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May 31, 2006

Dems Mull Strategy Options

by Pete Ross

In today's L.A. Times, Ron Brownstein assesses the Democrats' efforts to forge a strategy consensus. In his article "Democrats Weigh Risks of Caution," Brownstein reviews the arguments for emphasizing a unified, detailed message versus letting the Republicans self-destruct, without distracting voters with too many specifics about Democratic reforms. He quotes a range of Democratic strategists, including EDM's Ruy Teixeira, commentator David Sirota and Progressive Policy Institute President Will Marshall, who points out that:

If we don't present voters with a coherent definition of the party's core commitments, they tend to default to negative stereotypes.

Brownstein also quotes an anonomous campaign manager, who presents the minimalist strategy option succinctly:

I don't think there necessarily needs to be a 'Democratic' message," said the campaign manager, who asked not to be identified when discussing political strategy. "The message is pretty easy. The Republicans control everything, and the question to voters is: 'How is that working out for you?' "

Nicely put, and it's not a bad meme to use with either strategy option. But surely the Dems need a clear agenda and a unified message, if not this year, then certainly for '08 and the long haul.

May 29, 2006

Swing States Impacted By Felon Disenfranchisement

Right to Vote: Campaign to End Felony Disenfranchisement has a nifty rollover map that gives an indication of how effective laws that prevent people convicted of felonies from voting are in helping to keep Republicans in office. The figures below, based on the map, show the percentage and raw number of African American citizens who have been disenfranchised in some key "swing" states:

FL 16% or 256,392
VA 16.1% or 161,559
NJ 9.2% or 78,920
MO 7.2% or 30,471
WI 10.8% or 20,805
NV 17.1% or 17,970
AZ 12.9% or 17,700
IA - 24.9%, or 11,192
NM 24.7% or 9,128

Of course there is no guarantee that once enfranchised, these citizens would turn out at the polls in percentages comparable to those who have no convictions. Yet the fact that African Americans vote nearly 9 to 1 Democratic, as well as simple justice, ought to make repeal and liberalization of felon disenfranchisement laws a priority for progressives. Felony convictions account for two-thirds of the "under registration" of African American males, who are also about one-third of all citizens disenfranchised because of criminal records.

If the above figures seem small, remember that Bush won FL in 2000 by 930 votes, New Mexico in 2004 by about 6,000 votes and Iowa by 10,100. Many congressional and statewide races were also decided by smaller margins.

Take away the felon disenfranchisement laws, and even the South doesn't look quite so forbidding for Democrats. Consider the figures below on African American voter disenfranchisement:

FL (see above)
VA (see above)
AL 14% or 111,755
GA 10.3% or 161,685
MS 11.3% or 76,106
KY 17.4% or 35,955

The US Supreme Court has refused to hear a lawsuit to overturn Florida's disenfranchisement law. But the state Legs and the U.S. Congress are free to repeal and modify such laws. At present, five states permanently disenfranchise convicted felons: AL, FL, IA, KY and VA, and many other states have restrictive laws on the books. Only Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico have no voting restrictions on those convicted of felonies. Last year, Iowa Governor Vilsack issued an executive clemency order enfranchising those who had served their time. Nebraska lifted its permanent disenfranchisement law last year and the Rhode Island legislature has put it on the ballot. Liberalization measures are being considered in several other states.

May 26, 2006

Podcasting Pols Leverage Web for Votes

Democratic campaigners who want to get up to speed on using internet resources should have a gander at Nancy Zuckerbrod's and Brooke Donald's "Politicans Brave the Internet --With Help" at ABC News Online. The authors discuss how political leaders such as John Edwards, Harry Reid, Mark Warner, Bill Frist and others use cutting edge tools such as podcasts, YouTube and video blogs to get their message out and raise funds. For those who doubt the value of using the web to influence political attitudes, Donald and Zukerbrod cite a Pew Research Center poll indicating that "40 percent of Internet users found the Web important in helping them decide for whom to vote."

May 25, 2006

R-E-S-P-E-C-T Key to Dems' Future

by Pete Ross

You can't get it on line, but Jeffrey Goldberg's article in the May 29 New Yorker, "Central Casting: The Democrats Think About Who Can Win in the Midterms --- and in 2008" is a good read for victory-seeking Dems. One theme that resonates in Goldberg's piece is that Dems have to do a better job of communicating respectfully.

Goldberg describes a wince-provoking incident in 2004 in which a well-intentioned Theresa Heinz Kerry urges a gathering of Missouri farmers to consider going organic as emblematic of the sort of comment that gives Dems an elitist image. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri state auditor who is currently in a close race for U.S. Senate explains the problem this way in Goldberg's article:

I think it's a tone thing. It's the 'We know better' thing. Some of it is completely unfair, but there's a critical number of people from the East Coast or West Coast who don't think that people in the heartland are smart.

The concern pops up several times in Goldberg's article. He quotes former Virginia Governor and likely '08 Democratic presidential candidate Mark Warner on the perception of "condescencion" from Dem leaders:

Part of this is just showing respect. Respect for culture, faith, values. You know, not everybody wants to live in a big city...Sometimes the Democrats advocate tolerance, except for the people who don't agree with them.

Echoes Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, frequently mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in '08:

We have to respect regional differences...Democrats are losing elections because they're less likable sometimes. They want to explain the whole book, and voters want the Cliffs Notes.

In a sidebar interview avalable online, Goldberg notes:

...National security and so-called “values” issues like abortion and gay rights are only part of the problem for Democrats. The other part is stylistic. There’s a feeling among Democratic professionals in these red states that Democrats tend to condescend to voters in the heartland...the problem with likability comes from a feeling that Democrats are lecturing voters about what’s best for them.

And Princeton historian Sean Wilentz concludes the article:

The impulse behind the people who run the party is humanitarian, and humanitarians have a problem in American history -- they're always trying to perfect you, make you better...Acceptance of human imperfection would do a lot to help the Democratic Party.

No doubt most Democratic leaders are sensitive to the respect issue. But it only takes one blunder to make a destructive headline. It might not be a bad idea for the party to offer "Respect in Communication" workshops or at least a "Do's and Don'ts in Communications" guidebook for candidates and their spokespersons. It's not about being 'Nascar Man,' but showing more humility and respect.

May 23, 2006

Balance As a Campaign Issue --- For Dems

by Pete Ross

One of the best reasons for moderate and swing voters to vote Democratic in November is the need to restore some much-needed balance to our political system. Swing voters often grumble about the lack of bipartianship in congress. Dems should respond that nothing would do more to encourage greater bipartisan cooperation than reducing the GOP's domination of congress.

The political imbalance issue has has begun to emerge as a growing concern in recent reports, such as this latest from Janet Hook's article in today's LA Times:

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at least one wealthy Republican was now supporting Democrats. Although the Republican had voted for Bush, Schumer said, this person gave the maximum allowable, $26,700, to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, telling Schumer, "I see the need for more balance in government."

Few voters will support a weak Democratic candidate instead of a stronger Republican just because the GOP controls all three branches of government and America needs more political balance. But in close races, a well-made argument that the checks and balances function has been severely weakened by GOP domination of all three branches just might help Democratic candidates. Certainly a nation-wide, political ad campaign on the benefits of restoring balance to America's political system couldn't hurt.

May 22, 2006

Dems Can Win by Transcending Macho Politics

The current edition of American Prospect Online features Francis Wilkinson's "Who's Your Daddy Party?," a funny, yet revealing look at GOP masculinity anxiety and how it's been used against Dems. Wilkinson, a political consultant and former Rolling Stone scribe, zings the GOP's macho posturing with eager panache, but he also offers some insightful observations. A sample:

Bush has made manliness the centerpiece of his persona and his politics. Bush’s flight-deck performance aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln -- “Mission Accomplished” -- long ago became Esperanto for “hubris.”...Observing the President’s flight suit, which expressly accentuated his crotch, G. Gordon Liddy, the right’s uncensored id, noted: “It makes the best of his manly characteristic.”

We are in our sixth year of government by gonads. Through conscious, concerted, disciplined, and relentless effort, Bush and his party have succeeded in cowing critics and defeating Democrats by advancing images of, and insinuations about, manliness in the public sphere. In the Republican political schemata, this is a man’s world. Men have made it dangerous. And only men -- real Republican men -- can make it safe again.

Wilkinson points out that this year Dems are running a slate of candidates for congress with resumes that make their Republican opponents seem, well, limp by comparison. But he believes the time is ripe for Dems to move beyond the 'manly' bluster that typifies GOP campaigns:

As we begin our election-year descent, perhaps it behooves us to consider the value of challenging, rather than perpetuating, ancient archetypes of manhood and demeaning stereotypes of weakness. If Democratic values mean anything, then surely they mean to make gay bashing, misogyny, and the like the political road less traveled, and human dignity a more common cause. The 21st century may well dictate such a course, even if Democrats fail to chart it. Indicators ranging from education and income to reproductive autonomy suggest the new century will be marked and quite likely defined by an ascendance of feminine power. (The political arithmetic is particularly persuasive: Just two decades ago, there was a lone female in the U.S. Senate. Today, there are 14, complemented by eight women governors.)

There is a template for Democratic manhood that wins votes, and Wilkinson concludes by reminding readers:

The one man who taught us better than any other to conquer fear was no Governor Terminator. His muscles were unimpressive. He had no physical swagger to him at all. His military experience was a desk job. He wore no cowboy gear. He smoked cigarettes not like a Marlboro Man but filtered through a slender, feminine holder that could have been a prop from the Follies Bergere. He didn’t promise to protect us. He made us believe we could protect ourselves -- from the violence of fascism and the vicissitudes of capitalism alike. And he handed us the tools to do the job. We built the better part of the American century on the back of an aristocratic, polio-addled cripple. Now that was a man.

Not a bad model for women political leaders, either. Regardless of his/her gender, the Dems' next presidential nominee can win by offering the same humanity, courage and vision that empowered FDR to win four terms.

May 20, 2006

More Shrinkage in GOP's 'Safe' House Seats

In today's WaPo, the Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz article "Growing Number of GOP Seats In Doubt: Vulnerability Seen In Unusual Places," should gladden the spirits of Dem leaders looking toward November. The authors note:

Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of a political newsletter, now has 42 Republican districts, including Drake's, on his list of competitive races. Last September, he had 26 competitive GOP districts..."That's a pretty significant increase," he said. "The national atmospherics are making long shots suddenly less long."

As Balz and Shear explain,

Incumbents' poll numbers have softened. Margins against their Democratic opponents have narrowed. Republican voters appear disenchanted. The Bush effect now amounts to a drag of five percentage points or more in many districts.

The changes don't guarantee a Democratic takeover by any means, but they are creating an increasingly asymmetrical battlefield for the fall elections: The number of vulnerable Democratic districts has remained relatively constant while the number of potentially competitive Republican districts continues to climb.

And MyDD's Jonathan Singer reports more good news for the DCCC:

As of Friday, Cook (.pdf) rates 75 seats as potentially competitive, of which the GOP must defend 55 (or 73 percent, up from 68 percent the previous week). Among the seats that could become competitive this year, Cook sees 46 as already competitive, with Republicans defending 36 (or 78 percent, up from 69 the previous week). Within the races that are today competitive Cook rates 12 as "toss-ups," with the GOP defending 11 (or 92 percent, up from 82 percent the previous week).

Clearly, the Dems' chances of winning a majority of the House are improving rapidly and better than expected. A lot can happen between now and November, but the trends are all blue.

May 19, 2006

Can Dems Win Evangelicals?

by Pete Ross

...is a question that would have been quickly dismissed a few years ago, but is now well worth asking, suggests Amy Sullivan in her New Republic Online article "The Christian Right Moves Left: Base Running." Sullivan recounts a recent incident at Messiah College in which GOP Senator Rick Santorum was char-grilled by evangelical environmentalists, who were unhappy with his opposition to the Kyoto Accords and support of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sullivan sees the incident as emblematic of a larger trend within the evangelical community --- and a growing problem for the GOP:

...Rove is also reportedly worried about another group of evangelicals: the nearly 40 percent who identify themselves as politically moderate and who are just as likely to get energized about aids in Africa or melting ice caps as partial-birth abortion and lesbian couples in Massachusetts. These evangelicals have found the White House even less open to their concerns than their more conservative brethren have...They have also been aggravated by the refusal of the Christian right's old guard to embrace new causes like the environment and global poverty.

Others have noted the growing interest in environmental causes among evangelicals, as evidenced by their increasing references to Genesis 2:15, in which God tells Adam to "watch over" the Garden of Eden "and care for it," posited against the sorry record of the GOP on every environmental issue. Sullivan offers a revealing statistic in this context that should be of interest to all Dem candidates:

...63 percent of evangelicals in a March survey released by the Evangelical Environmental Network agreed that global warming is an immediate concern.

It is doubtful that Dems will win a majority of self-described evangelicals. Yet it is quite possible that they can win a healthy slice of the evangelical vote this year and in '08. (For more on the political attitudes of white evangelicals, see John Halpin's and Ruy Teixeira's American Prospect article "The Politics of Definition, Part II") But it won't happen automatically. As Sullivan points out, the national Democratic Party, as well as state and local candidates, must make a focused commitment and an energetic effort to make it a reality.

May 17, 2006

Is the Base Deserting the GOP?

By Alan Abramowitz

James Dobson is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. The conservative broadcaster and founder of Focus on the Family is upset with President Bush and congressional Republicans for “just ignoring those that put them in office.” And Dobson isn’t the only prominent religious conservative who’s upset with the GOP. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council recently criticized the President and congressional Republicans for failing to act on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research.

But it isn’t just religious conservatives who are upset with the GOP. “The problem in my mind, and the only way to explain the very significant erosion is just a disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government,” said former Republican congressman Pat Toomey, the head of the conservative Club for Growth. Other conservatives are just as upset about the Bush Administration’s proposed immigration reforms—they want stricter enforcement of current laws and stronger efforts to seal the border, not a guest worker program and a path to citizenship.

The danger to President Bush and congressional Republicans, according to many analysts, is that angry conservative voters will sit out the 2006 midterm elections. And if the GOP base doesn’t turn out in November, Democrats could regain control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1995.

In response to this threat, Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker of the Washington Post report that, “Karl Rove, Bush’s top political advisor, and GOP leaders . . . are planning a summer offensive to win back conservatives with a mix of policy fights and warnings of how a Democratic Congress would govern. The plan includes votes on tax cuts, a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, new abortion restrictions, and measures to restrain government spending.”

Republican leaders are right to be worried about the midterm elections. President Bush’s approval rating has been hovering in the low thirties and since World War II, when a president’s approval rating has been below 50 percent, his party has lost an average of 38 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate. And the President has been losing support among Republicans—between the end of April and the middle of May, Mr. Bush’s approval rating among Republicans fell by 13 percentage points in the Gallup Poll. According to VanderHei and Baker, “these usually reliable voters are telling pollsters and lawmakers they are fed up with what they see as out-of-control spending by Washington and, more generally, an abandonment of core conservative principles.”

The problem with this analysis, however, is that it is not the conservative base that has been abandoning the GOP in recent weeks. It is the moderate wing of the party that has turned against the President and the Republican Congress.

According to the Gallup Poll, the recent decline in support for President Bush among Republicans has occurred almost entirely among moderate-to-liberal Republicans. The President’s approval rating among conservative Republicans has barely declined at all—going from 79 percent on April 28-30 to 77 percent on May 8-11. During the same period, however, the President’s approval rating among moderate-to-liberal Republicans fell from 65 percent to only 45 percent.

Despite all of the criticism that the President has been receiving from conservative leaders, there is little evidence that the conservative base of the Republican Party is abandoning him. In fact, the base is just about the only segment of the electorate that still supports the President and the Republican Congress. But this is hardly good news for the GOP.

A close look at the 2006 election map shows why a strategy of appealing to discontented conservatives could backfire on the GOP. Almost all of the Republican incumbents whose seats are in jeopardy this year represent marginal or Democratic-leaning states and districts. Most of these states and districts are located in the Northeast, the industrial Midwest, and the Pacific Coast. These endangered Republicans cannot be reelected simply by mobilizing the party’s conservative base. In order to defeat strong Democratic challengers, they will have to appeal to independent voters as well as moderate-to-liberal Republicans and their task will only be made more difficult if the President and congressional Republicans spend the next few months trying to energize the party’s conservative base.

May 16, 2006

GOP Angling for Black Votes Short on Substance

In The Sunday Guardian/Observer, Paul Harris has an update on GOP efforts to get a larger slice of the African American vote in the November elections. Harris's article "Desperate Republicans Chase the Black Vote" offers no statistics to indicate they are making any significant headway, but he sees GOP hopes riding on three high-profile candidates:

Republican hopes are placed firmly on three political races, two of them in the key battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. In Ohio, Kenneth Blackwell is the black Republican candidate for state governor, while in Maryland Michael Steele is aiming to capture one of the state's senate seats. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann is campaigning for the governorship.

All of the above face tough Democratic opposition. Moreover, the limp rationale of the Republicans' national and local appeal, as dilineated by Harris, is unlikely to generate much excitement in African American communities:

They hope that socially conservative ideas pushed by Bush on issues such as limiting abortion and opposing same-sex marriages will appeal to many traditional black voters. They are also hoping to capitalise on the aspirations of a growing black middle class with its concepts of an 'ownership society' breaking free from government help and handouts.

It seems highly doubtful that such appeals won many votes for the GOP in the last election. And Republicans will have their hands full trying to offset the damage done by Bush's late and still-weak response on behalf of the victims of Hurrican Katrina, especially the indelible images of African Americans left stranded for days in horrific conditions while the Administration dithered. If Republicans had any real chance of posting significant gains a year ago, they have been all but drowned in Katrina's floodwaters. As pollster John Zogby observes "There was a huge opportunity for Republicans before that, but afterwards it had undone all their work."

The GOP has a daunting enough challenge shoring up its own rapidly-deteriorating base. Whatever miniscule gains they may make in winning African American votes will probably be offset by fed-up Republicans staying at home in November and crossing over to vote for Democrats.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a clear opportunity to increase their votes from Black Americans, especially if they provide a greater investment in voter registration and turnout in predominantly African American communities.

May 11, 2006

The Politics of Definition, All in One Place

By Ruy Teixeira

Considerable interest has been expressed in a .pdf of the entire Halpin/Teixeira Politics of Definition paper, rather than the somewhat-difficult-to-read four installments now in various places on the Prospect website. I'm happy to oblige with this very nice .pdf put together by the Prospect folks, laid out in a format similar to Prospect print magazine pieces.

May 9, 2006

Dems Vision-Quest Takes Shape

by Pete Ross

Robin Toner adds to the recent spate of articles about Dems pondering their their "first principles" in today's New York Times. Toner's piece, "Optimistic, Democrats Debate the Party's Vision," outlines the current discussion being led by The American Prospect's Michael Tomasky, EDM's Ruy Teixeira, John Halpin and others about the Dems' future. Notes Toner:

This discussion of first principles and big goals marks a psychological shift for many in the party; a frequent theme is that Democrats must stop being afraid, stop worrying that their core beliefs are out of step with the times, stop ceding so much ground to the conservatives.

Judging by the amount media coverage on this topic, it would be easy to get the impression that Dems are so busy worrying about not having a grand vision, that they may fritter away their best chance in years to win control of congress. But Democratic strategists are doing what they are supposed to --- confronting the tough questions to shape a winning coalition around common values. If it seems a little late for the '06 elections, that's OK. It's right on time -- and more important -- for '08.

Toner's article paints a picture of a healthy political party, alive with vigorous internal debates about its beliefs and future, in stark contrast to the GOP, now riven with squabbles about how much they want to bash immigrants, stigmatize gays and defend ever-increasing numbers of their corrupt and incompetent leaders.

As the Dems' vision-quest continues, Party warriors Emanuel, Schumer and Dean are focused on the heavy lifting needed to win congressional majorities in November --- and laying the foundation for victory in '08.

May 8, 2006

Will Dems' Momentum Topple GOP's 'Safe' Seats?

Ron Brownstein and Janet Hook take a look at the battle for congress in today's L.A. Times. The title of their article, "GOP Can Win by Limiting Losses: Voters may want change in Washington, but the clout incumbents wield may impede Democrats," pretty much sums up their viewpoint, which has been covered in articles by other print and blogosphere reporters. Still, there are some insights about particular races and overall strategy, which make it worthwhile reading, including:

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), facing a tough reelection race, recently had a fundraiser featuring Bush but avoided being photographed with the president because the event was closed to reporters. DeWine's latest television ad ends with a line calling him an "independent fighter for Ohio families."

And in the struggle for a House of Reps majority:

Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to broaden the battlefield, recruiting serious challengers to House Republicans who have not been targeted in the past. The political action committee associated with the liberal group MoveOn.org already has aired advertisements attacking four such incumbents — including Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), a veteran lawmaker who has responded with ads of her own.

More and more, it appears that the '06 midterms will provide a revealing test of the power of incumbency (and gerrymandering) to buck strong trends in political opinion. As EDM's Alan Abramowitz says in the article's best wrap-up quote:

This year "is going to be a real test to see what happens when you get a fairly strong political tide coming up against this very rigidified system."

May 5, 2006

The White Working Class Test

By Ruy Teixeira

(Note: this is a cross-post from the TPM Cafe Book Club discussion of David Sirota's new book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government--and How We Take It Back. The whole discussion, including Sirota's replies, may be found here.)

In choosing how to reach voters, whether for public education or more direct electoral purposes, progressives need to keep the following facts in mind.

1. The key weakness of the progressive coalition is very weak support among white working class voters (defined here as whites without a four-year college degree). These voters, who are overwhelmingly of moderate to low income and, by definition, of modest credentials, should see their aspirations linked tightly to the political fate of the progressive movement. But they don’t.

2. In 2000, Gore lost white working class voters by 17 points; in 2004, Kerry lost them by 23 points, a swing of 6 points against the Democrats. Bush's increased margin among these voters was primarily responsible for his re-election victory.

3. Democrats have been doing especially poorly among white working class voters who aren’t poor, but rather have moderate incomes and some hold on a middle class lifestyle. Among working class whites with $30,000–$50,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by twenty-four points (62 percent to 38 percent). And, among working class whites with $50,000–$75,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by a shocking forty-one points (70 percent to 29 percent). Clearly, these voters do not see progressives as representing their aspirations for a prosperous, stable middle class life.

4. Progressives’ difficulties are underscored by the large size of this group. According to the 2004 CPS Voter Supplement data, white working class voters are a larger portion of the electorate than indicated by the exit polls–52 percent, rather than 43 percent. Based on educational attainment trends and population trends by race, a reasonable guess is that the size of the white working class in another ten years, even though it is shrinking, will still be around 46-47 percent–a very large group among which to be doing very poorly. In fact, a progressive majority coalition is simply not possible if that poor performance continues, despite the many ways in which demographic change and growth favor progressives.

Those are the facts. That is why I propose "the white working class test". Does the strategy or approach under consideration--David's or anyone else's--seem like a plausible way of making serious progress among this group? If the answer to this question is "yes", we should implement it. If "no", then we shouldn't put much stock in it, since it is likely to be, at best, a way of treading water--keeping the progressive coalition at its current level, rather than breaking through to majority status.

Applying this test to David's recommended approach, I think he comes up short. Recent public opinion data indicate that voters in general and this group of voters in particular are already quite hostile to big business, believe corporations are taking unfair advantage of the system and think Bush and the Republicans push corporate interests over and above that of the public's. Indeed, hostile attitudes toward "Big Money", as David would put it, are now at historically high levels.

In other words, much of the public, including the white working class, already knows the Truth--or at least a good part of it. That suggests that simply throwing more truth at them is unlikely, by itself, to have that much effect.

A better answer it to integrate one's truth-telling--much of which simply reinforces what voters already believe--with a programmatic and thematic approach that captures the aspirations of white working class voters for a better life.

I certainly believe "populism" broadly-defined is part of that approach. But I do think it makes a difference how that populism is pitched. I've called it "class-aspirational". Andrei Cherny called it "future-oriented". We can debate exactly how to do this, but we must get beyond the delusion that simply telling the truth about Big Money to the people is all the populism we need. If not, we'll keep on flunking the white working class test with predictably bad consequences for the progressive movement and for the country as a whole.

May 4, 2006

Using the Generic Vote to Forecast U.S. House and Senate Elections

By Alan Abramowitz

With the 2006 midterm election fast approaching, Democrats’ chances of regaining control of the House of Representatives remain unclear. On the one hand, national political conditions appear to be more favorable for Democrats than at any time since the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. A pickup of only 15 seats would give Democrats control of the House in 2007 and, since the end of World War II the average midterm seat loss for the president’s party is 24 seats. Moreover, when the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, the average midterm seat loss is 38 seats and according to data compiled by pollingreport.com, George Bush’s average approval rating during the month of April was only 36 percent.

Recent national polls also show Democrats with a strong lead in the “generic vote” for Congress. Between September, 2005 and April, 2006 there were 48 national polls asking Americans which party they preferred in the 2006 House elections. Democrats led in every one of these polls with an average advantage of about 10 percentage points among registered voters. In seven polls during April, the average Democratic advantage was close to 12 percentage points. This is the largest margin Democrats have enjoyed in the generic vote since the early 1990s, before the Republican takeover of the House.

So if the national outlook for the Democrats is so rosy, why are many pundits and journalists skeptical about the Democrats’ chances? The answer is that a midterm election is not just a national election. It is also a collection of 435 individual House races and 33 individual Senate races and right now the evidence from those individual races does not clearly point to big Democratic gains in November....

In order to predict the outcome of the 2006 House elections, I create a forecasting model incorporating both national political conditions and the actions of strategic politicians. Pre-election Gallup Poll data on the generic vote and presidential approval are used to measure national political conditions and data on open seats and challenger quality are used to measure the actions of strategic politicians. The model is tested with data on U.S. House elections between 1946 and 2004. A simpler model based only on national political conditions is tested with data on U.S. Senate elections from the same period.

The dependent variable in the House forecasting model is the change in the percentage of Republican seats in the House of Representatives. The model includes seven independent variables. The percentage of Republican seats in the previous Congress is included to measure the level of exposure of Republicans compared with Democrats in each election—the larger the percentage of Republican seats in the previous Congress, the greater the potential for Republican losses. Dummy variables for Democratic and Republican midterm elections are included to capture the effect of anti-presidential-party voting in midterm elections. Net presidential approval (approval – disapproval) in early September is included to measure public satisfaction with the performance of the incumbent president, and the difference between the Republican and Democratic percentage of the generic vote in early September is included to measure the overall national political climate. The actions of strategic politicians are measured by two variables: the difference between the percentages of Republican and Democratic open seats and the difference between the percentages Democratic and Republican quality challengers (defined in terms of elected office-holding experience)....

....Based on a net approval rating for President Bush of -20, a Democratic advantage of 10 points in the generic vote, and a Democratic advantage of 2 percent in open seats, the model predicts a Democratic gain of 20 seats in the House of Representatives with no Democratic advantage in challenger quality. A modest 3 point Democratic advantage in challenger quality, which is consistent with the district-level analysis presented in the April 28, 2006 Cook Political Report, would increase the predicted Democratic gain to 27 seats.

Read the full working paper by Alan Abramowitz here.

May 3, 2006

The Need for Class-Aspiration Populism

By Ruy Teixeira

(Note: this is a cross-post from the TPM Cafe Book Club discussion of David Sirota's new book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government--and How We Take It Back. Check out the whole discussion if you can--it's quite interesting.)

David Sirota’s new book offers a no-holds-barred polemic that makes two basic points: (1) our entire political-economic system has been taken over by Big Money (hence, the "hostile takeover" referenced in his book title); and (2) therefore progressives’ entire political fight must be against Big Money. As a corollary to his main points, those who doubt in any way the total truth of point (1) or who believe progressive political strategy must encompass more than point (2) are part of the problem, not the solution.

That includes, of course, essentially all of today’s Republican party, but also huge swathes of today’s Democratic party, including most elected officials, who have been hopelessly corrupted by the system.

Sirota’s argument is as close as you’ll get anywhere to a "pure populist" perspective on what’s wrong with today’s system and what we need to do to change it. And he certainly provides a wealth of useful, if sometimes one-sided, information about how and where big money interests have, in fact, gamed the system to their benefit.

We live in an era where such information is not hard to come by. Real abuses are taking place and Sirota documents many of them. Whether this amounts to a hostile takeover is debatable, since Big Money has always had a lot of influence on the system, including in eras of American history where its influence was just as pervasive as it is now.

But no matter. The problem he identifies is real and part of what progressives should be about is opposing those abuses and attempting to reform the system so they don’t occur (or, at any rate, occur with far less regularity).

That’s fine, as far as it goes. The difficulty, however, is that Sirota insists that’s pretty much all there is to it: learn the Truth about your interests versus Big Money’s (take the "red pill" in his Matrix-derived formulation) and start fighting. It’s that simple.

But it isn’t. Sirota’s class-interest populism fundamentally misreads the way the average American sees the economy and the system. As economist Stephen Rose points out in a useful new paper, "The Trouble with Class-Interest Populism", the typical American–whether you choose to call him/her "middle class" or "working class" is simply not poor enough to be an unambiguous beneficiary of government action. Instead, their beefs with the system tend to be aspirational–that is, they’re not rising far enough fast enough and the difficulties of doing so are far greater than they’d like.

But with all that, they remain fundamentally optimistic. They do not see themselves as losers and a politics that mostly treats them as such is likely to be ineffective. Indeed, when it comes to their own individual and family situations, most people say that they are succeeding (and expect their kids to succeed), thanks to their hard work and personal sacrifice in the face of great obstacles. This allows them to tell a story where they and their families are the heroes and where their difficulties redound to their credit. Consider these data from the New York Times poll on class in America in March, 2005.

In that poll, 66 percent said they are better off than their parents were at comparable ages, compared to 20 percent who say they are doing about the same and 13 percent who say they are doing worse. And 56 percent of parents believe their children will lead better lives, while 18 percent say the same and 22 percent say worse.

Moreover, 70 percent said they had already attained the American Dream or would attain it in their lifetimes. When asked to rate themselves on a 10 point scale from extremely poor (1) to extremely rich (10), both for now and in ten years, 62 percent rated themselves between poor and middle class (1 to 5) now, but 60 percent said they would be between middle class and wealthy (6 to 10) within ten years.

Respondents to the survey also remained optimistic about class mobility. Eighty-two percent described themselves as working class, middle class or lower class, but an amazing 45 percent believed it was very or somewhat likely that they would become wealthy in the future. Moreover, 80 percent said it’s still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich. These findings are consistent with polls taken over many decades that show Americans as great believers in, and supporters of, class mobility.

So does that mean giving up on populism, in general, or opposing the way Big Money unfairly games and manipulates the system? No, but it does mean if you want to reach the typical American, you need to couch your populism in aspirational terms, not just or even mostly in how their interests are being betrayed by Big Money. They may nod in agreement with the point that their interests and Big Money’s are different, but what they want to really know is: how can you help them get ahead?

Answer that, and you might not even need the red pill.

GOP Leaders Squirm Over Immigrant-Bashing

Pacific News Service's Earl Ofari Hutchison has an interesting post over at Alternet "Why Republicans Will Cave on Immigration Reform," which should be of interest to Democratic strategists. Hutchison argues that the rational Republicans will win the day and send their xenophobic brethren sputtering away. He makes some good points, including:

Latino evangelicals, both legal and illegal immigrants, make up about one-fourth of the membership of evangelical churches in America, and their numbers are growing...Latino evangelicals flexed their political muscle in March when they forced several prominent national evangelical groups to back-peddle fast from their hard-nosed stance on immigration reform.

And,

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie was one of the first to sound the alarm bell. In a Wall Street Journal editorial in April, he firmly put the GOP on notice that it must not become known as the anti-immigrant party. Gillespie crunched the numbers and noted that Republicans can't win in 2008 without the key swing states of New Mexico, Florida, Colorado and Nevada, which Bush won in 2004.

Bush and the Republicans fix their political eye on more than Latino population numbers and votes. They also see Latinos' dollars. In politics money doesn't talk, it screams. The disposable income of Latinos soared to nearly $1 trillion during the 1990s and continues to climb. Credit card, shipping and communications companies, trade and tourist associations, hotels, airlines and sports franchises are now feverishly marketing products to snatch a bigger share of Latinos' dollars. Republican campaign officials will do the same.

Hutchison may be right about the course the GOP leaders will chose. Even so, the GOP's internal division should be good for Democratic candidates. And it may be too little too late for Republian leaders to save the day, because serious damage to the GOP's Hispanic outreach has already been done, and politically-aware Latinos know that the latest wave of immigrant-bashing did not originate from Democrats.

May 2, 2006

Immigration Policy Protests Offer Opportunity for Dems

By Pete Ross

The nation-wide "Day Without Immigrants" demonstrations were a stunning success by at least one measure --- creating a stronger awareness of the enormous potential of Latino political empowerment. This is undoubtedly good news for Dems, who have received healthy majorities of votes cast by Latinos in recent elections, and stand to benefit even more in November. As Ruy Teixeira explains in his January 12 post "Hispanics Bailing Out on GOP," which analyzed a major poll by The Latino Coalition (a conservative group, no less):

Let’s start with the generic Congressional contest. This poll finds Democrats with a stunning 61-21 lead over the GOP among Hispanic registered voters, which translates into a 50 point lead (75-25) among those who express a preference. The analogous figure among those who expressed a preference in the June DCorps poll was “only” 36 points. By way of comparison to the last two off-year elections, 2002 and 1998, Democrats carried the Congressional vote by 24 and 26 points, respectively.

Demonstration organizers have stated that they will now focus on mobilizing voters and strengthening grass roots support for a legislative agenda that benefits undocumented workers. But there are formidable problems in turning out the Latino vote. As Teresa Watanabe and Nicole Gaouette note in today's L. A. Times article, Next: Converting the Energy of Protest to Political Clout":

Organizers have their work cut out for them. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only 39% of the nation's 41 million Latinos are eligible to vote, compared with 76% of whites and 65% of blacks. And fewer than half of the 16 million eligible Latino voters voted in the 2004 general election.

The article quotes several protest participants stating that the demonstrations have inspired them to become registered US voters. Clearly, the Democratic Party must make the strongest possible effort to help them and millions more achieve this goal.