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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


Abstinence Education

By Jasmine Beach-Ferrara
On a 100-degree day this summer, I took my dog on a run through Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. A mile into it, I looked up to see two teenagers, a guy and a girl, walking toward me, their shoulders brushing. Beyond us, an African drumming circle pounded away as part of an International Festival taking place on the park’s periphery.
My dog stopped abruptly in his tracks to relieve himself and I slowed down to jog in place. This, apparently, was all the prompting the teenage duo needed. In tandem, they veered towards me on the path and the guy — his shaggy bangs fanning coyly over his eyes, the collar on his pink polo perkily up — started talking about Jesus. As in, I’d like to tell you about my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the distance, the pace of the drumming picked up to a frenetic pace. Sweat dripped into my eyes as I blinked rapidly. Jesus?
I mumbled something about being comfortable with my faith and then gestured toward my dog, who was still crouching in a patch of weeds and staring off nobly into the distance. The guy smiled easily, undeterred. He was very calm and tan. Well, maybe you’ll join us for a church service this Sunday? he asked. The girl, much paler, nodded encouragingly as she offered me a brightly-colored, illustrated Jesus pamphlet. Maybe, I said as my dog jerked on his leash and pulled me down the path. Thanks, I called over my shoulder, out of a compulsive, and perhaps pointless, Southern politeness. My partner and I had moved from North Carolina to St. Louis just a week earlier and, in the midst of a Midwestern landscape that still felt foreign to me, there was something reassuringly familiar about crossing paths with evangelists.
Running again, I laughed, not derisively, but rather at the necessary absurdities of our America. Different day, different neighborhood, that could well have been me, waving someone down to talk earnestly about, oh, say, voting against a marriage amendment.
Might the progressive movement have more in common with the Evangelical Right then we like to admit? Like the pair I encountered in the park, we’re relying on door-to-door and in-the-streets evangelism to change hearts and minds about core spiritual beliefs and values. Across the country this fall, for instance, campaigns to defeat marriage amendments sent cadres of volunteers to knock on strangers’ doors and recite a two-minute script focused on conversion. I’ve been that volunteer and I’ve seen the guarded look on the face of Poor Voter X as she tries to shut the door without being too rude. Who can blame her?
Scripted, involuntary interactions with strangers are not an effective way to engage people, much less change their minds, about deeply-held beliefs. Election results, polling data and common sense all support this conclusion. Why, then, are progressive campaigns still relying so heavily on this strategy? I’m honing in on the LGBT movement in this article, but this question must be asked of any campaign attempting to defeat, or pass, a values-based ballot measure.
Since 2004, anti-marriage amendments have passed resoundingly in twenty states, including seven in the 2006 election cycle. The defeat of an amendment in Arizona is a tremendous victory for the movement. The narrowing gap between “yes” and “no” votes in several other states is also noteworthy. But the hard truth is that the LGBT movement is partly to blame for this storm of defeats: we can do better, if only we are willing to change our strategies.
As we knock on strangers’ doors, our opposition is busy preaching about the sanctity of marriage to thousands at a time from the pulpit, and microtargeting voters using consumer data. Putting aside basic democratic values like equality, they deserve some credit for their strategies. A hot button issue on the ballot does indeed boost turnout among your base. And when you put a “yes/no” question about gay marriage to a populace that is still figuring out what it thinks about the issue, most people will stick with what’s safe and familiar. Once again, the Right is playing smart offense while the Left cobbles together a formulaic — and ineffective — defense.
In the long view, anti-marriage amendments — and even the marriage issue itself — may come to seem incidental in the LGBT community’s journey towards civil rights. But in the short-term, we face a real, pressing dilemma in figuring out how to defeat these amendments. A holistic solution involves restructuring the LGBT (and the broader progressive) movement and adopting an approach to community and political organizing that is rooted in values and relationships rather than strategies of questionable effectiveness like canvassing and phonebanking. These are bigger picture topics for another day, though.
The question on the table today is how to engage meaningfully — and strategically — with the American public about values-based issues, including the charged question of whether full civil rights should be extended to LGBT individuals. Surprisingly, the short-term answer may be adopting another strategy from the Far Right: Abstinence Education.
Currently, when an anti-marriage amendment goes to the ballot, campaigns on both sides compete ardently for swing voters. Meanwhile, voters face the flawed, dichotomous choice of voting either for or against an amendment. For those on either extreme of the issue, these options are a good match. But what is that coveted swing voter, who, after all, isn’t quite sure what she thinks about gays getting married, to do? Anti-amendment campaigns expend tremendous financial and human resources trying to convince her — through short, scripted interactions with strangers — to cast a “no” vote. But, time and again, they fail to change her mind, her heart or her vote.
This should come as no surprise; after all, as people change, they typically do so slowly and idiosyncratically. Conversion takes time and the sooner we accept this, the better off we’ll be. In the short term, we’re not going to win the swing vote; so why not destabilize it?
For the time being, let’s say we’d still knock on a swing voter’s door to contact her. But when she opens it, our message, tone and goals would be different. Instead of simply exhorting her to vote “no” against an amendment, we would instead start a conversation acknowledging the complexity of the issues at stake. While still encouraging her to vote “no,” we would also present her with another option: to abstain from voting on this one ballot measure. As the election cycle progressed, we would use increasingly tailored messaging for a) our base, b) swing voters that seemed likely to vote “no” and c) swing voters who seemed likely to abstain. The only voters excluded from targeting efforts would be those who were certain to vote “yes,” a much narrower pool than is currently being excluded.
At first, the idea of abstaining from voting chafes against the basic democratic impulse that it’s always good to vote. But give it a few minutes. The questions being posed to voters by values-based ballot measures (about gay marriage, about stem cell research, about abortion) are inherently flawed; they don’t allow room for the nuanced and even conflicting belief systems that polling and anecdotal evidence suggest so many people hold. There’s no reason for us to continue to be complicit in this. Why not, instead, give voters a proactive option — abstinence — that actually correlates with their beliefs.
If sufficient numbers of swing voters abstained and if a campaign’s base turned out robustly, it could impact election results. Implemented successfully, this strategy would increase the likelihood of defeating an amendment by (1) reducing the number of votes necessary to defeat a ballot measure and (2) pulling swing voters away from the opposition. (For the sake of brevity, the details of implementation are not enumerated here, but they are available on request.)
A quiet piece of 2006 Election Day data from South Carolina points to the potential of this strategy, and the fact that some voters are also acting on the impulse to abstain. The South Carolina Equality Coalition reports that a total of 26,021 people who voted for governor abstained from voting on Amendment 1. Could this number be grown if a campaign were willing to adopt abstinence education as a proactive strategy?
Polling data and election results from 2004 and 2006 provide insights into the tension between actual beliefs, beliefs reported to pollsters, and voting behaviors. National polling conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates International in the months leading up to the ’04 election showed that 29% of people favored gay marriage, 60% opposed it and 11% were unsure. However, when asked whether they favored or opposed a legal agreement that would grant gay couples many of the same rights as married couples, 48% were in favor, 45% opposed, and 9% unsure. In 2004, amendments passed with at least 60% of the vote in ten states; in Mississippi alone, a full 86% of voters supported the amendment. In other words, many of the people who reported believing in equal rights, or who weren’t sure what they thought, ended up voting for amendments. Why? In part, at least, because our campaigns failed to engage them meaningfully, and failed to provide them with a way to accurately express their beliefs.
With the notable exception of Arizona, these tensions held true in 2006 as well. According to July 2006 polls conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 56% of people polled opposed gay marriage, 35% favored it and 9% were unsure; meanwhile 54% of people reported favoring a legal agreement that would grant equal rights to gay couples, with 42% opposed and 4% unsure. On Election Day, amendments passed by margins ranging from 4% (South Dakota) to 54% (South Carolina).
Public opinion is changing, and our strategies need to change along with it. The question is whether our movement is nimble enough to do this.
The problem with “Abstinence (Voting) Education” is that it’s a new strategy and thus challenges established methods of political organizing. But a variation on this approach has proven effective in public health work, a field that is also concerned with changing human behavior. The “Abstinence (Voting) Education” model is rooted in the public health theory of harm reduction, which years ago redefined how we think about treating addiction. In a harm reduction approach, a person gradually reduces her risk-taking behavior, such as drug use, and each reduction in risk is defined as a success. If a person uses drugs once a week instead of three times a day, for instance, they are making progress. In public health and in political organizing, the polarized choices — to vote yes or no, to be sober or relapsed — leave out that great swath of people who are in flux, who are in the midst of the (beautifully) messy and human process of change.
If any community knows about the change process, it’s the LGBT community, and it’s time to extend the lessons learned in our personal lives to the political sphere: people change, but they tend to change slowly, and what they need through this process is choice and latitude, not exhortations and polarities. “Abstinence (Voting) Education” meets people where they are and, like the most effective political strategies, plays to human nature instead of trying to change it.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the Director of The Progressive Project and is a consultant to non-profits and political campaigns. She is currently working on a novel and her writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Advocate, The Bellevue Literary Review and on Alternet.org. Those interested in discussing this strategy can reach her at jelibe@hotmail.com.

Racial Animosity as a Value, The Cherry Pick, and the Democratic Diamond

By Thomas Schaller
If only I were either rich enough or, absent wealth, disarmingly persuasive enough to have been able to enlist Ezra, Paul or Scott (or all three) to serve as ghostwriters for Whistling Past Dixie. Putting aside their areas of (mostly) agreement and their insightful points of disagreement with my original essay on the demographics of the non-southern strategy, what’s apparent is that they often ratify or refute my arguments with far better prose than my own.
Despite those areas of agreement, there’s quite a bit in each of their replies that deserves a response, and I shall proceed as follows: I will take each critic’s central counterpoint, respond to it directly in defense of my main thesis, but then use that critique as an opportunity to make a limited case against my own claims. I’ll take them in order, starting with Ezra and finishing with Scott.
1. The annoyingly-wise-beyond-his-years Ezra Klein is right that economics may prove to be a more precise barometer than non-economic measures of demography, but that observation only affirms southern exceptionalism. For if, as we saw in 2006–a year in which every minimum-wage ballot measure passed and all three of Grover Norquist’s “starve the beast” measures failed–economics is indeed what matters most, surely the poorest region of the country would have produced the most resounding surge for Democrats, right? Yet the reverse is true: The Democrats carried the richest region, the Northeast, by 28 points; the West by 11 points; and the Midwest by five points; and lost the poorest region, the South, by 8 points. And 85 percent of all Democratic gains at every level came outside the South, home to none of the 10 state legislative chambers the Democrats flipped.
Why the, um, “poor” showing for Democrats in the South? It was not for lack of support among poor and working-class African Americans, that’s for damn sure. Rather, the losses were a byproduct of general Democratic disdain among poor whites. The lesson of ’06 is that economics is destiny until the point that non-economic demographics intercede, namely, in the form of cultural and religious values and, unfortunately, the unseemly “value” of racial animosity. The latter is hardly unique to South, and not all southerners harbor such feelings. But as ample studies of National Election Survey data I discuss in detail in the book demonstrate, these sentiments are most prevalent and most powerful in the South.
Schaller contra Schaller: When traveling in South Carolina as I researched this book, a state political observer whose name I must protect stopped me in the middle of a discussion about Republican Governor Mark Sanford’s support for school choice and said: “Well, of course he supports it–it’s basically the last legal form of racial redistribution.” And by redistribution, he meant away from African Americans. That observation, coupled with the pre-civil rights era support for economic populism among white southerners means that the best way to recapture the support of working-class and poorer whites is to frame government programs as helping the region’s whites rather than the poor. If the effect of those programs is (incidentally or intentionally) to also help blacks, so be it. But if sold that way, they will be harder to use as a way to pry blue-collar southern whites away from the Republicans. That conclusion may smack of affirming the assumption that southern whites harbor significant racial antipathies, but again, the empirics make this assumption inarguable.
So, short of a massive campaign to re-socialize the white South with some sort of on-the-couch-with-Oprah regional diversity seminar–sidebar: would the James Carvilles, Steve Jardings and Ed Kilgores endorse such an idea?–the best way to lure back working-class white southerners is to find ways to de-racialize social and economic programs. That’s a tough nut to crack, and one I’ll leave to those very same consultants to solve; after all, they’re the experts who know these voters best, care about them most, and best speak their language. I’m all ears, fellas.
2. I’ll accept Paul Waldman’s media-oriented bouquet of a critique as an invitation to tackle, head-on, the resistance among talking heads to dealing with my thesis. Even before the 2006 election results were known, Paul correctly pronounced me a convenient target. Though Rick Perlstein of The New Republic has done a nice job of defending me, nobody would call me a shrinking violet. So let me push back against the one media critique I find most suspect and most dangerous: The Cherry Pick.
There have been a variety of pieces written since the election–most notably by Kilgore and The Nation’s Bob Moser–in which writers presume the entitlement to self-select results and loosen borders as a way to arrive at what I assume were pre-ordained conclusions. I define the South as the 11 former Confederate states, as most scholars in my field do. I’d certainly engage discussions about whether Kentucky or Oklahoma ought to be added to that list, so long as I’m allowed to exempt Florida–the least southern of the southern states precisely because it has so few native southerners or southern descendents. But critics be warned: Removing Florida from the equation means that the other 10 Confederate states plus KY and OK cast a smaller share of electoral votes today than a century ago. I’ll accept that border redefinition, if they want it.
More disconcerting is the use of exceptional cases (like Heath Shuler’s) to paint a misleading national portrait. Why Kilgore and Moser–both of whom I’ve engaged by email, and respect–are knowingly avoiding the overall trends and results is baffling and rather revealing. Those results include not only the 85 percent non-southern gains and exit poll results I mention above. The “flip rates” in the U.S. House in 2006 were as follows: Democrats defeated or replaced 31% of retiring Republican House incumbents in the Northeast; 15% in the Midwest; 9% in the West; and just 6% in the South. And, for the first time in 52 years, the party holding the minority of House and Senate seats, the Democrats, is nevertheless the majority party nationally–a truly stunning regional development. Waldman might contend that many in the media have chosen to ignore these developments because they are, by reflex, reluctant to point out anything that might discomfort southerners, and I’d agree. So I’ll ask rhetorically: Have we really reached a point in our national discourse where the reporting of basic facts must be made secondary to somehow offending certain groups of voter-citizens, no less national commentators? I hope not.
Schaller quiets Schaller: More than a few Democrats, including some liberal Democrats, have essentially said to me, privately, “OK, Tom, you’re more or less correct, but would you mind shutting up now?” As a social scientist and political analyst, my reflex is to refuse. As a liberal Democrat who very much wants to win and maintain power, my opposing reflex is keep quiet so that the party can claim “the center” and project an inclusive, 50-state approach. (By the way, I’m on record, both in the book and since the election, as a supporter of Howard Dean’s approach.)
So, I’ll offer to Democrats what we might call the “Nike Compromise”: If they agree privately to build a non-southern majority before turning to the South–to just “do it” without announcing it–I’ll agree to muzzle myself about the data and the analytical cherry-picking. I want to sell books and, like anyone else, I want to be proved right. But I’ll trade book sales and self-satisfaction for the broader goal of an enduring Democratic majority.
3. As for the request by Scott Winship–to whom I’m grateful for both organizing this roundtable and participating in it–that I embrace the moderates outside the South and not give up completely on the South, his is an easy request to fulfill.
The entire book is built around the premise that most of the non-southern states are simply easier or closer to being swung to blue because the swing voters there are either more amenable to Democratic messages and messengers, and/or in greater supply. The fourth through seventh chapters of Whistling lay out the where, who, why and how of building the non-southern majority. The essay that started this Roundtable was a distillation of the book’s fifth chapter–the “who” Democrats can assemble in those non-southern states in order to build a majority. Backing up one chapter, the “where” is what I call the 20 pan-western states of the “Democratic Diamond” formed by connecting Cleveland to Helena to Las Vegas to Tucson, and back to Cleveland. The underlying premise, again, is that these 20 midwestern and interior western states are easier to flip right now. It’s clear, especially from recent presidential results, that most of the competitive states are in fact in the Midwest and Southwest.
On this point, Scott might interject–“Yes, Tom, because the moderates in these purple states are less wedded to either party.” I do not have state-by-state data to prove that self-described moderates in these states are more or less firm in their partisan commitments, or are larger or smaller as a share of their respective state electorates. Unlike the founders of this site, I think that focusing too much on self-descriptive labels can be very misleading. If we discovered that 10 percent of voters were self-described “hot fudge sundaes,” and that they went 70% for Bill Clinton in 1996, but only 55% for John Kerry in 2004, would that result have any meaning without first asking who, demographically, these people are, and second, what their ideological dispositions and policy preferences are? Labels are not entirely semantic, but one man’s idea of “moderate” is another’s idea of “liberal” or “conservative.” This is why the Galston-Kamarck analyses are misleading, if not borderline irrelevant–all they prove is that a lot of people who think, act and have preferences similar to “liberals” prefer instead to call themselves “moderates,” as Roundtable participants Waldman and Klein have both shown.
Despite not having looked at self-described “moderates” for the book, my sense of it from having looked at the state registration data in some of these states, especially Interior West states like Arizona and Colorado where the share of registered independents (or “unaffiliateds”) is growing, is that a focus on moderates and independents will bring us back to a non-southern strategy. How do I arrive at this conclusion? Because early in the book’s opening chapter, I show that the region where both Ross Perot and Ralph Nader did worst was the South. And that’s because the South, for a century prior to the civil rights era, was a place where voters made firm commitments (to Democrats) and stuck to them and, since the Dixiecrat-to-Republican turbulence of the past two generations, has now become a place where voters have made firm commitments (to Republicans) and stick to them. Put aside race, gender, socioeconomic status, rural-urban-suburban factors, and unionization for a moment and just look at the regions based on their inclination to vote for third parties as a notional proxy for the existence of “moderates,” or “independents” or “swing voters” generally up for grabs, and what do we find? The South is the last place for Democrats to turn first.
Schaller moderates Schaller: As to Scott’s request about not giving up on the South in the longer term, I already make this point in the book, so that’s easy enough to satisfy. In the book and subsequent to its publication, I very clearly state that the South is not as monolithic as it was 30 years ago and won’t be as regionally distinct 30 years from now–but that I just don’t want to wait until 2040 for a southern-infused Democratic majority. But let me do Scott one better and make a limited case for not giving up on the South right now–realizing that my most harsh and unfair critics will seize upon only the graphs to follow in order to say I’m contradicting myself or diluting my argument.
A don’t-abandon-the-South-now argument centers, in my view, on two things. First, is an understanding of the region’s demographic heterogeneity, something almost every critic points to when countering my book. “The Research Triangle in NC is different,” they’ll say. “And what about Northern Virginia?” And so on. But notice that many of the more competitive areas are populated by high numbers of non-native southerners. If the southern defenders want to argue that the way to win the South is to bring in a bunch of northerners, fine, I’ll surrender right now because they would be conceding that native (white) southerners have gone Republican and aren’t coming back any time soon. But my larger point is that these very criticisms bring us right back to the issue of demography–and once you get there and pull back the lens, you realize that the demographic picture points generally to a non-southern strategy. Sorry, detractors: Demography matters.
The second argument has to do with non-transferable resources. Take, for example, recruitment. Finding a Heath Shuler is always a good idea because recruiting him does not detract from the efforts made to, say, find a Chris Murphy to win in Connecticut. Likewise, if there is somebody in western North Carolina who would be willing to write Shuler and only Shuler a check, that’s found money that is not, say, coming out of the DCCC’s coffers. So the rule here is simple: Any organically-raised resources–the recruitment of candidates; the training of those candidates; the local volunteers who are motivated to work on behalf of those candidates; contributors who are so enamored with those local candidates they are willing to write them checks they otherwise would spend non-politically–that can be harvested, should be because they in no way militate against winning elsewhere. But any non-local or national resources that are funneled to long-shot candidacies for the sake of “moral” victories, or to pacify angry southern Democrats, at the expense of winning in more competitive races must be avoided.

Dr. Thomas F. Schaller is associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and a board member of the Democratic Strategist. A political columnist for the Washington Examiner, Schaller has published commentaries in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, Salon.com, and The American Prospect, and is presently writing columns for The New York Times-Select Special “Midnight Madness” feature. Dr. Schaller has also appeared on ABC News, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and C-SPAN.

Progress Toward a New Synthesis

By Ruy Teixeira
In TDS’s premiere issue, I observed that “[t]he old debates between ‘populists’ and ‘New Democrats’ have clearly run out of gas” and that the contributors to our initial issue had, refreshingly, “focused their attention on providing concrete suggestions on where and how the party can focus its energies to be more effective”, instead of re-fighting those old battles. I thought it would be interesting to revisit these suggestions–which struck me as potential points of unity among Democrats–and see how they look in the aftermath of this election.
Here are the seven points of unity from my initial article and how they look today.

  1. Make Elections Fair and Clean. Who could argue with this? While the 2006 elections were not without their flaws (e.g., Florida-13), it seems fair to say that, by and large, these elections were reasonably clean. It also seems fair to say that Democratic vigilance helped make this happen and more of the same is in order in future elections.
  2. Support and Promote Unions. Always a good idea, it seems an even better one for Democrats after an election in which union household voters supported Democratic House candidates by a very wide 64-34 margin (68-30 among actual union members) and represented nearly a quarter (23 percent) of all voters. Time to really pump up the pressure for EFCA (the Employee Free Choice Act), which would allow “card-check” recognition of unions and make it a great deal easier for workers to join them. This reform is now supported throughout the Democratic Party, including by many, like Al From of the DLC, who have clashed in the past with the union wing of the Party.
  3. Catch the Demographic Wave. And it looks like the Democrats are catching it. In my earlier article, I noted that a surge toward Democrats among Hispanics appeared likely given their disenchantment with Bush and the Iraq war, as well as the GOP’s anti-immigrant politics, and I cited a poll showing Democrats running 40 points ahead of Republicans among Hispanics in the generic congressional ballot. Pretty close! According to the exit polls, Hispanics favored Democrats by a 39-point margin (69-30). No one in the Democratic Party can reasonably dispute anymore that effort put into mobilizing Hispanics is effort well-spent.
  4. Get Back to Competence and Reforming Government. This point looks even better now. In the 2006 election, 41 percent of voters cited corruption/ethics as “extremely important” to their vote, and these voters supported Democrats by a 59-39 margin. In addition, the issue figured prominently in the Montana Senate race and may have actually been decisive in quite a few House races. As I remarked in the earlier article, “Voters are looking for change and Democrats must provide it…. Over the longer term, the ability of Democrats to promote the kind of programs they believe in, even if they are electorally successful, very much depends on building the belief among voters that government can, in fact, be competent and work well. Otherwise, voters will fear that, even with the best intentions, Democrats will wind up wasting their money.”
  5. Change the Map. It certainly seems like this point has been vindicated by the 2006 election results. Looking outside the obvious blue and purple target states–where the Democrats did very well indeed–they also took Senate seats in Montana and Virginia, governorships in Arkansas and Colorado, and House seats in Arizona (2), Colorado, Indiana (3), Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas. And, in the process of gaining 321 state legislative seats nationwide and complete control of 24 state legislatures (vs. only 16 for the GOP; the rest are split), the Democrats made significant gains in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming (where Democrats came extremely close to also capturing that state’s lone seat in the US House). Clearly, the map has shifted in the Democrats’ favor, and the idea that Democrats should “put more and more of the country in play and allow for the building of substantial Democratic majorities, rather than razor-thin victories based on swinging a few battleground states” seems an eminently viable one.
  6. Go After Moderate and Independent Voters. Check again. In the earlier article, I observed that “[a] serious Democratic majority–barring radical changes in turnout by partisanship and/or ideology–needs a 5-10 point margin among independents and a 15-25 point margin among moderates.” I was, if anything, too modest in my goals! In the 2006 election, independents favored Democrats by 18 points (57-39), while moderates voted Democratic by 22 points (60-38).
  7. Give Voters Clear and Big Choices. Here is where one might argue that there is general agreement, but not necessarily much progress. While it was unfair to accuse the Democrats of having no ideas in this campaign, those they had did not really qualify as “clear and big choices” for voters–besides which the election was inevitably more a referendum on the Bush Administration’s record (especially on Iraq, but also on the economy, corruption, health care, etc.) than anything else.

So the quest for big or “swing” ideas (as Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny put it in our first issue), and for a compelling public philosophy to undergird them, continues. I have already offered my nomination for such a public philosophy, focused around the concept of the common good, in my paper with John Halpin “The Politics of Definition” (see also Michael Tomasky’s path-breaking article in The American Prospect, “A Party in Search of a Notion“). Now let me offer my nomination for a swing idea that would provide a clear and big choice to voters.
This idea is outlined in an article Jacob Hacker and I just published in The American Prospect on the role of the economy in the 2006 election and how Democrats might generate even larger advantages on that issue in the future. Here’s an excerpt from our article that summarizes the idea:

[D]emocrats need to refashion the theme of security for the 21st century, putting forth a set of simple ideas and arguments for providing Americans with the secure financial foundation they need to reach for the American dream.

The starting point for this vision is a simple but forgotten truth: Economic security is a cornerstone of economic opportunity. When Democrats talk about social insurance they tend to focus on how programs like Social Security and Medicare help prevent financial disaster. But there is another, more positive way to talk about insurance: as a way for families to get ahead. Just as businesses and entrepreneurs are encouraged by basic protections against financial risk to invest in economic growth, so adequate security encourages families to invest in their own future — something many now find quite difficult. It’s not easy to invest in the future, after all, when a sudden drop in income or rise in expenses could completely blow away your family budget. That sense of insecurity will make a person less likely to invest in specialized training, cultivate new career paths, aggressively change jobs — the very things that are likely to allow that person to get ahead.

There is a huge void in American politics just waiting to be filled by public leaders who can speak convincingly about the need to provide economic security to expand opportunity. Efforts to increase health coverage and contain health-care costs (including the cost of prescription drugs), to improve the quality and availability of child care, to defend and extend guaranteed retirement benefits (including Social Security), to provide middle-class families with strong incentives to save and build wealth, and to make college and specialized training available to all are the subjects of countless and competing policy prescriptions. But the important thing is that these policies should be put in the context of helping Americans get ahead. These are measures to allow the typical American family to raise its head from the day-to-day struggle of an insecure world and concentrate on its most heartfelt wish: to achieve the American Dream.

With this approach, the democrats’ mantra can be simple and repeated endlessly: providing security to expand opportunity. The Republicans, in contrast, provide nothing, leaving hardworking American families without the secure base they need to get ahead. That’s the wrong message in this day and age and Democrats can make Republicans own it, if they play their cards right.

Over the next two years, Democrats should use their newfound power over the agenda to set goals and formulate ideas that force Republicans to take a stand on the domestic issue of our day: the economic insecurity of the American middle class. No 50-point programs. No triangulating targeted measures. Just one powerful vision, backed up by bold ideas on health care, retirement and job security, and family finances.

That’s our idea and we think it’s a good one. There will be other nominations for swing ideas, of course, and that’s fine. Let the debate be vigorous and, as we always emphasize here at TDS, as fact-based as possible. But let’s keep at it until we really do have some swing ideas that American voters can embrace with enthusiasm. Running against the failures of the Bush Administration worked very well in 2006, but for 2008 we will need stronger medicine–the kind that can only be supplied by such ideas.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation. He is the author of five books – including The Emerging Democratic Majority (with John Judis) — and over 100 articles — including the recent series, “The Politics of Definition”, with John Halpin.

How Democrats Won the 3rd National Security Election & What We Must Do Now

By Jeremy D. Rosner
President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Karl Rove went into this year’s election with the same basic play book as in 2002 and 2004: run hard on national security, invoke 9/11, equate Iraq with the war on terror, frame both as with-us-or-against-us choices, use wedge legislation to show Democrats are on the wrong side of that choice.
They ran the play perfectly. But it failed massively. It’s important to understand why Democrats won — not despite the GOP’s focus on national security, but partly because of it — and what our party must do to continue strengthening our profile on national security in the coming months and years.
The pivotal role of national security in the November 7 vote is beyond question. The election was, in large part, a referendum on Iraq. In a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey of the 50 most competitive GOP-held districts conducted for Democracy Corps the week before the election, 25 percent of likely voters said Iraq was the single most important issue behind their vote — nearly twice the level for the two next issues, “jobs and the economy,” and “terrorism,” both at 13 percent.
The Edison-Mitofsky exit polls raised some questions about whether Iraq was, in fact, the dominant issue. They reported 36 percent of voters said Iraq was “extremely important” in their vote, the same as for “values issues, such as same-sex marriage or abortion,” and slightly less than the shares for terrorism (39 percent), the economy (39 percent), and “corruption and scandals in government” (41 percent). Yet the exit poll asked these questions serially, rather than as a single choice, which obscures Iraq’s importance.
Indeed, when asked as a forced choice, not only was Iraq the single biggest driver of the vote, but its dominance climbed in importance as Election Day neared. In the Democracy Corps polls, the share citing Iraq as the top issue roughly doubled from June to Election Day while the share of voters citing other issues mostly remained static. The dynamic that was just emerging at the time of my previous article exploded as Election Day neared: by stressing terrorism, President Bush actually focused more attention on Iraq and deepened the public’s anger about his conduct of that conflict.
The growing focus on the mismanaged war in Iraq led voters to reassess their decades-old assumption that Republicans were stronger on national security. For years, Republicans led by 20-30 points or more on this question. But the 2006 exit polls show that Republicans only led by a narrow 7-point 53-46 percent margin among those who said terrorism was an extremely important issue in their vote — still a lead, but nearing parity. By contrast, among those who said Iraq was extremely important, Democrats led by a huge 22-point 60-38 percent margin. Not only was Iraq the dominant voting issue, but it went a long way toward neutralizing the long-time Republican advantage on the broader array of national security issues.
Many of the Democratic candidates who scored the biggest upsets were ones who showcased their opposition to Iraq — rebutting pre-election counsel from some Democratic advisers that national security would inevitably be a losing issue. To cite just one of many examples, in Minnesota’s first congressional district, local high school football coach Tim Walz beat Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht partly by running an ad with Walz standing in front of his school’s empty football stands, and pointing out that the number of seats was about equal to the number of Americans lost in Iraq. National security was mostly a winning issue for Democrats in 2006.
The anti-Iraq wave did not wash all Republican incumbents away, of course, sparing two I highlighted in my earlier article. In Connecticut, Rep. Chris Shays eked out another term partly by moving away from his earlier defense of the war and becoming more critical of the President. Similarly, Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico won by 875 votes in the NM-1 race despite her profile as a Republican NSC staffer who had backed the war. Yet even in these districts, the Iraq war was a liability that Republicans had to overcome. Virtually the only candidate who featured his support for the war in an ad was Minnesota Senate candidate Mark Kennedy, who went on to lose by about 20 points.
All this underscores something about American attitudes on national security: for the most part, the public views these issues pragmatically, not ideologically. They want national security policies that work. If the US mission in Somalia in the early ’90s had been a resounding success, the public might have felt “nation building” was a great thing; that term only became a conservative epithet because of events. If there were calm in Baghdad today and the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds were governing peaceably together, then the public might align today behind ideas like pre-emption.
Instead, the public now has deep (and well-founded) doubts that the GOP knows what it is doing in international affairs. The political consequences of that change could be profound. If those new perceptions take root, it could mean that future Democrats could enter national elections without being on the defensive against “bear in the woods” ads, “swift boat” smears, and other attacks on their national security credentials. It could mean that, instead of our party worrying about being tarred as “Defeatocrats” on national security, the GOP might have to worry about being seen as “Refumblicans.”
But the new parity on national security will not endure automatically. November 7 was above all a rejection of the Republicans on Iraq — not an endorsement of any Democratic alternative. And although voters who focused on Iraq tilted Democratic, voters focused on terrorism still opted for the Republicans. A post-election Democracy Corps poll finds that voters still favor the GOP by 13 points on which party “can be trusted to keep America safe.” Even though the White House retains primary control of America’s foreign and military policies, Democrats now have the responsibility to show they have serious ideas that would do more to protect America and improve our standing abroad than would the course Bush has offered.
Congressional Democrats have done a pretty good job of this so far. In the House, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team have outlined a 100-hours plan that includes implementation of the full recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, something President Bush has resisted. House and Senate leaders have outlined serious ideas on a range of other security initiatives as well, such as stronger steps on non-proliferation and legislation to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.
But the real test will be on Iraq, where Bush’s egregious mismanagement of the war has rendered most worthy goals unreachable and the remaining alternatives unpalatable. Even Henry Kissinger now argues that a military victory in Iraq is no longer possible. We have only bad choices about how to wind down America’s involvement with the least harm to Iraq’s people and our own forces, regional interests, and global reputation.
It would be a welcome relief if the election results and the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group led the Bush White House to seek genuinely bipartisan answers to these agonizing questions. But Bush’s very first post-election move in foreign policy — resubmitting the twice-rebuffed nomination of John Bolton as UN ambassador — signals that Karl Rove’s base strategy remains alive and well, and does not stop at the water’s edge. In the same way, everything we know about this President suggests he will argue that the new Democratic Congress is somehow culpable for the horrific end-game we are already starting to witness in Iraq. His model will be Vietnam, where Republicans managed to assign a good deal of partisan blame to a bipartisan policy failure.
It will be harder to cast Iraq as the Democrats’ doing. This is not a war that spanned administrations of different parties. Despite the war’s initial bipartisan authorization, Iraq belongs to George Bush. He was, as he says, “the decider,” waging this war on his own terms, and exploiting it at home for his own partisan purposes. Democrats — including those of us who supported the war’s initiation — did not passively assent to Bush’s mismanagement of its conduct, but instead vocally condemned each strategic failure, from his rejection of the military’s call for more troops, to his refusal to involve allies, to his lack of a serious plan for post-Saddam reconstruction, to his insistence on interrogation techniques that undermined our moral standing.
Yet Democrats will still need to take care not to give Bush and his team any easy pretext for shifting responsibility for the outcome in Iraq. The new Democratic Congress needs to provide the vigorous oversight of the war their Republican predecessors never provided. But they also need to avoid pushing for funding cut-offs that could be cast as undermining the troops (and which would in any event merely be veto bait). And they need to push for an end-game that moves gradually, doing what we can to build up Iraq’s infrastructure and professionalize its military and police forces, acknowledging that we bear some moral responsibility for Iraq’s growing chaos.
Over the next two years, Democrats need to make several principles clear at every turn. First, whether measured in floor time or rhetoric, we place as much emphasis on national security as domestic priorities. Second, we offer a broad program for fighting terror and strengthening our security that goes beyond opposition to Bush’s policies in Iraq. Third, we have a long-term commitment to rebuilding our over-stretched military, caring for this war’s veterans, and creating stronger relations with the military leadership. Fourth, despite the costs and setbacks in Iraq, we remain committed to an outward-looking and idealistic foreign policy that promotes the expansion of democracy, human rights, global environmental quality, trade, and economic opportunity for the world’s poorest citizens.
If the new Democratic majorities in Congress can act on these principles over the next two years, America will be more secure, and our party will continue to stand on stronger ground as we face what is likely to be America’s fourth consecutive national security election in 2008.

Jeremy D. Rosner is Senior Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic strategy and polling firm in Washington. He served as a senior staff member on the staff of President Clinton’s National Security Council, and as Special Adviser to the President and Secretary of State for NATO Enlargement Ratification. He is a contributing co-author with PPI’s Will Marshall for With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

The Role of the Economy in the 2006 Elections:

By Celinda Lake and Daniel Gotoff
There are many ways to cast the results of last Tuesday’s elections. At their most basic level the elections were a vote for change, with the war a major–but not the only–factor. Iraq and national security dominated the debate in the 2006 elections, but less discussed by either the media or the campaigns was the issue of the national economy. An analysis of the exit polls and other public opinion research, however, reveals the extent to which the midterm elections were also a repudiation of the economic sacrifices that have been foisted on ordinary Americans at the hands of the Republican Party, including record national debt, stagnant–and in some cases declining–wages, increased state and local taxes, and a rapidly rising cost of living. Key groups of voters, particularly independent women and younger voters, put economic concerns at the top of their agenda. What makes the economic sacrifices imposed by the Bush Administration all the more egregious is the fact that they have not been shared equally by all Americans, nor even proportionally based on individual wealth. In fact, while the vast majority of Americans has lost ground during the Bush years, a wealthy elite has–for lack of a better term–made off like bandits.
In our pre-election piece on the role of the economy in the 2006 elections, we argued that, despite the public’s concern over the economy, neither party had advanced a credible vision for a prosperous 21st-century economy that works for all Americans. We also argued that, in an era when the income gap between multimillionaires and the American middle class has grown exponentially, the Democratic Party’s decision to ignore the issue is not only fiscally imprudent, but politically foolish.
While the Democratic Party has neglected to make this trend a central point in its campaigns for several cycles now, it is not a dynamic that has escaped the notice of the American public. In 2006 again, individual candidates were forced to define the economic debate for themselves, and individual voters were forced to rely on bits and pieces of information, along with historical associations with the two parties, to determine the better course for their and the nation’s economic interests. Nevertheless, voters continued to express their dissatisfaction with Republican stewardship of the economy at the ballot box. Even a cursory read of the exit polls reveals a palpable–and overlooked–concern among the voting public over the direction of the American economy. In 2008, the biggest challenge for the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates is to establish a compelling economic platform and vision. Similarly, the most important, and in some ways the most difficult, task for the Democratic leadership in Congress is to pass measures that bolster the economy while giving the middle class a needed relief. That starts with increasing the minimum wage, helping with health care costs, ending tax credits for outsourcing American jobs, and putting a stop to taxpayer subsidies for hugely profitable industries. The challenge is to weave these and other actions into a powerful economic framework that is simultaneously honest, compelling, and politically advantageous. Democrats must define a prosperous economy as one in which all Americans benefit. As a central point of contrast between the two parties, Democrats should not be afraid to focus on the Republicans’ redistribution of wealth from the middle class to those at the very top.
Exit polls showed the economy competing with ethics and national security–and even besting Iraq–when voters were asked about the importance of the various issues in determining their vote for Congress. Eighty-two percent of Americans said the economy was either extremely important (39 percent) or very important (43 percent) in their vote for Congress. By comparison, 74 percent said corruption and ethics were either extremely important (41 percent) or very important (33 percent), and seventy-two percent said terrorism was either extremely (39 percent) or very important (33 percent). Sixty-seven percent indicated Iraq was either extremely (35 percent) or very important (32 percent) in their vote for Congress, while sixty-two percent said illegal immigration was either extremely important (30 percent) or very important (32 percent). And just fifty-seven percent said “values issues” were either extremely important (36 percent) or very important (21 percent).
Public assessments of the economy since the election have not appreciably improved, with pessimism heavily influencing voters’ perspectives. Voters believe the U.S. economy is in bad shape. Fifty-four percent of voters say the current state of the economy is “not good” or “poor”. Just 6 percent rate the economy as “excellent” and another forty percent rate it as “good”.1 Moreover, roughly eight in ten Americans believe the nation’s economy is getting worse (37 percent) or staying the same (42 percent). Just 19 percent believe the economy is getting better.
The exit polls painted a sober picture of the American Dream in the 21st century. Fully half of voters said they have just enough to get by and another 17 percent said they are falling behind. Less than one-third of voters (31 percent) said they were getting ahead financially. Not surprisingly, the nature of one’s economic outlook closely informed voting preference; solid majorities of those who said they have just enough to get by or who said they are falling behind voted for the Democrat in the congressional elections (57 percent and 74 percent respectively). In contrast, nearly two-thirds of those voters who said they are getting ahead voted for the Republican (65 percent).
Most sobering, the voting public also expressed pessimism in their outlook for the next generation. A 40-percent plurality said they expected life for the next generation of Americans to be worse than life today, 28 percent said about the same, and just 30 percent expected life for the next generation of Americans to be better than life today. These perceptions also heavily influenced the vote. Democrats won those who thought the next generation would be worse off (66 percent to 32 percent) or the same (52 percent to 46 percent). Republicans won the few who thought life would get better for the next generation (62 percent to 37 percent). It is worth noting that unreleased polling data we have analyzed shows that this theme–that the American Dream has been fundamentally violated–was a strong motivator for Democrats to turn out and vote, second only to turning out to vote to send a message to President Bush.
Indeed, the economy was front and center in the public’s mind on Election Day, aided no doubt by the presence of minimum wage initiatives on the ballot in several battleground states. Across the board, convincing majorities of voters in even the reddest states in the union passed increases to the minimum wage. In Arizona, for example, the minimum wage increase passed, 66 percent to 34 percent, and in Montana, by an even more authoritative margin, 73 percent to 27 percent. Voters in Colorado, Missouri, Nevada, and Ohio also voted to increase the minimum wage in the absence of leadership on the issue at the federal level. These measures had major motivational effects, especially in Ohio and Missouri, where aggressive door-to-door campaigning was employed.
In 2006, Democrats continued to campaign on individual economic issues, such as the affordability of health care, energy independence, trade laws that benefit American businesses and American workers, and increasing the minimum wage. The Democrats still face the challenge of weaving these individual issues into a comprehensive narrative about the state of the nation’s economy, or an enduring prescription for future prosperity. Ultimately, Democrats relied more heavily on Iraq than the economy to foment the public’s desire for national change. But voters will now look for them to deliver on both.
In fact, in the final days of the campaign, it was the Republicans who attempted to make the economy a central issue. While they attempted to score points from a skeptical public on the soundness of the economy, the real thrust of their argument relied on the assertion that Democrats would raise taxes. Our best response was to focus on an economic package that puts money in people’s pockets and improves the country’s–and their families’–future. The outcome of Republicans’ efforts to advance the tax attack was telling, however.
In 2006, we witnessed the failure of taxes as a Republican wedge issue. At the same time that Democrats swept the House and pulled the political equivalent of an inside straight in taking back the Senate, 60 percent of Americans believed it was likely that Democrats would, in fact, raise taxes in the next year.2 Furthermore, out of a host of actions the Democrats could possibly take up–from making prescription drugs less expensive, to pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq, to reducing the amount of corruption in Congress–raising taxes was the only one that a majority of voters thought Democrats were likely to adopt. “Tax-and-spend” attacks on Democrats were more credible than we would like, and we will no doubt see these attacks again in the future, but they have clearly lost some of their effectiveness in turning the tide in favor of the Republicans.
It can be argued that Iraq was the animating spirit behind the 2006 elections and that a party out of power could convincingly nationalize the election around only that one issue. The effect of this strategy, however, was once again to relegate the economy to the backburner–at least as an issue that defines the parties.
To wit, just 47 percent of Americans said the Democrats’ ideas and proposals for improving the economy and job situation were a major reason for the Democrats’ success. This compares to 85 percent who said that success was owed to disapproval of the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq and 67 percent who said dissatisfaction with Republicans’ handling of government spending and the deficit was a major reason.3
As we look toward 2008, the question remains whether Democrats will capitalize on their generic advantages on individual economic issues to provide definition for the Party and economic stability and prosperity for the country. The 2008 Presidential election is already shaping up to be one in which health care and energy independence–both principal economic concerns–play central roles. Despite conventional wisdom that the incoming freshman Democrats are centrists who, when pushed, lean more conservative than liberal, initial indications would seem more promising. Senator-elect Jim Webb (D-VA) wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the “true challenge is for everyone to understand that the current economic divisions in society are harmful to our future,” and “it should be the first order of business for the new Congress to begin addressing these divisions, and to work to bring true fairness back to economic life.” These are words that beg action, from a Democratic Party that badly needs definition and an American public searching for a definition of progress that includes them.

Prior to forming Lake Research Partners, Lake was partner and vice president at Greenberg-Lake. Her earlier experience includes serving as political director of the Women’s Campaign Fund, and as the Research Director at the Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Policy Analyst for the Subcommittee on Select Education.
Lake, a native of Montana and one of the political world’s most avid whitewater rafters, holds a Masters degree in Political Science and Survey Research from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and a certificate in political science from the University of Geneva, in Geneva, Switzerland. Lake received her undergraduate degree from Smith College in Massachusetts, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude with honors and was recently awarded the Distinguished Alumna Medal by the College.
Celinda has recently co-authored a book with republican pollster Kellyanne Conway entitled “What Women Really Want: How Women are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live”.

Daniel Gotoff was recently named the newest partner of Lake Research Partners. Daniel has designed and analyzed survey and focus group research for candidates at all levels of the electoral process as well as on a wide range of issues, including media reform, health care reform, and campaign finance reform.
His tenure at LRP has included extensive survey and focus group research for clients including the DNC, DCCC, the NAACP National Voter Fund, and numerous congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral candidates. Gotoff also had led the firm’s consulting in overseas campaigns in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Daniel joined LRP in 1996 after working on a congressional campaign in Cincinnati, Ohio. Daniel holds a B.A. in History and Italian from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When he finds the time and space, Daniel enjoys drawing and sculpting.

1ABC News/ Washington Post Poll. November 2006; surveyed 1,000 adults.
2Gallup/USA Today. Conducted 11/9-12/06; surveyed 1,004 adults.
3Newsweek. Conducted 11/9-10/06; surveyed 1,006 adults.

What happened to the immigration wedge?

By Jim Kessler
On Election Day, the great immigration wedge fizzled. This was supposed to be the “gay marriage” of 2006. It was supposed to follow guns and abortion as issues where Democrats would fall into their single issue trap and repel white voters. But Democrats survived and repelled the immigration wedge because they understood and spoke to the internal complexities that typical voters felt about the issue and Republicans did not. And mostly they won because they didn’t act like typical Democrats.
With all due respect to Lou Dobbs and to Republican anti-immigrant leaders Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and J.D. Hayworth (R-K-Street), most people aren’t outraged about illegal immigrants. They are conflicted about them and about the issue.
They believe that illegal immigrants are mostly good, hard-working people seeking to build a better life. They also believe they are law-breakers. They believe that if they play by the rules, assimilate, and work hard that they should have a right to become citizens. They also believe that sending them back to their home countries would be a good goal for America.
In the past, Democrats had seized upon immigration to solidify their support among a growing Hispanic population. They had used the debate to define Republicans as intolerant, mean-spirited, even bigoted. They had characterized illegal immigrants as pure innocents and victims of discrimination and abuse. But this was a trap. From Third Way’s extensive polling on this issue, people’s compassion for illegal immigrants stopped where their taxpayer interests began.
At our urging, Democrats played a different tune this year on immigration. They supported the same policies that they had in the past but defined their goals in ways to appeal to non-Hispanic voters. They called for toughness on the border, fairness to taxpayers, and practicality in terms of dealing with the existing problem and restoring the rule of law. They excoriated President Bush for failing to enforce existing laws. And they defined the path to citizenship, not as the compassionate solution for illegal immigrants, but as the best solution for taxpayers.
It worked. Because Democrats supported immigration reform, their margin among Hispanics jumped from eleven to thirty-nine points. In part because they messaged reform to appeal to taxpayers, their deficit among whites dwindled from fifteen to four points. In nearly all races where immigration became a major issue, Democrats thumped Republicans. In Arizona, ground-zero in the immigration debate, two house seats flipped from R to D. Some of the most virulent foes of immigration reform were sent packing. And Democrats who began the year on the defensive cruised to victory.
Now what? We have already heard from some Democrats a reluctance to take up the issue at all. They see it as overly controversial, and they don’t want to tempt fate with another foray into this issue. But they don’t have a choice. We have an immigration crisis in this country and if nothing is done Democrats will be blamed.
At Third Way, we are confident that Democrats can pass immigration reform without alienating non-Hispanic voters. If Democrats cling to the substance in the Senate-passed McCain-Kennedy bill and stick to the message of tough, fair to taxpayers, and practical, they will not only repel the immigration wedge — they will receive credit for solving one of America’s most vexing problems.

Jim Kessler is Vice President for Policy at Third Way

The Battle to Make 2006 a Meltdown Election (excerpt)*

By Stan Greenberg
The 2006 election took Democrats into the majority in both Houses of the Congress, most state legislative chambers and governors’ mansions, and took the Republicans to their lowest vote since 1982. This was an election about the war and the corporate special interests that crowded out the common good and the financially pressed middle class. This election brought an end to the Gingrich-Bush political model that polarized the country.
The structure of this election became very clear in the months following Katrina. At that point, large portions of the country drew fundamental conclusions about the failure of the Bush administration to act, to protect the vulnerable, make responsible decisions and act effectively for the country. Democrats assumed an 8-point lead in the named congressional ballot and that was the result on November 7th. While Republicans made some headway post-9/11, around October 1st, voters concluded the war was not being won and moved sharply away from the Republicans. That put the Democrats in a position to win the U.S. nationally and make dramatic gains in the House.
Prior to this election, Democracy Corps conducted polls in the 50 most competitive Republican seats, starting in the summer. That the Democratic challengers were running even with the Republicans in these seats was already a stunning result and wake up call. But in early October, Democrats moved into the lead in these seats, which they held on Election Day.
More stunning, however, was the scope of Republican vulnerability: for more than a month before the election, Democrats were running nearly as strongly in the bottom tier of least competitive seats as they were in the top tier of most competitive. In the end, many of the top races, mostly tiers 1 and 2, were close, though the Democrats won three-quarters of the races. In the bottom tiers, the Democrats won just under half the seats, but Republicans were able to win many of them by just a few points.
In the top two tiers, consisting of 33 House seats, the last Democracy Corps poll conducted over the final weekend reflected the actual vote within a point.1 But in tier 3, where Republicans and outside groups protected the incumbents, Republicans shifted the margin by 6 points in the last days. Even with that, the Democrats only lost this difficult Republican territory by 2 points, 48 to 50 percent. As we saw with the 2nd district in Kansas, there were seats to be won beyond the 50 most competitive, as new territory opened up to the Democrats.
Rove Strategy and 72-hour Plan.
Nationally, the Republican framing of the election and high profile role of the president did not help Republicans very much; indeed, the president’s popularity fell further and brought even more intense opponents into the electorate. His late role may have helped Senate Democratic candidates in the blue states.
But the Republicans were not trying to win the country; they were trying to close Senate races in red states on the verge of being lost, and stop imminent Democratic gains in the competitive Republican seats. In both cases, those efforts likely shifted the electorate a couple of points more Republican and moved the undecided to the Republicans, particularly in the Republican-held seats. On Election Day, the Republican candidates picked up 4 points from the undecided and small parties, while the Democrats gained only 1 point. In the competitive Republican-held U.S. Senate seats, the Republicans closed the election to just a 2-point margin for the Democrats, after the Democrats had substantial leads earlier in the month.
In this battle for the 50 Republican seats, Democrats made major gains despite Republicans committing massive resources to holding on to these seats. It is difficult to know who won the television war, as 60 percent simply report seeing ads from both sides. But the Republicans dominated on the amount of mail and phone calls, with many more voters reporting intensive efforts on behalf of the Republicans. We were surprised that this advantage was maintained even in the top tier of most competitive races, suggesting Democrats were right not to let up even here.
The Democrats and Republicans operated at parity on email and Internet and on face-to-face campaigning.
Republican efforts made the contest for the U.S. Senate closer and likely enabled the Republicans to hold at least 10 seats in the House.
The problem with the Rove strategy is that it focuses on the trench warfare while missing what is going on in the war. The base strategy, focused on Iraq, won back base voters in the final weeks but fell short of 2004 and 2002; it was more than counter-balanced by gains in the Democratic base and above all, by the massive swing of independents, likely locked in by these efforts. The polarizing Republican close to the 2006 campaign reinforced the meaning of this ‘Meltdown Election’ that took Democrats into unheard of territory and gave them control of Congress. The battle for Congress in 2008 and the presidency will take place on an expanded battleground.

Stanley Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and co-founder of Democracy Corps. He has advised President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and is the author of The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It.

* This article is excerpted from “The Battle to Make 2006 a Meltdown Election: Second Report on the Post-Election Surveys,” with James Carville and Ana Iparraguirre, Democracy Corps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research National Survey Memo.

1Democracy Corps competitive GOP district survey conducted November 2-5, 2006 of 1,201 likely voters


By William Galston
The 2006 election presents few analytical difficulties. Rarely have the voters’ judgment and the reasons for it been so clear-cut.

  • This election was national rather than local—remarkably so for an off-year contest.
  • This was a year in which political parties mattered more than they have in a generation, both as sources of issues and resources and as brand names that drove electoral behavior. Many voters rejected incumbents because of party identification rather than objections to their performance as individual representatives.
  • Democrats’ gains were both broad (reaching most subgroups of the population) and deep (extending to every level of the federal system).
  • Against the hopes of Republican strategists, this election was a referendum rather than a choice. The voters ringingly rejected the President’s handling of the war in Iraq, the majority’s conduct of the Congress, and Republican complacency about the economic condition of the middle class.
  • The election was de-aligning rather than realigning. Millions of moderates and independents divorced the Republican Party, dashing Karl Rove’s grandiose plan to be the Mark Hanna of the 21st century. But these newly liberated voters have hardly plighted their troth to Democrats, whose standing with the public remains mediocre.
  • The Democratic Party has been given a rare opportunity to reintroduce itself to the electorate. But the party is on probation. Whether it can move from probation to approbation depends on how it conducts itself over the next two years. The American people will be watching very carefully to see whether Democrats have learned from past mistakes and are ready once again to form a governing majority.

As most commentators have observed, moderate and independent voters revolted against Republicans in 2006. But the ideological composition of the electorate remained stable, with 32 percent conservatives, 20 percent liberals, and 47 percent moderates–virtually identical to 2004 and to the average of the past 30 years. The results underscored the pivotal importance of the moderate vote for Democrats. Every winning Democratic Senate candidate in red or purple states won not just a majority, but a supermajority, among moderates–59 percent for Jon Tester in Montana, 60 percent for Jim Webb in Virginia, 62 percent for Claire McCaskill in Missouri, 65 percent for Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Harold Ford Jr. received 63 of the moderate vote. Indeed, he did better than Webb among liberals and conservatives as well as moderates. He lost only because Tennessee (unlike Virginia) is a deeply conservative state, with only 14 percent liberals (6 points below the national average) and a whopping 45 percent conservatives (13 points above the national average).
To an extent that is difficult to assess with precision, the results of the 2006 election reflected a transitory conjunction of negative trends that generated an unusually sour public mood. Republicans started measuring new drapes for the Oval Office in November 1994, a mistake Democrats would be ill-advised to repeat. Nonetheless, the most recent election illuminated some structural changes that are likely to persist and affect the results in 2008 and beyond.

  • Mirroring 1994, in which Republicans captured numerous seats from Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning (or dominated) congressional districts, Democrats this year virtually wiped out Northeast Republicans from Democratic-leaning districts and made substantial inroads in the Midwest as well. As was the case with the Republican sweep in 1994, this movement toward political consistency in 2006 will prove hard to reverse.
  • Continuing a trend that began in the mid-1990s, young voters once again disproportionately identified themselves as liberals and gave a supermajority to Democrats. Unless basic findings of political science have been repealed, these formative experiences of early adulthood are likely to influence electoral behavior throughout the life of this cohort.
  • The House Republicans did for the national party what Pete Wilson did for California Republicans in the mid-1990s–namely, send a signal to Hispanics that they are not welcome, to which Hispanics responded with a 14-point shift toward Democrats. The California Republican party has never recovered from the Wilson debacle. Unless the White House swiftly abandons House Republicans and makes common cause with Democrats on immigration legislation, the national Republican Party may labor under a long, and increasingly significant, disadvantage among Hispanic voters.
  • The Electoral College map shifted toward Democrats. New Hampshire had a Democratic landslide and is now a solidly Blue State. Virginia has become a Purple State, while Colorado and Arizona are headed in that direction. And if newly elected Ohio Governor Ted Strickland focuses on building an effective party organization, he could nullify Republicans’ historic edge in voter mobilization by 2008.

The 2006 election has important consequences for both the 110th Congress and the 2008 presidential contest. The American people are looking for a congress that is more effective and less polarized. To meet these expectations, Democrats would do well to focus their early efforts on measures–such as the minimum wage increase, college financial aid, and ethics reform–that enjoy strong public support. If the Bush administration is willing to negotiate in good faith in areas such as immigration and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, Democrats should display their willingness to cooperate. And if President Bush is willing to take the partial privatization of Social Security off the table, Democrats should at least participate in bipartisan discussions aimed at stabilizing the program’s finances for the long-term.
Two issues present special challenges–trade and Iraq. While the 2006 election suggests serious public discontent with our current trade stance, particularly in the pivotal Midwest, Democrats would pay a long-term price if they tack too hard toward a tempting populist/protectionist stance. Instead, the Democratic leadership should work with representatives of both manufacturing and trade-friendly states and districts to forge a unified stance on the kinds of protections for working families that should be built into our social policies as well as negotiating stance. As many analysts have noted, if we don’t get serious about compensating hard-hit industries and regions for the costs of globalization, a revolt against an open world economy is inevitable and would have grave consequences for our position of international leadership.
Concerning Iraq: While it will be tempting to draw a sharp contrast with the administration by advocating a prompt timetable for withdrawal of our troops, congressional Democrats would be better advised to proceed in as bipartisan a manner as circumstances permit. In the best case, a broad coalition of Democrats, Senate Republicans, former members of the military and the Administration would unite to support a new policy, abetted (one hopes) by the Baker-Hamilton group. Possible elements of such as policy include:

  • intensified pressure on the Iraqi government (including the threat of partial troop withdrawal) to move toward a political and constitutional settlement with persuadable Sunnis;
  • a reliable mechanism for ensuring a reasonable distribution of oil revenues, as Sen. Clinton has suggested;
  • a firm declaration that the U.S. has no intention of planting permanent military bases in Iraq, as both Sen. Biden and Sen.-elect Webb have advocated; and
  • an international conference involving Iraq’s neighbors and other key regional players to explore possible strategies for stabilizing the situation short of chaos and disintegration of the Iraqi nation.

If such a strategy fails, or is never tried, it will be time to embrace an exit strategy. But Democrats should remember that 30 years ago, they were blamed for ending an unpopular war in the wrong way, creating deep-seated public doubts that we are still working to overcome. The line between being an anti-war party and seeming to recommend American defeat is all too easy to cross.
The 2006 election has also shaped the terrain of battle for 2008. All the Republicans who might have run as the continuation of the current administration have been eliminated, and the party’s social and religious conservatives are left without an obvious consensus candidate. It is all but certain that the 2008 Republican nominee will represent not only a new face but also a new direction.
In this context, Democratic aspirants and those working to develop policy for the party should redouble their efforts to create a broad governing agenda for the nation. Barring unexpected developments, 2008 is likely to be a “security election.” Three linked issues will be central.

  • National Security. Building on recent gains, Democrats must convince the people that our leader can be effective as commander in chief and steward of American foreign policy.
  • Economic Security. Middle class Americans are anxious about the security of their wages, health insurance, and retirement as well as college affordability. Rather than tinkering around the edges, Democrats should advocate a new social contract to replace the eroding bargain left over from the post-war era.
  • Energy Security. Coupled with rising concerns about global warming, the gas price spike and instability through the world’s oil producing regions have convinced the American people that the time is ripe for a major push toward energy security. Democrats should respond with bold plans that challenge the public as well as energy producers.

Once every generation, there is an opportunity to break logjams, address big issues, and lead the nation on the new course. 2008 is shaping up as such an election. The question is whether Democrats will rise to the occasion.

William Galston is a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and co-editor of The Democratic Strategist.

The GOP’s Deflated GOTV

By Ari Berman
In 2005, polls on election eve showed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine dead even with his Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore. When the results came in, Kaine won by six points, 51 percent to 45 percent. How to explain the disparity between the polls and the final tally? “The Democratic ground game swamped the GOP’s,” wrote Markos Moulitsas on the popular blog Daily Kos, “even with [Karl] Rove’s full attention and stewardship.”
Knowing that they’d need to pick off moderate and independent voters to win in traditionally Republican Virginia, Kaine’s campaign early on commissioned a large survey to figure out how to contact non-traditional Democratic voters who might be receptive to Kaine’s message. Whereas Democrats traditionally only focused on voters living in 65 percent Democratic areas, the Kaine campaign used polling, census and commercial data, known as “microtargeting,” to go into Republican-friendly exurbs and reach frequent churchgoers sympathetic to Kaine’s background as a missionary or suburban women who liked his education plan. In Virginia’s seven fastest growing counties, Kaine won six of them, enough to swing the election. “Virginia was version 1.0 of microtargeting,” said Kaine’s pollster Peter Brodnitz, referring to the technology that’s become all the rage in political circles.
In the run-up to the ’06 election, there was very little written about the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote (GOTV) success in Virginia and an excessive amount of ink spilled about the GOP’s vaunted 72-hour plan, which was widely credited with electing Republicans in 2002 and 2004. As Eric Boehlert recently noted, TIME magazine’s Mike Allen wrote three articles in October alone hyping the GOP’s GOTV: “The GOP’s Secret Weapon,” “Why the Democratic Wave Could Be a Washout,” and “Why Some Top Republicans Think They May Still Have the Last Laugh.” The $64,000 question for political prognosticators was whether that not-so-“secret weapon” could keep the Republican Party afloat?
The answer, with a few notable exceptions, was no. Issues mattered a lot more than mechanics. In August, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman identified two major themes for Republican candidates to highlight: terrorism and cultural values. But the war in Iraq overshadowed the war on terror. And sex scandals involving Mark Foley and National Association of Evangelicals president Ted Haggard made it difficult for Republicans to trumpet moral rectitude. Republican candidates had almost nothing to run on. Voters took note–and anger over Iraq, corruption in Washington, skyrocketing deficits, economic inequality, social extremism and a host of other issues drove them to the polls.
Independents and moderate voters abandoned the Republican Party in droves. The Democratic base turned out in record numbers, especially in the Northeast, and the party even picked off 28 percent of self-identified white evangelicals. “The big story you’re not getting in the post-election coverage is that in 2006, Democrats finally came up with an answer to Karl Rove,” wrote Zach Exley of the New Organizing Institute.
The 72-hour plan was able to save long-endangered and well-funded GOP incumbents, such as Jim Gerlach in suburban Philadelphia, Heather Wilson in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Deborah Pryce in Columbus, Ohio. But in a number of rapidly emerging races the GOP was caught blindsided and unable to assemble its GOTV machine until it was too late. “The foundation of the party’s advances had been a highly sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation that ideally took a year to set up,” the New York Times reported after the election. “But the party was suddenly confronted with new districts coming into play–particularly across the Northeast, where Republicans were surprised by a storm of suddenly competitive races–and did not have the time to set up the turn-out-program that had worked so well before. Many of those candidates lost narrowly.” The list of surprise casualties included GOP incumbents such as Jim Leach in Iowa, Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley in New Hampshire, Jim Ryun in Kansas, Sue Kelly and John Sweeney in New York, Richard Pombo in California, Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania, Anne Northup in Kentucky, J.D. Hayworth in Arizona and Gil Gutknecht in Minnesota.
Conventional wisdom held that a centralized Republican Party would always best the decentralized (and often disorganized) Democrats. But a more bottom-up structure allowed the Democrats to react more quickly and push resources where they were most urgently needed. In the month before the election MoveOn.org was able to redirect its large volunteer-run GOTV phone program to new races, like Tim Walz in Minnesota or John Yarmuth in Kentucky. In Heath Shuler’s race in largely rural North Carolina, for example, MoveOn members made 111,000 calls to voters, about as many as voted for the candidate on Election Day. “A lot of these campaigns didn’t have the money to run big field programs in these districts,” said MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser.
So outside groups working outside the party, like MoveOn, helped fill the void, by broadening the battlefield of competitive races and putting manpower behind candidates in tough fights. They had better data, thanks to a two-year collection effort helmed by Catalist. Organized labor, lead by the AFL-CIO, lead the largest voter mobilization drive in its history. Emily’s List undertook a huge “modeling” study of different combinations of possible voters in the battlegrounds of Michigan and Minnesota. ACORN had 750 field organizers on the ground in Missouri to marshal support for raising the minimum wage and, by extension, Senate candidate Claire McCaskill. Citizens Trade Campaign PAC used the issue of trade to target independent and disaffected Republican voters in places like North Carolina and Indiana.
But all the good work would have been for naught if President Bush hadn’t been so unpopular and such an overwhelming number of voters didn’t think the country was moving in the wrong direction. And the Democratic Party itself barely seemed up to the job at times. DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel and DNC Chairman Howard Dean spent months fighting about where the party would spend its money, wasting precious time that could have been used for organizing. Ultimately, the party got it together, with the DSCC launching a huge $25 million GOTV program for its Senate candidates, Emanuel hiring turnout wizard Michael Whouley and the DNC chipping in $10 million in cash late in the game.
Would a more cohesive party have helped Democrats pick up an even greater number of seats? Perhaps. In ’06, Democrats and progressives went a long way toward erasing the GOP’s turnout advantage and puncturing the myth of Karl Rove. There’s more work to be done, however, if they want to permanently surpass the other side. Which is why Dean and Emanuel plan to sit down soon to discuss 2008.

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation, based in Washington, DC, and a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute.

Lessons Learned From the State of the Art in Local Polling

By Thomas Riehle
Majority Watch made history in 2006. Before this, no one has ever set out to track district-by-contested-district the race for control of the U.S. House. It was never done before on such a systematic basis because the cost was prohibitive. Constituent Dynamics (a Seattle-based recorded-voice interviewing firm) and RT Strategies (a bipartisan polling firm in Washington, D.C.) developed a methodology using

  1. Long-time analysts (Charlie Cook, Stuart Rothenberg, Chuck Todd and Congressional Quarterly), the insights from a newer generation of analysts (MyDD.com, Real Clear Politics and others) and evidence of DCCC/NRCC investments in select races to determine which races were in play,
  2. Census data (compiled by Polidata) to model likely voters in each district,
  3. Voter lists (much improved and standardized nationwide since passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002), and
  4. Recorded interviews (taking advantage of rapid developments in recorded calling software, as well as the years of training American consumers have endured as they grow accustomed to a recording asking them to punch 1 for one thing and punch 9 for another).

MW tracked the race in 60 districts. Final MW polls predicted a 49%-46% Democratic victory of 3 percentage points in these 60 districts. The actual vote was 50.2% – 48.5%, a Democratic victory margin of 1.7 points, just 1.3 points lower than MW’s prediction.
The MW performance was all the more remarkable in that all MW polling ended October 26, when MW conducted final polls in 41 races a week and a half before Election Day. MW final polls in the other 19 districts were conducted in early October, and in some cases in August. The difference between MW polling and actual election returns: persuadable and undecided voters who trended toward Republicans in the final 10 days of the campaign, according to national polls conducted after the final MW polling was completed.
MW polling offers a number of broad lessons for the Democratic Party, but before getting to that, consider how MW did on a state-by-state basis.
A few of the insights Majority Watch delivered:
Arizona. In AZ-08, MW generic polling identified this district as favorable for a Democratic take-over in August. MW did not need to go back to get the result right. AZ-01 was trickier: Incumbent Rick Renzi (R) was behind in an early October MW poll in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal and subsequent related disclosures about Jim Kolbe… but MW found Renzi marginally ahead in its final poll, and Renzi won.
California. MW polls showed in CA-04 Republican incumbent John Doolittle ahead by a significant margin in early October, then almost exactly predicted the final result in a late-October follow-up poll. But in CA-11 MW showed Republican Richard Pombo failing to win re-election, at 46 percent (he wound up with 47 percent and lost).
Colorado. In CO-07, three MW tracking polls starting in August showed successful Democratic challenger Ed Perlmutter move from marginally behind to significantly ahead. Final vote, a week and a half after our last survey: Perlmutter won, 55%-42%. In CO-04, MW showed Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave ahead in August, but a late October follow-up showed Democratic challenger Angie Paccione with a statistically insignificant lead. The actual vote favored Musgrave, 46%-43%.
Connecticut: MW polled the races of three Republican incumbents, predicting that Nancy Johnson was in the most trouble, Chris Shays was likely to win re-election, and Rob Simmons would lose a close race. Exactly right.
Illinois. In the race where the DCCC spent more money than anywhere else, IL-06, MW polls in August and twice in October showed a very close race, with Democrat Tammy Duckworth ahead by one, then Republican Peter Roskam ahead by one, then Duckworth ahead by one. Roskam won, 51%-49%. In IL-08, MW polls in August and then twice in October accurately tracked a growing lead for successful Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean. But in IL-10, two October MW polls overstated the vote of the Democratic challenger and understated the vote of the Republican incumbent. Finally, MW polls in mid-October, in the immediate wake of the Foley scandal, demonstrated that in IL-14 and IL-19 neither Speaker Dennis Hastert nor Page Board Chairman John Shimkus were in any trouble as a result of the scandal. Both Republicans were easily re-elected.
Indiana. September MW polls determined that Republican incumbents in IN-02, IN-08 and IN-09 were in serious trouble, and subsequent October MW polling confirmed that. All three lost.
Iowa. MW polls in IA-02 in early October showed incumbent Republican Jim Leach in serious trouble, with a late October follow-up confirming this race as a statistical dead heat. When Leach lost, 49%-51%, on Election Night many political commentators said that was a shocker. Not to those who followed MW! Elsewhere in Iowa, in IA-01 and IA-03, an August MW poll suggested Democratic candidate Bruce Braley was en route to a relatively easy victory, and incumbent Democrat Leonard Boswell was far ahead, and both breezed to victory.
Florida. On October 1 (two days after the resignation of Republican Congressman Mark Foley in FL-16), MW conducted two parallel surveys in his district of 1,000 voters each–one poll that informed respondents that a vote for Foley would be counted as a vote for a still-to-be-determined Republican nominee, and one that simply confronted voters with Foley’s name on the ballot and no other information. In fact, voters were informed at the polling place that a vote for Foley was vote for Republican Joe Negron, and the “informed voter” MW poll predicted that would lead to a narrow 3-point Democratic victory. Successful Democratic candidate Tim Mahoney won 50%-48%, as MW predicted would happen under those ground rules. Before the MW polls were conducted, almost all analysts had jumped to the conclusion that the Democrat would easily romp to victory because Foley’s name was still on the ballot, after his disgraced resignation from Congress. But the closeness of the race was no shocker to MW poll watchers! Elsewhere in Florida, in FL-13, the MW poll in August showed this district to be generically favorable to Republicans, but a very marginal race once the nominees were known (tested in two follow-up MW surveys). MW showed the race to be within the margin of error and as of November 20, a winner had still not been declared. In FL-22, an August MW poll showed incumbent Clay Shaw (R) significantly ahead, but a late October tracking poll put Democratic challenger Ron Klein ahead. Klein won 51%-47%.
Minnesota. In another race that seemed close to a foregone conclusion prior to MW polling, in MN-01, two October MW polls showed incumbent Republican Gil Gutknecht struggling in a close contest, with statistically insignificant leads of between one and three points. Prior to that, only true believers in the Democratic camp believed Gutknecht could lose. A week and a half after the last MW poll, Gutknecht lost 47%-53%. Meanwhile, in MN-06, a generic August MW poll demonstrated that the district favored Republican candidate Michele Bachmann. At the height of the Foley scandal, the Democratic candidate moved into a lead in a MW poll, but the Democrat’s lead disappeared in the final MW October poll. On Election Day, Bachmann won.
New Hampshire. In NH-02, a late October poll showed Democratic challenger Paul Hodes ahead with at least 50 percent of the vote. Hodes won, 53%-46%. If only MW had thought to poll in NH-01 as well! We might have predicted what came to pass on Election Day–namely, the need to move all meetings of the New England House Republican Caucus into the offices of Chris Shays for the foreseeable future.
North Carolina. In NC-11, MW polls showed Democratic challenger Heath Shuler winning decisively. The actual vote favored Shuler, 54%-46%. In NC-08, MW polling showed incumbent Republican Robin Hayes in trouble in early October, then showed a statistically insignificant Democratic lead in late October tracking. As of November 20, Hayes leads challenger Larry Kissell by fewer than 400 votes in a race headed for a recount.
Pennsylvania. Two very different, but solidly Republican districts, PA-07 and PA-10, were shown in MW polling to be easy Democratic victories over entrenched Republican incumbents. When the August MW poll showed incumbent Republican Don Sherwood behind his Democratic challenger, few believed the poll’s prediction! In fact, Democrats won both races easily. In PA-04, PA-06 and PA-08, MW polling predicted close races with mixed results. That’s what occurred on Election Night.
…and WI-08: Three MW polls showed a small but steady advantage for Democrat Steve Kagen. The final survey estimated Kagen’s support at 51 percent. Kagen received 51.19 percent of the actual vote.
For a complete rundown on the performance of MW polling, go here. For a rundown on House race polling by another active pollster using recorded-interviewer technology to accomplish large sample-size polls at a fraction of the cost of live interviewers, go here.
What was learned from this exercise?

  1. More research could better inform the conventional wisdom and lead to better targeting decisions. Any organization, whether an official party organization, a 527, or a netroots coalition of private individuals with a budget for research should be evaluating new technologies that could add greater breadth and efficiency to a sound research plan using traditional focus groups, dial sessions, mall intercepts and RDD live-interviewer polling. Recorded-voice interviewing works (and for the latest breakthrough in true Internet representative sample polling, go to http://www.polimetrix.com/news_20061106.html).
  2. The Republican “72-hour plan” doesn’t work everywhere, but where it has been tested three times or where the Republican Party chooses to focus on building it up quickly, it remains formidable. MW obviously did not get them all right, and we try to be cautious before we reach for rationalizations to explain away our clunkers. Our clunkers, however, were so geographically concentrated that we hypothesize our poll predictions may have been defeated by the “72-hour plan.” Other MW polls in New York State and Ohio were very much on target (as were MW polls in every other state), but not in western New York or in the Columbus and Cincinnati areas of Ohio (the most Republican urban areas in the state). With no way to prove it, we can only surmise that in western New York, early warnings caused NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds to bring the best of the RNC’s turnout and grassroots efforts to bear on his district, possibly with positive effects for endangered Republicans in nearby western New York districts. As for Ohio, there is no state (with the possible exception of Florida) where the “72-hour plan” is so battle-tested as Ohio, and that may explain how Deborah Pryce, the number-4-ranking member of the House Republican caucus, came back to win a race she was in danger of losing.
  3. There is nothing wrong with the Democratic Party that a 10-percentage-point increase in Democratic vote from Independents won’t cure. In race after race MW polled in 2006, we found intense partisan loyalty on both sides, among Democratic voters and Republican voters. What changed since 2000 and especially since 2002, is the increasing willingness of Independent voters to support Democratic candidates. In national exit polls, Democrats lost Independents in five of the last six House elections from 1994-2004 (winning them only in 2004) after having won Independents in five of six House elections from 1982-1992 (losing only in 1984). This time, the margin was enormous–Democrats won Independents by 59%-41% nationwide.
  4. The monolithic Republican vote may be cracking, but so far only in the East. With 41,000 interviews conducted a week and a half before Election Day, we were able to find plenty of Republican voters who disapproved of the performance of President Bush. What we found was that the willingness of those disgruntled Republicans to vote Democratic was locally determined, not nationally uniform. In particular, in New York, North Carolina and Florida, majorities of the roughly 20% of Republicans dissatisfied with Bush were ready to vote Democratic in our final polls, while only about one-third of those similarly dissatisfied Republicans in other districts were willing to let national dissatisfactions affect their choices in local politics. Were that same crack-up in the Republican monolith developed in the Midwest, Rocky Mountain States and the West, there might be more Republican incumbents in danger in the 2008 House elections.
  5. The marriage gap may still be retarding Democratic advances in some suburban and small-town/rural districts where the marriage rate is very high. In the pre-election edition, MW polls were pointing at eight districts (Florida 16th, Illinois 6th, Illinois 8th, Minnesota 6th, New Jersey 7th New York 3rd, Washington 8th , and Wisconsin 8th) that were in play, but had marriage rates in excess of 63% which was a concern unless Democrats did better among married people than they have since 1992. Democrats converted only 2 of those Republican seats and held onto the contested Democratically-held seat in the group. In the national exit poll, evidence is that married men and married women both voted Republican in House races this time. In six House election exit polls from 1982-1992, married women supported Democrats, and Democrats even fought to a standstill for the votes of married men in half those elections. Since 1994, Republicans have benefited from a marriage gap in their favor. Married people represent one challenge where Democrats made little progress in 2006.

The purpose of the Majority Watch project of RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics was to determine whether a wave election like 2006 could be accurately tracked through a comprehensive polling project. The capability of new, tested technology in tracking the horse races across all contested House elections is the bigger revelation.

Thomas Riehle is the co-founder of RT Strategies, a bipartisan polling firm in Washington D.C. Majority Watch is a joint project of RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics, a non-partisan automated recorded-voice polling firm in Seattle Washington. Majority Watch is designed to track trends in the fight for control of the U.S. House of Representatives by means of polls of 1000 or more likely voters in each contested House race.