Can Howard Dean's Plan Win In November? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

With just over four months until the November midterm elections, many are asking whether the Democratic National Committee has positioned the Party to get out the vote and win elections or if the 50 state plan being created by Howard Dean is a much longer term objective that will miss, in 2006, its best opportunity in years. Dean's recent disagreements with Rahm Emmanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the less than stellar Democratic turnout in the CA-50 congressional special election have raised doubts about the 50 state plans ability to impact the 2006 election. Art Berman has a good article exploring the topic here at The Nation.

The district was Republican, but Democrats saw the contest between Democrat Francine Busby and Republican Brian Bilbray as an opportunity to pick up a seat--and gain a boost en route to the November Congressional elections. As voters were heading to the polls in Cunningham's district, I asked Democratic Party chair Howard Dean about his party's plan to mobilize voters in the coming mid-term elections. "We're using it in Busby's district," Dean said.

If that was the case, Democrats have reason to worry. And some are--which has led to a bruising fight in Democratic strategy circles between Dean's Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other key party operatives. Busby lost to Bilbray by four percentage points, and worse, a massive Democratic mobilization never materialized.

Dean's immediate focus in Busby's district, as he explained to me, was to target people who voted in 2004 but not in 2002. Yet Republicans out-hustled and out-mobilized Democrats on the ground in Bilbray's victory, spending twice as much money, making six times as many phone calls to voters and airlifting in 100 staffers from Capitol Hill. "There was dramatically lower turnout than we expected," said one Democratic operative in the district. Busby got half as many votes as Kerry, and only improved upon Kerry's 44 percent take by less than 1 percent.

In mid-June only 3 percent of voters showed up for the Democratic primary to choose a Senate challenger to George Allen in Virginia, five times lower than the last contested Democratic primary. "Democrats have not yet felt the fire and energy that they felt in 2004," EMILY's List president Ellen Malcolm ominously wrote to donors recently.

As I read this information, I was drawn to a couple of significant items. Specifically, the reported lack of turnout and the absence of Democratic voter enthusiasm don’t match what one finds on the web at many netroots sites. The contradictions are worth exploring. Despite the large number of visitors these vocal and visible sites garner, the question is whether those numbers represent a Democratic voter groundswell or simply the concentration of an undoubtedly large number of like minded individuals.

As I attempt to analyze the situation, it seems worthwhile to look at some of the actual numbers. According to a 2005 report by The New Politics Institute, the top 1000 political blogs (both conservative and progressive) generate approximately three million unique visitors each day...up from 500,000 over the prior two years. The increase is both significant and impressive but when these numbers are dispersed over the entire voting public, they offer some explanation for the observation that perceived Democratic voter enthusiasm hasn't translated into increased voter turnout.

A comparison might be helpful. In 2004, union membership in the United States was approximately 15.5 million. Of that number, one would be safe to conclude that a majority are Democrats. At the same time, they are typically more politically active than the average voter. Nonetheless, most political observers feel that unions have had a diminishing influence on elections. Given the relative numbers (union members vs. progressive blog readers), while the progressive blogosphere has garnered attention from the media, it remains to be seen what impact they can actually have on elections. What isn't available and might be helpful to the analysis is the percentage of visitors to progressive blogs that are also union members. Without knowing the actual make-up of blog readers it is difficult to conclude whether they are newly engaged voters or simply existing Democratic voters who have aligned with similar thinking Democrats to make up the bulk of the progressive blogosphere.

Actual election results have failed to demonstrate that the progressive blogosphere has actually been able to change the outcome or the turnout. The fact that they bring like minded individuals together and have been able to focus attention on specific elections across the country as well as raise funds for candidates identified as progressives has been notable yet perhaps insignificant. The voter data has simply not supported the notion that there is a palpable impact. For example, the Busby race attracted significant online attention and national support for her candidacy but while those who participated in the race from afar were engaged, it apparently didn't translate to the voters within the district. The same has been seen in other high profile races that have caught the attention of the progressive blogosphere.

The Connecticut Democratic senate primary race between Lieberman and Lamont is the latest focus of the progressive blogosphere. Lamont, the progressive challenger, has done quite well in his efforts to unseat Joe Lieberman and has significantly narrowed the gap as the August primary approaches. The problem that I see is similar to the situation in Virginia whereby only three percent of voters turned out for the primary election. Given a similarly low voter turnout, Lamont may well be able to win the Democratic nomination but may be unable to win the November election. Polling shows that Lieberman would win the seat if he ran as an independent against Lamont and the Republican challenger.

With this in mind, I return to the midterm election strategy. In the midst of conflicting strategies, one wonders if any of the various approaches can muster ample voters to defeat the Republicans. Howard Dean frequently cites the favorable comments from those he has placed in positions within the various state Party structures as evidence that the fifty state plan is working. Whether that can be translated into larger voter turnout is yet to be seen.

It sounded simple, but the "50 State Strategy" was a radical idea for a party accustomed to organizing only around election time, in toss-up states. Dean delivered immediately, giving each state a minimum of two to three field organizers. In places like Mississippi, that was more staff than the party had previously employed altogether. "I'm basically trying to rebuild the infrastructure of a party that doesn't have any," Dean says. With a few exceptions, state DNC chairs rave about him. "I couldn't be more impressed by the DNC," says Chris Redfern, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. "We're way ahead of the curve," says Dan Parker, Indiana's Democratic chair.

Dean's approach is similar to the one he employed when running for the Democratic presidential nomination. I closely followed his campaign and it certainly appeared that he had a network of supporters throughout the country. Many see the current progressive blogosphere as an extension of Dean's efforts. Regardless, the 2004 Iowa caucus results, which most political observers believe is all about having people on the ground within the state, seemed to indicate that the Dean model had failed. As I've attempted to understand the particulars, my suspicion is that the structure in Iowa, and possibly the fifty state structures, simply doesn’t have the depth that is needed to win voters. The fact that Dean was a leader in the use of the internet in the 2004 presidential campaign allowed him to amass like minded individuals and gain a significant funding advantage...but it never translated into a groundswell of voters needed to carry state primaries. Dean frequently cites his fundraising efforts, and while they have been successful, many are concerned that his use of the funds may be questionable.

But the DNC and the state parties lag behind their GOP rivals. Dean did keep pace with DNC fundraising in '04, but he has been on a spending spree, pouring millions into updating voter technology and boosting state party organizations. As a result the RNC, as of May, has four times as much cash to spend on November as the DNC--$43 million to $10.3 million. This has caused Democrats to fear that Republicans can fund last-minute ad campaigns and turnout efforts that Democrats will be unable to counter. And Republican state parties boast a financial advantage in thirty-two states. "Voters start paying attention late in the game," says the Democratic operative. "That's when you need resources. And there's a worry those resources won't be there." Button, who is coordinating the campaigns in Tennessee, agrees. "I asked Dean point blank a month ago: How much money can I count on you for? He said they've done all they're gonna do."

Officials at the DNC talk about stealing the Republican playbook. But in reality Dean is performing a difficult juggling act, devolving power to the states while trying to win respect for his long-term vision inside the Beltway. "The number-one sport in Washington is to take shots at the DNC chair," the Democratic operative jokes.

Dean's 50 State Strategy could be the blueprint for his party's revival. But winning elections--particularly this November--would help, too.

I've previously written that Karl Rove understands the American voter and in so doing realizes that voters are busy and that they ultimately devote minimal time to elections. The notion that Howard Dean's efforts are an attempt to emulate the Republican strategy may be a misnomer. To assume that Rove believes in a grassroots strategy is naive and speaks to a superficial analysis. While it often appears that the Republicans have grassroots constituencies, I would argue that they actually have "issue" constituencies that Rove has been able to manipulate. By identifying specific issues, he is quickly able to determine the numbers needed to win an election. Once the groups are identified, the strategy is to target messages to those groups in order to win their support. The coalition isn't the result of a groundswell of voters who guide the Party; rather the coalition is the result of shepherding large voting blocks into the Party with narrow messages delivered by co-opted leaders within those specific groups who receive access to power and influence in exchange for delivering the voters. The distinction is subtle but significant.

An example might be helpful. Dean and some other Democrats have talked about courting religious voters in an attempt to expand the voter base. The problem with the strategy is the absence of an enticing message. Stating that one would welcome such voters to the Party is far different than offering them a tangible message that meets their objectives. Aside from extending an invitation, what is it the Democrats are offering these voters that is more tangible than that offered by the Republican Party? Sadly, these voters aren't looking for acceptance...they are looking for change. The Democrats simply aren't offering these voters what they want and by courting such voters the Party may be neglecting middle of the road voters that could actually be enticed by a meaningful message...if one were created and delivered.

In the end, the Democrats will fail if they continue to determine their strategy as a reaction to the Republican strategy. Attempts to replicate the Republican efforts cannot succeed without the necessary messages. Attempting to deliver messages to some Republican voting blocks is a waste of time, effort, and money. Democrats need to look at the make-up of the voting public, decide which blocks of voters they can win over with the appropriate messages and determine if it is an actual voter majority. If not, they need to determine where the messages can be altered to garner other voters. Recent forays to court all voters are simply viewed as an indecisive and convoluted message that fails to inspire or influence enough voters. There is mounting evidence that the Democrats aren't developing or don't have the messages necessary to win.

Daniel DiRito | June 30, 2006 | 8:43 AM
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