NOTE: This is the fifth item in The Democratic Strategist’s Roundtable Discussion on swing and base voter strategies. It’s by Al From, Founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Politics is littered with false choices – and, to me, no choice is more false for Democrats than choosing between a political strategy aimed at increasing our base vote and a political strategy aimed at winning over swing voters. To win elections consistently and build an enduring political and governing majority, we need to pursue both strategies.
I define base voters as those who reliably vote Democratic in every election whether we do well or poorly. In any election, they will likely be the largest bloc voting Democratic, but they are less than 50 percent of the electorate. We need to get every one of them to the polls – and we need to increase their numbers. That’s why we should pursue strategies to find and turn out non-voters who would surely vote Democratic if they made it to the polls.
Swing voters are those who vote Democratic in some elections, Republican in others. Even in today’s more polarized electorate, they swing back and forth between the parties. When enough of them join Democratic base voters in voting for us, we generally win. When too many of them vote for the other side, the Republicans win. We obviously need strategies to persuade swing voters to vote Democratic in each election – and we ought to take every opportunity we can convince them to change their voting habits and become reliable Democratic (or base) voters.
In recent elections the Republicans have pursued a strategy that aims nearly entirely in expanding their base – in finding Republicans who have been non-voters and getting them to the polls. That strategy worked for them in 2002 and 2004, but failed in 2006. I’m convinced that it is ultimately a losing strategy for the Republicans because it will drive too many swing voters and voters with loose party attachments to the other side as it did in 2006.
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For Democrats, I’m convinced that such a strategy would be a disaster. For starters, Democrats cannot consistently win elections without winning moderate voters by substantial margins like we did in 2006. Consistently, over the last several decades there have been more conservatives than liberals in the electorate – the electorate may vary a little but it’s usually around 30 percent conservative, 20 percent liberal and 50 percent moderate. That means if the Republicans win the conservatives and Democrats the liberals, we have to win 60 percent of the moderates just to break even. That’s not an ideological statement; just pure arithmetic.
To get a better understanding of just what a consistent winning coalition for Democrats would look like, the Democratic Leadership Council is in the midst of a study of voting patterns in the five most recent presidential elections and the 2006 Congressional elections. We’re examining and breaking down the exit polling in each of those elections – three of which we won, two we lost, and one we tied (the 2000 election; technically a loss since Bush assumed office even though Gore won the popular vote).
In our study we’re trying to determine (1) which voters constitute the real Democratic base – voters who vote reliably Democratic in every election, win, lose or tie – and (2) which voters are the true swings – they tend to vote Republican in GOP years and Democratic in years we win.
Our purpose is to look at ways to build an enduring Democratic majority coalition that includes both groups.
Our study is not yet completed, but we have made some preliminary findings that give us a good indication of those voters who usually make the difference between victory and defeat for Democrat.
It is reasonably clear from the data that in 1992, 1996 and 2006 – elections that Democrats won – Democrats made their most dramatic gains among white middle-age men with some college education or a college degree, in non-union households. Geographically, the gains were centered in suburbs and to some extent rural areas, not cities. Ideologically, the gains were among self-identified moderates and conservatives. And in terms of party ID, virtually all the gains were among Republicans and independents. Democrats made the greatest gains in “winning” years among those with relatively low percentages of self-identified liberal ideology or Democratic partisan attachment. If you compare 2004 and 2006 (the last “winning” and “losing” columns), for example, it’s clear that the ideological and partisan trends of earlier election held in 2006, despite the belief of some observers that the victory was a product of base mobilization or a more liberal electorate. (See the table above)
I believe that to achieve a Democratic majority in 2008, we need a strategy and message that can bring both base and the swing voters into our fold just as in 2006. In the long run, we can cement that majority for decades to come by governing effectively once back in office. That’s an important lesson in politics that the Bush crowd never learned. Good government remains the best politics, and in both, nothing succeeds like success. Democrats should always remember that.
The key factors that I would look at are:
1. Opportunity. Is the incumbent Senator sitting near 50% approval or below. If so, there’s a good chance for a pick-up opportunity.
2. As a member of the aforementioned swing-voter group it strikes me that the message is secondary to the messenger. Ideally the party should be targeting candidates who are viewed as authentic — and who have some sort of excellence beyond the political realm (e.g. an excellence that is suited to the contest as well — in business, public service, or some other area).
3. Local demographics. The candidate needs to be a good fit for the district and a good contrast vis a vis the GOP incumbent. The candidate needs to come from the community.
4. Marriage of grass-roots support with establishment support. The marriage may often be uneasy, but when the two are working towards a common goal good things tend to happen (as occurred in several instances in 2006).
I would underscore again — the message is secondary to the messenger. If the Democratic party fields a high quality candidate they are 40% of the way there (the rest being 50% money and 10% message).
For the purpose of the study, it would seem to make sense to talk to some of the campaign managers from some of the successful campaigns in 2006 as well (e.g. Tester, Webb, Casey, McCaskill, Brown, Mark Warner in 2001).
Virginia, in particular, is a state that I know pretty well.
In the case of Mark Warner I understand that he spent several years cultivating business connections in the southwestern part of the state. For Democrats to compete in Virginia they have to keep those margins close in the southwest. He also had some strategists who thoroughly understood the state’s dynamics. I understand Warner even sponsored a NASCAR team, which was a great way to connect with an audience and get his message out to voters that have been ignored by Democrats in the past. The NASCAR sponsorship also flew in the face of the stereotype of an elitist northern Virginia.
The underlying key here is that it is vitally important to know each state’s dynamics and quirks — it is not enough to have some generalized abstract notion about one national demographic group.
In the case of Jim Webb his candidacy was bolstered in part by his resume — as a veteran with some experience in the Reagan administration he was well-positioned against George Allen in an election where the war in Iraq was in the forefront of voters minds. He also had family roots in the southwestern state which gave him a degree of legitimacy in a region where Democrats typically have an uphill battle in state wide elections. Webb was able to position himself as a social moderate — which seems to be another essential in swing states.
Webb was a pretty poor campaigner, his Born Fighting slogan may not have been the best idea, but he was able to win a narrow victory because enough swing voters respected his resume and he came across as the more authentic candidate in the 2006 election. I would also add that he didn’t need to say “I’m the most authentic” — he simply was who he was and for a lot of voters that was sufficient.
“if the Republicans win the conservatives and Democrats the liberals, we have to win 60 percent of the moderates just to break even. That’s not an ideological statement; just pure arithmetic.”
the DLC has been saying this for years. but that era is over.
the inherent problem with this statement is that it is build on the assumption of a sort of ideological statis that neither advances our civil conversation of the problems in our society nor alters the assumptions of what should be the public sector’s role in advancing solutions to those problems. it essentially calls for chasing the mushy middle rather than articulating a compelling vision that brings those people over to our column for the long haul. further, the chasing strategy alienates and demoralizes those most active supporters who are needed as the ground troops for a strong field effort and only see their issues get short shrift as principles and messages are diluted into a weak brew.
while there should of course be some electoral positioning to appeal to this mushy middle our job is to articulate a vision that changes the conversation and moves them from the middle to our side.