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
I ran across a story on faulty focus group memories of Trump, and I wrote about the implications at New York.
As an unpopular president facing a sour electorate, Joe Biden really needs to make 2024 a comparative election rather than a straight referendum on his presidency. Luckily for him, his likely general-election opponent, Donald Trump, is equally unpopular for reasons that are quite vivid. He’s as well known as Biden, and he works very hard to reinforce the traits that might make an undecided voter (even one unhappy with Biden) reluctant to put him back in the White House. So half of Biden’s work in drawing contrasts is done for him, and part of the other half is made easy for him by Trump’s strongest supporters, the “deplorables” (to use the Hillary Clinton term that has become a MAGA badge of honor) who enjoy shocking the world by advertising their hero’s most questionable characteristics.
It is becoming apparent, however, that Trump’s potential coalition is being augmented by low-information voters with a hazy understanding of the Trumpier features of the 45th president’s record, character, and agenda. By that I do not mean the non-college-educated voters who make up so large a part of the Trump base. Many if not most of them are pretty educated about their candidate. But there’s evidence that disengaged and/or deeply alienated folks who may nonetheless vote in a presidential election (if not any others) don’t know as much about Trump as you might assume, as the New York Times’ Patrick Healey has observed:
“Our latest Times Opinion focus group discussion with 13 undecided independent voters included a striking result: 11 of the 13 said they would vote for Donald Trump if the election were held now, and only two said they would vote for President Biden. The reason: overwhelming concern about the economy.
“But I was less surprised by the big vote for Trump than by this: The group didn’t blame Trump for things he was responsible or accountable for.
“For instance, several people linked their economic troubles to COVID, but they didn’t put any blame on Trump for that. Some were upset with the end of abortion rights nationally, but they didn’t tie that to Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. Several wanted bipartisanship, but they didn’t blame Trump for his hand in sinking the recent bipartisan border deal. One person, a Latina, blamed Trump for worsening racism in the country and recounted a searing incident that happened to her — but she was among the 11 who would vote for him anyway.”
Healey concludes that “a lot of our focus-group participants — and many voters — see Trump as an acceptable option in November, yet they don’t know or remember a lot about him.” This makes them, of course, highly susceptible to Trump campaign messaging asserting that the economy during his presidency was the greatest ever; that he’s a natural peacemaker who inspired respect for the United States everywhere; and that he’s a decent, law-abiding businessman (and family man!) whose near-constant forced court appearances are uniformly the product of his persecution by the other party.
Democrats, of course, will have opportunities (and increasingly, an obligation) to set the record straight about Trump and his presidency. But the difficult thing is that low-information voters also tend to be low-trust voters, which means they don’t tend to believe traditional arbiters of objective reality like the mainstream news media, and may not grant more truthful politicians superior credibility. Further distorting understanding of the Trump administration (and thus its possible return) is the huge trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives everything that immediately preceded the disaster an undeserved glow, while immolating memories of less powerful traumas associated with the former president’s tenure.
In other words, low-information voters who dislike politics so much that they are not inclined to dig into facts and evidence touching on political topics are highly vulnerable to the kind of disinformation that benefits Donald Trump. And if they are in a bad mood in November, they could help turn the election into a negative referendum on Joe Biden even if they are inviting something — and someone — far worse. Democrats will have to work hard to break through with the truth.