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The False Eternal Dispute: Swing v. Base

By Big Tent Democrat

I am a little offended that Ed Kilgore decided to not include me in his roundtable discussion at Democratic Strategist on appealing to swing voters vs. base voters. After all, Ed and I have debated these issues for years now.

While I lick the wounds to my ego, I still find the urge to comment. The first two pieces come from Al From, the DLC President, and from Joan McCarter, the Contributing Editor mcjoan at daily kos. My reaction to this discussion on the flip:

My first reaction relates to something Al From wrote in the kickoff piece to this discussion:

Politics is littered with false choices Ė and, to me, no choice is more false for Democrats than choosing between a political strategy aimed at increasing our base vote and a political strategy aimed at winning over swing voters. To win elections consistently and build an enduring political and governing majority, we need to pursue both strategies.

Absolutely correct. Indeed, the REAL dispute among those debating this issue is precisely what strategy serves BOTH of these goals. I remain a strong believer in the Lincoln 1860/Politics of Contrast/Fighting Dems approach that, at one time, was favored by the Netroots. Now of course, many in the Netroots agree with Al From's view that:

In recent elections the Republicans have pursued a strategy that aims nearly entirely in expanding their base Ė in finding Republicans who have been non-voters and getting them to the polls. That strategy worked for them in 2002 and 2004, but failed in 2006. Iím convinced that it is ultimately a losing strategy for the Republicans because it will drive too many swing voters and voters with loose party attachments to the other side as it did in 2006.

For Democrats, Iím convinced that such a strategy would be a disaster. For starters, Democrats cannot consistently win elections without winning moderate voters by substantial margins like we did in 2006. Consistently, over the last several decades there have been more conservatives than liberals in the electorate Ė the electorate may vary a little but itís usually around 30 percent conservative, 20 percent liberal and 50 percent moderate. That means if the Republicans win the conservatives and Democrats the liberals, we have to win 60 percent of the moderates just to break even. Thatís not an ideological statement; just pure arithmetic.

I created a firestorm the other days when I criticized a post by Kagro X that accused the DLC of jumping on the Obama bandwagon. But I think Al From's views make clear that he could easily support Obama from conviction, not political convenience. Al From and the DLC's theory of political style are completely in tune with Obama's. I know this is inconvenient for our friends in the Netroots, but it is simply a fact.

My view is different and I will rehash it in a later post. but I want to touch upon an important point in Joan McCarter's post as well.

Joan writes:

Ed Kilgore began this roundtable discussion with two questions: are swing voters worth the trouble? Can Democrats win with base mobilization alone?

. . . The key for the Democratic Party in shaping a strategy for the 2008 elections will be allowing Democrats running in the region to run with a high degree of independence from the national party's message and structure. The key for Democrats running in the West will be to find those issues that can be branded as Democratic and that uphold our progressive values.

(Emphasis supplied.) I agree with the need for devolution for the Democratic Party and I think Howard Dean has argued for it as DNC Chair. Previously, I noted this Dean strategy when commenting upon Matt Bai's NYTimes piece on Dean:

Devolution of power in the Democratic Party is inextricably tied to Dean's 50 state strategy. I don't know if I agree with Dean's execution of the strategy, in fact I am pretty sure I disagree with a lot of it, but the idea of a 50 state Democratic Party is sound, even essential, to its continued relevance.

It is no secret that I am a proponent of a politics of contrast for Dems. I am also a proponent of a Big Tent Dem Party. Are these two ideas mutually exclusive? I think not.

For example, while I am skeptical of a short term strategy that can deliver significant wins for Dems in the South, the medium and long term offer opportunities. But I think they come from the devolution strategy that Howard Dean is trying to execute, creating strong state Democratic parties that control their own local message. National branding still requires a national message and, more importantly, negative branding of the Republicans.

Last year, Mark Schmitt wrote a compelling piece, "One Democratic Party, Or Many?" that I think nicely illustrates this point:

A few months ago, I heard Ed [Kilgore], in response to a question at a talk, explain how Democrats had, over several decades, crafted several different ways to win in the South, the most recent being a coalition of white suburbanites, African-Americans and rural whites based on improving education, with Governor Hunt of North Carolina an example. His argument was that Democrats would win again, with a different coalition. If Ed's written this up, I hope he'll share the link -- it was more useful than the complete works of Earl and Merle Back.

Beyond the Deep South, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Arizona and Tennessee all have Democratic governors and they all have one thing in common: they are very popular. In addition, the big Midwestern states that were a powerful base for Republicans in the 1990s have now mostly swung back; if Ted Strickland is elected governor of Ohio next fall it will be a significant shift back.

It is tempting to pick any one of those governors -- Schweitzer in Montana, Bredesen in Tennessee, Napolitano in Arizona, etc. -- and say, "that's the formula for Democrats." Obviously, each of them has figured out some sort of formula that works for them in their state. But their formulas are all very different -- Schweitzer populist, Bredesen high-tech, Napolitano tough and clean -- and all of them would face a different situation if they ran for U.S. Senate, where voters' opinion of the national Democratic party comes into play. . . But clearly something about the national Democratic party was pulling these candidates down.

True enough. But Mark picked states where Dems simply aren't going to win in the short term. And no message we deliver will change that. Oklahoma and Alabama? Forget them, in the short term.

And this is where Mark's analysis faltered in my opinion. He looks at states where we have no chance to prove what? Mark thinks a better national message can deliver Oklahoma? Alabama? Puhleeaze. No more than Massachusetts can be delivered to the GOP at the national level. Thus Mark made this error:

[Competence in governing is] very different, though, from the idea that we need a single, coherent national message (economic populism or cultural moderation or national security). But even if there were a strong national message, would all of our state-level stars, the Napolitanos and Granholms, the Easleys and Sebeliuses, embrace it? And if they wouldn't, what's the point?

The point is we can win in PURPLE states. We can find a message that works in purple AND blue. And, to be frank, it is basically a negative message about the extremists that run the GOP.

But that is not to say that multiple local messages are not also necessary. The Big Tent. And Howard Dean understands this. Thus his devolution strategy is essential to making a national Democratic Party, a Big Tent Democratic Party, a relevant and powerful reality. The devil is in the details of course, but the big picture is essential, and I think Dean gets the big picture.

This post is already too long and there is much more to say. But I end this post here.

< More on The Obama Garb Flap: Clinton Camp Denies Involvement | AP National Poll Shows Obama Catching Up, Dueling Texas Polls >
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  • Display: Sort:
    Expanding the base (5.00 / 3) (#7)
    by Stellaaa on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:14:24 PM EST
    In my naive way, I thought this year America was ready to embrace the Democratic agenda.  I thought we could use the primary to further the agenda:  health care, environment, Iraq, etc.  But what we got was a personality battle.  Distraction.  I find Ferraro's editorial today in the Times relevant, in that it raises how Ted Kennedy once before cut the party into two and distracted from the Democratic Party.  Feraro

    I blame the party establishment for feuling the distraction from expanding the base in real substantive way.   All the Lakoffian framing, is just manipulation that will ultimately catch up with us.  We can be honest about the Democratic issues and get people to vote for Dems.  We don't need all the new false language.  America was ready.  

    Stellaaa (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by Kathy on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:24:47 PM EST
    another insightful post.  I, too, see this as a great blown opportunity.  Reminds me a bit of Bush telling people to watch TV and go shopping after 9-11 when, in truth, he could have asked us anything--to make any sacrifice--and we would have because we were desperate for actions that spoke to the heart of who we are as Americans.  Same here.  The dems could have gotten us cohesively behind important dem issues and reminded the nation of all the good we stand for, but unfortunately, we have postponed helping the people we are supposed to be fighting for so that talking heads can posture and preen for the cameras.

    Speaking of postponement, I know that today is a sad day for you...original date of the Rezko trial...

    Parent

    His time will come (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Stellaaa on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:26:49 PM EST
    It's not over.  I will not listen to the polls till people have voted.  How sad.  

    Parent
    Speaking of.... (none / 0) (#25)
    by Teresa on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 07:49:58 PM EST
    London Times

    Sorry to feed you this and get you riled up, but I read the article on Yahoo.

    Parent

    And who knew (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by TeresaInSnow2 on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:48:05 PM EST
    Who knew that the challenges we're facing are actually the Democrats fault because we didn't "unite" with the Republicans.

    (LOL!)

    I'm with you.  I wanted the campaign to be about the DIFFERENCES because the differences made us better than the Repubs.

    But you know what?  The corporate constituents wanted it this way, so that is the way it is.

    Parent

    I find some concepts in ferraro's article (none / 0) (#16)
    by hookfan on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:47:05 PM EST
    very disheartening. Especially about the superdelegates being "leaders not followers" (the same mentality as Pelosi holds about elected congress members) of the voters' expressed will. Explains alot, IMO, about the acceptance of caucuses, and why congress doesn't vote for what over 65% of the populace wants. Seems my vote doesn't matter much to the Democratic Party who must lead me (by ignoring me?) rather than do my bidding even after elected.

    Parent
    Both Agree and Disagree (none / 0) (#18)
    by Socraticsilence on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 05:04:57 PM EST
    I agree that America is ready to embrace the Democratic parties key values, but that these need to be tempered (not for us, but to be acceptable to the mushy middle) ex:

    Gun Control: we can float an Assault Weapons ban but anything beyond that, closing the Gun Shop loophole, and extendign Brady is going to be a hard sell even with the spate of recent shootings.

    Health Care: I want single payer, but while I think Obama's plan is inferior to Clinton's I also think it is far more politically feasible, mandates (beyond child mandates which can be easily spun and already have a low cost alternative in S-Chip)  than any plan with mandates.

    Choice: I think we can preserve what we have and at the executive level push rollbacks in current restrictions

    Gay Marriage: I think we can push Civil Unions as a wedge issue, but I might be to optomistic.

    Parent

    On health care (none / 0) (#24)
    by RalphB on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 06:15:30 PM EST
    if what you get from Obama is an expansion of S-Chip, why not just go for it now?  That's the biggest cop out of this whole campaign.


    Parent
    To that list, I hope we see (none / 0) (#27)
    by Cream City on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 10:11:09 PM EST
    immigration law reform really happen -- either way, with that being one of the issues that makes McCain a moderate (in GOP terms). Sleepless nights about what we are doing to people in other countries get even longer when I toss and turn about what we are doing to people in this country, just coming here to work hard and raise families for a better life, as my immigrant ancestors did here. I may take this a bit hard, too, because of being from the state that gave this country and its Congress our idiot Senselessbrenner, the great Fencebuilder. And he faces no real opposition again this time, so we have to work to keep him from being in the party in power. He loooooves power.

    Parent
    I think a good argument ... (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by Robot Porter on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:18:39 PM EST
    can be made that neither party has convince America of their presidential suitability.  With some regional slanting, a random number generator would have given roughly the same results in the last two elections.

    BTD's argument is a good one.  But since neither of the Democratic Presidential candidates is going to try it we'll never know if it would work.

    Obama supporters seem to argue the "great man" theory.  A unique man be he FDR, Reagan or Obama is needed to break the deadlock.  This can only be seen in retrospect so it makes a lousy strategy.

    I don't think there will be a strategic deadlock breaker any time soon.

    It may occur via happenstance.  But I don't think strategy will do it.

    So for now, and into the foreseeable future, we just have to play the cards we're dealt and hope we come up aces.

    Great Man (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by Stellaaa on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:25:11 PM EST
     The Great man distracts from educating the public in public policy and the direction our nation should take.  A great man works at sustaining the man and not in expanding the Party and it's policies.  I find the Great man candidacy destructive to the party.  

    Parent
    hey (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by Kathy on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:35:16 PM EST
    you don't do 50mm bucks in button and mug sales by talking about social policy.  That crack of light in the sky telling folks whom to vote for don't come cheap.

    I do wonder, though--the word out is that Obama has turned his stadium speeches a bit more toward policy and platform.  I am assuming this is because his feelings were somewhat hurt over the no-substance charge.  From all reports, the new stump speech where he talks about actual issues isn't going over too well with the crowd.  That's gotta hurt.  Maybe he will learn from it?  Or maybe folks won't be so energetic about his message when it has actual contents?  Remains to be seen.

    Parent

    The second single ... (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by Robot Porter on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:38:06 PM EST
    often doesn't chart as high as the first.

    Parent
    I agree ... (5.00 / 0) (#13)
    by Robot Porter on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:36:55 PM EST
    but it does seem like their argument.  And in addition to be potentially dangerous, it makes lousy strategy.

    "I am a great man" isn't much of a bumper sticker.

    Parent

    Great article (5.00 / 2) (#15)
    by Stellaaa on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:39:27 PM EST
    About the Great Man, this Great man, equating it to the Dot Bomb revolution.  Change You Can't Bellieve In

    Parent
    Stellaaa (none / 0) (#21)
    by auntmo on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 05:16:44 PM EST
    Great  article.   Thanks  for  posting, Stella.

    Parent
    The Democratic Party Was Put Into Storage (5.00 / 2) (#20)
    by MO Blue on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 05:10:29 PM EST
    as of the State Of The Union response. There is no Democratic Party - there is only the American party (otherwise known as BOP). Of course, there is still a Republican party because they refuse to sign on to this new post partisan era.

    If the Democratic party ever starts up again with real Democratic leadership, I will reconsider my new independent voter status.

    Parent

    Um (none / 0) (#19)
    by Socraticsilence on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 05:06:35 PM EST
    Look I wouldn't say Obama is a lock for anything like FDR or Reagan, but both of them basically helped their respective parties build a workiing base.

    Parent
    Cooper Union (5.00 / 2) (#23)
    by cal1942 on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 05:50:20 PM EST
    I agree that Democrats should 'Cooper Union' their way back on top.

    Personally it turns my stomach to even think about reconciliation, bi-partisan, reaching across the aisle, compromising.

    In another part of Al From's remarks he claimed that the GI Bill and Medicare were acheived by bi-partisan compromise.

    He left out that the GOP tried to eviserate the GI Bill when out of public sight in Conference and that the GOP had blocked Medicare for nearly 20 years.

    The GI Bill came to the floor with almost no compromise and passed overwhelmingly because opposition with the war still raging would have been political suicide.  It was a great idea that the public supported.  A gutted GI Bill would have been a failure and a political liability.

    Likewise Medicare.  A great idea that the public supported and still supports.  Compromise would have ultimately been bad politics because a seriously compromised Medicare would have been a dud and a political liability.

    There's usually very little room to compromise on progress.

    Writing and passing good, effective, necessary legislation increases the size of the base.

    Bill Kristol warned in 1993 that allowing Democrats to pass universal health care would keep Republicans in the minority for many years.

    The way that the DLC and other reconcilers view the body politic is a though it is some unalterable permanent mass in which no risks should be taken, in which no real progress can be made.

    Cooper Union: "RIGHT MAKES MIGHT"

    From the most purple state in 2004 (none / 0) (#2)
    by Cream City on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 03:57:29 PM EST
    -- the closest state -- I'm glad to hear that you're not for THAT big a tent, then. Some people in the very red county next to mine and I simply cannot be in the same party; principles, values, beliefs, etc., are just too far apart. We do have to be free to make that argument about the extremists in the GOP in my state. Consider that it works for Russ Feingold here, much as he would not be electable in some blue states elsewhere.

    Try commenting on substance; (none / 0) (#3)
    by hitchhiker on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 03:58:40 PM EST
    it's possible to have an argument that way, and your posts are more likely to remain visible.

    Any thoughts on BTD's ideas?

    Heh (none / 0) (#4)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:01:42 PM EST
    You must know THIS comment will be deleted.

    Let me make this point clear, I want YOU to leave this site. Immediately. Come back tomorrow.

    this is for jcsf.

    jcsf (none / 0) (#6)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:08:40 PM EST
    Post one more comment today and you will be banned.

    You are suspended for the day.

    Parent

    Well, I think... (none / 0) (#5)
    by mike in dc on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 04:02:25 PM EST
    ...this is a "problem" that will largely take care of itself.  The base is already expanding and will be united behind the nominee.  It's also clear that whoever the nominee is will be doing their best to associate the Republican nominee with the insanity and incompetence of the current administration, and the wingnuts who support it.

    Even "centrist" policy proposals and verbiage will stand in contrast to what the GOP has been selling.  I don't think the substance of the proposals will be all that DLC-ish, though.  

    The "packaging", if Obama's the nominee, will be targeted towards swing voters in the general, since the base is already motivated and expanded this time around.  

    In terms of the 50 state strategy, clearly we will have the resources necessary to target all the purple states properly.  But we will hopefully have some excess resources that we can pour into the red and blue states, in order to help down ticket and also to pump up the total number of popular votes.  As I've said before, there's a big difference politically between a 51-49 win with a few Senate and House seats gained, and a 55-45 win with several Senate and two dozen House seats gained.  One leads to 1993-94 redux, the other is "working majority" territory(where we are strong enough to peel off a couple votes to beat most filibusters, and get our agenda passed.)

    It seems to me that a blogger (none / 0) (#22)
    by oculus on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 05:34:58 PM EST
    who is invited to a conference call with Howard Wolfson AND invited to live blog the Oscars is doing o.k.  But, yes, Ed missed a bet not including you in his roundtable.

    the republican party (none / 0) (#26)
    by cpinva on Mon Feb 25, 2008 at 08:44:16 PM EST
    has been successful, since reagan, because it has pushed a unified party platform consistently, across the country. they've allowed no dissent; all follow in lock-step. notice how it's worked? and it's worked damn well for them too, bill clinton notwithstanding.

    the basic, permanent republican party platform:

    1. lower taxes, period. preferably no taxes.
    2. none or few controls on guns.
    3. eliminating reproductive choice.
    4. eliminating labor rights.
    5. going back, as much as possible, to the days of the "robber barons".
    6. eliminating all government regulation of business.
    7. gay people don't exist, other than as freaks of nature. they deserve no rights, period.

    that's their core. anything else is gloss. and it's worked for them.

    the democrats need to take a page from the republican playbook; this is our platform, period. brook no disent, and push it constantly, day-in, day-out. create a left-wing smear machine, ala the limbaugh/hannity/coulter crowd. publish books full of lies and distortions about republicans; it's ok, they won't sue.

    that's how the democratic party will be successful. otherwise, they'll continue to be the fractured group they've been for the past 30 years.