Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Midterm Messaging

It’s been interesting to watch the narrative take shape regarding the midterms. For the past few months the pundits and media types seem to be in agreement that a Republican sweep of Congress is a foregone conclusion. I’m not so sure, and I’m glad to see Nate Silver debunk some of the conventional wisdom, as well.

One oft-repeated line we hear is that there is an “enthusiasm gap” because the Democratic base is not “fired up.” Writes Silver:
Late in a political cycle, it tends to be easier to motivate a voter than to persuade him, and the Democrats do have some rallying points with their base like the health care bill (even if they are hush-hush about some of the same points when independents are in the room). They also have, as a consequence of the huge reach of President Obama’s campaign in 2008, very good voter lists and databases. There is actually some evidence that Democrats closed their enthusiasm gap late in elections like Massachusetts and the New Jersey governor’s race of 2009, even if they ultimately lost them. And the Democrats have won a couple of elections with strong base support, like the special election in May in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District. Still, the pluralistic nature of the Democratic base tends to make it harder to rally, and much of the party’s work work — even if it were eventually to succeed – remains to be done.

I know the Democratic Party is worried about this supposed “enthusiasm gap” because I keep getting e-mails trying to scare me into voting this year. They point out how scary and fringey the Tea Party candidates are, what wackadoodles Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are, blah blah.

I happen to think this is a horrible message. For one thing, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck aren’t on the ballot. Instead of trying to motivate the base out of fear of right wing crazies, maybe the Dems should try motivating people based on what they see as their accomplishments. Isn’t it better to get people to vote for something, not against something? By not doing so they seem to be conceding the progressive’s point, which is, "We gave you guys the White House and huge majorities in the House and Senate and instead of the promised change we got some left-leaning tweaks."

You know, maybe it's me but I don't happen to think the liberal base is as stupid and uninformed and clueless as, say, the right-wing base is. We can smell the bullshit and as I've said in the past, using Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck to scare us into the voting booth makes some of us think that maybe you helped create the Teanut Brigade just so you could exploit them later.

So no, I don’t need any more e-mails from James Carville trying to psyche me up by pointing out how crazy the Tea Party is. I’m well aware of that. If you want to motivate me, tell me what great things you did and what great things you’re going to do. Because what the party strategists aren’t getting is that the base is pissed off and there’s a sense of “you deserve to lose to a bunch of crazies.” That is what you guys are dealing with. So show us why we’re wrong to be pissed off.

And here’s another thing. I’m not any great political strategist or message manipulator, but I do believe that Tip O’Neill was right when he said all politics is local. So I care less about Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and more about what is going on in my neighborhood, my city, and my state. So again: if you want to motivate Democrats to the polls, show us what you’ve done, what your plan is, and why your candidates deserve to go to Washington. Simply saying, “because the other side is batshit insane!” isn’t enough.

As for the Republicans, Silver says folks may be overestimating the right’s enthusiasm:

What conservative voters seem to be most engaged by is their distaste for the establishment. But they seem to be somewhat equal-opportunity in this respect, disliking the Republican establishment nearly as much as the Democratic one. So what happens not in a case like Florida where they have nominated a fresh and compelling face in Marco Rubio, but instead in Ohio where they have nominated a familiar and establishment one like Rob Portman? Or in Illinois, where they have nominated a candidate in Mark Kirk who is both establishment and quite moderate?  Will Republican voters have the same gusto — and turn out in the same numbers — for these candidates? In Mr. Portman’s case in Ohio, it might not matter — he is doing well enough with independents that he’s liable to win, even with mediocre base participation. But for someone like a Mr. Kirk, or a Dino Rossi in Washington State, Republicans could find their “enthusiasm gap” isn’t as large as they were expecting.
Indeed, when looking at individual races -- say the Delaware Senate race -- as E.J. Dionne notes, the “enthusiasm gap” may just be on the Republican side:
Ross notes that the state Republican convention endorsed Castle. These are not some shadowy party bosses, but, as he put it, “the grass-roots delegates who knock on the doors and pass out the literature and pound the pavements.”

Wonder how many of those folks will go to bat for Christine O’Donnell? I’m guessing very few. That, and the fact that O’Donnell’s extreme views will turn off independents makes me think the Republican tidal wave is a lot of wishful thinking.

Of course, the economy still sucks and the Democrats are really bad at messaging and the media is not liberal etc. etc. So, as the saying goes: stay tune, more shall be revealed ....