washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Vote Blue! No Matter Who.

VOTE BLUE.

No matter who.

“Vote Blue, No Matter Who” do-it-yourself t-shirts and bumper stickers–just call your local, unionized print shop and ask for an estimate. They can contact editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org for the artwork.

Vote Blue No Matter Who bumper sticker

Vote Blue!

No Matter Who!

“Vote Blue, No Matter Who” do-it-yourself t-shirts and bumper stickers–just call your local, unionized print shop and ask for an estimate. They can contact editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org for the artwork.

Vote Blue! No Matter Who.

VOTE BLUE!

No Matter Who.

“Vote Blue, No Matter Who” do-it-yourself t-shirts and bumper stickers–just call your local, unionized print shop and ask for an estimate. They can contact editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org for the artwork.

Vote Blue No Matter Who bumper sticker

Vote Blue

No matter who.

“Vote Blue, No Matter Who” do-it-yourself t-shirts and bumper stickers–just call your local, unionized print shop and ask for an estimate. They can contact editors@thedemocraticstrategist.org for the artwork.

RIP GOP book by Stanley Greenberg

R.I.P. G.O.P.

You can find out more about the return to progressive politics from our founder Stanley Greenberg in his new book!

Pre-Order Now.

The Daily Strategist

April 5, 2020

You Say Agendas, I Say Agenda

by Scott Winship
Today I’ll examine the agenda the parties run on in House and Senate races. Or rather the agendas, as no less an authority than the Oxford Dictionaries declares that agendum has gone the way of the dodo, much as datum is in its death throes. (Is it dodos or dodoes, by the way?)
Campaign agendas affect how candidates fare in their elections and thus determine the makeup of legislative bodies. They also affect legislation by setting the broader policy agenda at the federal level, both in the elevation of the issues of victors and in the pressure put on victors to take up opponents’ issues.
These points are made by Tracy Sulkin and Jillian Evans in “Dynamics of Diffusion: Aggregate Patterns in Congressional Campaign Agendas” (American Politics Research, July 2006). And let me just say as a final grammatical gripe, I was really looking forward to writing “[sic]” at the end of that title.
Sulkin and Evans begin with a useful discussion of how candidates strategically choose the issues to run on. In one political science model, the two major parties “own” certain issues. That is to say, they

have reputations for their competence at handling certain issues, “produced by a history of attention, initiative, and innovation toward these problems, which leads voters to believe that one of the parties [and its candidates] is more sincere and committed to doing something about them.” (They are quoting a 1996 paper by John Petrocik.)

Candidates then emphasize the issues their party owns while de-emphasizing those owned by the other candidate’s party. Does this strategy sound familiar? In 2002, Democrats attempted to take national security “off the table” and ran instead on a Medicare drug benefit and other domestic social programs. Indeed this strategy would have been the logical one to follow if voters had prioritized these programs over national security. Unfortunately, as one of my editors, Bill Galston, and his coauthor Elaine Kamarck have illustrated, that was not the case. When the issues owned by one’s party aren’t as important to voters as the other party’s issues, then the strategy described by Petrocik amounts to reliance on the Myth of Prescription Drugs, in Galston and Kamarck’s pithy phrase. (I suppose I ought to disclose that I was a research assistant on that paper.)
Sulkin and Evans look at House and Senate races from 1984 to 1996, selecting over 1,100 where information on one or both candidates’ priority issues was available from the CQ Weekly Report “Special Election Issue” published just before elections each year. Most of these are House races. The authors found that the three most common issues across the whole period were the economy, the budget, and taxes, and the least common were “family issues”, foreign policy (excluding defense), and (somewhat surprisingly) Social Security and welfare.
Either the economy or the budget was the most common issue in four of the seven years. The environment and “social issues” were the most common in 1990; crime was most common in 1994, the year of the Contract with America. In 1996, taxes were the top issue. Only once did an issue take up more than 20 percent of the agenda – the economy in 1986.
Democrats picked up House seats in 1986 and 1988, when the economy was the top issue, in 1990 (social issues and the environment), and 1996 (taxes). Republicans picked up House seats in 1984, 1992, and 1994, when the top issues were the budget, the economy, and crime (respectively). So issue ownership seems important, but certainly isn’t the end all, be all of successful campaigns.
Unsurprisingly, given the extent to which Democratic candidates rely on issues rather than character, they tended to have more priority issues than Republicans did per candidate, and their agenda as a party is less focused than that of Republicans. Furthermore, the disparity between the parties grew after 1988 as Republicans became more focused.
Top issues for the Democrats during this period included the economy, the environment, defense, and the budget. Among Republicans, the most common issues also included the budget and the economy, as well as taxes. While those three were priority issues in twenty-five percent or more of Republican campaigns during the period, no issue was featured in that many campaigns among Democrats. Six issues (out of sixteen) were featured in no more than five percent of Republican campaigns; just four issues were that rare among Democrats. Relatedly, House Democrats were more likely than Republicans to emphasize nine issues, but on only two of these nine were they also more likely to emphasize the issue in the Senate. On the other hand, House Republicans were more likely than Democrats to emphasize three issues, but on all three they were also more likely than the Democrats to emphasize the issue in the Senate too. These figures could be evidence that the Democratic coalition is less cohesive than its Republican counterpart. Different Congressional districts and states have different priority issues among Democrats and different issues are given importance by Democrats – relative to the attention they receive by Republicans – in the House than in the Senate. This diversity likely is also reflected in Congressional votes and in presidential campaign agendas.
I take from this paper the conclusion that poor messaging on the Democrats’ part, the complaint that no one knows what we stand for, and even inadequate party discipline compared with Republicans may be fundamentally rooted in the disparate agendas espoused throughout the Party. Whether this problem reflects a coalition that is more diverse than that of Republicans, more intransigence within party ranks, or just less willingness to prioritize, is an important question. I’ll add it to my agendum.


Immigration Clarification

by Scott Winship
Here’s a plug for a new report by one of my bosses. Ruy has just written up a nuanced summary of public opinion on immigration reform for the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation. The bottom line is that views are much more complicated than either party would admit. Think tough, but not punitive. A path to citizenship, but no free ride. Check it out here.


LA Times Poll: Dems Gain in Congressional Races

The new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll just out gives the GOP a lot to worry about. The poll, conducted 6/24-27, paints “a gloomy picture for the Republicans in Congress,” with Dems poised to make substantial gains in the November elections.
The poll indicates Dems enjoy a 14-point advantage among registered voters in races for congressional seats “if elections were held today.” The poll also reveals a widening gender gap, more like a gender gulf, really, with women now giving Dems a 26 point advantage in their congressional districts. The poll found that 54 percent of all respondents wanted the Dems to control both houses of congress.
The poll also indicates that, even though Bush apparently gets a small post-Zarqawi bump in his approval ratings, he is more of a liability for congressional candidates than an asset. More than one-third of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who had Bush’s endorsement or who supported his policies, 45 percent said it would not matter and less than a fifth said they would be more likely to vote for a Bush-supported candidate.
The poll also addresses current opinion trends on a range of issues, including Iraq and immigration. For the time-challenged, LA Times columnist Ron Brownstein has a wrap-up here.


Swingers

by Scott Winship
There’s a new report out on swing voters by pollsters Anna Greenberg and David Walker of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. Greenberg and Walker find that swing voters in swing states and districts want more spending on education, health care, and energy independence. They would pay for the increased outlays by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.
Democratic Strategist editor Stan Greenberg is Chairman and CEO of GQR Research.
On an unrelated note, we have made hyperlinks in the blog entries here easier to see. Yes, they were there all along. Go back and take a look if you wondered about the “omission” before.


World Domination, Phase II

by Scott Winship
You will notice over the next few days and weeks that the Daily Strategist is expanding to incorporate additional posters. The new posts will tend to be briefer, quick-hitting posts compared with the mini-essays I’ve been writing. In particular, Phase II will feature entries cross-posted from Ruy’s blog DonkeyRising at www.emergingdemocraticmajority.com. In Phase III, we hope to incorporate occassional posts by political celebrities (and by “celebrities”, I mean people your brother or mom probably haven’t heard of). To give you a sense of my idea of celebrity, I was psyched when I thought TIME columnist Margaret Carlson was riding the same bus as me a couple of months ago. I think I once sat next to Alice Rivlin at Emeril Lagasse’s Miami restaurant. OK, I’m done.


SCOTUS Redistricting Decision and Dems’ Future

by Pete Ross
New Donkey’s Ed Kilgore has a post that nicely limns the SCOTUS decision on redistricting. As Kilgore explains:

It’s clear a sizeable majority of the Court has decided that mid-decade reversals of redistricting plans are not barred by the federal constitutution, and a less-sizeable majority refuses to consider re-redistricting as grounds for strong suspicion that illicit political gerrymandering has occurred. But the Court appears to be all over the place, as it has been for more than a decade, in determining when if ever political gerrymandering can violate the Constitution.
Meanwhile, a 5-4 majority of the Court ruled than one of the districts in the DeLay Map violates the Voting Right Act as a straightforward dilution of Hispanic voting strength. But the decision about how to deal with it was dumped back to a District Court in Texas, which must now decide whether there is anything they can do about it between now and November. Obviously, fixing one district could affect many others.

The SCOTUS decision allowing the Texas legislature to redistrict twice in two years was clearly wrong and it encouraged abuse of political power. By upholding most of DeLay’s gerrymandering initiative, the High Court did the Democrats and the country no good, except for the finding that, yes, it did illegally disempower Latino voters in one of the districts and violate the Voting Rights Act. As Kilgore says “No one can any longer foster the illusion that the U.S. Supreme Court will do anything to stop the madness.” We’re going to be stuck with a GOP-dominated SCOTUS into the forseeable future, so the Dem strategy should assume little relief from the courts. The solution? Kilgore recommends:

But no one should forget that the one place in which a DeLay-style GOP partisan re-redistricting foundered was Colorado, for the simple reason that the state’s own constitution banned mid-decade redistricting. Looking ahead to the next decade, states should strongly consider emulating Colorado’s ban on the practice of overturning congressional and state legislative maps every time partisan control of state government solidifies or flips.

The Colorado model may indeed be a force for stability, but it may not be such a good thing in the long run for the Democratic Party, or the nation for that matter, given the rapid population increases of Latino and African Americans and the extraordinary mobility of Americans. State laws permitting redistricting once in mid-decade, as well as after every census, might better serve a healthy mix of both demographic reality and stability.


Polarized Partisans (Probably)

Three weeks ago, the Senate shelved its latest election-year effort to add a ban on gay marriage to the United States Constitution. The last such attempt occurred on July 14, 2004, fittingly the same day that political scientist Morris Fiorina’s Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America entered bookstores.
(Were I blogging about Jessica Alba, I would note that The Hollywood Reporter confirmed her participation in Fantastic Four that day. But the editors said they’d “get back to me” about starting a second blog on the website.)
Anyway, Fiorina and two additional credited authors proffered the thesis that while political elites have grown increasingly polarized on cultural issues, the general population remains moderate. Unfortunately, they argued, the elite polarization produces a dynamic where voters have few moderate options to choose from and where their real concerns go unaddressed.
A recent issue of The Forum – an online political science journal available at http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss2/ – explored Fiorina’s empirical claims. I will discuss other pieces in the issue in future posts; today I’ll just review the lead-off piece by Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Reality of a Polarized America.” (Volume 3, Issue 2 of the journal)
In Culture War?, Fiorina claims Americans are closely divided on cultural issues but not deeply divided. Abramowitz and Saunders confirm that most Americans are moderate. On an 11-point scale of ideology they constructed based on responses to sixteen policy questions, 6 (the midpoint) was the most common category, followed by 7 (slightly conservative) and 5 (slightly liberal). Nearly half of voters fell between 5 and 7 on the scale.
On the other hand, there were large gaps between Democrats and Republicans. While Democrats averaged 5 on the scale, the typical Republican scored 7.5. Thus, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats were liberal. Fully 78 percent of Republicans were scored higher than 6, while only 63 percent of Democrats were scored lower than 6. My own calculations indicate that this asymmetric polarization shows up if one looks instead at a 7-point scale measuring respondents’ self-identified ideology. While 80 percent of Republicans call themselves conservative, just 56 percent of Democrats call themselves liberal.
Also contrary to Fiorina’s thesis, Abramowitz and Saunders find that partisan polarization has increased notably since 1972, almost entirely prior to 1996. And the association between one’s party and one’s self-identified ideology and policy positions has steadily increased.
When Abramowitz and Saunders turn to geographical polarization, they find that the margins of victory in states have steadily increased since 1960 and that the number of competitive states – and the electoral votes they represent – has steadily declined. They also find, again contra Fiorina, that policy preferences differ markedly between solidly Democratic states and solidly Republican states.
Yet another of Fiorina’s claims – that polarization mainly revolves around economic interests – withers under Abramowitz and Saunders’s analyses. Instead, the authors show that religious beliefs and practices are more strongly associated with voting and partisan identification than standard socioeconomic indicators are.
Abramowitz and Saunders’s evidence is fairly compelling, although their analyses do not focus tightly on culture-war issues per se. Still, the values-laden issues they do examine fit the broader patterns they report. Like the legislators they elect, voters have become quite divided.


G-Rated Sequel to On the Importance of !&*@# Ideas

Yesterday I objected to Jonathan Chait’s claim that ideas are overrated on the grounds that, contrary to his assertion, it is quite possible to concisely state general but meaningful ends around which Democratic governing philosophy ought to be organized. Today I want to address Chait’s argument that “big ideas” have neither been important in the Republican ascendancy to power nor are likely to be important in reviving Democratic prospects.
Consider the forty-year realignment of the electorate toward the Republican Party. Since the Nixon Administration, the GOP has proposed a number of original and bold policy ideas that have advanced their agenda and shifted the balance of political power:

• The neoconservative confrontational foreign policy toward the Soviet Union
• Deregulation
• Welfare reform
• Supply-side fiscal policies
• Block grants to states and cities
• Faith-based service delivery

Democrats generally oppose these policies or their conservative details, but they have been successful electorally.
It is true, as Chait notes, that the Democratic Party has had no shortage of ideas themselves during this period. Many of these ideas have been both good on the merits and successful:

• Environmental protection
• Tax simplification in the mid-eighties
• Deficit reduction in the nineties
• Work supports such as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit
• Reinventing government
• Incremental health care coverage expansions

What is striking is how many of these policies tend toward the incremental and moderate. The fact of the matter is that those are the types of policies that have produced success for the Party. Consider an analogous list of unsuccessful proposals or unpopular policies:

• Universal health care
• Federal support for smaller class sizes or more teachers, national education standards
• More money for housing, job training, and unemployment
• Affirmative action and busing
• Greater international cooperation and strengthening the United Nations (though this has grown more popular over time and will likely continue to)
• Stronger regulation of business and greater worker protection
• Strategic industrial policy
• Maintaining or raising taxes on the wealthy

The point is not that these are bad ideas, just that they have failed to resonate politically or have proven enormously difficult to advance. Republicans have succeeded not because their ideas have been somehow more creative, beneficial, or up to the task. They have succeeded because popular preferences are more sympathetic to them.
Recognizing that ideological disadvantage faced by Democrats precedes tactical and candidate weakness – rather than attributing under-performance to tactics and candidates themselves – leads to a rather different prescription for reviving Democratic prospects. It points to the importance of new ideas that address electoral weaknesses while staying true to progressive principles.
For starters, the Party needs to develop a tighter over-arching vision about what it stands for. I argued yesterday that an emphasis on equal opportunity and security would be particularly effective. Democrats also should adjust their priorities, devoting more attention, for instance, to national security. Some counterproductive (and arguably non-progressive) stances and policies ought to be downplayed or even jettisoned. We also need to think about electorally viable ways to find the money to pay for programs we wish to create or expand.
In addition, the Party must propose new means of achieving long-standing policy goals. For example, many Democrats have a knee-jerk reaction to voucher-type programs such as those sometimes proposed for elementary and secondary education, social security, and Medicare. On the other hand, progressives support food stamps and Section 8 housing, which are essentially voucher programs. It is not the case that vouchers are simply always preferable to provision by the state, but there is a lot of gray here. One can propose education voucher programs limited to public institutions, for instance.
Finally, the party needs to develop new ideas for new problems. Terrorism is obviously the most important of these. Economic insecurity may also be such an issue, and the advance of biotechnology will dramatically transform debates over opportunity and values.
Ideas matter, though not in isolation from voter preferences. The story of the past forty years is one of economic, geopolitical, and social change favoring Republicans, producing a realignment that was abetted by unpopular Democratic ideas and some popular Republican ones. Democrats need not change dramatically – recent elections have, of course, been remarkably close. But new ideas that are consistent with progressives’ core values can help win over more voters and shift the electoral map decisively in the Democrats’ favor.


On the Importance of !&*@# Ideas

(Parental advisory: in an effort to boost readership and move my blogging in a decidedly macho direction after references to Sex and the City and frappuchinos, I have included profanity in the following post. Viewer discretion is advised.)
I’ve thought Jonathan Chait’s claim that ideas are overrated was flawed since he first made it last year [subscr. only]. With the publication of Strategist contributors Ken Baer and Andrei Cherny’s Democracy, Chait has offered an updated version of this argument, here and here. Essentially, he thinks that conservatism lends itself to big ideas and bumper-sticker slogans in a way that progressivism does not:

Conservatives venerate the free market and see smaller government as an end in itself. Liberals do not venerate government in the same way, and we do not see larger government as an end in and of itself. For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.
[snip] Everybody knows what [Republicans] stand for. They’re for lower taxes, strong defense and less spending — even if they habitually fail at the spending part and have royally screwed up the defense portion of late.
But nobody knows what Democrats stand for because you cannot, and should not, formulate sweeping dogmas when you’re operating on a case-by-case basis.

Of course we don’t view big government as an end in itself, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no end around which we can’t organize the Party. Chait’s example of Clintonomics is instuctive:

Consider the Clinton administration. What did it stand for on, say, economic policy? Well, progressive taxation, reducing the deficit (but not at the expense of Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment), expanding health coverage, investing in technology, and … you see? We’re long past the point where it can be described by a single overarching theory, and I haven’t even gotten to the scintillating proposals for sequestering the Social Security-related budget surplus.

With all due respect, whatchutalkinbout, Willis? How about this for a “single overarching theory”: equal opportunity and security. We don’t value progressive taxation except to the extent that it helps us create more opportunity for the disadvantaged. Reducing the deficit is important to the extent that it increases economic growth (promoting opportunity in this generation) or reduces the share of future budgets that go toward interest payments on the debt (promoting opportunity in future generations). Health coverage – including Medicare and Medicaid – reduces insecurity. Education and technology investment promote opportunity. Environmental protection is vital for the opportunity and security of future Americans. “Saving Social Security First” was a brilliant tactical gambit by Clinton to simultaneously pay down the debt, preempt opportunity-limiting Republican tax cuts, and (debatably) shore up Social Security for future generations.
Chait notes that Clinton switched from an economic plan centered on investing in human capital and middle-class tax cuts to one focused on deficit reduction at the beginning of his first term. But this decision was made because Clinton ultimately decided that placating “a bunch of fucking bond traders”, in the memorable phrase attributed to him by Bob Woodward, would be more successful in growing the economy than the policies he campaigned on. That is, it was the best way to expand opportunities and increase security.
And opportunity and security can serve as the basis for governing in other policy realms. In foreign policy, progressives seek to ensure national security (there’s that word again), promote domestic economic strength (opportunity), and promote opportunities elsewhere through development. On “values issues”, progressives believe that gays and lesbians should have the opportunity to marry the one they love, that women should have the opportunity to control whether a pregnancy will alter their life plans, and that all Americans should have the opportunity to practice their chosen faith – or none at all – secure in the knowledge that the state will not discriminate against it.
I have more to say about the strategic importance of ideas, but I’ll save that for tomorrow. The point for now is that, contra Chait (and Yglesias), Democrats can succinctly state their governing philosophy clearly and concisely in a bumper-sticker phrase. And there is great strategic value to doing so. Policies can then be formulated to hang on the ends that we value and thereby create a coherent approach to governing.


Getting Out the Facts on Getting Out the Vote

By Alan Abramowitz
An op-ed by Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger in Sunday’s L.A. Times gives the impression that the GOP now enjoys a clear advantage when it comes to voter mobilization. However, the evidence from the 2004 election simply doesn’t support this view. According to the 2004 National Election Study, both parties dramatically increased their voter mobilization efforts in 2004 but Democrats did a better job of contacting voters than Republicans. According to the NES survey, the percentage of voters contacted by the GOP increased from 26 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2004 while the percentage contacted by Democrats increased from 23 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2004.
Ohio in 2004 is often cited as an example of the GOP’s superiority in the ground game but, again, the evidence doesn’t support this view. Between 2000 and 2004, the Republican vote in Ohio increased by an impressive 21.7% but the Democratic vote increased by an even more impressive 25.4%.
Democrats will need to work hard to match the Republicans’ GOTV effort in 2006, but the evidence from the 2004 election shows that the much-vaunted GOP advantage in the ground game is largely a myth.