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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, January 20, 2004

 
Showtime

It's a wide open race and I think it's a good thing because it's turning into a helluva show. And, a helluva show keeps the media talking to Democrats, showing footage of Democrats, analyzing Democrats and basically giving us lots of free air time and exposure. Our guys are entertaining, unpredictable and they are giving some very good television. Every minute that we are being discussed and examined is a minute they aren't showing another tedious, mind-numbing Dubya fund raising speech in front of "subliminable" backdrops and handpicked cheering crowds. The longer we keep Bush from getting that free and easy oxygen and the longer our story remains suspenseful and exciting, the less he gets to dominate the narrative.

As far as I'm concerned, it's not a big deal even if we take it all the way to a brokered convention. We'd keep Rove on his toes and it would be an exciting show to watch. As we've (re) discovered, many people make up their minds late in the game. If we spend the next 6 months with 4 guys slamming the hell out of Bush day in and day out, it may take its toll.

Regardless of how it all turns out, I hope that we can all agree that ever believing media hype is a fools game. They are very rarely right with their crystal ball gazing and they have absolutely no shame about being wrong. Indeed, as you look around the TV dial today it's hard to find any talking head who is the least bit chagrined at having called the election over about 6 weeks ago. (By the way, has anyone heard from Ted Rall lately?)

I wrote below in my rambling posts about "the base vs swing voters" that I was skeptical about Dean's movement. (Actually, I'm skeptical of all movements that are tied too closely to one person or event, but that's another post.) The results in Iowa did not ease my mind. The argument has been that Dean's organization and ability to attract new voters, particularly young voters, mitigated his perceived weaknesses as a Northeastern "liberal," his association with the controversy of civil unions and his lack of foreign policy experience. Iowa is only one state and it has an arcane caucus system, but the results mirrored the polls which do tell a story.

According to the entrance polls, 40% of voters get some news from the internet. Of those, Dean got 24%, Edwards got 22% and Kerry got 33%. The "internet vote," such as it is, is not solely a Dean phenomenon. The first time voters made up an astonishing 45% of the caucus goers. But again, of that 45%, Dean got only 19%, Edwards got 28% and Kerry got 35%. It appears that the turn out was high and many were first time voters, but the benefit did not go to Dean. In the 17 to 29 year old age group, which made up only 17% of the electorate, Dean received 25%, Edwards 20% and Kerry 35%. So, young voters did not turn out in force and of those that did, only a quarter supported Dean.

Iowa is not dispositive. However, it is the first time we've had any way of measuring the claims that seemed to have been taken as gospel by the media. I've no doubt that Deans supporters are very sincere and passionate. But, until now we literally had no way of measuring whether that passion was widespread and well-organized or whether it was campaign hype and wishful thinking. I think we will have to wait and see the results of a couple more of the races, but we now have some data upon which to begin making decisions about whether Dean's unorthodox electoral strategy for the general election has a chance of working.

I've argued that in this election we don't have to reinvent the wheel --- that conditions remain pretty much frozen where they were in 2000. 9/11 brought foreign policy to the fore as an issue, but it didn't change the electoral map, it merely reinforced existing conditions. Indeed, in a strange way, 9/11 may have given us an opening by allowing Democratic candidates with military experience (whom you may have noticed far outnumber leading Republicans with military experience) to use that experience as one of the cultural signifiers that can challenge Junior in swing states and force him to work a bit to hold the south.

By doing this, we might be able to challenge the absurd "he kept our babies safe" narrative enough to make him defend his ridiculous foreign and economic policies alike. There is no guarantee, of course, but there is ample evidence that you can get swing voters in those desperately needed swing states with the right blend of cultural comfort and economic populism. Foreign policy credentials, particularly combat and military leadership, are part of that cultural comfort.

I don't have anything against the concept of forgetting that strategy and instead concentrating on bringing in disaffected voters, appealing to young voters and trying to get swing voters based on the theory that because they embody the duality of Lakoff's "strict father/nurturant mother" definition of the two parties, they will vote for whichever party's candidate excites them the most. Any or all of these things could mean that our presidential candidate would not have to have the cultural signifiers that appeal to swing voters. But, for at least two of those suppositions, there is evidence from the past that it will not work. The young voter/disaffected voter paradigm was touted as the way out again and again during our years in the wilderness and it always failed. We have never tried the Lakoff approach so I can't say that it doesn't work, but we do know that swing voters in the past have leaned toward whoever seemed to be more moderate, not more exciting. It might work the other way, but it has never been tested.

I remain unconvinced that the internet has become the defining organizational tool of the modern campaign. It has shown itself to be useful in fundraising, but the rest remains an amorphous potential as yet undemonstrated. It is too new and too insular just yet to be touted as having surpassed the personal skill of the candidate, the mainstream media and advertising as the most effective way to reach voters, as some have argued. It's definitely in the mix and it's likely to become much more important over time, but I don't see that it has yet changed the process fundamentally. (I say this as an inveterate political internet junkie who is so hooked that life is unthinkable without it now.)

John Emerson has made some very valuable points in his posts over on Seeing the Forest about long term strategy, along with his tag team blogger Dave Johnson who has long touted the need for the Democrats to create an info-structure to battle the Republicans on explicitly political grounds (as he does here on American Street.) They are both absolutely correct that we have to think long term and build the institutions and create the rhetoric that can break the deadlock we find ourselves in. They are not winning on policy, they are winning on politics and we've got to counter them more effectively overall.

However, I continue to believe that this presidential election is the most important in my lifetime and we will only win it by running the smartest campaign we possibly can. It's imperative that we break the GOP lock on institutional power ASAP. Therefore, I don't think we can afford to experiment. As I said, I'll wait to see what develops in the next couple of primaries. But, if these numbers out of Iowa are indicative of other states then I do not think we can afford to nominate Howard Dean. Unlike the other leading candidates, I can't see a scenario in which he can win if he isn't able to draw great numbers of young and disaffected voters in swing states that haven't been friendly to a Northeastern Democrat since JFK --- who won, by the way, only by the slimmest and most dubious of margins.

Nowadays, Democrats don't take the office when that happens.





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