Losing for campaigning like a Democrat

Rick Perlstein has a very good article in Rolling Stone about the failures of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election. I think there are a lot of overlapping dimensions to the loss and Perlstein lays out a number of them in the piece. One of the more important aspects, though, is the tendency for Democrats to embrace pro-corporation/anti-worker politicians and policies even when it’s obvious how unappealing to the public those are. The Clinton/Obama epoch has produced some truly horrible representations of what the alternative to the GOP looks like and it’s not shocking that many voters find this unappealing. People aren’t looking for civility and the quiet transfer of wealth to elites, they’re looking for people who will fight for their jobs and their futures.

Wisconsin Aftermath

I’ll be honest, after the labor-backed candidate for governor in Wisconsin lost the Democratic primary in a recall election that was happening because of an assault on workers’ rights and public sector unions, I paid significantly less attention to the race. And even before that, once the choice was made by labor unions and Democratic operatives to turn away from direct action and popular protest following the occupation of the capitol in Madison, and instead focus energy on Democratic electoral gains, I was turned off from this fight. Don’t get me wrong – I still wanted Walker to lose. Now I’m hoping that he gets indicted and soon.

But last night’s elections reveal a number of really big problems. Looking at the final results, with Walker winning by around 7%, there are incredibly disturbing numbers that pop out of the exit polling. 36% of union households voted for Walker.
17% of Obama supporters voted for Walker. Unions, despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, map fairly well onto the partisan divide and it isn’t shocking that over a third of union households voted for a Republican, though it is depressing. But Obama supporters voting for Walker? That’s pretty terrifying if you believe that Democrats support workers’ rights and labor should be allied with the Democratic Party.

Of course it also isn’t surprising that a President who hasn’t done anything to aid labor – no effort on Employee Free Choice, no meaningful effort to improve the NLRB or get good rules out of it – would attract people who vote for a union-busting Republican.

There’s a big problem when the biggest argument in an election is “Defeat the bad guy,” with no compelling vision for how the Democratic candidate is going to affect change. Even had Barrett won, he wouldn’t have been able to reverse Walker’s union-busting legislation, as the Republican still control the state Assembly. The only demonstrable gain that would have happened would have been a cessation of Walker’s union-busting agenda. Evidently that was not compelling enough for all Obama supporters or union households to vote for Barrett.

The volume of outside case also played a role in the outcome. Walker outspent Barrett by around 8:1 and there was tens of millions of dollars in outside spending benefiting Walker. That’s certainly a tough environment to win in, but I don’t think it was in itself determinative. The bad dynamics, the lack of a way for the election to change, the establishment candidate who wasn’t backed by labor, the fact that Barrett had lost to Walker less than two years ago…these all added to the reasoning for the loss. There will be many post-mortems today. I’m really sorry for the people of Wisconsin, especially those who worked for the last 18 months to stop Scott Walker. But perhaps trying to elect more Democrats wasn’t the answer needing to emerge from the occupation of the capitol in Madison.

Democratic Message Discipline

Democratic Party message discipline, as exemplified by defenses on Bain Capital and private equity.

President Bill Clinton

Cory Booker

Ed Rendell

Deval Patrick

Harold Ford Jr.

Let’s be clear. While these high level Democrats – most of whom are currently or have been in the past top-level surrogates for President Obama – are saying something different from the President’s re-election campaign, this is not an example of a lack of message discipline. Or rather, the lack of discipline is coming from the Obama campaign. These Democrats, as leading elected and former elected officials, know that private equity is a crucial piece of the funding infrastructure for the Democratic Party. These gentlemen will not bite the hand that feeds them. The Obama campaign is breaking with what is clearly the party’s orthodoxy on private equity and it isn’t even doing so that convincingly. But it has been enough to shake out the party stalwarts, even the Big Dog himself, to say that Obama is wrong and Bain is good and proper. It’s pretty sickening to watch.

Membership & Support in the Online Left

Matt Stoller has a long and thought-provoking post on two recent Democratic primary elections where ostensibly progressive candidates with strong support from online progressive organizations were handed crushing defeats. The whole post is worth reading, as it’s a chilling look in the mirror that reveals a lack of effective progressive infrastructure.

Noting that the IL-10 had 30,000 Democrats turn out to vote in the primary and MoveOn has 15,000 members in district, Stoller observes that MoveOn members simply did not turn out to vote for their endorsed candidate – Ilya Sheyman, a former MoveOn and Obama campaign staffer. Stoller notes:

If you can’t turn out your members to vote, then they aren’t really your members.

This is a hugely important observation. There is an assumption in online progressive organizations that the act of participating in one action online – signing a petition, RSVPing for an event, making a small dollar donation – makes an individual a member of their organization. Every online organization that you get emails from considers you a member. By this logic, based on today’s emails alone, I am allegedly a member of Rock the Vote, Brave New Films, SaveOurEnvironment.org, Courage Campaign, New Organizing Institute, Credo Action, New Bottom Line, Presente.org,  and Demand Progress. This is not to mention emails from at least five unions, four Democratic party entities, numerous political campaigns, and two traditionally offline organizations who now complement that work with online campaigning – Students for a Free Tibet and Greenpeace. Of these organizations, the only one I think of myself as a member of is Students for a Free Tibet, on whose Board of Directors I serve. I like and admire the work of many of these other groups, but I would never self-identify as, say, a Courage Campaign member.

I can’t say with certainty how we got here, but I can imagine at some point the reach of an online organization was determined to be the most impressive way to measure its size. Since “We have 1 million email addresses” doesn’t sound as powerful as “We have 1 million members,” groups leaned towards description of an interaction along a model that was familiar to grassroots, membership-based organizations of the offline world. Unfortunately this lends itself to an overstatement of power and an overcommitment of what an individual activist is expected to deliver in the fraction of their life they devote to helping liberal causes. What is glossed over in discussions of massive organizational memberships – especially when defined by possession of an email address and not a deeper tie – is that of the universe of email addresses, the universe of people who open an email from an organization is smaller. Within that, the universe of people who click on a link is smaller and those that sign a petition is smaller still. Change the action ask to making a phone call or a contribution and it’s even smaller. If the ask is to host an offline event, the universe is again reduced in size. And so it is with each increasingly hard or time consuming action, the size of the email list who will do what the organization asks is decreased. The chain continues to the point Stoller notes, if a group asks the people on its email list to vote for someone and they don’t, they aren’t really members. The word is functionally meaningless.

To understand how this becomes a major problem for online progressive groups, read this passage from Stoller:

Two, the internet Democrats need to understand the basis of George Washington Plunkett politics, which is that votes come from getting voters turkeys at Christmas. Voters want stuff, information on how to live their lives, increased incomes, a better world, tax cuts, the trash picked up regularly, whatever – and if you can’t credibly get it to them, your message is unpersuasive. It’s not that your arguments don’t work, it’s that you aren’t a trusted messenger, and you can’t win in a low-trust fight because low trust channels are dominated by oligarchs. This is why the failure of the internet progressive space to focus on wages or foreclosures from 2006-2010 was so catastrophic. It’s why the fact that health care doesn’t kick in until 2014 carried significant political costs. There simply is no progressive advantage on economic arguments anymore. Sheyman laid out standard left-but-not-too-left policy prescriptions – reimplementing Glass-Steagall, lifting the Social Security cap on earnings, Medicare-for-All, gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan – and they didn’t work. Why would one really junior member of Congress without any substantive record of accomplishment really matter? Why would anyone trust the progressive brand on economics?

I would hazard that part of the reason that there is an absence of trust between online groups and the people they consider to be their members is that there is such a disconnection between treating the existence of an email address as membership and how individuals actually think of themselves. It’s not that there are weak ties between organizations and people on their email lists, it’s that there are no ties. This fact, before any discussion of actual political strategy or policy decisions by progressive groups, is likely the formative one that enables activists to apparently tolerate the sorts of failures Stoller describes. That is, it’s not that there is tolerance for them by activists, but that because activists don’t actually consider themselves members of these organizations, they don’t have a stake in these organizations being strategic and effective. How else can you explain the failure of ostensibly member driven groups to turn out their members on campaigns that they think will matter to them?

Challenging the assumptions of the membership model of online groups is hugely important. As Stoller says, these campaigns provide an opportunity for real reflection about what tactics are not working and why this is the case. The membership disconnect is something that needs to be deeply explored, as it is so important to the existence of activist organizations. Hopefully Stoller’s piece sparks some honest dialogue and self-reflection, as online organizers need to address these structural challenges to achieving what we want to achieve if we’re ever going to get to where we want to go.

…Adding, the occasion for this post is related to electoral defeats, but I don’t think this is a problem limited to progressive work in the electoral space. The strength of grassroots organizations is determined by many things – budget, strategic savvy and the quality of their leadership all come to mind – but engaged membership is certainly one of them. Figuring out what isn’t working with membership engagement strategies requires first acknowledging how the problems we see in this electoral context are manifesting themselves in non-electoral organizing (say, participation in a campaign on Issue XX is phenomenally successful but the subsequent one on Issue XY has huge drop-off). Groups need to gain a better understanding of how the people on their email lists think of them. To whatever extent a real disconnect is identified between people who identify as members versus people who occasionally enjoy updates from an organization, those audiences need to be talked to in different ways. Leaders need to figure out how to transition from a mentality of “Whose list is biggest?” to “How can we leverage our committed supporters to affect meaningful change?” This likely isn’t just about internal thought processes, but changing the way leader-activists talk to their donor base.

To put things differently, part of the urgency for figuring out how advocacy groups can build meaningful relationships with activists unto them considering themselves members is that there are always fights being waged. If a major corporation does something destructive or if an elected official introduces legislation that would cause major harm, are groups going to be able to stop them with their email lists? Or are large and always growing lists the Maginot Line of modern progressive advocacy, built to look impressive, but not effective at achieving their purpose?

Defeats create opportunities to re-evaluate our assumptions about how we can engage activists. This is as good a moment as any to evaluate how we build relationships with people we perceive to be supporters and how we honestly evaluate our capacities to affect change.

Super Tuesday!

As if the Gods of Excitement hadn’t done enough already with this month Chevy Truck Month and the beginning of the March Madness tournament, today is Super Tuesday. Ten states will primary or caucus today, accounting for nearly 20% of the delegates.

Up for grabs are Georgia, Massachusetts, Idaho, North Dakota, Alaska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, and Ohio. Nate Silver is projecting a strong night for Romney, one which he will come out with the most delegates in almost any scenario:

This scenario assumes that Mr. Romney will win Massachusetts and Virginia very easily, and Vermont and Idaho fairly easily (winning all 32 delegates in Idaho because of the way the state’s rules are structured). It assumes a narrow Romney win in Ohio and a narrow loss in Tennessee, and that Mr. Romney wins either the Alaska or North Dakota caucuses, but probably not both. Mr. Gingrich wins Georgia only, although by a big margin; Mr. Santorum wins Tennessee and Oklahoma, although by smaller margins than were expected a few days ago.

Silver goes on to note that because of increased media expectations and the intense focus on Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee, Romney might not walk away with a performance that is sufficiently impressive. Additionally, with Kansas, Mississippi, and Alabama holding their contests within the next week, Romney will continue to face scrutiny in regards to his ability to win Southern states.

The “Can Romney win in the South?” line of criticism seems about as reasonable as the “Will woman and Hispanics turn out for Obama?” criticism of the 2008 primary. These core Democratic constituencies broke heavily for Hillary Clinton, but came home and turned out for Obama at historic levels in the general election. Whether Romney wins Mississippi or Alabama in the primary has no real relevance. If he gets the nomination, he will have a near-lock on the Deep South and this is true even if base enthusiasm for him is tepid. Much of this line seems to be aimed at continuing the primary. That isn’t to say that the fact that Romney likely isn’t drawing strong support in the Deep South during the primary is irrelevant, but it’s unlikely to be a factor that prevents him from getting the nomination.

Romney holds off the white knight for now

Originally posted at AMERICAblog Elections: The Right’s Field

Jonathan Karl, ABC News, February 17, 2012:

A prominent Republican senator just told me that if Romney can’t win in Michigan, the Republican Party needs to go back to the drawing board and convince somebody new to get into the race.

“If Romney cannot win Michigan, we need a new candidate,” said the senator, who has not endorsed anyone and requested anonymity.

George Stephanopolous, ABC News, February 28, 2012:

“What [Romney’s performance] tonight has done, I think, is kill any talk in Republican circles of finding another white knight to come into the campaign.”

At least for the moment, that is. Losing his home state of Michigan would have been devastating for Romney. But as it is, he only barely won and Rick Santorum will take home the same number of delegates as Romney. To the extent that Romney has killed the talk of a new “white knight,” it is just barely and just for the moment. He certainly hasn’t suddenly created a popular groundswell in the Republican base for his candidacy. Super Tuesday is a week away and it will be a major test that could produce wins for Romney, Gingrich and Santorum. If Romney gets his clock cleaned next Tuesday, watch for the talk of the white knight to reemerge.

Things Rick Santorum Used to Say

It’s debate day – today the remaining major candidates will debate in Arizona, days before the Arizona and Michigan primaries. There hasn’t been a debate in a while, something that one could rarely write before this month, and the landscape has shifted dramatically since Santorum swept Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota. He is now the front-runner and the cash is flowing into his coffers, while Romney is spending down his reserves at a fast rate which should scare both his supporters now and hurt his ability to run a strong campaign if he is the nominee.

But with a new debate and his new status as front runner, the research books are opening up on Rick Santorum. Huffington Post reported yesterday that Santorum was pro-choice before he entered politics.

In a December 1995 Philadelphia Magazine article — which the Huffington Post pulled from Temple University archives — Santorum conceded that he “was basically pro-choice all my life, until I ran for Congress… But it had never been something I thought about.” Asked why he changed his mind, he said that he “sat down and read the literature. Scientific literature,” only to correct himself and note that religion was a part of it too.

Huffington Post also reported on campaign statements from 1990 which showed Santorum as what would today amount to being a moderate Republican on abortion. This is fairly surprising given Santorum’s culture warrior bonafides. As a result, we can expect this line of attack to be raised in tonight’s debate.

In a slightly more bizarre edition of “Thinks Rick Santorum Used to Say,” the Drudge Report is quoting Santorum more recently at the far other end of the culture war. The quote allegedly comes from a 2008 speech at a college in Florida:

“Satan has his sights on the United States of America!” Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has declared.

“Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition.”

This sounds a lot more like the Santorum that we now know, so I don’t know that it would do much to turn off the Republican voters who are trending his way. But this sort of rhetoric is exactly the type of thing that would likely ensure that nominee Santorum would lose in historic fashion, which is, incidentally, the elite Republican critique of him.

Ron Paul emerging as Anti-Romney

Cross-posted from AMERICAblog Elections: The Right’s Field

NH Results:

Mitt Romney 39.4% (94,255)
Ron Paul: 22.8% (54,513)
Jon Huntsman: 16.9% (40,388)

Newt Gingrich: 9.4% (22,518)
Rick Santorum: 9.3% (22,293)
Rick Perry: 0.7% (1,688)

A few thoughts…

Attention reporters: Mitt Romney is not the first Republican non-incumbent to win Iowa and New Hampshire, as Romney neither got the most votes in Iowa (Rick Santorum did) nor did he get the most delegates (Ron Paul did). Please stop saying Romney won Iowa! Of course, part of the reason this is happening is Rick Santorum waited way to long to give his victory speech and this allowed what would have been the story of the Santorum upset become a story of Romney eeking it out.

The Santorum Surge is over. Santorum made a huge mistake trying to compete in New Hampshire, where a Romney victory was always clear and where Huntsman had already taken up residence. Now Santorum is in the tough spot of trying to ride momentum that no longer exists into a state where all the Anti-Romney’s will be fighting for survival.

As Ari Melber notes, Ron Paul is showing to be incredibly strong across a wide range of Republican and independent constituencies. Noting Paul outperformed the field with lower-income voters and McCain voters, Melber writes:

Yet Paul’s opponents are strong opponents, the thinking goes, so he would not be accepted by the rest of Republicans. But is that true? You’d have to ask them. The exit pollsters did, and overall, regardless of personal preference, more voters said they would be “satisfied” with a Paul nomination than Gingrich or Santorum. Now, that could reflect some ignorance about Paul’s record and ideas, but if the press is going to cover the strength of Paul’s campaign on earth, and not its hypothetical vulnerabilities, then it’s time to report the reality of his wide appeal in this race so far.

This raises the fundamental dynamic of the race at this point. Clearly Mitt Romney is the front-runner. There has been a lot of competition for the spot of Anti-Romney, but no clear winner. Perry, Gingrich, Santorum, Bachmann, and Cain have all been competing for the job of Anti-Romney, under the presumption that if there was conservative unification around an Anti-Romney, that person could defeat Romney for the nomination.

To this point, it’s looked like Ron Paul existed as someone outside of the Anti-Romney race as his own creature without strong overlap into more traditional parts of the Republican base. But the results of Iowa and New Hampshire belie this. Ron Paul is showing strong and he could actually coalesce support as the Anti-Romney, at least if politicians and pundits look at what voters are saying. Paul would have to start getting support from people like Gingrich, Santorum and Perry for him to have a shot at this. Frankly I don’t see that happening.

South Carolina will be interesting in that it could be the last chance for an Anti-Romney to emerge. That should lead Gingrich, Santorum and Perry to go hard after Mitt. But if Ron Paul performs another strong second, it’s hard to not see the writing on the wall of him as the real Anti-Romney in the race.

In the end it looks most likely that Romney will be the Republican nominee not because it was his turn or because he was the most popular candidate, but that the conservative base was fractured across multiple Anti-Romneys who couldn’t get it together to unite behind one person to defeat Romney.

Cross-posted from AMERICAblog Elections: The Right’s Field

Matt Taibbi on the 2012 election season

Matt Taibbi on the 2012 elections:

Most likely, it’ll be Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama, meaning the voters’ choices in the midst of a massive global economic crisis brought on in large part by corruption in the financial services industry will be a private equity parasite who has been a lifelong champion of the Gordon Gekko Greed-is-Good ethos (Romney), versus a paper progressive who in 2008 took, by himself, more money from Wall Street than any two previous presidential candidates, and in the four years since has showered Wall Street with bailouts while failing to push even one successful corruption prosecution (Obama).

There are obvious, even significant differences between Obama and someone like Mitt Romney, particularly on social issues, but no matter how Obama markets himself this time around, a choice between these two will not in any way represent a choice between “change” and the status quo. This is a choice between two different versions of the status quo, and everyone knows it.

It was always annoying when these two parties and the slavish media that follows their champions around for 18 months pretended that this was a colossal clash of opposites. But now, with the economy in the shape that it’s in thanks in large part to the people financing these elections, that pretense is more than annoying, it’s offensive.

Taibbi also makes a sharp analysis about the general lack of relevance to the primary process and it’s rituals, as compared to vibrant protest movements which have emerged in response to a broken economy and political system. Though I write about the Republican primary frequently, I can’t say it feels very relevant to me, particularly for the reasons that Taibbi lays out. A poll of New Hampshire just doesn’t mean much to me while there are people occupying public parks and foreclosed homes, fighting for their lives and the future of this country.