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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Spin Update

Want another piece of evidence that Republicans believe pre-election spinning is important? Check out WaPo’s “crystal ball” feature today, providing projections from “experts” about what’s going to happen on Tuesday.
Republican spinmeisters Tony Snow, Bill Kristol and Ann Coulter all predicted historic GOP landslides: Bush by five percent, and well over 300 in electoral votes, supplemented by big Republican gains in Senate, House and gubernatorial contests. Democratic pundit Donna Brazile, by contrast, predicted a narrow Kerry win, and small Democratic gains elsewhere.
Brazile’s being honest if optimistic. Snow, Kristol and Coulter are just spinning.


Last-Minute GOP Spin

ABC’s Note today reports that despite widespread agreement among pollsters that the presidential contest is too close to call nationally, and too close to call in the key battleground states, the Bushies are exuding more confidence than they were a week ago. Their reasoning, at least publicly, is that the Osama video has changed the dynamics of the race at the perfect time for Bush, reminding voters that the bad man still wants to kill us all.
I have no way of knowing if they really believe this stuff, but I do know that Karl Rove and company strongly believe in the self-fulfilling prophecy theory of acting like a winner before and after the polls close. And I also know they are playing into the media Conventional Wisdom that the last-minute disclosures about Bush’s Maine DWI erased the Republican’s lead in the final stages of the 2000 campaign.
Most of the evidence I’ve seen (sorry, no links here, since the polling and analysis is mostly long gone on the internet) suggests that undecided voters down the stretch in 2000 broke towards Bush, not Gore, and that Gore’s strong finish was attributable to a big advantage in the ground game that polls didn’t and couldn’t pick up, reinforced to some extent by Gore’s reluctant decision to finally begin campaigning on his own administration’s record.
The New York Times’ Kirk Johnson penned a report today suggesting the Osama video isn’t having much of a visible impact, and I’m inclined to agree (Ruy Teixeira reviews the polling evidence and reaches the same conclusion). It will probably come down to the ground game again, along with the tendency of undecided voters to break against the incumbent. Since nobody seems to dispute that Democrats have the most expensive and expansive GOTV operation in American political history, Bush’s chances come down to his elaborate effort to win unpredented margins in rural and exurban areas, based on the 2002 Republican model of demanding personal loyalty to the president, and of accentuating sharp and often false differences between the candidates on national security and cultural issues.
Every incumbent running for re-election uses the trappings of the presidency on the campaign trail, but BC04 has really taken this to a whole new level. I instinctively reject the partisan tendency to attribute un-American and anti-democratic tactics to the opposition, but it’s impossible to avoid smelling the whiff of authoritarianism in the incumbent’s campaign events.
The personal pledge of loyalty to Bush that’s become a staple of his home-stretch rallies is one example. The exclusion of Democrats, the routine taunting of news media, and the tight security is another. And the heavy-handed overtone of patriotic and religious appeals is still another.
I must say that the fervent response to these tactics surprises me. I can understand how some voters can rationally make a decision that Bush has done as well as he can on domestic and international issues, or that Kerry’s record doesn’t make him a desirable alternative. I can understand that some Americans really do believe that abortion is homicide, or that Republicans empathize with traditionalist cultural impulses more than Democrats, or even that Bush as a self-professed evangelical Christian has earned their support by rhetoric alone. There may even be a small percantage of voters who are convinced that erasing progressive tax rates and “starving the beast” of Washington by deliberately engineering budget deficits are valid and important goals. But that George W. Bush, of all people, has become the object of a cult of personality and of intense personal devotion for millions of Americans is harder to understand. Most of the serious conservative ideologues I talk to privately concede the president is a man of limited gifts who has united Republicans behind him as a matter of historical accident more than his intrinsic political or policy skills.
But whatever its provenance, it’s clear the ability of the president’s campaign to break every record of “base” support, while creating a polarized atmosphere essential to justifying extraordinarily partisan election-day and post-election day tactics, is the slender reed on which his whole enterprise now depends. That’s why everybody even remotely connected to the Bush effort will be spinning like mad over and beyond the next 48 hours.


Vote Suppression Update

In addition to growing press coverage of various efforts to suppress or intimidate voters, especially in heavily Democratic and/or minority areas, I’m getting a lot of email from attentive readers citing this or that development, most of it in battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
It’s probably useful, at this point, to separate these developments into three categories:
(1) Good ol’ fashioned dirty tricks. As Jo Becker and David Finkel report in this morning’s WaPo: “Dirty tricks are a staple of campaigns, but election officials say this year’s could achieve new highs in numbers and new lows in scope, especially in key battleground states such as Florida and Ohio.” As usual, many of the nasty tactics are aimed at minority voters, which gives you a pretty good idea where they are coming from. In Leon County, Florida, thousands of students at (historically black) Florida A&M University and at FSU are discovering that their addresses have been changed on registration lists, possibly disqualifying them from voting. In Milwaukee, mysterious fliers are appearing in African-American neighborhoods telling voters they cannot participate on Tuesday if they voted earlier in the year. In Charleston, South Carolina, a dirty tactic used in Maryland in 2002 re-emerged, with a fake NAACP letter warning voters they can be arrested if they show up at the polls owing parking tickets or in arrears on child support payments. And in Ohio, another fake letter “informs” voters registered by the NAACP that their registrations have proved invalid, and that they face legal sanctions if they vote. It goes on and on.
(2) Official malfeasance. There’s also a noticable upsurge in major screwups–due either to incompetence or malice–by election officials. One reader informed me on Friday that the (Republican-controlled) Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania election board suddenly announced changes in polling locations for 21 precincts, affecting as many as 15,000 voters in one of the hottest battleground areas of the country. There have been widespread delays in the mailing and processing of both new voter registrations and absentee ballots, along with poor preparations for places where early votes can be cast. It’s impossible to know in many of these case if the blunders are unintentional or designed to put a thumb on the scales, but they reinforce how little progress has been made since 2000 in creating an efficient and even playing field for voters.
(3) Voter intimidation. We won’t know for sure until Tuesday how far the GOP will go in wholesale challenges to voters in heavily Democratic precincts, but so far, they are winning the obscure legal battle over the rules for casting and counting the “provisional” ballots required by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in cases where voters’ eligibility is in question. Michigan will apparently be the only battleground state where voters who are residents of the county, not the precinct, where they show up to vote will have their votes counted. That may be why last-minute changes in precinct boundaries and polling places seem to be happening.
Meanwhile, the high-stakes maneuvering over voter challenges in Ohio continues. As I cynically (but accurately) predicted on Friday, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell’s noble-sounding “instruction” to Attorney General Jim Petro that he ban voter challenges altogether went nowhere, as Petro quickly denied he had the authority to take that step. On a more marginal issue, a federal judge overruled Blackwell’s earlier ruling that official partisan challengers could be apportioned to concentrate them at particular polling places within precincts. Unfortunately, it’s not the number of challengers, but the number of challenges, that matters.
Finally, there’s an aspect of the voter challenge/provisional ballot maneuvering that should be kept in mind. Provisional ballots will not be counted on Election Night; most states will allow up to ten days for them to be resolved and either counted or discarded.
If you remember how important it was to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 to claim victory in Florida from the get-go, it’s entirely possible that a part of its strategy this year is to get the maximum number of Democratic votes in very close states made provisional, so that Bush will be “ahead” in the count the morning after. I certainly hope that impartial election officials, Democratic poll watchers, and journalists pay close attention to the number of provisional ballots that are pending in key states, and to deny possible Republican victory claims based on initial counts.
With most tracking polls showing the race dead even going into the final 48 hours, this sort of stuff, murky as it is, could be crucial.
UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
My own information about the exit poll operations this year suggests (a) the exits will be done very professionally, and (b) it’s very likely that despite the best efforts of the sponsors, they will be leaked on election day in a way that minimizes word-of-mouth distortions, and that will be all over the internet within hours if not minutes. Be forewarned.


More Strange Doings in Ohio

Before the Osama tape furor erupted, there was a surprising story out of Ohio, where Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell called a press conference to announce he was asking Republican Attorney General Jim Petro to ban election-day challenges of voter eligibility statewide. There was lots of nice talk from Blackwell about the “disruptive” nature of such challenges, and the possibility that they would make voting too slow and difficult.
Now there are three possible explanations for this development.
First, I may have been wrong in suggesting a Rove-driven, highly coordinated GOP effort to mess with minority voters next Tuesday. Maybe all the talk about voter challenges was a head fake, or perhaps just a way to build a legal and political foundation for post-election fraud claims.
Second, Blackwell could have decided to break ranks on this one, odd as that may seem for a guy who has been doing everything possible to give Bush an advantage in his state. It’s no secret Blackwell wants to run for governor in ’06, and he’s sufficiently quirky that he endorsed Steve Forbes for president back in 2000. There’s also the fact that Blackwell is African-American. It’s possible he actually had an attack of conscience about cooperating in tactics redolent of the Jim Crow era.
And third, this could all be a show. All Petro has to do is to deny Blackwell’s request, or say he doesn’t have the authority to ban challenges, and we’ll be back to square one, with Blackwell getting some positive press and a bit of protection from charges of partisanship that may emerge on or after November 2.
I guess you can tell I think this last explanation makes the most sense, but we’ll soon know.


Unbelievable

It’s 4:27 EST, and like anyone near a television, I’m waiting to see the new Osama bin Laden tape that surfaced today. Although the tape itself has apparently not been completely translated yet, it shows Osama attacking Bush. The Fox News people are already calling this “Osama’s endorsement of Kerry,” and Drudge has followed quickly with “Osama campaigns against Bush.”
I have a very low opinion of the ethics of the Bush apparatchiks, but this shocks even me. It will be interesting to see how Kerry responds, and whether the more official BC04 types pull back from this despicable tactic.
UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey


The Rove M.O.

The latest political news from Ohio is important and instructive. A federal judge in Columbus blocked Republican efforts to force county election boards to review tens of thousands of new voter registrations. Before the ink was dry on the judge’s order, the Ohio GOP’s top lawyer said the action meant the GOP would challenge such voters at the polls on November 2. “We wanted to have all these questions resolved this week,” said attorney Mark Weaver. “Now they won’t be resolved until Tuesday, when all of these people are trying to vote. It can’t help but create chaos, longer lines and frustration.”
In other words, the GOP is using the demise of one prong of its voter supression strategy to pre-justify the other. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly the way they planned it. Now they can can get their “volunteers” out to “create chaos, longer lines and frustration” in minority polling places and sadly say that an “activist judge” who didn’t care about voter fraud left them no choice. It’s going to get worse, too: mark my words, when Democrats, civil rights attorneys, and voters themselves get visibly angry about this gambit, the GOPers will start whining about “potential violence” at the polls, and even pretend their goons are being intimidated and harassed. If nothing else, it will give them an excuse to go to court to contest Ohio’s outcome if the state goes for Kerry.
Now I have no direct evidence that Karl Rove has planned and is executing this voter suppression strategy, though it’s interesting that every Republican hack and pundit in the universe started singing like a cicada about “voter fraud” about a week before the Ohio story got into the national news. But it sure as hell fits Rove’s M.O. like a glove.
The Florida debacle of 2000 illustrated two Rove tactics that are devilishly effective:
(1) Getting in front of media interpretation of a controversy in a way that reshapes public perceptions of the actual event, and sticking with the spin come hell or high water. In retrospect, the war for Florida was half-won the day after the election, when the Bush campaign (knowing Katherine Harris would give the spin official sanction as soon as she could) announced it had won the state, and then began a relentless and ultimately successful campaign to depict efforts to get a full and accurate count as an attempt to reverse the outcome.
(2) Deliberately pursuing outrageous tactics and then using the opposition’s outrage to establish a false moral equivalency. The Bushies used this one throughout the Florida 2000 chess-game. Every effort was made to polarize the recount process, and to constantly emphasize the Democratic affiliation of county canvassing boards and the Florida judiciary. This approach not only invested every Republican in the state and the country in one side of every empircal controversy, but also gradually convinced the nation at large that the saga was nothing more than a partisan food fight among pols, lawyers and judges, not an attempt to find out how the people of Florida actually voted. This perception was crucial to the GOP’s ultimate strategy of running out the clock and inviting the Supreme Court in to “save” the country from chaos.
Republicans are pursuing exactly these two tactics in planning an Election Day operation designed to mess with minority voters this year.
As Joshua Green shows in his important profile of Karl Rove in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly, Rove followed the same M.O. in close elections earlier in his career. And in addition to the two tactics outlined above, Rove’s clients have benefitted from something more fundamental: an absolute ruthlessness that often leaves his victims gasping in astonishment and the news media gaping in–literally–disbelief.
Here’s Green’s chilling and potentially prophetic conclusion about Rove’s ace card in manipulating the media and, through them, the public:
“If this year stays true to past form, the campaign will get nastier in the closing weeks, and without anyone’s quite registering it, Rove will be right back in his element. He seems to understand—indeed, to count on—the media’s unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove’s skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media’s unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others.”


How To Sound Like a Political Insider

Now that we’re down to the lick-log of this election cycle–or at least getting close to the point where the lawyers take over–politics will briefly outrank last night’s reality shows as a topic of conversation in many American households. If the World Series ends tonight, it could happen right away.
As a public service, I thought I would offer non-political-junkie readers a quick and easy lesson in how to sound like a political insider down at Applebee’s this weekend. It’s all a matter of mastering ten magic phrases that will clearly mark you as a guy or gal who knows the inner workings–the viscera and the cartilege–of the Body Politic. Here we go:
1. Early Exits. This does not refer to the behavior of election-night celebrants at a losing candidate’s party, but rather, to the first round of exit polling done by a media consortium to guide network “calls” of various races, and later, as the central data source for the massive spin and finger-pointing campaign that will occur once somebody has won or lost. These “exits” are supposed to be a deep, dark secret prior to the polls being closed, so naturally, every single soul in Washington knows about them by mid-afternoon on election day. That’s why 2002, when the whole exit polling system crashed, was such a nightmare for political insiders. So: get ready to email the following to your coworkers, friends and families during your lunch break on November 2: “Early exits show dead heat.”
2. Gross Ratings Points. A highly technical measurement for the number of viewers likely to see a political ad. For greatest effect, abbreviate this to “points,” as in: “Our team just dumped 3,000 points on Minneapolis-St. Paul. Those poor bastards up there will be mouthing our message in their sleep.”
3. MoE. Short for “margin of error” in a poll. Right now, you could say that “Kerry and Bush are inside the MoE in nine of eleven battleground states,” which is a cool way of saying, “I don’t know what the hell’s going to happen.”
4. D-Trip. No, this is not a rapper’s name, but an abbreviation for the “D-Triple-C,” or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political action arm of the House Democrats. Nothing will send a frisson of admiration and envy through every political insider wannabee quite like your knowledge that “The D-Trip pulled out of Colorado 8 when it learned its guy hadn’t paid property taxes in 20 years.”
5. 527s. Derived from a section number in the Internal Revenue Code, this refers to “independent” organizations running advocacy ads or registering and turning out voters. They cannot endorse a candidate, but can demonize an opponent. They are a very big deal in this election cycle. So: be sure in your pre-election pontification to say at some point: “It’s our 527s versus theirs, and they missed the boat by investing so little in GOTV (Get Out the Vote).”
6. POTUS. An insider term for President of the United States. Variations are FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States, the institution responsible for the election of the current POTUS). Using POTUS indicates that you have worked in, or know people who worked in, the White House. This very day, you could say: “Looks like Arnold’s finally agreed to do a POTUS trip to Ohio.”
7. I-4 Corridor. I-4 is the interstate highway that connects the key Florida electoral battlegrounds of Orlando and Tampa-St. Pete. Ever since 2000, it has been considered the height of political insider wisdom to suggest that the next election will be “all about the I-4 Corridor.” Alternatives include: “It’s all about Lackawanna County” (a northeast Pennsylvania swing area) or, to sound more sophisticated, “It’s all about Bush topping 60 in the Cincinnati exurbs.”
8. Message Discipline. This describes the ability of a candidate to stay “on message,” i.e., to robotically pivot any question, discussion, or speech towards a recitation of whatever pithy and meaningful pitch the campaign has decided voters must be forced to remember, at all costs. Despite their vast differences in style and substance, George W. Bush (the current POTUS) and John Edwards (a potential future POTUS) are both considered excellent practitioners of message discipline. But like any virtue, this can become a vice if pursued to extremes. A good example was the last presidential debate, when the president was asked about the minimum wage, and started warbling about education reform. Message discipline can quickly morph into message bondage.
9. Down-Ballot. A slighting reference to those candidacies of lower status than the one you are concerned about. Given the executive-o-centric nature of the current American imperium, the term is often used to express indifference to Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative outcomes. “If we win the White House, I go to bed happy, and to hell with what happens down-ballot,” would be a good Election Eve line.
10. Decision Desk. This is not a piece of furniture, but a term used for the small group of expert number crunchers employed by television networks to instruct the earpieces of On-Camera Talent that they should immediately race the competition to announce the winner of this or that state, in this or that contest. The black arts of Decision Desk ops became briefly visible, of course, in 2000, when on every network they called, and then recalled twice, a decision on Florida’s electoral votes. Here’s a safe insider comment to make: “I know a guy who’s on the ABC Decision Desk, and he’s sweating bullets about what they do if Kerry’s up five in the Florida exits at 7:00; the polls in the Panhandle, you know, don’t close til 8:00. Do they make the call and get unholy hell from Republicans, or let NBC beat ’em to the punch? It’s like Chariots of Fire, man!”
Properly equipped, may ye go forth to Applebee’s and wow the crowds this weekend. And BTW, if and when this election is finally decided, NewDonkey will offer another installment in this series: the ten magic phrases that will establish you as a Washington Insider, in case you move to the Emerald City in search of fame and fortune.


Desperately Seeking Democrats

Man, the Bush-Cheney campaign must be getting into Full Panic Mode. Its supreme self-confidence that it could win this thing simply by getting the conservative base lathered up into a state of righteous hysteria seems to be slipping. The evidence? Yesterday W. varied from his stump speech in Wisconsin by making a pitch for votes from–are you ready?–Democrats. Never mind that he doesn’t allow them to attend his campaign rallies; he still wants their votes. And get this: his pitch is that he is a president in the tradition of “Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy.”
My colleague The Moose calls this speech “Grave Robbery.” I call it something unprintable.
Today’s New Dem Daily says everything printable I could say about the incredible effrontery of Bush’s latest tactic.


The GOP’s November Surprise

I should have known when George Will started writing columns about the dastardly threat of voter fraud that something big was in the works. And sure enough, the conservative media echo chamber is now vibrating from a cacophany of warnings that Democrats are trying to steal the presidential election by fradulently registering ineligible voters.
What’s happening here is an effort to soften up the news media and the public for a truly audacious, and perhaps even desperate, gambit by the Republican Party that appears to be planned for election day: wholesale challenges to minority voters in battleground states in an effort to either (1) intimidate or demoralize likely Democratic voters, or (2) lay the groundwork for one of those Bush-v.-Gore-enabled retroactive legal actions aimed at reversing an adverse result. More likely, the aim is (3) both.
In case you’ve missed it, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have published extensive reports on the GOP’s plans in Ohio to deploy “volunteers” (paid a reported $100 a pop for their time) in 8,000 mostly minority voting precincts with the goal of challenging the eligibility of many if not most voters. Aside from throwing such voters into the category of “provisional” voters whose ballots may get tossed out later on, the idea appears to be to make voting as slow and unpleasant as possible in the precincts that might give John Kerry the electoral votes of this key state.
While this scheme has been best documented in Ohio, I’ll bet you a fist full of buckeyes that similar plans are under way in other battleground states with large minority populations. Hence the “voter fraud” cries from the GOP. “You know how these people are,” is the implicit message. It is highly reminiscent of the Bush-Cheney campaign’s successful strategy in 2000 of preemptively claiming victory in Florida and then depicting any effort to actually get the votes counted as an election-stealing enterprise.
I don’t know exactly who the “volunteers” are who are planning to flood African-American polling places in Ohio to gum up the works and mess with the minds and ballots of voters. But given the rather limited number of black Republicans available, I have a clear mental image of some pasty-faced, bow-tie clad Federalist Society dweeb from Case-Western Law School showing up at an inner-city Cleveland precinct spouting 1953 case law at angry voters who know how often this sort of crap was pulled on African-Americans in the Deep South.
Now I have no particular reason to doubt the physical courage of conservative activists, and absolutely no reason to doubt their willingness to engage in bully-boy tactics. A good precedent was provided by the famous Brooks Brothers Riot of November 22, 2000, when a gang of Republican operatives, including quite a few GOP congressional staff down from Washington, succeeded in intimidating the Miami-Dade Canvassing Board into abandoning a hand recount of presidential ballots. But if this year’s Republican intimidation tactics are half as bad as I suspect they will be, they may simply fortify the determination of their targets to get out and get in their votes.
Today the DLC called on President Bush to personally condemn any wholesale challenges to minority voters on or before Election Day. He’s about as likely to do that as he is to suddenly admit he’s made a bunch of mistakes over the last four years. But at a minimum, he should have the decency to warn his campaign’s “volunteers” that they may experience more than a $100 worth of unpleasantness if they spend November 2 randomly hassling minority voters.
After all, playing Bull Connor without the fire hoses and the police dogs could be hazardous to your health.
UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey