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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Attack Ads Need Right Timing, Tone

A new study by ad and marketing research firm PQ Media provides a revealing breakdown of the way ’08 political ad campaign spending is shaping up. According to Steve McClellan’s Adweek article, “Political Ad Spend to Soar“:

Political ad spending across all media is projected to reach $3.03 billion, and account for 67.2 percent of all political media spending in the 2008 election cycle…broadcast TV would command the largest share of political media expenditures in 2008 with 51.3 percent of the total…direct mail…is projected to generate more than $1 billion in spending for the first time in 2008…Internet ad spending is expected to exhibit the fastest growth during the 2008 campaign, up an estimated 84 percent compared with 2006…Other media projected to exhibit high double-digit gains are public relations, promotions and event marketing (56 percent), direct mail (53 percent) and broadcast TV (46.2 percent).

As for the kinds of campaigns that will do the most ad spending:

The presidential race is expected to command the largest share of spending in 2008 at 37 percent, or $1.67 billion, while the Senate and House races will account for 19.4 percent and 21.4 percent, respectively. Due to significantly fewer gubernatorial races (11 versus 36 in 2006), spending by gubernatorial candidates is expected to account for less than 4 percent of overall expenditures, while local races and spending on referendums will account for the remaining 18 percent.

Martin Kaste’s article “Democrats Take Civil Approach in TV Ads (For Now),” at NPR’s website notes the relatively tame tone of current political ads of leading Democratic presidential candidates broadcasted in early primary states. Kaste seems to attribute the temporary civility to the approaching Christmas season. Seems a little early to make nice, but it makes sense to tone down for a couple of weeks. Candidates probably shouldn’t risk looking too negative close to the holiday.
Don’t be surprised, however, if the civility truce starts curdling in ads beginning December 26. Why? Because candidates across the political spectrum know that attack ads are effective. Republican strategist Roger Stone explains it this way:

The problem with negative advertising is: It works. The very same voters who tell you in the polls that they don’t like it, that they hate it, will turn around and tell you the exact content of the ads. And we know, from intensive polling going on now, that these ads do move voters from over here to over here.

Negative ads can backfire, particularly if they degenerate into a vicious ad hominem attack. One frequently-cited example is the 1993 Canadian election in which the Conservative Party appeared to mock Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien’s Bell’s Palsy partial facial paralysis, and the conservatives were damaged in the polls.
And accuracy of attack ads is critical, as Stone cautions:

…If so-called negative or comparison advertising is going to be effective, it should be footnoted, it should indisputable on the facts…And I think it is ineffective. Voters are not stupid. They can see through a late, unsupported charge.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not political attack ads have a depressing effect on voter turnout. One major academic study reported in the American Journal of Political Science indicated that attack ads do not depress turnout, and a more recent Journal of Politics article provides evidence that attack ads may often increase voter turnout.
There is an important distinction that needs to be made here — personal attacks vs. attacks on policies, although the lines between them are often blurry. What candidates should avoid is looking mean-spirited. But sharp, well-articulated critiques of policies, backed by credible alternatives, is what really makes a candidate look good. Ads that meet this standard win the support of swing voters who care about issues.

Voters Prioritize Issues — In Their Own Words

The horse race polls are now becoming more relevant as tools for prediction as we close in on the primaries. But they are less useful to candidates, campaigns and reporters as a tool for knowing what exactly is bugging voters. For that we turn to issue polls, and the latest Gallup Poll, conducted 11/30-12/2, is particularly instructive in that regard.
Asked to identify the issues “most important in determining their vote for president in next year’s election,” the Gallup survey respondents gave answers, in their own words — not Gallup’s suggested terminology. As Joseph Carroll reports in his Gallup summary:

Thirty-six percent of Americans say Iraq, with the economy (16%), healthcare (15%), and illegal immigration (10%) mentioned next most often. Between 3% and 6% of Americans mention homeland security or military defense, taxes, the honesty and integrity of the candidate, abortion, domestic issues, Social Security reform, and international affairs….Iraq has diminished somewhat as the top issue over the course of the year, while there has been a slight increase in the reported importance of immigration.

The poll is based on a nationwide sample (m.o.e.= 3), so it is not the last word on issues for candidates with respect to individual state primaries. The early states holding primaries are not the best bellwethers in the way their demographics reflect national priorities (for the best bellwether states, see interactive graphic chart here). But I would not be shocked if voters in IA, NH, SC, NV, MI and FL ranked their issues of concern in a fairly close approximation. The poll may be even more relevant with respect to Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), when half of the delegates to the two party conventions are chosen.
Carroll’s report includes an interesting chart ranking concerns by region. Readers may be surprised that southerners are more likely to rank the war in Iraq as a the top issue than are respondents from the east and west, that midwesterners are much more concerned about health care, or that westerners are the least concerned about the economy.
As for Party differences, Carroll writes:

Iraq ranks as the top voting issue for Republicans, independents, and Democrats. However, Democrats (46%) are much more likely than independents (34%) or Republicans (29%) to mention Iraq. Democrats are more likely than the other party groups to mention healthcare. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to mention illegal immigration (17% to 3%), homeland security and terrorism (17% to 4%), and abortion (6% to less than 0.5%)….Independents most frequently mention Iraq, the economy, healthcare, and immigration.

What I like about this poll is letting the respondents use their own language to rank their issues of concern. Gallup did what appears to be a good job of grouping terms, For example, “honesty/integrity/credibility of candidate.” Their word choices should be of intense interest for speeches, position papers, websites, ads, interviews and other tools of campaign messaging. On the other hand, the chosen words may mean something quite different to individual voters, just as they do in multiple choice polls. It would be interesting to see Lakoff’s take on the respondents’ chosen terms.

A Strategy for Anti-War Dems

Tom Hayden’s latest article in The Nation, “How the Peace Movement Can Win in ’08,” is an extremely important read – not only for those Democrats who want to accelerate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but also for any Democratic political strategists who think the only coherent political strategies are those that are designed to win elections.. Hayden, one of the most lucid strategic thinkers in the peace movement, rolls out an action plan for political and protest activists, linked to key upcoming events in the political calendar, both short and long-term. It is, in effect, the plan for a parallel campaign to the 2008 elections, one aimed at mobilizing the already existing peace constituency and influencing public opinion.
Hayden sees the peace movement having “the best-funded antiwar message in history” and “an opportunity to solidify public opinion behind a more rapid withdrawal–regardless of what the national security advisers think.” He urges Dems favoring a faster withdrawal to make stronger and more effective use of the 527 committees and fully deploy financial resources in broadening the anti-war movement.
In fact, Hayden sees electoral activism as even more important than traditional protest methods. On the one hand he says:

The peace movement can succeed only by applying people pressure against the pillars of the war policy–public opinion, military recruitment and an ample war budget–through marching, confronting military recruiters and civil disobedience.

But, at the same time,

The tactics that are most likely to accelerate the process are greater efforts at persuading the ambivalent voters. [we need]..skilled organizers and volunteers across the electoral battlegrounds of 2008…to identify, register and turn out voters through door-to-door work combined with radio and television spots. A massively funded voter-identification and -registration drive and a get-out-the vote campaign have enormous potential to tip not only the presidential election but also the scales of public opinion. Rather than merely pounding away at a simplistic message–Republicans dangerous, Democrats better–such an effort would require, as a foundation, resources to educate voters and involve them in house meetings. The house-meeting approach allows for voter education and participation on a scale that cannot be achieved by hit pieces or TV spots. It is also critical for cultivating grassroots leadership capacity for election day turnout and beyond.

Hayden touches on the pros and cons of Iraq withdrawal plans of the Dem presidential nominees and gives Edwards the edge among front-runners, while crediting Obama with strengthening his withdrawal proposal.. Hayden says Clinton’s “centrist” proposals are too vague, but he believes “bird-dogging” all Dem candidates on the trail can help move the Democrats toward faster withdrawal from Iraq.
Progressive Democrats like myself who are convinced that we should withdraw from Iraq as promptly as feasible but who also believe the most important priority for the future of America is a democratic victory in 2008 and the creation of an enduring Democratic majority will find Hayden’s article provocative reading. In fact, it forces both peace activists and Democratic campaigners alike to think more deeply about the potential conflicts and trade-offs between anti-war activism and pro-Democratic advocacy and to explicitly consider how the two forces can work as much as possible in parallel rather then across purposes. There are no easy answers to this strategic challenge, but Hayden’s article is an excellent place to start.

‘Gentry Liberals’ Influence on Dems Overstated

Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel have a L.A. Times op-ed “The Gentry Liberals,” arguing in essence that the Democratic Party is being taken over by wealthy liberal elitists who care little about the concerns of the working class. As the article’s subtitle states “They’re more concerned with global warming and gay rights than with lunch-pail joes.” Kotkin and Siegel explain it this way:

But what kind of liberalism is emerging as the dominant voice in the Democratic Party?
Well, it isn’t your father’s liberalism, the ideology that defended the interests and values of the middle and working classes. The old liberalism had its flaws, but it also inspired increased social and economic mobility, strong protections for unions, the funding of a national highway system and a network of public parks, and the development of viable public schools. It also invented Social Security and favored a strong foreign policy.
Today’s ascendant liberalism has a much different agenda. Call it “gentry liberalism.” It’s not driven by the lunch-pail concerns of those workers struggling to make it in an increasingly high-tech, information-based, outsourcing U.S. economy — though it does pay lip service to them.
Rather, gentry liberalism reflects the interests and values of the affluent winners in the era of globalization and the beneficiaries of the “financialization” of the economy. Its strongholds are the tony neighborhoods and luxurious suburbs in and around New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and West Los Angeles.

The authors roll out some income by party-i.d.statistics that support their argument and note that “Democrats now control the majority of the nation’s wealthiest congressional districts.” They also point out that Dems now get more than the GOP in financial contributions from the securities industry, including hedge fund managers. Their argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that no current Democratic presidential candidate can fairly be identified as the standard-bearer for “gentry liberalism.” All of the current Democratic field have strong cred with labor unions, and all are protectionist on trade to one degree or another. Even at the congressional level, the Dems who won Senate seats in ’06 are all strong protectionists. Gentry liberals have been around for a long time in the Democratic Party, but the evidence that they are “ascendant” in running the Party is pretty thin.
Siegel and Kotkin venture out on to even thinner ice in describing the role of the internet as a vehicle for “gentry liberalism”:

Gentry liberalism has established a strong presence on the Internet, where such websites as MoveOn.org and the Huffington Post are lavishly funded by well-heeled liberals. These and other sites generally focus on foreign policy, gay rights, abortion and other social issues, as well as the environment. Traditional middle-class concerns such as the unavailability of affordable housing, escalating college tuitions and the shrinking number of manufacturing jobs usually don’t rank as top concerns.

Here the authors overstate their case. The issues they cite, especially foreign policy, do have a significant impact on the quality of middle class life. I mean, hello, Iraq is kind of important to the middle class. And while both of those websites may not emphasize ‘lunchpail’ concerns as a central theme, they do run some articles on bread and butter issues of interest to working people. In addition, suggesting that HuffPo and MoveOn adequately represent the focus of liberal/progressive websites in general indicates that the authors’ net-surfing habits are a little on the narrow side.
Kotkin and Siegel do better when they turn their focus on the conflict between environmentalists and the economic interests of working people:

But gentry liberalism’s increasingly “green tint” distances it the furthest from the values and interests of the middle and working classes…The gentry liberal crusade to tighten U.S. environmental regulations to slow global warming could end up hurting middle- and working-class interests. U.S. industry needs time and incentives to develop new technologies to replace carbon-based energy. If it doesn’t get them, and an overly aggressive anti-carbon regime is instituted, the shift of manufacturing, energy and shipping jobs to developing countries with weak environmental laws and regulations could accelerate.
Ignoring these potential Third World environmental costs would result only in shifting the geography of greenhouse gas emissions without slowing global warming — and at a terrible cost to jobs in the U.S.

As the environmental crisis accelerates, so will the clamor for action. Democrats will be expected to provide the needed leadership to address global warming and our dependence on mid-east oil with policies that don’t decimate jobs in the process.
Environmental advocates and unions have engaged in conflicts over the employment effects of environmental reforms for decades. Timber workers, auto unions, oil industry employees and other workers have clashed with Greens over environmental reforms, and Democratic unity has too often suffered as a consequence. Environmentalists often argue that reforms they champion produce net job creation. But they miss a key distinction — workers affected by reforms need to know that jobs at an equivalent wage will be secure for them when the reforms are implemented. The smarter Democratic leaders are well-aware of this challenge. Making it policy should be a top priority for Democratic candidates at every level.

Spotlight: Dems on Energy Independence

Edmund L. Andrews’ somewhat misleadingly-titled New York Times article “Candidates Offer Different Views on Energy Policy” is more a broad overview of the differences between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates as two groups on how — and when — to achieve energy independence for the U.S. This is not so helpful for making distinctions between the individual candidates, and disses all of the “second tier” candidates, except for a quick mention of Richardson’s CAFE goal (50 mpg by 2020 –highest and quickest).
The main point of the Times article seems to be that Dems as a whole have stronger policies for energy independence, which we knew already. The article does touch lightly on a few energy policy positions of Clinton, Richardson, Edwards McCain, Huckabee and Romney (the worst of both fields, arguably). But most of Andrews’ piece deals with the differences between the GOP field and the Dems in general terms. The candidates’ positions on energy independence and environmental concerns are too important to be addressed so once-over-lightly in the nation’s top newspaper.
So where do you go to get more detail on the energy/environmental policies of the Dem field? You go to their energy and environment web pages, collected here for your convenience:
Biden – “Energy” and “Climate Change” and “Protecting the Environment”
Clinton – “Promoting Energy Independence and Fighting Global Warming
Dodd – “Chris Dodd’s Energy Plan
Edwards – “Energy/Environment
Kucinich – “A Sustainable Future
Obama – “Environment” and “Energy”
Richardson – “Energy” and “Environment
Please read them all and feel free to share with us your thoughts on their relative strengths and weaknesses. No, we’re not going to do the same for the GOP field — that’s their job, and there isn’t much of substance in the GOP field anyway, except for McCain’s oppostion to oil and gas drilling in the Arctic (gasp) and Huckabee’s support for mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.
We need a louder echo chamber on energy and environmental issues. Why? As a survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the Center for American Progress, conducted 3/19-22, found:

More than 3/4 of people believe the effects of global warming are already here.
Americans want immediate action on global warming – 60 percent believe that increasing pollution has set global warming into motion and “we must take action now or it will be too late to stop it.”
Unlike other issues before Congress and the President there is no strong partisan divide on stopping global warming.

The survey also indicated that energy and global warming “now rivals health care as the top domestic issue that requires immediate action.” We have a great opportunity here. The challenge is to bring it front and center.

Libertarians Lame on Environment

Just to piggy-back on Ed’s post yesterday, here’s a tidbit from the Libertarian Party Platform section on “Property Rights,” subsection on “Solutions”:

All publicly owned infrastructures including dams and parks shall be returned to private ownership and all taxing authority for such public improvements shall sunset. Property related services shall be supplied by private markets and paid for by user fees, and regulation of property shall be limited to that which secures the rights of individuals.

Now there’s a lovely idea. Let’s turn our National, State and City Parks over to any greedhead with a chainsaw.
The Libertarian Party web pages say little of substance about improving environmental protection, or addressing global warming and related concerns. And if you want to see a Libertarian get all tongue-tied, just ask him/her to explain how they would reduce pollution. In fact, Libertarian leaders still frequently deny that global warming is a problem. When pressed, they say pollution issues can be settled in the courts, which is highly dubious, especially considering they want to repeal environmental regulations.
The main reason Libertarian policies have any relevance to Democratic strategy is that Ron Paul, a former (’88) Libertarian Party presidential nominee, has gotten substantial contributions from individuals seeking a peace candidate in the GOP presidential field. I’d wager a lot of those contributions come from people who are unaware of the Libertarian Party’s (and Paul’s) blanket opposition to environmental regulations, or Paul’s disturbing support from white supremacist groups, discussed in several articles on this page.
Paul is not going to get nominated, but who knows, his fund-raising success may yet nudge one of the GOP’s more likely nominees toward a less hawkish position regarding Iraq. Either way, after the GOP nomination is decided, Dems may have a clear chance to win over some of Paul’s pro-peace supporters, a relatively small constituency, but one which could make a difference in a close general election. It might help to have a better understanding of who they are.

‘Experience’ Card Favors Second-Tier

Michael Kinsley has one of the better msm op-eds of the ’08 campaign this far, “Who Needs Experience?,” arguing that Senator Clinton goofed big time in trying to play the ‘experience’ card with a relatively-weak hand. Not that Senator Clinton doesn’t have good experience on her vita. But, saying “We can’t afford on-the-job training for our next president” was probably asking for trouble. As Kinsley explains in his WaPo/LaTimes column:

With her “on-the-job training” jab, Clinton was clearly referring to work experience. But there is also life experience. Being first lady is sort of half job and half life but good experience in either case.
She has to be careful about making a lot of this. Many people resent her using her position as first lady to take what they see as a shortcut to elective office. More profoundly, some people see her as having used her marriage as a shortcut to feminism. And the specter of dynasty hangs unattractively over her presidential ambitions. In an odd way, the deep unpopularity of George W. Bush has hurt Hillary Clinton, as people think: “Enough with relatives already.”

Kinsley may be on to something here. NH and IA voters sometimes take pride in being contrarians, and such bluster can be made to look really bad in attack ads. Obama has already responded to Senator Clinton’s remark with a pretty good zinger — “My understanding is that she wasn’t Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. I don’t know exactly what experience she’s claiming.”
In addition, Edwards and the other Democratic candidates have equally/more impressive life and professional experience as Clinton. This is especially true for the second-tier candidates, Richardson, Dodd, Biden and Kucinich. Clinton would be wiser not to invite comparison of experience with any of the Democratic field. Her strong cards are an ability to talk about the issues with clarity and her portfolio of generally solid policies. To get back on game, she needs to work a little harder to convince voters that she is about the future, not the past. Otherwise, it’s the Clinton years were OK, but ‘been there, done that.’

Triple Gratitude

Tomorrow is not only Thanksgiving, but also the 44th anniversary of the assassination of JFK and the 7th anniversary of the “Brooks Brothers Riot.” So after giving thanks for the blessings of family and freedom, be grateful also that you belong to a political party that produced a leader who still symbolizes hope and the promise of democracy for millions worldwide, instead of a party that produces charmers like these chaps.

Opinion About Iraq War: Stable or Shifting?

Emory University poly sci proff Alan Abramowitz has a post at Pollster.com challenging Charles Franklin’s earlier analysis of recent trends in public opinion about the war in Iraq. Abramowitz explains:

The claim that there has been a significant shift in public opinion toward the war is simply not supported by recent polling data. For example, a new CNN/Opinion Research Poll finds opposition to the war at an all-time high of 68 percent. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll finds that 27 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the war, down 3 points from September and almost identical to the levels of support from the first half of the year. This same poll finds that the war remains easily the most important issue in the minds of Americans–26 percent named the war as the most important problem for the federal government to address with health care a distant second at 16 percent.

And this translates into advantage Democrats:

The new ABC-Washington Post Poll finds Democrats favored over Republicans on the war by a 16 point margin, slightly higher than the Democratic margin earlier this year and last year.

Abramowitz concedes a “small uptick” in Americans’ opinion about how the war is going, but concludes:

But this shift is not indicative of any broader shift in public opinion toward the war. Opposition to the war remains as high as ever as does support for a withdrawal timetable. And Iraq clearly remains the most salient issue in the 2008 election.

Franklin makes his case with equal fervor that “partisan persuasion has tilted towards the Republicans and away from the Democrats,” but concedes that Americans remain pessimistic about the war by a 20 point margin. He also notes that “It is too early, and the changes too modest, to declare this a ‘turning point’ in opinion.” No doubt the presidential candidates’ poll analysts will be watching this debate with increasing interest in the months ahead.

Gas Tax as a Third Rail

Thomas Friedman’s New York Times op-ed column on the benefits of raising gasoline taxes makes elegant moral and economic sense. Friedman makes a tight case that raising gas prices would (a) reduce our dependency on mid-east oil and (b) actually save consumers money in the long run, especially if linked to a cut in the payroll tax. It would also encourage faster development of hybrid cars and alternative technologies leading to a cleaner environment and help prevent future oil wars.
Friedman is hitting on all cylinders here and he probably has many of his readers believing that a gas tax increase would be a thing of logical beauty. He even writes a compelling script for politicians defending a hike in gas taxes, while under attack from their opponents:

Yes, my opponent is right. I do favor a gasoline tax phased in over 12 months. But let’s get one thing straight: My opponent and I are both for a tax. I just prefer that my taxes go to the U.S. Treasury, and he’s ready to see his go to the Russian, Venezuelan, Saudi and Iranian treasuries. His tax finances people who hate us. Mine would offset some of our payroll taxes, pay down our deficit, strengthen our dollar, stimulate energy efficiency and shore up Social Security. It’s called win-win-win-win-win for America. My opponent’s strategy is sit back, let the market work and watch America lose-lose-lose-lose-lose.”

“If you can’t win that debate, you don’t belong in politics,” argues Friedman. It’s an interesting tactic, making opponents of a gas tax take some responsibility for rising gas prices and revenues going to other nations. But it’s not an argument most candidates would want to try out in an election year. it might work better, say, in the first year of a new congress and a new President. And it’s going to take some big guns to actually get it done.
We do need some political leaders who have the gonads to take up this cause. But it’s a tricky political minefield, and it’s going to require a lot of time and work to win the hearts and minds of voters before the politicians are willing to get on it. Certainly we know that gas price hikes are politically-toxic, as this chart from Polkatz depicting an extremely close relationship between gas prices and presidential approval ratings makes abundantly clear. Voters already get it that a gas price hike is like a tax increase, as far as their wallets are concerned. Getting voters to appreciate that a gas tax hike can be a good deal for consumers when linked to a cut in payroll taxes for working people is a more complicated challenge, but one worth addressing — in ’09.