Today’s major political story was former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s decision to pull the plug on his presidential campaign. He made it clear money was the sole reason. Contra some snarky blog posts suggesting that blogger reaction to Vilsack’s wonky if politically dangerous reference to the benefit structure for Social Security earlier this week somehow instantly did him in, it’s clear his precarious financial position was the real problem.Vilsack had a complex if not irrational political strategy all along. Step one was to utilize his popularity and political base in Iowa, whose Caucuses are showing every indication of being even more important in 2008 than in the past, to separate himself from other “lower-tier” candidates. Step two was to employ an upset win in Iowa over the big boys and girls to elevate himself to the top tier, over the barely breathing political body of anyone croaked by a loss or poor showing Iowa (most likely the perceived current Iowa front-runner, John Edwards). And step three was to become a national alternative to whoever became the post-Iowa, post-New Hampshire front-runner.But the most complicated part of the Vilsack strategy was overcoming the legendary reluctance of Iowans to give up their king- or queen-making national status in the nominating process and support a favorite son. That meant showing the flag nationally to eliminate his “mere-favorite-son” status, and also building the best field organization in Iowa of any candidate. Both measures required a lot of money, and more money than his campaign could raise, particularly after Barack Obama jumped into the race and attracted most of the tactical, good-bet funds that hadn’t already been hoovered up by HRC and others.The sad reality is that without vast personal wealth or access to powerful “bundlers” of campaign contributions, it’s pretty much impossible to run a viable presidential campaign, particularly if you are not well-known or regarded as “top-tier.” Raising tens of millions of dollars overnight at $2300 a pop (the legal limit for individual contributions) without big-time “bundlers” or a pre-established national fundraising base is pretty much impossible. Vilsack gave it a good try, beginning his official campaign before anyone else, and trying to distinguish himself from the front-runners with dramatic positions on Iraq and on energy policy. But it wasn’t enough, and he was wise to fold his tent and maintain his influence over the presidential campaign in Iowa.Who knows: Vilsack’s timing in getting out of the race may have been partially motivated by both the human and political considerations involved in letting his staff–including his small but much-praised policy staff–get on board with other campaigns. Particularly with Vilsack out, Iowa Democratic political experience, and Iowa Caucus experience, is worth its weight in gold to those campaigns who for offensive or defensive reasons need to do well in that state. And on down the road, Vilsack’s own support–determined, I strongly suspect from my own dealings with him in the past at the DLC, by honorably wonky policy considerations as much as by politics–might mean everything to a candidate whose tongue is lolling out for victory in Iowa.So while we bid farewell to Tom Vilsack’s candidacy for president, we almost certainly haven’t seen the end of his impact on the 2008 presidential campaign.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Pouring over the details of the gubernatorial recall election in California, some significant patterns emerged, as I noted at New York:
The overwhelming defeat of the effort to recall California governor Gavin Newsom was a big victory for a Democratic Party that has had its troubles lately. With the margin of victory for the “no on recall” campaign roughly doubling the already-robust advantage shown in pre-election polls, the earlier scare that the recall threw into the ranks of the Golden State’s dominant party dissipated entirely. With about three-fourths of the expected vote now counted, “no” leads “yes” by a 63.8 to 36.2 margin (which could get even larger if the usual pattern of last-cast mail ballots leaning Democratic manifests itself once again).
The “no” vote was remarkably close to Joe Biden’s performance in California in 2020 (he won 63.5 percent). Given the extreme partisan polarization that underlay the recall vote (exit polls showed 89 percent of self-identified Republicans voting “yes” and 94 percent of self-identified Democrats voting “no”), that means the partisan patterns of the presidential race were reduplicated to a remarkable extent in a non-presidential special election, where Democrats often experience a “falloff,” particularly when they control the White House (and in this case, the governorship). That’s great news for California Democrats, and not a bad sign for Democrats nationally, who are bracing for the midterm losses the “White House Party” typically suffers.But in assessing the implications of the results, it’s important to look back at what happened down ballot in California in 2020, while looking ahead to the most critical 2022 battleground, the fight for control of the House. Of the 13 net House seats Republicans gained in 2020, four were in deep-blue California. There is no likely path for Democrats to hang onto House control in 2022 without flipping some or all of those lost seats in one of their strongest states.
Precisely because of the reduplication of the 2020 patterns, there’s really nothing about the recall returns that suggests Democrats are sure to claw back some House seats in California. Two of the four seats Republicans flipped in 2020 (with Asian-American women Young Kim and Michelle Steele as candidates) were centered in Orange County. While “no” won in Orange, the recall race there was closer than the Biden-Trump contest of 2020. A third battleground seat was the one Republican David Valadao won in a very competitive section of the San Joaquin Valley. The recall improved on Trump’s 2020 performance in every county in his district (e.g., Trump won 55 percent in Kings County, but “yes” on recalling Newsom won 63 percent). These results could reflect an intensifying alienation of this heavily agricultural area from Sacramento’s environmental and water-supply policies. Or it could reflect a drop-off in Latino turnout that could spell disaster for Democrats in close 2022 races. Either way the recall numbers should give pause to Democratic optimism about midterm House races.
One study of 2020 returns in California showed Latino turnout trailing non-Latino turnout by about 10 percent. One mail-ballot tracker for the recall showed the turnout gap between Latinos and non-Latino white voters swelling to 20 percent. Youth turnout for the recall was also terrible, exit polls suggest. Yes, these are constituencies that are difficult to mobilize in special elections. But that’s also true of midterm elections, which is a problem Democrats in California and elsewhere need to solve.
The bottom line is that Newsom won the Democratic and Democratic-leaning elements of the California electorate by strongly encouraging partisan polarization via his lavishly funded campaign. This was the obvious smart strategy in this heavily Democratic state. It’s less clear the same strategy will work wonders downballot for Democrats in 2022, which they probably will not have a big financial advantage and shifts in public opinion away from the presidential winner may have settled in, as they did for the last three presidents. Even if Democrats hang onto their monopoly of statewide offices and their super-majorities in the state legislature, any failure to make progress in House races could contribute to the much-dreaded moment when Californian Nancy Pelosi hands over her gavel to Californian Kevin McCarthy, and the Democratic trifecta that gives Biden a chance to implement his agenda comes to an end.