Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Swing Voters Aren't Necessarily Centrist Voters

In today's Washington Post, Mark Penn writes:

[W]hile the base is critical, it's not the whole picture. Behind all the rhetoric, the reality is that swing is still king. The two or three or 10 voters who are the quietest in focus groups, who never demonstrate and who belong to no political party, will be the ones who determine the political course of America.

Swing Is Still King. Of course, swing voters are critical to winning elections. But Penn's article could inadvertantly mislead people, too, in two ways. First, the Democratic base is not as reliable as it used to be. Ralph Nader's "spoiler" role in 2000 showed that some portion of Democratic voters can be siphoned off, with huge repercussions. And the base today is especially restive, unhappy with the leadership, and prone to defection. Democratic politicians who take the base for granted in 2006, and especially in 2008 when Bush will be out of the picture anyway, are making a grave error. Just as Republicans did in the 1960s and 1990s when they played to their conservative base, Democrats would be wise to pay attention to their liberal base today, or risk losing their energy, their money, and even their votes. As Penn writes, it's possible to appeal to both the base and the center, but when a choice must be made, a wise Democrat today will think hard before veering right.

Second, swing voters are not necessarily centrist voters. That's the main problem with the Democratic Leadership Council's calculus, and the reason why Democrats have lost control of Congress under the DLC's centrist reign of power: calculatingly centrist policies may appeal to people's minds, but can lose their hearts. Swing voters are looking for politicians they can believe in. For example, most of them are pro-choice, but they will vote for anti-choice Republicans. Why? Because at least those Republicans stand for something, and swing voters respect that. The best strategy for a Democrat courting the swing vote is to articulate different ideas, and show courage and clarity in promoting them. Whether swing voters agree with those particular ideas or not, they will nevertheless respect their proponent. And -- and I know this is a foreign idea to the current crop of Democrats -- it actually is possible, through force of conviction and clear, powerful rhetoric, to change people's minds. People who don't think the NSA surveillance program is a problem can be educated and convinced that it is. People who don't think that Democrats are strong on national security can be convinced that they are. But to bring people to our way of thinking, we need to be unabashed about saying what that is.

I'll end with something I've said before but that bears repeating until the Democratic leadership actually hears it:

The Republicans won complete control of government not by running to the center, but by running to the right and persuading the media and the American public to shift right with them. They don’t tolerate defections from the party line; they stick to centrally-distributed talking points and abide by rigid party discipline enforced by a man nicknamed “The Hammer.” They don’t fall silent when discourse turns discordant; they trot out the Big Lie and repeat it so often that it becomes Truth in the same way that big mountains create their own weather. They won by doing the exact opposite of what the DLC crowd preaches we need to do to win.

It’s as if the Democratic leadership doesn’t understand how mirrors work: the key to Republican success wasn’t in the fact that they ran to the right (and that we similarly must shift right if we want to win); it’s in the fact that they ran AWAY from the center -- became more extreme -- and in doing so earned both the support of their base and the trust of centrist voters, who respect people who can articulate and adhere to principles even if they don’t agree with all of them. Copying the Republican formula for success doesn’t mean becoming more conservative
[or, I hasten to add, more dishonest], it means becoming more liberal and being proud of it. Articulating, and expecting some reasonable degree of adherence to, a unifying party platform is a good way to articulate principles and win elections, and if that means tossing one or two enablers like Lieberman overboard, good riddance; they're dead weight anyway.

But in addition to the above response, which I believe is true, I have a second reaction to the concern that attacking Vichy Democrats will cost us a potential majority: that until our “leaders” start listening to their constituents and acting like Democrats again, they (and we) don’t deserve to be in power. Until we have our act together and are prepared to govern in a coherent, articulate, unified way, we should stay the hell out of it.

Our nation is facing tremendous problems; only a drastic change in course can possibly reverse them. If we Democrats are not prepared to change America's course, however, then it’s better for the inexorable collapse to occur on the Republicans’ watch than on ours. My preferences, in this order, are: (1) a dialed-in, unified, energized, liberal Democratic Party in power, correcting American's course and restoring her fortunes; (2) a faltering, dissipating, weakening Republican Party in power, living or dying with the consequences of their past actions while real Democrats continue to rebuild our party in the wings; and (3) a faltering, dissipated, weak Democratic Party in power, demonstrating once again to voters that we aren’t ready for prime time and possibly being blamed for a nationwide economic, military and social collapse created by the Republicans but foisted on us.

A lot of intelligent, energetic grassroots activists are working to make sure that (1) above comes true. Most of the Democrats in Congress are working hard to see that (3) above comes true, even though they're too struck with Beltway Blindness to realize that's what they're doing. If they don’t catch a clue and start working with us, (2) above is going to occur again in November, and then either (2) or (3) will occur in 2008. And that’s simply not good enough. Democrats deserve better. America deserves better.



Ellie Finlay said...

Swing voters are not necessarily centrist voters.

Swing voters are looking for politicians they can believe in.

Two excellent points.

I do a lot of counseling as part of my work and a few day after the 2004 election a client came in saying that he'd voted for Bush. "I may not agree with everything he says," this man explained, "but you know where he stands."

Now, of course, my client is horrified by what is going on and I've had to bite my tongue not to say, "Well, you voted for him."

But basically what we've got here is a swing voter. And the Democrats would have him if they just showed a little courage of their convictions.

Linda said...

I have to point out and ask: what good does it do to play the centrist, win the swing voter (for one election ) and lose the likes of ME, a lifelong leftie?????
I am tired of voting for the lesser of two evils and will not do it anymore. If there is no acceptable Democrat, Green, or Independent for whom to vote, I'll leave the ballot blank.
Would that hurt the Democrats if many of us did that? Sure-- for the current elections anyhow. And maybe for a few elections in the future. Maybe that's what Clinton, Kerry, Biden, et al need to see happen in order to return to their progressive roots.

lucretia said...

Swing voters usually call themsevels Independents in that they vote for the candidate not party. However, these people live in LaLa land because the candidate is not separate from his/her party--usually not at all.

Also since they swing between conservative and centrist messages each election (and those are the two messages unless they have blinders on), they will always lean towards onservative/centrist, not liberal. There are conservative leaning Democrats, so central, who switch occasionally i.e. many went for Nixon in 1968 AND 1972.

I agree with Linda over the frustration of voting for weak Democrats. However, look at it this way,if we go for a minor party, Green or Nader or Peace & Freedom, we put the stronger candidate right in the Oval Office. What would our nation be like if Nader had not run in 2000? Votes at a critical time like 2000, and probably 2008 better be for a Vichy Democrat, rather than another dictator/fascist. Say Jeb Bush.

I will still vote for a Hillary while still holding out for Howard Dean later if possible,or the rise of another regular Democrate. We can't stop a long the way, because is doing a tremendous job building up the grassroots candidates and he's great about building bridges.

Anonymous said...

I do a lot of counseling as part of my work and a few day after the 2004 election a client came in saying that he'd voted for Bush. "I may not agree with everything he says," this man explained, "but you know where he stands."... But basically what we've got here is a swing voter.

Bingo! I love to hear confirmation of my ideas from the real world. The folks with the "character matters" bumper stickers are the swing voters, and they care more about passion and consistency than any true politician (as opposed to statesman) would feel comfortable with.

I have to point out and ask: what good does it do to play the centrist, win the swing voter (for one election) and lose the likes of ME, a lifelong leftie?????

I don't think the Democratic Party's leaders understand how close they are to losing the base.

Votes at a critical time like 2000, and probably 2008 better be for a Vichy Democrat, rather than another dictator/fascist. Say Jeb Bush. I will still vote for a Hillary...

Much as I love lucretia (really!), I doubt I'll work for Hillary if she wins the nomination. I'll work for Congressional candidates or something, but as I've said a few times recently, I think a triangulator like Hillary could set the Democratic Party back 20 years by confirming people's suspicions that we're merely triangulating opportunists instead of committed visionaries.

That doesn't make me want to change parties, or even sit out the whole election (as I said, there will be other races) -- but a lot of people will, indeed, vote Green or stay home altogether if the wrong candidate gets the nomination, especially if it's rigged the way Hillary's trying to rig it.

I understand your sentiment -- I came late to my view, and remain furious at Nader, since Gore was a hell of a lot better than Hillary. And I might even pull the lever for Hillary, in the privacy of the booth, as the lesser of two evils But there are some democrats I just won't work for, and that attitude among hard workers like me could be costly for the party.

lucretia said...

thersies2: Yes I understand you're wanting to gag at the thought of working for Vichy Hillary. But I had to gag in 2004 after Dean lost in primary, and then work for Kerry. Kerry is a phony as Hillary even if he doesn't say anything about flagburners, but if he had to, he would have to.He may not go that far, but in my opinion he deliberately loss the election. I could see it every time I saw him speak on TV, especially C-Span coverage is much better. He simply didn't try, nor did some others speaking on his behalf. They let thenselves be defeated in arguments.

It was a set up to clear the field for Hillary (& Bill) in 2008, I think. If that's the way it is, then I have to accept it as better than being a fool and letting the fascists win again. HOw many times are we going to let them win before there are no more legitimate elections?

Practical politics is what it is all about always. My ideals are very strong, but I'm practical about the outcome and the form of government we'll have after the election.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps our disagreement stems from our perceptions of what's wrong with the candidates. My problem isn't so much the views they hold as their treatment of the democratic process within the party. Kerry may have been an establishment candidate, and far from my first choice (I, like you, am a Deaniac). But I don't see Kerry going out of his way to sabotage other candidates the way Hillary is, and I worked hard for him in '04 once he got the nod.

But if a Democrat who's working overtime to smother the progressive voices in the party wins, I'm much more likely to stay out of it.

For another example of how the Hillary-dominated DLC and DCCC are skewing the process, check out this post from MyDD. It's Duckworth, and Sherrod Brown, and Bob Casey, and everything Rahm Emanuel's doing at the DCCC, and Hillary's efforts to not just win but to corner the fundraising, that are turning me against her.

I'm liking this conversation, btw!

lucretia said...

Yes, I agree she is dominating the the DLC/Demos and sacrificing any ideal to get there.

There's two things here:
(1) For the good of the country in the future, if the candidate is Hillary stick with her rather than let the worst case sceneiro back in. She and her group are not strong enough yet, and in office she may soften and/or Demos and mod Repubs will work to pull her back as things go along, so the outsome is not too drastic.

The worst case sceniero is very strong and very autocratoc and this will only get worse with them because they are well entrenched. Let's let the Hillary group, keep a control and let these two basically autocratic undemocratic groups fight it out. Now, they both want war and conquest don't they? Think about it!

(2) Don't take above short-cut with Hillary. The Right-Wing wins again because of terrorism and rigid control of people's thinking. Let Howard Dean's DNC keep doing the ground work another four years to 2012 at least, and then hopefully enough is in place to gather in the country's votes.