Terrance Heath

The GOP's Pyrrhic Victory: Why It Won't Work, Pt. 4

Filed By Terrance Heath | November 12, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: GOP, mid-term elections, Pyrrhic victory, Republican majority

President Obama is right. The Democrats got a “shellacking” in the midterm election. But not from the people who voted. And in a sense, the pundits and prognosticators are maybe half right. The president and his party were sent a message in this election. But not from the people who voted. Want to know who administered this midterm “shellacking” and delivered the message of the midterm elections of 2010? Want to know what how to avoid another “shellacking” in 2012?

Do the math.

First, let’s review.

It’s only natural, I guess, for politicians to worry more about voters than non-voters. But that would be a mistake where Democrats are concerned. pyrrhus.jpgBecause it’s not that voters turned on Democrats and voted Republicans in this election. Most of the people who voted Republican were the people who would have voted Republican anyway. Democrats need to focus on who was not there. Who stood with Obama and Democrats in 2008, but stayed away in 2010?

By comparing these 2008 national exit polls and these from yesterday, both from CNN and asking essentially identical questions, we learn some useful things..

Here, as far as I can see, are the three big top-line differences:

1. The 2008 electorate was 74% white, plus 13% black and 9% Latino. The 2010 numbers were 78, 10 and 8. So it was a considerably whiter electorate.

2. In 2008, 18-to-29-year-olds made up 18% and those 65-plus made up 16%. Young people actually outvoted old people. This year, the young cohort was down to 11%, and the seniors were up to a whopping 23% of the electorate. That’s a 24-point flip.

3. The liberal-moderate-conservative numbers in 2008 were 22%, 44% and 34%. Those numbers for yesterday were 20%, 39% and 41%. A big conservative jump, but in all likelihood because liberals didn’t vote in big numbers.

Add to these figures the fact that overall turnout was down by about a third, or more, from nearly 130 million to about 82.5 million. That’s at least 45 million no-shows, and the exits tell us the bulk of them were liberal, young, black, Latino. If 25 million of these no-shows had voted, Democratic losses would pretty obviously have been in the normal range, and they’d still control the House.

Democrats picked up more moderate votes than Republicans did in this election (and the Blue Dogs still got decimated). Which moderates they picked up and why is also important.

Here’s an interesting takeaway from the exit polls: Democratic candidates for Congress won more votes from self-described moderates than they did from liberals. Meanwhile, Republicans swept to victory on a coalition dominated by conservatives — two out of every three ballots cast for a GOP candidate on Tuesday was cast by a self-described conservative.

…Obviously one of the key questions here is why moderates were less likely to vote for Democrats in 2010 than they were in 2006. The exit polls can’t fully answer that question, but given the sharp decline in moderate turnout, it seems likely that the biggest reason is that Democratic-leaning moderates simply didn’t vote.

It’s unlikely that moderates were simply renaming themselves as conservatives; if that had happened, you wouldn’t have seen a sharp decline in the share of the electorate who voted for Obama in 2008. (Obama voters were 53% of the electorate in 2008 but just 45% in 2010. Liberals dropped from 22% in 2008 to 20% in 2010, accounting for some of the decline; almost all the rest were almost certainly moderates, not conservatives.)

It also seems unlikely that the moderates who stayed home did so because they felt Democrats had moved too far to the left. First, if that were the case, wouldn’t you expect them to turn out and vote for Republicans to provide balance? Second, moderates by their very nature tend not to look at things in ideological terms. Undoubtedly this will be a matter of debate, but it seems most likely to me that moderates who stayed home did so because they feel alienated from the political system and do not believe that it is delivering for them. That’s not an issue of being right or left — it’s an issue of not moving forward quickly enough.

The moderate votes picked up weren’t enough to win the day. The missing elements were the broad, diverse coalition that swept Obama and the Democrats into office, and the base that help build and motivate that coalition.

The first message of this election, for Democrats, is simple: Stop making your base feel like cheerleaders at Charlie Brown’s football game.

By your base, I don’t just mean the people who vote for you. I mean the people who make sure as many people vote for you as they can persuade -- from family and friends, to co-workers and neighbors, to random strangers. I mean people like “soccer mom” Jodi Jacobson.

I started by finding a precinct in Loudon county, Virginia that needed help. I spent countless weekends, weeknights, and sometimes weekdays, and countless dollars on gas never counted as “official” contributions, driving out to Virginia to canvass, place door hangars, and talk personally, face to face, with literally hundreds of voters. I made notes, I made follow up calls, I researched answers to call back the undecided; I gave out my personal cell number to anyone who wanted to call me for further info. I phone-banked at centers but more often from home, making countless phone calls on my own dime across the country, night after night, on the MyBarackObama website.

I also brought the troops. I started with organizing my best friends, and at the end had a list of more than 50 regulars who put everything they could into joining me to canvass, make phone calls and work mano-a-mano to convince one voter at a time that we needed change, driving long distances to help turn Virginia blue and even some of us to ensure victory in Pennsylvania. Many of us brought our kids, missing games, parties, and relaxing weekend days at home to do what we felt was needed and to instill in our children the value of participation in a democracy. Later, some of us trained as poll watchers, drove people to polls and helped get absentee ballots in early.

Your base isn’t all the people who voted for you. It’s the people who made sure those people voted for you by carrying your message, making your case, knocking on doors, handing out literature, and literally driving people to the polls -- all because they believed in your message.

Jacobson also sums up what that base wanted in return.

In exchange, I wanted the change I was promised. And I was willing to keep working for it well after the election.

…I certainly never thought it would happen without a fight.

But the bottom line is I expected him to fight. I expected him to understand that the change many of us sought was the use of political power for good, that we had delivered him massive election turnout and a Democratic House and Senate to lead effectively, proactively, strongly, and vocally on economic change, health reform, climate change, energy use, education, women’s rights, gay rights, science and evidence. This was not wishful thinking–he was on the record for every one of these things in the campaign.

…Finally, I did expect him to actually realize that it was progressives who not only voted for him as individuals, but delivered the vote to him across the population, by working assiduously and tenaciously to solidify independent voters and cross-over Republicans whose votes carried him to victory. I further expected the Administration to call on us, command us, to fight in support of a clear agenda for change.

Instead, this Administration not only failed to do much of any of the above, it has also vilified people like me by calling progressives the problem. It has locked out progressives in meetings and in the press. And it has catered slavishly to the religious right.

And while Obama stayed silent, equivocated and pre-emptively compromised away the rights of my children, gay children, Latino children, and black children, status-quo politicians in leadership, like Chris Van Hollen, my own Congressman, gave away the store by supporting people like Bart Stupak and undermining those like Jennifer Brunner.

I would not in the end been so distraught at the many giveaways that eventually happened if the good fight had been fought en route to getting there.

But for their trouble, they were dismissed as “whining” and demeaned as part of the problem. Particularly the “professional left,” which is the closest thing the Democrats have to what is essentially the “corporate-funded right.” Perhaps if the “professional left” had corporate sponsors and three-corner hats the Democrats might have mistaken them for the Tea Party, and paid more attention for a while.

Instead, progressives sensed the apparent contempt for the base that lurked just behind those comments, and became even more demoralized.

This week, Ari Berman of the Nation released his book “Herding Donkeys” that documents the growth of the modern Democratic Party from the nadir of the 2004 election through the triumph of 2008. The majority of the book looks at the efforts by former DNC Chairman Howard Dean to build a national network that could immunize the party from becoming either marginalized or regionalized. But the epilogue charts out how the style of Obama’s governance drained the type of voter enthusiasm that, Dean acknowledges, was critical in those efforts.

“The White House began to believe that they could mobilize their supporters without hearing what their supporters really wanted in terms of specific change,” Dean is quoted as saying. “The principal problem with OFA is the same one the president’s having. You can’t dictate to your base what’s going to happen. It’s got to be a two-way deal, and it hasn’t been.

Addressing a telling moment in the health care debate, when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (a frequent Dean critic) called out progressive activists for running ads against conservative Democrats, Berman asked the former DNC Chair for his reaction.

“I’m not looking to pick another fight with Rahm Emanuel, but the contempt with which he held the progressive wing of the party was devastating and incredibly demoralizing,” Dean said. “That’s basically saying to your own people — you got us here, now FU.

As Jacobson goes on to explain, the point was less about whether progressives voted on election day than whether progressives were motivated to do the same work many did in 2008, to carry the president’s and the Democrats’ message and get more people to the polls. Many, like Jacobson, voted but didn’t do much else. They didn’t knock on doors, phone bank, donate, etc., except perhaps for specific candidates -- not for the the Democratic party and not in order to get more Democrats into Congress, but to get even a few more progressives into Congress.

Progressive are beginning to understand something I’ve said before: Just getting Democrats elected is not sufficient. We have helped get Democrats elected, for the sake of getting more Democrats elected, and the result has not been what we hoped for.

In the days leading up to the election, President Obama said to supporters at a Chicago rally, “I need you to keep on believing.”

“Chicago, I need you to keep on fighting. Illinois, I need you to keep on believing. I need you to knock on some doors. I need you to talk to your neighbors. I need you to get out and vote in this election,” Obama told a cheering crowd of thousands.

If the president and the Democrats hold out any hopes for 2012, they need to do something they haven’t done since January 2009: Give the progressive base and the diverse coalition helped them win in 2008 a reason to believe and a reason to stand with them -- instead of something to sit down, shut up, and settle for.

But first, they need to understand all of the above. Voters didn’t reward Republicans because they support Republican policies, but for not being Democrats. The electorate didn’t flip to the GOP in 2010. The Democrats’ demoralized base sat on its hands, and the diverse coalition of 2008 stayed away in droves.

The GOP is not popular, nor is its agenda. They are offering the same old ideas that didn’t before, won’t work now, and aren’t what Americans want. If they are successful with even part of their agenda, it will be a “catastrophic success” for American middle- and working-class families. Treating the Republican and party and its agenda as popular will be about as effective as treating George W. Bush like a popular president was towards the end of his term.

It won’t work. The choice now is to compromise or fight. Compromising didn’t work for the past two years. It’s time to fight.

Democrats need to a plan. And once they have it, they need to fight for it. The one Michael Moore offered them just a month out from the election is a good place to start.

If Democrats want to be rewarded for being Democrats, then they need to be Democrats and make sure people notice the difference:

  • Remind Americans how we got here. Remind them who unnecessarily invaded two countries, fought two “off the budget” wars to the tune of over $3 trillion; destroyed the budget surplus of they got in 2000; and cut taxes on the rich lower than even Reagan did, and managed to do so without creating any new jobs. Do this loudly, and often. Pull no punches.
  • Be bold. Democrats weren’t trounced in this election for being too bold, but for being not bold enough -- not for going too far, but for not going far enough.
  • Answer the GOP’s corporate-sponsored “populism” with real progressive populism. Fight back with populism that rallies economically distressed voters -- the very ones who stayed away from the polls in 2010 -- who are still desperate for leadership that meets their concerns with solutions.
  • Focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. If the election was a referendum on the economy, and the failure of the private sector and the government’s modest efforts to create jobs and reduce the jobs deficit. Tear a page from FDR. Present the country with a bold, progressive plan for direct job creation. Spell out exactly how it will create jobs, put more Americans back to work, and project the jobs of those who are (still) employed. Make the GOP do the same, spelling out how more tax cuts for the wealthy will create jobs (this time around), how many, and how soon.
  • Define solutions that are founded in progressive principles, show how they will deliver the change Americans want, and then fight for them. It doesn’t matter that there’s no chance of “winning.” Even if, in the current political reality, it’s unlikely that the Democrats are going to get much passed, they must be seen as standing for and fighting for something, at long last.

The campaign for 2012 starts now, and it begins by winning back your base and the coalition that believed in you in 2008, and is waiting for reason to believe in you again.

There’s a chance they will believe again. But not because of what you managed to bargained for, what you prevented from happening, or even because of what you won. They will believe again if they see you standing for them, if they see you fighting for them, and fighting for what what you believe is right. They will have a reason to believe and a reason to stand with you even if you lose, because at least you will have fought. Whether won or lost, every battle has the potential to move the front line close to the point of victory. Especially if more people are moved fight alongside you next time.

Democrats have a chance not only to win in 2012, but to stand firmly on the right side of history. To earn it they must define what they believe is right, and how it differs from their opposition’s belief. Then they must fight earnestly, openly and unapologetically for what’s right, not merely what’s winnable. It is the only way — from abolition, to civil rights, women’s rights, equality, etc. -- that what’s right has ever won.


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I like working with hard numbers sometimes rather than percentages. So follow me on this. In 2008, 23 million youth turned out (18%*130 mill), in 2010 it was 9 million, so about 12 million youth voters stayed home. Comparatively, the 65+ age range only dropped from 20.8 million to 19 million - only 1.8 million seniors stayed home. That seems like it would have made a big difference.

Crunching the other numbers from your citation of the Guardian, 12 million liberals stayed home compared to 10 million conservatives (and 25 million moderates). 32 million whites, 8.6 million blacks, and 5 million latinos all stayed home too.

To my mind it all boils down to the fact the Democrats who got elected on a message of change, did not make the changes they promised, at least to the degree they needed to in order to keep their base involved. I know just on the LGBT Rights area we got perhaps 25 or 30% of what they said they were going to deliver. Instead of taking the bull by the horns so to speak and moving their agenda forward they pandered to the Republicans who I feel had a big hand in putting us in the situation we have been suffering through for the last several years. Throw in the Health Care Reform disaster which turned the promise of Universal Health Care into slop for Insurance Company Pigs, then tried put a nice face on it with a little lipstick, all left many discouraged.
The fact no great job program got passed added to the problems for them. I personally do not think we will see much happen with the Republicans in power in the House. If Obama moves to the Right much more he will loose his base and then likely end up loosing the 2012 election as well. At least that is my feelings on it. But what do I know.

Terrance, this series has been by far the most comprehensive review of the midterm elections that I have read and I will read it again and refer to this constantly.