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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Debate over country song is a right-wing trap for Democrats.

The debate over the song “Try That in a Small Town” is an excellent example of a particularly devious right-wing extremist trap – one that the GOP will use against Democrats again and again in 2024. Dems need to understand what the trap is designed to accomplish, how it works and how to defend against it.

Read the Memo.

A Democratic Political Strategy for Reaching Working Class Voters That Starts from the Actual “Class Consciousness” of Modern Working Americans.

by Andrew Levison

Read the Memo

Progressives need to apologize to Oliver Anthony

He understands working people better than they do, he can talk to them better than they can.

Read the Memo.

Why Don’t Working People Recognize and Appreciate Democratic Programs and Policies

The mythology of “Franklin Roosevelt’s Hundred Days” and the Modern Debate Over “Deliverism.”

Read the Memo.

Innovative Study Offers New Insight into White Working Class Voters.

Innovative Study Provides Startling New Insight About Working Class Voters
By Andrew Levison

Read the memo.

Democrats Will Lose Elections in 2022 and 2024 if They do Not Offer a Plausible Strategy for Reducing the Surge of Immigrants at the Border.

Read on…

The Daily Strategist

September 24, 2023

Vote Theft, Poll Screw-ups Cut Dem Wins

In a better world, political strategists wouldn’t have to factor voter suppression, polling shenanigans and glitches into their planning. All votes would be accurately counted and the polls would run smoothly. Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for, in a great democracy.
In 21st century America, however, ignoring voter theft and polling screw-ups in formulating strategy is a prescription for defeat in too many localities. Writing in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, Sasha Abramsky explains it thusly in “Just Try Voting Here: 11 of America’s worst places to cast a ballot (or try): Machines that count backward, slice-and-dice districts, felon baiting, phone jamming, and plenty of dirty tricks”:

We used to think the voting system was something like the traffic laws — a set of rules clear to everyone, enforced everywhere, with penalties for transgressions; we used to think, in other words, that we had a national election system. How wrong a notion this was has become painfully apparent since 2000: As it turns out, except for a rudimentary federal framework (which determines the voting age, channels money to states and counties, and enforces protections for minorities and the disabled), U.S. elections are shaped by a dizzying mélange of inconsistently enforced laws, conflicting court rulings, local traditions, various technology choices, and partisan trickery.

Abramsky then describes vote rip-offs and polling screw-ups in some of the ‘worst places’ for voters, including Atlanta; Beaufort, N. C. ; Fort Worth, TX; Philadelphia, PA; Franklin and Cuyahogo counties in Ohio; Travis County, TX; the Mississippi Delta; Charleston, S.C. and Waller County, TX . He also spotlights major statewide problems in Florida, New Hampshire and Ohio.
It’s a sobering litany of compromised voting rights, particularly for voters living in those localities – and for Democrats in general, who are the undercounted in every instance. Reforms to correct vote suppression ought to be a high priority for Dems who want to level the playing field.

Does Emotion Trump Reason in Voter Choice?

Shankar Vedantam’s “In Politics, Aim for the Heart, Not the Head” in today’s WaPo explores a provocative idea for political strategists. Although his proposition is tethered to a 71 year-old experiment in which voters responded twice as positively to a raw, emotional appeal over a rational one, the idea deserves some consideration. Vedantam puts it this way:

Given the enormous proliferation of policy questions today, surfing the emotional wave nowadays may be even more important than it was in 1935. George E. Marcus, president of the International Society of Political Psychology, said modern research confirms that unless political ads evoke emotional responses, they don’t have much effect. Voters, he explained, need to be emotionally primed in some way before they will pay attention.
The research is of importance to politicians for obvious reasons — and partly explains the enduring attraction of negative advertising — but it is also important to voters, because it suggests that the reason candidates seem appealing often has little to do with their ideas. Political campaigns are won and lost at a more emotional and subtle level.

An interesting idea which warrants more long-range exploration. In terms of short-range strategy, Vedantam offers the following:

What works much better, because it influences people at an emotional and subtle level, is to get people to focus on a different issue — the one where the candidate is the strongest.
“The agenda-setting effect is what we are talking about,” said Nicholas A. Valentino, a political psychologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “The ability of a candidate not to tell people how to feel about an issue, but which issue they should focus on — that is the struggle of most modern campaign managers.”
“Campaigns have been much more successful at shifting people’s attentions to different issues rather than shifting people’s positions,” he added.

Is Vedantam on to something here? Or is this another way of saying people often vote their gut feelings? Either way, the idea merits further study.

Academic Studies Point to Democratic Wins

Over at The Atlantic Online, ace political writer Jack Beatty has an article with a title we like — “The “S” Word Spells Trouble for the GOP: If history is any guide, the Republicans will lose the House this year and the presidency in 2008.” Beatty chews on a few theories of winning elections, and offers some appealing (for Dems) observations:

American politics knows no more certain a predicative metric than that increasing unemployment or rising prices in an election year defeat the incumbent party. The phenomenon is called “economic retrospective voting.” In the long sweep of political history, it appears that, more perhaps than any other factor, the answer to Ronald Reagan’s question in his first debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980—”Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” — decides elections.

Sounds good. And citing an earlier landmark study of voting behavior, Beatty observes:

In “off-years,” when there were no presidential elections, falling real incomes predicted defeat for the incumbent party in statewide races for the U.S. House. For example, a 10 percent decrease in per capita income translated into a loss of 40 House seats.
…In short, either falling real incomes or rising unemployment strongly predicts defeat for the incumbent—that is, the president’s party in off-year elections. If the experts quoted in the Times are right, real personal incomes, which have fallen since 2001, will fall this year—that’s what inflation means. If, to moderate inflation, the Fed raises interest rates to slow the economy, then unemployment will rise. Both are likely to rise together, if Gordon is right, between now and 2008. Thus, if history is any guide, economic retrospective voting should cost the Republicans the House this year and the presidency in 2008

Yep, that’s a lot of “ifs.” But Beatty also points out that:

Correlations between the economy and the presidential vote are weaker than between the economy and the congressional vote…The economy—understood as personal incomes going up or down and unemployment going up or down—is the classic “valence-issue” in politics. “Instead of ‘position’ issues, where one party favors policy X and the other party favors policy Y…’valence’ issues chiefly hinge on perceived government management: my party can manage the economy or the war, for example, better than your party has been doing,” David R. Mayhew, a Yale political scientist, explains in Electoral Realignments (2002). “The more one examines American electoral history, the more it seems to tilt toward valence-issue as opposed to position-issue junctures.” In his 1963 paper introducing the term, Donald E. Stokes defined “valence-issues” as “those that merely involve the linking of the parties with some condition that is positively or negatively valued by the electorate.”

Based on the above, his conclusion makes sense:

If this excursion into political science has any relevance for Democratic electioneering, it may be this: downplay “position-issues”; they leave you open to attack. Instead link the Republicans to “conditions negatively valued by the electorate”—incompetent management of the government and falling real incomes or rising unemployment or both. Make the 2006 and 2008 elections referenda on a record of miserable failure.

Dry, yes. But considering that no such academic studies predicting GOP victories based on historical trends and current indicators are in evidence, Democrats should be be at least cautiously optimistic.

New Pew Report on Economic Security

by Scott Winship
So, my intent with this post was to emphasize that I really was playing devil’s advocate in my last post on the middle class. I received an email from the Pew Research Center with the following plug:

Americans See Less Progress on Their Ladder of Life
In the past four years, some of the edge has come off good old American optimism. As economists and politicians debate whether there is less mobility in the United States now than in the past, a new Pew Social Trends survey finds that many among the public are seeing less progress in their own lives.

I thought that I’d highlight this study [pdf] and thereby provide counter-evidence against my devil’s advocacy. Well, you’re just going to have to believe me that I’m agnostic on the question of middle-class insecurity because it turns out that my read of this study is that things ain’t that bad.
The report begins by noting that the number of Americans saying that they’d be better off in 5 years declined from 61 percent in 2002 to 49 percent today — less than half the population. Sounds kind of ominous on first glance. But only 12 percent think that the in 5 years they will be worse off. It turns out that 74 percent think they will be at least as well off as they currently are (14% don’t know). And while the report doesn’t give the information necessary to say for sure, I’m willing to bet that the 2006 figure isn’t statistically different from the figures Pew found for the years 1964 to 1979. Much of this period was actually economically a pretty lousy era, but the second half of the 1960s were robust years.
Similarly, while the number of people saying that they are better off today than 5 years ago has declined, it stands at 48 percent, versus 21 percent saying they are worse off. That’s no worse than from 1976 to 1996, which again includes good years and bad years.
Next is the finding that the average rating for how respondents will be doing in 5 years is down from 1999. True enough, but it is still 15% higher than the average for how they say they are currently doing, and nearly 30 percent higher than the average for how they say they did 5 years ago. And the 5-years-from-now figure is no worse than any year between 1964 and 1997.
Young people are even more optimistic about the future, with those 18-49 much significantly more optimistic than older adults. That could be due to the fact that people earn more as they age. However, blacks and Latinos are more optimistic than whites. Optimism declines as family income increases, but 48 percent of those with less than $30,000 in income are optimistic, compared with 14 percent who think they’ll do worse in 5 years.
Americans are more optimistic than their counterparts in nearly every European country.
Finally, the report indicates that Americans’ predicted rating of how they’ll be doing in 5 years is always higher than how Americans 5 years later rate the present. Aha!! The poor naifs are simply mistaken in their optimism! Maybe a bit, but Americans in 2006 ranked the present higher than respondents in any year from 1964 to 1996 did, so compared with the past, they feel they’re actually doing better than people in those years.
The patterns shown in the report tend to confirm that people who are more disadvantaged tend to be more likely to think they were better off in the past and that they’ll be better off in the future, but that’s what we’d expect if most of these folks are currently at their low point economically. They probably were better off in the past and will be better off in the future.
Oh, one more finding: Republicans and conservatives are more optimistic than Democrats and liberals….

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.