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
This year’s big media narrative has been the confirmation saga of Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. At New York I wrote about how over-heated the talk surrounding Tanden has become.
Okay, folks, this is getting ridiculous. When a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the nomination of Neera Tanden was postponed earlier this week, you would have thought it presented an existential threat to the Biden presidency. “Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week,” said one Washington Post story. Politico Playbook suggested that if Tanden didn’t recover, the brouhaha “has the potential to be what Biden might call a BFD.” There’s been all sorts of unintentionally funny speculation about whether the White House is playing some sort of “three-dimensional chess” in its handling of the confirmation, disguising a nefarious plan B or C.
Perhaps it reflects the law of supply and demand, which requires the inflation of any bit of trouble for Biden into a crisis. After all, his Cabinet nominees have been approved by the Senate with a minimum of 56 votes; the second-lowest level of support was 64 votes. One nominee who was the subject of all sorts of initial shrieking, Tom Vilsack, was confirmed with 92 Senate votes. Meanwhile, Congress is on track to approve the largest package of legislation moved by any president since at least the Reagan budget of 1981, with a lot of the work on it being conducted quietly in both chambers. Maybe if the bill hits some sort of roadblock, or if Republican fury at HHS nominee Xavier Becerra (whose confirmation has predictably become the big fundraising and mobilization vehicle for the GOP’s very loud anti-abortion constituency) reaches a certain decibel level, Tanden can get out of the spotlight for a bit.
But what’s really unfair — and beyond that, surreal — is the extent to which this confirmation is being treated as more important than all the others combined, or indeed, as a make-or-break moment for a presidency that has barely begun. It’s not. If Tanden cannot get confirmed, the Biden administration won’t miss a beat, and I am reasonably sure she will still have a distinguished future in public affairs (though perhaps one without much of a social-media presence). And if she is confirmed, we’ll all forget about the brouhaha and begin focusing on how she does the job, which she is, by all accounts, qualified to perform.