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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: September 2010

Rebuilding Coalitions

As regular readers have doubtless seen, we’ve featured up in the “Noteworthy” box at the top of the page an October 2 rally by an impressively diverse group called One Nation Working Together.
It’s easy to think of this event as an effort to mobilize progressives prior to November 2, and it is that. But as Harold Meyerson suggested yesterday in a Washington Post column, it’s more than that, and in fact represents the kind of unified coalition that can sustain progressives over the long haul:

It signals a convergence of agendas among liberalism’s distinct activist groups. [Ben] Jealous, who has brought a new measure of dynamism and strategic savvy to the venerable NAACP, has prodded his organization and a number of African American church groups to support gay and lesbian rights. More middle-class environmental and gay and lesbian groups back the rally’s call for job creation through a range of Keynesian measures. All the groups involved this weekend have endorsed the legalization of undocumented immigrants.
The convergence of agendas is largely strategic. At the first spring meeting of the groups that planned this weekend’s march, Deepak Bhargava, who heads the Center for Community Change and is one of liberal America’s leading strategists, asked participants to “raise your hand if you can get your agenda through [Congress] by yourself.” Nobody did.

There are deeper reasons for this renewed coalition that go beyond the exigencies of today’s politics. The new sense of perspective that progressives brought to the 2008 elections has not gone away:

At least some of the convergence is also a function of generational change. The acceptance of gay and lesbian equality is highest among youth of all races and classes, as is support for a greener economy. The recession, meanwhile, has intensified liberal support for governmental job creation, not just for economic reasons but also because the recession has given rise to expressions of radical-right phobias that threaten immigrants and minorities — such as Arizona’s draconian immigration law — and that could thwart the agendas of every progressive constituency.

In other words, the October 2 rally represents a lot more than a defensive gathering of diverse constituencies threatened by this year’s radical conservative upsurge, or by the possibility of Republican control of the House or the Senate. Just in time for the next presidential cycle, and what appears to be another high-stakes showdown between very different visions of America’s values and future, progressives have a fresh opportunity to rebuild old coalitions with new priorities, and once again make a credible claim to represent not just a political force, but a movement for change. That’s worth celebrating, no matter what happens on November 2.

Voter Fraud Accusations a GOP Red Herring

One of the tactics Republicans favor for deflecting attention from their voter suppression efforts is launching unmerited accusations of fraud on the part of pro-Democratic groups and individuals. For a glimpse of how this works, check out “Despite Dearth Of Evidence, Right Wing Voter Fraud Fear Machine Carries On” by Ryan J. Reilly and Rachel Slajda at Talking Points Memo. The authors recount the smears against ACORN and the phony charge that the New Black Panthers were intimidating voters, and then explain how these incidents are being regurgitated in the latest fear-mongering campaign:

The most prominent example, of course, is the aforementioned New Black Panthers case. After the Obama administration decided only to act against one member, ordering him away from polling places in Philadelphia until 2012, Adams and other Bush appointees cried foul. They allege that Obama’s DOJ, under Attorney General Eric Holder, is purposely dropping cases against black defendants, and got the conservative-dominated Commission on Civil Rights to investigate it. Gail Heriot, who sits on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, expressed concern in one meeting that the New Black Panther who held a nightstick at the polling place could “just hop on a bus” and intimidate other voters on election day this year.
That case has gotten new life in the headlines as the election nears. Last week, the former head of the voting rights division, Chris Coates, defied the DOJ and testified before the commission. Before that, the DOJ’s inspector general announced he would investigate allegations that the department is handling cases based on race.
Other cases trumpeted by the right have similar racial undertones. In Harris County, Texas, a tea party offshoot called True The Vote and the Republican registrar of voters have accused a low-income voter registration program of falsifying thousands of applications in an effort to conduct “an organized and systematic attack.” True The Vote says they found the alleged fraud by scouring voter registration records in districts with a high number of households with six or more registered voters — which also happened to be the predominantly poor, black voting districts. True The Vote is now advocating for proof of citizenship to be required at the polls. And the Tea Party Nation has told its members to “steal their good idea.”

Slajda and Reilly also report that a former ACORN employer, now a “whistle-blower,” Anita MonCrief, is whipping up tea party participants to take up the GOP voter fraud crusade, urging them to monitor welfare offices and bus stops etc., where she claims liberals are ripping off votes. “I called it ‘Operation Darkie Shield,'” she reportedly said at one recent conference.
In Wisconsin, the authors note, someone put up billboards “featuring dark-skinned, jailed figures who admit to voter fraud to warn Milwaukee residents of jail time if they vote illegally.” GOP candidate for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has said “As governor, I will sign into law a bill to require a photo ID to vote.”
So, for Democrats, it comes down to teaching poll watchers the true rules and procedures, so they won’t be hustled by suppression or fraud scams. “We just want to make sure that everyone is clear on the rules — that voters know their rights, that these groups know what they are and aren’t allowed to do,” said Tova Wang, Senior Democracy Fellow at Demos.
“Every single election there are these allegations of voter fraud that turn out to be mostly untrue and every year we find that there might be a very small handful of voter fraud cases but nothing on the order of what is alleged,” Wang said.
The fear-mongering about fraud and the attack against ACORN has worked depressingly well for Republicans. They succeeded in destroying one of the most successful organizations dedicated to registering poor and minority voters. James O’Keefe has since been discredited, but right-wing voter suppression operatives are still at work, as they have been for decades, making false accusations and looking for new ways to suppress progressive voters. Democrats have gotten smarter about challenging their campaigns, but enhanced vigilance is needed.

No Referendum? No Worries!

It’s been obvious from the very beginning of this election cycle that Republicans would depend heavily on the tendency of voters to treat midterms as a referendum on the status quo, and the party perceived to be in power. This has in part liberated Republicans to get in touch with their inner Glenn Beck, creating a hyper-energized, even radical, conservative base while relying on “wrong track” sentiments to pull swing voters in their direction.
That’s why Sharron Angle’s latest tack in the bitter and dead-even NV Senate race is interesting: she’s mainly attacking Harry Reid for something she claims he wants to do in the future, according to this Politico take on the state of that campaign:

Angle’s team believes it has drawn blood over Reid’s stance on illegal immigration, most notably with an ad calling him “the best friend an illegal alien ever had,” and for backing Social Security benefits for illegal immigrants.
That prompted Reid’s campaign this month to launch its first response ad of the campaign against Angle, a sign that some said shows Reid’s awareness of his vulnerability on illegal immigration, an issue on which many independent voters take a hard line.

It’s certainly understandable that Angle would try to exploit popular sentiment on immigration. But it’s also a major distraction from the expected formula of blaming the state of Nevada’s economy, and unpopular enacted legislation of the last four years, on the Senate majority leader. Attacking Reid on what he supposedly wants to to in the future invites Angle’s opponent to enter the land of milk and honey: comparisons between the two candidates’ positions in which Angle, who is far out of touch with mainstream opinion on many, many issues–will not look good.
We’ll see how it all turns out, but on those occasions when Republican candidates stray from the safe ground of “referendum” campaigning and begin inviting comparisons with Democrats on where they would like to take the country, Dems should eagerly comply. We are all pretty sure the Republican Party of the future, once its agenda becomes clear, is not going to be very popular. Bringing that party into the present and making it the opponent is a very good idea.

Crackpot Connections Surfacing in Rand Paul Campaign

Just in case you haven’t had enough political loony tunes from the unhinged right today, here’s a couple of tidbits that have recently emerged about Rand Paul’s Senate campaign. First, from Joseph Gerth’s article “Rand Paul part of AAPS doctors’ group airing unusual views” in the Louisville Courier-Journal:

Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul belongs to a conservative doctors’ group that, among other things, has expressed doubts about the connection between HIV and AIDS and suggested that President Barack Obama may have been elected because he was able to hypnotize voters
…Speaking to the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons’ annual conference last October in Nashville, Paul said he has been a member of the group since at least 1990…”I use a lot of AAPS literature when I talk,” he told the group.
…Dr. George Nichols, Kentucky’s former longtime medical examiner, said the AAPS’ positions sound like a combination of “pseudo-science, public policy and mysticism.”
And Mother Jones, a liberal magazine that wrote about the group earlier this year, has said the group is “hardly part of a mainstream medical society. Think (Fox News commentator) Glenn Beck with an MD.”

OK, queue up Twilight Zone music for this one:

…On its Website, the AAPS included an article in October 2008 titled, “Is Obama a Brilliant Orator … or a Hypnotist?” It cites an unsigned paper suggesting that Obama used hypnotic techniques and speech patterns in his 2008 campaign.
The paper bases its finding on the work of a controversial psychologist, Milton Erickson, who died 30 years ago and pioneered the also-controversial field of neuro-linguistic programming, which purports to use voice patterns to subliminally influence people’s decisions.
The paper claims to examine Obama’s speeches “word by word, hand gesture by hand gesture, tone, pauses, body language, and proves his use of covert hypnosis intended only for licensed therapists on consenting patients.”
The paper goes on to say that Obama’s “mesmerized, cult-like, grade-school-crush-like worship by millions is not because ‘Obama is the greatest leader of a generation’ who simply hasn’t accomplished anything, who magically ‘inspires’ by giving speeches. Obama is committing perhaps the biggest fraud and deception in American history.”
The AAPS article notes that the Obama campaign logo “might just be the letter ‘O,’ but it also resembles a crystal ball, a favorite of hypnotists.”
And it suggests that hypnosis is the reason some Jewish people backed him.
“It is also interesting that many Jews are supporting a candidate who is endorsed by Hamas, Farrakhan, Khalidi and Iran,” the article says.

Oy. Also in the Courier-Journal, Stephenie Steitzer’s “Conway camp calls on Paul to return money from white separatists” reports:

Democrats: a very dangerous threat is coming into view – faked incidents of “voter intimidation” on Election Day. We have to be ready with a clear and effective strategy to respond.

Several weeks ago TDS predicted that the exposure of the deceptive editing of a videotape of a speech by Shirley Sherrod–and the resultant discrediting of right-wing propagandist Andrew Breitbart — would produce a trend toward even more extreme tactics by the media “action groups” now functioning on the right.
Yesterday, CNN reported on one such action — a plan by Andrew Breitbart’s most famous protégé, James O’Keefe, to trick a female CNN reporter into entering a phony “pleasure palace” filled with pornography, alcohol and sex toys and then to attempt to seduce her while secretly taping the encounter. The goal of the plan was either to embarrass and discredit CNN or else to essentially blackmail them into improving their treatment of right-wing activists in an upcoming documentary.
At first glance the plan seems utterly absurd and infantile – so much so as to be literally delusional (O’Keefe apparently believed that he actually had a realistic chance of succeeding in the planned seduction) and many in the media will be tempted to ignore it on these grounds.
But this is a tremendous mistake. Even a person who explodes in furious indignation at a vile set-up like this the very first instant they encounter it can be made to look like a participant by careful video editing and stage management (e.g. the con-man can say “But this is what you said you wanted yesterday on the phone” or “That’s not the impression you gave me when we had that hot phone call last night”. Carefully edited, a secretly taped video of something like this trap can easily be made to appear ambiguous or even incriminating simply by innuendo – e.g. “Why was she there in the first place?”, “Maybe she just got cold feet at the last minute”)
But the real danger for Democrats right now is not this particular trap – it’s the more sophisticated ones that can easily be sprung on Election Day.
Let’s face it. It is a trivially simple task to find one or two Black or Latino men in any city in America who, for a sufficient bribe, would be willing to show up at a polling place and suddenly begin shouting and brandishing wood canes or telescoping security batons of the kind that is now sold in any martial arts store. As little as 20 or 30 seconds of “amateur” video of such actions would be more than sufficient to create another national “scandal” like the New Black Panthers case that Fox has already elevated to mythic status. Three or four incidents like this in November would be sufficient to create a propaganda firestorm and delegitimize any elections Democrats happen to win.
The defensive strategy Democrats must employ is simple. Democratic poll-watchers and ordinary voters must immediately insist – in front of camera and witnesses — that any suspicious “intimidators” should be immediately arrested, booked and fingerprinted. If those “intimidators” then turn out to be paid agents of right-wing media action groups, the organizations that paid them should then be criminally prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and also sued in civil court for six or seven figure judgments. The Southern Poverty Law Center has successfully destroyed several white supremacist groups using this tactic and it is now past time to start deploying similar tactics against today’s right-wing media action groups.
To put it simply, the best Democratic strategy for preventing phony incidents of voter intimidation on Election Day is to make it very clear in advance that if the perpetrators are caught, the price will be so high that even totally cynical and immoral right-wing organizations will fear the consequences.
In contrast, the biggest mistake Democrats can make is to dismiss events like James O’Keefe’s attempted sexual blackmail of a CNN reporter as unimportant. On the contrary, O’Keefe’s aborted “black op” illustrates the profoundly dangerous extremist mind-set that many on the right now share. There are many right-wing activists who are just as cynical, dishonest and extreme as O’Keefe; Democrats cannot count on all of them being equally stupid.

Too Much Information? Or Not Enough?

Since at least the beginning of the 1990s, we´ve been hearing a refrain periodically, and with ever-increasing volume: There are too many polls out there! They´re confusing! And they are far too influential!
Today´s Poltico offers a good summary of this year´s complaints about polls. What makes them different is that they are not just coming from those who deplore the impact of polling data on candidates and elected officials: they´re coming from polling experts, too, and from pollsters themselves, some of whom seem to think the data pool is getting flooded with pseudo-information generated by firms with poor methodologies:

Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies put it bluntly: “Lots of them are simply lousy polls; they don’t accurately reflect younger voters, African-Americans and Latinos. This all contributes to underrepresenting Democrat support. Having said that, there’s a real debate about what will be the appropriate composition of the electorate.”

Unfortunately, all polls tend to get treated equally in the general political buzz:

The proliferation of public polling has also become a concern for many political professionals this cycle, as surveys often get the same free media attention whether they are done by established outlets or fly-by-night first-timers. And the headlines those surveys make influence not just campaign strategy but how voters make decisions.

It´s not just a matter of good and bad pollsters; there are legitimate questions about how to solve a variety of basic problems in obtaining a good sample and determining likelihood to vote:

{Mark} Blumenthal also said that the very real phenomenon of properly identifying voters when up to 30 percent of households in the country have only cell phones is adding significantly to the troubles with predicting who will vote.

This is a problem that´s been especially apparent in Survey USA´s state polls this year, which frequently show young voters going heavily for Republican candidates, apparently because of exceptionally small samples of such voters.
The big question, though, is whether there´s simply too much information out there, or perhaps not enough. The biggest change in polling this years is the frequency of state polling, particularly by Rasmussen, which has deployed a controversial likely-voter model all year long, and has typically shown a stronger Republican vote in general election trials than other pollsters. SUSA´s recent record of showing relatively strong Republican performance has intensified the impression–true or false–of an impending Republican tsunami; the implosion of Research 2000 eliminated what was once a counter-weight in the polling averages that most analysts and many campaigns rely on. PPP heavy entry into state-level polling this year has been helpful, in that the firm´s abundant disclosure of non-top-line data and its relatively “balanced” results lend it credibility.
In any event, a bit of thought should make it plain that the real problem here is not with any excess of polling data, but with its limitations, and moreover, with the media and partisan spinners who fail to conduct minimal analysis of top-line results. The Research 2000 fiasco was in retrospect a good thing, insofar as it showed that knowledgeable analysts were capable of policing the field to some extent. Unless polls begin to converge between now and November 2, we are going to have some clear winners and losers in the polling profession, and perhaps greater pressure for disclosure of methodologies and data, and some sounder conclusions about how to deal with common problems in sampling and surveying.

The Most Popular Pol

Buried in the new NBC-Wall Street Journal national survey is a very interesting finding:

The most popular political figure in the poll? It’s none other than former President Bill Clinton, whose favorable/unfavorable rating is 55-23.
By comparison, Obama’s is 47-41; former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee’s is 26-25; House Minority Leader John Boehner’s is 14-17; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s is 12-18; former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s is 21-30; former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s is 24-35; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s is 15-32; former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin’s is 30-48; and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s is 22-50.

Any wonder that Democratic candidates are avid to get the Big Dog to campaign for them?
And amidst all the comparisons between 1994 and this midterm cycle, it´s worth remembering that the Barack Obama of the former year went on to be comfortably re-elected, and even after a scandal and an impeachment, is now very unpopular. Successful governing matters.

Pro-Democratic Groups Mobilizing Robust GOTV

Political strategist and TDS contributor Robert Creamer has a HuffPo post, “Four More Reasons Why Democrats Will Retain Control of House and Senate,” which provides encouragement for Dems and worry for Republicans. Creamer notes that Dems are starting to perform better in polls and sees favorable developments ahead for Dems in terms of campaign spending, a growing focus on specific candidates instead of party preference, the engagement of President Obama in the midterm campaign and a rapid narrowing of the ‘enthusiasm gap.’
As voter registration deadlines approach in many states (50 state deadlines here) , Creamer sees a very encouraging level of engagement of Democratic activism:

…For months, Democratic campaigns have been preparing the most robust off-year Get Out the Vote effort in American history.
For example, last Saturday the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had a National Day of Action that engaged volunteer-staffed canvasses in contested Congressional Districts across the country. On that one day, volunteers knocked on 200,000 doors.
Democratic candidates, the DCCC, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and President Obama’s field organization — Organize for America — will have serious field programs in virtually all in-play Congressional Districts and every in-play Senate state. Those field programs will contact millions of voters before Election Day, encourage vote-by-mail and vote early programs and ultimately make millions of door knocks on Election Day itself.
My consulting firm participated in a study several years ago that showed that one door to door contact within 72 hours of Election Day increased the propensity to vote by 12.5%. A second one in the same period increased turnout almost as much.
These contacts will be supplemented by major member to member campaigns launched by organized labor and organizations like MoveOn.org.
The message from candidates, the President and leaders of important Democratic constituencies like Latinos and labor about what is at stake in this election will do a lot to increase turnout. But so will the old-fashioned message: “I won’t get off your porch until you vote.”

It’s unclear whether the Republicans will be able to mount an effective ground game to match their bluster, given the shrill preach-to-the-choir extremism of many of their candidates. But, regardless of what they do, let it be said in every swing district and every close statewide campaign in the month ahead that the street is blue.

Whose Federal Spending?

In the midst of a very sensible and useful article on why federal spending always seems to go up, Paul Waldman makes an important point about the disconnect between conservative rhetoric and the raw facts:

Our federal spending has increased by a few points in the last two years (from 20.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to 24.7 percent in 2009), but it is still small compared to that of our friends in Europe. Of course, that doesn’t tell us what the optimal level of government is. Perhaps you believe that the French or Swedes or Danes, with a public sector about 50 percent larger than ours, are terribly oppressed by their governments. It’s hard, though, to argue seriously that an increase of 4 percentage points of GDP takes us from blessed capitalism to dystopian statist nightmare….

A big part of the problem, Waldman notes, is that Republicans have as many ´budgetary “sacred cows” as Democrats, most notably the defense budget. Beyond that, as the “pledge to America” demonstrated last week, most Republicans continue to shy away from serious Social Security and Medicare cuts, particularly so long as they can convince voters that ´”welfare” or “waste, fraud and abuse” or “bailouts” or “earmarks” are a vastly larger proportion of federal spending than they actually are.

Politicians can fulminate all they want about the $2 million earmark or the silly sounding $150,000 research project. But the truth is that government spending is going to continue to rise, because neither Democrats nor Republicans really want government to get smaller — at least not badly enough to cut it in a meaningful way. It can rise at a slower or faster rate, depending on the decisions we make (the biggest source of future spending is Medicare and Medicaid, a problem the Affordable Care Act begins to tackle). But no matter who wins the election this year, or in 2012, or in any other year, it’s going to keep growing.

It´s understandable that Republicans want to disassociate themselves from the spending booms of the Bush administration, but the plain truth is that they do not unambiguously favor a set a policies that would have led to a significantly different level of spending. And if, as some Tea Party activists and candidates demand, the GOP really does come out for smaller government by privatizing Social Security and Medicare and eliminating federal involvement in education and environmental protection, Republicans will soon find that the popularity of their anti-spending rhetoric will collapse faster than you can say ´”Barry Goldwater.”

A Reminder from the President on Media Objectivity

Nestled in his interview with Rolling Stone`s Jann Wenner is an important reminder from the President of the United States about the historical context within which to properly view today´s right-wing media:

The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition — it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It’s a point of view that I disagree with. It’s a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world.

The President could have gone on to point out that in the era of the Hearst newspaper empire, and before that, in the years stretching back to the beginning of the Republic, Americans typically dependend entirely on highly partisan media for most political information–basically, whatever newspapers happened to be available in a given locale. In cities with multiple daily newspapers, one´s political party affiliation was a major determinent of the newspaper of choice. But there was little or no pretense that there was some ´”objective” source of political information, and little choice at all outside the major cities.
For the most part, people decide to watch Fox News today for the same reasons that a New Yorker in the late nineteenth century chose to read the Times or the Tribune as opposed to the World or the Sun. As the President implied, telling Fox viewers the network isn´t exactly “fair and balanced” is largely a waste of time; ideologues view reality through an ideological prism in any event. Explaining that Fox`s point of view is wrong and destructive is a more fruitful approach than imagining there is some model of objectivity to which all news sources should conform. At least nowdays virtually all voters do have a choice of where to obtain information, and the best antidote for Fox viewers is to accidentally stray elsewhere on that cable guide and get exposed to a whole new world, and world-view.