Well, I thought there was a fairly strong consensus among Democrats that the 2004 elections showed we have to expand, as well as “energize” our party base. But now comes Chris Bowers on the MyDD site with the news that the University of Michigan’s National Election Project study of the 2004 results “proves” there are no swing voters, and winning in the future is all about increasing polarization and mobilizing the Democratic base. Now, before wading into this issue, let me stipulate total agreement with Chris on how we ought to talk with each other about it. He says it’s a matter of strategy, not ideology. Personally, if I could be convinced that the best way to drive today’s Republicans from their ruinous power is to polarize Democrats as much as Republicans, I’d be out there on the barricades right away. It’s sure as hell a simpler strategy than coming up with a policy agenda and message that actually meets the challenges facing the nation, and mobilization is always easier than persuasion. So I’m down with that. But I’ve seen no real evidence Chris is right on the strategic front.I don’t know if Chris is actually looking at the NEP data (maybe, like me, he’s still trying to figure out how to access it intelligibly), but his announcement that “there’s no middle” in U.S. politics seems to rely on a very selective interpretation of the initial take on the study by David Kopoian on Ruy Teixeira’s Donkey Rising site, zeroing in on Bush’s remarkable support levels from Republicans, and Kerry’s strong but less-impressive support levels from Democrats. As Greg Wythe quickly pointed out, Chris sorta kinda ignores independents, who are a sizable bloc of the electorate (how large depends, of course, on your definition of that term), and creates a straw man wherein the “search for the mythical middle” is all about crossover voting from self-identified partisans. There’s no question that the parties have been ideologically realigned in recent decades, and that largely explains why the “crossover” vote has dropped. But it’s a logical fallacy of a very high order to go from that observation to a claim that promoting even more ideological polarization will somehow magically produce the Democratic majorities needed to win elections, which is what Chris seems to be saying. Let’s remember that the percentage of the electorate self-identifying with the Donkey has been slowly and steadily eroding, most notably since 2000. You can make an argument (folks on the Left have been making it for years) that the voters leaving the party are doing so because it is insufficiently Left-leaning in policy, or partisan in strategy and tactics. But it’s hardly self-evident, and in important respects is counter-intuitive.On that score, you should take a look at a small but remarkable John Judis piece in the current New Republic. John is not what you’d call a “centrist” in ideology or outlook, and has specifically spent a lot of time trying to show that large demographic trends are creating a strong tailwind for Democrats, whose “base” is expanding almost automatically. This point of view, of course, is very consistent with Chris Bowers’ idea that we just have to get out there and harvest these voters with a powerful partisan message. But Judis’ latest piece, based largely on a series of discussions with a leading Hispanic organizer in the Southwest, suggests that this particular element of the supposed Democratic “base” is in grave danger, in part because Republicans know how to do “deep organizing” rather than campaign- or Internet-based “parachuting,” but also because the GOP is winning the cultural argument among a growing number of Hispanic voters. He doesn’t quite put it this way, but Judis suggests that our problem in this community is not easily attributable to the failure of Democrats to advocate, say, a single-payer health care system, or to more stridently oppose Bush’s national security policies. But the other point Judis is implicitly making is that our ideas about “base” and “swing” voters are often way out of whack with reality. Ask ten Democrats about our party base, and nine of them will start talking about Hispanics and African-Americans and labor union members and anti-war activists and professional women, and so forth. Karl Rove doesn’t think like that. He views Hispanics as a “swing” group because he knows Republicans simply need to cut into Democratic majorities in that category to win close general elections. He views African-Americans as a “swing” group as well, not because half of them are “undecided” in any given election, but because getting 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio, in part through a carefully targeted cultural message, may have won Bush re-election. “Swing” voters are individuals, whatever group they are in, who are persuadable. And we’re nuts if we don’t take the opportunity to persuade them seriously. Had John Kerry done as well as Al Gore–much less Bill Clinton–in Republican “base” areas outside the metro cores of the country, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It’s all about votes, every goddamn one of them, not about groups we “mobilize” or write off. We really do need to end the false choice between “mobilization” and “persuasion” and get on the with job of doing both.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Like most California political junkies, I’m already looking forward to a vibrant 2024 Senate race. I wrote up the latest development at New York:
In the conservative imagination, California is sort of an evil empire of leftism. It’s where white people have been relegated to a minority for decades; where tree-hugging hippies still frolic; where Hollywood and Big Tech work 24/7 to undermine sturdy American-folk virtues; where rampaging unions and arrogant bureaucrats make it too expensive for regular people to live.
But in truth California’s dominant Democratic Party has as many mild-mannered moderates as it does fiery progressives. One of them, Dianne Feinstein, has held a Senate seat for over 30 years. As the 89-year-old political icon moves toward an almost certain retirement in 2024 (though she now says she won’t announce her intention until next year), another ideological moderate has just announced a bid to succeed her. Los Angeles congressman Adam Schiff, though, has an asset most centrist Democrats (those not named Clinton or Biden, anyway) can’t claim: the rabid hatred of Donald Trump–loving Republicans, giving him the sort of partisan street cred even the most rigorous progressives might envy.
It’s why Schiff begins his 2024 Senate race with something of a strategic advantage. The first-announced candidate in the contest, Congresswoman Katie Porter (also from greater L.A.), is a progressive favorite and more or less Elizabeth Warren’s protégé as a vocal enemy of corporate malfeasance. Another of Schiff’s House colleagues, Oakland-based Barbara Lee, has told people she plans a Senate run as well; Lee is a lefty icon dating back to her lonely vote against the initial War on Terror authorization following September 11. And waiting in the wings is still another member of California’s House delegation, Silicon Valley–based Ro Khanna, who is closely associated with Bernie Sanders and his two presidential campaigns.
Obviously, in a Senate race featuring multiple progressives, the national-security-minded Schiff (who voted for the Iraq war authorization and the Patriot Act early in his House career) might have a distinct “lane,” particularly if he draws an endorsement from Feinstein. (Schiff is already suggesting his campaign has her “blessing.”) But he may poach some progressive votes as well by emphasizing the enemies he’s made. Indeed, his campaign’s first video is mostly a cavalcade of conservatives (especially Donald J. Trump) attacking him.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Schiff is announcing his Senate bid immediately following his expulsion from the House Intelligence Committee by Speaker Kevin McCarthy for his alleged misconduct in investigating Russia’s links with Trump and his campaign (and in making the case for Trump’s impeachment). Schiff was also a steady prosecutorial presence on the January 6 committee that McCarthy and most Republicans boycotted).
Complicating the contest immeasurably is California’s Top Two primary election system. Schiff and his Democratic rivals will not be battling for a party primary win but for a spot in the 2024 general election, given to the top two primary finishers regardless of party affiliation. The Golden State’s Republican Party is so weak that it might not be able to find a candidate able to make the top two in a Senate primary; two Democrats competed in two recent competitive Senate general elections in California (in 2016, when Kamala Harris defeated Loretta Sanchez, and in 2018, when Feinstein trounced Kevin DeLeon). If that’s the case, though, it’s unclear which Democrat might have the edge in attracting Republicans. Porter’s campaign is circulating a poll showing she’d beat Schiff in a hypothetical general election because Republicans really hate Schiff despite his more moderate voting record.
For all the uncertainties about the 2024 Senate field, it is clear that the two announced Democratic candidates will wage a close battle in one arena: campaign dollars. Both Schiff and Porter are legendary fundraisers, though Porter had to dip deeply into her stash of resources to fend off a tougher-than-expected Republican challenge last November. Big remaining questions are whether Lee can finance a viable race in this insanely expensive state with its many media markets, and whether Khanna, with his national Sanders connections and local Silicon Valley donor base, enters the contest. There are racial, gender, and geographical variables too: Until Harris became vice-president, California had long been represented by two Democratic woman from the Bay Area. With Los Angeles–based Alex Padilla now occupying Harris’s old seat, 2024 could produce a big power shift to the south and two male senators.
In any event, nobody is waiting around for Feinstein to make her retirement official before angling for her seat, which means a Senate race that won’t affect the partisan balance of the chamber at all (barring some wild Republican upset) will soak up a lot of attention and money for a long time. At this early point, Schiff’s positioning as the moderate that Republicans fear and despise looks sure to keep him in the spotlight.