There is no political subject quite so perennial, and sometimes tedious, as the endless debate within each major political party about the relative importance in any given election of “base” and “swing” voters, reflecting in turn choices about “mobilization” and “persuasion” strategies.I’ve always thought these debates create much more heat than light, and also lead to the Mother Of All False Choices: the suggestion that candidates have to pick a “base” or “swing” focus and stick with it to the bitter end. Most successful candidates in highly competitive races have done both, and frankly, unless there’s some deep and unavoidable conflict between what candidates do to “mobilize” or “persuade,” it would be, well, kinda counter-intuitive to insist on a choice.Among Democrats, the current “base” versus “swing” debate, such as it is, mainly emerges from those preferring a “base mobilizaton” strategy, revolving around two arguments: (1) today’s climate of partisan polarization has shrunk the size of the true “swing” vote to practical irrelevance, and (2) since the GOP has wholeheartedly committed itself to mobilization efforts, Democrats must do so as well or their base will turn out better than ours.Chris Bowers of MyDD has been an especially active proponent of the idea that the 2006 midterm elections will be a “base turnout” contest, and his latest post on the subject makes an interesting twist on the old argument: right now Independents are leaning heavily D, but since they turn out in midterm elections at lower rates than partisans, Democrats should not pay them much attention. (According to Chris’ own estimates, however, Indies will represent at least one-quarter of the electorate, somewhat undermining the title of his post: “The 2006 Elections Will Not Include Many Independents.”).Now I understand that the number of true “swing voters”–whom I would define as voters who are both persuadable and very likely to vote–is much smaller than the universe of self-identifying Independents, just as Chris understands that the “activist base” he urges Democrats to focus on is much smaller than, and arguably different from, the universe of reliable partisan voters. But however you slice and dice the numbers, there’s one enduring fact about the base/swing debate that is incontrovertible:When you “mobilize” a partisan voter, you pick up at most one net vote. And if your mobilization strategy (e.g., inflaming partisan tensions so that your “base,” drunk with passion at the promise of victory, snake-dances to the polls to smite the hated enemy) directly or indirectly helps the other party mobilize its own partisan voters, the net effect will be smaller. But when you “turn” a true swing voter, you pick up two net votes, by gaining a vote and denying it to your opponent as well. So even if you believe the number of “mobilizable” partisans is more than twice as large as the number of “persuadable” swing voters, this “swing multiplier effect” means ignoring them is perilous in close elections.The bottom line is that I really wish we’d all avoid the temptation of labeling the 2006 elections as “about” any one category of voters, and pursue a strategy of mobilization and persuasion aimed at winning every achievable vote. If we want to take back Congress and win a clear majority of governorships, we’ll probably need every one of them.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:
There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:
“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”
Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.
Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.
Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.
At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.
Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.