washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Maximizing Black Turnout

Peter Wallsten’s L.A. Times article “Obama campaign targets black voters — carefully” merits a thoughtful read from Obama’s state-level organizers. In the nut graphs, Wallsten writes:

Obama strategists believe they have identified a gold mine of new and potentially decisive Democratic voters in at least five battleground states — voters who failed to turn out in the past but can be mobilized this time because Obama’s candidacy is historic and his cash-rich campaign can afford the costly task of identifying and motivating such supporters…What makes the idea of bringing in so many new voters more than just political fantasy is the Obama campaign’s deep pockets and the sophisticated apparatus it has begun building to achieve its goals — using techniques to ferret out and mobilize potential supporters that only a few years ago were the secret weapons of Republican strategists and their ideological allies.

Black voter turnout lagged behind the overall voter turnout nationwide in ’04, 60 to 64 percent overall. But Wallsten reports that David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political Studies, which monitors Black voter participation, believes a 20 percent increase is feasible in November, given the excitement generated by Obama’s candidacy.
While it’s likely that Obama’s nomination will produce a record-level Black voter turnout in November, it could still fall short of full potential without a lot of work at the street level. Obama, a former community organizer knows this is critical. And judging by the outstanding job his campaign did in the primary caucuses, there is reason to hope they will deploy those same organizing skills in turning out the Black vote.
One challenge facing Dems in maximizing African American turnout is felon disenfranchisement. There were as many as 1.1 million disenfranchised Black felons in Florida alone in 2004. New reforms in Florida have reduced that number by about 10 percent, but getting newly eligible Black adults registered and to the polls, felon or not, will require a creative, determined effort from the Obama campaign. Bush won Florida in ’04 by 381,000 votes. In all it’s estimated that 500,000 registered Black voters didn’t vote in ’04, with hundreds of thousands more eligible Black citizens unregistered. Clearly, an energetic Black turnout mobilization in the Sunshine State could be decisive in November.
Meeting voter registration deadlines is another major obstacle in turning out new voters from all constituencies. Here, procrastination is the enemy. October 6th is the voter reglstration deadline for potential swing states like Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Most of the others have deadlines a week or two after that date. Only Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire and Wyoming have same day registration provisions. North Dakota has no registration requirement.
In other words, the Obama campaign has about 100 days to reach all of those unregistered Black voters and help to get them on the voter rolls. Otherwise, all such talk of turning out new voters is just wishful thinking. It’s a daunting challenge, but meeting it could make all the difference. Finding unregistered young people of all races is yet another challlenge, and being prepared for the GOP’s usual election day obstructions is critical, as well.
Wallsten cites the concern that Obama’s messaging to mobilize Black voters could turn off some white voters. But I don’t think that’s the main problem. Obama knows he must reach out more effectively to get a larger portion of the white working class, which has plenty of shared concerns with Black workers. The two are not mutually exclusive, and Obama will find the common ground.

The Choice Edge

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner has an interesting — and important — study just out entitled “How Choice Helps Obama Win the White House.” Here’s the nitty-gritty from the executive summary:

With a struggling economy and on-going war in Iraq, choice is unlikely to be the defining issue of this year’s election. However, this latest research by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner commissioned by NARAL Pro-Choice America in 12 battleground states suggests that choice could in fact play a role in building a winning coalition for Barack Obama. Issues of choice not only have the ability to motivate Obama’s base, but among key swing groups – chiefly pro-choice Republican and Independent women – it creates sharps contrasts between Obama and Republican candidate, John McCain. These contrasts may tip the scale in what is sure to be a close race in November.

And a couple of the bullet points:

Once balanced information about Obama and McCain’s respective positions on choice is introduced, Obama gains 6 points overall, with his lead in battleground states expanding from a net 2 points (47-45 percent) to a net 13 points (53-40 percent).
The issue of choice moves the swing vote and generates crossover support. Obama gains 13 points among pro-choice Independent women (who make up 9 percent of this electorate) and 9 points among pro-choice Republican women (who account for 5 percent of this electorate). When these groups are combined, this movement equates to a gain of 1.6 points overall in the general election race against McCain.

The GQR study, commssioned by NARAL/Pro-Choice America and conducted 5/29 – 6/8, indicates a potentially decisive edge on the issue for Obama. There’s more, and the pdf and charts also merit a perusal by Dem campaign strategists at all levels of representative government. In presidential election years, there is usually some nervousness about abortion positions and the Catholic vote among Dems. But this survey should give Dem candidates more confidence in defending their pro-choice policies.
I’ve often wondered if the Democratic framing of the abortion debate could be recast more advantageously. (George Lakoff ruminates on the topic in broad context here) I liked the way Michael Dukakis laid it out in his ’88 run, saying in essence that women who have abortions should not have to go to jail, which is where criminalizing abortion leads. I’ve found that this angle works well in arguments with religious and pacifist friends who were a little wobbly on the issue of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. It is possible, after all, to be morally-opposed to abortion as a personal choice and equally opposed to penalizing women who have abortions at the same time. Asking “If your daughter/sister/friend had an abortion, do you think she should be subjected to criminal penalties?” brings it home nicely. And, in one of the presidential debates, I would like to hear Senator Obama ask Senator McCain “Do you think women who have abortions should go to jail?” It could help clarify the issue for many who haven’t thought it through.
Related abortion rights issues like parental notification, partial-birth abortion and government funding for abortions elicit more complicated responses in opinion polls. But on the core issue of protecting women who have abortions from legal harassment, the GQR study indicates Obama — and likely other pro-choice Dems — have a potent edge, and they should use it.

Learning From HRC’s Messaging

Readers of this and other political websites can be excused if they don’t feel like reading yet another post on what Dems can do to win more white working class votes, so numerous are published opinions on the subject in recent weeks. But Mark Schmitt nevertheless has a worthy read on the topic at The American Prospect. Schmitt’s post, “Did Hillary Crack the Working-Class Code?” makes the case that HRC’s messaging tone in speeches and ads later on in the primary season was exceptionally well-crafted for winning working-class votes. As Schmitt explains:

Where she won with a wide margin, her speeches and ads positioned mostly unsurprising policy proposals in the context of an argument about economic opportunity and fairness…If Clinton’s advantage did not come from what she said, it must have come from how she said it… I found two salient features: balance and modest aspirations. “I still have faith in [the American] dream. It’s just been neglected a bit,” Clinton said in a Pennsylvania TV ad. “They’re not asking for anything special,” she said of working-class voters in Zanesville, Ohio. “They’re just asking for a fair shake. They’re asking for a president who cares about them.”
Her language created a sense of order in the world, which she described in terms of mutual responsibility, symmetry, and a return to a better past: “We’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute Wall Street; you’ve had your president. Now we need a president for Main Street,'” she said on April 14 in Pittsburgh.

Schmitt posits her messaging in sharp contrast to Edwards’ harsher tone:

Note how different this language is, not just from Obama’s, but from the hard populism of John Edwards. Edwards depicted a permanent struggle against a relentless enemy: the corporate special interests themselves, who “will never give up power without a fight.” For Obama, there is a similar permanent challenge but also the hopeful idea that a lasting grand breakthrough might be possible.
For Clinton, the hurdles are lower — there’s a fight but no enemy. She argues that government has had its finger on the special interests’ side of the scale for seven years, so change is merely a matter of moving the weight over to the other side. Hence her constant theme, used in almost every ad and speech since March 4, of returning to balance — seven years of this, now seven years of that. Fairness for Clinton is not about resentment, equality, or even equality of opportunity. It’s about a return to an imagined normal order, where individuals’ thrift is matched by a comparable sense of responsibility on the part of their government. At other times, she uses the metaphor of a recent “detour,” arguing that we need to get back onto the “main road” of economic policy.

Although Edwards may have overemphasized the rhetoric of class conflict, I felt that Obama’s message tone was generally in the same ballpark as Clinton’s. Obama’s campaign can profit, however, from understanding the more nuanced messaging that characterized Clinton’s successful appeals later on in the primary season. Although a quick stop in any gas station can provide evidence that there is rising anger among working people, it hasn’t yet morphed into full-blown rage at U.S. corporations. It’s not to say that Edwards was wrong about the destructive impact of corporate abuse and corruption; he was stone cold right. it’s that voters seem to be looking for a more positively-stated, solution-oriented message. Thus Schmitt contrasts Clinton’s nostaligic “millworker’s grand-daughter” ad in Scranton with Edwards’s angrier “milworker’s son” pitch as a good example of her more positive tone in message-crafting. There seems to be a subtextual theme here of “hey, we don’t need an all-out class war here. But we urgently need some critical reforms to restore America’s greatness.”
As media coverage of the Iraq war receded during the primaries, the revealed differences between the social and economic policies of Clinton, Obama and Edwards were comparatively small. The Obama campaign’s challenge is to adapt some of Clinton’s successful messaging approaches to working people, while drawing sharp contrasts with the policies of McCain.

HRC’s Enduring Legacy

After reading a dozen post-mortems on Senator Clinton’s historic presidential candidacy, which granted, aint over until the lady in the pantsuit says so, the one I would recommend to future generations trying to understand the impact of Clinton’s run is Katha Pollit’s “Iron My Skirt” in The Nation. One of the venerable Nation‘s strongest voices for both feminism and peace, Pollitt offers one of the more insightful graphs on Clinton’s run yet published:

Some think Clinton’s loss, and the psychodrama surrounding it, will set women back. I think they’re wrong. Love her or loathe her, the big story here is Americans saw a woman who was a serious, popular, major-party candidate. Clinton showed herself to be tough, tireless, supersmart and definitely ready to lead on that famous Day One. She raised a ton of money and won 17.5 million votes from men and women. She was exciting, too: she and Obama galvanized voters for six long months–in some early contests, each of them racked up more votes than all the Republican candidates combined. Once the bitterness of the present moment has faded, that’s what people will remember. Because she normalized the concept of a woman running for President, she made it easier for women to run for every office, including the White House. That is one reason women and men of every party and candidate preference, and every ethnicity too, owe Hillary Clinton a standing ovation, even if they can’t stand her.

Hillary-haters — and there are many — probably won’t get this. But Clinton’s campaign may indeed have a profound and enduring legacy, equal in the long run to Obama’s.
Pollitt rolls out a very disturbing litany of media sexism directed against Clinton, and it was more widespread and appalling than I had realized. (Pollitt names the women perps, as well as the men). Yet Pollitt doesn’t attribute Clinton’s loss to vicious sexism. Instead she cites Clinton’s Iraq policies, strategic blunders and Obama’s remarkable political skills as pivotal factors. Pollitt nonetheless concludes with the warning that future women candidates for high office “better have the hide of a rhinoceros.”
To put Clinton’s candidacy into context, it may help to consider a recent Brookings study “Why Are Women Still Not Running for Public Office?” conducted by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox. The study, based on surveys conducted in 2001 and 2008, concluded that the gender gap in political office-holders in the U.S. has more to do with with women’s lower levels of political ambition than discrimination-related factors. Reading between the lines, however, it’s hard to dismiss pervasive societal sexism as a potent force behind what the authors call “the gender gap in political ambition.”
The authors acknowlege that HRC’s candidacy, along with the examples of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other women office-holders may yet shatter the political glass ceiling. Pelosi had a tough time of it, but what she experienced was a cakewalk, compared to what Clinton has endured. My hunch is not many male politicians could have run that guantlet of personalized attacks and emerged standing, dignity intact. And that example alone may empower women candidates for decades to come.

Nose-Cutting, Face-Spiting ‘Dems’ for McCain

Kos-poster Meteorblades gets medeival on so-called ‘Democrats’ who say they are going to vote for McCain because their candidate isn’t getting nominated. The whole article is worth a read, but this excerpt in particular lays out cold what such a vote would really mean:

…you McCainocrats are premeditating ballot support for an exclusive club of racist, union-busting, woman-suppressing, bedroom-peering, rights-scoffing, warmongering, torture-backing, buccaneering, global warming-denying, privatizing, public land-grabbing, Supreme Court stuffing, empire-building, Constitution-shredding raptors. All for self-indulgent revenge. You’re unhappy that your candidate has not won the nomination. I understand that. Mine didn’t win either. But you’re not just unhappy, you’re also willing to contribute to the election of someone who stands against most of what your candidate has been promoted as standing for. That, I don’t comprehend at all. Emotionally, intellectually or morally…

‘Nuff said. Apparently ‘Blades has struck a nerve here, with some 872 comments thus far.

DNC R&B Strikes Fair Compromise

The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee did a good job of resolving the dispute over what to do about the Florida and Michigan delegates. The compromise, which seats their entire state delegations and allows each delegate to cast a half vote, looks like one which an overwhelming majority of Democrats can live with. I would expect that a tiny percentage of Democrats at most will vote for McCain or stay home in November because of it. That’s probably about as good a compromise as could be expected.
Some Clinton supporters feel she deserved better. According to the NYT wrap-up, she gets 19 more FL delegates than Obama, giving her a total of 52.5 percent of FL’s 211 delegates, close enough to her 49.8 percent of Florida’s Democratic primary voters. But she only got a 5-delegate pick up in MI, for a total of 53.9 percent of MI delegates, close enough to her 55 percent of MI voters in the Dem primary, especially considering that Obama was not on the ballot. The argument that ‘Hey, he took himself off the ballot’ didn’t count for much. Nor should it. He should not be penalized for following the spirit of Party rules. Clinton supporters can argue that she deserved a few more MI delegates, while Many Obama’s supporters feel the Committee was generous in giving her any edge in MI delegates. In all, the Committee awarded Clinton a net gain of 24 delegates.
The Clinton campaign can’t gripe much about the composition of the deciding committee. They had an edge in terms of their supporters being a at least a plurality of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, and probably a majority. And the two chairs of the committee, Alexis Herman and James Roosevelt were both former Clinton Administration officials. That should put a chill on making too much of the “we wuz robbed” argument.
Bottom line is that there was no compromise that would make everybody happy. This one seems fair enough.
The contest may continue at the convention, starting with the credentials committee. It’s a close race and both campaigns would be remiss if they didn’t press their respective cases throughout the process. Both Obama and Clinton seem poised to support their Dem opponent if she/he is the Party’s certified nominee.
As for the future, the DNC and all Democrats should press the case for primary reform, starting the day after the general election, so we don’t have to go through this divisive exercise again. Senator Levin has a fair point in arguing the injustice of letting New Hampshire and Iowa have disproportionate influence in every presidential election. Other states should have a fair opportunity to go first, and the Rules and Bylaws Committee should begin moving in that direction.
Given the experience of the ’08 primary season, however, we may soon see some jockeying on the part of the states to see who goes last. Imagine the clout CA, TX or NY could wield if their primaries were the last in the nation.

McCain’s Blunder on G.I. Bill

Senator John McCain’s campaign fairs poorly in CNNPolitics.com‘s story, “GOP strategist: Democrats outmaneuver GOP over GI Bill.” The legislation, which McCain opposed, provides for a modest expansion in benefits for veterans with three years of post 9-11 service.
McCain argued that the bill would reduce military retention by 16 percent and discourage service members from becoming noncommissioned officers. However, GOP strategist and former Mike Huckabee campaign chairman Ed Rollins reportedly said of McCain’s opposition to the bill, which last week passed the U.S. Senate by a hefty 75-22 margin:

I think John McCain has been outmaneuvered…Sometimes in politics, there are intellectual issues and emotional issues…John McCain is going against veterans groups; he is going against a constituency that should be his. … But I think he is on the wrong side of this issue.

As for the political fallout, CNN quotes Rollins:

A lot of Republicans are voting for this, and I think to a certain extent as it moves forward there will be more and more. There will be tremendous pressure from veterans groups past and present and I think you will see a lot of bipartisan support for this as well…Intellectually, John McCain may be right, the president may be right. Emotionally, you are on the wrong side, you can never win an emotional battle in an intellectual argument.

While the occasionally insightful Rollins may have a point about intelllectual arguments rarely winning emotional battles (ala Drew Westen), I have doubts that McCain is on very solid intellectual ground with his argument about the bill hurting military “retention rates” by 16 percent. It just sounds a little too precise. Can any study accurately predict what military personnel will decide to do out of context? If our trained soldiers perceive a real threat to national security, would we really lose 16 percent? With respect to Iraq, on the other hand, we ought to be scaling back a lot more than 16 percent of those soldiers who put in three very tough years, anyway. It seems a lame excuse for opposing a bill that would help America’s veterans.
McCain has tried to distract attention from the issue by bashing Obama for not having served in the military. As for veteran status as a pivotal factor, Rollins points out that “George Bush’s father was a war hero lost the veterans’ vote to Bill Clinton…Same way with Bob Dole, a war hero lost the vote.”
In other words, military service is a significant plus for any political candidate. But it does not necessarily protect a candidate from the consequences of exercizing poor judgment on major issues, especially at a time when the candidate’s political party is having its own very serious problem with “retention rates.”
McCain has an alternative veterans’ benefits bill that would base education benefits on a sliding scale according to an individual’s years of service, and some version of it may eventually pass. His opposition to a military benefits bill supported by 75 Senators nonetheless puts him squarely in league with the out-of-touch Bush-Cheney ideologues who have a tight fist for vets, while squandering billions of taxpayer dollars on military contractors of questionable integrity to prolong a horrific military quagmire, with no end in sight. “Hey, I’m a vet” and even a war hero narrative may have less political resonance in such a context.

Clinton’s Poll Edge Over Obama in Big States

The Clinton campaign has been making a case that she has done better than Obama in primaries and head-to-head vs. McCain polls in “swing states.” It’s a credible argument, as far as it goes, although “swing states” can be a pretty fluid designation. I was wondering if it might be worthwhile to take a look at a more permanent designation — the ten largest electoral vote states — to see which Dem does better vs. McCain, using the most recent Rasmussen Polls (conveniently-presented at Pollster.com). I won’t compare primary results here, since some are not so recent.
First, there is a three-way tie between GA, NJ and NC for 9th rank in e.v.’s, so we’ll look at recent poll averages among LV’s in “the big 11”, in order (electoral votes in parens):

CA (55) Clinton 54, McCain 35; Obama 52, McCain 38
TX (34) C 43, M 49; O 43, M 48
NY (31) C 60, M 31; O 52, M 35
FL (27) C 47, M 41; O 40, M 50
IL (21) No recent Rasmussen data, but Obama has an 18 point advantage over HRC in SurveyUSA’s Feb. poll.
PA (21) C 47, M 42; O 43, M 44
OH (20) C 50, M 43; O 44, M 45
MI (17) C 44, M 44; O 44, M 45
GA (15) C 37, M 48; O 39, M 53
NJ (15) C 42, M 45; O 45, M 46
NC (15) C 40, M 43; O 45, M 48

Clinton does better than Obama against McCain in 7 of the 11 states with the most electoral votes. Obama does better than Clinton against McCain in 3 of the top e.v. states, with no difference in the margin in one state (NC). McCain leads both Dems in 4 states, and beats Obama in 4 more, but loses to Clinton in those 4. The consolation for both Dems, and Obama in particular, is that the margins are often very small/within m.o.e. Both Dems, especially Clinton, have a big edge in the top five e.v. states. Obama does run strong in the mid-ranking and below e.v. states, and in a close election, even the smallest e.v. state could make the difference. Nonetheless, our candidate has to be competitive in the top 10 to win. There is every reason to expect that McCain’s leads will evaporate under the glare of the spotlight when the race narrows to the two nominees, given the stark weakness of his Iraq and economic policies.
It seems fair to infer, based solely on this limited and highly qualified poll data, that Clinton would be the stronger candidate v. McCain in the top e.v. ‘mega-states’, were the general election held today. I suspect that poll averaging would reveal something similar. However this does not take into account, like Clinton’s ‘electability’ argument, that voters may turn on her in decisive numbers if Obama is denied the nomination after complying with all of the rules fair and square and winning a majority of both the popular vote and the non-supers. Still, I can’t yet blame her for hanging in there and pumping up her creds, assuming she will campaign actively for Obama after the delegates vote and he clinches the nomination. There is also a counter-intuitive argument that her refusal to quit before the convention is actually a good thing for Obama in November because his chances of winning over her supporters are better if it’s clear that she had — and took — every opportunity.

The Lion in Winter

I have to agree with Digby that it’s a little unseemly to be delivering eulogies for Ted Kennedy, while he is still alive. Still it was kind of moving to see his fellow Senators of both parties expressing their love and best wishes for him. Senator McCain was right on target in calling Kennedy “the last lion.” But hold the eulogies. Ted Kennedy is a tough guy, who has the kind of fierce spirit physicians like to see in patients with serious illnesses. There are good reasons to hope he will win this battle.
So often we don’t express or even feel our appreciation for people until after they are gone. So it’s a good thing that he is getting his due now. He certainly deserves it. There is no question that Ted Kennedy has been one of the greatest U.S. Senators ever, maybe the greatest, and his tangible accomplishments during his 45 years in the Senate surpass even those of his revered brothers, whose lives were cut short by assassinations.
It’s been many years since Ted Kennedy has been considered a serious contender for the presidency. But he has nonetheless left his mark on just about every piece of progressive legislation introduced in the Senate since he was first elected in 1962. Certainly no Senator has been a more steadfast opponent of efforts to roll back the clock of progress. Throughout his career, Kennedy has been the Senate’s most tireless advocate for the disadvantaged and downtrodden and a ringing voice for the powerless.
I had to smile when I saw a video-clip of Senator Byrd saying that Kennedy didn’t really need a microphone. I once saw Kennedy deliver the keynote address of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday service in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a sanctuary well-accustomed to the highest standards of American oratory. Kennedy grabbed the podium like he owned it and rang the rafters with a fiery call to action on behalf of the poor and oppressed that provoked gales of cheering and shifted the amen corner into overdrive. I remember thinking “That’s the loudest man I have ever heard.”
America still needs that voice, and the Democratic Party needs it more than ever. For me Ted Kennedy will always be the emblematic Democratic Senator, the one you point to in showing rookies “this is how it’s done.” Add my prayers for his complete recovery to the many being expressed to his family. Get well, good Senator. You’re still needed on the front lines.

Nebraska As Kingmaker, Role Model

MyDD‘s Jonathan Singer flags a Poblano post discussing a scenario in which, Nebraska, as one of two states (yes, Maine is the other) that do not have the anti-democratic winner-take-all system of allocating electoral votes, could actually cast the decisive electoral vote that puts Obama in the White House.
It’s an unlikely scenario, admittedly, since Dems haven’t won a Nebraska electoral vote since LBJ. But it is not an implausible one. Although McCain is up 11 points state-wide in a new Rasmussen poll, Poblano and Singer crunch the poll numbers, including the 2004 election data, and see Obama running close to even in NE’s 2nd district (Omaha), with an outside chance to take NE-1 (Eastern Nebraska). Poblano then plugs these potential wins into one plausible scenario, and voila, Nebraska is a king-maker.
In any event, hats off to Nebraska and Maine for rejecting the winner-take-all electoral votes system — which ought to be a high priority for democracy-loving state legislatures everywhere. Plaudits to NE, also, for their unicameral state legislature, arguably more democratic with a small “d.” Now, if Nebraskans will just vote right in November…
Photo Alert: Campaign ’08 is not likely to produce more glorious photographs from a Democratic perspective than the shots of the huge Obama rally (75K) at Portland’s gorgeous Waterfront Park (See here, here and here.).