washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Dem Doomsayers Overlook Key Data

Our staff post this morning flagging Alan Abramowitz’s article in The New RepublicCheer Up, Democrats” merits a little amplification, given the exceptionally-favorable data he reveals. As Abramowitz explains:

According to every known leading indicator, 2008 should be a very good year for Democratic candidates at all levels. There are many factors that point to an across-the-board Democratic victory in November, including the extraordinary unpopularity of President Bush, the deteriorating condition of the economy, the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, and the fact that Americans prefer the Democratic position to the Republican position on almost every major national issue. However, the most important Democratic advantage, and one that has received relatively little attention in the media, is the fact that for the past six years the Democratic electoral base has been expanding while the Republican electoral base has been shrinking.
Since 2002, according to annual data compiled by the Gallup Poll, the percentage of Americans identifying with or leaning toward the Democratic Party has increased by about seven percentage points while the percentage identifying with or leaning toward the Republican Party has decreased by about six percentage points. Fifty-two percent of Americans now identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party while only 39 percent identify with or lean toward the Republican Party.
A surge in Democratic enrollment across the country has pushed the party far beyond its competitor in many of the key battleground states: There are now about 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania, for example. And even in states without party registration, such as Ohio and Virginia, the fact that turnout in the Democratic primary dwarfed turnout in the Republican primary suggests that a similar movement has been taking place. As a result of these gains in Democratic identification, the 2008 election could see a number of formerly red states, such as Virginia, move into the purple column, and several formerly purple states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, move into the blue column.

And Further,

The fact that Democratic identifiers now decisively outnumber Republican identifiers means that in order to win, Democrats only have to unite and turn out their own base. If Obama wins the national popular vote by even a single percentage point, it’s worth remembering, he’ll almost certainly win the electoral vote as well. In order for John McCain to win, on the other hand, Republicans not only have to unite and turn out their own base, which they have been fairly successful at doing in recent elections, but they also have to win a large majority of the small bloc of true independents and make significant inroads among Democratic identifiers, which they have not been very successful at doing recently.
Political commentators often assume that Democratic voters are inevitably less motivated and united than Republican voters–that they either won’t turn out or, if they do turn out, they will defect in large numbers to an appealing Republican candidate like John McCain. Leaving aside the question of just how appealing John McCain will be in November after undergoing several months of withering attacks from an extremely well-funded Democratic campaign, this image of Democratic voters is badly outdated

If Dems can unify, project a clear message and mobilize their base, Abramowitz predicts that Obama will be inaugurated on January 20th. But Clinton supporters will also find Abramowitz’s case for a growing Democratic edge encouraging, should she win the nomination. His argument also points to substantial Democratic gains in congressional, state and local elections, no matter who gets elected President.

Lines being Drawn in May 6 Primaries

Lots of interesting analysis across the political blogs today on the upcoming NC and IN primaries. Kos, especially has a succinctly-presented wrap-up of Pollster.com data:

Indiana Clinton/Obama
Downs Center 45 50
Times/Bloomberg 35 40
SUSA 55 39
ARG 53 44
R2K 49 46
The Pollster.com composite is Clinton 49, Obama 43. Indiana will be tight. I suspect both candidates can legitimately win this state, and neither will by more than 5 points in either direction. In fact, this is the only state left in the calendar in which the ultimate outcome is actually in doubt.
North Carolina Clinton/Obama
SUSA 41 50
PPP 32 57
ARG 41 52
IA 36 51
Times/Bloomberg 34 47
Rasmussen 33 56
The Pollster.com composite is Clinton 36.1, Obama 54.5.

Clinton’s edge in Indiana polls may be somewhat offset by Obama’s lead in fundraising, as Maureen Groppe reports in the Indy Star:

The Illinois senator raised $218,865 from Indiana donors in March compared with the $79,622 in Hoosier dollars contributed to Clinton, a New York senator who grew up in the Chicago area and has the support of much of the Indiana Democratic Party establishment.
Obama has raised a total $883,375 from Indiana since the race began, compared with $664,254 raised by Clinton.

SurveyUSA has a post on their Indiana poll conducted 4/11-13 (before PA) indicating:

In a Democratic Primary in Indiana today, 04/14/08, three weeks until the primary, Hillary Clinton defeats Barack Obama 55% to 39%, according to a SurveyUSA poll conducted for WCPO-TV Cincinnati and WHAS-TV Louisville. Compared to an identical SurveyUSA poll released two weeks ago, Clinton is up 3 points, Obama is down 4 points. Clinton had led by 9 at the beginning of April, leads by 16 mid-month. Here’s where the movement is occurring: Among men, Obama had trailed by 2, now trails by 12, a 10-point swing to Clinton. In greater Indianapolis, Obama had led by 12, now trails by 1, a 13-point swing to Clinton. Among Democrats, Obama had trailed by 12, now trails by 27, a 15-point swing to Clinton. Among voters focused on health care, Clinton had led by 10, now leads by 30, a 20-point swing to Clinton. Among the youngest voters, Obama had led by 19, now trails by 2, a 21-point swing to Clinton.

It’s just one poll, but it does suggest Clinton may have some mo’ in Indiana. It appears there may well be a split in May 6 state bragging rights. Regardless, the real battle is over the size of their respective margins which will divvy up North Carolina’s 115 delegates and Indiana’s 72. Hoosiers and Tarheels are going to see a lot of both candidates.

All About Indiana?

Many states have been called a “must win” for Senator Clinton, and she has shown a remarkable ability to rally when it counts, PA being the most recent example. In the weeks ahead, however, Indiana looms especially large for the Clinton campaign.
Shane D’Aprile’s Campaigns & Elections post “Is Clinton’s Pennsylvania Win a Game-Changer?” sets the stage for the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. D’Aprile explains:

Clinton has an uphill fight to get just one win out of the next two states on the Democratic primary docket. Polls show a mixed bag in Indiana where Clinton stands the best chance on May 6. The numbers range from a 5 point lead for Obama in the latest LA Times/Bloomberg to a 16 point advantage for Clinton in a recent Survey USA poll.
In North Carolina, polls suggest an Obama landslide. A recent Insider Advantage poll gives Obama a 15 point lead, while the latest numbers from Public Policy Polling give the Illinois senator a staggering 25 point edge. That poll also shows Obama leading among women and within striking distance of Clinton’s 5 point lead among white voters.

“North Carolina is a lost cause,” echoes U. VA political scientist Larry Sabato in D’Aprile’s article.”Obama will win big because of the large African-American percentage” (about 22 percent in 2005). Sabato believes Clinton has a better chance in Indiana, where Senator Evan Bayh’s support may help, although it would be counterbalanced to some extent by Obama’s familiarity to Indiana voters, 20+ percent of whom are in the Chicago media market.
D’Aprile’s article quotes Democratic strategist Steve McMahon on the effect of Clinton’s PA win: “It makes her claim that she can win the nomination a bit more legitimate…but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a math problem that’s almost impossible for her to overcome.” But political analyst Rhodes Cook adds “She can probably pull out a victory in Indiana…And then even if she loses North Carolina, she still has Kentucky and West Virginia where she could conceivably win by 20 points each.”
One indication of how close it may be in Indiana is the stance of heartland rocker John Mellencamp, who has scheduled appearances for both Obama and Clinton next week. Tuesday he joins Obama at an Evansville rally and on Saturday he sings for Clinton in Indianapolis. Mellencamp has also performed at at fundraisers for John Edwards, Wesley Clark and Howard Dean. Mellencamp’s publicist, Bob Merlis said there was zero chance he would perform for McCain. “The Democratic Party is the agent for change (Mellencamp) has pinned his hopes on.”
Rock on, bad boy.

PA’s Complex Demographics Trending Blue

Apparently the media image of Pennsylvania as the emblematic “white working-class” state is somewhat over-stated, according to William H. Frey and Ruy Teixeira in their “The Political Geography of Pennsylvania: Not Another Rust Belt State,” a Brookings Policy Brief published this month. This is not to say that white workers are not a large and important constituency, explain the authors. But the tagging of PA as a “rust belt” state is highly simplistic, given the surging populations of minorities — especially Hispanics — along with white college graduates, in the eastern and south central regions of PA.
Teixeira and Frey point out that white workers are still very much a thriving demographic in the Harrisburg and Allentown areas. But they also note that a growing “upwardly mobile” segment of the white working class, defined as having ‘some college education’ is an increasingly influential constituency that tends to favor Democratic candidates. The GOP still dominates in the declining western part of the state, but the east is blue, lead by the Philly ‘burbs and has delivered state-wide wins for Democrats in the last four presidential elections.
The Brookings report provides the best demographic analysis of the PA battleground yet published and paints an encouraging picture for Dems looking toward November. This one is required reading for reporters who like to know what they are writing about, as well as the Clinton and Obama campaigns

Abundant Advice for Winning Workers’ Votes

One week out of the PA showdown, the rags and blogs are overflowing with advice for Senators Clinton and Obama as they seek the political holy grail — the votes of the white working class. As Mark Weisbrot puts it in his Alternet post “The Audacity of Populism“:

The white working-class voters that will swing Pennsylvania in the Democratic primary will probably also be the swing voters in the general election (if it turns out to be a close election)….But there is one way that Obama can reach those white working class voters who are currently — without consciously recognizing that it might have something to do with race — groping for excuses not to vote for him. It may be old fashioned, but he can appeal directly to their class interests…But he needs to do more. He needs to convince these voters that he will do everything in his power to protect them from the impact of this recession.

The Boston Globe has “Democrats must renew bond with working class” by Peter Canellos, who warns:

McCain Meltdown Unlikely

Despite all of the buzz about Senator John McCain’s explosive temper, Democrats would be wise not to bet on a McCain meltdown. Sure, he could lose his cool at some point, but accounts of his intemperate outbursts over the years indicate that he rarely goes ballistic in public forums.
McCain projects a very tightly-controlled persona in media interviews. One of his more impressive communication skills is to lower the volume in his one-on-one television interviews — almost to a whisper — conveying a sense that “this is a reasonable, level-headed man,” in stark contrast to reports of his temper tantrums with aides, congressional peers and his spouse. A lot of voters seem to be impressed by this, and it may be reflected in McCain’s relatively high ‘favorable’ scores in opinion polls — even though the content of what is being said, particularly in McCain’s case, is often disturbing. (Glenn Greenwald has a good post on the topic of McCain’s manipulation of the media here)
McCain is also reportedly adept at schmoozing the press, one reason for the ‘free ride’ many progressives see in the coverage of McCain’s campaign so far. The media interview is McCain’s strongest messaging skill, and his campaign will deploy it lavishly in the months ahead. Don’t be surprised by a series of faux interview, low-content ads showing McCain as a ‘down-to-earth’ guy.
The tightly-controlled persona loosens some in his speech-making, because political speeches require a little passion. Here McCain is good at projecting appealing personal qualities like humility. In his Washington Times article, reporter Stephen Dinan jokingly describes McCain’s current series of speaking engagements, said to be peppered with self-effacing comments meant to endear him to audiences, as the “imperfect public servant tour.”
But the tension is there in the debates. McCain is a white-knuckle debater and appears easily annoyed at times. Both Clinton and Obama have an edge over McCain when it comes to debating skills. But we have seen in recent presidential elections that “who won the debates” doesn’t necessarily decide the election. As Chicago Tribune reporter Jim Tankersly notes via the LA Times,

There’s also a reason Republicans think their party will prevail: In several recent presidential elections, issues took a back seat to personality. Voters want government to do more to fix the economy. They also want U.S. troops out of Iraq. The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, sides with a distinct minority on both counts…But on less tangible questions of leadership, strength and trustworthiness, polls show McCain beating Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic candidates.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that FDR had “second-class intellect, but a first class temperament.” Although it’s a bit of a stretch to characterize a President smart enough to win four terms as intellectually lagging, Holmes’ point about the importance of temperament in a politician is instructive. (See Geoffrey Ward’s “A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt” for an interesting book on the topic)
Democrats are in a good position with respect of the temperament of both leading presidential candidates. Clinton’s communication skills have improved significantly as a Senator. Obama seems to have temperamental maturity beyond his years, which should serve him well in face-ups with McCain, should Obama win the nomination. But it would be folly to let reports of McCain’s tantrums make Democrats overconfident. Better for Dems to assume they are dealing with a highly-skilled communicator and respond accordingly.

Dems : Avoid Ageist Attacks vs. McCain

A blogger with the handle ‘Campaign Tactician’ has a worrisome suggestion at TPM Cafe. It goes like this:

It’s time for some aikido. Attacking McCain’s Pop-Truth effectively doesn’t mean trying to change these perceptions. It means using these perceptions against him. It means giving the media a narrative that extends rather than defies their perceptions of him and letting them repeat it enough that it becomes assumed rather than debated.
I think we need to show him to be the Grandpa Simpson of American politics: An ornery, forgetful man flummoxed by modern America. In other words, a man quick to both confusion and anger.
…Start digging through YouTube and coverage of press events, I’m sure we’d find plenty more examples of where his maverick straight-talk can be read as the rantings of a grouchy, poorly informed old man. That goes doubly for the various flip-flops he’s made to gain the nomination. Paint them as “political expediency” and we won’t make any headway. Paint them as “makes stuff up so people will listen to him”, you’ve got Grandpa Simpson.

I like the Aikido metaphor and the notion of using an opponent’s supposed ‘strength’ against him/her. ‘Campaign Tactician’ makes some good points elsewhere in the post about MCain’s free ride in the MSM and leveraging his “poor understanding of world affairs.” But I call it a worrisome suggestion because the ageist language and mindset could piss off a lot of senior citizens, and they tend to vote in impressive percentages. Sherman Yellen puts it well in his HuffPo post:

I write this as a man in the prime of his life, and one who rejects John McCain not because he is a fellow septuagenarian but because he is an arrogant, ignorant, and dangerous politician. I take exception to the view that he is drifting into senility, or soon will, and that he will be a danger to the country because age will wither his brain and leave only a choleric warmonger to press a button that blows us all to smithereens. John McCain would be a danger to this country at 46; no, he would have been a danger at 25. What makes him a threat and a hazard to us all are his lifelong beliefs — militaristic beliefs he held as a young man, and ones he shares with a lesser man, George W. Bush, about how to deal with domestic problems and foreign policy…We must not judge him on his age but on who he is and what he stands for today.
If we demand that people regard Barack Obama as an individual beyond his race — and Hillary Clinton as a leader beyond her sex — then we must give McCain his due and not judge him by his 72 years. Age does not make John McCain a threat to this country’s future. John McCain’s beliefs do.

There’s no net gain to be had in dissing elderly voters, and Dems who want to win shouldn’t even flirt with ageist language. McCain’s judgment problems and character flaws are clear enough — without attacking him because of his age.

Friday Linkfest

HuffPo has an excerpt from “FREE RIDE: John McCain and the Media” by David Brock and Paul Waldman — it should be a strong candidate for the short-list of the better books about the ’08 presidential campaign.
The MSM takes another broadside in Paul Farhi’s “Off Target” at the American Journalism Review web page. Farhi documents MSM ineptitude in predicting political trends in the ’08 election — an instructive lesson for pundits who are tempted to prognosticate.
Bruce Drake has an encouraging update at CQ Politics: “Democrats Making Big Inroads In Party Identification,” showing a 3-point gain for Dems since ’04, with the GOP down 6-points — a trend both broad and deep.
Nick Timiraos has a WSJ article “North Carolina Can Change Race Dynamic” continuing the discussion Matt Compton launched in his March 26 post.
Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith have an article in The Nation, “How Green Is Your Collar?” that should be of interest to Dems who want to build bridges between the environmental movement and blue collar workers.
David Paul Kuhn’s Politico article “GOP looks to ‘McCain Democrats’” examines the formidable crossover appeal of the GOP’s likely nominee.

Obama’s Speech a Net Plus

After reading a couple dozen different takes on Obama’s Philadelphia speech (NYT’s Janny Scott has the latest installment here and WaPo has a handful of articles today linked here), I am now prepared to render the judgement that it did him more good than harm. Shucks, no need to commend my vision and candor — the glory goes to Obama.
What I have been wondering for the last week is how one large and pivotal constituency, the white working class, including it’s subgroup the “Reagan Democrats” received Obama’s heartfelt oration, or even if any such broad generalization, pro or con, could be made. I’ve seen no post-speech poll cross tabs that lay it out clearly, although the latest Gallup polls since Obama’s March 18 speech show Obama holding steady against McCain. My assessment is also anchored in the collective shrug from that key constituency, other than a few paragraphs in comments sections following articles. What we don’t hear/read about is a chorus of complaining workers exploded in man-on-the-street round-up articles, or otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong. Obama’s speech was excellent, as measured by clarity, persuasive power and delivery. It is exactly the sort of speech that generates future royalties for the speaker when reprinted in ‘Great Speeches’ anthologies, chapters on ‘The Explanatory Speech.’ But I’m not sure it was a great campaign speech in the sense of winning hearts and minds among undecideds in general or the blue collar constituency in particular.
The speech was necessary — he had to respond in some way to the fuss about Rev. Wright. And speechifying is most definitely Obama’s strong card as a candidate. It was a wise decision to address the problem this way instead of issuing a press statement and then being subjected to endless media interviews in which he is less skilled and in which he would be vulnerable to attacks from the press. Ditto for debates, in which Clinton is a little sharper. Now he can just say “Well, I’ve already discussed that thoroughly in my speech, and don’t really have much to add.” No one will blame him, because most voters of all races are more interested in how a candidate is going to help get their kids educated, protect their retirement assets, fix the health care mess and get us out of Iraq.
Although Obama’s speech may not have won many new hearts and minds, it did the job well enough, which was to counter-balance the negative buzz about some of Rev. Wright’s sermons and what Obama thought about them. For that, hats off to David Axelrod, or whoever was responsible for the strategy and speechwriting for jobs well-done, as well as to the candidate himself for masterful delivery.
As a practical matter, however, campaign speeches are probably best measured by their fallout. This one was a winner in that regard, with more positive than negative buzz, even if most of it comes from the choir. When was the last time anybody got so much good ink from a speech? All in all, yet another impressive example of Team Obama’s edge in strategy and tactics.

Can Dems Win Libertarian Votes?

The March issue of Campaign & Elections ezine, Politics has a freebie cover story by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch. “Tuned Out: Cultural Libertarians Are A Growing Force in America. But Just How Can you Reach Them?”
Much of the article is a plug for Republican/Libertarian Ron Paul as a prototype presidential candidate of the future, without even a mention of Paul’s disturbing flirtation with white supremacist groups/ideology. But the authors do shed some light on Paul’s popularity with Libertarians, if not racist groups.
There’s also a fair amount of dubious speculation about “long-tail marketing” being the wave of the future in politics, as well as the economy. The authors cite a study of public opinion polls indicating that “15 percent of the electorate can more or less be described as Libertarian,” which doesn’t tell us much about what they actually do at the ballot box.
The merit of the article, in terms of Democratic strategy, is that it illuminates a significant ideological minority that divides its voters between Democrats, Republicans and the Libertarian Party and sheds light on what they think about a host of issues in current context. The sidebar, “7 Ways to Win Our Vote” limns current Libertarian preferences regarding online gambling; internet tax proposals; eminent domain; Iraq; immigration; medical marijuana; and health insurance. Democrats have an edge with Libertarians on most of these issues and other issues concerning personal and lifestyle freedom. Republicans will do better with Libertarians who are more focused on taxes, shrinking government and expanding unfettered trade.
It’s unclear whether the Libertarian percentage of American voters will grow in the years ahead. No doubt, Democrats can bite off a healthy chunk of the Libertarian-leaning constituency with the right kind of candidates. My guess is Obama would have a better chance than Clinton to win Libertarian votes in this cycle, although neither one satisfies the inflexible standards of free-trade ideologues. One suspects that many, if not most self-described Libertarians are not all that rigid on all their issues, so there is likely not much benefit in tailoring a strategy to win their votes.