Sunday, December 21, 2003

The base vs. the middle

Eric Alterman announces he’s through with politicians, but goes on to highlight a key issue for 2004: whether the election will be won among the party faithful or in a battle for the middle.

In a dinner last month with bloggers Jonas, Phil and Josh, I mentioned that the question of electability boiled down to three things: money, organization, and commitment. If a candidate has more money, stronger organization and more passionate supporters, then I think he is per se electable. I also mentioned that I’m hearing from more insiders that the race isn’t about the “swing” vote this time around, but whether the candidate can motivate their base to show up and vote.

And Alterman’s starting to look at the issue from that perspective — you’ve got the pundits on one side arguing that it’s all about the middle, while folks like Alterman (not to mention campaign insiders from several camps) are suggesting that the middle might be pretty tiny.

In fact, I got a review copy of Stanley Greenberg’s The Two Americas over the weekend, and I can’t wait to dive in. In effect, he posits that the country is every bit as divided as it was in 2000, and if anything the polarization has increased. (Sidenote: I watched The War Room the other night, where Greenberg has a minor role as Clinton’s pollster during the ’92 campaign. It’s fascinating to see how these guys are able to distill the numbers to figure out what it says.)

Most interesting for me are the labels Greengberg creates to describe the Republican partisans and the Democratic partisans, including terms like the “Fuck You Boys” and “Fuck You Old Men” (both of whom vote Republican), with “Black Power” and “Super Educated Women” making up some of the most staunchly Democratic blocs.

(For what now seems to me to be an accurate representation of these pollster-invented demographics, see my review of Neal Stephenson’s Interface. Hysterical.)

There will be more on this subject, no doubt.


  1. Rick -- Campaign people and "insiders" would love to have you believe it all comes down to turning out your base. That has been Karl Rove's published strategy about this election for some time now. The problem is that there are millions of people who vote who exist outside the circle of activists.

    Regrettably, the Democrats have bought into the same theory this year and are walking away from any meaningful communications with the American middle.

    It may well cost them the election.

    I know the theory is that candidates like Dean can organize more people and make up the difference. The fact is that if Dean were able to turn out all of his 542,031 Americans for Dean he would still fall far short.

    Not only that you may well have Nader to deal with.......

    In the last election Nader took 2.5 million votes and the Democrats lost. Nader is now talking about running again and if he does he will draw, not from centrist votes but from activist ones.

    It amazes me that the Democrats have so quickly forgotten the unbelievable gift Ross Perot gave them in 1992, and that Nader gave to Bush in 2000.

    I do not understand why the great American middle is such an anathema to political organizers. It is where the vast majority of Americans live, and their support represents an opportunity to defend against third party candidates. Most are trying to work hard to pay for health insurance, educate their families and deal with the myriad of boring, but essential responsibilities that make up daily life. They do not have time to read political books or watch movies like the War Room. They make decisions sitting around kitchen tables using dwindling checkbook balances as a guide.

    As a result, they are usually the last to focus on an election and make up their minds.

    They make up a significant percentage of the 39% undecided that still exist in the Democrat presidential primary states and will exist in the general election.

    The Republicans have figured out how to scare them into supporting them. And, like this year, they know how to buy their votes with their own money, by enacting devastatingly expensive and damaging tax cuts that prop up a weak economy until next November.

    They will be the 10-12% that will decide the primaries and the general.

    Ignore them at your peril and watch Bush laugh all the way to reelection. What a travesty that would be........

  2. Rick,

    You write:

    "... a dinner last month with bloggers Jonas, Phil and Josh, I mentioned that the question of electability boiled down to three things: money, organization, and commitment."

    I suggest this is only a partial list and that these three factors are fast becoming commodities, see the Clark campaign, and, in any case , are only necessary but not sufficient.

    I would add:

    1] Strategic vision strongly coupled with clear policy - including a redefinition of what is National Security, what is a politics of Courage, what will be our new unfair competivie advantages that will sustain our economy ???

    2] the ability to "close" the sale - convert tire kickers to committed buyers -- not a strong point of D4A if you believe the numbers on the Dean blog.

    3] good manners: knowing when NOT to campaign, returning phone calls, keeping meetings etc. D4A is quite weak here.

    4] A sense of humor supported by a dose of humility

    5] A lot of very good luck.

    6] A plan to move beyond bi-polar politics

  3. Jock -

    I didn't intend the post to be focused specifically on Dean, but am happy to play the spoiler on this discussion:

    On #1, I'll leave it to you (and any others) to determine whether Dean's recent foreign policy speech suffices (I'm guessing in your case it doesn't). As for your assertion that a plan to exploit our competitive advantage will be to sustain our economy is necessary to winning an election, I don't buy it. The economic discussion that sways voters has to do with their jobs and with taxes. Beyond that is political theory, something I don't think the casual voter is particularly concerned with.

    Re: #2, you indicate that the Dean blog is failing to convert "tire kickers" and close the sale. I'm not sure I follow - by any measure (crowd attendance at the summer rallies, number of contributors, number of house parties, number of letters written, number of people attending MeetUps) the campaign is doing an unprecedented job of engaging thousands of people who've never been involved before.

    I can only speak from first-hand experience, and w/r/t #3, I can't really agree that the Dean campaign is weak on this point. Anecdotally there are plenty of stories to go around about any of the candidates being bad at cashing checks, returning favors, etc. - but D4A being "quite weak" seems a misstatement. I've seen nothing but lightning-fast turnaround on a number of projects I've been personally involved in. (That doesn't mean this is true universally; but again, that's been my experience.)

    #4: Sense of humor. Did you see Letterman? Leno? Daily Show? Whether it's those appearances, or one-on-one, I think we're covered here...

    On the "whole lotta luck" point, I don't disagree. Each campaign - whether it was Florida for Bush, Perot for Clinton, Willie Horton and a tank for Bush in '88, the hostages in Iran for Reagan - produced events that undeniably swayed voters independent of the candidates' campaigning. You'll get no argument from me that without luck, candidates don't win.

    As for a move beyond bi-polar politics, I'd like to see a definition before I debate the notion. What do you mean when you say "bi-polar politics"?


  4. A few random comments:

    I took Jock's comments to be not about the Dean campaign, but about other important aspects that every campaign needs to pay attention to.

    I know that there are plenty of people frustrated with how the Dean campaign handles policy issues and that there are a lot of people who are frustrated with how the campaign follows through.

    These are areas the Dean campaign could do better at. I can't comment on 'closing' the deal. They seem to be doing pretty well with this as the endorsements start coming in, as well as closing the deal with lots of fundraising. It also seems that so far, luck has been quite favorable.

    Yet with all of this, I think the aspect of playing to all audiences is very important. I have one interesting bit of anecdotal information about the campaign.

    Those of you that know me, know that I am primarily a geek. One of the things I have done is to share as many videos of Howard Dean out on peer to peer networking as possible.

    I use Shareaza which tracks how many downloads each file has. What are the top file downloads?

    Howard Dean on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno
    Al Franken at the Avalon Fund Raiser
    The Daily Show
    Capital Steps Gay Teen Believer
    Capital Steps Dean

    Humor is leading the way.