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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Matt Compton

Readers vs. Users

There is something inherently sad about reading a writer with a reputation for greatness and coming to the sudden, jarring realization that time and technology have inescapably passed him by. But that kind of conclusion is hard to avoid after reading Leon Wieseltier’s latest Washington Diary for The New Republic.
The centerpiece of his column is a complaint about an email he received from President Obama after the Inauguration. The crux of Wieseltier’s argument boils down to this: Obama’s rhetoric and the tools he uses to advance it are based on the premise that we are one nation, united with common purpose and goals, but we are in fact a splintered collection of people with divurgent views of reality and all Obama’s techological ‘networks’ only succeed in creating a veneer of actual connectivity.
The argument about our relative level of unification as a country seems silly knowing that close to three quarters of Americans approve of Obama’s rhetoric, and perhaps that’s why Wieseltier saves his real ire for the networks. Toward the end of the piece, he writes:

For one of [Obama’s] innovations in American politics has been the zealous adoption of the ideology of the network. To be sure, there were practical reasons: email and YouTube are cheaper than direct mail, and of course cooler–but direct mail is all they are. The number of people who can be reached in an instant is genuinely astounding–but this is a marketer’s dream, nothing more.

This statement is indicative of a fundmentally-flawed and outdated worldview.
If I were to guess, I’d bet that Wieseltier still pays for a newspaper subscription. Why does that matter? Because people who purchase print newspapers are readers.
People who read newspapers online, however, are users. Using tools built by the media outlets, we email articles to friends. We share op-eds on Twitter, react to news stories on blogs, and we post columns to Facebook.
People read direct mail. People use Internet communication.
We forward the emails that Obama sends to our family. We rate YouTube videos and then we post them to our personal websites. We react to everything, which in turn sparks a ‘national conversation.’
Compare that with offline communication. No one ever puts new postage on a piece of direct mail to send on to a friend.
And the remarkable thing about Obama and his staff is their ability to turn online communication into offline action.
Since the campaign ended, thousands of individuals have signed up to Facebook groups with the expressed intent of lobbying Congress to pass Obama’s recovery bill. This weekend, thousands of people attended ‘Economic Recovery House Meetings’ to discuss the president’s plan. Organizing for America tells that there were 3,587 meetings in 1,579 cities in 429 congressional districts and all 50 states.
Try getting people to do that with a piece of direct mail.
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The Gregg Deal: Annoying the GOP

I think I’d go a step farther than J.P. Green’s cautious optimism about the Gregg appointment in the post just below.
President Obama’s appointment of Gregg to head the Department of Commerce is a fairly remarkable feat of political deal making, and the compromise that appears to have been worked out speaks well for everyone involved:
Obama appoints another Republican to his Cabinet, Gregg gives up his seat in the Senate to work for a president he didn’t support, Democratic New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch has indicated that he will reach across the aisle appoint a long-time Republican to fill the position, and if, as rumored, that appointment is Bonnie Newman then she will agree to serve out the term and then step aside so that the people of New Hampshire have an open field to choose from in 2010.
Politically, for Democrats there’s a lot to like. It’s a tangible effort that Obama and company can point to when asked what they’ve done to change the tone in Washington. For New Hampshire, Gregg might represent the most conservative vote the GOP could hope for. Even if Lynch doesn’t appoint a Democrat, whoever serves out Gregg’s term will likely spend a lot of time voting with the Obama administration. And in 2010, we’ve got an open seat to contest instead of an incumbent to beat.
If you need further convincing, look at the extent to which this move has Republicans annoyed.
Patrick Ruffini is a smart, young, tech-savvy GOP activist who, together with Soren Dayton and Jon Henke, created The Next Right last year to be a gathering point for activists looking to build a new Republican Party. I don’t read as many conservative blogs as I did during the 2008 campaign cycle, but I continue to check out The Next Right every day because it offers a lot of insight into the thinking of those who represent the future of the GOP.
In a post yesterday under the headline, “Republicans Should Drive a Hard Bargain on Gregg,” Ruffini suggests that the GOP should make every effort to stop this appointment unless certain conservative conditions are met:

First, we must frame this as an astonishing partisan power grab. President Bush had the opportunity to nominate Louisiana Democrat John Breaux as Energy Secretary in 2001, thus flipping the seat, but didn’t — leaving the Senate at 50-50 and vulnerable to a Democratic takeover, which as we all know, actually happened.
Second, we need to insist not only that Gov. Lynch appoint a Republican, but that he appoint a Republican from a list of three candidates prepared by Republican leaders in the legislature and the New Hampshire Republican Party — preferably a strong Republican who would run in 2010. Gregg was about as conservative as you get for New England, and any replacement selected by a Democrat is almost guaranteed to be worse.

Neither one of these suggestions makes much sense.
Republicans can try to frame the appointment as a power grab, but my guess is that most Americans are going to see Obama picking a Republican for his administration and a Democratic governor choosing a Republican to fill the seat, even though he’s under no legal obligation to do so. On this point, the GOP is welcome to take Ruffini’s advice, but it is almost certain to be a tough sell.
Ruffini’s second suggestion, if anything, is worse. Aside from Sen. Gregg himself (who could always change his mind), Republicans have no power to insist on any conditions for this appointment. They don’t control the legislature or the governor’s mansion. There is no law on the books in New Hampshire dictating that partisan considerations be made for an appointments. And they don’t have the votes to block Gregg’s confirmation in the Senate (keep in mind, without Gregg, they only hold 40 seats in the chamber).
And by the way, the Bush-Breaux analogy that Ruffini raises is totally off: Bush didn’t appoint Breaux as Energy Secretary because Breaux wasn’t interested in the job, not because Bush was a principled bipartisan man who feared upsetting the partisan balance of the Senate.
If activists like Ruffini want to reinvent the GOP, they have every right to insist that Republicans be focused on conservative principles, and they should demand accountability from their elected officials and party leaders. But Republicans are in the minority at every level of government. That requires that they be a bit more careful about choosing their battles.

Keeping Young Voters Down-Ballot

If the only people allowed to vote in November’s election were those under 30, Barack Obama would have carried at least 40 states. He was the choice of 66 percent of America’s youngest voters.
That was no accident.
Early on in the campaign, the Obama campaign made a strategic decision to tap into that enthusiasm and develop followings among a range of demographic groups outside the typical Democratic coalition (or in many cases, first-time voters outside the political process altogether).
That decision paid off, and these supporters became the volunteers, the donors, and the voters who helped him win the primary against Sen. Clinton and ultimately become president.
Now is the time to ask whether the Obama model represents a sustainable future for the Democratic Party as a whole.
If you look at the data (much of which has been nicely compiled by the folks at Future Majority), many of the signs are encouraging. The youth vote partisan advantage has been trending toward our party for nearly a decade.
Voters of my generation — Millennials — in large part have an essentially progressive political outlook. Research done by the Center for American Progress backs this up:

  • Millennials are more likely to support universal health coverage than any age group in the 30 previous years the question has been asked, with 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds saying that health insurance should come from a government insurance plan.
  • Eighty-seven percent of Millennials think the government should spend more money on health care even if a tax increase is required to pay for it, the highest level of support in the question’s 20-year history.
  • An overwhelming 95 percent of Millennials think education spending should be increased even if a tax increase is required to pay for it, the highest level ever recorded on this question in the 20 years it has been asked.
  • Sixty-one percent of Millennials think the government should provide more services, the most support of any age group in any of the previous 20 years the question was asked.
  • Millennials are very supportive of labor unions, giving them an average ranking of 60 on a 0-to-100 scale (with 0 indicating a more negative view of labor unions and 100 being a more positive view), the second-highest level of support of any age group in the over 40-year history of the question.

Even with the liberal outlook and Obama fervor, however, there are questions about how deep their partisan loyalty goes.
Cornell Belcher — a pollster for the Obama campaign and the DNC — drafted a memo for Howard Dean just after the first of the year where he attempted describe the post-election landscape.
Midway through Belcher’s discussion of the new 2008 voters is an important nugget spotted by Michael Connery of Future Majority:

The surge among new voters of color was incredible. Thirty-eight (38) percent of our new electorate was either Hispanic or African American. It is becoming increasingly clear that the key to sustaining and growing our Democratic majority coalition lies with younger and more diverse voters who are clearly trying to turn the page. Younger white voters are far more open to supporting Democrats than their parents (whites under age 35 broke for the Democratic House candidate by +14 points in our polling), but Democrats must work hard to fully bring home these voters who primarily surged in support of Obama. Our post election poll data shows that Democrats down the ballot left a good number of younger votes on the table as 20 percent of voters under age 35 dropped off after casting a presidential ballot rather than voting for a House candidate. These younger and browner surge voters are, by and large, Obama‘s right now, not necessarily the Democratic Party‘s. If Democrats are to strengthen our majority coalition going into the off year, we will clearly need to reach and engage these voters with some party persuasion. Again, the Party must continue to aggressively build in the off year—the time to let up on the 50 state strategy is not now. We must expand upon it with a particular youth and minority focus.

Study after study indicates that early political allegiances tend to remain remarkably consistent even as we age, which bodes awfully well for Obama and for future Democratic presidential nominees. But what does that mean when one in five voters under 35 fails to finish filling outhis ballot?
Clearly, the party as a whole isn’t done cultivating the youth vote.

Rewiring the White House

In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act. It’s a valuable law which preserves all manner of official communication for posterity.
But it was written at a time when people still delivered interoffice memos in those funny manila envelopes that get closed with a piece of string.
Email had been invented seven years earlier in a project funded by the Department of Defense, but it’s hard to imagine that the authors of the Presidential Records Act could have foreseen a government which put instant, electronic communication into widespread use. To ask anyone at the time to imagine the sprawling, interconnected world of the Internet as it is today would have been laughable.
And yet this 1978 law still dictates how the executive branch does business.
During the election, the Obama campaign was deeply immersed in the world of the Internet, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the brilliance of the external online strategy. But much less has been made of how well Obama for America as an organization used the Web internally.
Staffers used online tools to share documents, built wikis to train volunteers, used Facebook to build get to know each other. And throughout it all, the staff — from David Axlerod on down — maintained a continuous conversation through instant messenger.
It now looks, however, like that practice will be put to an end.
Citing both the requirements of the Presidential Records Act and security concerns, lawyers for the incoming administration have told staffers that they will not be able to use instant messenger in the White House. They will forgo the use of an official Facebook account as a tool to communicate with supporters. They won’t be allowed to bring in USB drives to take work home. Access to many websites will be restricted. And in many cases, the computers at their desks will be dated and running old Windows software.
The end result of these regulations and hurdles is a bubble that separates the White House staff from the outside world — they’ll get less input from critics and allies both — and the loss of these tools makes those who have come to rely on them less efficient and less flexible. By making it difficult to adopt new technology, our laws will serve to stifle creativity in government, where right now we need it most.
But there’s hope. President Obama gets to keep his Blackberry.
He asked for it, the Transition team bought into the idea, the NSA approved a model, and then the lawyers came around.
Obama needs a Blackberry for the same reasons his staff needs IM, and the White House found a way to make it work.
Now, someone should stand up to make the same argument for updating the rest of government’s communication tools. And once that’s done, Congress should be lobbied to rewrite the Presidential Records Act to reflect the reality of how professionals do business in 2009.
Governing is hard enough without asking those who commit to it to forgo anything that makes them better at their jobs.

A Teaching Moment

In 1929, just after he was elected governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the headline speaker at a dinner organized by Tammany Hall. The theme of the night was political oratory, and in his remarks, FDR talked about the importance of political speech in the formation of the republic. As H.W. Brands records in his new biography, Roosevelt told the audience, “Elections were won or lost, parties were driven out or swept into power entirely as the public speakers of one side or the other proved most able and convincing. It was the golden age of the silver tongue.”
That tradition, however, had changed with the advent of mass media in the form of the newspapers. Then, as now, publishers seldom printed speeches in their entirety, and voters learned to take their cues from quotes that reporters and editors chose to excerpt.
But on that night eighty years ago, FDR saw a new technological revolution taking hold. He told the guests:

The pendulum is rapidly swinging back to the old condition of things. One can only guess at the figure, but I think it is a conservative estimate to say that whereas five years ago 99 out of 100 took their arguments from the editorials and the news columns of the daily press, today at least half the voters, sitting at their own fireside, listen to the actual words of the political leaders on both sides and make their decisions based on what they hear rather than what they read. I think it is almost safe to say that in reaching their decisions as to which party they will support, what is heard over the radio decides as many people as what is printed in the newspapers.

Roosevelt’s recognition of this change and his success in using radio to appeal directly to voters made up no small part of his political genius. For the next sixteen years, when he needed to win a political argument, Roosevelt took the discussion straight from the White House into the homes of ordinary citizens, and the nation’s voters sided with FDR time and time again. Roosevelt didn’t just win elections; he changed the way that politics in America were practiced.
But time didn’t stand still, and politics changed again in 1960. Television became the dominant medium, and that in turn forced voters to process information in a new way.The most successful politicians were those who had the discipline to harness the format and the wealth to run slick media campaigns. Operatives adapted political speech to the new paradigm, and the soundbite was born.
In less than a week, we will swear in a new president who has already shown an extraordinary capacity to use the emerging technologies of the Internet to break through the television mindset and the scripted candidacy it produces. But there is a important difference between using the Internet to campaign and using the Internet to govern.
To make the transition from politics to policy, Obama should look to FDR.
The day after he took office, Roosevelt made his first policy decision as president and issued an order to declare a national bank holiday. His goal was to end the panic that led thousands to descend on financial institutions and withdraw the entirety of their savings.
In less than a week, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, granting Roosevelt new powers to deal with the crisis. Three days after that, nearly 1,000 banks across the country were up and running again. Many who had withdrawn their wealth in the weeks before lined up to deposit it back again.
Exactly one week after issuing that first executive order, at 10 o’clock in the evening on the East Coast, FDR settled into his study in the White House and gave a short talk about his decision and the actions he took. He explained why some banks would reopen and some would remain closed. He closed saying, “You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
The entire address was broadcast live over the radio, lasted for just a few minutes, and history remembers it as the first fireside chat. Will Rogers later said that the remarkable thing about Roosevelt’s talk was that he took “such a dry subject as banking and made everyone understand it, even the bankers.”
Roosevelt never believed that the problems of Washington, as difficult as they appeared, were too complex for the American people to understand. The genius of that first fireside chat and those that followed was that FDR spoke directly to his fellow citizens with respect, explained his actions as best he could, and as a peer, he asked the people of this country to join him in his work. “Together, he said, “We cannot fail.”
The tools of the Internet give Obama the same opportunity today.
When the president-elect gives his inaugural address on Tuesday, it will be watched in person by millions of people gathered in Washington to see it live. It will be watched by millions more across the world who will turn on their televisions to hear what Obama has to say.
But as the rest of Washington prepares to celebrate the new administration, a team working for the president will take the video of that speech, edit it for the web, and upload it to YouTube. And in the days that follow, it will almost certainly be watched from beginning to end, millions and millions of times.
This new political reality is an opportunity. It is a chance for a teaching moment.
With the network he built during the campaign, the pulpit offered by the White House, and the tools available to Obama online, the new president can appeal directly to the American people and do what FDR did: ask the people of this country to join with him in solving the problems we face as a nation.

Setting the Stage for State Legislative Elections

Note: This item is crossposted from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee site.

Heading into Election Day, Democrats control 27 state senate chambers and 30 state houses chambers. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans control 20 state senate chambers and 19 state house chambers. The state senates in Tennessee and Oklahoma are currently tied, and as always, Nebraska elects a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature.
In 2006 and 2007, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee helped Democrats pick up 12 new legislative majorities. This year, Democrats in many states will be focused on consolidating control of the chambers we currently hold.
That said, experts currently list 11 chambers as pure toss-ups — seven or which are held by Republicans and only four of which are held by Democrats. We believe November 4th presents an excellent opportunity to continue to expand upon our success.

The Money Game Going Forward

So Obama’s haul for August wasn’t $100 million, or even $80 million. I guess they aren’t actually printing money in Chicago.
Too bad.
But Obama did raise $66 million last month, shattering his own record of $55 million from back in February. The campaign added 500,000 new donors, took in contributions from 2.5 million contributors overall, and finished the month with $77 million cash on hand.
All of which is great, but might not be good enough.
Andrew Romano writes this for Newsweek:

The important statistic to look at is the combined amount of cash-on-hand for each candidate and his party (i.e, how much is actually available to spend on getting the nominee elected). Obama may rake in more than McCain, but he also spends more. Plus the RNC, which is handling its nominee’s ground game, vastly outraises the DNC. So here’s the math. In August, the McCain campaign managed to net a record $47 million for its coffers and another $22 million for the party, finishing the month with more than $100 million on-hand–money that it has now turned over to the Republican Party. It has also accepted $84.1 million in public financing from the federal government. Combined with the RNC’s $100 million projected haul over the next two months–all Republican cash now goes to the party, not the campaign–that should leave McCain with about $300 million to spend before Nov. 4. Except for the occasional RNC fundraiser, he barely has to lift a finger to get it. He can spend his time wooing voters instead.

Is this right?
Yes and no.
First, we shouldn’t assume that Obama’s fundraising is going to peak in August — far from it. In fact, we already have some indication of how this new month is going to look for the campaign. The day after Sarah Palin spoke at the Republican National Convention, the Obama camp announced that it had raised $10 million in 24 hours. Today we learned that the campaign raised $11 million at a posh fundraiser in California in the span of a couple of hours last night. A big chunk of that Hollywood money is going into the coffers of the DNC, but at this point, that hardly matters. Even for the Obama campaign $21 million dollars in just two days is astounding. And I’m absolutely positive that the September 26th debate in Oxford, Mississippi will be another jaw-dropping night for fundraising.
Second, part of the reason the McCain camp was able to take the federal money is because the campaign is choosing to outsource its ground operation to the Republican National Committee, which simply doesn’t plan to field a turnout effort as extensive as the one being built by the Obama camp. That choice reflects a definite difference in priorities between the two camps. Republicans are gambling that they can win this election from the top down: controlling news cycles, funding extensive TV advertising, and fielding a 48 hour GOTV program that has been successful in the past. The Obama campaign is waging everything on winning from the ground up: they’re training and organizing volunteers, registering hundreds of thousands of new voters, microtargeting persuadable demographics, and planning to win the election the same way the won the primary — by making sure all their voters show up at the polls. Even still, they’re spending as much as McCain on TV advertising in almost every battleground state (except Pennsylvania and Minnesota) and spending far more than McCain in some states like Virginia.
At this point, I still pretty good about betting money on Obama.

Obama’s Ace in the Hole?

Over at The Stump, Michael Crowley asks about Obama’s next move:

McCain skilfully shifted the race’s momentum the morning after Invesco with his surprise Palin announcement. Now, the question is whether the Obama team can continue the week-versus-week parallel and come up with a similar attention-getter. In the past, Obama’s campaign has repeatedly demonstrated a marvelous sense of timing and an ability to rebound quickly after a setback. (As Jason Zengerle recently reported, for instance, Obama kept John Kerry’s promised endorsement in his pocket and sprang it as a comeback after losing New Hampshire.)

He wonders if the Obama campaign is holding an endorsement from Colin Powell in its pocket to kill GOP momentum coming out of its convention.
Maybe. Though, as Crowley says, Powell’s people beat back this rumor pretty effectively just a couple weeks ago.
I’d suggest the more likely (though much, much smaller) play: his fundraising numbers from August.
We already know that McCain raised $47 million for the month — no small total.
But given that Obama named his pick for vice president and pulled off an extremely effective Democratic convention, I’m assuming that his numbers are much higher. As a Democrat with a serious investment in his campaign, I know I should be downplaying expectations, but I’m still ready to be shocked by the totals when they finally come out.
What do you think? Would an $80 million month be enough to change the news cycle a bit?
How about $100 million?

Palin’s Partisan Pulse Raiser

I have no idea what most of America thought about Sarah Palin’s speech last night. But I’m positive that it fired up the base of both parties.
Anyone who has spent any time at all reading/watching/listening to commentators over the last 10 hours knows that the Republicans loved that speech. Within minutes of each other, both Slate’s John Dickerson and The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder Twittered comments about how happy McCain’s aides were with Palin. On MSNBC this morning, Joe Scarborough just said that he watched the speech and realized he was watching the first female president of the United States. The posters on The Corner were ecstatic, each trying to outdo the other in their praise of the Alaska governor. You get the gist.
The reaction from the Democratic base hasn’t gotten as much airtime (it is the GOP convention, after all), but I’m going to wager it is just as strong. Midway through Palin’s speech, I pulled up the Obama website, clicked on the contribute button, and gave another contribution. I know at least three friends who did the same (and one who gave twice). On Facebook and on Twitter, my little corner of the political universe was fired up — folks were rubbing their hands in anticipation of Joe Biden taking on this hockey mom in the vice presidential debate. That holds just as true for the blogs I read. Certainly Sean’s friends and commentators on FiveThirtyEight.com had a similar reaction. My guess is that the Obama campaign saw the groundswell they were getting, and at 3:30 this morning, an email from David Plouffe landed in my inbox — I’d bet that the campaign gets a lot of $25 donations this morning.

Talking Money

As last week drew to a close, when most of America was still buzzing about Michael Phelps, each campaign released its fundraising totals for the month of July.
John McCain’s numbers appeared first — he raised $27 million, making July his biggest month since clinching the Republican nomination. Heading into August, his campaign reported having $21 million on hand and told reporters that, so far, around 600,000 people had contributed to the Arizona senator’s presidential bid. The Republican National Committee reportedly raised around $26 million and has $75 million cash on hand for the election.
Barack Obama’s numbers for the month were solid — he raised more than $51 million in July and closed out the month with $65.8 million on hand. Earlier in the week, we also found out that he crossed yet another financial threshold: 2 million donors have given to his campaign. The Democratic National Committee actually outraised the RNC for the month, pulling in $27.7 million, but the DNC continues to lag behind the Republicans in cash on hand, heading into August with $28.5 million in the bank.
The combined fundraising totals between the two camps are roughly equal. The Republicans have around $96 million while the Democrats have $94.3 million. But my guess is that this situation will begin to change as soon as each candidate accepts his party’s nomination.
As Marc Ambinder notes here, Barack Obama will get an immediate boost when high-dollar donors who had previously maxed out to his primary campaign can write new checks for the general.
On September 4th, the fundraising rules will change for McCain, when he receives $84 million in federal matching funds. He’ll need to spend all his primary funds before then, so don’t be surprised to see blanket television advertising from his campaign as August draws to a close.
As this NYT piece notes, Obama’s fundraising strategy shifted a bit in July and August. He began to attend more high-dollar events, meetings designed to attract major contributions from the party’s traditional wealthy donors.
That was by necessity.
The summer months by and large slipped away without the major, landmark events that were so beneficial to Obama’s small donor fundraising program in the winter and spring. The primaries were over; there were no debates; and no opportunities for significant televised speeches (like the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner or the Philadelphia address on race). Clearly, the Obama machine continues to operate and raise amazing amounts of money every time the campaign sends out an email, but these events provide extraordinary and crucial spikes in terms of dollars.
That all changes soon (my guess is this week). I believe that we’ll see an Internet dollar surge with the vice presidential announcement, and so long as the campaign can keeps its servers from melting down, Obama’s acceptance speech will net millions of dollars. In September and October, each of the debates will be a mega-event, with an accompanying big dollar return.
In the fall, even with McCain taking public money, Republicans will have plenty of cash to be competitive if the map is limited to traditional swing states like Ohio and Florida. But Obama’s gamble seems likely to pay off — he should not only have an edge in dollars, but one that proves significant. That in turn should allow him to keep ads up and staff deployed in states like North Carolina and Georgia (to say nothing of Colorado and New Mexico). Then McCain will be forced to decide how it wants to allocate its resources. Will the Republicans undermine operations in a place like Michigan to shore up the campaign in Indiana?
Folks in Chicago will attempt to force McCain’s hand. The election could ultimately hinge on whether or not that attempt proves successful.