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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: June 2008

Latino Voters Trending Blue

You know all that pundit chin music about McCain’s bright prospects for winning the Hispanic vote? The hard evidence is scant, to put it charitably, according to a HuffPo article by Mark Feierstein and Ana Iparraguirre, public opinion anlaysts for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. As the authors point out:

Democrats also continue to retain their advantage as the party most attuned to Hispanics. In a poll earlier this year among Latino voters in California and the southwest, Democrats held a whopping 10 to 1 advantage as the party that understands the concerns of Hispanics. Obama also holds a lead among these voters of more than 20 points on the issue of most concern to Latinos (and voters overall): the economy.
…Obama is running well ahead of John McCain among Hispanics, and significantly better than John Kerry did against George Bush in 2004. Obama’s leads in national polls are due to his strong advantage (about 35 points) among Latinos. Take out Hispanics, and the race is effectively tied.


…George Bush’s approval rating has plummeted to below 30 percent among Hispanics, just as it has among the general public. Half as many Hispanics have a favorable image of the Republican Party as of the Democrats.

That doesn’t mean Obama will have a cakewalk, as Iparraguirre and Feierstein point out:

Democrats cannot take the Hispanic vote for granted, however. Despite McCain’s shift on immigration, he remains a formidable opponent. He is more competitive with Obama than a generic party match-up would suggest. McCain will likely seek to blunt the Democrats’ advantage on the economy by stressing national security and social issues like abortion and gay marriage on which many Hispanics hold conservative views.

Still, Latino voters are intensely concerned about the economy, as well as immigration issues, and the Democratic message and policies are resonating well with this pivotal constituency.

We are all Husseins

If you log into Facebook and search for the name “Hussein,” you might be in for a surprise. For instance, the very first person to pop up in my results is a former co-worker — Dan Hussein O’Maley.
If I didn’t know him by that full name when we worked together, it’s because the Hussein is a fairly recent change.
Dan is part of a spirited group of Obama supporters who are changing their names to show solidarity with their candidate in response to conservative attacks. The New York Times covers the phenomenon this weekend:

The movement is hardly a mass one, and it has taken place mostly online, the digital equivalent of wearing a button with a clever, attention-getting message. A search revealed hundreds of participants across the country, along with a YouTube video and bumper stickers promoting the idea. Legally changing names is too much hassle, participants say, so they use “Hussein” on Facebook and in blog posts and comments on sites like nytimes.com, dailykos.com and mybarackobama.com, the campaign’s networking site.
New Husseins began to crop up online as far back as last fall. But more joined up in February after a conservative radio host, Bill Cunningham, used Mr. Obama’s middle name three times and disparaged him while introducing Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, at a campaign rally. (Mr. McCain repudiated Mr. Cunningham’s comments).

The Internet makes a movement like this possible. These Obama supporters aren’t legally changing their name (for the most part) because that requires far too much bureaucratic hassle. But with email, instant messenger, Facebook, and blogs, they don’t need to go through those hurdles to make a striking impact. And of course, online, these folks have the ability to find each other.
But the Internet itself doesn’t inspire a movement like this. Instead, it speaks to something very unique about Obama’s candidacy. It’s one thing to build an army of volunteers and raise money from millions of people. It’s another altogether to motivate hundreds of individuals to take the step of adopting Obama’s middle name.
It’s not as though the President of the United States has convinced his supporters to adopt the middle initial “W.”

More on Racial Parity in Voter Registration

Christopher Cooper and Susan Davis shed more light on the Obama campaign’s efforts to maximize African American voter registration in their excellent Wall St. Journal article on the topic. A couple of nut graphs:

For Sen. Obama, the registration initiative is at the fore, especially since the main reason for low black turnout is low registration. The U.S. Census Bureau says that while registered black voters turn out at a rate generally even with white counterparts, qualified African-Americans register at a lower rate nationally — 68% to 75% for whites. The gap is particularly stark in the battleground state of Florida, where only 53% of eligible blacks were registered in 2004, compared with 71% of whites. In Virginia, it was 58% to 72%.
If Sen. Obama can achieve registration parity, the effect could be significant, since African-Americans traditionally vote Democratic about 90% of the time. Nationally, black turnout at white levels would have meant an additional 1.6 million voters in 2004, narrowing the three million-vote gap separating President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry. In states and districts with a heavy concentration of black citizens, the gap could have thrown victory to Democrats, including North Carolina, long a Republican stronghold, and currently considered a virtual toss-up by many analysts.

Naturally, the Republicans are already hard at work trying to suppress the Black vote:

If history is a guide, Republican campaigners will likely mount legal challenges to Sen. Obama’s voter-registration efforts. Although Democrats aren’t shy to litigate, it is Republicans who have generally opposed efforts to make registration procedures easier and have made such legal challenges, along with voter purges, a part of their election-year strategy, especially in close states. They did this in Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004 — unfairly, many Democrats charge. Louisiana’s Republican secretary of state has begun investigating the recent registration efforts of a Democratic-backed organization following reports that many applicants were either dead or fictional.

Republican leaders frequently take shots at Dems for being insufficiently patriotic. Yet racially-driven voter suppression remains an enduring cornerstone of their electoral strategy. Shameless.

The Attacks on Michelle Obama In Context

It’s been pretty clear for a while that the conservative assault on Barack Obama as a scary, radical, racially threatening figure is going to rely in part on subsidiary calumnies against his wife. I’ve got an article up on the New Republic site today that tries to place the attacks on Michelle Obama in a historical context of political spousal abuse, while examining the aggressive steps the Obama campaign is taking to respond, which I think will be successful.

Is Obama a “Real Christian?”

It’s been a very active week in the interplay between Barack Obama and certain Christian Right leaders, who are clearly afraid he will have some appeal to their flocks.
Most notably, the religio-political warhorse James Dobson devoted a Focus on the Family radio broadcast to an attack on a speech (a very, very good speech, BTW) Obama delivered two years ago, in which Obama had the temerity to suggest that James Dobson’s interpretations of the moral imperatives of scripture weren’t self-evidently true.
Obama, said Dobson, was “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible,” as defined, of course, by Dobson himself.
As Amy Sullivan of Time observed, there was a pretty swift backlash against Dobson’s attack on Obama from evangelical leaders manifestly tired of self-important thunderbolts from Colorado Springs.
A few days earlier, a more sophisticated attack on Obama’s Christianity was launched by conservative evangelical syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who said that “there is a clear requirement for one to qualify as a Christian and Obama doesn’t meet that requirement.” Picking over a 2004 interview, Thomas anathemized Obama for denying that salvation was limited to those who expressly embrace Jesus Christ as God and Savior, and for expressing doubts about his personal fate after death.
As Sullivan pointed out in her commentary on the Obama-Christian Right dustup:

A new Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey of 35,000 Americans reports that 70% agree with the statement “Many religions can lead to eternal life,” including 57% of Evangelicals. No less a figure than George W. Bush responded “no” when asked in 1999 if he believed heaven is open only to Christians.

So if what Thomas calls Obama’s “universalism” (an epithet often hurled at all sorts of Christians with an expansive idea of God’s plan for salvation, including the new Southern Baptist Convention president Johnny Hunt) disqualifies him as a Christian, what does that make George W. Bush?
Thomas is on stronger ground in suggesting that most Christians don’t have Obama’s reluctance to visualize a heavenly afterlife for themselves. But while belief in “eternal life” is fundamental to Christianity, that’s not the same, theologically, as confidence about individual immortality in any specific sort of way.
Here’s what Karl Barth, perhaps the dominant Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, and the “neo-orthodox” scourge of theological liberals, had to say on the subject shortly before his own death:

We have no idea either of the life beyond, or of the passage of this life into the other. We have only what came to pass in Jesus Christ, which is present with us through faith.

Barth also, by the way, was often accused of “universalism,” and did explicitly teach that restrictive ideas about salvation reflected a rejection of the sovereignty of God.
It’s clear that Obama’s in pretty good orthodox Christian company, despite efforts by Dobson and Thomas to cast him out.

A New Deal For the GOP?

I haven’t had a chance to get hold of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s new book, Grand New Party, the latest offering in the “Whither Conservatism?” genre. But I have a pretty good sense of the thrust of the book from reviews , from the highly influential Douthat/Salam Weekly Standard article in 2005 entitled “The Party of Sam’s Club,” and from Douthat’s fine blogging at The Atlantic.com. And as a veteran of many “struggles for the soul of the Democratic Party,” it’s a relief to spend some time examining the other party’s dilemmas.
Grand New Party got its biggest media boost to date with today’s David Brooks column in The New York Times, wherein the book is hailed as “the best single roadmap of where the party should and is likely to head.”
The argument that the GOP can rebuild an electoral majority by shrugging off its anti-government mentality and strategically accepting key elements of the New Deal/Great Society legacy is not new, though it hasn’t been heard in a while (discounting the brief flurry of unfocused talk, much of it from David Brooks himself, about “national greatness conservatism” that accompanied John McCain’s 2000 campaign). Indeed, this was the animating idea of the “moderate” or even “liberal” Republicans of yore, who struggled with the conservative movement for control of the GOP for decades, and didn’t completely succumb until 1976, 1980, or even 1994, depending on how you measure these things.
Nowadays, we are so accustomed to thinking of the mass base of the GOP as being largely held together by anti-government convictions that it’s tough to imagine a more “centrist” brand of conservatism representing what the rank-and-file GOP Republican voter actually wants, as Douthat and Salam argue, with polling data to back them up. But back in the day, pro-government Republicans also claimed a mass base, and thought of conservative movement activists as a narrow, cultish clan out of touch with popular opinion.
By total coincidence, last night I happened to be re-reading portions of Teddy White’s classic campaign book, The Making of the President 1960. Here’s what White had to say about the last-minute “Draft Rockefeller Movement” at the 1960 Republican National Convention:

[W]hat the Citizens for Rockefeller did achieve in the last week end before the convention, was, in its own terms, a spectacular demonstration of what the citizen spirit can evoke. Within twenty-four hours of the week-end TV appeal, 260,000 pieces of mail had arrived at the Chicago convention, accompanied by an outpouring of telephone calls and telegrams of unprecedented volume. Within fifty-six hours after the appearance of the advertisements, more than a million pieces of mail and telegrams poured into the hotels, special post offices and Convention facilities, to swamp mail delivery, so that by Wednesday of the Convention some hotels were still sorting mail forty-eight hours late.

I mention this long-forgotten incident because the immediate product of this “citizens movement” was the notorious Pact of Fifth Avenue, wherein Richard Nixon accepted a variety of demands for platform modifications (mostly on civil rights and defense policy) in order to head off a Rockefeller candidacy–one in a long series of “betrayals” that fed the nascent conservative movement which four years later awarded Barry Goldwater the presidential nomination. (If you haven’t read Rick Perlstein’s brilliant account of this uprising, Before the Storm, you should).
To conservatives, Rockefeller was the perfect embodiment of an elite, anti-grass-roots tradition of Eastern Seabord Republicanism, and popular support for him was no more genuine than the manufactured “We Want Willkie!” demonstrations in 1940 that representated an earlier form of the same “betrayal.” Indeed, the successful effort to force Gerald Ford to dump the New Yorker as his running-mate in 1976 was perhaps the most satisfying achievement of Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge that year.
But looked at from another angle, Rocky (along with other prominent Republicans of the 1960s and 1970s, such as George Romney, Chuck Percy, and Bill Scranton, in a tradition that went back through Ike and Tom Dewey, all the way to Alf Landon) was a Republican “modernizer” who believed, like Douthat and Salam, that the anti-government habits of GOP conservatives bred during the long era of opposition to the New Deal were keeping Republicans from harvesting a vast number of middle-class votes.
Teddy White wasn’t alone in viewing pols like Rockefeller as representing a vibrant future-oriented option for the GOP, and not the elitist symbol of surrender to Big Government so familiar in conservative polemics. In the 1960s and much of the 1970s, the Ripon Society, promoting a distinctive blend of social liberalism and market-oriented public-sector activism, was a happenin’ place within the Republican Party (if you’re really interested, check out Ripon’s fine series of post-election analyses published after the 1964, 1968 and 1972 elections). And while Richard Nixon’s Disraeli-style experiments in public-sector activism may have been motivated by sheer political opportunism, they were as legitimate an expression of a certain brand of Republican philosophy at the time as his better-known pioneering of a harsh and divisive cultural conservatism, and did contribute to his 1972 landslide victory.
I’m not suggesting that Douthat and Salam’s prescriptions are simply an updated version of the Ripon Society playbook; for one thing, they are clear about wanting to use public-sector solutions for rigorously conservative social ends, particularly the strengthening of the traditional family. And to the extent that they laud particular politicians, they are people like Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, who won’t remind anyone of mandarins like Nelson Rockefeller or Chuck Percy. Rocky did get a lot of votes from the kind of folk who would today shop at Sam’s Club, but he probably went slumming at Barney’s.
The bigger question is whether Douthat and Salam are offering a course of action for the GOP that has any better prospects for acceptance than that of past Republican “moderates” or “modernizers” or “realists.” For all the buzz that this book is going to get, the overwhelming sentiment among the GOP chattering classes is that the contemporary crisis of their party is attributable to insufficient conservatism, and particularly insufficient fidelity to the limited-government ideal. And they are already well-prepared to explain away a McCain defeat this year as attributable to a combination of Bush’s fiscal profligacy and incompetence and McCain’s inability to excite the conservative base. If anything, most conservatives seem inclined to make items like Social Security privatization, a big no-no to Sam’s Club Republicans, an even larger and more central element of their future agenda.
So if you’re interested in the future of the GOP, pay some attention to how Grand New Party is received among serious conservatives. My guess is that they are at least two electoral fiascos away from taking Douthat and Salam’s advice.

Small Bump in Youth, Black Turnout Can Help Flip Nine States

Mike Dorning of the Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau reports on a new study by his newspaper indicating big gains in store for Dems if they can produce a modest increase in turnout of youth and African American voters. Dorning’s article, flagged by Facing South‘s Chris Kromm, has this to say about Obama’s prospects for picking up nine states Bush won in ’04:

If Obama could inspire just 10 percent more Democratic voters under 30 to go to the polls than did four years ago, that alone could be enough to switch Iowa and New Mexico from red to blue, the analysis suggests.
Just a 10 percent increase in turnout among blacks would make up more than 40 percent of George W. Bush’s 2004 victory margin in Ohio and more than 20 percent of the Republicans’ 2004 victory margin in Florida.
Turnout increases of 10 percent of both young voters and African-Americans could virtually eliminate the Republicans’ 2004 victory margin in Ohio and go a long way to closing the gap in Colorado, Nevada, Missouri, Virginia and—a bit more of a stretch—possibly North Carolina.
…A host of Republican states would come into play, while Democratic leads would be substantially cushioned in major blue states that the presumed Republican candidate John McCain has targeted: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Dorning points out that Black registration and general election turnout increased 11 percent in 1984, when Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for President in the primaries — even though Walter Mondale was the nominee. In addition, African American turnout in the ’08 primaries is double the ’04 figures, according to David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political Studies. (See also J.P. Green’s recent post on Black turnout) Dorning adds,

That potential helps explain why the Obama campaign chose to forgo federal funding and also why it is engaged in a massive voter registration drive. With its unprecedented resources, the campaign can fund an array of specific targeting operations, and Obama exploited early versions of those to great success during the primary campaign.

Dorning cautions that the Republicans are also improving their micro-targeting turnout operation that was so successful in key states like Ohio in ’04. However the scale of the Obama campaign’s voter registration drive and turnout effort will likely be unmatched.

Al Qaeda and the Presidential Election

You probably heard the furor over the recent remark in an interview with Fortune by McCain’s chief strategist Charlie Black–the uber-lobbyist who began his political career as an operative for Jesse Helms–that a fresh terrorist attack on the country this year would boost his candidate’s electoral prospect. At The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg retorts that Black was just repeating the conventional wisdom, but then offers this twist on the subject:

Therefore, a terrorist outrage shortly before the election—or, more cost-effectively, a terrorist video attacking McCain and/or praising Obama—would be powerful evidence that Al Qaeda wants McCain to win, in hopes that he would continue such policies as bleeding American military strength into the Iraqi desert, facilitating the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, promoting Islamist extremism by vowing to occupy Iraq permanently, and confirming “blood for oil” suspicions by arranging no-bid petroleum contracts for American energy corporations. In 2004, remember, an Al Qaeda video of this type put Bush over the top.
Obviously, this is not something that Obama or his people can say. But commentators can say it, and I hereby do so.

Hertzberg goes on to suggest that the argument doesn’t cut both ways:

Could one also argue the converse—i.e., that the absence of a terrorist act or video in the closing weeks of the campaign would prove that Al Qaeda is rooting for Obama? Perhaps, but far less plausibly. In any case, it would be an awkward argument for anyone to make who also argues that the absence of such attacks proves that the “war on terror” has been a success.

Gerrymandering and Turnout

In the occasional discussion of congressional gerrymandering and redistricting reform, it’s generally taken for granted that noncompetitive elections negatively affect voter interest and thus turnout. But until now, there have been few if any efforts to actually measure that effect. Today the Democratic Leadership Council released a study by Marc Dunkelman that suggests that truly competitive House districts could generate as much as 11 million additional votes, heavily concentrated in those states (Dunkelman calls them the “dirty dozen”) with particularly egregious gerrymandering practices. (David Broder favorably wrote the study up in his column today).
The study’s methodology is fairly simple: it compares turnout across House districts nationally in terms of the margin of victory in the two most recent offyear elections, 2002 and 2006. And while Dunkelman acknowledges that factors other than competitiveness affect turnout (most notably “up-ballot” statewide contests, which are isolated in the study), the turnout disparaties between competitive and noncompetitive House contests are indeed too vast to be an accident.
It’s also no coincidence that seven of the twelve states with the worst recent record of compeititive House races are in the South (VA, SC, GA, FL, AL, LA and AR), where turnout has typically been lower due to a host of historical factors, and where Voting Rights Act considerations have often contributed to minority-vote “packing” and “bleaching,” practices deliberately designed to produce “safe” districts. GA has been something of a laboratory for both racial and political gerrymandering during the last two decades. And FL, along with PA and TX, was the site of an egregious partisan gerrymandering effort by the GOP during the last round of redistricting.
What is to be done about gerrymandering? The DLC study doesn’t much get into prescriptions, but having spent quite a bit of time on this subject, I can say with some confidence that there ain’t no easy fix. The most common reform, the creation of “independent” redistricting commissions, does directly deal with the conflict of interest involved in state legislators drawing up their own maps. But the record of such commissions on congressional redistricting is mixed at best, tending to produce political compromises more than competitive districts. The problem is that it requires positive action, not just an alleged absence of “partisan politics,” to create a truly competitive map. And indeed, truly competitive schemes often run afoul of “traditional redistricting principles” like compact districts that respect jurisdictional lines as much as gerrymandering does. The fate of competition-focused redistricting ballot initiatives in OH and FL in 2006 (the former was trounced at the polls; the latter succumbed to a constitutional challenge before making it to the ballot) showed the difficulty, both technical and political, of such efforts.
Still, with the next decennial round of redistricting on the near horizon, it’s time to start thinking about redistricting reform in a serious way. And Dunkelman’s study helps establish that this isn’t just some goo-goo issue of interest only to wonks, or inversely, an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct of partisan politics. Gerrymandering, which can roughly be defined as elected officials choosing voters, is an important and corrosive contributor to our country’s dubious record of low voter participation and civic disengagement.

Will ‘Obamacons’ Help Dems?

Do read Robert Novak’s column in today’s WaPo which riffs interestingly on Bruce Bartlett’s article “The Rise of the Obamacons” in The New Republic. Novak, Like Bartlett, is mostly concerned about conservatives in leadership positions who have either endorsed Obama or have expressed disappointment with McCain. Novak believes that,

Reports listing additional Obamacons do not add up to tides of conservative Republicans leaving their party… Nevertheless, Obamacons — little and big — are reason for concern by McCain. They also should cause soul-searching at the Bush White House about who made the Republican Party so difficult a place for Republicans to stay.

Novak shares Bartlett’s funny quote from inside-the-beltway supply-sider Larry Hunter:

The Republican Party is a dead rotting carcass with a few decrepit old leaders stumbling around like zombies in a horror version of ‘Weekend With Bernie,’ handcuffed to a corpse.

They said it. We didn’t.
Both writers touch obliquely on a couple of things I have noticed in conversations with conservative acquaintances who have expressed admiration for Obama. First, Obama projects a sense of prudence. He just seems more thoughtful than McCain, who has some of that knee-jerk ideologue quality that defines Bush. Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war is based more on a sense of prudence about military entanglements, than pacifist/ideological beliefs, while McCain is more of an ideologue. True conservatives are not big on the notion of elective war, nor on open-ended occupations that cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars a week and overextend our military resources to the point where it imperils our military options in crises elsewhere. It’s easier to envision Obama engaging in productive diplomacy than McCain.
The other thing that makes Obama appealing to true conservatives is his flexibility. Obama’s switch in favor of telecom immunity, for example, may anger some of his progressive supporters. But to a conservative, it may show that he is not anti-business and he is open to changing his mind to adapt to new realities. Ditto for his reversed policy on receiving public funds. Yes, Obama has a strong liberal record. But he is not a rigid ideologue. It’s not so easy to say the same for McCain. His flip-flops seem more driven by rank political opportunism than thoughtful ruminations about policy.
I’m not so sure Obamacon opinion leaders are having all that much of an impact. More likely they are a reflection of what is going on in the minds of many conservatives who are troubled by the Bush mess and McCain’s inability to separate himself from it. At the same time, many conservatives are impressed with Obama’s work ethic, management skills, flexibility and refusal to dwell on racial injustice as a central issue. I would expect that Obama will get some of their votes, while others will vote third party or stay at home on election day.