The SanityPrompt

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Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Post Mortem: Second Cut

First a word of inspiration. I recently wrote an American friend who is abroad in England and bemoaned his country and its direction, wondering how he could come home. At times like this it is easy to despair about the present and the future, and to despair of the fight and the hope for victory. But remember, the true meaning in being a progressive lies not in having power and in wielding it but in fighting for change. This may feel like our darkest hour, but know that at this moment the future lies in your hands and the power to make it right is yours. Remember these immortal words from Shakespeare's Henry V:

"gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us."

The true thrill and our true purpose can be found in the fight for justice and goodness at home and abroad.

Now back to election analysis. With further reflection and reading, I feel like my insights into the keys behind the Republican victory are borne out by the emerging analysis and discussion. This piece on Reuters does a good job of breaking down Rove's winning strategy.

One of the big current debates among political scientists concerns the effects of negative campaigning on the electorate. While there is still an on-going debate, an emerging consensus appears to be that negative campaigns have their largest impacts on independent voters and work to sway them and to suppress their turnout. So, in retrospect, the Rove strategy looks brilliant. He is an ugly man both inside and out (from all appearances at least) but his political genius must be recognized and affirmed. Rove and Bush sought to energize the base with conservative policies (that most of the country disagrees with by the way) while using a highly negative campaign to minimize any attendant loss to the other side of independent voters who are put off by these policies. Bush made very little effort to appeal to swing and independent voters with his record or his domestic agenda. In fact, most polls show that on policies, the majority of people stand with the Democrats. But Bush's negative campaign (and Kerry's often inept response to it) was sufficient to cast doubts in the minds of independents regarding their alternatives. Rove recognized that rather than feeling he needed to appeal to swing voters (the conventional political wisdom) he could win by appealing to his base and turning independent voters off to Kerry or off to the election (a pox on both your houses). I haven't done any analysis with the numbers on this but my sense is that Kerry's success in appealing to independents lay in the same approach. I doubt having a moderate health care proposal and promises to cut middle class taxes and only raise taxes on the rich made much of an impression one way or another on the moderate middle. He is likely to have made more headway winning independents and swing voters with his critique of Bush's out of touch leadership, his stubbornness, and his policy failures in Iraq and the US.

So for this election at least (and maybe those in the future) Democrats should worry less about appealing to the middle of the country and more about energizing their base while counting on a strong negative campaign to go after the independents. It's not a palatable strategy if you hold high ideals about how politics should work (which I do) but maybe it's one to consider in the future. Unfortunately, it's likely to further polarize a country that is in sore need of some healing, soothing, and uniting.

So how do Democrats go about appealing to and energizing their base? There are no easy answers here. It's not as simple as some such as Robert Reich, Nader, and others on the Left might feel. The Democratic coalition is a fragile and vulnerable thing which can easily be fractured over some highly contentious domestic issues that Democrats will need to think about -- issues such as social security, health care, budget deficits, trade, education. What they should do about this I will take up in a future post. Just as soon as I address how deep the trouble is that Democrats face.

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