Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Engaging Red America

Alice at GOTV thinks that the Democrats can engage new communities in the suburbs by touching them first, before the Republicans move in.

I do not know if capturing these suburban voters is going to be as easy as slapping an “I’m first!” line on their hypothetical Commenting tool, but it is a start. Name recognition is huge, and the first name in the spotlight is always going to be harder to beat in many people minds.

I also very much agree with the idea that:

Human beings are social creatures, and the physical presence of a campaign, by itself, can sway voters our way. And physical presence must include personal contact with campaign volunteers.

Just from anecdotal evidence, I would guess that my little, recently developed valley about 40 minutes from downtown Portland, OR went about 2 to 1 for Bush over Kerry. I just moved out here last fall and it was shocking for this Urban Liberal Type to suddenly find myself back in the Republican dominated Suburbs for the first time since high school… But still, its not like we talk much with our neighbors out in these parts.

One other factor that plays where I live, I am in an “older” (built in the early 90s, I am guessing), apartment complex where there are also a high number of immigrants, many from Russia and the former Soviet states. I do not know how they went in the election, if they went at all, but as far as the established middle class goes, my guesstimate comes from the bumper sticker/yard sign counts.

Personally, I agree with Alice that discussions regarding party politics in these neighborhoods tend to stir up a lot of “clich├ęs and stereotypes about suburban voters put forward by those who have never walked a precinct.”

Alice’s post seems to be inspired by an entry yesterday on Mercury Rising that concludes with the sentiment that, in order to engage these neighborhoods, in order to engage my neighborhood, well…

"Placating the exurbs" means placating racists who don't want their tax money going to help people whose skin tone is darker than theirs. Even if this really would get us votes, is this something we really want to do?

At least the Republicans sugar coat their insults with lies before they lay it on me.

Really, this is the sort of rhetoric that is making it difficult to engage with Red voters. In rural areas, it is my belief that there is a sense that Liberal Urban types mock their values. In suburban areas, stereotypes like the one above insult voters more directly. If you have just called someone a racist, they are not very likely to then listen to your ideas on Social Security. They are very likely to say, “Fuck you,” and then to pull the Elephant lever on Election Day.

Alice, in an earlier piece that she quotes on this recent post, writes, “Precinct operations are, by their nature, about treating people as individuals, not stereotypes.” This helps avoid making insulting assumptions about voters at the most grass roots level.

Unfortunately, it is not the precinct worker who is usually being quoted in the media. One insulting quote in the media can make it very difficult for a grass roots campaign volunteer to be given the time of day when approaching certain individuals.

The whole, “I know my party called you a racist asshole this morning on Good Morning America, but would you like to talk about the Democrat running for your State House against a man who just voted to knock 31 days off of your daughter’s school day?”

I suppose one good solution here is to get that insulted voter engaged by a friendly face, and that does depend on the precinct volunteers.

Alice’s “guide” for local campaign volunteers is a good, informative read on this subject.

My Assumptions about Winning Red Territories…

There are studies that contain a lot of useful data out there, but Democrats need to be very careful about how they interpret this data and about how they take the attack to the enemy.

Another belief I have is that the centrist swing is actually larger than many people give it credit for, even during these times, though I have not put together any data to support this. I feel the last two Presidential elections saw this swing split fairly evenly between the two candidates.

Now this would lead one to think that I would favor a DLC-style centrist Democratic Party, that Clintonesque (politically) candidates should be where the party focuses its efforts.

The problem is that this approach relies on strong candidates who can capture the center through the force of their personalities. Some years, the strongest just do not rise to the top. The party, by having a strong, clear platform, by delivering a strong message and by wrestling control of the debate away from the opposition, can win without having the Cult of Personality on their side.

When voters vote for a Republican, they know what they are getting. When voters look at Democrats, they are not always sure if they are getting a Dukakis or a Kerry. A Clinton or a Dean. There is no Democrat “Brand,” so to speak. It may seem distasteful to use advertising terms when referring to political issues, but trust me, the Republicans use these tools extensively and have been spanking the Democrats with them since 1992.

So, even by moving the party into the centrist, Republican-lite land, there is still no guarantee of victory since the other side will just brand the candidate as a liberal anyway, or a flip-flopper, or a… Many of the conversations I had with people who were not caught up in the partisan furor last fall tended to express the sentiment, “Bush is an idiot, but I don’t know what Kerry is all about.”

If the Democrats had a strong identity behind Kerry, it would have helped define him for the national audience and it would have helped to insulate him from extremist attacks on his personal credibility. It surely would have been enough to gain several hundred thousand votes in Ohio and Florida.

So, what should “Brand” Democrat look like?

There is a lot of emotion out there that the future DNC leadership will throw some of the core issues onto the bonfire of sacrifice for victories in 2006 and 2008. In fact, a lot of this debate may even be inspired by Rasputin-like Republican whisperers already drooling over their 2006 mid-term slogan, “The Democrats have no values, they will say anything to win!”

Most people are not one-issue voters. Those who are will not change parties because the platform is softened. The Democrats should absolutely not change their platform on the key issues in a vague attempt to reach voters who see devil horns on every donkey.

Still, I believe that could be tremendous value in expanding some of these debates within the party…

There could be value in the Democrats saying, “We will always defend a Woman’s right to choose, but we also want to start working with the opposition on programs that focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies.” And there could be value in building these programs around abstinence, though making sure that they are based on fact and that birth control methods are discussed, as well.

I do not believe that approaches such as these would mean that the Democrats are sacrificing their values. I do believe that it would make them play better among voters with conservative values who, for what ever reason, appear to vote against their economic interests.

I am not talking about running Pro-Life candidates in Republican strongholds; I am talking about running candidates who share the values surrounding the issue with their constituents.

While we will not win swing voters without a tightly controlled message from the Party, and while we will not win conservative values voters by sacrificing the core principals of the party, we will lose election after election if we continue to be defined by the same handful of social issues over and over again.

We cannot be the party of abortionists who want to put condoms into Kindergarten where we can teach them how to use them properly in different gay sex acts.

We can be the party that defends family values by protecting children from the dangers of irresponsible sexual behavior while protecting the rights of all Americans.

When it comes to these issues, it is really more a matter of controlling the message than it is a need to change the core issues themselves. But more than this, it may even be that the focus on these issues in the first place is what is turning off many Red voters.

I do not believe that many of the people who went Republican in November really understood that voting for Bush was voting against their economic interest. The social issues and, more importantly, the War on Terror and the old adage from 1864 about not changing horses in the middle of the stream tilted them over to Bush.

If the noise about the social issues is dampened, there would be more room for the Democrats to focus on what they used to do the best, representing the issues at the heart of blue collar and farming communities.

Okay, it is time to end the rambling attempt at armchair political science now. I will post this and I may review and revise this post in the future. Or, more likely, I will just continue on about these themes in a later post.

Just don’t call me a racist because of where I live and I am happy. And my vote is not at risk, even if you do call me a racist. But I will remember on the battlefield of internal party politics.
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