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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Early Voting Lines a Good Issue for Dems

Despite all the blah-blah about supply and demand, it can’t be a complete coincidence that gas prices are tumbling exactly as early voting begins in states across the nation. The connection between gas prices and political approval ratings is exceptionally strong and well-documented. In addition to price gouging, voters in several states experienced shortages and long lines at gas stations during the last month. Atlanta residents had several days with no gas, and Georgia’s Governor Sonny Perdue got heat from more than a few angry voters.
Few experiences piss people off so much as having to wait in line for something that ought to be available on demand. The same principle applies to the long lines at the early voting polls — up to four hours at one Miami-Dade precinct, and two hour waits being reported in many localities across the country. More people are enduring longer lines at the polls than they experienced at gas stations.
As Democrats we still want to encourage early voting, even when it means waiting a couple of hours. It is still our best check against voter suppression and GOP obstructions. But we need not take the blame for the unnecessary long lines that are not of our making.
In the closing days of campaign ’08, this is a good issue for Democrats. Almost all of the delays at the polls can be attributed to Republican obstruction and mismanagement. One of the most consistent policies of Republicans at the federal, state and local level is to make it hard for people to vote, or at least people who are not likely to vote for GOP candidates.
It’s probably too late for the DNC to do a good ad about GOP obstruction of voting, although it would be worth doing, because now is the time it would resonate most powerfully and the issue fades as a priority as time passes. But Democratic candidates should make sure the message gets out via speeches and media interviews that voters have to wait hours to cast ballots because the Republicans opposed adequate funding for voting machines and they routinely obstruct reforms like weekend voting, internet balloting and more polling sites. This is true in state and local legislatures across the country, as well as in the U.S. Congress, with very few exceptions.
There has been a lot of good reporting on GOP vote suppression. (For starters, see this excellent report by Greg Palast and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.). But Democratic candidates, the national and state Democratic parties should do more to prioritize the issue at the optimum time than just grumble and gripe. It’s not one of the major issues of campaign ’08. But it is a good issue this week, particularly for the few remaining undecideds. A lot of voters are ticked off about it right now. It’s up to Democrats to make sure their anger is accurately directed.

Obama Should Share Some Love

HuffPo Founder Arianna makes the case that it’s time for Obama to spread some of his campaign wealth around with other Dem candidates. It’s an important suggestion, and one which is sure to provoke some strong disagreements within the Democratic Party.
It’s a tough decision, arguably THE toughest decision going forward. “With victory within sight,” she asks, “the question becomes: how much change can he deliver if Democrats don’t reach a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate?”
There is an understandable tendency within every political campaign to deploy all political assets within the campaign. There’s always the potential for an upset, and it’s hard to accept that things are going so well that the campaign can spare a little jack for the down ballot Dems. The very idea of surplus money does not compute, especially for Democrats, who are more often playing catch-up with their GOP competitors in terms of cash assets. Yet, as Arianna notres:

Republicans, while still holding out hope for a “McCain Miracle,” are increasingly worried that McCain is losing in a way that, as David Frum put it, “threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him.” As a result, Frum and other Republicans are urging party officials to shift the emphasis off the presidential race and on to preserving as many Senate seats as possible.

Because we Dems have been out of the white house so long and have lost the last two presidential elections by small margins, we can be forgiven for a little monomania, when it comes to protecting Obama’s lead and securing a big win on Nov. 4. And then there is the argument that a huge Obama margin will lift all Democratic boats.
But there are a number of very close House and Senate races that could be won with a timely cash infusion. Think about Dems on the cusp of victory, who just need a little more cash to bring it home. Think about the filibuster-proof majority and what it could do for America. As Arianna notes,

In the just-ended 110th Congress, obstructionist Senate Republicans, led by human roadblock Mitch McConnell, mounted a record 104 filibusters (and that was with Bush in the White House; imagine how much more intransigent they would be with Obama). To put that number in context, in the previous Congress, the 109th, in which Democrats were in the minority, there were just 54 filibusters.

Think about empowering Obama to not merely occupy the white house, but to actually lead congress.
Here’s how she urges Obama to do it:

…Immediately guarantee a loan to the DSCC that will allow Democratic Senate candidates to spend whatever amount is necessary to secure a 60-seat majority. With Obama’s donor list, he’ll be able to wipe out that loan with a single post-election email. Money should not be the reason Democrats don’t put themselves in a position to defang the obstructionists.

Obama is going to face daunting challenges in securing peace, economic and health care reforms. Every extra Democrat in the House and Senate will help him succeed and win re-election. In that sense, every unleveraged dollar in his campaign coffers when the polls close on November 4 is a failure of strategy that works against his success.
For her best clincher, Arianna quotes a Norm Coleman ad echoed in numerous other GOP candidate ads this week

“Want real change? Put Democrats in control.”

Oh hell yes.

Obamacons Exodus Holds Lesson for Dems

The Economist has a heart-warming (for Dems) cartoon depicting elephants bailing out of a sinking GOP ship and swimming toward a ship bearing an “Obama ’08” campaign flag, as pleasantly surprised donkeys watch them scramble on board. The accompanying article, “The Rise of the Obamacons,” notes:

The biggest brigade in the Obamacon army consists of libertarians, furious with Mr Bush’s big-government conservatism, worried about his commitment to an open-ended “war on terror”, and disgusted by his cavalier way with civil rights. There are two competing “libertarians for Obama” web sites. CaféPress is even offering a “libertarian for Obama” lawn sign for $19.95. Larry Hunter, who helped to devise Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994, thinks that Mr Obama can free America from the grip of the “zombies” who now run the Republican Party.

The Economist article goes on to cite a recent WaPo/ABC News poll indicating Obama is winning 22 percent of self-described conservatives, “a higher proportion than any Democratic nominee since 1980” and calls the roll of the more recent conservative intellectuals endorsing Obama, including General Powell, Francis Fukuyama, Christopher Buckley, Douglas Kmiec and Kenneth Adelman. (See Ed Kilgore’s Oct. 14 TDS post on the Buckley endorsement of Obama for a longer list)
The Economist article also does a good job of probing the “why” of the exodus of conservative intellectuals:

For many conservatives, Mr Obama embodies qualities that their party has abandoned: pragmatism, competence and respect for the head rather than the heart. Mr Obama’s calm and collected response to the turmoil on Wall Street contrasted sharply with Mr McCain’s grandstanding.
Much of Mr Obama’s rhetoric is strikingly conservative, even Reaganesque. He preaches the virtues of personal responsibility and family values, and practises them too. He talks in uplifting terms about the promise of American life. His story also appeals to conservatives: it holds the possibility of freeing America from its racial demons, proving that the country is a race-blind meritocracy…

I doubt that the smarter conservatives believe an Obama presidency will “free America from its racial demons,” but I do believe that they like the fact that Senator and Mrs. Obama achieved so much without affirmative action.
But the larger lesson of the ‘Obamacons’ may be that temperament and style of leadership can trump policy. Many of these same conservatives believe that Obama is one of the more liberal members of the Senate. But they like his prudence and deliberate manner of decision-making. True conservatives also respect competence, and it’s not hard to imagine them wincing painfully at the McCain campaign’s blunder of the day. The McCain campaign’s Keystone Kops routine has made it embrarrassing for many conservatives to wear his campaign button, while Obama continues to make impressive gains on a daily basis.
There is a lesson here for Democrats, that it is possible to win the support of thinking conservatives without compromising unduly on progressive reforms. Yes, it helps a lot to have blundering adversaries, but dems would do well to remember the conservative exodus of ’08 and the way Obama handled himself to help make it happen.

Early Voting: Weapon Against Suppression

It’s now estimated that as many as a third of America’s voters will cast ballots before election day, up from 22 percent in ’04. That’s an impressive statistic, but, for Dems especially, it may not be enough.
All indications are that the nation will have a record-setting turnout, so high is voter interest in the current presidential campaign. There will be long lines across the nation on November 4, especially in predominantly African-American precincts. One fear is that elderly voters, who just can’t stand around for a long time will go home before casting ballots. There may be an even larger group of impatient individuals among Obama supporters of all races in swing states. Bad weather could exacerbate the problem.
More to the point, there will be Republican shenanigans in swing states on election day. The safe assumption is to expect confusion, disinformation, delays, parking hassles, disappearing registration records and computer glitches. If Dems are caught by surprise at the scale of election day problems, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Consider the ACORN smear campaign and possible politicization of the FBI as tip-offs that disenfranchisement efforts on an unprecedented scale could be in in the works.
Surely, the Obama campaign and DNC have their legal teams in training already (For a good report on the legal strategy against suppression see here). But one powerful weapon we all have against voter suppression is to vote early. Every Democrat who votes early has made a contribution to reducing election day confusion. Even better, it’s harder to discount early votes, because there is more time to challenge any effort to do so. Another reason to encourage early voting is that the race always narrows in the last few days of the campaign. Banking Obama votes now, while the memory of the debates is still fresh is good strategy. Those who vote early are also freer to use their time on election day helping others get to the polls.
Yes, there are reports of long lines, even for early voting in many localities. Better to wait now, however, than add to the confusion on election day. If you get in and out quickly, you can use the hour your employer gives you to vote to help a carless co-worker get to the polls.
So putting some effort into early voting for ourselves, our families and friends is time well-spent for Dems. If we can bump up the share of early voters from a third to say 40 percent, it could make a huge difference for the better for America’s future.

Palin Does SNL, But Not MTP

Give Sarah Palin cred for good sportsmanship for showing up on SNL and taking some sharp zingers. But her remark, scripted or not, about Tina Fey’s Palin press conference skit was a little strange. “I didn’t think it was a realistic depiction of the way my press conferences would have gone.” What press conferences? We’re still waiting.
Fey has scoffed at the suggestion that she has any influence on politics (see her funny Letterman appearance, for example). But I wouldn’t be surprised if her dead-on impersonation of Palin, in combination with the on-demand availability of internet re-runs, did more to wake people up to Palin’s lack of qualifications than all journalists and the Obama campaign put together. You just can’t buy that kind of water-cooler buzz.
I tuned in to Meet the Press next morning, wondering if maybe, just maybe Palin would show. To my initial disappointment, they had former Secretary of State Colin Powell instead. But Secretary Powell delivered the most eloquent, well-reasoned political endorsement I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t seen it, click here, and if you know any sane voters still undecided, Powell’s endorsement is as good an argument for Obama as you are going to find.
I assume Tom Brokaw and staff are still negotiating with Palin’s campaign about getting her on MTP. If McCain and Palin are still lagging badly in the polls Sunday before election day, my guess is that’s when she’ll appear on the show — if ever.
Hard to say if McCain would have done better with a different VP nominee. Carly Fiorina would have been an even greater break for Dems, given her $42 million golden parachute and the breaking of the bailout story.
Two weeks out from V-day, it looks like the Palin VP nomination may be a net minus for the GOP ticket, although Republican turnout in conservative strongholds will be the best measure of that. Either way, don’t be surprised if she is back in 4 years, as a better-informed, stronger candidate for President, ready to rumble in the Republican primaries.

ACORN Smear Shows GOP Hypocrisy

You have to give the Republicans credit for having a lot of raw nerve. How does a political leader who professes to have enough integrity to ask for public support get in front of national TV cameras and rail against a non-profit organization for turning in some fraudulent voter registration forms, when his/her political party is the worst purveyer of vote theft in the history of democracy?
At the 3rd presidential debate at Hofstra on Wednesday night John McCain said that ACORN was “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” In Westchester Ohio, GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin told a rally “In this election, especially here in Ohio, you’re going to be asked to choose between a candidate who will not disavow a group committing voter fraud and a leader who will not tolerate it.”
This from the standard-bearers of the party that gave us the Brooks Brothers Riot and other electoral atrocities in the 2000 and 2004 elections. For a good history of Republican “ballot security” campaigns going back several decades, click here.
Since the smear ACORN campaign began, ACORN workers have experienced death threats, racist insults and their offices have been vandalized in at least two cities, according to this report by Greg Gordon of McCatchy Newspapers.
How accurate are the McCain-Palin attacks on ACORN? According to an October 16th New York Times editorial,

The group concedes that some of its hired canvassers have turned in tainted forms, although they say the ones with phony names constitute no more than 1 percent of the total turned in. The group also says it reviews all of the registration forms that come in. Before delivering the forms to elections offices, its supervisors flag any that appear to have problems.

In his ABC News web page article, “McCain Acorn Fears Overblown: Charges of Voter Fraud Are Out of Proportion to Reality, They Say,” Justin Rood explained:

But McCain’s voter fraud worries – about Acorn or anyone else – are unsupported by the facts, said experts on election fraud, who recall similar concerns being raised in several previous elections, despite a near-total absence of cases.
“There’s no evidence that any of these invalid registrations lead to any invalid votes,” said David Becker, project director of the “Make Voting Work” initiative for the Pew Charitable Trusts…Becker should know: he was a lawyer for the Bush administration until 2005, in the Justice Department’s voting rights section, which was part of the administration’s aggressive anti-vote-fraud effort.

There have been a few phony voter registration applications submitted by ACORN canvassers. But there has only been one documented case of actual voter fraud attributed to ACORN. Vote suppression, however, is a far more common form of vote theft, and it has been practiced on a massive scale by Republicans. As M.S. Bellows, Jr. put it in his HuffPo article on the topic:

…When I and other reporters pressed RNC communications director Danny Diaz and RNC chief counsel Sean Cairncross to name specific instances of ACORN-registered voters who had actually cast fraudulent ballots, they could name just one: a single Ohio man who was caught yesterday trying, unsuccessfully, to cast a fraudulent ballot. Even Florida’s Republican governor says that his fellow Republicans may be exaggerating the problem.
…Voter suppression practices are the flip side of such efforts. Suppression efforts can appear innocuous, such as requiring voters to show photo I.D.s – a requirement that excludes a surprising number of poor, minority, very young and very old voters and kept several elderly nuns from voting in Indiana’s Democratic primary this year. Suppression can pose as false righteousness, such as Fox News’s 342 negative mentions of a single voter-registration group in just four days (casting the group’s efforts to register underrepresented demographics as a threat to democracy, and frightening voters registered by that group into thinking that their registrations might be unlawful), or the past Republican practice of stationing armed, uniformed “Ballot Integrity” personnel in minority polling places (again, tamping down turnout). And there is no lack of flatly illegal suppression schemes, such as vote “caging” (in which voter resident status is challenged merely because their house is in foreclosure or because a piece of direct mail was returned by the post office), robo-calls falsely telling voters their polling places have changed, and deceptive flyers (like the ones posted in Pennsylvania’s inner-city and college neighborhoods, warning of police plans to arrest voters for unpaid child support or parking tickets).
The parties argue every year over whether vote suppression or vote fraud is the greater threat to democracy, but the numbers suggest that it’s no contest: about six people are convicted each year of actually casting ballots fraudulently, while hundreds of thousands of people who are entitled to vote fail to do so because of misinformation, intimidation, deception, or bureaucratic hurdles.

Bellows also links to an illuminating interview with with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Greg Palast on the sordid history of massive vote suppression by the GOP.

Ayers Distraction Not Likely to Sway Final Debate

There may well be some discussion about Senator Obama’s relationship with former domestic terrorist William Ayers in tonight’s presidential debate. McCain has said as much, although he would be smart not to bring it up, contrary to the sage advice of Rudy Giuliani, whose political judgment earned him a poor showing in the primary season early on. Better for McCain if debate moderator Bob Schieffer brings it up, if it must come up at all.
No doubt, McCain’s prep team is hard at work on creating an Ayers zinger or a ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ type question for Obama. Senator Obama’s prep team is undoubtedly working on possible responses. But it shouldn’t be too hard. Their candidate has handled the Ayers distraction exceptionally well thus far, pointing out that he was eight years old when Ayers committed his crimes and quickly adding that the Ayers fuss is just another irrelevant distraction to get voters off the economy, health care Iraq and other issues that actually affect their lives.
I agree with TNR‘s Christopher Orr that it’s hard to envision a scenario in which McCain gets much leverage out of talking about Ayers. It’s already been discussed ad nauseum, and the shrinking pool of swing voters left — at least the thoughtful ones — could not be blamed for going to the bathroom during that part of the debate. If McCain goes on too long about it, he will look trifling, stuck in the past and even more desperate.
McCain might even pass on it altogether, on the theory that he will get some respect from fence-sitters for sticking to the important issues and getting back on the high road. Recent polls have shown that his attacks on Obama have been counter-productive. Letting the ads do the dirty work might be his preferred strategy going forward. It’s likely that the sort of voters who think Ayers is still relevant are already supporting McCain anyway.
Schieffer may also pass on asking an Ayers-related question. He has expressed an eagerness to make this debate the most substantial one yet held, with more detail on policy. That would leave very little time for distractions, especially given the complexity of issues like the economy, Iraq and health care, which voters care more about. The more interesting question is whether Schieffer will be even-handed enough, if Ayers comes up, to ask McCain to account for his close relationship with G. Gordon Liddy, who has reportedly urged political violence. McCain is said to have received funds raised by Liddy on several occasions and he has complimented Liddy lavishly.
The Ayers “issue” is most likely a wash-out, helping and hurting both candidates in equal measure. Neither candidate will gain or lose much because of it. But the public will be a big winner if the time is more productively spent exploring solutions to improving health care, getting out of Iraq, restoring economic stability and creating prosperity for all citizens.
My one unsolicited bit of advice for Obama in tonight’s debate: I’ve noticed that he tends to tilt his head at a 45 degree angle in sit-down interviews, like Meet the Press. Tonight is also a sit-down format, so maybe make an effort to keep his head more vertical to help convey confidence.

Endgame More About Turnout Than Undecideds

Ezra Klein’s L.A. Times op-ed provides a sobering assessment of the importance of ‘undecided’ voters two dozen days before the election. Klein, an associate editor of The American Prospect, begins by noting the media attention now being lavished on undecided voters:

It was the Undecided Voter whom Gallup asked to submit the questions. It was the Undecided Voter who filled the audience. It was the Undecided Voter who turned the dials controlling CBS’ squiggly reaction lines and recorded his (or her) responses for CBS’ postelection survey…Undecided voters are believed to be the decisive slice of the American electorate, so they get the debates and the ads and the focus groups (assuming, that is, that they live in a battleground state).

But if Klein is right, the smarter strategists of both campaigns are going along for the ride, but not taking the undecideds too seriously, because

…There are no solid numbers on undecided voters — in part because the numbers change with every election and, within every election, with every successive month and event and every poll…Worse, many of those who claim to be undecided are not. Some don’t want to admit their preference. In their paper, “Swing Voters? Hah!” political scientists Adam Clymer and Ken Winneg amassed substantial data suggesting that very few undecided voters are truly indecisive. Examining the 2004 election, Clymer and Winneg found that even the most hard-core of undecided voters were fairly predictable.
They asked the 4% of their sample that claimed to be undecided to rate the two candidates in early October. When they went back to the same people after the election, more than 80% had in fact voted for whichever candidate they’d rated most highly a month earlier.

Klein also cites a study of nine presidential elections by SUNY Buffalo political scientist James Campbell, who concluded “In only one of the nine elections, the 1976 race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, did the swing vote majority override an opposite majority among non-swing voters.” To which Klein adds, “in other words, in eight of the last nine elections, the winner could have lost swing voters but won the race.”
Klein also notes that between 5 and 12 percent of voters fit into the ‘undecided’ category in Gallup, Hotline and Rasmussen tracking polls. So just doing a ballpark extrapolation, maybe 2 percent of voters are genuinely undecided. With the stark choice between candidates and the economy going seriously south, there is every reason to expect that they will break more for Obama than McCain.
With 24 days to go, it appears that the battle for hearts and minds is pretty much over. For Dems, it’s all about turnout. McCain and Palin will continue with the fear-mongering and coded hate-messaging politics of distraction, having no credible answers to the economic crisis. But it probably won’t do them much good. The Republican Campaign and Party machinery, as usual, will divide their energies between turnout of their base and suppression of the votes of pro-democratic constituencies.
By all accounts the Obama campaign and progressive groups have done an amazing job of registering new voters. The rest of the campaign should be about energizing Obama supporters, keeping the excitement at a high level and getting all those new registrants to the polls on election day. It’s also critically-important that the Obama campaign and Democratic party groups be better prepared than were the Gore and Kerry campaigns to prevent voter intimidation and vote theft.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Planetariums

Does anyone else out there find it a little odd that Senator McCain is so obsessed with trashing planetariums? I understand that a hefty portion of his base harbors a medieval suspicion of science education in general. But you would think that a Senator, a former pilot at that, who prides himself in being a strong champion of our national security would at least get it that teaching young people about the cosmos is a good way to get them interested in physics, rocket science and the like. Here’s what McCain said at the debate:

He [Obama] voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork barrel earmark projects, including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?

It wasn’t just the words. it was the contemptuous tone, as well as the monumental hypocrisy behind it. It’s OK to squander $300 U.S. taxpayer dollars per month on each of thousands of Iraqi government employees, with no end in sight. But a couple of million dollars on America’s oldest planetarium? How outrageous. Then there’s the duplicity of calling it an “overhead projector” to make it sound like a grade school slide machine, when he knew better.
it wasn’t the first time McCain trashed planetariums in attacking Senator Obama. Back in September McCain was quoted as saying “And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.”
To which theoretical physicist JoAnne Hewett responded:

Quite frankly, I am left speechless at the phrase: ‘planetariums and other foolishness…Sorry, but replacing 40 year old equipment at one of the leading science education facilities in this country (the Adler Planetarium is located in downtown Chicago and is the oldest planetarium in existence today) is one of the best investments in the future that I can think of. I’ve always equated planetariums with science education – an area where the US seems to be lacking.

What is even more worrisome is the subtext behind McCain’s contempt for planetariums. It’s not just a reactionary attitude toward science. He has never placed much value on education in general and sees federal investment in education as a waste. If elected, he and Palin could do serious damage to America’s ability to compete in the years ahead with other nations which are making major investments in upgrading their educational systems. It would be hard to devise a quicker way to turn America into a second-rate power than electing the pair of them. One more reason to write another check for Obama.

King of Bluegrass Endorses Obama

My one gripe about our otherwise great Democratic convention is that the soundtrack was a little short on country music for a party that aspires to make some inroads into working-class America. Well, Kathy G over at The G Spot has a post that more than makes up for it — a video/radio clip of Ralph Stanley’s endorsement of Barack Obama. Yes, THE Ralph Stanley, the King of Bluegrass, who practically owns ‘the high lonesome sound’. And just for kicks, Kathy throws in four of Stanley’s best videos. Here’s hoping the Obama campaign shows Stanley’s endorsement all over rural America, not just VA. Way Cool.