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The Daily Strategist

November 26, 2014

Lux: Toward an Agenda and Narrative that Can Win Elections



The following article by Democratic strategist Mike Lux, author of The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, is cross-posted from HuffPo:

This blog post is partly about politics and partly about economic policies that will expand America's middle class and make it more prosperous in the modern era. The story of the 2014 election was that Democrats can't succeed at the former without succeeding at the latter. A Democratic strategy, that is superb and state of the art on voter targeting and turnout, can't succeed if you haven't delivered the goods to the generally younger and less prosperous people you are trying to turn out. Carefully refined political positioning and focus group tested ads won't win swing voters, if those swing voters haven't felt the benefits of you being in office. And economic policies that deliver better stock prices and profits to businesses, and even create a fair number of new jobs, don't feel to voters like prosperity when they never get a raise or when those new jobs being created pay low wages.

To be clear, Democrats don't deserve all or most of the blame for an economy that still punishes the poor and middle class 7 years into the economic crisis that began building in 2007 just because Obama has been president for most of those years -- not even close. It was George W. Bush's policies and regulators who led us into economic collapse while cluelessly ignoring the bright red warning signs flashing everywhere around them. And the Republican House and Republican Senators in the last 4 years who blocked good policies that would have helped create more jobs and raise a lot of workers' wages (infrastructure spending, minimum wage increase, etc) deserve a great deal of the blame. But the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was the one who pushed for the most massive deregulation of the financial industry in modern history, and Obama's made a series of decisions that haven't helped either -- failing to restructure Wall Street excess when he had the chance to in 2009, agreeing to a program of extreme austerity when the economy was still severely damaged in 2011, and keeping his executive actions to raise wages and spur the economy much more modest than they could have been over the last 2 years. And beyond the facts on what Obama has or hasn't done on the economy, when you are presiding over an economy this bad at raising wages, you are going to get most of the blame from the voters.

So let's talk about the politics first, starting with the Rising American Electorate (RAE) that Democratic strategists like Stan Greenberg frequently talk about -- African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, unmarried women, and voters 30 years old and younger. In the Obama years, and in the Democratic wave election of 2006 that was a precursor to Obama's decisive 2008 victory, those voters have tended to be Democratic base voters, although there are more swing voters in those demographic categories than many casual observers realize. The problem for us as a party is that if you look at what has happened to these constituencies income, net wealth, job prospects, amount of student debt, and political rights during the Obama presidency, they haven't done very well. If you want to look at why those constituencies didn't vote in higher percentages, or gave a lower percent of their vote to Democrats in 2014, you can clearly start with that as an explanation. Yes, it is true -- and important to point out -- that Republicans' policy prescriptions are a lot worse for all those constituencies than Democrats, but at some point we also have to deliver some tangible benefits to our voters.

The RAE is central to any Democratic prospects for the foreseeable future. We have to deliver on policies that tangibly improve their lives. We have to cultivate, motivate, register them to vote, and turn them out to vote. But for at least another couple of generations, especially in non-presidential election years but even in presidential election years too, we still have to do relatively well with the white working class voters that used to be the foundation stone of the old New Deal majority. The numbers don't add up in swing Presidential states like OH, PA, MI, WI, IA, NH, or MN, which tend to be a little too old and a little too white to win 51 percent of the vote with a political calculus geared mostly around the RAE. The fact is we won these states in 2008 and 2012 not only because we did so well at turning out RAE voters to vote and winning strong percentages of them, but because we did respectably among white working class -- mostly because of the herculean efforts of the labor movement. Similarly, a RAE-centric and Obama-centric strategy doesn't add up to wining a majority of the Senate, where Democrats have an overwhelming majority of seats in states won by Obama, 41-11 but we still have to win some seats in the 24 states carried by Romney: if Landrieu loses, there are only 5 Democrats among those 48 Senate seats. And even if you were to lessen the impact of gerrymandering, which has been a fact of political life since the earliest days of the American republic, there is no way we get to a majority in the House without doing better among white working class voters because so many RAE voters are concentrated in heavily Democratic urban core House districts.

Let me take you down to the county level to show how this worked in the 2014 election. I'm going to use a couple of examples given to me by Paul Booth from AFSCME, one of the best political strategists in the labor movement. I have talked about why and how RAE voters overall were not as motivated to turn out this year. But one thing Democrats proved is that they could be successful mechanically with great GOTV operations in targeted places. First example: the labor movement and other Democratic forces decided that the way to win the Florida Governor race was to do a massive turnout operation in heavily urban and Democratic counties in the state, and they picked 5 as their top targets, the 3 big South Florida counties as well as Pinellas (the St Pete/Tampa area) and Orange (Orlando). They did an incredible job: Crist had almost 123,000 vote higher margin because of the work in those 5 counties than the Democratic candidate (Alex Sink) did in 2010, which was more than double the goal they had set for themselves. The problem was that the Republican margin for Scott in the 60 more Republican counties -- mostly more rural and whiter -- increased by about 131,000, meaning instead of winning by 56,000 as he had in 2010, he won by 64,000 instead. Here's a 2nd example: the turnout operation for Democrats in Milwaukee and Madison was incredibly successful -- they went so far above projections in Madison that they ran out of ballots by late afternoon and had to print more. But again, Walker's team won by bigger margins in rural Wisconsin than he had in 2010, and it was enough to carry him to victory. As Paul said after telling me these stories: "we need to go beyond Howard Dean's 50 state strategy. We need a 3,144 county strategy." (That's how many counties there are nationwide).

This is not fashionable talk among some of my fellow progressives. Among some people I talk to, the natural tendency of younger, lower-income, black, Hispanic, and unmarried voters in presidential years will solve most of our problems, especially if we do a good job of turning them out to vote. But that's not what the numbers say: if we only get the 38 percent of white voters we got this year in 2016 in places like OH, MI, MN, NH, IA, PA, WI, CO, and other swing states, we will not win either the presidency or the Senate back, let alone the House.

So where do we get those extra voters who are white? Union members who are not people of color are part of the answer, but union membership continues to slip every year. Young whites are part of the answer too, but our numbers among that demographic have slipped a lot from the Obama 2008 high, and their economic problems aren't getting any rosier. We got a lot more white unmarried voters, especially unmarried women, in 2008 and 2012 than we did in 2014, so hopefully we can win more of them, but again, this economy isn't tending to lift them up much.

We can win back a lot of the swing white voters in the categories above with a stronger message and outreach strategy, but with the weak economy continuing to be a drag, I believe it won't be enough. To solve the problem Booth identified, we have to start a serious re-engagement with working class white voters -- in message, outreach and organizing, and policy. We can't ignore them and hope the surging RAE vote alone carries us to victory.

The way to win more votes in those whiter, older, rural counties is a message of economic populism. The good news is that economic policies and messaging that appeal to white working class folks also appeal to RAE voters. As I wrote yesterday about progressive populist candidates who won important statewide victories in 2014 (Merkley in OR, Franken in MN, Peters in MI, Shaheen in NH, and Malloy in CT):

Let me note one other fact about these races: In a year where white, working-class swing voters mostly deserted the Democratic party, all of these candidates did well with this demographic group. Of the states where we won those victories, only one -- Michigan -- had a significant people of color population. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Oregon are four of the whitest states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012, with neither a large African-American or Hispanic population. And in Michigan, while there is a large black population, a Democrat can't win without competing well in the mostly white working class suburban Detroit counties like Macomb, which Peters did. A populist message and narrative worked for those Democrats.

Democrats need a clearly defined and strongly messaged economic platform that helps low and moderate people. We can't only bash the Koch brothers and Wall Street, although we certainly should do our fair share of that -- it helped the candidates I mentioned above win, and kept others running steeply uphill races in this terrible cycle like Braley, Udall, Hagan, and Begich in the game all the way to the end. But we also need a Democratic economic agenda that provides a compelling roadmap as to where we want to take the country: a $15 per hour minimum wage; an investment in road, bridge, and school construction; putting insulation into every public building that needs it in America, and saving billions of dollars of utility bills in the process; millions of new manufacturing jobs in wind and solar energy; a fair trade and currency policy that will create millions of new manufacturing jobs; an end to a tax and regulatory policy that encourages job out-sourcing and reckless financial speculation; a rigorous anti-trust policy that helps small businesses compete with big corporations; and a welcoming hand to the hard-working immigrants bringing their talents to our nation.

Armed with a real agenda like that, we can create a narrative about who we are, what we believe in, and what our values are. The story that we can tell is about an America that built a prosperous and expanding middle class where everyone who wanted a job was able to find one, where workers actually got raises and decent benefits most of the time, and where there was dignity in work and our families had the chance to pursue our version of the American dream. Over the last few decades, we lost that America, as the level playing field got tilted more and more to wealthy CEOs and big businesses who could get sweetheart deals because of their insider connections. The things we are advocating for are more jobs, better jobs with higher pay, and a level playing field so that workers and small businesses can get a fair shake rather than being rolled by big money.

As progressives, that is what we fight for, that agenda and that hope for the future of America. Based on all the evidence I see, even from the rotten year of 2014 but also from other polling and evidence, that agenda and narrative about America will build an electoral majority.


November 25, 2014

Were the Midterm Results Part of a Straight Line Or a Cycle?



It's now three weeks after the 2014 midterm elections, and a good time to reflect on how serious analysts differ on what happened and what it means. I did a bit of that at Washington Monthly:

I'm no big number-cruncher, and don't have access to voter files or other data more sophisticated than exit polls, but my general take (articulated here and here) has been that the big GOP victory was the product of a number of things that happened to coincide in one cycle: a strongly pro-GOP midterm turnout pattern, a strongly pro-GOP "map" (at least for the Senate), a second-term midterm "drag" on the party controlling the White House, and negative perceptions of the economy that also hurt the party controlling the White House. I've conceded that individual candidates and campaigns may have won or cost a few contests, and it's possible voter suppression (in the broadest sense of the term) may have mattered in a few places. I haven't really come to grips with the idea that an entirely different Democratic message could have turned things around, but it's possible, though very hard to demonstrate.

In any event, this week we've seen Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics demonstrate convincingly that the election wasn't all about turnout demographics, and Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight demonstrate convincingly that it wasn't all about the map.

What these analyses suggest to me is that the real fault line in 2014 interpretation could wind up being between those who think the factors driving the results are cyclical--whether it's turnout, the map, the stage of the presidency, or the economy, or more likely a combination of them--or non-cyclical. Sean Trende, for example, clearly thinks Obama's unpopularity was the crucial factor in 2014, and will probably sink Democrats in 2016 as well, despite better turnout patterns, etc. It's really hard to prove or disprove the transitive nature of approval ratings for two-term presidents to their wannabe same-party successors, because the sample set is so small. But I'm still betting 2014 was mostly a "cyclical" election, just like the last three. That does not mean Democrats are guaranteed victory, by any stretch of the imagination, but does mean the winds should shift and give them a shorter and straighter path.

Some "analysts," of course, who are engaged in Republican triumphalist spin, simply assume without bothering to demonstrate anything that 2014 was part of a GOP march to power that will culminate in a great gettin'-up morning in 2016. And some Democrats may too casually dismiss without scrutiny 2014 GOP gains in "Democratic" demographic groups--probably a sign of differential turnout patterns but possibly something more--or worry a bit too little about the cumulative effect of Republican gains at the state level. In the end, we probably won't completely understand 2014 until we are looking at a fresh set of numbers two years from now.


November 24, 2014

Political Strategy Notes



"The states with consistently high turnout tend to make it easy to cast ballots. Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin allow voters to register on Election Day. Colorado, Oregon and Washington state hold elections exclusively by mail. Washington often has high turnout but was closer to the middle of the pack this year at 41 percent." -- from Associated Press's Terrence Petty and Jonathan J. Cooper.

Looking at it from other angles, six states, Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon had voter turnouts of more than 50 percent. Four of the six states, allow election day registration, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Reefer referenda were on the ballot in Alaska, Oregon and a couple of cities in Maine. Dems won races for both Governor and U.S. Senate in OR and MN, Gov in CO and Republicans lost the Gov race in AK. Republicans won the Senate seat in AK and ME and won the WI and ME Gov races.

At TPM Petty and Cooper also credit Oregon's impressive turnout to "A century-old tradition of civic-mindedness that dates to the Progressive Era, convenient voting procedures and especially contentious races or ballot issues."

From Ronald Brownstein's "Shellacking: The Sequel": "Voter preferences recorded in the Edison Research exit poll posted by CNN virtually reproduced the 2010 outcome. Pending possible small final adjustments, the national exit poll found that Republican House candidates captured 60 percent of whites, 10 percent of African-Americans, and 35 percent of Hispanics; the comparable 2010 numbers were 60 percent, 9 percent, and 38 percent. This year, Republicans won 43 percent of voters under 30, and 57 percent of voters over 65; the 2010 numbers were 42 percent and 59 percent. On Tuesday, 44 percent of voters approved of Obama's job performance and 55 percent disapproved--exactly replicating 2010." However, adds Brownstein, "Even if Republicans in 2016 match Tuesday's dominant three-fifths showing among whites, they will almost certainly lose the White House if they can't also narrow the Democrats' traditional presidential-year edge with minorities--who could make up 30 percent of the electorate by then."

HuffPo Pollster's Ariel Edwards-Levy and Mark Blumenthal quote David M. Drucker: "Contrary to the many public opinion polls that showed Democrats and Republicans deadlocked heading into Election Day, most internal campaign surveys were correctly forecasting the GOP rout....Properly predicting the correct partisan and demographic turnout model was the difference. Campaigns and party committees got it right, while many, though not all, of the public polls were wrong...This time around, Republicans took seriously the Democrats' strategy to expand the midterm electorate. In private conversations, Republican strategists working targeted House and Senate races often revealed that their own surveys showed a closer race than what was suggested by the public data..... in the homestretch of the campaign, Republicans started to notice that the voter data scores were revealing a crucial dynamic. The most likely Republican voters were also among the most interested in the upcoming elections, while the most likely Democratic voters were much less interested..."

At Facing South Chris Kromm explains how gerrymandering has eliminated so many southern white Democrats from the House of Representatives.

Republicans can keep spewing outrage about the president's immigration initiative. But Jonathan Chait has an eloquent response from which Dems can craft their comments: "This is the point of contrast that Obama drew out clearly and effectively. After years of legislative muddle, he was able to detach himself completely from Congress and articulate his own values. His remarks, met with rapt attention in immigrant communities, continued his rhetorical tradition of expanding the American family, accurately presenting himself (and, by extension, his party) as an ally to marginalized Americans. Speaking with evident passion, the president deemed the children of undocumented immigrants "as American as Malia or Sasha." He cited scripture: "We shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too." He drew an emotional bond between immigrant communities and the Democratic Party's ideal of compassion and tolerance. That bond will be his announcement's most enduring legacy."

At Campaign for America's Future, Terrance Heath put it this way: "It's actually a modest plan, but the beauty part is that Republicans can't shut it down. Even better, conservatives worried that the president's move was aimed making them look even crazier by driving their wingnut brethren to go new extremes. Republicans can't bow to tea party rage without alienating Latinos. The president's move left the GOP stuck between the voters it still needs now, and the voters it will need in the future -- in order to have a future. Ya gotta admit, it's a pretty slick move."

One national news outlet pegged her chances of re-election at 12 percent, but Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-1) didn't just win, reports Abby Livingston at Roll Call. She expanded her margin of victory against the lavishly-funded Republican Speaker of the AZ House. Dems need to study such upset victories.


November 21, 2014

Counter-Punching the GOP "Outrage" on Immigration



So the president's executive action on immigration has finally been announced, and as expected Republicans are full of real and phony outrage. Outside the immigrant communities most affected, how should progressives respond? I discussed that topic today at the Washington Monthly.

For all the yelling and screaming about "Emperor Obama," his action was temporary and could be instantly revoked by a Republican president or superseded by legislation from a Republican Congress. But Republicans are in complete disarray on the subject, though there is a distinct trend towards "deport 'em all" nativism (though not the will to provide the resources necessary to "deport 'em all," which would make actions like Obama's impossible).

At present, though, the Establishment Republicans who privately view their nativist "base" as a bunch of destructive yahoos can join with said yahoos in an orgy of recrimination, mooting their agreement with the substance of what Obama is doing even as they pretend they believe the procedure is the greatest threat to democracy since yadda yadda yadda.

So the appropriate response of progressives to what we're going to hear over the next weeks and months is: What do you propose to do about it? Can Republicans agree on an immigration policy (no, "securing the border first" is not an immigration policy, but at most a component of one)? What should this and future administrations do in the face of a gigantic gap between the number of undocumented people in this country and the resources to deal with them? Is using the fear of deportation to encourage "self-deportation" what you want? And if you do want to "deport 'em all," then exactly how much money are you willing to appropriate for police dogs, box cars, whips, holding cells, and so on and so forth? Do you suggest we just suspend the Constitution and have us a good old-fashioned police state for a few years until we've deported 11 million people?

And if Republicans actually have the guts to go against their "base" and take on comprehensive immigration reform, there's this little matter of the bipartisan bill that's been languishing in the House for seventeen months. John Boehner could at any moment bring it up and pass it with Democratic votes. Why isn't that at least on the table?

It's a question that needs to be asked constantly, because it's Republican dysfunction that has produced the situation Obama is addressing. And so Republicans are the last people who ought to feel entitled to "outrage."


Obama's Immigration Reform Rooted in Decency



The headline of Harold Meyerson's Washington Post column hits a core issue of the immigration debate: "Obama calculates the human cost of deportations." Written before the President issued his executive order, Meyerson nonetheless captured the central issue, the one few Republicans are willing to address:

Of the thousands of words written lately on President Obama's impending order to exempt some undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation, most have dealt with the politics of the issue, not the humanity behind it. What the media have largely failed to emphasize is that Obama's order will be shaped almost entirely by the imperative of keeping parents with their children. The administration is planning to allow the undocumented parents of children born here (and who are, thus, U.S. citizens) to stay and receive work permits. Unfortunately, this will not include parents of the "dreamers" who are already protected by executive order from deportation.

...It's not as if Obama hasn't waited for Congress to address the immigration conundrum. Nearly 18 months ago, a bipartisan majority of 68 senators passed an Obama-backed bill that would have significantly augmented our border security forces and provided a long and tortuous pathway to legalization for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The Republican-controlled House refused to take up the bill, however, though it likely would have passed. Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders declined to risk the ire of the nativists in their ranks.

Meyerson adds that Republicans are likely to hold a House majority until 2023, and immigrant families would have little hope of congressional action to help them keep their families together. He credits President Obama with making a humane decision, "beyond the political and legal calculations are those that are simply human...even democracies can, and not infrequently do, violate the most elemental human rights. Stripping children of their parents is such a violation. It's time -- past time -- to stop the stupidity, the lack of humanity."

Any person with a decent mind and heart ought to be able to see that immigrants are making a tremendous contribution to contemporary American life. Making it possible for them to keep their families together isn't asking a lot. The President did the humane thing in moving immigration reform in that direction.


November 20, 2014

Political Strategy Notes



Among the most popular reforms the public would like to see the new congress address, according to a new NBC News/Wall St. Journal Poll: 82 percent support Congress providing access to lower the costs of student loans; 75 percent support increasing spending on infrastructure, roads and highways; 65 percent support Congress raising the minimum wage; 60 percent support approving emergency funding to deal with Ebola in West Africa; 59 percent support addressing climate change by limiting carbon emissions...So much for the Republican's midterm 'mandate.'

Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher makes the case that "Democrats didn't lose because of Obama," based on a poll indicating that a plurality (45%) of surveyed voters said the President was not a factor in their vote. Belcher argues further, that data also suggests benching Obama was a bad call.

It's one thing to get your butt kicked. But you really don't have to pay for it. Here's a little smart phone app that identifies Koch brothers products for your supermarket convenience.

Charles Blow gets it mostly right, despite the misleading title of his column on "the solid south." However, NC, FL and VA had close enough margins in big state-wide races to still be designated as purple states, despite the the midterm bummer.

I guess one of the side lessons of the midterm campaigns is that big-shot endorsements don't mean much. Bill Clinton didn't help re-elect Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Sam Nunn and Jimmy Carter didn't help family members a whole lot in Georgia. But, hey, those are political figures. The real value of celebs in politics is that they help raise money. Still, I'm hoping that Stevie Wonder's fund-raiser for Mary Landrieu in the Big Easy on Dec. 1 will give her a needed boost, same day as her run-off debate with GOP opponent Bill Cassidy.

So what was the impact of voter i.d. laws on the midterm outcomes? Trip Gabriel and Manny Fernandez have some answers at The New York Times.

2016 game on for former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb.

At Roll Call's Rothenblog Stu Rothernberg has "Lessons for Democratic Strategists From 2014," few of them encouraging.

If you haven't yet seen "Web Therapy," the over-the-top Showtime Series featuring Lisa Kudrow as Fiona, a manipulative narcissist who peddles three-minute 'therapy' sessions to her unfortunate clients, you can also check it out on Netflix. Fiona is married to a mainline lawyer Republican candidate for congress and 'friend of John McCain', but the real political fun is the burlesque of the upscale Republican mindset. Nary a soul, even among the characters played by a-list guest stars (Streep, Crystal, Hamm, Paltrow etc.) has a shred of interest in the commonweal, and all are grabbers.


November 19, 2014

Extremism Without Consequences



We interrupt the sober political analysis here at TDS to announce the imminent arrival of a major Teachable Moment. As the president rolls out his executive action on immigration during the next two days, you can expect a reaction from Republicans which will immediately make a mockery of all the "pragmatic grownups eager to get things done" talk of the last couple of weeks. Indeed, congressional Republicans seem to be in the process of talking themselves into precisely the government shutdown they've supposedly been so determined to avoid. I discussed the dynamics at Washington Monthly today:

As the engines of the Right-Wing Noise Machine rev themselves up into a high-pitched, chattering whine in anticipation of the Great Tyrannical Amnesty Declaration of 2014, it becomes harder and harder to believe that Republicans are going to resist the temptation to shut down the federal government again. Some of them, of course, are already there. And a lot more are back to the "partial shutdown" position that Ted Cruz tried to sell during his "Defund Obamacare" runup to the 2013 shutdown: the fantasy that Republicans can get Obama blamed for a shutdown if they keep saying they want everything other than the contaminated areas of government to continue.

But by far the more dangerous rationalization was nicely summarized at the Prospect today by Paul Waldman: Republicans don't think voters will remember what happens now, because they didn't last time around.

Approval of the Republican party took a nose dive in the wake of the shutdown, and though it is still viewed negatively by most Americans, that didn't stop Republicans from having a great election day. Because as at least some within the GOP understand, you can create chaos and crisis, and large numbers of voters will conclude not that Republicans are bent on creating chaos and crisis but that "Washington" is broken, and the way to fix it is to elect the people who aren't in the president's party. That in this case that happened to be precisely the people who broke it escaped many voters. The fact that the electorate skewed so heavily Republican in an election with the lowest turnout since 1942 also helped them escape the consequences of their behavior.

There's a very fine line between realizing you've escaped the consequences of your behavior and concluding there are no consequences. And once you arrive at that conclusion, you're the alcoholic who has a drink or two, doesn't pass out, and decides to celebrate the drinking problem being gone by ordering up a whole bottle.

The more fundamental problem is that the GOP and conservative movement have decided that disabling government is the best way to get to a smaller government, because voters will either blame "the party of government" or the abstraction known as "Washington." It's not surprising they view the midterm results as validation of that hypothesis. So we're very likely to get more of it, right away.


Unions and the Democratic Party: The Present and Future



The Democratic Strategist has posted a lot of content about the party's quest for winning a greater share of the white working-class vote, which has become a more widely shared concern in the wake of the midterm elections. Trade unions have a critical role to play in meeting this challenge, and the Democratic party has a reciprocal obligation to support the labor movement, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is a strategic imperative. For today, we'll just flag two recent articles worth review for those who share these concerns.

Thomas B. Edsall's New York Times op-ed "Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions" provides a well-sourced update on the status of unions in America, coup-led with a richly-deserved scold for the Democratic party for neglecting this key constituency: One of Edsall's nut graphs:

Democrats neglect the union movement at their peril. Not only does organized labor provide millions of dollars - the Center for Responsive Politics reports that unions spent $116.5 million on politics in 2013-14 - but union members are a loyal Democratic constituency. On Nov. 4, the 17 percent of voters who come from union households supported Democratic House candidates by a margin of 22 points, 60-38, while the remaining 83 percent from non-union households supported Republicans 54-44.

To get a sense of the future possibilities for the labor movement, the must-read is Harold Meyerson's post at The American Prospect Long Form, "The Seeds of a New Labor Movement." Meyerson takes an in-depth look at the more innovative organizing strategies, with particular focus on the creative efforts of David Rolf, president of a Seattle-based long-term care local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Meyerson writes of Rolph:

...Between 1995 and 1999, while still in his 20s, Rolf directed a campaign that unionized 74,000 home care workers in Los Angeles. It was the largest single unionization since the United Auto Workers organized Ford in 1941. SEIU then sent him to Seattle, where he has nearly quadrupled SEIU's Washington state membership. Last year, he led the initiative campaign that persuaded voters in SeaTac, the working-class Seattle suburb that is home to the city's airport, to raise the local minimum wage to $15--the highest in the nation. He also managed to make SEIU's campaign to organize fast-food workers and raise their pay to $15 the centerpiece of the mayoral race in Seattle proper...

Over the past 15 years, no American unionist has organized as many workers, or won them raises as substantial, as Rolf. Which makes it all the more telling that Rolf believes the American labor movement, as we know it, is on its deathbed, and that labor should focus its remaining energies on bequeathing its resources to start-up projects that may find more effective ways to advance workers' interests than today's embattled unions can.

Meyerson shares some of Rolph's organizing techniques and has more to say about American labor's future prospects. All of this should be of interest to anyone who believes that the Democratic party's route to winning a larger share of the white working-class vote must go through a healthier labor movement.


November 18, 2014

Lux: How to Build a Blue Wave for 2016



The following article by Democratic strategist Mike Lux, author of The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, is cross-posted from HuffPo:

Since I have been involved in politics as a full-time job, there have been five times where I had a really bad election night, where the Republicans kicked our ass and won most of the important races: 1980, 1994, 2004, 2010, and of course this year. Every single time was awful. Every single time the country suffered a great deal as a result. But every single time, Democrats came storming back the very next election and had a great year. It's not too surprising, really: Republicans are an arrogant bunch with really bad and unpopular policy ideas that don't work out well when they are enacted. And of course, we know that the voting pool in a presidential year tends to look more like the actual population of the country -- younger, more people of color, more unmarried voters -- and that is a very good thing for Democrats. So while I take absolutely nothing for granted, and know that we will have to work our collective Democratic asses off, I go into 2016 with some confidence.

The key, though, is good strategic thinking. We can't go into the 2016 cycle thinking that Republican arrogance and demographics alone will save us. We have to have a strategy that simultaneously fires up our base and appeals to middle- and working-class swing voters. Central to that strategy is picking the right fights to have and to drive with an extended grassroots and media campaign, and avoiding the stupid "bipartisan" deals the DC establishment tends to love, but that are harmful to poor and middle income folks. Some examples of both the good ideas and the dumb stuff below.

In 1981, Reagan had swept into power with a Republican Senate, and although the Democrats still controlled the House, there was a sizable enough Southern conservative Democratic faction in the House that Reagan was able to push through his massive supply-side tax cuts for the rich. The Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, knew he was going to lose on the budget battle, but he made a point of picking a big fight on it and driving a message about the Democrats standing with the working class and the Republicans standing with the wealthy. When the budget deal resulted in a recession and a massive deficit in 1982, people remembered O'Neill's stand, and the Democrats picked up 26 House seats that year, securing his ability to control the House the rest of the Reagan years.

In 1993-94, when Democrats had control of Congress, Clinton split the Democratic base and ticked off a lot of working-class swing voters by pushing NAFTA hard. He then failed to get health care reform passed; leaving a lot of Democrats completely unenthused about turning out. But in 1995, after the slaughter of the 1994 elections, when Clinton (at the strong urging of the labor and progressive movements, and against the advice of centrist advisers like Mark Penn) picked a big fight with the Republicans in Congress on the budget over Medicare, Medicaid, Education, and the Environment, the tide turned for Clinton permanently. Clinton went into that fight behind Dole in the polls by about 10 points, and by the time it was done, he was ahead by about 10 -- and he never lost that lead.

After the 2004 elections, with conservative Republicans firmly in control of every branch of government, Democrats, backed strongly by the entire progressive movement, stood their ground and picked big fights with Bush and Tom DeLay over Social Security privatization, the Iraq war, the handling of Katrina, and the fact that Republican leadership was trying to cover up a growing wave of scandal involving sleazy lobbyists like Jack Abramoff. In each of these fights, progressives put campaigns together, gave them enough resources to give them a punch, and worked closely with the Democratic leadership to hold Democrats solidly together on those issues. The result was the most sweeping Democratic midterm election victory of the modern era, a 31 House seat and six Senate seat pick-up.

After the Republican blowout of 2010, Obama's initial reaction was to reach out to cut deals with Republicans on the budget. He agreed to a couple of deals, making massive cuts in spending with no corresponding tax increases, and proposed (but thankfully did not get) a "grand bargain" with Republicans that would have cut Social Security benefits and made other big cuts in domestic spending. The progressive community was in open rebellion, Obama looked weak and like he didn't care about fighting for his principles, and his approval ratings hit a first term low. But he saved himself in time with a strong populist speech in the fall of 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas, that picked fights with the Republicans on a series of economic issues, and then he put out a progressive budget package that stood in stark contrast with the Ryan budget, which progressives had been fighting an on-going campaign to bring down. And Obama's campaign successfully painted Romney as a heartless Wall Street CEO. In the worst economy for a President to be re-elected in since 1936, the Democrats won every closely contested presidential state but one, as well as most of the close Senate races.

The lessons here are clear: pick economic fights about helping poor and middle-class people instead of the wealthy and powerful, and avoid dumb bipartisan trade or budget deals that end jobs and cut benefits for the middle class.

And guess what? Speaking of populism, in the 2014 elections, one key point that people should think about isn't just how Democrats lost, but where we won relatively easily in races that were supposed to be competitive. In Minnesota and Oregon, Democratic Senators Franken and Merkley went into the cycle with people thinking they might be in trouble. In Michigan, the Koch brothers invested a huge amount of money in a race that was supposed to be extremely competitive when Sen. Levin retired. In all three swing states, Democrats followed the same playbook: they ran an unapologetic economically populist campaign; brought in Elizabeth Warren in early to rally the troops and get activists excited to help them; and campaigned as proud progressive Democrats. On a night when most other Democrats struggled, these three strong progressives never went on defense, never struggled, and won the day strongly. Furthermore, of the ten closest Senate races in the country that had been considered the most competitive throughout the cycle (AK, NH, AR, KY, GA, KY, CO, IA, LA, NC), we won only one, Jeanne Shaheen in NH. Shaheen used Warren's populist playbook (and repeated visits to NH to rally the troops) to beat corporate "moderate" Scott Brown.

I will close on this extremely important note: While the path to a solid Democratic victory in 2016 is clear, we need to be working toward a Democratic wave not just a Democratic victory. With the gains the Republicans made in the House and Senate, it will take a big Democratic election to have a chance at winning back both, especially the House. And whether it is Hillary or another Democratic president, I sure as hell would want to be governing without having to deal with a Republican-controlled House.

Having been deeply involved in both the 1996 Clinton re-elect and the 2006 strategy that won back both houses of Congress, I can tell you that there was a huge difference in both strategies and outcomes in those years. While Clinton thankfully rejected Penn's and Dick Morris' advice in 1995 to just split the difference with Gingrich and Dole on the budget, he did take their advice in terms of overall political positioning: he "triangulated," intentionally setting himself apart from congressional Democrats and running his campaign on a completely separate track from other Democrats in 1996. The result was that Dole, indelibly linked in the public's mind to a very unpopular Gingrich because of the 1995 government shutdown over the budget, was easily beaten, yet we lost two Senate seats and only picked up two House seats. In spite of the decisive budget victory, in spite of Gingrich's unpopularity, in spite of a lifeless Dole campaign, there were no Clinton coattails because of the distance he created between his campaign and other Dems. It would be the last election where a president or party nominee had so little impact on the rest of the election.

In 2006, the contrast could not have been more dramatic. While there were some differences between Democrats on message, in general the party and progressive movement worked closely together on issue fights and messaging with a goal around building a wave. Staying united and winning decisively on the Social Security fight, and creating effective messaging campaigns around Bush's failures in Iraq and with Hurricane Katrina, as well as driving message around the widespread scandal and corruption in the House under DeLay's leadership, built the wave to an unprecedented level of strength.

In a presidential turnout year, with Republican hubris and extremism on full display as they flex their newfound power, I have no doubt a big wave for the Democrats can be built. It will take smart strategic thinking about what big issue fights to pick and what dumb bipartisan deals to avoid; it will take a strong dose of economic populism in an economy overwhelmingly skewed to the top 1 percent; and it will take a unity of purpose instead of Democrats trying to set themselves apart from the core values of the party. But if we are smart and tough and relatively unified, 2016 will be a great election for the Democratic Party.


November 17, 2014

Political Strategy Notes



Jonathan Martin's "After Losses, Liberal and Centrist Democrats Square Off on Strategy" at the New York Times summarizes the central debate emerging within the Democratic party and offers an interesting observation: "Progressives pointed to three Democrats who ran as populists as models for success: Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Senator-elect Gary Peters of Michigan...Mr. Merkley, who focused on the loss of well-paying jobs, the cost of college tuition and opposition to trade deals that he said sent jobs overseas, won by 19 percentage points. While Democrats nationally lost whites without a college degree by 30 percentage points, Mr. Merkley narrowly carried that bloc."

At Slate.com Jamelle Bouie explains "Why Democrats Can't Win Over White Working-Class Voters." Bouie observes, "The white working class is a huge subset of Americans. "Close to half of white men and 35-40 percent of white women in the labor force are still essentially 'working class,' " finds liberal commentator Andrew Levison in his book The White Working Class Today. "Their occupations are basically blue collar rather than white collar and their earnings fall far below their white collar counterparts." And in that category are groups of reachable voters: Union members and low-skilled young workers in particular. Democrats don't have to win this group as much as they have to avoid a rout. If they can do that--and hold Republicans to a majority rather than a supermajority--then they can avoid the Republican waves of the recent midterm elections, and strengthen their presidential majority."

Kevin Drum weighs in on the topic with "Can We Talk? Here's Why the White Working Class Hates Democrats" at Mother Jones.

In similar vein, William Greider posts at The Nation on "How the Democratic Party Lost Its Soul: The Trouble Started When the party Abandoned Its Working-Class Base." Greider arguers, "What we need is a rump formation of dissenters who will break free of the Democratic Party's confines and set a new agenda that will build the good society rather than feed bloated wealth, disloyal corporations and absurd foreign wars. This is the politics the country needs: purposeful insurrection inside and outside party bounds, and a willingness to disrupt the regular order. And we need it now, to inject reality into the postelection spin war within the party."

At Politico DLC Founder Al From explains the Dems midterm disaster "We were trying to sell a product the American people did not want to buy. On the economy, for example, Democrats offered fairness; most Americans wanted the opportunity to get ahead." From suggests "The cornerstones of our retooled message must be economic growth and government reform.

The Upshot's Nate Cohn argues that, contrary to pundit consensus on the midterms, "The evidence for a fairly successful Democratic turnout effort is straightforward. "

At The Monitor's DC Decoder Joshua Huder notes, "Democrats' attempts to localize their races and distance themselves from the president also put distance between them and a solid national economy. During the campaigns, we heard very little about steady growth, lower unemployment, or the other factors that could have played well for Democrats. It's entirely possible many did not believe these trends were good enough to campaign on. It's also likely that many states in which these races took place still had struggling economies, which, according to a new paper by Stephen Ansolabehere, Marc Meredith, and Erik Snowberg in the journal Economics & Politics (November 2014), can affect perceptions of the national economy."

Also at Politico, Tarini Parti reports on the debate about how Democrats can better leverage their financial resources in the next election.

Mark Miller's "Five Takeaways on Retirement from the Midterm Elections" shows why seniors who voted for Republicans in the midterm elections may soon have a bad case of buyer's remorse.






Editor's Corner

by Ed Kilgore



November 25: Were the Midterm Results Part of a Straight Line or a Cycle?

It's now three weeks after the 2014 midterm elections, and a good time to reflect on how serious analysts differ on what happened and what it means. I did a bit of that at Washington Monthly:

I'm no big number-cruncher, and don't have access to voter files or other data more sophisticated than exit polls, but my general take (articulated here and here) has been that the big GOP victory was the product of a number of things that happened to coincide in one cycle: a strongly pro-GOP midterm turnout pattern, a strongly pro-GOP "map" (at least for the Senate), a second-term midterm "drag" on the party controlling the White House, and negative perceptions of the economy that also hurt the party controlling the White House. I've conceded that individual candidates and campaigns may have won or cost a few contests, and it's possible voter suppression (in the broadest sense of the term) may have mattered in a few places. I haven't really come to grips with the idea that an entirely different Democratic message could have turned things around, but it's possible, though very hard to demonstrate.

In any event, this week we've seen Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics demonstrate convincingly that the election wasn't all about turnout demographics, and Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight demonstrate convincingly that it wasn't all about the map.

What these analyses suggest to me is that the real fault line in 2014 interpretation could wind up being between those who think the factors driving the results are cyclical--whether it's turnout, the map, the stage of the presidency, or the economy, or more likely a combination of them--or non-cyclical. Sean Trende, for example, clearly thinks Obama's unpopularity was the crucial factor in 2014, and will probably sink Democrats in 2016 as well, despite better turnout patterns, etc. It's really hard to prove or disprove the transitive nature of approval ratings for two-term presidents to their wannabe same-party successors, because the sample set is so small. But I'm still betting 2014 was mostly a "cyclical" election, just like the last three. That does not mean Democrats are guaranteed victory, by any stretch of the imagination, but does mean the winds should shift and give them a shorter and straighter path.

Some "analysts," of course, who are engaged in Republican triumphalist spin, simply assume without bothering to demonstrate anything that 2014 was part of a GOP march to power that will culminate in a great gettin'-up morning in 2016. And some Democrats may too casually dismiss without scrutiny 2014 GOP gains in "Democratic" demographic groups--probably a sign of differential turnout patterns but possibly something more--or worry a bit too little about the cumulative effect of Republican gains at the state level. In the end, we probably won't completely understand 2014 until we are looking at a fresh set of numbers two years from now.


November 21: Counter-Punching the GOP "Outrage" on Immigration

So the president's executive action on immigration has finally been announced, and as expected Republicans are full of real and phony outrage. Outside the immigrant communities most affected, how should progressives respond? I discussed that topic today at the Washington Monthly.

For all the yelling and screaming about "Emperor Obama," his action was temporary and could be instantly revoked by a Republican president or superseded by legislation from a Republican Congress. But Republicans are in complete disarray on the subject, though there is a distinct trend towards "deport 'em all" nativism (though not the will to provide the resources necessary to "deport 'em all," which would make actions like Obama's impossible).

At present, though, the Establishment Republicans who privately view their nativist "base" as a bunch of destructive yahoos can join with said yahoos in an orgy of recrimination, mooting their agreement with the substance of what Obama is doing even as they pretend they believe the procedure is the greatest threat to democracy since yadda yadda yadda.

So the appropriate response of progressives to what we're going to hear over the next weeks and months is: What do you propose to do about it? Can Republicans agree on an immigration policy (no, "securing the border first" is not an immigration policy, but at most a component of one)? What should this and future administrations do in the face of a gigantic gap between the number of undocumented people in this country and the resources to deal with them? Is using the fear of deportation to encourage "self-deportation" what you want? And if you do want to "deport 'em all," then exactly how much money are you willing to appropriate for police dogs, box cars, whips, holding cells, and so on and so forth? Do you suggest we just suspend the Constitution and have us a good old-fashioned police state for a few years until we've deported 11 million people?

And if Republicans actually have the guts to go against their "base" and take on comprehensive immigration reform, there's this little matter of the bipartisan bill that's been languishing in the House for seventeen months. John Boehner could at any moment bring it up and pass it with Democratic votes. Why isn't that at least on the table?

It's a question that needs to be asked constantly, because it's Republican dysfunction that has produced the situation Obama is addressing. And so Republicans are the last people who ought to feel entitled to "outrage."


November 19: Extremism Without Consequences

We interrupt the sober political analysis here at TDS to announce the imminent arrival of a major Teachable Moment. As the president rolls out his executive action on immigration during the next two days, you can expect a reaction from Republicans which will immediately make a mockery of all the "pragmatic grownups eager to get things done" talk of the last couple of weeks. Indeed, congressional Republicans seem to be in the process of talking themselves into precisely the government shutdown they've supposedly been so determined to avoid. I discussed the dynamics at Washington Monthly today:

As the engines of the Right-Wing Noise Machine rev themselves up into a high-pitched, chattering whine in anticipation of the Great Tyrannical Amnesty Declaration of 2014, it becomes harder and harder to believe that Republicans are going to resist the temptation to shut down the federal government again. Some of them, of course, are already there. And a lot more are back to the "partial shutdown" position that Ted Cruz tried to sell during his "Defund Obamacare" runup to the 2013 shutdown: the fantasy that Republicans can get Obama blamed for a shutdown if they keep saying they want everything other than the contaminated areas of government to continue.

But by far the more dangerous rationalization was nicely summarized at the Prospect today by Paul Waldman: Republicans don't think voters will remember what happens now, because they didn't last time around.

Approval of the Republican party took a nose dive in the wake of the shutdown, and though it is still viewed negatively by most Americans, that didn't stop Republicans from having a great election day. Because as at least some within the GOP understand, you can create chaos and crisis, and large numbers of voters will conclude not that Republicans are bent on creating chaos and crisis but that "Washington" is broken, and the way to fix it is to elect the people who aren't in the president's party. That in this case that happened to be precisely the people who broke it escaped many voters. The fact that the electorate skewed so heavily Republican in an election with the lowest turnout since 1942 also helped them escape the consequences of their behavior.

There's a very fine line between realizing you've escaped the consequences of your behavior and concluding there are no consequences. And once you arrive at that conclusion, you're the alcoholic who has a drink or two, doesn't pass out, and decides to celebrate the drinking problem being gone by ordering up a whole bottle.

The more fundamental problem is that the GOP and conservative movement have decided that disabling government is the best way to get to a smaller government, because voters will either blame "the party of government" or the abstraction known as "Washington." It's not surprising they view the midterm results as validation of that hypothesis. So we're very likely to get more of it, right away.


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