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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


Sorting Out Opinion on Abortion Issues

As reported below, opinion polls indicate healthy majorities oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade and want Supreme Court nominees who will honor majority opinion on this issue. Beyond that, polls reveal confusion and misinformation among many Americans regarding abortion-related issues, as Matthew Yglesias points out in his TPM Cafe post “Abortion and Public Opinion“:

Strongly anti-choice claims like “abortion is murder” have quite strong public support. At the same time, strongly pro-choice claims like “the choice should be left up to the woman and her doctor” have even stronger support…Taking a more fine-grained look, people say they support Roe v. Wade but then also say they support all kinds of restrictions on abortion’s availability that would go against the current understanding of the Roe precedent.

Yglesias gets his conclusion from Karlyn Bowman’s in depth American Enterprise Institute study “Attitudes About Abortion,” which explores public opinion concerning broad range of abortion-related issues over the last 33 years. Bowman’s study, which afffirms overwhelming support for the Roe decision, should be required reading for all Scotus justices and nominees, as well as candidates for office and policy wonks.

Despite Scotus Nominee, Recent Polls Say Keep Roe v. Wade

If Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts is confirmed, it is quite possible that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned, given the current balance on the court and his track record on the issue. (His wife, Jane Roberts’ involvement in “Feminists for Life of America,” a strongly anti-abortion group is another factor). But Democrats who are willing to give Roberts an easy pass should take a look, at least, at the most recent opinion polls, which show overwhelming support for keeping Roe vs. Wade and strong opposition to criminalising abortion in most cases.
A CBS News poll, conducted 7/13-14, for example found that only 3 percent of respondents believe abortion should “never” be legal, and 59 percent agreed that Roe vs. Wade was a “good thing,” compared to 32 percent who said it was a “bad thing.” A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted 6/24-26 found that 24 percent of respondents believe abortion should be “always legal,” 55 percent said “sometimes legal” and 20 percent said it should be “always illegal.” The poll also found that 65 percent of respondents wanted a new Supreme Court justice to “vote to uphold” Roe vs. Wade, with 29 percent wanting a new justice to “vote to overturn” the decision. A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey conducted 6/8-12 found that 63 percent of Americans did not want Roe overturned, while 30 percent did.
Abortion will remain a difficult issue for Democrats, and the Roberts nomination will likely heighten debate within the Party over the issue. While keeping an eye on public opinion, Democratic leaders should continue exploring potential common ground to build a broader consensus between constituencies who disagree on abortion rights.

Does ‘Re-Framing’ Give Dems Political Leverage?

The debate over the importance of “framing” gets re-energized in Matt Bai’s “The Framing Wars” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Bai argues, among other points, that the Democrats used creative framing to stop the GOP ‘nuclear option’ and he tells an interesting story:

In January, Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story — a frame — for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds — that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights — was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were ”changing rules in the middle of the game” and dismantling the ”checks and balances” that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.
Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make this case. He heard voters call the majority party ”arrogant.” They said they feared ”abuse of power.” This phrase struck Garin. He realized many people had already developed deep suspicions about Republicans in Washington. Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry’s spokeswoman last year, to put together a campaign-style ”war room” on the filibuster. Cutter set up a strategy group, which included senior Senate aides, Garin, the pollster Mark Mellman and Jim Margolis, one of the party’s top ad makers. She used Garin’s research to create a series of talking points intended to cast the filibuster as an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks. The talking points began like this: ”Republicans are waging an unprecedented power grab. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game and attacking our historic system of checks and balances.” They concluded, ”Democrats are committed to fighting this abuse of power.”

Bai notes that not everyone considers the filibuster compromise much of a victory for Democrats. But he makes a persuasive argument that a conscious strategy of re-framing the debate did give the Dems some leverage.
Bai provides a broad summary of the theories and still-rising popularity of framing guru George Lakoff, who now has a new DVD “How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff.” Bai also runs the 2004 Presidential race through a Lakoffian filter:

From Day 1, Republicans tagged Kerry with a larger metaphor: he was a flip-flopper, a Ted Kennedy-style liberal who tried to seem centrist, forever bouncing erratically from one position to the other. They made sure that virtually every comment they uttered about Kerry during the campaign reminded voters, subtly or not, of this one central theme. (The smartest ad of the campaign may have been the one that showed Kerry windsurfing, expertly gliding back and forth, back and forth.) Democrats, on the other hand, presented a litany of different complaints about Bush, depending on the day and the backdrop; he was a liar, a corporate stooge, a spoiled rich kid, a reckless warmonger. But they never managed to tie them all into a single, unifying image that voters could associate with the president. As a result, none of them stuck. Bush was attacked. Kerry was framed.

To show that Dems have been equally ineffectual in projecting their agenda, Bai quotes Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and a strong proponent of framing:

I can describe, and I’ve always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values…We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn’t compete very well. I’m not talking about the policies. I’m talking about the language.

Bai’s article includes blistering quotes from Lakoff’s critics, but concedes that Lakoff’s theories have been oversimplified by many of them — “the cartoon version of Lakoff,” according to Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Meanwhile, Katha Pollitt’s article “If the Frame Fits…” in July 11 edition of The Nation, offers a different take on Lakoff missed by Bai and other Lakoff critics:

I keep thinking that reframing misses the point, which is to speak clearly from a moral center–precisely not to mince words and change the subject and turn the tables. I keep thinking that people are so disgusted by politics that the field is open for progressives who use plain language and stick to their guns and convey that they are real people, at home in their skin, and not a collection of blow-dried focus-grouped holograms.

Bai concludes his article more on the side of Lakoff’s critics than not and he gives the Republicans too much credit for substance in their message. Still, his article has some usefull insights on ‘frames’ and the importance of a clear and unified message for Dems.

Public Opposes ‘In-Your-Face” Scotus Nominee

It’s hard to tell if President Bush was much impressed by the boomerang effect of his nomination of John Bolton to be our next U.N Ambassador. But in light of Bush’s tanking approval ratings, Democratic strategists should take note of the findings of a new Wall St. Journal/NBC News poll conducted 7/8-11, in defining their stance on the next Supreme Court nominee. In his WSJ wrap-up, John Harwood notes:

Mr. Bush faces a Rubik’s Cube of shifting opinion as he copes with pressure from all sides on replacing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor…Fully 63% of Americans say it would be a move in “the right direction” to pick a justice who backs displaying the Ten Commandments on government property, a popular stance with the Republican Party’s conservative base.
Yet 55% of Americans also applaud the idea of a justice who would uphold affirmative action, a key demand of liberals. More problematic for the right, which for three decades has blasted the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, a robust 65% of Americans say the court shouldn’t overturn Roe.
Perhaps most hazardous for Mr. Bush’s other priorities is the prospect of protracted partisan warfare over Senate confirmation of a high court nominee. The recent fights over judges, Social Security and John Bolton’s nomination as United Nations ambassador have taken a toll on the public mood.

The poll also found that 55% of the respondents “disapprove of how Congress is doing its job” and 45% prefer that the 2006 elections produce a Democratic-controlled Congress, compared to 38% prefering Republican control. “This is a very difficult climate to begin that conversation” over a court vacancy, concludes Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “What the public perceives might only reinforce the notions of partisan fighting and lack of action.”
If Bush nominates a moderate conservative, Democrats have some tricky decisions to make in crafting their response. But, given the enormous stakes, if the President choses another in-your-face nominee, it’s clear Dems have little to lose in declaring their all-out opposition.

Americans Want Action on Global Warming

As was widely predicted, President Bush failed to provide leadership for significant action against global warming at the G-8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. This despite a new new PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll conducted 6/22-26 revealing that his policies on global warming lag way behind the wishes of the American people.
The poll found that 73 percent of Americans wanted the U.S. to participate the Bush-opposed Kyoto Agreement and 56 percent now agree that the U.S. should take steps “to reduce greenhouse gasses, even if it involves significant costs.” The poll also found that 83 percent of respondents favored legislation requiring large companies to reduce greenhouse gasses. 50 percent of respondents wanted the U.S. government to do “as much as other countries” to reduce greenhouse gasses, and another 44 percent wanted the U.S. to do “more than other countries.”
The poll indicated that overwhelming majorities supported GOP-blocked reforms such as tax incentives for companies to provide clean energy, requiring car companies to make hybrid autos half of production by 2010 and setting higher fuel efficiency standards, even if it makes cars more expensive. The poll revealed that awareness of the global warming problem increased modestly (9 percent over 2004), but 43 percent mistakenly believe that President Bush supports the Kyoto agreement.

Democracy Corps: Support for Bush, GOP Sink, But Dems Must Step Up

Democracy Corps new report, “The Democrats’ Moment to Engage,” brings more dismal news for the GOP — and reason for Democrats to be cautiously optimistic. The Report, which includes results of a survey conducted 6/20-26, indicates that 56 percent of Americans think the country is “on the wrong track,” the same percentage agreeing that the war in Iraq is “not worth it” and 55 percent of respondents want the country to go in “a different direction” than Bush’s leadership is taking it. These percentages have been holding steady for Democracy Corps’ last three surveys, and report authors Stan Greenberg and James Carville conclude “This is a country almost settled on the need for change.”
The report also found that Democrats lead by 5 percent in a “hypothetical congressional contest” during the last three surveys. But the authors warn against overconfidence, because the GOP free fall is accompanied by “no rise in positive sentiment about the Democrats” and Democrats’ positive ratings still lag 5 percent behind the Republicans.
Carville and Greenberg urge Dems to make “sharp choices to diferentiate” themselves from the Republicans. Democrats must become “the party of change” and “empower the middle class over the big corporate interests in Washington.”
This and a host of other recent surveys (see below) strongly indicate that Americans want a clear change of direction. Job one for Dems is to show they can lead the way.

‘New Ideas’ Over-rated as Key to Election Wins

In the current issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Chait blows away the cliche that the Republicans’ success in politics derives from their superior “new ideas.” Chait’s article, “The Case against New Ideas” makes a compelling argument that (a.) the Dems have lots of ‘new’ (and good) ideas, certainly compared to the GOP and (b.) getting elected isn’t so much about ideas anyway. As Chait explains:

To begin with, the plain fact is that liberals have plenty of new ideas. Troll websites of the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, or the Century Foundation, and you will find them teeming with six- and twelve-point plans for any problem you can imagine: securing loose nuclear weapons, reforming public education, promoting international trade, bolstering the military, and so on. They get churned out by the shelfful providing more material than any presidential administration could hope to enact…Liberals are brimming with ideas about reforming health care and taming the deficit. Conservatives have little to say about either of these problems.

Chait offers impressive examples of creative policy reforms offered by Democrats that never got much traction in the media. He argues that “the vast majority of the time, the press will simply ignore ideas put forth by the minority party.” Chait points out that the Republican party is not exactly a treasure trove of new ideas (Quick, name the GOP’s fresh ideas for addressing global warming or the health care crisis).
Chait shreds the notion that Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme is a new idea and he notes that the Iraq war was not based on the ‘new’ idea of democracy-promotion, but the bogus threat of WMD’s. And where, Chait asks are the GOP’s new ideas about dealing with very real security concerns, like North Korea or Iran?
Chait’s point is not just that the Dems have more and better ideas than the GOP; It is also that ideas rarely determine political outcomes. As Chait notes:

Alas, this sort of thinking assumes a wildly optimistic level of discernment by voters. Polls consistently show that large swaths of the voting public know very little about the positions taken by candidates. In 2000, the National Annenberg Election Survey found that just 57 percent of voters knew Al Gore was more liberal than Bush, 51 percent knew he was more supportive of gun control, and a mere 46 percent understood that he was more supportive of abortion rights. “The voting behavior literature, which is massive, shows that people are not particularly idea-driven,” explains Berkeley political scientist Nelson Polsby. “They don’t know what the fashions are, with respect to what ideas go with other ideas.”
…A recent study in Science magazine was even more disturbing to those who believe in the power of ideas. Scientists showed the subjects pairs of photographs, which turned out to be matched candidates in Senate and House races. The subjects had to judge within one second which candidate looked more competent, on the basis of appearance alone. Their choice matched the candidate who won an astounding 71.6 percent of the time in Senate races. If you consider that a decent share of Senate races pit unknown, underfunded challengers against popular incumbents in highly partisan states, that is a remarkably high percentage. Faith in the discernment of the public is not based on proof, it’s premised on, well, faith

Chait emphasizes that the myth of ‘new ideas’ as the decisive determinant of electoral victories has been bandied about as much by liberals, as by conservatives, and he quotes numerous sources to make his point. Well-articulated, fresh ideas can be an asset. But Democrats who want to win would do better to keep focused on projecting good character and credibility, supporting solid policies that address real concerns of working people and getting their message out to new voters, as well as their base.

Dems Poised To Take NY, CA, OH, MA Governorships

Not to pile on about the tanking of Arnold (see R. Michael Alvarez post below) and other GOP Govs, but My DD‘s Chris Bowers paints a very bright picture of Democratic prospects for taking the GOP-held governorships of several of the most populous States. Do visit his website and read “The Big Democratic Opportunity of 2006: Governors.” Here’s some teasers:

Ohio. Bob Taft has the lowest approval rating of any Governor in the nation. Mike DeWine has the lowest approval rating of any Senator up for re-election in 2006. Republicans in the state are embroiled in Coin-gate, and congressman Bob Ney is even deeper in Abramoff’s pocket than DeLay. Democrats can easily gain on every level here in 2006.
California. In the largest state in the Union, Schwarzenegger is circling the drain…
New York. Right now, there does not seem to be any realistic scenario under which Spitzer will not win this race in 2006. Already, he regularly leads Pataki with more than 50% of the vote, while Pataki rots in the thirties. Incumbents can’t pull out of tailspins like that….
Massachusetts. Multiple polls…have shown that Romney is in a lot of trouble in the most Democratic state in the nation.

Bowers discusses the Dems improving prospects in seven states in all, and savors the implications:

All seven of these states are ripe. Here is how sweet a sweep of these seven would be:
Right now, these are the seven largest states with Republican Governors, and combine for over 40% of the national population. Victory across the board would push Democrats in control of states worth around 400 electoral votes, rendering Republicans a small minority party when it comes to Governors.
Republican gerrymanders in Georgia, Ohio, Florida and Texas would be threatened, if not entirely done away with, come 2010. Control of elections in uber-swing states Florida and Ohio would no longer be in Republican hands.
The weakness of Republican Governors in large states presents Democrats with an opportunity to thoroughly reshape the American political landscape. We have waited some time for the Emerging Democratic majority to emerge, and these seven states represent our best chance to make it happen. This is our prize. This is our chance. We have to make it happen.

Dems’ Chances Undercut by Rigged System

Steven Hill has a disturbing article in Mother Jones, “Why the Democrats Will Keep Losing: Biases built in to our electoral institutions hurt the Democratic Party every time.” Hill, author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics, says:

…what has been completely missing from the conversation is the fact that even when the Democrats win more votes, they don’t necessarily win more seats. That’s true in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, and the Electoral College. That’s because there is a structural disadvantage for Democrats resulting from regional partisan demographics in red versus blue America that now are strongly embedded into our fundamental electoral institutions.
…Yet practically no one is talking about it. Even though this bias undercuts any attempts by liberals and Democrats to gain control over the government, and will continue to do so for years to come, no matter how many volunteers Democrats mobilize or how much money they raise, these sorts of structural barriers are being ignored.

Looking at the 2000 presidential election, for example, Hill notes:

Even though Al Gore won a half million more votes nationwide than George Bush in 2000, Bush beat Gore in 47 more of the 2002 congressional districts. And that’s up from a previous 19-seat edge, showing that trends are tilting Republican. The winner-take-all system distorts representation and the edge clearly gives Republicans an advantage, allowing them to win more than their fair share of seats. So the current Republican margin in the House of 232 to 203 — only 29 seats — actually is a decent showing for the Democrats. It will be exceedingly difficult for Democrats to improve on this.

In House of Reps races, Hill says:

When the two sides are tied nationally, the Republicans end up winning about 50 more House districts than the Democrats. Like the Conservatives in Britain, who in the UK’s recent elections won far fewer seats than Tony Blair’s Labour Party even though Labour only had 36% of the vote and 3% more than the Conservatives, the Democrats are undercut by regional partisan demographics funneled through a winner-take-all electoral system.
It turns out that there is a fundamental anti-urban (and thus anti-Democratic) bias with single-seat districts. The urban vote is more concentrated, and so it’s easier to pack Democratic voters into fewer districts. As Democratic redistricting strategist Sam Hirsch has noted, nice square districts are in effect a Republican gerrymander because they “combine a decade-old (but previously unnoticed) Republican bias” that along with a newly heightened degree of incumbent protection “has brought us one step closer to government under a United States House of Unrepresentatives.”

Hill’s analysis of the struggle for control of the U.S. Senate is also revealing:

The disproportionality is even worse in the United States Senate. Bush carried 31 of 50 states in 2004, showing Democrats’ near impossible battle to win a majority in the malapportioned Senate where each state, regardless of population size, has two U.S. Senators.
Yet the Democrats consistently win more votes for Senate than Republicans. The current 100 senators have been elected over the past three election cycles, dating back to the year 2000. According to Professor Matthew Shugart from University of California-San Diego, in those elections, over 200 million votes were cast in races choosing each of the fifty states’ two senators. The Republicans won 46.8% of the votes in these elections — not even close to a majority. The Democrats won 48.4% of the votes, more than the Republicans — yet the GOP currently holds a lopsided 55 to 44 majority. In 2004, over 51% of votes cast were for Democratic senatorial candidates, yet Republicans elected 19 of the 34 contested seats.
…The GOP has been over-represented in the Senate in nearly every election since 1958, primarily due to Republican success in low-population, conservative states in the West and South. Not surprisingly, the Senate is perhaps the most unrepresentative body in the world outside Britain’s House of Lords, with not only Democrats under-represented but only five of 100 seats held by racial minorities and only fourteen held by women.

Hill makes a strong case in his article that, even in 2004, when the electoral college appeared to almost work toward Kerry’s advantage, the GOP bias insured Bush’s victory. He concludes:

So from the Democratic Party perspective, the political geography does not work. In the current climate of Red vs. Blue America, any “emerging Democratic majority” must overcome an 18th-century political system that puts urban-centered Democrats at a decided disadvantage. As I wrote above, it’s like having a foot race in which one side (the Republicans) begins 10 yards in front of the other (the Democrats), election after election. It’s time to level the playing field.
But has this stark reality of our political landscape made a dent in liberal or Democratic understanding of “what to do?” Hardly. Instead, moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party have been cannibalizing each other over the no-win debate about the base versus swing voters. Or else they have been fiddling to the latest fad about Lakoffian reframing.
How convenient, to think you don’t have to engage in the hard work of enacting fundamental electoral reform, city by city and state-by-state, all you have to do is find better speechwriters and produce slicker TV ads and then the left can go back to its poetry nights.
It’s hard to hold out much hope for the Democratic Party as long as it remains railroaded by structural biases built-in to our basic electoral institutions of which they appear to be blissfully unaware.

Hill is correct that the electoral college and the U.S. Senate are fundamentally and irreparably anti-democratic, and a strong GOP bias corrupts many House Districts. But he ignores important demographic trends breaking significantly in the Dems’ favor (see Ruy Teixeira’s May 18 post, “Hunting for EV’s.”) Meanwhile, electoral reform will have to wait until Dems regain control of the executive and legislative branches and a majority of state legislatures. With that accomplished, a full-court press for a constitutional amendment providing direct popular election of the President would be good for starters. Until then, we have no choice but to fight harder, develop stronger candidates and build party unity.

Felon Voting Rights Movement Gathers Steam

Following the example of Nebraska, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack announced on June 17th that he would restore voting rights for all convicted felons who have completed their sentences in his state. When Vilsack signs the executive order on July 4th (a nice touch), he will make 80 thousand ex-felons eligible to vote.
Disenfranchisement of felons has been used by the GOP as a powerful tool for reducing the vote of African Americans in particular, who vote close to 9-1 Democratic in presidential elections. As Kate Zernicke explains in her article in today’s New York Times:

Nationally, about 4.7 million people are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions, about 500,000 of them war veterans, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration. About 1.4 million are black men.

This number represents about 13 percent of Black men, and in six states, one out of every four African American males have been disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions. In addition, convicted felons who are white often tend to be from impoverished and low-income families, another constituency which may lean Democratic.
The hope is that Vilsack’s example will inspire other states to take similar corrective measures. Currently, only Maine and Vermont give felons full voting rights, while other states have a patchwork of different restrictions, notes Zernicke:

According to the Right to Vote Campaign, which works to reverse laws preventing felons from voting, 14 states automatically restore voting rights to felons after they are released from prison; four states restore rights after ex-felons complete parole; and 18 states do so after they complete their prison sentence, parole and probation.
Iowa is one of five states – the others are Kentucky, Alabama, Florida and Virginia – that deny a vote to anyone convicted of a felony or an aggravated misdemeanor…Ryan King, a research associate at the Sentencing Project, said that about one million ex-felons, including 600,000 in Florida alone, would be eligible to vote if the four states with laws similar to Iowa’s granted voting rights to ex-felons

Movements to enfranchise felons who have served their time are underway across the nation, and lawsuits have been filed in behalf of them in several states. Of course there is no guarantee that, once enfranchised, ex-felons will exercize their voting rights. But Dems should take note that, given the statistics in Florida alone, it’s clear that this constituency could have a potent impact in election outcomes.