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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Popular “Moderates versus the Left” narrative about Democrats’ struggle to regain the support of working class voters is the “Night of the Living Dead” of American political commentary.

No matter how many times it is buried by the weight of events it keeps on coming back.

To Regain the Support of “Culturally Traditional but Not Extremist” Working Class Voters Democrats Need to Understand the Compelling Political Narrative That Leads Them to Vote for the GOP.

Read the Memo

The culturally traditional but non-extremist working class voters: who they are, how they think and what Democrats Must Understand to regain their support.

As the 2022 and 2024 elections approach Democrats have responded to their declining working class support by proposing variations on one or another of two strategies that they have advocated ever since the 1970’s.

The Popular “Moderates versus the Left” narrative about Democrats’ struggle to regain the support of working class voters is the “Night of the Living Dead” of American political commentary.

No matter how many times it is buried by the weight of events it keeps on coming back.

The culturally traditional but non-extremist working class voters: who they are, how they think and what Democrats Must Understand to regain their support.

By Andrew Levison

Read the Report.

The Daily Strategist

December 6, 2022

GOP Primary Turnout in Rhode Island not so Impressive

by Alan Abramowitz
Republican Party leaders are claiming a lot of credit for their GOTV effort in Rhode Island on Tuesday and boasting that they’re going to apply the same techniques in every competitive House and Senate contest this fall. Leaving aside the question of whether it would be possible to duplicate this sort of all-out effort in 40+ House districts and 8-10 states, how impressive was the turnout in the Rhode Island Republican primary? Impressive for a Rhode Island Republican primary, but really not all that impressive. It’s not just that more votes were cast for Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse than for both Republicans combined even though Whitehouse faced only nominal opposition. GOP turnout in the hotly contested Rhode Island Senate primary was actually less impressive than Democratic turnout in the hotly contested Maryland Senate primary. When we calculate the votes cast in each primary as a percentage of the votes cast for the party’s 2004 presidential nominee we find that the Republican turnout in Rhode Island (64,000 votes) was 37.9 percent of the vote for George Bush in Rhode Island in 2004 (169,000 votes) while the Democratic turnout in Maryland (513,000 votes) was 38.5 percent of the vote for John Kerry in Maryland in 2004 (1,334,000 votes). So perhaps Democratic party leaders should be bragging about their great GOTV effort in Maryland and about how they’re going to duplicate it in every competitive House and Senate contest this fall.


Primaries Message: Ground Game, Poll Monitoring Critical

Democrats wondering how to tweak campaign strategies in the wake of Tuesday’s primaries are directed to Chris Cillizza’s and Jim VandeHei’s WaPo article “In R.I., a Model for Voter Turnout: Employing Senate Primary Strategy May Give GOP an Edge.” Read the entire article, but give this excerpt some extra thought:

The turnout campaign that Republican operatives used to help pull Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee to victory in the Rhode Island primary was a potent demonstration of how money and manpower can transform a race even in an unfavorable political environment — and a preview of the strategy that national party officials say they plan to replicate in the most competitive House and Senate races over the next 55 days.
In the past two national elections, in 2002 and 2004, Republicans outperformed Democrats in bringing their backers to the polls, but many Democrats and independent analysts have suggested that the competition may be different this year, in part because of slumping morale among GOP activists. But Chafee’s performance — combined with reports of late-starting organization and internal bickering on the Democratic side — suggest that the Republican advantage on turnout may remain intact even as many other trends are favoring the opposition.
The Republican National Committee, convinced that Chafee is the party’s only chance of keeping a seat in a Democratic-leaning state, spent $400,000 to ship 86 out-of-state volunteers and several paid staff members to Rhode Island. They targeted not just Republicans but also independent voters during the final days of the campaign, following a blueprint developed months ago by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Chafee campaign.
…”Their turnout operation is exquisite,” a senior Democratic strategist said. “We are not going to match them.”

Gulp. And then there’s this:

Recent history underscores the importance of superior voter-mobilization plans. In 2004, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) thought that if he received 190,000 votes it would be impossible for former congressman John Thune (R) to beat him. Daschle won 193,340 votes; Thune got 197,848. In Ohio — the central battleground in the race between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) — Democrats met all of their projected vote totals but came up more than 100,000 short.

VandeHei and Cillizza provide a lot of very interesting detail about the GOP’s strategy and tactics in R.I.. Read it all. Twice.
Also check out Ron Brownstein’s more encouraging L.A. Times wrap-up of the primaries, probably the best yet published on the topic. Not to pile on with the hand-wringing, but Brownstein adds:

In a memo obtained by The Times, RNC officials said they used their “microtargeting” technology, which tries to deduce voter sympathies in part by tracking their consumer preferences, to direct a massive get-out-the-vote effort for Chafee. The RNC said its turnout program made 198,921 contacts with voters in the campaign’s final 11 days, helping to propel a record turnout nearly 40% larger than the previous high in a Republican primary.
That large influx to the polls “means there was a bunch of independents who flooded into that primary and they are the ones who saved Chafee,” said Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island. “It suggests that this general election is going to be very competitive.”

And if the GOP turnout machine wasn’t enough to worry about, Dems need to take a hard look at the failures of election day machinery, particularly the Maryland mess. For more on this, check out Richard Wolf’s disturbing USAToday piece “Election Watchers Predict Glitches” and hope — nay, pray — that Dems are on the case.


A Hairy Situation

by Scott Winship
We can talk about national security, values issues, tactics, and the like. But I think I’ve discovered the real problem we’re having: this.
According to this remarkable study by the respected firm Radar Magazine, 58% (14 of 24) of the Members of Congress with bad hair are Democrats (counting Bernie Sanders). Hell, we sweep the “Extreme Symmetry” and “Just-Nuts Hair” categories. Why is this not getting more attention? Look for an upcoming TDS issue devoted to better hair. I only hope this doesn’t decide the November elections….


This Guy’s Weighing In on the Middle Class

by Scott Winship
I hope you’re enjoying the roundtable discussion as much as I am. Because it doesn’t really matter if I enjoy it. And even if it did matter, I certainly wouldn’t say on this blog that I didn’t enjoy it. Not that I’m saying now that I actually don’t enjoy it. I mean…uh….
Look, I’m a data junkie. I live for this stuff. In that spirit, I want to play devil’s advocate and raise a possible explanation for the paradox of middle-class expressions of insecurity amidst middle-class affluence. Jacob Hacker tries to resolve the paradox by arguing that affluence is fragile — that incomes are fluctuating up and down more than Third Way realizes and that a snapshot average implying affluence doesn’t reflect this reality. I’m not sure this explanation really is adequate though — it would still mean that Americans are affluent on average, just that they typically have an equal number of under-average years and over-average years around this affluence.
Ruy explains the paradox by arguing 1) that the optimism of the middle class is misguided to some extent and 2) that middle-class families are insecure but correctly think they will do better in the future because people earn higher wages and salaries as they age. But if they are worried about (future) declines in living standards, how can they think that they will do better in the future? So this seems like an inadequate explanation to me as well.
As an advocate of Satan (seems like a weird phrase when you put it that way….), let me throw out another possibility: it’s the I’m OK-They’re Not Syndrome at work. In The Optimism Gap, journalist David Whitman described a phenomenon common to a number of areas of public opinion. People will often perceive society to be in trouble or declining on some indicator while at the same time perceiving themselves to be doing quite well. So the educational system is a mess, but my kids’ school is just fine. Politicians are corrupt, except for mine. Family values are a thing of the past, except in my family where they thrive.
Similarly, people tend to report that economic conditions and living standards are bad and getting worse but believe they are doing well and will do better. All too often, we give more credence to their assessment of the state of the union than to their assessment of their own life, even though they have far more information about the latter. And we have statistics that seem to indicate their state of the union is correct.
But Whitman shows that we are often measuring the wrong things. If one looks at per capita compensation (wages plus benefits) or consumption and uses a better adjustment for inflation, things look better than ever (because family size has declined, fringe benefits have increased in value, and the standard CPI understates increases in purchasing power). It’s true as Elizabeth Warren notes that two-worker families are ubiquitous now, but living standards have improved enormously. (Whitman quotes Robert Samuelson suggesting that couples who want to get by on just one paycheck could live as well as their parents by “unplug[ging] their air conditioners, sell[ing] one of their cars, discard[ing] their VCRs and PCs” and not paying for their kids’ college expenses.
As an example, I’ve always suspected that the income instability estimates of the sort Jacob relies on are driven by the models used to produce them and complications such as which age groups are and are not included in the data cranked through the model. Does anyone else find it difficult to believe that over ten years, the typical family’s income in their worst year will be less than one-fourth their income in their best year? Raise your hand if that’s ever been true for you (not counting spells of education).
I don’t want to push this advocacy for the devil too far — I agree with much of what the roundtable discussants have to say about the contemporary economy and the shift of risk onto individuals. And this whole discussion ignores the poor. But I do think it is easy for pundits and researchers to seize hold of a potentially mistaken conventional wisdom — just as survey respondents might — that obscures reality to some extent, which is what the Third Way folks are ultimately arguing. Regardless, even if Whitman is correct that insecurity is largely unwarranted, that doesn’t change the political reality that people think there’s insecurity out there. That means that this perception must be attended to. As Whitman remarks, “It’s what voters think the economy is, Stupid.”


Roundtable – Round 2

by Scott Winship
What has proven to be a lively roundtable discussion thus far continues with Third Way’s response to its discussants and another round of counter-responses. Stay tuned as more responses come in over the rest of the week. Also check out the parallel universe debate over at The American Prospect, which involves TDS editor Ruy Teixeira and roundtable participant Jacob Hacker.


Can Southern Women Win Back South for Dems?

Democratic strategists should read Chris Kromm’s Facing South post “Are Women Key to Democratic Chances in the South?” discussing the gender gap as a wedge for Dems to regain some clout in the region. As Kromm notes in evaluating a recent Associated Press story on the topic “War Turns Southern Women Away from GOP”:

…the AP piece makes the classic mistake of equating “Southern women” with “white women.” Last year, Texas became the country’s fourth “majority minority” state, and over 40% of the populations of Georgia and Mississippi aren’t white. Women of color, who will soon be half the population of these states, have never been strong supporters of Bush or the Republican Party.
That being said, the AP rightly observes that a defection of white Southern women from the GOP could be a key factor — maybe the leading factor — in determining the outcome of the mid-term elections, and that foreign policy is a leading cause of their disappointment

As Shannon McCaffrey writes in the The Associated Press article:

“In 2004, you saw an utter collapse of the gender gap in the South,” said Karen Kaufmann, a professor of government at the University of Maryland who has studied women’s voting patterns. White Southern women liked Bush because “he spoke their religion and he spoke their values.”
…Republicans on the ballot this November have reason to worry. A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that three out of five Southern women surveyed said they planned to vote for a Democrat in the midterm elections. With control of the Senate and House in the balance, such a seismic shift could have dire consequences for the GOP.

Kromm points out that the gender gap has been “most volatile” in the south, and he quotes from Dr. Karen Kaufman’s study in the Journal of the American Political Science Association:

Although the gender gap between White Southern men and women was a full 11 percentage points in 2000, it fell to only 5 points in 2004. Even more striking, the presidential vote gap in the South hit its lowest point in 40 years. Compared to White Southern men, Southern women chose Bill Clinton over Bob Dole by a 17-point margin in 1996 and preferred AlGore to George W. Bush by 9 percentage points in 2000. In 2004, however, Southern women favored Bush by a 2-point margin over Southern men. The collapse of the Southern gender gap was not mirrored else where. Outside of the South, the male-female divide in the vote actually increased slightly from a 9-point difference in 2000 to a 10-point difference in 2004.

The “write off the south” strategy favored by some Democratic strategists may soon be outdated, if it isn’t already. Clearly, demographic trends in southern states favor the Democrats and they have much to gain by a stronger commitment to turning out people of color — especially women — in southern elections.


GOP Bets Big On Negative Attack Ads

Republican campaigns are expected to set a new standard for negative attack ads in the weeks ahead, according to Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza’s Sunday WaPo article “In a Pivotal Year, GOP Plans to Get Personal: Millions to Go to Digging Up Dirt on Democrats.” According to the authors,

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which this year dispatched a half-dozen operatives to comb through tax, court and other records looking for damaging information on Democratic candidates, plans to spend more than 90 percent of its $50 million-plus advertising budget on what officials described as negative ads.
The hope is that a vigorous effort to “define” opponents, in the parlance of GOP operatives, can help Republicans shift the midterm debate away from Iraq and limit losses this fall.

Some ads are already running, and Cilliza and VandeHei cite examples, including an attack on a Democratic House candidate’s medical practice for suing 80 patients for non-payment of bills and Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Sherrod Brown’s votes on border protection and illegal immigration.
How dirty will it get? Expect the worst, suggests MyDD’s Matt Stoller, who comments on the track record of RNC oppo research director Terry Nelson:

In 2002, he was deputy Chief of Staff at the RNC, where he became wrapped up in Tom Delay’s TRMPAC money laundering scandal as a key point of contact between the RNC and Delay’s Texas PAC. He also testified in the trial of convicted GOP operative James Tobin for illegal phone jamming in New Hampshire, because he was Tobin’s supervisor when Tobin illegally spammed Democratic phone banks on election day.

None of this comes as much of a surprise. But Democratic campaign strategists should prepare their candidates for the most intense negative ad campaigns ever and to respond aggressively. Reading the aforementioned articles is a good start.


New Democracy Corps Survey on Nat. Security

by Scott Winship
Democracy Corps — part of boss Stan Greenberg’s vast polling empire — released a strategy memo yesterday based on a new national security survey they conducted last month. You’ll be hearing more about this survey this fall, but for now you can check out the memo and some top-line survey findings.
The Republicans are basically in no better shape now than they were on Memorial Day. In the aggregate, Democrats hold a narrow lead when respondents are asked which of the named candidates they will vote for in Congressional elections. Over 6 in 10 likely voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, basically unchanged from recent months (the steady increase since 9/11 having plateaued). Fifty-five percent of likely voters disapprove of Bush’s performance. The number who approve — 41 percent — is smaller than the number who strongly disapprove (45 percent). In the fifty most-competitive districts, the number who strongly disapprove rose from 36 percent to 47 percent. In these districts, Democrats’ aggregate lead is growing and has reached a majority of likely voters.
The GOP has tried to use gay marriage and immigration as issues to fire up their base and flip swing voters, but “illegal immigration” comes in 7th on a list of most important issues, and “moral values” comes in 9th. Iraq and terrorism are basically tied for most important. Want to guess which of these the Administration will try to exploit this fall?
Many Democratic critiques of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policies resonate with the public, including charges of mismanagement of the war, the assertion that it has no plan moving forward, and the accusation that Iraq has taken away from the effectiveness of the war on terrorism.
But there are a few reasons for worry. Half of the Democracy Corps sample was asked whether they felt warm or cool toward “the Republican Congress” and half about “the Congress”. While just 26 percent were warm toward “the Congress”, 38 percent were warm toward “the Republican Congress”. This is the opposite of what we’d expect to see if voters were mainly fed up with the GOP. And corruption ranked dead last among ten issues when respondents were asked which were most important to their vote.
Furthermore, the number of voters indicating that terrorism was one of their top two concerns jumped 9 percentage points since the spring. And even though their advantage has declined, Republicans are still trusted more on this fundamental issue, 48 to 33 percent. The DCorps memo emphasizes that Democrats narrow these gaps after respondents are given security questions that contrast the Democratic and Republican messages, especially among Independents and in swing districts. But even then Republicans lead Democrats on terrorism and national security (nationally and among Independents) or are tied with them (in swing districts). Democrats are given the edge in terms of who would do a better job in Iraq only by a two-point margin (not statistically different from a tie).
The memo recommends an emphasis on changing the course in Iraq, implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, working toward energy independence, rebuilding international ties, and demanding accountability for Republicans failure to prioritize keeping America safe.
I think that if the election were held today, I’d feel pretty good about our chances. But I do worry that the Administration can create political traps — such as the one in the making regarding the move of al Qaida leaders to Guantanamo and the Administration’s demand for military tribunals. I also worry that the real-world competition between Democratic and Republican messages is poorly captured by the poll-testing of head-to-head position statements. The Democrats’ position on Iraq matches the public, but the public doesn’t give either party the edge on future plans there, and it trusts the GOP more on terrorism. Haven’t I seen this movie before? I don’t remember that it has a happy ending. Hope the sequel is better….


Ding Ding Ding…End of Round 1

by Scott Winship
With TDS editor Ruy Teixeira’s entry, the first round of our middle-class roundtable is complete. Look for a response from the authors of the original discussion piece in the next few days, as well as some additional reaction here and from around the web.


Clear ‘Identity’ Key to Dems’ Success

Gadflyer Paul Waldman has an op-ed in the Boston GlobeElections aren’t about issues,” arguing the primacy of identity as the key to future Democratic victories. As Waldman explains in the nut graph:

If there’s one thing Republicans have understood and Democrats haven’t, it is that politics is not about issues. Politics is about identity. The candidates and parties that win are not those aligning their positions most precisely with a majority of the electorate. The winners are those who form a positive image in the public mind of who they are (and a negative image of who their opponents are). Issues are a vehicle to create that identity, one that combines with symbolism and narrative to shape what the public thinks about when they think about Democrats and Republicans.

Waldman, author of Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success, makes a compelling case in clear, blunt language and his insights about strengthening Democratic campaigns deserve more attention.