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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

No Gallup Towards Bush

Perpetually panicky Democrats have panicked anew at the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey that show Bush up 8 points among likely voters. The same survey, of course, has Bush up just three–and under 50–among registered voters, which has generated another jeremiad by Ruy Teixeira about the weird LV assumptions in the Gallup methodology.
But here’s what nervous donkeys really need to hear: four years ago today, Gallup had Bush up 13 percent among likely voters. It did not exactly turn out that way, right?

Two, Three, Many Floridas

It’s statistically improbable that we could have another post-election presidential selection for, oh, another century or so. The prospect of two in a row is one of those things–like a plague of frogs–that can drive you into an obsessive reading of the Book of Revelations.
But if, on November 3, the outcome in the electoral college is again in doubt in one, two, or three key states, you can expect a raft of litigation that could make what happened in Florida last time look like a moot court tournament.
So says The New York Times, in a front-page piece today that’s as interesting as it is depressing. “The legal preparations,” says James Dao, “are very real–and very large. With more than two weeks to go before polls open, lawyers recruited by the two parties and independent groups have begun flooding into Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and other swing states. Already, those lawyers are preparing strategies to challenge new voters at the polls, to keep polling stations open late if lines are long and to demand recounts if victory margins are razor-thin.”
Some of this activity simply reflects the ancient desire of Democrats to maximize opportunities to vote and have votes counted, and the equally ancient Republican desire to minimize such opportunities, which the GOP likes to think of as conducive to “voter fraud.” Few Republicans, of course, make a credible case that there’s much of a prospect for multiple voting or ballot-box stuffing; most of their “anti-fraud” efforts really boil down to a determination to entrap perfectly eligible voters in technical violations of questionable laws, or involuntary mistakes made in marking confusing ballots. Right beneath the surface of all the “anti-fraud” rhetoric is the unsavory belief that voters who cannot negotiate weird and inefficient election laws and ballots don’t deserve to vote, anyway–a belief that is starkly contrary to more than a century’s worth of constitutional progress towards elimination of any “ballot tests” other than citizenship and adulthood.
So I’m perfectly happy to see flotillas of lawyers deployed to make sure Americans have every chance to vote, if only to offset the flotillas of lawyers eager to deny them that right.
But hey, didn’t Congress pass legislation a couple of years ago designed to stop the madness and reinforce some uniformity of election laws and procedures? Sure enough: legislation optimistically entitled the Help America Vote Act did indeed get signed into law in 2002, but it’s created almost as much confusion as it’s resolved, because: (a) it has to be implemented by state and local election officials, including Republican secretaries of state in Ohio and Florida who sure as hell don’t seem very interested in Helping America Vote unless it votes the “right” way; (b) it introduced the idea of “provisional” voting for people who aren’t on precinct registration lists, but didn’t make it clear how such ballots would be challenged and judged; and (c) it encouraged, but did not require or really regulate, new technologies for casting and counting ballots, creating even more inconsistency and confusion than existed four years ago.
But aside from the inadequacies of HAVA, the other looming menace this year is the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. As Jeffrey Rosen recently explained in The New Republic, the Supremes didn’t just decide one presidential election: they created an “equal protection” argument that could enable partisan lawyers to get a wing-tipped foot through the door of federal court on a whole host of electoral claims. So: we have a system where state and local officials make all the calls on Election Day, and a potentially unlimited climate for state and federal litigation to question any of these decisions if they arguably affect the results in any state. We could wind up with two, three, many Floridas.
If that happens, folks, it’s going to be time to create a large, loud, abrasive grass-roots campaign to standardize voting rights and procedures in this country once and for all. Look, I’ve spent a majority of my own career in state government, and I respect the role of the states as “laboratories of democracy.” But when it comes to the right to participate in democracy’s most fundamental ritual–namely, elections–we cannot let a few partisan state officials and their black-robed cheerleaders in a politicized judiciary turn the states into the laboratories of Dr. Frankenstein.

The Other L-Word

It’s bizarre, to say the least: at precisely the moment when the Bush-Cheney campaign has fully committed itself to an 18-day drive to demonize John Kerry as a Massachusetts Liberal, BC04 and its conservative media echo chamber are suddenly focused on a different L-word: Lesbian, as in the sexual orientation of Mary Cheney.
Kerry’s reference to the veep’s daughter, in response to a debate question about each candidate’s views on the nature or nurture origins of homosexuality, is now the obsessive preoccupation of the entire pro-Bush talking points network.
Their motivation is not 100% clear. In part, Bush partisans are simply trying to find something in the last debate that will change the public perception that Kerry won that one, and the whole three-game series. In part, Bushies want to dent the more positive impressions of Kerry’s character by suggesting he’s playing dirty politics. And finally, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that BC04 is simply freaking out at Kerry’s exposure, deliberate or inadvertant, of a vulnerability in their base-first strategy, which depends heavily on piggy-backing battleground state referenda on gay marriage. Mary Cheney’s father, after all, has conspicuously declined to support his boss in demanding a constitutional amendment to defend the “sanctity of marriage” against the alleged assault from those demanding gay marriage rights. This is not something conservatives want to be reminded of.
The unfortunate thing about this dispute is that Kerry was trying to make a legitimate–perhaps even a profound–point in answer to the question about the nature of homosexuality. Instead of citing the ever-increasing scientific evidence that being gay or lesbian is a basic orientation, not a “lifestyle choice,” Kerry cited the experience of American families, whose attitudes towards homosexuality are heavily affected by the extent to which they actually know gays and lesbians as family members, friends, or work associates. Bush, who is politically dependent on those who believe homosexuality is a form of voluntary “sinful behavior” that can be “cured,” dodged the question entirely. And lest we forget, it’s the incumbent, not the challenger, who has chosen to make this an issue in the presidential campaign to begin with.
I personally wish Kerry had made his point more clearly, and without mentioning the vice president’s daughter. But it’s not clear to me how, exactly, BC04 is going to turn this second “L-word” into a campaign issue that turns voters. After all, Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation is mainly an issue for those who have already decided to vote for the president. For everyone else, this is an unwelcome diversion that has little or nothing to do with the choices Americans face on Election Day–except as a reminder that Republicans don’t like anybody who’s any kind of “L.”

It’s “All About” Everything

We’re at that dangerous stage of the presidential campaign in which all the pundits–and quite possibly, the campaigns themselves–try to boil down the complex dynamics of the election into something really simple. It’s “all about” this or that state, or this or that segment of the electorate, or this or that tactic, we will be told again and again.
To be sure, our electoral college system does mean that the contest is “all about” winnable “battleground” states, and inevitably, their number is shrinking as we get closer to Election Day. But it’s important to avoid quick judgments, based on current polling or recent history, about which battleground states matter most to either campaign. Sure, Ohio and Florida are especially crucial because of their size, and it’s hard, though not impossible, to construct scenarios where a candidate loses both of these states and still wins 270 EVs (those of you who are spending your lunch hours playing with one of those cool interactive electoral vote maps already know this).
But in the end, it’s “all about” reaching 270 one way or another, not just one way. Remember the decision made by the Gore campaign at about this point four years ago: it was “all about” Florida. In retrospect, it’s clear this judgment led to the infinitely regrettable decision not to bother running any Gore-Lieberman ads in the Boston media market down the stretch. Had those ads run, Gore would have almost certainly won New Hampshire (which Bill Clinton won by 10 points in 1996), and the whole Florida saga would not have mattered. You can also make the case that Ohio was there for the taking by Gore; yet he did not even contest the state in any serious way.
The danger of tunnel-vision at this point is even more apparent when you look inside the battleground states. Already, the pundits are telling us that victory in Ohio (to cite one example) is “all about” the relative success of BC04 in turning out culturally conservative rural and exurban voters, as compared to KE04’s drive to maximize turnout in minority neighborhoods in Ohio’s largest cities. Don’t get me wrong: it’s smart and essential for both campaigns to do everything possible to boost turnout in reliably partisan precincts. But in the end, a vote’s a vote, and holding down Bush’s margins in rural Ohio is just as important to Kerry as boosting his vote totals in the cities. Moreover, even if you believe there are relatively few undecided voters in play this year, every one of them a candidate captures represents two votes: one for himself, and one denied to the opposition.
So: next time you hear someone say it’s “all about” the I-4 corridor in Florida, or Lackawanna County in Pennsylvania, or the Nader vote in Dane County, Wisconsin, your reflex should be to respond: a vote’s a vote, and it’s “all about” every one of them.

Is Kerry Crossing a Threshold?

I didn’t say this in last night’s post, but I was a little surprised at Kerry’s big margin in the snap polls about debate performance. They keep rolling in, and if the last two debates are a precedent, the “Kerry won” perception may grow even stronger in a day or two.
There are three possible explanations for this apparent gap between my perceptions of the debate and those of voters.
First, I may have just been wrong in thinking the debate was pretty much a tie, probably because I spent more time shouting cool lines I thought Kerry should use at the screen than in really paying attention to how the debate was going.
Second, voters may be making a cumulative judgment about the relative performance of the candidates in all three debates, a measurement that Kerry would definitely win among everybody other than Bush partisans.
Or third, something more fundamental may be going on: Kerry may be crossing the magic threshold of credibility that enables challengers to beat incumbent presidents. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened as a result of televised debates: as all you political junkies know, it happened in 1980 when the one televised debate pivoted the whole election in the direction of Ronald Reagan, who just didn’t come across as the shallow right-winger depicted by Jimmy Carter’s campaign.
Even if this third hypothesis has merit, I’m certainly not suggesting that John Kerry’s about to blow the race open and win by a landslide. The political dynamics of the country are far too polarized for either candidate to win over that many votes. There’s plenty of time before election day–time BC04 will use relentlessly to re-smear Kerry and drive up his negatives (though it sure didn’t work in 1980 for Carter whose late-campaign negative tactics were described at the time as “Mean Jimmy”). And again, this whole idea may be wrong.
But I for one am going to pay special attention to Kerry’s “internals” in the next couple of big nonpartisan national polls. Democracy Corps already has a post-debate poll out, and it shows a sizeable shift in positive voter perspections of Kerry as a leader. If others show the same trend, then we may rightly conclude that Kerry’s begun to close the deal with those undecided voters who (if their “wrong track” numbers are any indication) are itching for a reason to vote against Bush.
We’ll know soon enough.

Third Debate: Bush’s Lost Chance

Just saw CNN’s snap (who won?) poll of the last presidential debate: Kerry 52%, Bush 39%.
What’s fascinating about this reaction is that (1) it cannot be attributed to Bush’s demeanor, which was better in this debate than in either of the first two; (2) it doesn’t reflect some slam-dunk, soundbite Kerry line that affected the immediate reaction, though the “Sopranos” line was pretty good; and (3) it indicated that Bush’s “base-first” strategy isn’t working.
I personally expected Bush to go much more negative on Kerry that he ultimately did, though the structure and sequence of Schieffer’s questions made that pretty hard. And when the light want off in his head, Bush did everything he could to label Kerry as a godless liberal.
The bottom line is that it’s difficult, as an incumbent president, to shift the attention totally away from one’s own record. That’s the bar that Gerald Ford failed to surmount in 1976, as did Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the president’s father in 1992.
If, as seems likely in the immediate reaction, Kerry has gone 3-0 in the presidential debates, the case for George W. Bush’s re-election has gone from implausble to improbable, at the worst possible time for a vulnerable incumbent.

Bush and Carter

Going into tonight’s final presidential debate, you hear a lot of Democrats–or at least the grey-headed donkeys of the stable–reminiscing about that crucial moment in the 1980 presidential debate when Ronald Reagan managed to frame the election as a referendum on Jimmy Carter’s performance in office by asking the famous question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Wouldn’t it be cool, they say, if John Kerry could come up with a killer line like Reagan’s?

But you don’t hear anybody talking about Jimmy Carter’s strategy in that debate, and how it compares to that of another vulnerable incumbent, George W. Bush.
To make a long story short, Carter’s debate strategy was called the “Two Futures” approach. It involved constantly comparing the two candidates’ agendas for the future in a way that avoided Carter’s own record, and made Reagan the riskier choice for positive change.
From all indications, George W. Bush doesn’t much want to talk about his record on domestic issues, but also doesn’t much want to talk about his agenda for a second term. But he does want to talk about the risky choice involved in electing a scary liberal like John Kerry to the presidency. It’s sort of a “One Bad Future” approach that depends heavily on a negative characterization of his opponent.
So sure, it would be nice for Kerry if he can find a way to encapsulate Bush’s failed presidency in a compelling way tonight, and during the remainder of the campaign. But by eschewing both a defense of his own record, and a positive argument for his own agenda, Bush is in some respects fighting with one hand tied behind his back, as a deliberate strategic decision. No matter how the scorekeepers rate tonight’s contest, this will be a factor of increasing importance in the ultimate contest on November 2.

Kerry’s Catholicism

One of the subterranean issues in the presidential contest is the Democratic candidate’s status as a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He’s the first Catholic nominee since another Massachusetts Democrat with the same initials, and that is a potential problem for a Republican Party that’s been working overtime to turn Catholics into a GOP constituency group.
Today’s New York Times has a big writeup about one aspect of the Republican strategy to blunt or even invert the electoral impact of Kerry’s Catholicism: the campaign by a handful of conservative Bishops to convince Catholics they have a religious duty to reject their co-religionist because of his positions on abortion and stem-cell research, and his rejection of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. There’s a lot of evidence that it’s not exactly the right moment for elements of the American hierarchy to get too high and mighty about lecturing the laity on their moral obligations, but that won’t stop them from trying.
Aside from the effort to convince voters that Kerry’s a bad Catholic, there’s a slightly subtler BC04 argument that he’s not much of a Catholic at all, being a “liberal” and a “moral relativist” and a “flip-flopper,” etc., in comparison with the resolute Christian in the White House (never mind that Kerry seems to go to church a lot more often than Bush).
Kerry himself has followed the quaint custom (more common among American Catholics than evangelical Protestants) of trying to keep his religion out of the campaign; as he put it in his acceptance speech in Boston, he doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve.
But for the record, here’s what Kerry said about the political implications of his faith in his 2003 book, A Call to Service:

I am a believing and practicing Catholic, married to another believing and practicing Catholic. And being an American Catholic at this particular moment in history has three particular implications for my own point of view as a candidate for the presidency.
The first two follow directly from the two great commandments set for in the Scriptures: our obligation to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The first commandment means we must believe there are absolute standards of right and wrong. They may not always be that clear, but they exist, and we must honor them as best we can.
The second commandment means that our commitment to equal rights and social justice, here and around the world, is not simply a matter of political fashion or economic and social theory but a direct commandment from God. From this perspective “Christian” bigotry and intolerance are nothing less than a direct affront to God’s law and a rejection of God’s love.
There’s a third facet of being an American Catholic that I take very seriously. We’ve always been a minority in this country, and have sometimes suffered persecution. To a larger extent than Catholics elsewhere, we have supported and relied upon the constitutional principle of separation of church and state to guarantee our right to worship and our liberty of conscience. That tradition, strongly advanced by John Kennedy in his quest to become our first Catholic president, helped make religious affiliation a nonissue in American politics. It should stay that way.

GOP Congress Finally Does Something

After compiling one of the least distinguished records in living memory (as Casey Stengal used to say: “You could look it up”), the Republican leaders of Congress bestirred themselves to pass legislation yesterday, before sending their members home to campaign for re-election.
Unfortunately, the legislation was a classic Christmas Tree of special interest provisions that boosted the federal budget deficit and made almost every editorial writer in the country gag. Read all about it in today’s New Dem Daily.

Lesbians Run Wild in the Sooner State

Anytime you get bored with this election cycle, you can always count on Dr. Tom Coburn, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma, to liven things up.
The latest from Mad Tom is a late-August comment at a town hall meeting that’s just come to light. According to the Tulsa World, Coburn told the crowd about a conversation he’d had with a local state representative: “He was telling me lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom. Now, think about it. Think about that issue. How is it that that’s happened to us?”
How indeed?
After the World found a few SE Oklahoma educators who expressed puzzlement over the suggestion that their region had become unusually Sapphic, Coburn’s flack–pausing to attack opponent Brad Carson as a “pro-gay rights” candidate with “Hollywood liberal values”–said the Doctor’s remarks had been “taken out of context.”
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m going to pay special attention over the next few days to see what context the Coburn campaign comes up with to “explain” this howler. Maybe the candidate added a few lines about the boys’ restrooms, too.