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Candidates matter

Years and years ago -- the last year of the Reagan presidency, if I recall correctly -- I published an opinion article in Roll Call that I thought was a pretty powerful attack on Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, then just beginning his rise to leadership, had complained of corruption among congressional Democrats and cited, if I remember correctly, six congressional Democrats as examples. I pointed out that the Republicans had failed to produce credible opponents for five of the six, and that until they gave voters in those districts an alternative, they had no business complaining.

I hope my guest op-ed didn't influence Gingrich, but the fact is that between then and 1994, he switched from whining to recruiting. GOPAC and other (tax-exempt, by the way) candidate-recruitment projects linked to Gingrich hit their stride at this time, training Republicans to run for offices from school board to the Senate on a common message and tested language. A lot of factors went into the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, but one of them was that, when the ideological tide shifted, Republicans were there. In just about every seat, a good candidate was available -- Republicans who had run before, or held an office that covered a large portion of the district already, had a known name in the district, or were gifted with natural political skills. The mediocre ones were at least well trained. Not only did several of the Democrats Gingrich had complained about earlier lose their seats, but many others did as well, in part fueled by the phony "House bank scandal," or the backlash against Clinton's tax and health plans.

Over the last few cycles, it has been Democrats who have failed to contest some key seats. But this year, that seems to be changing. Every popular left-of-center blog is framed by pillars of ads from candidates promising the best effort to defeat Tom DeLay or House GOP whip Roy Blunt or some other ugly cog in the machine. Most of them won't win; many of them don't have a chance. But if the incumbent is suddenly hit by a car (or, more likely, hits someone else!), or a scandal breaks, or the backlash against BushDeLayism is as massive as it could well be, they will be there. And, if nothing else, they will have laid the groundwork for a run in 2006.

There's a lot to the analysis in the superb Monopoly Politicsreport put out every two years by the Center for Voting and Democracy, which demonstrates that the vast majority of House seats are structurally uncompetitive. This is, as CVD argues, partly the result of gerrymandering and partly the inherent tendency of winner-take-all politics.

But there is another dimension to political analysis and prediction: candidate quality does matter. A good or great candidate, at the right time, can defeat a poor candidate much of the time -- certainly often enough to make significant shifts in congressional control possible. The weakest of the 1994 and later Republicans have already been knocked off; the best have entrenched themselves, but there is still a group in the middle that can be beaten, but only by the right candidate. That's why candidate recruitment and leadership development projects such as Progressive Majority, which are only just getting started, will be the most important component of the effort to turn the country's politics around.

The more I think about it, the way we approach candidates is like the third element of the transformation of progressive politics in the last couple of years. The first two are contributors and voters. Let's compare Democratic politics circa 1996 with 2004:


1996 -- There is a list of people identified as "contributors," mostly big dollar donors. Candidates compete to be the first to get those already identified as contributors to give to them rather than someone else. Prospecting for donations among people who do not have a track record of giving money to politics isn't considered worth the price of a stamp. As Kevin Phillips said recently, Democrats were looking for "the second-biggest check" from donors whose biggest check was to Republicans. This has an effect on message and much else about the party.

2004 -- Anyone might be a donor. Even if their first donation is only $25, it costs almost nothing to go back to them via the internet and ask for more.


1996 -- We have a list of people identified as "voters." It doesn't change much. We can increase the number a little bit at the margins, especially through election-year minority-turnout projects, but getting non-voters to the polls is only half as valuable as converting a swing voter, who takes a vote away from the Republicans as well as giving one to us. Therefore, focus the message on, for example, that 2% of voters in Illinois whom we've identified as pro-choice, economically conservative suburban women, and similar categories.

2004 -- There aren't really enough true swing votes left. And there is plenty of untapped potential among Democratic constituencies. Therefore put the most massive effort possible into turnout and participation. Give people reasons to vote. Connect community issues to national politics. Focus on every under-represented group, not just African-Americans and Latinos -- young voters, young women, low-income whites, etc.


1996 -- We have a list of targeted seats. We (the party) will try to recruit candidates for those seats. The first thing criteria is whether they have enough money to fund their own campaign, or the connections to raise it. (I once calculated that half of the Democrats who took back Republican Senate seats in 1996-2000 were self-financed millionaires. That's not an accident; it was the recruiting strategy at the time.)

2004 -- Candidates are motivated by their own enthusiasm to run. Some of them start without much money, but hope to raise enough the small contributions and the internet to appear viable, after which they expect support from the party and/or outside groups. These will be very different candidates -- more passionate, often more liberal, better-rounded, more authentic. It's interesting to note that the only millionaire self-financed candidate for a hot Senate seat this year is Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, who also has a long record of public service and a previous statewide race on his resume. The typical Democratic candidate of the previous few cycles would have been Blair Hull, the millionaire Illinois candidate; the typical candidate of this year is Barack Obama, who beat Hull in the primary.

[A good comment notes something that I thought of on the subway but forgot to change: There is nothing "typical" about Barack Obama, a candidate of extraordinary gifts. But some of the other candidates emerging this year, like Inez Tennenbaum in South Carolina or Ken Salazar in Colorado, seem to me more like Obama than they are like Blair Hull -- that is, their political skills and personal appeal outweigh their dollars.]

All these changes are related. The ease of raising small contributions makes it easier for more imaginative candidates to emerge, for example. And they are all somewhat related to the Internet. The narrow, closed approach to money, voters and candidates of the late 1990s was a self-reinforcing vicious circle. It's possible that the more open, less tiresome and predictable alternative that is emerging could be a kind of virtuous circle, leading to a healthier democracy, more participation, less influence by big donors, etc.

Whatever the results of the presidential election, I suspect we will see this year as a moment of transformation at least comparable to the emergence of the post-Watergate Class of 1974.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 3, 2004 | Permalink


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Great Post!

I wonder how much of the the lack of swing voters this year is just a temporary phenomena (there's plenty of high-profile stuff to be polarized about right now) and how much is the symptom of a longer-term decrease in true swing voters. If it's just temporary, I hope the Dems, and Kerry in particular, have a series of proposal in mind designed to appeal to those swing voters they're picking up this year...proposals that showcase the "Democratic approach to governing" that a Kerry administration can deliver on by 2006.

One way they might be able to effectively sell the Democratic approach would be to juxtapose the kind of ideologically driven decision making we've seen from the GOP in the last decade with the more reasoned, reality-based bipartisan proposals we see coming out of Washington less and less. The Dems could pick a group of policies (especially policies that a Kerry administration can easily change) that both failed due to the ideological blinders used to formulate them and that many people forsaw as flawed policies but were implemented anyways.

So instead of just talking about the standard hot-button set of issues, the Dems could also bring up a whole new set of issues: the foreseeable policy disasters...foreseeable to any politician that isn't bound by an unreasonable allegiance to an unbalanced set of principles (i.e. modern pop-culture conservatism).

This kind of theme could also be included in any attempt to nationalize the House and Senate races. With the enormous failures of our adventures in Iraq and the questionable reasoning behind it, ideology is going to be attacked by Kerry no matter what. So, the Dems might as well try to attach that debate to the congressional races too. :-) They just might be able to do that by highlighting the most egregious policies now and pointing out their flaws within an "ideology vs reason and debate" framework in the shortrun. In the medium term, I'd really like to see them follow up their attacks on ideology with positive solutions to the highlighted problems in a high-profile manner by 2006.

Maybe it's a bit early to work on medium-term strategies, but so much of the conservative world-view is going to be called into question this year and the Dems really need to be planning some sort of medium-term rhetorical strategy that capitalizes on this opportunity and hopefully shifts the terms of the debate. It's just strikes me as a great opportunity for the progressives to effectively sell a lot of swing voters on the non-ideological Democratic approach and maybe even make them feel like they did something good for the country this year by voting Dem.

Posted by: futurstan123 | Jun 8, 2004 12:17:25 AM

I really think you have to add a fourth element to our ability to win back the government, the re-entry of progressive philosophy into the conventional political wisdom. Ever since Reagan, the conventional wisdom has been that "government is the problem," and that the solution is to "get government off the backs of the people." Even Clinton, masterful politician though he was, did virtually nothing to advance the philosophy of progressivism. Now, however, between the new progressive think tanks, the 527s and the blogosphere, progressive ideas are starting to be inserted into the national debate. And, it is necessary that we hold our own in this debate, or else we will forever be fighting a rearguard action.

Posted by: Paul C | Jun 8, 2004 10:11:02 AM

In an otherwise good post, I found two nits to pick at:

1) "2004" should replace "2000" as the lead for the second paragraph under "Candidates."

2) What makes Barack Obama so appealing to progressives is that he is an exceptional canidate. Only in my dreams is a person of Obama's quality typical of Democratic candidates.

Posted by: Bragan | Jun 9, 2004 12:40:52 PM

Great post, Mark! I'm afraid that our district is one of those unwinnable ones for some time to come, so much so that once again the R is unopposed. But candidates are crucial, and I think the results of many of those sacrificial candidacies in 2004 will make a big difference in 2006.

futurestan123: so much of the conservative world-view is going to be called into question this year and the Dems really need to be planning some sort of medium-term rhetorical strategy that capitalizes on this opportunity and hopefully shifts the terms of the debate.

Couldn't agree more. In Virginia, some Dems are capitalizing on the far-right Republicans' fiscal insanity by calling them the Flat Earth Society (seeing everything in two dimensions), and using that to highlight their out-of-touchness on other issues as well.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Jun 10, 2004 7:38:55 PM

I hope they do read your this letter too.

Posted by: John | Oct 17, 2006 8:37:10 AM