Thursday, November 04, 2004

Emerging from Despair

So the mighty swing voters struck out. Much ballyhooed, these so-called moderates and independents were thought by many political observers to be the key bloc. It turned out Karl Rove was much smarter. I will now genuflect before King Karl's diabolical genius.

How did he win this election, especially after getting dealt a hand that's maybe at best a 10-7 offsuit? In the battle of election strategies, Rove's base trounced Kerry's swing voters. Rove mobilized his base, big time. And by "base," I don't mean Limbaugh-listening, Fox News-watching, Free Republic-posting wingnuts. No, I mean folks who are generally apathetic about politics, who don't follow the news, and who decide on factors outside of facts. Kerry tried to reason with this group; Bush appealed to the public's non-reasoning faculties (emotional, instinctual, whatever). Guess which one worked better? Kerry lost this election because he couldn't hang on to poor whites in the Midwest, and he couldn't do it because the Democrats haven't found a simple message to speak to these voters for some time now. Bush's campaign has been working, under the radar of most of the national press, to spread the message of Bush as a man of faith who shares their values. That, and not national security, Iraq, or tax policy, ultimately carried the day.

The most interesting poll of the election was this one, about the shocking ignorance of Bush's supporters of current events and Bush's own positions. But positions and facts are quaint concepts, as this election proved.

My friend Ben Konop won Allen County in Ohio, where Lima is located, by 52-48% over Mike Oxley, a powerful incumbent who out-spent Ben by a factor of 13 to 1 or more. Bush beat Kerry there by a 66-33 spread. So Ben outperformed Kerry by a huge margin in a county that Kerry should've done better than Gore in 2000 due to dramatic job losses and a stagnant economy. But he didn't, and in the Battle for Ohio, it's counties like this one, where Kerry need to shrink Bush's advantage, where the war was really lost.

Ben didn't have enough money (or help from the local media) to spread his message to enough other counties to finally beat Oxley, but by pounding on a simple message with conviction (Oxley cares more about taking money from rich contributors than protecting jobs; Ben will represent their interests), Ben overcame the "liberal" label Oxley tried to tag on them and won over a substantial number of pro-life, Christian voters who otherwise voted Republican up and down the ticket. I don't know if Ben's campaign offers a model for the Democrats in red Midwestern counties, but clearly, if the electoral map stays the same in 2008, there has to be a strategy -- and more importantly, a strong, authentic message -- to appeal to folks who live in economically distressed towns like this Lima. John Edwards was supposed to appeal to voters like those in Lima this year, but clearly, it didn't succeed (though anecdotal evidence suggest that they found Edwards more appealing than Kerry).

Democrats have had it backwords for some time now. They campaign on "issues", believing, as Stanley Greenberg does, that Democrats are much popular than Republicans on the issues and so the job is to make the differences clear. The problem is most people don't have time to sort out the issues and identify them with any one particular candidate, as the above poll shows. They look at the candidates themselves. The job really is to find out what your core ideas and principles are, and then find an appealing way to sell that, which will include taking many popular policy positions. But the party has to stand for something that people can understand, something besides the vague "middle class" that Democrats champion. Presently, the Democrats have won over the graduate students, the educated elite, and kept the African-American and dwindling union base. Basically they've become the party of concensus elite opinion -- the Adlai Stevenson party. But by bypassing the common folk on the path to winning over editorial writers, they've lost their way on winning.

So this is yet another post in the tsunami of liberal recrimination articles going around. Liberals, being who we are, will look inward before looking outward. There will be much blame to go around. The danger is twofold: (1) to exaggerate the extent of the loss and make radical changes that betray party constituents (the "base" and Blue State affinities) and party principles, whatever those are; (2) to not take the failure of message seriously enough and simply blame the loss on Kerry's flaws. The Democrats' problem right now isn't that they don't yet have "another Clinton" to lead the Democrats out of the wilderness; their problem is that they do not have core principles, or if they do, they can't translate that into a simple, compelling message that can appeal to the unsophisticated portion of the populace.

On Election Night, I spent a lot of time chatting with two of my most political savvy friends, Brent and Mumon, who are both city dwellers that have spent a lot of time in Red and Swing States, living with the kind of voters the Democrats desperate need to win over. I think we batted around a lot of good ideas. So, in between mourning, self-flagellation, and binge-eating, I will try to sneak in a multi-part series of posts here on what happened, what ails the Democrats, and what must be done, much of which is based on those conversations. I hope it will be at least as thoughtful as many of the post-mortems that have deluged the elite magazines and web sites.

There will, of course, still be posts on the bad poncho fashion trend, obscure movies, and the ilk. But right now, I'm still reeling, and blogging about this, a most devastating result for the US and the world at large, is good for the soul. Well, it beats hiring existential detectives anyway.