, More Female, Better Educated

Ron Brownstein has been staring at Democratic presidential primary exit poll trends between 2004 and 2006, and provides a pretty definitive report in a cover story for National Journal today.
You should read the whole thing, but here are his key findings:

The most dramatic changes are among young people, the affluent, and, to a lesser extent, women. As a percentage of the total vote, the share cast by voters under age 30 this year approximately doubled in Connecticut, New York, and Tennessee; rose by at least 40 percent in 11 other states; and jumped by nearly one-third in two more. Even more dramatically, voters earning $100,000 or more at least doubled their share since 2004 in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Virginia; affluent voters also increased their share by about half in seven of the remaining states and by at least 20 percent in three others.
The relative increase among women isn’t as great because they started from a larger base: Long before Clinton’s candidacy, women already cast a majority of votes in most Democratic primaries. But with this year’s continued growth, the party has tilted even further female. Women cast a majority of this year’s Democratic vote in every state for which an exit poll was conducted — and they made up at least 57 percent of the total in all but four states.

The other big trend Brownstein noted was in educational levels:

[J]ust before the Wisconsin primary in mid-February, ABC News polling director Gary Langer calculated that a cumulative majority of white Democratic primary voters in all of this year’s contests had college or postgraduate degrees — a remarkable tipping point for a party that since its 19th-century inception has viewed itself as the tribune of the working class

So does that mean voters who don’t fall into these categories are not participating in Democratic primaries this year at “normal” levels? Not at all:

The overall surge in Democratic participation this year means that in many states, even groups whose relative role is declining are voting in larger absolute numbers: Their share of the vote is shrinking only because they are not growing as fast as other components of the party’s coalition. (For instance, although white men’s portion of the Democratic vote fell in Massachusetts this year, the total number of white men participating in the state’s Democratic primary increased by nearly 75 percent over 2004, according to the exit polls.)

The donkey label is suddenly a big voter magnet again this year, and if Democrats can convert the trends Brownstein’s talking about into general election gains, it could be a very good November.

Psychology for Democrats — Resisting the Trap of Seeing the Primaries as War

James Vega is a strategic marketing consultant whose clients include major nonprofit institutions and high-tech firms.
Although social psychology is a central source of laboratory research on attitudes and persuasion, among many down-to-earth marketing and advertising specialists many of its findings are not considered particularly practical. One longstanding tongue-in-cheek definition of the field, in fact, is that it is “the discipline that conducts unconvincingly artificial experiments to reveal generally tenuous statistical correlations between variables whose relationship no-one really doubted in the first place”.
Despite this, however, one of the most solidly – indeed mind-numbingly – validated facts in the social psychological literature is that when people begin to play a particular social role – even one they do not wish to play – their attitudes gradually adjust to correspond with their actions. This effect is so powerful that even being explicitly reminded of its effect does not prevent a change in attitude from occurring.
Right now one can see this process playing out with a vengeance inside the Democratic Party. Six months ago the most common opinions about the leading candidates among ordinary Dems was that “They are all good choices”; “I could vote for any of them” and “Every one of them is ten times better then any of the Republicans”. Back in the summer it was impossible to find large numbers of average Democrats bitterly describing Hillary as an utterly conniving cynic or Obama as the superficial leader of a political youth cult.
Now, on the other hand, the intense and emotional stresses of primary campaigning has lead many rank and file Democratic activists to an increasingly polarized re-definition of the candidates, one that lurches deep into caricature – Hillary as hopelessly conservative and amoral Lady Macbeth, Obama as modern day snake-oil salesman seducing the gullible and naïve. Across the internet and in private conversation there is an increasingly evident tendency to exaggerate differences in policy and overstate defects of character in order to psychologically validate the huge investment of effort and passion that so many grass-roots Democratic activists have made in their chosen candidates.
The Republican media, of course, gleefully feeds this story line and it is also reinforced by the many superficial members of the mainstream political commentariat – a breed exemplified by the infallibly pathetic Maureen Dowd for whom no lurid, “fight to the death” metaphor can possibly be too infantile, superficial, operatic or sanguinary.
To some degree this polarization is inevitable as the candidates are pressured to make more personal attacks on each other in hopes of gaining an advantage. But, particularly for rank and file democrats, the problem is deeply exacerbated by the dominant “definition of the situation” – the general media characterization of the primary campaign as a war between opponents rather then as a competition between aspirants or contenders.
There is a way for Democrats to combat this mental trap, however, one that is difficult but not impossible. It is based on the fact that, even when people are locked in a particular social role, they can nonetheless consciously redefine or “reframe” a situation if they choose to. In this case, the key is to recognize that the “war between opponents” conceptual paradigm is simply wrong for the current situation and to consciously replace it with a more appropriate one.
An excellent alternative metaphor is available — the athletic competition for the U.S. National Olympic teams that occurs every four years. American sports fans do become passionately dedicated to one or another competitor – especially in individual sports like gymnastics and figure skating. But they do not end up bitterly deprecating or demonizing the other contenders. On the contrary, while they may fervently believe in the superiority of their own chosen athlete, the other participants continue to be seen as entirely admirable and even inspiring figures who only seek to demonstrate that they are the best possible representative of their country. Even at the most agonizing moments of the final competition, the opposing contenders are not redefined as enemies.
In the coming months rank and file Democrats must consciously strive to conceptually re-frame this years’ Democratic primary process in order to help reduce the antagonism inevitably generated by the electoral competition. A primary campaign is of necessity intensely competitive, but it need not be visualized as an intra-party civil war. The stakes are far too high to let the wrong definition of the situation lead us astray.

McCain vs. Campaign Finance Reform

Before he won the New Hampshire Primary, the political future of John McCain was in serious doubt.
In October, his campaign for president had just $3.4 million cash on hand (with much that money reserved for the general election) and a debt of $1.7 million from overdue credit card payments and unpaid bills.
By November, McCain’s financial worries were so serious that he negotiated a $3 million loan to keep his campaign afloat.
By December, he was broke again, and McCain went back to the banks, asking for another $1 million to keep campaigning. And this time, the lenders told him they needed some collateral.
Knowing that cash would be a problem for the nomination contest, McCain had earlier opted into the national public financing system, and the Federal Election Commission had already certified that he was owed $5.8 million in public matching funds. He also used the FEC certification to get on the ballot in several late-primary states, including Ohio, instead of paying canvassers to collect signatures.
But in the primary process, public financing is a loser’s bargain. If he ultimately chose to accept the federal money, McCain wouldn’t receive any of those funds until March, and even more seriously, he would be limited to a total spending cap of $54 million until he became his party’s nominee at the Republican National Convention in September. Accepting the funds would put him at a major strategic disadvantage in the general election.
Those facts left McCain with a decision to make. Even agreeing to put up the matching funds as collateral for a loan would have forced the campaign to adhere to the spending limits. So, once he started winning primaries, he planned to opt back out of the system and raise private money until he was the Republican nominee. There was a precedent for that — Richard Gephardt had been allowed to do the same thing four years ago.
But to get the new $1 million loan immediately, he and his lawyers tried something clever — they told the bank that if money again became a problem, they would opt back into the public financing system, accept the public funds from the FEC in March, and use that cash to pay back his loans — even if he had suspended his campaign for president.
And there is no precedent for that particular opt-in, opt-out, then maybe opt back in–legal maneuver.
On February 6, with the GOP nomination all but locked up and the money again flowing, McCain formally notified the FEC of his plans to withdraw from the presidential public financing system.
On Thursday, FEC Chairman David M. Mason, a Republican, issued the commission’s response. The letter is available here.
He told the campaign that McCain can’t withdraw from the public financing system for the primaries until the FEC gives him permission to do so. It cannot do that until it has enough members to maintain a quorum.
Right now, there are only two appointees serving on the commission, and the Senate and President Bush continue fight over the nominees. With four vacancies, the FEC isn’t in a place to make any decisions of any kind. It doesn’t have enough members to make any sort of binding decision or impose fines on anyone. The way things stand now, that leaves a lot of grey in the world of campaign finance.
But even with only two active members, the FEC asked McCain to explain his rationale for why using the promise of public funds to secure his loan did not actually commit him to using those funds. If the commission could issue a decision on McCain’s situation tomorrow, there is no guarantee that they would choose to release him from his commitment to public financing.
On Monday, the Democratic National Committee got into the act. Chairman Howard Dean announced that he would be filing a formal complaint with the FEC to demand that John McCain remain committed to the campaign finance rules.
That same day, McCain’s lawyers told the FEC that he did not need their approval to withdraw from the public finance system. Lawyers for his bank reinforced his claim that he never technically promised public money as collateral.
Now we’re at an impasse, again, and one where there is no clear precedent.
McCain has already spent $49 million in the primary, meaning that if he is forced to adhere to the spending limits, his campaign must essentially cease all activity until he becomes the nominee 6 months from now. If he were to continue to operate in clear violation of the spending limit, McCain could be in legal jeopardy — potentially subject to fines and up to five years of jail time.
His lawyers have the option of taking the FEC to court, but as Rick Hasen has pointed out, there’s no way of knowing what authority the judicial system has over an FEC without quorum. We simply don’t know if the courts have the power to order the commission to make a decision as it is currently composed or to somehow make its own decision from the bench.
But this much is clear: If there exists even a hint of a possibility that John McCain might be willfully violating election laws, he has a real image problem. His name is synonymous with the cause of campaign finance reform, and he owes his good press clips to a reputation as a “straight talker.” Deceptive manipulation of the campaign finance system would not go over well. Moreover, the controversy undercuts his frequent attacks on Barack Obama for equivocating on earlier statements that he would accept public financing for the general election. That’s why Howard Dean is working to exploit the issue and make voters aware of it. If this legal process drags on, it has the potential to make him both a hypocrite and, ultimately, a loser.

Selling Pottage

Maybe the death of William F. Buckley, Jr., has made me less appreciative of less compelling conservative writers. But for whatever reason, Mike Gerson’s Washington Post column today, on the alleged chafing of Christian conservatives against the yoke of the GOP, really rubbed me the wrong way.
Why? Well, on one level, Gerson is accurately giving voice to the restiveness of evangelical conservatives in a political coalition that has subjected God to Mammon pretty regularly–a restiveness expressed in actions ranging from interest in issues antithetical to the Wall Street/K Strreet wing of the conservative movement, to votes for Mike Huckabee. But on a deeper level, he’s reminding the flock that their only true home is in the party opposed to a Democratic Party that has “embraced abortion on demand, moral relativism, and intrusive, bureaucratic government.”
In other words, says Gerson, let’s hear it for the “essentially countercultural” position of evangelical conservatives that makes them “restless in any political coalition.” And let’s keep reminding Republicans that the Christian Right is honked off about the paltry return on investment they’ve received for their abundant support. But hey, in the end, even if they sport body piercings and wispy goatees, their restiveness will not and should not develop into an actual rebellion.
This annoys me for the simple reason that Gerson is describing and then trivializing a serious moral quandry for evangelical conservatives that he has personally done a lot to create. Many of them rightly fear that in hewing to the GOP, they have bought into a false prophetic stance: trading their Christian birthright for a mess of political pottage. During his long relationship with George W. Bush, Gerson was one of the most vocal cheerleaders for this marriage of convenience.
But now that it has predictably implicated them in a vast array of political sins that are hard to square with New Testament values–from corruption and celebration of privilege and spoilation of the Creation to unjust war and even torture–“restiveness” is not what I’d call a proportionate response. And unless and until Michael Gerson is willing to suggest that evangelical conservatives should seriously consider taking a walk from their sordid and spiritually dangerous relationship with the Republican Party and the latter-day conservative movement, then he’s just another pottage salesman trying to convice another generation of suckers to swallow their “restive” consciences and pull the lever for the GOP.


One usually begins an obituary by quickly identifying the deceased’s main occupation in life. How do you do that with William F. Buckley, Jr., who died today at the age of 82? He was a magazine founder and editor; a newspaper columnist; a television talk-show host; a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction books; a political activist, organizer and theoretician; a candidate for office; a phlanthropist; a sportsman; a pretty fair amateur musicologist and theologian; and of course, a great satirist.
Buckley will undoubtedly be best remembered as one of the chief intellectual forces in the development and rise of the late-twentieth century American Conservative Movement. And that’s undoubtedly true; aside from his prodigious institution-building and writing and talking, his own previously-unusual blend of libertarian and traditionalist thinking, fused in no small part by a militant anti-communism, was emblematic of the movement itself at its height.
Like conservatives at large, Buckley was wrong about a lot of things, big and small; perhaps his worst political sin, for which he largely apologized later, was his dismissal of the civil rights movement. He also wasted his vast talent on defending more than his share of despicable figures, from Francisco Franco and Joe McCarthy to Spiro Agnew and a host of other hammer-headed conservative politicians. But he was also capable of surprising friends and enemies alike with uncomfortable heresies, such as his support for the Panama Canal Treaty, his frequent attacks on the War on Drugs, and most recently, his rejection of the war in Iraq.
His journalistic accomplishment were legion. Back in the day, before it assumed the burdens of a governing conservative movement, National Review was one of the liveliest, funniest magazines available, even if you disagreed with all of the content. And then there was Firing Line.
For those too young to remember it, Buckley’s television talk show, Firing Line, was on the air for an incredible 33 years (1966-1999), with 1,504 episodes. One small token of the show’s longevity was an episode that reconvened a panel of young British commentators who had been Firing Line regulars for a season or two, as OxBridge students. At their reunion, they were all Members of Parliament. And that was a good couple of decades before the show finally went off the air.
As for the quality of discourse on Firing Line–which over the years probably featured as many guests from the Left as from the Right–I can only say that the contrast with what passes for political debate and analysis on television today is truly depressing. The worst Firing Line episode ever was almost certainly better than the best exchange of sparkling repartee on Crossfire. And Buckley’s eagerness to confront the Left in open debate was light years away from the bullying agitprop of Fox.
But in the end, what many of us will most remember about William F. Buckley, Jr., was his satirical wit, which stood out pretty sharply in the non-ironic era of the 60s and early 70s, when Laugh In represented the acme of sophisticated humor. Buckley’s wit was not of the knee-slapping or one-liner variety, though his response to a question regarding his first act of Mayor of New York during his guerrilla 1965 campaign for that office was an exception: “I’d demand a recount.” More typical was his comment after actress Shelley Winters said on a TV talk show that she was a liberal because “growing up as a girl in the Depression, Herbert Hoover hated me while Franklin Roosevelt gave me a bowl of hot soup.” Quoth Buckley: “Mr. Hoover was truly a man of remarkable foresight.” And he could wax satiric about even the least humorous topics. After attending his first post-Vatican II vernacular Mass, this rigorously obedient Catholic said it felt like “entering Chartres Cathedral and discovering that the stained glass had been replaced by pop-art posters of Jesus sitting in against the slumlords of Milwaukee.”
Buckley once said he offered his frequent polemical enemy Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a “plenary indulgence” for his errors after Schlesinger leaned over to him during a discussion of the despoilation of forests and whispered: “Better redwoods than deadwoods.” And that’s certainly how a lot of us on the Left feel about the legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr. (see progressive historian Rick Perlstein’s tribute to WFB’s decency and generosity at the Campaign for America’s Future site). He made us laugh, and made us think, and above all, taught us the value of the English language as a deft and infinitely expressive instrument of persuasion. I’ll miss him, and so should you.

Demographic Truths

In the “Noteworthy” box at the top of this site, you’ll find information about a conference being held in Washington tomorrow by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, entitled “The Future of Red, Blue and Purple America.” We want to draw attention to this conference not just because TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira is co-moderating it, or because it features such distinguished panelists as Ron Brownstein, E.J. Dionne, Anna Greenberg, Alan Abramowitz, Mark Schmitt and Michael Barone (who knows his numbers even if you don’t like his politics). The subject is one of those few issues where Left and Right can truly cooperate: establishing the demographic facts and trends that shape political competition and enliven political analysis.
The conference will go through some of the big demographic trends, including suburbanization; race, immigration and class; family structure; religious practices; and generational change, and seek some empircally-based consensus. If you’re in the DC area tomorrow, you should definitely try to attend. And if not, you should read Ruy Teixeira’s excellent framing paper for the conference, which covers all the above topics and more.

Veep Briefs

As the Democratic presidential nomination contest moves towards a potentially decisive phase, speculation continues to bubble up over the second name that will be printed on all those bumper stickers and buttons. The American Prospect site is curruntly featuring a discussion wherein some of its writers and friends make the case for their own choices, which is obviously tricky without knowing the Big Name at the top for sure.
Potential veep candidates profiled in this piece include Jim Webb, Kathleen Sebelius, Ted Strickland, Ken Salazar, Joe Biden, Janet Napolitano, and Brian Schweitzer, with very brief summary comments about Tom Vilsack, Evan Bayh, Bill Richardson, Mark Warner, Ed Rendell, Eric Shinsheki, and Wes Clark. The most surprising names mentioned are John Podesta and Gary Hart.

The Swing/Base Debate: New Directions

Our Roundtable Discussion at this site on base and swing voter strategies surprised me quite a bit. Given the diverse nature of our contributors, and widely varying interpretations in the party of the most recent political trends, I had expected a more traditional argument between those focused on specific categorities of swing voters, and those suggesting that the Democratic base is growing rapidly enough to justify a strategy tailored to mobilization.
Instead, there appeared to be general agrement that base and swing voter strategies need not conflict, and might well work in tandem. But other divergences from the ancient debate on this subject were more interesting.
Robert Creamer and Chris Bowers each proposed a new taxonomy of base and swing voters, with the former dividing the electorate into true base voters plus persuadable and mobilizable voters, and the latter defining anyone who needs motivation to vote as a swing voter, while identifying a subset of base voters as “swing activists” who provide much of the resources necessary to appeal to swing voters.
Joan McCarter, whom we asked to discuss the Mountain West as a “swing region,” added another oft-forgotten distinction: between swing voters and ticket-splitters. The latter have declined in importance nationally in recent years, but still matter a lot in certain parts of the country.
Meanwhile, Al From focused on documenting the stability of partisan and ideological attachments in the electorate, even in the “wave” election of 2006.
And Bill Galston brought the discussion into the context of the current Democratic nomination contest, noting that the basic difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in general election trial heats is that the latter puts a signicantly larger number of swing voters into play, both positively and negatively.
There were other interesting points made in the course of the Roundtable, such as Creamer’s argument that “persuasion messages” are always about candidates, not issues, and Bowers’ important reminder that abstract talk about national swing-voter targets can be irrelevant to the contests in the “swing states” that actually determine presidential elections. And there was a striking convergence between Bowers and From–representing two very different ideological traditions within the Democratic Party–that a successful progressive administration will be the key to long-term expansion of the Democratic base.
Finally, I hope my own contribution to the Roundtable will continue to be useful in the future as an introduction and history of the swing/base debate.
You can download a PDF version of the whole Roundtable here. And we will continue to refer to this debate if and when additional reactions come in.

Rush To Polls In Texas

Officially, the Texas presidential primary is next Tuesday, but in reality, it’s well underway thanks to the state’s liberal early voting rules. And if early voting is any indication, the year-long pattern of heavy and disproportionately Democratic turnout in the primaries will be continued in the Lone Star State.
Check this out from today’s Dallas Morning News:

Six days into early voting – and with a week left – about 360,000 voters in the state’s 15 largest counties have cast early or mail-in ballots in the 2008 Democratic primary, compared with 120,000 in the Republican primary.
“It’s the intensity. The energy we’re seeing,” said Diana Broadus, election judge at one of Dallas County’s busiest early-voting locations, in Oak Cliff.
“They are coming in ready to vote. They want to make sure their vote is going to count.”
And they’re doing so at a record pace.
“We have already surpassed the total early-voting numbers for both the 1996 and 2000 elections,” said Scott Haywood, spokesman for Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson. “At this point, it is a record.”
Both parties are seeing much higher turnout than four years ago – but it’s the numbers in the Democratic primary that are turning heads.
Democratic voters have so far dominated the early voting in Texas’ 15 largest counties.

Depending on how things turn out, there will likely be some speculation next Tuesday about which Democratic candidate benefitted the most from early voting. But putting that aside, it’s never a bad sign when voters rush to the polls.