Friday, February 11, 2005

Expanding the Base

Well, I thought there was a fairly strong consensus among Democrats that the 2004 elections showed we have to expand, as well as "energize" our party base. But now comes Chris Bowers on the MyDD site with the news that the University of Michigan's National Election Project study of the 2004 results "proves" there are no swing voters, and winning in the future is all about increasing polarization and mobilizing the Democratic base.

Now, before wading into this issue, let me stipulate total agreement with Chris on how we ought to talk with each other about it. He says it's a matter of strategy, not ideology. Personally, if I could be convinced that the best way to drive today's Republicans from their ruinous power is to polarize Democrats as much as Republicans, I'd be out there on the barricades right away. It's sure as hell a simpler strategy than coming up with a policy agenda and message that actually meets the challenges facing the nation, and mobilization is always easier than persuasion. So I'm down with that. But I've seen no real evidence Chris is right on the strategic front.

I don't know if Chris is actually looking at the NEP data (maybe, like me, he's still trying to figure out how to access it intelligibly), but his announcement that "there's no middle" in U.S. politics seems to rely on a very selective interpretation of the initial take on the study by David Kopoian on Ruy Teixeira's Donkey Rising site, zeroing in on Bush's remarkable support levels from Republicans, and Kerry's strong but less-impressive support levels from Democrats.

As Greg Wythe quickly pointed out, Chris sorta kinda ignores independents, who are a sizable bloc of the electorate (how large depends, of course, on your definition of that term), and creates a straw man wherein the "search for the mythical middle" is all about crossover voting from self-identified partisans. There's no question that the parties have been ideologically realigned in recent decades, and that largely explains why the "crossover" vote has dropped. But it's a logical fallacy of a very high order to go from that observation to a claim that promoting even more ideological polarization will somehow magically produce the Democratic majorities needed to win elections, which is what Chris seems to be saying.

Let's remember that the percentage of the electorate self-identifying with the Donkey has been slowly and steadily eroding, most notably since 2000. You can make an argument (folks on the Left have been making it for years) that the voters leaving the party are doing so because it is insufficiently Left-leaning in policy, or partisan in strategy and tactics. But it's hardly self-evident, and in important respects is counter-intuitive.

On that score, you should take a look at a small but remarkable John Judis piece in the current New Republic. John is not what you'd call a "centrist" in ideology or outlook, and has specifically spent a lot of time trying to show that large demographic trends are creating a strong tailwind for Democrats, whose "base" is expanding almost automatically. This point of view, of course, is very consistent with Chris Bowers' idea that we just have to get out there and harvest these voters with a powerful partisan message.

But Judis' latest piece, based largely on a series of discussions with a leading Hispanic organizer in the Southwest, suggests that this particular element of the supposed Democratic "base" is in grave danger, in part because Republicans know how to do "deep organizing" rather than campaign- or Internet-based "parachuting," but also because the GOP is winning the cultural argument among a growing number of Hispanic voters. He doesn't quite put it this way, but Judis suggests that our problem in this community is not easily attributable to the failure of Democrats to advocate, say, a single-payer health care system, or to more stridently oppose Bush's national security policies.

But the other point Judis is implicitly making is that our ideas about "base" and "swing" voters are often way out of whack with reality.

Ask ten Democrats about our party base, and nine of them will start talking about Hispanics and African-Americans and labor union members and anti-war activists and professional women, and so forth.

Karl Rove doesn't think like that. He views Hispanics as a "swing" group because he knows Republicans simply need to cut into Democratic majorities in that category to win close general elections. He views African-Americans as a "swing" group as well, not because half of them are "undecided" in any given election, but because getting 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio, in part through a carefully targeted cultural message, may have won Bush re-election. "Swing" voters are individuals, whatever group they are in, who are persuadable. And we're nuts if we don't take the opportunity to persuade them seriously. Had John Kerry done as well as Al Gore--much less Bill Clinton--in Republican "base" areas outside the metro cores of the country, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

It's all about votes, every goddamn one of them, not about groups we "mobilize" or write off. We really do need to end the false choice between "mobilization" and "persuasion" and get on the with job of doing both.
-- Posted at 8:59 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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