Axelrod's Iowa Strategy

I have been incredibly hard on Barack Obama's campaign strategist David Axelrod for his campaign strategy. Axelrod has had Obama eschew partisan politics and avoid strong conrast with conservatives and Republicans. I have disliked the strategy as bad both for Obama's chances AND as bad for the Democratic Party. I am a believer in a politics of contrast.

But at least on the question of whether it is good strategy for Obama, Axelrod has won a very important convert - Ann Seltzer, the Des Moines Register pollster. In her final poll, the Gold Standard poll, Ms. Seltzer predicts Obama losing among Democrats but being swept to a big victory by bringing in unprecedented numbers of Independent and Republican voters to vote for Obama. This is, in a nutshell, the Obama strategy -- win with Independents and Republicans. If this works, Joe Lieberman must be wondering why he did not hire Axelrod in 2004.

In essence, Axelrod has run a New Hampshire McCain campaign in Iowa (where crossover voting is much more difficult, Indys have to register as Dems in Iowa, they do not in NH, these folks have to sit through a 3 hour caucus in Iowa, all they have to do is vote in NH), and Ann Seltzer, the most respected pollster in the business, is telling us it worked.

If it turns out this way on Thursday night, then all credit to Axelrod for seeing a strategy that the CW would never see. Including me.

I am not happy that non-Dems in Iowa could very well choose the Dem nominee for President. But the rules are what they are, and Axelrod works for Obama, not the Democratic Party. He could become a "genius" come Thursday night.

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    And (none / 0) (#1)
    by Maryb2004 on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 10:31:51 AM EST
    don't think we'll let you forget it if you've been wrong and he turns out to be a genius.

    It will be interesting to see how an influx of independents effect second choices for the non-viables.  I'm assuming all the non-viables' caucus participants are traditional Democrats.  Will the presence of independents energize them to go to Obama?  Or the opposite?  It will be interesting to hear the analysis after.

    Assuming of course that all those independents actually show up and register to be Democrats.  Not to mention Republicans changing their registration to Democrat.  

    I've been wrong before (none / 0) (#7)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 10:52:44 AM EST
    Independents turnout (none / 0) (#2)
    by GOPmurderedconscience on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 10:34:22 AM EST

    Ann Seltzer may prove everybody wrong but partisan motivation is what drives people to the polls, more so to the caucus.

    In 2004, we wanted to beat the Republicans soooo badly and the proportion in the Dem caucus was 80/20.
    Now we are even more motivated and by all accounts we love our candidates. So why should Dems show up in lesser proportion? I think she assumes a max of 60%. What in the world would motivate 45%(!) on Ind. to go caucus?

    54% (none / 0) (#3)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 10:37:01 AM EST
    is her prediction of the number of DEMOCRATS who will caucus in the Iowa DEMOCRATIC Caucus.

    Rigged game (none / 0) (#4)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 10:38:26 AM EST
    Your post seems to be pointing out some of the same issues raised by John Fund and Capt. Ed.  IMHO. the caucus is structured to keep many people out.  If you work nights, travel for work, are shut in, have kids, or don't want the folks next door to know you don't share their choice for candidate X, well then tough luck.  No such thing as an absentee ballot in this rigged game.

    Capt. Ed

    Great post by Ed (none / 0) (#6)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 10:52:21 AM EST
    Iowa will do nothing... (none / 0) (#5)
    by Dadler on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 10:42:19 AM EST
    ...but entertain the press.  The idea this little caucus is going to decide the nominee or ever play a strong role is, in a word, sick.  Iowa no more represents the US than one hair represents a fur coat.  Our election system is sh*t from top to bottom.  Nothing but a largely rigged game run on easily rigged equipment.  We all have our heads in the sand.

    I think you're misstating Axelrod's strategy (none / 0) (#8)
    by Anonymous Liberal on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 11:48:24 AM EST
    While it's certainly true that Obama's strategy is geared around getting more votes from independents than his rivals, it's still true that he's counting on the vast majority of his votes coming from Democrats.  In other words, he's not trying to appeal predominantly to independents at the expense of rank-and-file Democratic voters, but rather to appeal to both groups simultaneously.  It's very different than Liebermanism.  Obama is using inclusive rhetoric to attract independents but he's not taking centrist policy positions.  His policy positions are unquestionably mainstream Democratic. Indeed, on foreign policy, he's a little to the "left" of Clinton.

    Furthermore, I think you're wrong in suggesting that Axelrod's strategy is primarily about the primary race.  It's not.  It's a general election strategy.  Obama is trying to preserve his appeal among indepedents because he thinks it will help him win decisively in a general election.  He's hoping to get the nomination without alienating independents.  

    It is a McCain/Lieberman strategy (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 01:43:19 PM EST
    And I do not see how your math works on the "vast majority" of his votes coming from Dems.

    He is LOSING Dems.

    He is winning big with Indys and GOOOPERs.

    Sorry AL, I know it is hard for you to swallow, but you have to see the reality here.


    He (none / 0) (#12)
    by Jgarza on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 02:12:41 PM EST
    Said if you breakdown people who support Obama, the majority are democrats.  That is accurate

    It is a McCain/Lieberman strategy

    Do you get brownie points from this site every time you compare Obama to a republican?  Really the idea that Democrats can only be liked by strong party ID democrats or they must be doing something awful to democrats is ridiculous.


    Nooo (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 02:14:58 PM EST
    That is INACCURATE.

    The majority of Obama's support
    is NOT Democratic.

    It is Independent and Republican.

    THAT is what the DMR poll is telling us.


    BTD is right. (none / 0) (#38)
    by dkmich on Wed Jan 02, 2008 at 12:52:15 PM EST
    the idea that Democrats can only be liked by strong party ID democrats or they must be doing something awful to democrats is ridiculous.

    The goal is to convert Republicans to Democrats, not to convert Democrats to Republicans so they can win the Republican vote.  If you want Republican platforms, go fix the Republican Party and leave us Democrats alone.

    Biggest irony. We have Republicans in Iowa picking the Democratic nominee, while we are denying Democrats all across the country a vote in the primary.  


    Two things (none / 0) (#35)
    by Anonymous Liberal on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 10:16:00 PM EST
    First, you're misreading my comment.  I wasn't talking just about Iowa.  Clearly Obama will need a majority of Democratic support in many other states to win the nomination. You can't win the Democratic nomination by getting votes from independents and Republicans.  Axelrod's not an idiot. Obama's message is a message of change. He's calling for universal health care and an end to the war. Indeed, on policy issues, he is either aligned with or to the left of Clinton and Edwards.  The only bone he's throwing to non-Democrats is vague rhetoric about transcending partisanship.  Lieberman embraced actual centrist policy positions on domestic issues and neoconservative positions on foreign policy issues.  It's just not even close.

    Second, I suspect it is inaccurate to assume that the 40% of "unaffiliated" voters in the DMR poll are traditional independents. It's far more likely that these are left-leaning first-time participants who don't normally bother to caucus.  

    In other words, these folks are probably, by in large, indistinguishable ideologically from the 55% who are registered Democrats.


    Far more likely? (none / 0) (#37)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Wed Jan 02, 2008 at 09:34:10 AM EST
    No, it is not far more likely that they are not left leaning. You are dreaming when you say that.

    you argue in essence that style and rhetoric do NOT matter. That attsacking Dems on faith and paertisanship is fine. That adopting the phrase Social Security crisis is ok. That talking about FORCING people to buy insurace does not matter.

    With due respect, you simply have not explored the issue in anydepth.


    Nope (none / 0) (#40)
    by Anonymous Liberal on Wed Jan 02, 2008 at 03:29:28 PM EST
    I do think style and rhetoric matter. I was critical of Obama for using the phrase "social security crisis." I don't think he walks on water and I do think he has said some things that are unhelpful to the Democratic cause (though to keep things in perspective, I think Bill Clinton was approximately a million times worse in 1992).

    I do, however, think Obama's general rhetoric about inclusiveness and transcending partisanship (though corny), is smart politically and helpful to the Democratic cause.  Obama is trying to be the Democratic Reagan, to be a congenial, likeable figure that can help sell Democratic ideas to independents and Republicans. You have to do something to appeal to non-democrats (their votes are necessary in the general election), and I'd much rather have that something be using inclusive rhetoric rather than compromising on actual policy positions.  


    However you interpret the strategy (none / 0) (#9)
    by oldpro on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 12:20:02 PM EST
    if Obama is the nominee, we'll have to start calling his strategist Axelgod.

    Independents & Young Voters (none / 0) (#10)
    by BDB on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 12:30:25 PM EST
    I think after all the ups and downs of the weekend, the DMR poll shows what we knew last week and that's turnout will decide everything.  If Obama can get younger voters and Indys to caucus, he'll win.  If he can't, he's in trouble.

    If it works, Axelrod is a genius.  If it doesn't he's a failure.  The one thing that helps him is Obama's vast amounts of money and that he's in a state next to his home state.  I'm not sure this works for a candidate with less money to spend on GOTV.

    I have very mixed feelings about the Democratic candidate being chosen by Independents in Iowa and NH.  On the one hand, we'll need true independents next year.  On the other, they can be kind of fickle and there is no guarantee that just because they like Obama now, they'll still like him in November or that he's the best Democratic candidate to fight off GOP attacks or push the Democratic agenda.  But the rules are what they are.  

    Finally, I think the participation of non-democrats completely destroys any rationale for having a caucus and not a primary.  The whole rationale for a caucus is that party members come together and decide who they think should represent the party, not so much by 1 vote per person, but a consensus.  Once you allow non-party members in, I think that rationale makes no sense.

    Need independent for what next year? (none / 0) (#39)
    by dkmich on Wed Jan 02, 2008 at 12:55:38 PM EST
    To help turn this into the Republican lite party all in the name of win at any cost.

    The problem with the Democratic Party in general is that they've been so afraid to lose they're willing to say whatever it takes to win. And once you're willing to say whatever it takes to win, you lose. Howard Dean

    It's a trojan horse strategy (none / 0) (#14)
    by kovie on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 02:24:31 PM EST
    that is intended to make indies and more moderate Pubs think that he's more conservative than he actually is (i.e. not a DFH, whom I imagine they'd never be able to support), and thus be willing to consider voting for him, and in doing so not only co-opt any potential challenges from the right in the general, but also slowly open these voters up to less conservative ideas and policies (i.e. more progressive ones, however they're sold). Not unlike how Bush managed to pull away quite a few indies and even some Dems in '00 by running as a moderate.

    Or so I hope. Is that so audacious?

    So you're saying Obama is like Bush? (none / 0) (#15)
    by MarkL on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 02:30:55 PM EST
    I'd have to agree there are disturbing similarities.
    Another one is his extreme arrogance---his unwillingness to admit mistakes and his misplaced confidence that he knows enough about foreign policy already.

    Yep (none / 0) (#26)
    by RalphB on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 03:57:50 PM EST
    He's supporting a candidate whom he believes to be running on a pack of lies.  How's that for 'new politics'?

    Dishonest micharacterization (none / 0) (#28)
    by kovie on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 05:04:11 PM EST
    deserving of no more than this response.

    Please, that's simply dishonest (none / 0) (#29)
    by kovie on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 05:47:47 PM EST
    Both men are politicians who wear suits, are apparently happily married to the first and only wife, and are father to two girls--so they're clearly the same?

    Bush realized that to win (or come close enough to appear to win), he needed the center and even some Dems. He did this by lying. E.g. "uniter not a divider", no regime change, "compassionate conservative", etc.

    Obama also realizes that for him or any other Dem to win, they'll need the center and even some Pubs. He's trying to do this by telling them that he'll be their president and not just the left's. This does not mean that he will actually govern as a centrist let alone conservative, and his legislative record does not indicate that he will. Does this make him a "liar" (to the center and right, that is, in promising policies that he'll then presumably not promote, as Bush did with the center and left)? Well, in a way, yes, if he's doing what I suspect that he's doing.

    So yes, he's like Bush in this respect too, if this is what he's doing.

    Except for two major differences, as I see it.

    One, if lying to people who until fairly recently voted for, supported, enabled and like BushCo is how we win, so be it. They deserve it and have fully earned it.

    And two, I don't necessarily view this as "lying", because many of these people have already rejected BushCo's policies (or at least the results of these policies), and I believe are also in the process of rejecting the underlying neocon, paleocon, sociocon and neolib ideologies that in many ways led to these policies, but, because they're not yet ready to embrace progressive ideology and policies, as such (it's that whole negative "socialist", librul and DFH superficial labelling that the RWNM has cleverly sold to wide sections of the US public that's making it hard to sell these as such), they need to be sold on them in more centrist-sounding terms. I think that Obama gets this and so is tailoring his messaging to sell these people on a more progressive agenda, so as to hook them. Call this lying, or selling, marketing, whatever, but because many of these people want the kinds of outcomes that only progressive ideas and policies are likely to result in, but are not yet ready to embrace the actual ideas and policies as such, they need to be spun in a way that will appeal to them. I think that this is what Obama is doing. Or so I hope, at least.

    So yeah, in a very limited sense he's like Bush. But in a good way. ;-)

    Of course, given that Edwards, who has not tried this supposedly "fake center, stay left" approach, and continues to run as a proud and vocal progressive, is currently polling (last time I checked) as the Dem with the most potential crossover appeal, the need to engage in Bush-like pandering to the middle and soft right is questionable, and makes one wonder about not only Obama's true motivations, but his political acumen as well. So I'm not saying that I necessarily think that this is the right approach at this point--or even that this IS his approach. But if it is, I see its logic, albeit with some big question marks.

    Although the current polling numbers appear to favor Edwards' approach, I think that both approaches might actually work in today's political climate. What I think is somewhat less likely to work than either approach (but could still certainly work, I think) is Hillary's, i.e. try to please everyone, and risk alienating everyone. Whereas Edwards range of appeal appears to go from the center to the hard left, and Obama's from the center-right to the mid-left, Hillary's appears to range from the center to mid-left, which is narrower than the other two.

    Obama appears willing to risk alienating the hard left (which I'm sure he believes will end up voting for him in the general, and which I'm sure it will--this will NOT be '00) in order to get more of the center and some of the soft right, and Edwards appears willing to sacrifice the soft right and some (but not much at this point) of the center in order to lock up the left. But Hillary appears willing to alienate the soft right, much of the center, and the hard left, which seems stupid to me (but even then, I think that she can win, albeit by narrower margins than either of the other two, which would make it harder for her to govern effectively).

    So I think that it's not quite as cut and dry as some people make it out to be with Obama's strategy, whether or not one likes it. And to call him Bush-like because he's doing something that Bush (and lots of other politicians, some of whom are much admired, e.g. Lincoln, TR and FDR) has done is, I think, a massive and unfair oversimplification. Like him or not, absolutely nothing about Obama indicates that he's in any meaningful way like Bush in the ways that we most detest.


    So (none / 0) (#16)
    by pontificator on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 02:46:12 PM EST
    A major Democratic candidate who's entire career has  been that of a committed progressive gets substantial numbers of independents (and even Republicans), to not just vote for him but to register as Democrats!!!

    And you're calling this a bad thing???

    This is kind of like you being pissed off and unhappy that won the lottery.

    I call it a bad thing (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 02:48:42 PM EST
    IF he criticizes Democratic and progressive values to achieve that.

    In Connecticut, Joe Lieberman won with a majority of Republicans and Independents.

    Do you call THAT a good thing?


    I don't think (none / 0) (#19)
    by pontificator on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 02:59:43 PM EST
    Lieberman and Obama are remotely comparable.  What Obama is doing is drawing independents and even some Republicans to his progressive vision.  (His platform and policy proposals are more progressive than Kerry's were in 2004).  What Lieberman did, by contrast, was move towards the positions of the Republican voters.  Big difference.

    they are certainly comparable (none / 0) (#20)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 03:04:28 PM EST
    In terms of rhetoric, they are both appealing to Republican by criticizing Dem values, decrying partisan bickering and calling for Democratic unity.

    In terms of their political appeal, at least judging from the Iowa DMR poll, they have similar constituencies dominated by Independents and Republicans.

    I agree that they have different positions.

    I have always said Obama's problem is his political STYLE, not his policy positions.

    do I have to go through all of this again with you?


    BTW (none / 0) (#21)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 03:05:09 PM EST
    What position do you think he is drawing them too?

    This is where you are utterly wrong.


    Not just wrong, but (none / 0) (#22)
    by pontificator on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 03:08:00 PM EST
    utterly wrong?

    OK, so we both agree that Obama is using a centrist style to pull Republican and independents towards him and his progressive public policy positions.  

    In my book, that's called winning the lottery.


    In the primary (none / 0) (#24)
    by BDB on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 03:15:56 PM EST
    It's working in the primary because Republicans and Independents like Obama better than Edwards and Clinton.  Who can blame them when he uses some of the Republican talking points?  But will they still like him when his opponent is McCain?

    That's my concern, that just because independents and GOPers like him better than the other two now doesn't mean that will be true in a year.  I understand the argument that the appeal of independents will be needed to win in 2008, I'm just not sure his framing will actually help him against a Republican and it may box him in and make it difficult to take down the Republican like he's going to need to do to attract independents.  If you really think social security is in crisis and health mandates are a bad idea and trial lawyers are evil why would you vote for Barack Obama and not John McCain?


    Strange (none / 0) (#18)
    by Alien Abductee on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 02:51:39 PM EST
    The pollster says she didn't change her methodology from her 2004 model. I can understand coming up with more independents than in 2004, but coming up with more than in any other polls this year?

    J. Ann Selzer, president of the firm Selzer & Co., which polls for The Des Moines Register, said the poll didn't "oversample" independents or employ any sort of a new model.

    "We used the same method we used in 2004 to define likely caucusgoers," Selzer said. "And, yes, we have more independents than in 2004, and more than in our past polls in 2007. It's something we worry about, along with many other things."

    Selzer weighted the results to look like the proportion of party participants in 2004 and Clinton would've won, she said.

    She said: "It is true, Senator Clinton leads with Democrats. It is also true that other campaigns have courted independents."

    So what's suddenly changed just for this crucial poll? And she's "worried" about it?

    Maybe she's been affected by what she's referred to as Clinton's "ick factor."

    hmm (none / 0) (#27)
    by andgarden on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 04:56:32 PM EST
    It is true, Senator Clinton leads with Democrats
    Then she should win. That is, after all, the point of a primary process, no?

    Shoulda coulda woulda (none / 0) (#30)
    by Alien Abductee on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 06:07:29 PM EST
    But maybe one day we'll all be talking about those "Obama Republicans" of 2008 and Axelrod's brilliant strategy for getting to that long awaited emerging Democratic majority. Ya think?

    No (none / 0) (#31)
    by andgarden on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 06:32:15 PM EST
    Do you even know why Reagan Democrats were Reagan Democrats? I can assure you that it had nothing to do with criticizing the Republican party. On the contrary, it was about asserting that the Democrats were out of touch ("My party left me," etc.) Now we have a Democrat saying there's something wrong with Democrats in order to beat Democrats in an election that allows non-Democrats to vote. That is Joe Lieberman's CfL strategy.

    That is so (none / 0) (#32)
    by Alien Abductee on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 07:00:23 PM EST
    And I think I do know why since I was one.

    But the country, the political climate, the state of political awareness, and especially the propaganda media bath is so very different. The point is how to get to the needed tectonic alignment in this climate. I'm not sure Obama is wrong about his own personal prospects using this strategy. But he's drawing people to him, not to the party more broadly. He's sacrificing the party for his own interests in fact. For the reasons you state, I think it has very little chance of producing anything like an actual party realignment. In fact if it's successful for him personally it will set prospects for an actual realignment back by providing a counterproductive model for the next generation to strategize by. I'd actually rather have even Clinton in that case. At least she's a partisan Dem.


    Well, there we go (none / 0) (#33)
    by andgarden on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 07:05:02 PM EST
    as a partisan Democrat, I find it infuriating.

    One point you're missing though (none / 0) (#36)
    by Alien Abductee on Wed Jan 02, 2008 at 01:07:21 AM EST
    Reagan's success was about more than "asserting that the Democrats were out of touch" - he offered a sunny alternative vision in both his persona and policies. Both were a facade, but they provided a powerful positive pull, a much more important factor than the "My party left me" negative part of the equation. And that pull is what I believe Obama is trying to replicate in an electorate that's massively disengaged from both parties.

    How little things change in some regards - the Democrats are still out of touch and my party has left me.


    Conference Call (none / 0) (#23)
    by BDB on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 03:11:05 PM EST
    Here's a question, if these are the numbers, then what was that conference call for earlier in the day?  Why make an argument for his electability unless these results were not what he was expecting?  Are his internals worse?

    Because that conference call only made sense if Obama's team was expecting awful DMR numbers.

    Marc Ambinder reported (none / 0) (#25)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 03:26:35 PM EST
    That Obama's internals ARE NOT copnsistent with the DMR poll. That the DMR poll is way over there own, particularly on Indy participation.

    I hope SUSA takes a look (none / 0) (#34)
    by andgarden on Tue Jan 01, 2008 at 07:06:02 PM EST
    They called a similarly crowded Democratic Primary for the Philadelphia Mayoral nomination last spring.