Friday, July 18, 2003

Edit: Greetings to those coming here from and Dean 2004. I'm glad to see that my comments have provoked interest and, I hope, discussion.

Courtesy of Tapped, I've discovered that Ruy Teixeira agrees with his colleague John Judis' contention that Dean is practically unelectable. It's a long entry, but the meat comes in three related paragraphs, which I'll address here. I'm not a Dean fan, but I think that Teixeira and Judis are missing some things here.

(Aziz is almost certainly going to love this.)

The essence of Judis' argument is that, while Dean can fairly be said to represent the ethos of the country's increasingly influential professional class, which plays a leading role in today's Democratic coalition, his ability to appeal outside that group and other elements of the Democratic base is likely to be poor. His aggressive antiwar stance and liberalism on issues like gay marriage will turn off swing voters, especially white working class and culturally conservative voters, and especially in swing states the Democrats need to win to build an electoral vote majority.
There are several problems with this assessment.

The first problem is his contention that Democrats will have any trouble rallying their base. My answer to that is twofold: Campaign Finance and Dubya. The latter is going to ensure that Democrats will not sit on their hands if they have any inclination to vote at all. Most Democrats are likely aware that the Republicans are going for their throats... and if they aren't now, they will be when campaign season rolls around. The base should not be a problem at all if the campaigners are at all competent, and I've seen little reason to believe that Joe Trippi is anything but brilliant. The former, on the other hand, has meant that soft money is going to be concentrated on one thing: GOTV efforts. High turnout traditionally favors Democrats, and Democrats have (ironically enough) been the biggest victims of the soft money shutoff, so Trippi should be able to draw on both devoted activists and huge soft money flows.

The second problem is the idea that the antiwar stance will hurt him. I don't see it as one, not yet. It would have been, but events have caught up with Dean's position, and Dean backers have been gleefully noting the turnaround of other Democrats. Other Democratic candidates trying to attack Bush on national security will almost certainly have their votes thrown in their faces by Republicans and their lackeys calling them "inconsistent". Dean has no such problem. (Attempts to "triangulate" national security will be, of course, entirely ineffective).

The third problem is that civil unions will hurt him. It might have been- again, not anymore. The Supreme Court has, I think, hoovered up the blame for that particular issue, and Dean's position seems almost conservative now. It may be a weakness, but I doubt it's a dealbreaker, and Judis provided no hard evidence that this will be the case. Civil Unions aren't a sole-issue vote for most people... guns are, but on that issue Dean comes out ahead. (People for guns cast their vote based on that, but people against guns usually do not.)

Ok, next paragraph:

DR is pretty familiar with the EDM thesis and can assure TAPPED and MyDD that there is no contradiction. The key point is that political leadership involves building coalitions that reach outside your base and absorb independent and moderate voters who are leaning your way. Clinton's strength was being able to synthesize the views of professionals with those of older elements of the Democratic coalition and present that synthesis in a way that made enough independent and moderate voters feel it was safe to vote Democratic. That includes the white working class and culturally conservative voters Dean is likely to have the most trouble with.
I like Ruy's EDM thesis, but he's too wedded to it here. If America had high turnout, then I'd agree with him that the most important issue is building coalitions "outside your base" and "absorbing independent and moderate voters leaning your way". America, however, does not have high turnout, and it has noticeably low turnout in exactly the demographics that Dean is aiming for: young, left-leaning, working class, and minorities.

My response is to once again turn to Steven Schier's brilliant By Invitation Only, and draw a distinction between mobilization and activation... the former being the sort of broad based popular coalitions that Ruy refers to, and the latter being the deliberate targeting and political enabling of groups of likely voters that candidates believe will vote for them. Schier points out that the latter has been utterly dominant for at least a decade now, and that it is far less important that you have broad-based support than have supporters that are dedicated, will work for you, will pay for your campaign and will vote for you. Voters outside of these carefully chosen "activated groups" are generally ignored for a very simple reason- they're either almost certainly not going to vote for you, or not going to vote at all. To talk about "coalitions" is misleading: broad is dead and narrow is king.

So how does this relate to Dean? It relates to Dean because he appears to be attempting to "activate" groups that have been traditionally underserved- partially through the "straight talk" bit, partially by relying on Democratic anger, and partially by running a campaign that seems tailor-made to attract younger voters (though meetups and the like). Trippi's focus on activists is no accident. He's fully aware that the best way to activate groups that want to vote for you are activists, as "word of mouth" can sell a candidate as easily as a movie. Yes, this may only mean a 5-10% difference overall, but remember the last election. Even 1% is a win. Even if not quite enough independent and moderate voters move to Dean to give him a win, if they sit on their hands and if Dean can activate groups that hadn't previously voted, it will not matter. This also is the death knell of the "Dean=McGovern" argument, because politics in 1972 did not even remotely resemble politics now in these respects. Parties were stronger, elections weren't so candidate-driven, campaign finance was a completely different story, and "activation" tactics (as well as the incorporation of media) were much weaker. Oh, and there was no Internet. Just ask Jesse Ventura how important the Internet can be to insurgent campaigns.

Besides, Bush has done a great job of polarization, and as people are constantly pointing out, on issues the Dems come out ahead. Moderates that don't want to see Bush take the country even further right will go to the Dems, Dean or no Dean. Civil Unions won't change that.

Ok, final paragraph:

Really, it seems to DR that Dean supporters' main argument has to be that the Dean straight talkin', McCain mojo, aggressive alpha-male thing will obviate any need for the kind of electoral finesse displayed by Clinton. Independents will hear that straight talkin' and they'll rush to sign up, especially as the administration continues to dissemble on Iraq, etc. But DR believes that not all independents are created equal and that Dean's approach and persona is still likely to yield its most success with socially liberal, upscale independents in relatively liberal states.
I'll break this into two sections: the first two sentences and the last one.

The first two sentences, unfortunately, are bog ig'nint, and I'm surprised at Ruy's cavalier attitude here. Dean is clearly trying to position himself as the classic outsider, which is nothing new... but is also trying to tap into the "Perot/McCain/Ventura" group of people who dislike your standard "outsider" politician but are drawn to those who appear to have a "fresh" outlook. (The standard "outsider" is nothing akin to fresh nowadays. Witness Dubya.) It's not quite insurgent and not quite populist, but contains elements of both, and most importantly it activates previous non-voters, which is precisely what is at stake here. This sort of tactic won't win by itself, but any Dem candidate can count on heightened turnout in the face of political strife and uncertainty. Dean stands a good chance of scooping up votes. Still, this very sentence raises a question: Instead of pulling out this kind of nonsense, why hasn't Ruy looked and found out exactly what their argument is?

The flaws of the latter sentence are similar. Yes, not all independents are created equal. And? The assertion that Dean's approach will yield most of its success with "socially liberal, upscale independents in relatively liberal states" is entirely unsupported, and bears a faint whiff of having been pulled out from a very dark and unpleasant place. (The civil union/Iraq issues were already addressed above- it's telling that he ignored guns.) Ruy also seems to forget that the liberal--independent--conservative axis is only one of dozens that factor into voting choices. He's making too much of an near-arbitrary distinction. I will admit that Dean must avoid "running up the vote" in states he's likely to win simply as a Democratic candidate, but the belief that Trippi doesn't know what his candidate is up against is awesome in its arrogance. That ain't Democratic, Ruy. Just like any other candidate, Dean needs to find the proper groups to activate within each state. No, this wouldn't work if everybody voted. (Un?)fortunately, they don't.

The one other argument that wasn't contained in these paragraphs- that southerners won't vote for a northerner- does contain some merit. If that's a problem, though, we'll see it in the primaries, and in polling prior to the primaries. Dean supporters seem to believe that the "honest and angry" approach will bridge the north/south divide. Personally, I will respond with one question: isn't Kerry a northerner too?

Again, this is not to say that I support Dean, although I do believe that his fight for a full-throated, proud, and angry Democratic party is sound and necessary. The arguments presented here, however, are in my opinion weak political science... and the constant "Dean=McGovern" refrains are at times tired, lame, and tendentious. They illustrate the dangers of analysis based solely on historical comparisons- they tend to obfuscate the present through the clouded lens of the past. Sorry Ruy and John, but this time, I think you're all wet.

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