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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Daily Strategist

June 19, 2018

Does Character Trump Issues with Voters?

Ezra Klein has a riff by Neil the Ethical Werewolf on a new Associated Press/Ipsos poll which found that:

55 percent of those surveyed consider honesty, integrity and other values of character the most important qualities they look for in a presidential candidate…Just one-third look first to candidates’ stances on issues; even fewer focus foremost on leadership traits, experience or intelligence.

Is this a bad thing for Dems? Neil thinks so:

The result of this poll is a sad truth that I long ago made my peace with — voters care more about a candidate’s character than the candidate’s issue positions, and least of all about experience and other leadership qualities. Character, unfortunately, is something that voters are in a very weak position to judge. Our information about the personal qualities of candidates is subject to much more media distortion than our information about the candidates’ issue positions…getting yourself portrayed as a person of honesty and integrity is largely a matter of being able to effectively manipulate the more touchy-feely side of media coverage.

One commenter on Neil’s article, Karl Radek adds a couple of interesting insights to the character vs. issues choices made by voters:

For many such voters, it’s not so much “character” as “personality” that matters…the personality of candidates tends to be emphasized in part because the two parties are actually pretty evenly matched, and have to fight over the portion of the electorate that we call “swing” voters. People who have strong preferences on the issues tend to be already attached to one side or the other, and are a lot harder to shake loose. A considerable fraction of the “swing” vote, I suspect, is made up of the most frivolous voters, those most easily swayed by considerations of personality. The parties are clawing for the slightest edge to get to 50 percent plus one, so they emphasize the winning personal traits of their guy in order to draw in the clueless and the light-minded… The GOP has been a lot better at this for the past 25 years…The decline of party identification has a lot to do with it too…

Undoubtedly, most voters mix the two considerations in varying measures in making their choice. Yet, on one level, it is disturbing that policy is a primary concern of only a third of voters. Even for progressives, however, character is important. How many times, for example, have we seen progressive candidates dishonor campaign policy promises? (for example, candidates who urged getting tough with China on trade and then caved on the issue after being elected). But Neil’s point about media manipulation of character image is hard to deny in light of recent history.
Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, believes voter choice is more about “identity,” than “character” per se, and in his TomPaine.com article, he emphasizes the importance of Dem candidates demonstrating courage:

When Democrats start demonstrating courage, voters stop thinking of them as weaklings….To use just one tough progressive as an example, no one ever called Martin Luther King, Jr. weak, and he was a pacifist. His courage was evident in his words and actions—he didn’t need to advocate war to be considered strong.
In order for a fundamental statement of belief to do its political work, it has to be stated with conviction. When you stand up for what you believe in without fear and show how you’re different from your opponents, Americans come to see you as principled and strong. That’s what conservatives have been doing for decades, and as a result they’ve achieved success after success at the ballot box despite the fact that the public has been opposed to most of the policies they want to enact. If progressives can join their popular agenda to an identity based in courage, conviction and contrast with conservatives, there are few limits to what they can accomplish.

All good points for Democratic campaigns to keep in mind on the road to an ’08 landslide.
(Note: the original version of this article incorrectly attributed the article to Ezra Klein instead of Neil the Ethical Werewolf)


Perception of Dems Depends on Iraq Message

Amid all of the congressional maneuvering on Iraq legislation, Bill Scher of Liberal Oasis takes a step back to consider the big picture. In his article “Almost There,” Scher cites four things Dems must convey to win public support:

1. They have a plan to stabilize Iraq by disengaging militarily, and re-engaging diplomatically and economically.
2. They are doing all they can to implement that plan.
3. If the plan is blocked, it’s because Dubya and his Republican backers never want to leave.
4. A new Oval Office occupant is needed to change course.

Scher sees both the House and Senate initiatives as significant steps toward making credible arguments for the above perceptions. And the perception is what’s important here because,

The public is seeing Dems unifying around an exit strategy, and GOPers not wanting to exit. And that’s what is most important. Because these bills are never becoming law. Bush will veto, or the Senate GOP minority will filibuster. (Or Bush could sign it into law, then ignore the law.)Yet either way, Dems have the ability to show they did what they constitutionally could to end the war, but Bush keep it going and therefore, is the sole problem.

A sobering assessment. And if he is right, winning Dem candidates should create a high profile as vocal, active opponents of deepening U.S. involvement in Iraq and supporters of disengagement. When ’08 rolls around the public should have a clear, strong impression that the Democrats are the party that tried to end the quagmire, while the GOP advocated open-ended, ever-deepening entanglement. So far, the GOP is cooperating nicely.
Scher sees “message coordination” as the key:

It’s not enough to unify on the bill. You have to unify on the argument. And unify in a manner that helps voters understand what the Dem foreign policy vision is, increasing the comfort level in their ability to manage world affairs.

As the big tent party, Dems will never completely unified on specifics of disengagement/withdrawall from Iraq. But there should be enough common ground developing in the months ahead to create a message that meets this challenge.


Blue Dogs Have Key Role in Forging Dem Consensus

Keeping track of the various factions in the Democratic Party’s Big Tent can be a full-time job, and sorting out their different positions on the issues can lead to brain-lock in short order. To add a little clarity, R. Neal has an informative riff, “Will That Blue Dog Hunt in the South?” at Facing South. Neal quotes Julie Hirschfield Davis’s Associated Press article on the role the Blue Dogs are playing in the latest efforts to forge a Dem consensus on Iraq:

With Democrats in charge again, the Blue Dogs have played a key role in halting an emerging plan to place strict conditions on war funding. Their revolt helped beat back that proposal, by Pelosi ally John Murtha, D-Pa. Leaders are now considering a watered-down version.

And Neal provides this explanation from the Blue Dogs website:

The Coalition was formed in the 104th Congress as a policy-oriented group to give moderate and conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives a common sense, bridge-building voice within the institution. Most agree that, since then, the Blue Dogs have successfully injected a moderate viewpoint into the Democratic Caucus, where group members now find greater receptiveness to their opinions.

Blue Dogs are not all southern, as Neal explains:

They come from all over, and as you might expect the South is well represented among their membership with Representatives from Alabama, Arkansas (2), Florida (2), Georgia (4), Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina (2), and Tennessee (3). (They’re not all from Red States, though. California and New York are represented as well.)

Wikipedia‘s entry on the Blue Dogs cautions readers not to assume that the Blue Dogs embrace the same agenda as the Democratic Leadership Council, particulalry on issues of trade, although there is considerable overlap in their membership rolls and on many policy positions:

Blue Dog Democrats tend to differ ideologically from another coalition of moderate Democrats, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC describes itself as new Democrat and positions itself as centrist while taking moderate or liberal positions on social issues and moderate positions on economic issues and trade. Democrats who identify with the Blue Dogs, on the other hand, tend to be social conservatives, but have differing positions on economic issues ranging from fiscal conservatism to economic populism…On economic issues, Blue Dogs span the spectrum from fiscal conservatives to supporters of labor unions, protectionism, and other populist measures, while the DLC tends to favor free trade.

Neal offers a balanced view of the role of the Blue Dogs in the southern states:

So are the Blue Dogs a good thing for progressive politics in the South? It’s hard to say. Some might say they more faithfully represent their constituency and that it’s the constituency — not the politicians — in need of enlightenment to overcome generations of “conventional wisdom” that keeps the South last in education and first in poverty. Others may take a more pragmatic approach and say that the moderate centrist approach is the only way a Democrat can get elected in the South.

The Wikipedia entry offers an up-to-date list identifying current Blue Dogs, which should be accompanied by the usual warnings about Wikipedia’s limitations as a source. All of the articles linked in this post are recommended for a better understanding of the role and positions of the Blue Dogs.


GOP Implodes on All Fronts

If only the ’08 election could be held tommorow. As Jo-Ann Mort notes in her TPM Cafe’s Coffee House post:

Just a quick look at the Washington Post homepage says it all — three stories, one after another: the Libby convictions, the growing scandal at Walter Reed (and VA hospitals across the country), the juicy tidbits about the political maneuvering to force out federal prosecutors across the country, and of course, the endless and tragic war in Iraq.

Not to pile on, but to this we can add record lows in Bush’s approval ratings, dozens of Vermont towns passing impeachment resolutions and Eric at Pollster.com reports that the GOP’s top Senate target Mary Landrieu is up 15 points in a head-to-head match-up with Louisiana Sec’y of State Jay Dardenne. Also, Kos reports that John Edwards has decided not to take part in the Fox News Debate, and it would be a great demonstration of Democratic solidarity if Senator Clinton and other candidates would join Edwards and Obama in this boycott. And will the last self-respecting Gay or Lesbian person leaving the GOP please turn out the lights?
Want some icing on the cake? Savor Ed Kilgore’s eloquent explanation why the GOP can kiss goodbye any hope of getting votes from Democratic centrists:

For all the talk of the “Bush-hating Left” in the Democratic Party, it’s us “centrists” who really have reason to loathe the Bush-Cheney administration and its conservative allies with a special intensity. They’ve ruined everything they’ve touched, including some previously “liberal” causes like democracy-promotion, open trade, education reform, and market-based approaches to solving public problems. They’ve made the very concept of bipartisanship suspect. And they’ve deliberately, aggressively, consciously poisoned the ground of the political center.

It’s hard to see how any of this could improve much for the Republicans, and it’s easy to see it getting a lot worse. Heady days for Donkeys, and it appears that the outlines of an ’08 landslide are taking shape.


New Book Teaches Kids Democratic Values

On the theory that it’s never too early for kids to become good Democrats, political writer Jeremy Zilber has written a nifty picture book for younger children, “Why Mommy Is A Democrat,” nicely illustrated by Yuliya Fursova. In the book, a mother squirrel explains why she is a Dem to her children in simple language. On one page she looks on from her tree house window and says “Democrats make sure we all share our toys just like Mommy does,” while the little squirrels play with blocks. On another she says ‘Democrats make sure we are always safe, just like Mommy does,” while she shields the little ones from a big, fat elephant walking by. The book is reasonably priced at $10, with further discounts for Democratic organizations and candidates (t-shirts, handbags and teddy bears available also). If your little ones still don’t get it after reading the book, just show them a picture of Ann Coulter, preferably not right before bedtime.


Study Ranks Dems on Left-Right Continuum

The National Journal‘s 2006 congressional vote ratings provide a tool for measuring the political leanings of House and Senate Dems. A panel of the magazine’s editors and reporters selected 84 Senate votes and 103 House votes in 2006 designating “yes” or “no” voters as “liberal” or “conservative.” The percentile rankings of the members help identify the most liberal and conservative members.
According to the rankings, the five most liberal Democratic senators, along with their respective percentile scores in the total Senate are: Dick Durbin (IL) 95.2; Barbara Boxer (CA) 95; Ted Kennedy (MA) 93.7; Leahy (VT) 92.5; and Tom Harkin (IA) 92. The five most conservative Democratic Senators are: Ben Nelson (NB) 45.3; Mary Landrieu (LA) 57.5; Mark Pryor (AR) 59.5; Bill Nelson FL) 62.3; Blanch Lincoln 62.3. Based on these scores, the numerical average for Dems would be a rating of 70.2, which only one U.S. Senator hit on the nose — Hillary Clinton (NY). However, this measure is somewhat distorted by Ben Nelson’s score — 8 Republicans ranked higher on the liberalism scale than did Nelson. Subtracting Nelson and Durbin as the highest and lowest-ranking, the new numerical average score for the ideological center of the Senate Dems is 76.25, and the closest Dem Senator is Diane Feinstein with a 76.5 liberalism rating. Independent Senator Lieberman (CT), who caucuses with Dems, scored a more liberal rating, 67.5, than 8 Dem Senators.
In the House, the five most liberal Dem members were: Diane Watson (CA) 97.7; George Miller (CA) 96.5; Raul Grijalva (AZ) 96.2; Hilda Solis (CA) 96.0; and tied for 5th with a 95.5 score were Sam Farr (CA), Barbara Lee (CA), Lynn Woolsey (CA) and Edward Markey (MA). Interestingly, seven of the top ten Dem House liberals were Californians. The five most conservative Dem House members were: Dan Boren (OK) 50.8; Jim Marshall (GA) 50; Gene Taylor (MS) 50; and tied at 49 were Collin Peterson (MN) and Henry Cuellar (TX). The numerical average for House Dems was 69.25, and the closest Dem House members to that score were Brian Higgins 69.2 and Norman Dicks (WA), Brian Baird (WA) and Joe Baca (CA) all with 69.3 “liberal” ratings.
The National Journal study also breaks down votes into economic, social and foreign policy votes with numerical ratings for members of congress based in each category. For a fuller picture of political leanings of congressional Dems, other organizations, including the Americans for Democratic Action, also provide ratings, which calculate evaluations based on some of the same and some different votes.


Watch Pair of ’07 Gov Races for Clues to ’08

While everyone’s focused on the ’08 prez and congressional races, Larry J. Sabato reminds us that there are important gubernatorial races in ’07. Sabato sees statehouse races as more significant than one would gather from inside-the-beltway msm because the states are “laboratories of democracy” and Governors play a critical role in redistricting. In addition, he sees a ‘canary in the mine” reason for paying more attention to these races:

For example, in 1993 Republican gubernatorial victories in the two states up that year, New Jersey and Virginia, presaged the GOP landslide of 1994, and in 2005 Democratic triumphs in the same states hinted at the Democratic wave of 2006.

A good point. Sabato says The key races this year are in Kentucky and Louisiana, with the Mississippi governor’s race a cake walk for the GOP’s Haley Barbour. Sabato goes into considerable detail about individual candidates’ chances in both parties and notes of the Dem’s chances in KY:

the Democrats smell blood, and voters will need a detailed program to follow all the players. There is no obvious favorite at the moment…None of the Democrats comes close to being a shoo-in, and they all have some damage to their goods…It will be a major surprise if there isn’t a run-off primary for the Democrats, and that could drain money and stir acrimony, to the party’s detriment, especially if the GOP has been able to settle on a nominee in May.

Louisiana is looking increasingly like the marquee race of ’07, and the buzz is all about Governor Blanco stepping aside to let former Dem Senator John Breaux take on the GOP’s rising star, Rep. Bobby Jindal. Sabato stops short of giving Breaux the edge, but many believe Jindal would have a very tough time beating him. Looking toward ’08, Sabato sees only one Dem Governor seriously endangered at this point, Washington’s Gregoire, and predicts Dems will retain a majority of the Governorships.
Sabato has much more to say about individual candidates, demographic changes and races, all of which is well worth a read by political strategy watchers.


Felon Disenfranchisement: Key Component of Voter Suppression

Over at TomPaine.com, Kara Gotsch, advocacy director of The Sentencing Project has an update on what is arguably the GOP’s most powerful tool for voter suppression — felon disenfranchisement. Gotsch sums up the problem succinctly:

…an estimated 5.3 million Americans. Forty-eight states (all but Maine and Vermont) and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense. In 35 states, people on parole also cannot vote. And, in the dozen most regressive states, the right to vote can be permanently denied to people with felony records.

That’s right, a dozen states don’t care if you have served your time and paid your debt to society. You still can’t vote — ever.
Gotsch explains how these laws target African Americans, the most reliable constituency of the Democratic Party:

During the Jim Crow era, disenfranchisement laws in southern states were revised to silence the political voice of newly emancipated slaves. Today, racial disparities in the criminal justice system contribute to dramatic rates of felony disenfranchisement for African Americans. Thirteen percent of black men are disenfranchised and as many as 40 percent of black men are projected to lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise after completion of sentence….

The 2006 elections have increased momentum for reforms to restore voting rights to ex-felons. Reform legislation has been introduced in 20 states. This is critically important in Florida, where Gotsch notes that one million felons have been disenfranchised for life, thanks in part to the leadership of former Governor Jeb Bush. Reformers are hopeful that the new Republican Governor Charles Crist will rise above partisan concerns and sign an executive order restoring voting rights to hundreds of thousans of Floridians who have served their time.
Democrats increased their strength substantially in the state legislatures and among the governorships in the ’06 elections, and now have an unprecedented opportunity to reinstate voting rights to ex-felons. Strengthening a mass movement to restore voting rights to those who have served their time ought to be a top priority of state Democratic parties in ’07 — a cause that serves justice, as well as their party’s future.


Early Polls Have Weak Track Record for Dems

Early horse race presidential polls have an unimpressive track record in predicting the Democratic nominee. In fact, historical experience suggests there is money to be made betting against the current front-runners. As Associated Press reporter Will Lester explains:

…Edmund Muskie in 1972, George Wallace in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980, Gary Hart in 1988, Mario Cuomo in 1992 and Joe Lieberman in 2004 were early front-runners among Democrats. None won the nomination.

But, as poll analyst Mark Blumenthal notes in his Pollster.com article “Pew Center on Past Presidential Trial Heats”:

…two of the four that did not win (Cuomo in 1991 and Hart in 1987) “withdrew from the race for reasons other than lagging support in the polls.” So make of that history what you will.

And further, as Blumenthal quotes Pew Research Center’s Nilanthi Samaranayake and Scott Keeter:

the increased front-loading of the primaries and the growing importance of early fundraising means that the dynamics of the nominating process are apt to be somewhat different this election cycle, making comparisons with past elections less useful.

True ’nuff. And there are two exceptions to the trend, as Lester notes:

Democrats nominated a former vice president, Walter Mondale, in 1984, and a sitting vice president, Al Gore, in 2000. For those elections, the early polls were more predictable at picking the front-runner.

Of course, we’ve never had a presidential spouse in early front-runner position before, much less the spouse of a popular President who had eight years of comparative peace and prosperity and who is a popular U.S. Senator. So don’t go betting the ranch that Hillary will tank. But the point that early presidential trial heat polls have little predictive value for Dems is nonetheless worth keeping in mind.
Interestingly, the reverse is true for the GOP, says Lester:

Republicans have picked the early front-runner in seven of the past 10 elections, according to Gallup polling. In the other three elections, Republican incumbents cruised to re-election.

Lester offers a couple of possible explanations for this phenomenon. But could it be that Dems are just more open to change?
None of this is to say that early horse race polls have no value to Dems. They do help candidates identify areas of strength and weakness and who they need to challenge at various stages of the race. The thing to keep in mind is, the early polls help the candidates shape their message, persona and strategy, not those who want to predict the Democratic nominee.
For a peek at who the early “smart money”, i.e. the gambling community, is actually betting on at this stage, check out the surprising current betting odds at Intrade’s web pages.


Getting Past Who Voted How, Said What, When and Why

It’s not hard to find lengthy discusssions about how which candidates voted and/or what they said about the decision to invade and occupy Iraq and how important it is — just throw a dart over your shoulder at your favorite bloglist. It’s just something Democrats have to go through at this early, winnowing stage of the ’08 campaign. The presidential primaries will help resolve the discussion, and in time all good Dems will unify behind the nominee. On the road to that glorious day, we suggest the following to put the discussion in perspective:
In his American Prospect article, “Their Vote Counts,” Michael Tomasky says “apology, schmapology,” those candidates who supported the war early on (Clinton and Edwards) should not get a free ride:

Readers, and voters, will decide for themselves who’s being more honest. For my part, I’ve decided: Neither is, and if only for the sake of remembering things accurately, we should look back at the infamous October 2002 vote in some detail and tell the plain truth about why most Senate Democrats voted to authorize war. It’s one of the most important and fateful votes Congress has cast in recent American history, and it’s very much worth remembering.

One of Tomasky’s American Prospect stablemates, Garance Franke-Ruta, agrees in her article “The Ethics of Apology”:

So, sure, America could use someone who’s able to admit mistakes, and, yes, apologies only count for so much. What America could really use, though, is someone who had the courage to stand up for truth-telling when it really mattered, as it did in 2002 — and who now uses his high-ranking political post to take action to end the war. Obama’s test — his trap — will be whether or not he can do more than introduce well-written and well-intentioned legislation which dies without a vote.

Yet another American Prospect writer, Ezra Klein, makes a more flexible assessment in his piece “Honest Stupidity”:

Had Democrats been thinking more clearly, they would have considered Bush’s record, his competence, his instincts, and just said no. The moment, however, was not one conducive to clear thought. And the question was never framed or explained quite like that. Rather, an array of foreign policy wisemen and self-styled Iraq experts fanned out to speak to those politicians they were closest with and convinced them to vote for the resolution as a way of voting for their personal wars.

And no doubt New Donkey Ed Kilgore speaks for legions with this take, from his “Kos, Vilsack, the War and the DLC”:

Look, I don’t personally mind antiwar Democrats pointing out again and again they were right and others, including the DLC, were wrong on the original decision to go into Iraq…If we are going to go back and examine everyone’s position at every stage of the nightmare in Iraq, it’s not unfair to point out that Howard Dean, during his presidential campaign, said repeatedly that America had a responsibility to stay in Iraq, perhaps for a long time, given our unfortunate decision to go to war.
All this endless recrimination over who said what when after the war started, and who moved as fast or faster than Murtha or Kos in the maximum antiwar direction, is IMHO a big waste of time, and far more divisive than anything emanating from the DLC, much less Tom Vilsack.

Do read the pro and con comments following these articles for more insight and join the fray. But know that first Tuesday in November ’08, nearly all of the candidates’ harshest progressive critics will cast their ballots for the Democratic nominee, regardless of their earlier positions — and that’s a good thing.