Political Strategy: The Numbers Speak genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

The following posting is the third entry in a continuing Thought Theater dialogue on political strategy. The first posting, Political Strategy: The Opening Dialogue, can be found here, and the second posting, Political Strategy: Beyond Extremist Labels can be found here.

Joe Lieberman has announced that he will collect petition signatures to place his name on the Connecticut November ballot as an “individual Democrat" in the event that he should lose the primary race for his current Senate seat to Ned Lamont. The announcement has drawn criticism from many within the netroots who have supported the Lamont challenge. I have sought to focus my prior remarks about this particular race on the larger political implications the race has for the November elections, for the Democratic Party, and for the netroots. My observations are not meant to be an endorsement of either candidate as I have previously stated that the decision should be made by the voters in Connecticut. Nonetheless, this race has ramifications that go beyond the confines of Connecticut with regard to political strategy.

With that in mind, I’m of the belief that this race will be a key piece of the campaign strategy that will be employed by Karl Rove and the Republican Party for the November midterm election and likely into the 2008 presidential campaign. I believe the core of the Rove strategy will be to depict Democrats as “too liberal", a term that has been largely defined by repetitive Republican statements that have successfully attached a number of negative impressions to the term.

Among the impressions that have been cultivated are the perceptions (beliefs) that liberals are weak (unpatriotic) on defense and fighting the war on terror. They cite a number of items to support this contention such as the willingness to quit Iraq, the willingness to support an individual’s right to burn the flag, and the willingness to expose and criticize the administrations efforts to conduct domestic surveillance. They have also sought to point out that liberals are anti-religion. They cite support for same sex marriage, support for abortion on demand, opposition to religious symbols, and secular values in general to bolster this argument.

The strategy is relatively simple in its objective. Rove believes the Party that can depict the opposition as too extreme will win the critical voters who occupy the middle. Too that end, I expect the Republicans will cite the Lieberman v. Lamont battle as an example of the intolerance within the Democratic Party for views that do not adhere to those that the Republicans have negatively defined above. Rove will use the fact that Joe Lieberman was the Democrats vice presidential candidate in 2000 to argue that the Democrats, already perceived to be liberal, have moved even further left such that they no longer accept their own recent nominee. He will be able to assert that in a state where the Democrats held a Senate seat that was virtually uncontested, Democrats chose to spend time and effort to defeat an incumbent rather than focus upon contested seats in other states…because they are intolerant of opposing views and because they are extreme in their ideology.

That brings me to the numbers. In looking at recent data from a couple of polls, it appears that the Republican strategy of defining perceptions has been relatively successful and may be primed for further exploitation. A survey done by The Pew Research Center in April of 2006 seems to support my contention. You can view the entire report here. The following is from the report.

Top-of-the-mind expressions of opinion about both parties tend to be more negative than positive. When asked what single word describes their impression of each party, pluralities for each party responded a negative or critical term. But the most common words mentioned tend to be descriptive rather than evaluative. By far, the single most common word for the Republican Party was "conservative" and for the Democratic Party, "liberal." Following these ideological labels was "fair," a term that some respondents meant as "even-handed" and others evidently meant to be tepid praise, if that. Similar numbers described each party as "good" or "very good."

Thematically, negative terms about the Republican Party largely address its perceived support for business and the wealthy, while those for the Democratic Party tend to highlight the perceived weakness and disorganization of the party. The GOP is associated with being "greedy," "rich," "business," "crooks," "corrupt," "money," and "for rich people." The Democrats are seen as "weak," disorganized," and "confused," with a few mentions of "slow" and "struggling" tossed in. Several people also described the party as "too liberal," and a few others mentioned "socialist" and "communists."

Democrats were seen as liberal or too liberal by 70 out of 208 respondents while Republicans were seen as conservative by 53 out of 232 respondents. While these numbers were not obtained under strict statistical guidelines, they offer an insight into perceptions…which is the essence of the strategy I believe is being employed by Rove and the Republicans. Nonetheless, the numbers do indicate that Republicans are succeeding at defining the Democrats.

I found another more recent poll that I think further supports my assertions and offers a specific example of the Republican strategy at work for a longer period of time. Rasmussen conducts a poll called the “Hillary Meter" which is a survey taken every other week since early 2005. The survey is to gauge the voter’s perception of Hillary Clinton’s position relative to the country’s political center…basically a measure of liberal vs. conservative. The full report can be found here and the following is from the report.

Rasmussen Reports began conducting the Hillary Meter surveys every other week in early 2005. At the time, the Senator was making a concerted effort to develop a more moderate political image for herself. In January of 2005, 51% of Americans viewed New York’s junior Senator as politically liberal. That number dropped quickly to the 45% range by mid-year. Since then, however, the number viewing Clinton as politically liberal has remained quite stable.

Today, 46% view Clinton as politically liberal, 33% see her as a moderate, and 8% say she’s conservative. While a plurality of Americans view the Senator as politically liberal, she has encountered criticism from liberal activists recently for her position on the war in Iraq.

Collectively, today’s Hillary Meter places Senator Clinton a net 55 points to the left of the nation's political center. Two weeks ago, she was 53 points to the left of center.

The political center is calculated by subtracting the number of liberals from the number of conservatives among the general public (35% conservative, 18% liberal for a net +17). For the Senator, 8% conservative minus 46% liberal equals a net minus 38. The minus 38 reading for Senator Clinton is 55 points away from the plus 17 reading for the general public.

Rasmussen Reports was the nation's most accurate polling firm during the Presidential election and the only one to project both Bush and Kerry's vote total within half a percentage point of the actual outcome.

The numbers are a fascinating look at perceptions and the impact that political strategy can have on the voter’s views about candidates or political parties. Note that Clinton was able to change the perceptions about her position on the political spectrum shortly after she began to move towards the center. At the same time, she still remains predominantly viewed as a liberal. The shift in perception was relatively small when one looks at a representative sampling of all voters.

Conversely, the netroots have offered a vocal and visible critique of the Clinton shift. Despite this criticism of Clinton’s shift towards the center, the overall impact on how she is viewed by the vast majority of voters doesn’t appear to be significant. It appears that the netroots view, though readily apparent and available, is one of relative placement on the political spectrum and not of consequence in influencing the general voter perceptions on the overall political spectrum. Essentially, she may be further from the netroot left but she is still viewed as being significantly left of the national center (if one accepts the definitional data that the general public is significantly skewed conservative at the moment). It is difficult to ignore the importance of this data when making meaningful election calculations and doing so may well prove to be a noteworthy strategical mistake.

One must then look at the relative forces that are at play in influencing the broader voting public in their perceptions of Democrats in general and specifically with regard to Clinton. I believe one can argue that the strategy incorporated by Karl Rove and the Republican Party is having a larger impact on perceptions than that of the netroots. While those who identify as netroot Democrats likely view Clinton to the right of center, in relative terms, their observations and protestations are having little influence on the general publics perception. At the same time, Rove and the Republicans seem to be able to convince voters that the Clinton shift is minimal and that she still remains significantly left of center…which has been and will continue to be forcefully stated as being out of the mainstream. In the end, it seems apparent that the Republican’s are winning the perception game.

As I incorporate the above data about basic voter sentiment and Clinton’s position on the left / right continuum with the significance of the Lieberman v. Lamont race, I am increasingly convinced that the Connecticut situation provides added advantage to Rove and the Republicans. As I attempt to dissect the numbers and the sentiment, it seems to me that if the administration were to make some notable progress in Iraq…perhaps some troop reductions prior to the November election such that voters can visualize an end point, the war’s impact on voter leanings may be neutralized.

If that were to happen, I believe the voter profile would resort to the prevailing left / right perceptions that have, for the most part, determined the outcome of recent elections. Adding to the Democrats problem is the relative size of the liberal base in comparison to the conservative base. An energized liberal base simply doesn’t have the numerical impact needed to overcome the disadvantage…without moderate voters; the Democrats simply can’t muster the majorities they will need.

If we reach the fall with the Lieberman v. Lamont situation garnering national headlines that depict the Democratic Party in disarray and dissent as well as with the Bush administration commencing the withdrawal of troops, Rove will have in place a perfect political storm with which to implement his election eve magic. He will paint the Democrats as out of touch with mainstream voters (far left on social issues as well as defense and the war on terror), as having been premature in their demands to begin withdrawing troops, as so unwilling to allow the Iraq situation to resolve that they would attempt to unseat a longstanding Democrat who was recently a vice presidential candidate, and as being pulled further left by a vocal and visible group of extreme ideologues.

Daniel DiRito | July 4, 2006 | 9:41 AM
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1 On July 6, 2006 at 10:56 AM, Sandwich Repairman wrote —

I think the "liberal" epithet as a Republican strategy has outlived its usefulness. Americans are tired of it and see through it. In 1996 Bob Dole constantly referred to "Liberal, liberal, liberal Bill Clinton!" He lost decisively. That same year, Republicans ran ads calling Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone "embarassingly liberal and decades out of touch". There was one mockingly awarding Wellstone a place in the "1967 Liberal Hall of Fame". They called him very liberal, extremely liberal, and unbelievably liberal. Wellstone won by 9 points. Jerry Kilgore just lost his VA Governor campaign by portraying Gov. Tim Kaine as a liberal. Kaine won in 2005 by an even larger margin than Mark Warner did in 2001. George Nethercutt challenged Sen. Patty Murray in 2004 by calling her a liberal--she won by 16 points. Russ Feingold was challenged as a liberal in 2004 and also won. You can even look at the 2004 Pennsylvania Senate primary--an affair strictly among Republicans--where Pat Toomey challenged Sen. Arlen Specter as being too liberal. Toomey lost.

I don't buy it. That strategy is over.

2 On July 6, 2006 at 1:45 PM, Daniel wrote —

Sandwich Repairman,

Thank you for sharing your insights and observations. I always enjoy the dialogue.

You make some good points although I don't believe you have fully explored the situation. First, in my posting, I point out that Republicans have succeeded in attaching a number of negatives to Democrats as a whole. I might agree that the "liberal" label, if it were a stand alone strategy has lost some of its luster...but that isn't the whole story here. Republicans, in their refinement of the word have defined Democrats in comparison to Republicans using a number of topical issues that resonate with voters...a strategy far different than tossing the "liberal" label.

Regarding your examples, I cannot comment on some of the races simply because I don't know enough to do so...if I did it would be primarily speculative.

As to Clinton and Dole, Clinton won in 1992 primarily because Perot split the Republican vote. At the time Clinton began his presidency as a liberal but quickly moved to the right such that by 1996 the "liberal" label simply wasn't accurate. In fact, if you read many of the "netroot" blogs, they criticize Clinton for not being a true Democrat and they want to purge the Party of such DINO types (Lieberman for one). The country's prosperity was also a large factor in the 1996 presidential election.

In the Pennsylvania primary, as I recall, the Republican Party backed Specter because the demographics didn't appear to favor a Toomey candidacy in the general election. The Party felt he might lose the seat if he were the nominee. While I am often frustrated with Specter, he is to the left of many Republicans so that particular race wasn't structured as a left / right contest.

I'm sure I can find examples that demonstrate the reverse of those other races you have provided...whereby the "liberal" label worked. I just don't think one can look at individual races and extrapolate them to the larger left / right divide. The national numbers simply don't suggest that the country leans left...however one chooses to label that distinction (liberal, progressive, etc).

I do think the far right has overplayed their position and there is a bit of a national backlash against their strict ideology. Unfortunately, I see the Republican strategy as having shifted focus away from the social issues of far right. They still appease those individuals but the bulk of their 2006 strategy is being directed to middle of the road voters...and they are courting them with the definitional subtleties I mention above.

Democrats seem to want to use a broad brush to analyze the midterm election...which I think is driven by abject anger at Bush (understandably). Nonetheless, in my opinion, the 2006 campaign and the eventual outcome will be dependent upon far more refined strategies than many Democrats believe. In the end, emotions are not necessarily translatable to votes...especially given the fact that some circumstances (like Iraq) may well change before November.

I would like to believe your right when you say "I don't buy it. That strategy is over." Unfortunately, the numbers aren't there yet. I don't say that because I want Republicans to win...I don't. I say it because I'm concerned that Democrats may be miscalculating such that 2006 could be a bigger disappointment than 2004.

I hope to hear more of your thoughts. Thanks again for commenting.


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