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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Huck’s Stunt, Limp Ground Game

The AP‘s Ron Fournier has an enjoyable account of the latest act in the Mike Huckabee circus. Fournier, one of the few msm reporters who has not been snowed under by the Arkansas Governor’s much-noted wit, charm and bogus populism, nails Huckabee for a press conference he called to show reporters an ad he was withdrawing because it was too negative in attacking Romney.
Presumably, Iowans were supposed to respond, “Ah, how humble, how decent. But gee whiz, Huck’s ad had a point.” A dubious tactic at best. As Fournier says:

Iowans have a reputation for punishing politicians who go negative. The question is whether voters, particularly evangelicals who make up his political base, will believe Huckabee had the political equivalent of a deathbed conversion.
Or will they think he’s treating them like rubes — appealing to their sense of fair play while being foul?

Fournier wasn’t having any of it. Conceding that Huckabee is “an immensely talented communicator,” Fournier calls him a “flawed candidate,” “mistake-prone” and “thin-skined and rash.”
Towards the end of his article, Fournier notes something unique about Huckabee’s campaign:

He has a paltry political organization in a state that values the ground game, according to an informal survey of GOP county chairs and co-chairs. “I haven’t seen much of a sign of him or his people,” said Jim Conklin, chairman of the Linn County GOP.

What is interesting here is that Huckabee is leading in the latest polls and may just win the Iowa caucuses with a comparatively limp ground game, a highly counter-intuitive strategy. If he pulls it off, however, it doesn’t mean anybody can do it. As Ed noted in his 12/28 post “Somehow or other, Huckabee’s managed to come up with the jack for a respectable TV campaign of his own.” And not every candidate has Huckabee’s talent and grit for guerrilla politics. But if he wins, it will prove that Iowa can indeed be had without much of a ground game — at least on the Republican side.

527s Hit Hard in IA, Key Poll Expected Tonight

Jane Norman of the Des Moines Register Washington, D.C. bureau reports on the growing controversy about nonprofit issue ads being run in Iowa in the closing days of the presidential campaign. There’s no real shockers here — the article spotlights accusations against the Edwards, Clinton and Huckabee campaigns for abusing federal election law prohibiting issue-focused groups and candidate campaigns from coordinating activities. Norman notes that the Federal Election Commission found “widespread illegal conduct” by 527s in ’04 and quotes Fred Wertheimer, head of the Democracy 21 reform group: “it appears that 527 groups are blatantly and arrogantly at it again in the current presidential race.”
Don’t hold your breath expecting fines or penalties. Allegations of law-breaking are usually difficult to prove, and it would be hard to find a campaign that didn’t get a little too cozy with a 527 at some point. The hunch here is that the ads in question have been targeted for criticism because they are effective. You can see the pro-Edwards ad here and the pro-Huckabee ad here. A host of Iowa campaign ads can be viewed here.
In a close race — and it looks close for both Dems and Republicans in Iowa, any small or large factor can be credited with making the difference between a win or a loss. Among the most recent polls, the MSNBC-McClatchy/Mason Dixon poll conducted 12/26-28 has Romney and Huckabee in a stat tie in the GOP race. Ditto for Edwards, Obama and Clinton in the Democratic contest, echoing the results of other recent the polls cited by TDS yesterday.
The much-anticipated Des Moines Register poll, regarded by many as the ‘mother of Iowa polls’ just before the caucuses, will be reported in tomorrow’s edition of The Register, but the results will be circulating on the internet later this evening. Among others, The Baltimore Sun‘s political blog “The Swamp” plans to post results tonight.

Poll Taken – Poll Reported Gap A Problem

The latest L.A. Times – Bloomberg Poll, taken 12/20-23 and the 26th, shows a statistical dead heat between Democrats Obama, Edwards and Clinton in Iowa and between Obama and Clinton In New Hampshire. On the GOP side the poll has Huckabee ahead in Iowa and McCain challenging Romney in New Hampshire, according to Janet Hook’s L.A. Times report.
The horse race polls are increasingly valuable for predictions in the closing days of the last week before primary season begins. However, supporters of these candidates would be wise to hold the high fives for a bit, because the 12/27 Bhutto assassination and the fallout in Pakistan could influence the choices of IA and NH voters. Here we have a classic example of how a late-breaking event can make the horse race numbers suddenly seem kind of dicey.
It’s not hard to imagine a host of questions about the impact of the Bhutto assassination on the IA and NH primaries: In the event of the possible ‘meltdown’ in Pakistan noted by Ed yesterday, will voters now look for more foreign policy experience, since Pakistan is a nuclear power? If so, what will that do to the Obama and Huckabee surges? Or Romney’s lead? Will Clinton benefit? As a veteran U.S. Senator, Will McCain be helped, as the Republican “best at fighting terrorism and protecting national security” in the poll, or hurt as a gung ho Iraq hawk? How much will it help Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Biden, who held a press conference yesterday showcasing his expertise on Pakistan? Will Huckabee’s gaffe — his inaccurate statement about Pakistan being under marshall law, which was lifted two weeks ago, clip the wings off his surge. (For a good round-up of the Democratic presidential candidates’ comments on the Bhutto assassination, see here and here.)
The Bhutto assassination may have no real effect on the early primaries. However, all of the aforementioned questions cast a measure of doubt about the shelf-life of the poll’s findings. One or more of the candidates in both fields could get a little bump or clip, which might provide a margin of victory or defeat, translating into bold headlines coast to coast. Small world.

Mitt vs. Dad

In his Tapped post “The English Major Defense,” Mark Schmitt hones in on the most salient point about Mitt Romney’s claim that “I saw my father march with Martin Luther King.” It’s not so much that Mitt, well, stretched the truth about what he actually saw, to put it charitably. Looking at the larger picture, his father really was an extraordinarily-progressive Republican, as Schmitt points out, along with a few others of his era, including Senators Jacob Javits and Lowell Weicker. Schmitt asks a more relevant question:

Is there the slightest reason to believe that in the same position as his father, as it was becoming clear that the Republicans’ path to the presidency ran through the South (Goldwater secured the nomination in 1964 in part by opposing the Civil Rights Act, and Strom Thurmond switched parties that year), he would have shown similar courage?

Schmitt cites Romney the younger’s “shape-shifting adaptation to whatever the Republican prejudice of the moment is (anti-immigration rhetoric, or denouncing the kind of health plan he enacted as “socialized medicine”),” in stark contrast to his father’s principled stand for racial justice. The strategy of drawing broad distinctions between the GOP of an earlier era — when a few of its leaders actually demonstrated a concern for social justice — and the Republican Party of today is more rewarding than simply pointing a finger and saying a particular candidate lied.


It’s been said before, but Truthdig‘s Bill Boyarsky sums the argument up nicely in his Alternet post “Iowa Caucuses: Not the Battle of the Century.” Noting the guestimate of a worker in Dubuque’s Georgia Pacific plant that about 10 percent of the 125 union members at the plant are expected to attend the caucuses, Boyarsky adds:

That is in line with a Des Moines Register poll estimate of 12 percent Republican and 10 percent Democrat attendance at caucuses around the state. That figure is substantially above the numbers for past caucuses reported by Pollster.com: Just 5.5 percent for Democrats in 2004 and 3.9 percent for Republicans in 2000. That is a tiny percentage of the 57,204 people living in Dubuque and the 2,944,062 residing in Iowa. Such a low level of involvement makes me wonder about news accounts that portray this as the battle of the century.

Boyarsky calls the Iowa caucuses “a travesty of the American political system” and describes the whole exercise as “undemocratic, unfair, unrepresentative and overly complicated.” While Boyarsky is stone cold right about the caucuses being unrepresentative of the Iowa electorate as a whole, perhaps the real travesty is the “news accounts” he cites — the MSM media, and even some blogosphere writers hype the Iowa caucuses as the ‘make or break’ event for any number of presidential campaigns. Worse, some of the candidates themselves have affirmed this view.
The good people of Iowa can’t be blamed for enjoying all of the media attention and commerce the caucuses bring — any other state would do the same, given the opportunity. In terms of political strategy, it is true that no candidate who has finished worse than third in Iowa has won the Party’s nomination, as noted in my 12/23 post below. However, the Democratic field is unusually strong this year, and that alone should be a good enough argument for hanging in there for a few more days until New Hampshire, a state whose citizens enjoy confounding pollsters, has its say.

Southern Bellwether, 2nd Tier Troopers, Blue Ideopolis

The Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s Aaron Gould Shenin reports on a bellwether county in Georgia that has picked 28 winners out of 29 contests in primaries since 1996 (The tally includes state-wide, as well as presidential candidates). Muscogee County, which includes the city of Columbus, is diverse, but with a larger proportion of African Americans (about half) than the state as a whole (about 30 percent). The only miss was Muscogee’s pick for state Labor Commish back in ’88. Says Shenin, “If the Democratic candidates for president want to win the Feb. 5 Georgia primary, they best win Muscogee County.”
Scott Martelle has an L.A. Times update on the tenacity of “second tier” presidential candidates Richardson, Biden and Dodd. What keeps them going, you wonder? Martelle quotes Senator Dodd’s answer:

Iowa’s always about expectations. . . On the night of Jan. 3, the results come in, and if all of a sudden I’m in third or fourth place here, you’re going to have two candidates ahead of me whose campaigns may be over with because they failed expectations. . . . So all of a sudden this changes.

Adds Drake University political analyst Dennis Goldford, “The old rule of thumb is that there are three tickets out of Iowa. Nobody who has ever finished worse than third has gotten the nomination.” According to Martelle, Senator Biden will stay if he finishes “a close fourth.”
The article underscores what an outstanding field we have, especially in comparison to the opposition. Might be a good thing for the Democratic Party if one of these guys makes the cut and becomes a serious player on 2/5.
New Republic Senior Editor John Judis and TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira have a WaPo op-ed “Get Ready for a Democratic Era” featuring an informative look at key constituencies now leaning Democratic, including single women, professionals, Independents and white working-class males. They also discuss the growth of the ‘ideopolis’ as an influential Democratic stronghold, nation-wide, and have an optimistic vision for Dems, both short and long-term:

In 2006, the new Democratic coalition — women, professionals and minorities, augmented by disillusioned Reagan Democrats — retook Congress. In 2008, it’s poised to do even better….Republicans, who grew fat and happy during Bush’s first term, anticipating decades of rule, face some lean years ahead.

Teixeira and Judis do wave one flag, noting that the tilt to Dems among key groups “doesn’t necessarily translate into voter registration.” Notwithstanding inadequate voter turnout efforts, they believe Dems can expect “a striking political advantage over the next decade, and perhaps longer.”

Pundits Too Bearish on Dems’ House Prospects?

Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball takes a look at the Dems’ House prospects, both specific and general, and provides snapshots of key races. Sabato presents some interesting “leaning” and “likely” House race charts and ventures what we hope is a conservative prediction:

every initial indication suggests that 2008 will be a consolidation election for the Democrats. They may add a few seats, or lose a few, but their majority is unlikely to be threatened…it appears more likely that Democrats will gain seats in the House, thus padding their new majority. How many seats are added, or indeed whether this tentative prediction holds up at all, will depend partly on the identity of the presidential candidates and the coattails they generate..

The Cook Political Report‘s House of Reps guru David Wasserman sees Democrats picking up between two and seven House seats in ’08. MyDD‘s Jonathan Singer guestimates a 10-15 seat pick up. He reasons:

the National Republican Congressional Committee remains mired in debt less than a year out from election day while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is as flush with cash as it has ever been with a net $29 million in the bank. This magnitude of this feat cannot be overstated…Not only are the Democrats enjoying a real advantage in the money race, the Democrats have also seen a lot more success in recruitment than the Republicans.

Dividing the difference between Singer and Wasserman gives Dems a 8-9 seat pick-up, which is still way short of a working majority without a Dem President. Even more disturbing, if this pick-up percentage applies to the Senate, the Dems’ one-seat Senate majority seems even more fragile, especially with Lieberman cosying up to Republicans. Maybe it’s too much to expect another wave election, but a presidential landslide with coattails ought to be doable in a war-weary nation.

Fat Cats’ ‘Freedom Watch’ Has Deep Pockets to Back GOP

New York Times reporter Carl Hulse reports on the role of the conservative organization ‘Freedom Watch’ in holding the Ohio 5th district House seat for the GOP and defeating Democratic candidate Robin Weirauch.

The Freedom’s Watch ad, which had ample air time through an estimated $100,000 buy, was a tough one on immigration — the new go-to issue for Republicans. The ad suggested that Ms. Weirauch supported public health care benefits for illegal immigrants. Ms. Weirauch said she obviously does not support such a thing but instead backed a national health care plan that she said would extend to legal residents of the United States. Nevertheless, she had a tough time explaining her way out of it.

This was the first time Freedom Watch bankrolled ads in a GOP House race, but it is not going to be the last. Hulse speculates that Freedom Watch has “tens of millions” of dollars to pour into political races, to help make up the RNC’s fund-raising shortfall.
While it is unclear from recent reportage exactly who runs Freedom Watch, an earlier Washington Post article by Peter Baker named Mel Sembler, “the big-time Bush family fundraiser and co-founder of Freedom’s Watch,” former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, former White House aide Brad Blakeman, Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matthew Brooks and casino executive William Weidner. Baker quotes watchdog Larry Klayman, who is suing Freedom Watch, saying “its ties to the White House make it likely it was concocted by them as a scheme to circumvent the ban on soft money political advertising.”
Baker also reports that Freedom Watch was launched to spend $15 million in an advertising campaign supporting Bush’s escalation of the war in Iraq. All of which diminishes the cred of Republicans who whine incessantly about the contributions of pro-Democratic “special interests” and wealthy donors.
Meanwhile, Democratic breast-beating about our fund-raising advantage thus far probably needs some reassessment. Apparently, we’re going to have to dig a good bit deeper to win both the white house and a working congressional majority.

‘Corporate Greed’ as a Sleeper Issue

Fortune Magazine‘s Washington Bureau Chief Nina Easton’s post “Democrats’ War on Corporate Greed: Mostly Bluster” discusses the comparatively mild messaging of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the topic of corporate abuse in comparison to John Edwards.
Easton was struck with the anti-corporate tone of the Democratic field in Thursday’s debate — in stark contrast to the lack of discussion about the Iraq War and terrorism. But despite the debate’s “symphony of simplistic war-cries against business,” Easton sees the policies of Obama and Clinton as “more nuanced” and cites their “deep ties with supporters and contributors in corporate America.”
She is quite right that Edwards is the high-profile class warrior of the ’08 campaign, having anchored his campaign in anti-corporate rhetoric. His statement in Thursday’s debate in Iowa is emblematic of the core message his campaign has been hammering everywhere he goes:

We’re having trouble growing and strengthening the middle class because corporate power and greed have literally taken over the government, and we need a president who’s willing to take these powers on.

Easton believes that Edwards may have found a resonating message:

Edwards, in particular, has hit on an effective formula with populist-minded Iowans: While the two frontrunners, Obama and Clinton, stab-wound each other, Edwards catches attention by dropping a bomb on corporate America. On Thursday, a focus group of Iowa voters holding dial-meters and organized by Fox News (where I am a contributor) showed a mediocre response when Clinton talked about controlling healthcare costs, but off-the-chart support when Edwards let loose against corporate interests.

The last time a politician ran such a strongly-populist campaign was in 1976, when Senator Fred Harris lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Governor Jimmy Carter. But corporate America’s image has taken some hard hits since then.
The Ethics Resource Center’s 2007 National Business Ethics Survey of employed adults, sponsored by top Fortune 500 companies and conducted 6/25 to 8/15, found that only nine percent of companies “have strong ethical cultures” and ethical misconduct is back at “pre-Enron” levels. More than half of employees say they have witnessed ethical misconduct on the job.
The latest Conference Board survey of 5,000 households reported last February found that less than half of all Americans say they are satisfied with their jobs, down from 61 percent who were satisfied twenty years ago. Wages are stagnant. Health insurance premiums are out of control.
There is no guarantee that increasing job dissatisfaction will be translated into political discontent, like presidential approval ratings are clearly linked to rising gas prices. Yet, a lot of Americans feel like they are being ripped-off by big corporations and their errand-boy politicians. Edwards’ gamble is that this simmering anger can be converted into votes for the candidate who calls it out, loud and clear. There are no more Democratic debates before Iowa. But if his ads do justice to his message the week after Christmas, he just may win his bet.

Attack Ads Need Right Timing, Tone

A new study by ad and marketing research firm PQ Media provides a revealing breakdown of the way ’08 political ad campaign spending is shaping up. According to Steve McClellan’s Adweek article, “Political Ad Spend to Soar“:

Political ad spending across all media is projected to reach $3.03 billion, and account for 67.2 percent of all political media spending in the 2008 election cycle…broadcast TV would command the largest share of political media expenditures in 2008 with 51.3 percent of the total…direct mail…is projected to generate more than $1 billion in spending for the first time in 2008…Internet ad spending is expected to exhibit the fastest growth during the 2008 campaign, up an estimated 84 percent compared with 2006…Other media projected to exhibit high double-digit gains are public relations, promotions and event marketing (56 percent), direct mail (53 percent) and broadcast TV (46.2 percent).

As for the kinds of campaigns that will do the most ad spending:

The presidential race is expected to command the largest share of spending in 2008 at 37 percent, or $1.67 billion, while the Senate and House races will account for 19.4 percent and 21.4 percent, respectively. Due to significantly fewer gubernatorial races (11 versus 36 in 2006), spending by gubernatorial candidates is expected to account for less than 4 percent of overall expenditures, while local races and spending on referendums will account for the remaining 18 percent.

Martin Kaste’s article “Democrats Take Civil Approach in TV Ads (For Now),” at NPR’s website notes the relatively tame tone of current political ads of leading Democratic presidential candidates broadcasted in early primary states. Kaste seems to attribute the temporary civility to the approaching Christmas season. Seems a little early to make nice, but it makes sense to tone down for a couple of weeks. Candidates probably shouldn’t risk looking too negative close to the holiday.
Don’t be surprised, however, if the civility truce starts curdling in ads beginning December 26. Why? Because candidates across the political spectrum know that attack ads are effective. Republican strategist Roger Stone explains it this way:

The problem with negative advertising is: It works. The very same voters who tell you in the polls that they don’t like it, that they hate it, will turn around and tell you the exact content of the ads. And we know, from intensive polling going on now, that these ads do move voters from over here to over here.

Negative ads can backfire, particularly if they degenerate into a vicious ad hominem attack. One frequently-cited example is the 1993 Canadian election in which the Conservative Party appeared to mock Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien’s Bell’s Palsy partial facial paralysis, and the conservatives were damaged in the polls.
And accuracy of attack ads is critical, as Stone cautions:

…If so-called negative or comparison advertising is going to be effective, it should be footnoted, it should indisputable on the facts…And I think it is ineffective. Voters are not stupid. They can see through a late, unsupported charge.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not political attack ads have a depressing effect on voter turnout. One major academic study reported in the American Journal of Political Science indicated that attack ads do not depress turnout, and a more recent Journal of Politics article provides evidence that attack ads may often increase voter turnout.
There is an important distinction that needs to be made here — personal attacks vs. attacks on policies, although the lines between them are often blurry. What candidates should avoid is looking mean-spirited. But sharp, well-articulated critiques of policies, backed by credible alternatives, is what really makes a candidate look good. Ads that meet this standard win the support of swing voters who care about issues.