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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

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


De-Alignment

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.


Don’t Ignore the Moderates!

by Scott Winship
Let me first thank the managing editor for inviting me into this forum. No, in all seriousness, I’m injecting myself into this discussion both because I want to evaluate Schaller’s thesis in light of the election results and in order to offer a bit of criticism that — if we’re lucky — might provoke a fight among the roundtable discussants. This has been far too much of a love fest to this point. Ezra, did you hear what Schaller said about your mother?
Seriously though, the absence here of a stronger critic of Tom isn’t for lack of trying. Not one, but two critics of the “forget the South” strategy initially agreed to participate, only to fail to produce in the end. For those wanting more balance, criticism of Tom’s thesis may be found here, here, and here. Tom replies to them here and here. With that said, let’s see where things stand after the election.
Senate. Two-thirds of the Democrats’ new majority is built on the 18 states with two Democratic senators (counting Lieberman and Sanders as Democrats for convenience). Just one of these states is in the South (Arkansas). The remaining Democrats come from 15 states with one senator from each party, and two of those states are from the South. In sum, the South contributes 4 senators to the Democrats’ majority, and of the six seats we picked up on Tuesday, only Webb was a southerner. Finally, among the 2008 seats that are clearly winnable, at most two are from the South (those of John Warner and Lamar Alexander). So while it remains the case that Democrats would not have won the Senate without their four southern senators, in 2008 there is a strong possibility that seats in non-southern states will give us a majority even before counting the southern ones.
House. Of the 16 states where Democrats made up more than half the delegation prior to Tuesday, just two were southern. In contrast, of the 30 states where they made up less than half the delegation, eight were southern. Out of the 30 Democratic pick-ups that had been called as of this writing, just 3 were southern. Fifty-three out of the 231 Democratic seats are now from the South. If the Democratic Party were equally competitive in the South as outside the region, that figure would be 69 seats. Without our southern representatives, the Party would not have the majority it won on Tuesday, but obviously we can reach a majority even with our currently poor performance in the South.
Governorships. There are now 28 Democratic governors, just two of whom are southern (Bredesen in Tennessee, and now Beebe in Arkansas). Five of the six pick-ups were outside the South. So we’d have just over half the governorships without the South.
State Houses. Going into the elections, the Republicans controlled both houses of 20 state legislatures, while Democrats controlled both houses of 19. But now 24 state legislatures are fully under Democratic control (five of them southern), compared with just 16 for the GOP. None of the houses that changed hands were in the South. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that Democrats increased their 21-seat advantage to… 647 seats! And only 7 percent of this gain came from the South.
In sum, I think the mathematics of Tom’s argument is unimpeachable. So there’s strike three for fight-provoking responses.
But let me shift tacks. As a New Democrat, I was initially nervous about Tom’s thesis because I thought he was saying Democrats don’t have to appeal to moderates. I then realized that he wasn’t so much arguing that we not appeal to moderates as he was arguing that we not justify such a strategy by citing the need to win in the South. I wouldn’t disagree with this advice, but it’s a much more subtle message than “We don’t have to appeal to moderates.” In practice, I worry that many liberals will miss the subtlety and draw the conclusion that is most convenient for their ideological views.
But of course, the biggest improvement Democrats saw this year was among moderates and Independents. My boss, Bill Galston, and Elaine Kamarck have persuasively shown that Democrats have to win a supermajority of moderates in order to win presidential elections, given the number of liberals and conservatives in the electorate. In future elections, when the GOP hasn’t driven down its favorability numbers through corruption and an unpopular war, it will be considerably more difficult to maintain congressional majorities or win the presidency. I worry that dissing the South will translate into ignoring rural and religious voters in general.
Put another way, one could argue that running a New Democrat for president might win all the states that a more liberal candidate would win, plus southern states (plus Ohio!). Bill Clinton won Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee twice, and he won Florida and Georgia once each. It’s unlikely that Clinton put much energy into developing a southern strategy, and his own southern roots surely accounted for part of his success, but his overall New Democrat platform was also appealing to enough swing voters that he was able to win a majority of voters in some pretty red states.
So I guess my question for Tom is: Would you object to the alternate slogan, “Ignore the South, but Don’t Ignore Moderates or the Possibility of Winning the South.” Aside from the fact that it’s the most unwieldy phrase I’ve ever written.

Scott Winship is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.


It’s The Economy, Schaller!

by Ezra Klein
Participating in these forums often puts me in mind of the Richard Hofstadter’s impish nickname for the New York Review of Books: He liked to call it The New York Review of Each Other’s Books. Tom is a friend of mine. I think his book is great. You should buy it. Democrats should pay attention to it. I’m fairly convinced by it. But saying so makes for a staggeringly uninteresting 1,500 words. So let’s try the opposite on for size.
Tom’s basic thesis is that demography is destiny. Leaf through the census data, the exit polls, the surveyed preferences, and the historical trends of the South and squint: Like one of those magic eye pictures, a region decidedly hostile to Democratic resurgence will come into focus.
Problem is, I could never get the damn things to work. In fact, I just spent five minutes straining my eyes on this one, and failed yet again. So let me suggest an alternate maxim: Economics is destiny. But Tom, alas, predicts my critique, and notes that poorer whites in the South vote heavily Republican. Explanations abound: Their cultural conservatism, low levels of unionization, racism, tribalism, foreign policy preferences, etc. For Tom, however, those preferences simply exist; a puzzling feature of the political landscape that Democrats must detour around en route to any eventual majority. Better to focus elsewhere. Their mutability lies basically unexplored.
The economic trends of the present moment aren’t pretty though. The corporate welfare state is in sharp decline. Between 2000 and 2006, health premiums shot up 81% for the average family. Wages did not. In fact, since 2000, they’ve slipped. As Jon Chait explained (subscr.) in a recent New Republic article, the old link between productivity increases and wage increases has been severed, puzzling economists and harming family incomes. And the new quarterly numbers suggested productivity increases have stopped altogether, effectively ending the hopes of wage growth in the near future. Housing, gas, energy, and college costs — all up. Inequality? Up. Poverty? Up. Risk? Up. Outsourcing? Up. Savings? Down.
I can do this all day.
These trends simply can’t continue — political correction will kick in before total disintegration. And so it’s time to invoke Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Such will be the fate of poor, rural support for policies that rip apart the very safety net they depend on, and hasten the very trends that they fear. For these voters, the trends in question cannot go on, and so they will stop — because these voters will stop accepting them.
For that reason, I find Tom’s demographic analysis only moderately helpful from a prescriptive standpoint. It’s obviously correct in the very near-term. As he suggests, we shouldn’t be spending much national money trying to guarantee Al Gore Alabama in 2008. The Republicans don’t contest New York; we needn’t toss good money after stupid by vying for Mississippi. But that’s not something we do now, anyway. There’s an excess of soul-searching over how a party can survive when a particular region keeps picking them last for dodgeball, and, as Paul Waldman aptly points out, it’s time to get over that. But that requires psychology rather than strategy.
That said, I do think the Southernization of the Republican Party is momentous. But because it will push the country left, not right. Evidence for this came with the release of the 2005 Pew Typology Survey, a comprehensive polling project conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Their political typology studies, conducted in 1987, 1994, 1999, and 2005, attempt to provide detailed snapshots of the various electoral coalitions by sorting the electorate into homogenous groups based on values, political beliefs, and party affiliation.
The trends are telling: In 1987 and 1994, the Republican Party relied on two groups, Moralists and Enterprisers, the former emphasizing social conservatism, the latter small government conservatism. But the 1999 study noticed the emergence of a third group: Populist Republicans, low-income and economically insecure Republicans who favor strong government regulation, entitlement liberalism, and traditional morality, are largely centered in the South, and attend church — no pun intended — religiously. By 2005, this group — now called pro-government conservatives — comprised a third of the Republican base and had carved out a critical space of the political landscape.
58 percent of Pro-Government Conservatives identify as Republican. But nearly 90 percent vote Republican. Only two percent identify as Democrats. Almost 40 percent had seen someone in their household unemployed in the last year, only 10 percent had a union member in the house. They go to church, love their guns, hate their gays, and believe in the military. They are, in other words, Southerners. But poor ones: Only 29 percent report that “paying the bills is not generally a problem,” as opposed to 88 percent of the Social Conservatives and Enterprisers.
As a result, their economic opinions verge on the radical. 80 percent of Pro-Government Conservatives believe the government must do more to help the needy, even if it means going into debt. Over 60 percent believe that environmental regulations are worth the cost (tree huggers!), 83 percent fear the power corporations have amassed, and 66 percent believe government regulation is necessary to protect the public interest. 71 percent support “programs to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs and education.” They’re critical of free trade, ready to repeal the tax cuts, and less overwhelmingly pro-Iraq than their fellow Republican subgroups. They are, in sum, obviously unsuitable for the GOP.
As the Republican Party becomes ever more reliant on downwardly mobile whites, the principles, problems, and priorities of that demographic will begin to flow upward, changing the party’s ideology from the bottom-up. For quite some time, the GOP’s base was geographically diverse enough to insulate them from their new constituencies. But, as Tom pointedly notes, that’s no longer the case: Now the party is a Southern Party that elects Southern candidates. The old GOP, a mixture of Northern managerialism, Western individualism, and cosmopolitan corporatism won’t survive the shift.
And, arguably, it’s already in retreat. George W. Bush is the first Southern Republican elected since James Knox Polk. And he displayed some distinct differences from the Republicans who preceded him. Bush’s domestic appeal was “compassionate conservatism.” It was conservatism without the cruelty or, more specifically, the capitalism. There were tax cuts, to be sure. But his two major domestic initiatives were definitionally pro government: No Child Left Behind, the largest expansion of federal control over schools in a generation, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a longtime progressive priority. The policies have their trap doors, Trojan horses, and corporate giveaways, but they were carefully constructed to appear indistinguishable from progressive solutions. Political junkies can give you chapter and verse on the failings of the bills, but as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explained in Off Center, these sorts of misdirection work well on the median voters, who have better — or at least more pressing — things to do than read the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ legislative analyses.
So it’s no surprise this group voted overwhelmingly Republican: Republicans are putting overwhelming effort into tricking this group. But trickery is a short-term strategy, particularly when real social ills underlie the deception, and will refuse to disappear in order to better accommodate the GOP’s image manipulation. Sooner or later, the right will either have to deliver the goods or sacrifice the votes, and they simply can’t do the latter.
That’s why I’m skeptical that Tom’s demographic slicing is really the most useful approach to the Democratic Party’s problems. Today’s electoral reality may not be tomorrow’s, and a party that, as he proposes, runs against the South, will not only lose the opportunity to convert these voters when they come online, but may lose many others besides. Meanwhile, macroeconomic forces and trends are enhancing the salience of so-called pocketbook issues and accelerating the public’s abandonment of small-government conservatism. The GOP, with its reliance on corporate funds and roots in libertarian thought, will find it hard, if not impossible, to adapt to this reality. The Democratic Party, which retains its labor-liberal wing, will not.
That’s why, at the end of the day, the arguments over how the Democrats should handle the South are only partially convincing. What the South will look like in a few years, when wage stagnation and a recession and unchecked inequality and increasing corporate power and the transformation to a service sector have all advanced further, is unclear. But if you take seriously the emergence of Pro-Government Conservatives in the typology studies, and the apparent reaction to them in the Republican Party, you see the impact will be momentous. For that reason, I fear running against today’s South will mean abandoning tomorrow’s. And I’m not confident the two will be equally hostile to the Democratic Party. So while I’m with Tom’s near-term spending strategy, and agree that the Interior West is rich with opportunity, I’m less interested in where our party should compete than what it should say.
Ezra Klein is the writing fellow at The American Prospect. His blog is at www.EzraKlein.com.


Democrats Should Listen To Schaller — But They’ll Have to Get Past the Media First

By Paul Waldman
After the 2004 election, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley gave a speech in which she related a meal she had with John Kerry in an Iowa restaurant in the campaign’s early days. Kerry asked the waitress if they served green tea; she responded that they had only Lipton’s. “I advised the senator that he would need to carry his own green tea in Iowa and probably several other states, as well,” she said to knowing chuckles, going on to say that the incident stuck in her memory because it showed how out of touch Kerry was with regular folks and the regular places where they live.
But when Media Matters for America looked into it, they found not only that green tea makes up 20% of Lipton’s sales in the U.S., but that if you’re in Dubuque and you want some, you can get it at that snooty elitist foodery called K-Mart.
The point of this story is that if Democrats are smart enough to take Tom Schaller’s advice, they are going to catch hell from the elite Washington press corps. So it will take a bit of fortitude to stand up to that criticism and make the changes in outlook necessary to build a lasting majority.
Journalists like Candy Crowley operate from simplistic, stereotypical ideas of what the “heartland” is and how distant Democrats are from it. Those stereotypes inform everything they write about the two parties and where they get their votes. While the incident she talked about in her speech happened in Iowa, nowhere do those media stereotypes come more to the fore than when journalists are thinking about the South. As far as journalists are concerned, people who live in the South (and other areas where there are lots of Republicans, like the lower Midwest) are “real” Americans, while people who live in the Northeast or West are something else. In fact, Southern-ness itself has become for the media the mark of “authenticity,” the sign that a politician understands regular folks and their lives and is fundamentally “real.”
Consider George W. Bush, who is about as inauthentic and removed from the struggles ordinary people face as a politician could possibly be. Bush once responded to a single mother who told him that she was working three jobs by saying, “Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that,” as though she were not a victim of economic desperation but just a real go-getter. Yet as far as journalists are concerned, Bush is just the kind of regular guy most folks would love to have a beer with, unlike those fancy-pants phonies whom he defeated in his two presidential campaigns. Sure, his father was president and his grandfather was a senator, and he went to Andover, Yale and Harvard — but just listen to that drawl!
The fact that members of the news media (most of whom are themselves Northeasterners who went to good schools) consider the South to be the “real” America where people have “values” hampers Democrats in a dozen ways. For instance, Tom points to the importance of religion. In both 2000 and 2004, Bush won every state with a proportion of evangelical Christians higher than the national average — and the highest are in the South. The fact that Republicans do very well among people who go to church at least once a week is always defined as a “problem” for Democrats, while the fact that Democrats are equally dominant among those who rarely attend religious services — a group just as large — is never called a “problem” for Republicans.
This is just one example, but as Tom lays out in detail in his book, in area after area, whether in demographics or opinion, it is the South that is the outlier, the exception to the American norm. Political scientists have long understood this, which is why in most multivariate analyses of national data, they include a “South/non-South” variable to account for these differences.
What Tom is recommending is nothing that Republicans haven’t already done themselves, though they have been strangely immune to criticism over it. Their majority is built on the South, the Midwest, and the interior West; just like the Democrats, they are not a national party. The fact that both parties narrowed their focus to around eighteen battleground states in 2004 was somehow seen as a failure only on the Democrats’ part, as they were “writing off” large swaths of the country, particularly the South. For some reason Republicans were not criticized for doing exactly the same thing. It was supposed to be problematic that Democrats were not putting money into a futile attempt to win Texas’ electoral votes, yet the GOP’s failure to do the same in New York or California was not worthy of comment, much less condemnation.
Democrats are poised to win the House, due mostly to likely sweeps of competitive seats in states like New York and Pennsylvania. After Tuesday, the GOP in the Northeast will be a frayed husk of a party, with the once-numerous Rockefeller Republicans nothing but a fading memory. Yet this is not the story the media are likely to tell. We have already seen signals that however many seats Democrats win elsewhere, the media will focus their attention on those few conservative Democrats in the South and places like Indiana, the exceptions rather than the rule. If he wins, Heath Shuler of North Carolina — a pro-gun, pro-life candidate — will probably become the most famous member of the freshman class of 2006 (Shuler was already profiled in a long New York Times article last week). The cable networks will tell us that Shuler and others like him are the face of the Democratic victory, and this just shows how the party is beset by internal tensions, with candidates like Shuler who represent real Americans the only hope to save their party from those liberal Northeasterners who alienate Democrats from the rest of the country.
But the presence of a few conservative Democrats in the South doesn’t mean that Democrats need that region to win, any more than the presence of an Olympia Snowe or a Christopher Shays means Republicans can’t win without the Northeast. So the most important thing for Democrats to do is to stop feeling bad about not winning the South. In the months after the 2004 election, you couldn’t walk into a think tank conference room without stumbling on a forum on how Democrats can show Southerners they like and respect them. Yet there was no such breast-beating on the other side, no Republicans worrying about how they’re going to start winning again in New England or the Far West. But their problems in those regions are even more acute; in the last four presidential elections, the GOP has won a grand total of one state in New England and the West, when George W. Bush squeaked out a win in New Hampshire in 2000 by 7,000 votes.
The worst thing about all that Democratic angst is that it validates the arguments Republicans make. Yes, Democrats say, your voters are the kind of people we want to appeal to, while our voters — well, we’ll take their votes if we have to, but we don’t feel good about it. Then in election after election, they come before Southerners on bended knee in a humiliating ritual of self-flagellation. Please, oh please, they cry, don’t hate us. We love NASCAR! We love grits! We respect your unique culture! Let us stroke the anvil-sized chip on your shoulder! At the end of the day, the pandering doesn’t work, and voters around the country look at Democrats and think they’re a bunch of weaklings who won’t stand up for what they believe.
Tom Schaller is a good friend, and he and I have been discussing these issues since we both started working on our respective books offering advice to Democrats. I noticed that as he began to discuss his thesis publicly, and the copious evidence with which he supports it, the reactions he got were often highly emotional, even angry. But those who disagree with Tom have seldom been able to marshal much in the way of facts and evidence to refute him. At Yearly Kos, where they were both speaking on a panel about Democrats and the South, Mudcat Saunders shouted that Tom should “Kiss my rebel ass!” — and that was about the most sophisticated argument he offered. (Tom was too much of a gentleman to respond in kind)
Democrats need to get beyond emotion and take a good hard look at the facts if they want to build a lasting majority. The fact is that working to hold on to whatever scraps they can get from the South not only wastes money and energy they could better use elsewhere, it keeps them stuck in the mindset that there is some magic trick with which they can be true to what they believe, serve their real constituencies, and yet also win over the voters who are the most hostile to them.
The Republicans spend no mental energy on such a project. They do not worry about being a “national party.” They’re not concerned about how they can increase their votes in Berkeley and Cambridge. They don’t fret about whether writing off large swaths of the country means there’s something un-American about them. They want to win, and they’ll assemble whatever regional and ideological coalition is necessary to do so. It’s about time the Democrats did the same thing.

Paul Waldman is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success. He is also a regular columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and TomPaine.com.


Other Narratives

by Heather Hurlburt
Over the period that this debate has been up, we’ve seen a new mini-trend of progressive manifestoes on national security popping up, here, there and everywhere. My colleague Shadi Hamid did a nice job of summarizing them over at democracyarsenal.org.
But there’s also the emerging “narrative” mini-trend, with projects in the works at the Truman Project, Third Way, National Security Network and probably others I haven’t heard about yet.
I agree with much of the substantive critique that earlier commenters made of the Truman Project document’s central policy propositions and messaging language.
And I even agree with David Rieff that some of the progressive community can be awfully quick to embrace a cleaned-up version of “our” past heroes — the sort of thing that, first, we like to chide the Republicans for doing and second can lead us to repeat their mistakes (see under: hubris).
Bruce Jentleson has some thoughtful comments on one of the political class’s new favorite national security clichés — how good we had it under containment.
What I don’t ever get from Rieff’s critique is a sense of how we are supposed to move forward. Yes, I’d like to see the national security community pause and ask ourselves whether we’re really sure we wouldn’t let another Rwanda happen again, especially since it looks as if we are in slow-motion in Darfur. We could have a productive discussion about the right lessons to learn from how Kennedy got embroiled in Vietnam, and how those are relevant to the mistakes in judgment that well-intentioned progressives made on Iraq. And we should be thinking about how Roosevelt’s treatment of Japanese-Americans has echoes in the present day.
That’s something that Rieff and writers like him are particularly well-placed to do — and it behooves the rest of us to pay attention.
But that’s not the only thing progressives need. They need a playbook for candidates, elected officials, and talking heads to follow — and that is the sort of thing that the Truman Project and others are trying to develop. Such efforts use the language of politics — as they should.
But there’s a third thing progressives need, where I think both the Truman effort as outlined and the Rieff critique are missing the mark. The compelling American narratives are not now being written inside the Beltway by smart foreign policy professionals. They are being “written” by soldiers with cameras in Iraq; by viewers picking videos on YouTube; by country musicians and comedians and film directors and everyone who is trying to make sense of our world at a human level, not a policy one. The party that next gains the upper hand will not be the one whose young staffers write the most eloquent narrative, but the one that best understands the narrative that the public is telling itself and that the entertainment industry chooses to tell. In 2006, Democrats had a relatively easy job of aligning ourselves with a public mood still best captured by TV news coverage of Katrina: “How could they do this to us?”
That narrative wasn’t written in Washington, and the next one won’t be either. Soul-searching about the past and paradigm development for the present are both important. In national security, professional Democrats have seldom done enough of either. But they won’t be sufficient; and in fact, if we focus too much on the “technology” and ignore what’s happening beyond our office windows, we’ll be scooped again.


Winning in the Emerging Suburbs

By Robert Griendling
The frozen smiles can sear the brain. They belong to Democratic officials, lobbyists and activists when you tell them you are running against a four-term incumbent Republican state house member who has decimated each of his opponents. His last Democratic opponent had garnered only 36% of the vote. In 2004, the state had gone for George W. Bush by 54-45%, the county by 56%-44%. The 2005 battle for the 32nd House district seat in the world’s oldest deliberative democratic body, the Virginia General Assembly, was taking place in an emerging suburb that was reliably GOP country.
Behind the smiles were words of encouragement. But not much more. If this race was to be won, it would be based not on the advice of consultants and party leaders, but on the efforts of the people who lived in the 32nd and campaign planners’ best instincts about what would work. David Poisson decided nine months before the election what his issues would be, how he would work the district and what it would take to win. Polls and pros could not and would not drive this campaign.
An Entrenched Incumbent
Delegate Dick Black was thought to be biding his time before running for at least state Attorney General. He had the credentials: a career military lawyer, solid conservative positions and a GOTV effort that was legendary. Not only was nearby Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, a few miles west of the 32nd district, a source for committed young conservatives being trained specifically for government activism, but local churches straddled — and some say crossed — the line by advocating Black’s reelection year after year. His own church would help distribute flyers in the church parking lot and priests there had preached for his candidacy from the pulpit.
Black began the campaign in early 2005 with more than $100,000 in campaign funds for a race that was expected to cost just over $300,000. By June, he had $216,000. By Labor Day, he had raised more than $313,000; the Poisson campaign reported $75,000 on hand.
Most of the professionals were still giving the campaign the “Go Get ‘Em” speech with the same smile intact.
But for all his fundraising prowess, the GOTV machine and a record of landslides, it didn’t seem that a man who would go so far as to publicly criticize a high school student for writing a play that called for tolerance of gays, and who once spoke from Thomas Jefferson’s House floor with a plastic fetus in hand to rail against abortion, fairly represented a community where young families were coming in droves to buy a piece of the American dream.
And Black’s strident anti-tax positions meant that the investments a growing community needs would be hard to fund.
The Emerging Suburb
Loudoun County, Virginia had been atop the list of fastest-growing counties in America for years. From 2002 to 2003 alone, it grew 14%. Two areas in the 32nd district, Dulles and Ashburn, saw growth rates of 66.5% and 47.4%, respectively from 2000 to 2003.
The growth was also evident in the registered voter statistics. For example, in the 10 months from November 2003, an election year for the House of Delegates, the district’s voter rolls increased 6.3%. Registered voter rolls grew 12.6% in one precinct, 13.2% in another, and a whopping 24% in a precinct where homes were being built rapidly during the two years before the ’05 election.
Loudoun was also a young county. A third of its residents were under age 18, compared to 25% nationally. The working population, those aged 25-54, was 6% larger than the national average. The county is also affluent. The average household income was $126,102 in the first half of this decade. It didn’t seem that a radical social conservative could really represent this type of constituency.
Meanwhile, a look at Black’s numbers provided hope for those who don’t simply look at “performance” numbers.
Drilling Down the Numbers
In the 2001 election, Mark Warner, who positioned himself as a moderate businessman, polled better in the gubernatorial race than the Democratic candidate for the 32nd district, a woman who engaged Black on his issues, most notably abortion. Her strategy backfired and energized Black’s base. Warner outpolled her in every precinct in the 32nd save one, in which he was down by only eight votes. His race also garnered 1,100 votes more than the 32nd House race, suggesting many voters did not vote for either Black or the Democratic candidate either because they didn’t know them or were turned off by both. In that election, the combination of votes for the Democrat and a moderate Republican who made it a three-way race was within 602 votes of Black’s total. Also in 2003, two Democratic supervisor candidates each won a precinct. Other local Democrats had carried a few of the 32nd’s precincts.
In all, the 2003 vote indicated that eight of the district’s 18 precincts were clearly willing to support a more moderate candidate.
Issues That Matter
While the campaign held focus groups with grassroots supporters about what was on their minds, the candidate clearly had some pet issues, chief among them education. David Poisson has a PhD in higher education, along with a law degree. Getting an education was stressed from his early years growing up in a declining mill town in southeastern Massachusetts. It seemed that many constituents in the 32nd had similar upbringings. And admission to a Virginia college was becoming more difficult. Meanwhile, traffic was choking Northern Virginia, stealing time from families. And the local school board was desperately trying to keep up with demand, building five new schools a year.
With those types of issues on the minds of constituents, it didn’t seem who married whom really mattered. This idea was to be the nexus of the campaign. From Poisson’s announcement of his candidacy:

As a businessman, I’ve always focused on results that affect the important issues. What you and I want is a safe, secure environment for our families, a promising future for our children, and a plan to make eastern Loudoun County an even greater place to live. We can achieve those goals because I believe you share with me two core qualities: confidence in ourselves, and the knowledge that nothing of value is ever achieved without hard work.

Our current representative in the Virginia House of Delegates has ignored our real concerns. More importantly, he’s made it abundantly clear he doesn’t trust you to make the right moral decisions for your family.

I trust you to raise your family and teach your children right from wrong. I trust you to know when we must invest — and when we must tighten the purse strings. And I trust you to know the difference between someone who represents your interests and someone who places his own interests ahead of yours.

I plan to focus on what really matters to your families.

Here in the 32nd district, we need to fight for the funding necessary to improve our roads so we don’t spend half our lives in traffic. Because that matters to our families.

We need to ensure we have great teachers in our public schools. Because that matters to our families.

We need to create the jobs necessary to keep Loudoun’s economic engine running. Because that matters to our families.

And we need to ensure that when our children are ready for college, we have a state college system that is ready for them. Because that matters to our families.

And because these issues matter so much, and because I believe the people of the 32nd district deserve someone willing to fight for those issues, I’m here tonight to announce my candidacy for the Virginia House of Delegates.

“Issues that matter” became the overriding communication point of the campaign. It not only drove what was talked about in the campaign but how the campaign addressed Dick Black’s attacks and his previously successful strategy of making the election about his issues. The campaign rejected the standard advice: To beat an incumbent, you must trash him for months. The theory is that unless people feel a need for change, even a perfect challenger has little chance. There may be some truth to this rule, but instead of focusing initially on what was perceived as Black’s weaknesses, the campaign talked about Poisson’s vision: funding local schools, getting kids into Virginia’s colleges, transportation and attracting good jobs to Loudoun County.
With the tremendous growth in Loudoun County, there were many new voters. They never heard of Dick Black, much less David Poisson. As mentioned earlier, one precinct had grown 24% in two years. We walked it, as well as every other new community. Depending where the best opportunities were, we walked those communities, too. Poisson introduced himself, and when given the opportunity, he introduced his opponent as well. But more than anything, we wanted to let these new residents know that we welcomed them and understood the pressures they felt.
Targeting the Middle Class
Even in a relatively affluent area such as Loudoun County, the middle class is feeling pressed. It’s not the candidate’s job to judge whether those who are relatively comfortable may be expecting too much, or that they should consider themselves lucky they are not poor. A nice home with a chance to make it big, being able to send their kids to college, and not just a secure but a comfortable retirement are the dreams of the middle class. The homes in the 32nd district start at around $350,000. We weren’t going to deny that. This campaign was designed to address the issues these families cared about and position a Democrat as a friend of the middle class.
No doubt the 32nd was and remains a socially conservative area. Many, if not most, people in the district oppose gay marriage and “abortion on demand.” But even so, there was little evidence that such issues would drive the election, given the other problems we faced. But surely our opponent would demand the press and the public know where the Democrat stood on these issues. The candidate’s stances were made clear but brief: Support for a woman’s right to choose but also support for parental notice. (Strike NARAL from the list of endorsements, let alone donors.) Marriage was the province of the church, but gays had a right to civil unions. And with thousands of children in foster care, gay adoption was a better alternative than the life of an itinerant child. The candidate’s personal story, having a mother who grew up an orphan, was also powerful.
The strategy was not to deny constituents’ firmly held views. Nor was it to criticize those who disagreed. It doesn’t serve to disrespect those who disagree with your views. Once you’ve told voters that they’re bigots or intolerant because they disagree with you, they’ll never listen to your other messages. We simply stated our views and moved on to our issues, whether it was in the debate with Black, or in articles or letters to the editors of the five local newspapers.
Competence
We also made the campaign about competence. From the traditional kick-off at back-to-school nights, we emphasized what Black didn’t do about the issues that really matter. He served on both education and transportation committees in the House, yet never introduced a major education or transportation bill. We focused not on painting him as a right-wing ideologue but as an ineffective advocate for the things that matter most to his constituents.
Many observers felt the turning point came in our only major debate. Our opponent set all the ground rules. For example, although the League of Women Voters hosted the debate, we had to allow a former Republican Party county chairman to serve as moderator. Three local reporters asked the questions, and we were given two minutes for opening and closing remarks. During the debate, Black constantly tried to tie our campaign to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Tim Kaine, ironically himself a moderate. His well known moral opposition to the death penalty was brought up several times. When asked, Poisson stated his support for the death penalty, which clearly frustrated Black. He several times said he was exactly aligned with the Republican gubernatorial candidate and said Poisson was running away from his. Poisson responded simply, “The great thing about being a Democrat is that we get to think for ourselves.” The crowd roared its approval. We made sure the volume of the roar was loud by turning out our supporters for the debate. We estimated at least 70 percent of the crowd supported our candidacy.
Our opponent made a crucial mistake in his closing remarks by repeatedly mispronouncing Poisson’s last name as “poison.” The crowd heckled him. Reporters were clearly shocked. Poisson’s response was simply, “The last time someone mispronounced my name like that was in the 7th-grade race for class president. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now, Mr. Black.” We then made sure his childish antics were chronicled in the last articles to appear in the press before the election.
Shortly thereafter, the only poll that mattered was taken. Our first poll, in mid-July, was demanded by Virginia Democrats as a prelude to any party funding. It had us 12 points down. We had to conduct a follow-up before Labor Day. It had slightly better results. But only this last poll had real impact. Far behind in fundraising six weeks before the election, we pulled even as voters went to the polls. Why? Because that last poll had us within three points of victory. When you’re viable, you’re also flush.
On Election Day, Poisson won all but two of the 18 precincts and an overall victory of 53-47%. Even more impressive, he not only outperformed Tim Kaine, who garnered 52% of the vote in the district, he received 700 more votes.
Every race is different. Every community has its own needs. But by campaigning on issues that affect the everyday lives of our constituents, acknowledging but minimizing divisive social issues, recognizing that taxes are only a means to an end and having faith in our core principles, we were able to win in the emerging suburbs against a supposedly invincible incumbent.

Robert Griendling is the principal of Griendling Communications, a communications consulting firm founded in 1989. He was the communication strategist for David Poisson’s 2005 successful campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates. He is also editor of the Commonwealth Commonsense blog.