Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Base turnout, Blue Dog Southern Democrats, and the masochism strategy

William Douglas highlights an important point about Blue Dog Democrats in the South in To avoid GOP romp, Democrats must get out black vote McClatchy Newspapers 10/14/2010. Their failure to energize their base can make a decisive difference to their chances for reelection. The stock linear formula that our star pundits are so fond of using, in which the most important challenge for a general election candidate is wooing the ideological "center" can be especially misleading in looking at this year's elections.

Douglas cites a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies looking at the prospects for African-American turnout in 20 House races and 14 Senate contests in which the African-American vote is considered a decisive factor. Of the 20 House races:

Seven of those 20 seats are held by fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, and some political analysts think that could pose a problem in generating African-American enthusiasm at the polls.

Several Blue Dogs voted against the health care bill, a measure that had strong support among African-Americans. Locked in tough re-election battles, some are touting their differences with President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in order to woo conservative votes.

At least two incumbent Democrats — Reps. Bobby Bright of Alabama and Jim Marshall of Georgia — have signaled that they won't vote for Pelosi to be speaker again if Democrats keep the House.

In fact, the Alabama Democratic Conference, a black political organization, recently endorsed Bright in spite of his voting record largely to help Democrats retain the House.

"That was the only reason," said Jerome Gray, a former field director for the group.
"Well, he sucks, but at least he's nominally a Democrat" really isn't a great slogan to motivate your base to turn out.

This year's election highlights the risk for the Democrats of having even a realtively small number of its Congressional delegation being effectively only nominal Democrats. The Blue Dogs in the current Congressional session contributed mightily to critical concessions that angered the national Democratic base - especially the elimination of the public option in health care reform - and they are the ones most vulnerable to losing their seats if the base voters don't turn out to support them.

Put a slightly different way, the Democrats undercut their voting support nationally in order to cater to encumbents who are likely to lose their seats anyway.

The current Blue Dog formula is really still a remnant of the Democratic Party of the segregated South. In those days, the Democratic Party nationally was far more dramatically divided ideologically than today, because the segregated South was almost as much of a loyal voting bloc for Dems as it is for Republicans today. And a majority of white voters living under segregation - and part of the segregation system was incredibly crooked election practices - tended to lean conservative on a whole range of policies, not just those overtly related to race.

But today, the Deep South is deep red. (I love the irony that in American politics since 2000 it has finally become common to talk about Party colors and that the Republicans are the Reds in the American convention.) In the 1950s and early 1960s, it made rational electoral sense for Southern Democrats to campaign as Democrats while voting against - often bitterly opposing - key positions of the national Democratic Party and a Democratic President. But today the Republicans have a lock on the anti-National-Democratic brand. If Blue Dogs can't carve out an identity for themselves that identifies them solidly as anti-Republican and supportive of the national Democratic Party on key policies, they will not only be chronically vulnerable themselves but act as a major obstacle to defining the national Democratic brand.

Howard Dean as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee established a "50-State Strategy" to address just this problem. The Democratic Party in many Southern Congressional districts has had a weak organization and a thin bench of talented candidates. Dean saw the value in building up the Party presence and brand identity everywhere. In the shorter run, that would allow the Democrats to take advantage of situations where the Republican candidate turned out to be unexpectedly weak. And at a minimum, it would force the Republican national campaign organizations to devote more time, effort and money to defend their seats even in "safe" Republican districts.

Current DNC Chairman Tim Kaine unwisely abandoned that approach. Even worse, far worse, the national Democratic campaign organizations neglect loyal progressive Democrats while backing Blue Dogs, as Digby ably explains in The Masochism Party Hullabaloo 10/13/2010:

The Democrats have candidates in trouble all over the country. [Ala] Grayson [in Florida] and [Raul] Grijalva [in Arizona] are just two of any number of incumbents who are in races that are going to be nail biters on election night. And yet the Party is standing behind people who are basically running against them and undermining everything the Democratic party allegedly stands for while ignoring those who are taking their fight to the Republicans.

This isn't a strategy, it's masochism.
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