Thomas Schaller

How Democrats Can Win Without the South

Poised to assume their respective posts atop new congressional Democratic majorities, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can be forgiven a certain giddiness as the 2006 midterm elections approach. Pelosi recently told Time that establishment Democrats in Washington "can't even believe the fact that I'm going to become Speaker, but they're getting used to it." A bit more cautious but no less hopeful, Reid has noted that "history's on [the] side" of the minority party in a president's second midterm cycle.

To become the first female House Speaker, Pelosi will need to gain 15 seats. For Reid to become Senate majority leader, Democrats must net six new senators. A year ago, talk of an electoral upheaval of this sort was limited to the perfunctory cheerleading of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the men tasked with recruiting, training and electing Democrats to Congress.

Since then, however, the conventional wisdom has reversed. Most of the "political capital" President Bush claimed to have earned in his 2004 re-election was poured down the Iraqi money pit or squandered in a failed attempt to privatize Social Security. By August 2005, whatever political currency the Administration had left Hurricane Katrina promptly swept over the broken levees.

The pre-election consensus among political handicappers like Charlie Cook, Thomas Mann and Stu Rothenberg is that Democrats will flip the House, and have a decent shot of deadlocking the Senate and an outside chance of capturing it outright. To maintain control, even if narrowly, top Republicans are relying on district-by-district, state-by-state efforts as a local buffer against pervasive anti-Bush and anti-Republican sentiments nationally.

Whatever the magnitude of the coming changes, two things are certain: The Democrats are going to gain seats in the 2006 midterms, and those gains will come from outside the South.

Regionalized partisanship rises

The 1920 elections were a Democratic disaster. Dissatisfaction with Woodrow Wilson created an electoral avalanche that would be nearly impossible in today's era of highly gerrymandered districts and overwhelming incumbent advantages. Republicans picked up 10 new senators and 62 representatives, giving the GOP 61 of 98 Senate seats and a whopping House majority with 302 seats. The resulting 67th Congress mirrored the regional alignment of the two parties, with no Republican senators and just a handful of House members coming from the 11 states of the former Confederacy. Despite their chokehold on the South, the Democrats were a regionally confined party that found little support elsewhere in the country.

It was an era in American politics when presidential and congressional results aligned regionally in ways that have been decidedly misaligned since the collapse of the New Deal in the late '60s.

But regionalized partisanship is beginning to emerge anew. Republicans won every southern state in the past two presidential elections and now have 18 of the region's 22 senators and two-thirds of its House seats. In 2004, despite Bush's two-and-a-half-point defeat of John Kerry, outside the South the Democrats actually gained congressional seats in both chambers. That's right: If the five House seats produced by the re-redistricting of Texas orchestrated by former majority leader Tom DeLay and the five Senate pickups made possible by those southern Democratic retirements are held aside, the Democrats won the 2004 congressional elections.

Four-D Democrats

Today, the Democrats cannot swing enough seats in the near or medium term to invert the electoral maps of the late 19th and early 20th centuries--that is, to confine Republicans solely to their new, southern dominion. Nor would they want to: Democrats will never be shut out of the South the way Republicans once were because there will always be a certain number of districts in the South where African Americans and Hispanics make up the majority. What Democrats can do, however, is accelerate the regional transformation already underway in the quadrant of the northeastern and midwestern states formed by connecting Dover, New Hampshire, and Dover, Delaware, to the east, with Des Moines, Iowa, and Duluth, Minnesota, to the west.

Call it the "Four-D Rectangle."

The Cook Political Report publishes a partisan index that measures the House district-level performance of presidential candidates. Rising partisanship has shrunk the number of split districts, that is, districts that vote for Democratic presidential candidates but have a Republican member of Congress, or vice versa. Republicans currently represent 59 districts that either tilt Democratic or which Bush won by narrow margins, and 44 of these seats are located in the Four-D Rectangle.

Consider Connecticut. Although the Nutmeg State has already drawn plenty of attention for its bloody, intra-party squabble between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman in the Senate race, it is Connecticut's House steats that are more indicative of the electoral situation. This blue presidential state has only five House seats, three of which are represented by the sort of moderate, "Rockefeller Republicans" who once formed the backbone of the GOP: Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays and Rob Simmons.

None of the three received at least 60 percent of the vote in 2004, and both Shays and Simmons are prime Democratic targets because they won with less than 55 percent. Defying the White House and his fellow Republicans, the embattled Shays made national headlines by calling for a timeline to withdraw American troops from Iraq. His defection was quickly deemed the Shays Rebellion.

Along with Connecticut, the Emanuel-led Democrats are also eyeing winnable seats in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Democratic challengers are even causing Republicans headaches in places like Idaho, eastern Washington, and Wyoming's at-large seat. By contrast, about half of the small group of Democratic incumbents in jeopardy of losing despite a general tailwind this cycle are southerners: Louisiana's Charlie Melancon, South Carolina's John Spratt and two Georgia Democrats.

Schumer-freude

The Northeast and Midwest are also home to four of the five most vulnerable Republican senators running for re-election this cycle: Missouri's Jim Talent, Ohio's Mike DeWine, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum and Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. The fifth is Montana's Conrad Burns.

None of the five targets are in the South, the region that produced five new Republicans in 2004 to fill the vacancies created by the simultaneous retirement of five Democratic senators. Current Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) is a formidable campaigner who hopes to take the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, and the "macaca" blunder of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) has breathed new life into party-switcher Jim Webb's Virginia campaign. But these two seats are considered second-tier opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Democrats' chances of picking up the sixth and decisive seat Schumer and Reid need for a majority are as good in the Southwest as the Southeast. In Arizona, well-financed millionaire Jim Pederson has an outside chance of upending two-term Republican incumbent Jon Kyl, who is a lackluster campaigner. And in Nevada, former President Jimmy Carter's son Jack is closing ground against rookie Republican John Ensign.

Even if Democrats come up short, netting just three or four seats this cycle, the Senate outlook is just as promising two years hence. The Democrats are defending 18 seats to just 15 for the Republicans in 2006, but in 2008 the split is 21 Republican seats to only 12 Democrats. If Reid fails to get his majority this time around, he'll be poised to do so next cycle.

The emergent pattern is clear: To forge a House majority, the Democrats will need to convert the purple Midwest states to blue, make the blue states of the Northeast bluer, and snag the odd seat here and there in the interior West. The Washington Post's Dan Balz and David Broder confirm that top Republican strategists, speaking off-the-record about their party's prospects, are predicting doom: "Republicans face potential losses in every section of the country, but the area that concerns strategists most is the arc of states running from the Northeast across the Midwest."

Party correction

Evidence of this pattern can be found across the ballot. In January 2001, there wasn't a single Democratic governor in any of the eight states of the interior West; there are four now, and if 2006 Democratic nominees in Colorado and Nevada win it could rise to six. The Republicans are almost certain to lose the New York and Ohio governorships, and Democrats are also favored to win in Maryland and Massachusetts. In the 2004 state legislative elections, Democrats gained enough seats outside the South to more than compensate for their southern congressional losses, flipping control of eight chambers, only one of which was in the South.

Though Pelosi and Reid would never say so publicly, national Democrats are benefiting from a regional correction to the realignment that began with the South's Republican conversion following the Brown v. Board ruling and the civil rights movement. To accelerate this process, Democrats must expand and consolidate their control over the Northeast and Midwest by purging as many of the remaining "Rockefeller Republicans" as possible.

For many in the Democratic establishment in Washington, this is the new regional winning formula for the party. As Pelosi might say, they'd better start getting used to it.

Questions Worth Asking

The St. Louis debate was spectacular. The citizens selected to ask questions proved that most talking heads don't have a thing on a group of thoughtful, gutsy Americans. I haven't seen every televised presidential debate. But of all those I've seen since the first election for which I was eligible (1988), Wednesday's was the most substantial, point-counterpoint battle I can recall.

After learning his lesson during the Mistake in Miami, President George W. Bush rid himself of the scowl. Though he was more shouty than pouty on Friday night at Washington University, the president won't make any stylistic errors at Arizona State on Wednesday, and I suspect Sen. John Kerry will maintain his cool as he did in the first two clashes. Because 68 percent of the 46 million Americans who watched the vice presidential debate said the debate had no effect on their voting plans, the debate in Cleveland between incumbent Dick Cheney and challenger John Edwards was a wash.

And thus, barring one of the candidates making an egregious factual error or bogus claim during the Tussle in Tempe, the net effect of this year's debates is two-fold:

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Flat-Growth Battlegrounds

George W. Bush should be worried about his re-election prospects, if for no other reason than this: With less than three months to go until November 2, the economy is flatter in the states that matter.

An analysis of battleground state economies reveals that, whatever stock one puts in the President's assurances about an economy having "turned the corner," in terms of employment and income growth during Bush's term the swing states are doing worse than the country as a whole.

Lost jobs and stagnating incomes

The National Journal recently published a special feature profiling the 20 states they deem to be 2004 presidential battlegrounds. For each, the Journal reported the statewide per capita income growth and job growth rates since January 2001, when Bush took office.

The numbers are striking: Of the 20 states, only five – Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico and West Virginia – are doing better than the national income growth rate of 11 percent income growth since January 2001; and only six – Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia – have outperformed the national job loss benchmark of -0.8% during the same period. Crosstabulating these 11 states yields just two – Louisiana and West Virginia – that have outperformed the nationwide averages on both measures.

More damning is the fact that, of the remaining 18 doing worse on at least one measure, fully 11 are doing worse on both, and these 11 include the "big three" swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida (the other eight: Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin). It's as if the battleground states are experiencing an inverse Lake Wobegon effect – almost all of them are below average.

If not obvious, the point is that whatever impact the struggling economy may have on this year's election, any impacts will be more pronounced in the very states that will decide whether Bush returns or John Kerry replaces him. That said, pundits who think the economy will be trumped by war issues may want to rethink the relative impact of the economic situation in these key states.

Southwest Rising

In the Washington Post last November, I argued that the Southwest is the nascent swing region in U.S. presidential elections. Yes, the Southeast and the Midwest have far more electors. But the former Confederate states have swung already, and the Midwest's population is dwindling relative to the Sunbelt. Long term, the Southwest, with its burgeoning Hispanic population, holds the keys to the White House.

When I crosstabbed the data on income and job growth rates for the Journal's 20 battlegrounds, I made a surprising discovery that confirms my earlier suspicions. Confessing that I expected the manufacturing drain in the post-industrial Midwest states to be most demonstrable, I was shocked to discover otherwise. Based on the twin effects of both employment and income changes, the three states which have performed worst relative to national economy since January 2001 are all in the Southwest: Arizona (-7.9 percent job growth; 5.5 percent income increase), Colorado (-4.9; 1.9) and Nevada (-8.2; 3.8).

These states no doubt suffered disproportionately because of lower wages and higher unemployment rates for Latinos (6.1% in 2003) relative to whites (4.0 percent). The region's aberrant case is New Mexico, which has done relatively well, at least on income growth (16.1 percent). The state has gone Democratic in the past three presidential elections, albeit narrowly (Al Gore won by just 366 votes in 2000), following six straight Republican wins.

The real coup for Kerry, therefore, would be to pick up some of the combined 24 electors in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. If Bush loses all three, he'll be hard pressed to compensate elsewhere.

War and wallets

The economic analysis above ratifies the results in the latest Marist College poll, which shows Kerry with a far wider lead (49-42 percent) in 17 swing states than the Massachusetts senator enjoys nationwide in post-convention polls (in most, Kerry's lead is within the margin of error – if he even has a lead).

Pivotal voters in battleground states may choose based on war, not wallets. But if the economy figures in their calculus, even as a tiebreaker, Kerry stands to benefit where the votes will matter most.

Muscular Dem Acceptance Speeches

John Kerry's acceptance speech came at the first Democratic convention of the post-September 11 era – the most important speech of his political life thus far.

The Kerry team has emphasized images and themes of strength, security and security-through-strength. Republican spokespeople will undoubtedly try to paint Kerry as just the latest in a long line of Democrats who have been soft on defense and foreign affairs.

But guess what? There is a tradition of thoughtful, serious, smart and – yes – muscular language in Democratic acceptance speeches from the past four decades:

Sen. John F. Kennedy
Los Angeles, 1960

Abroad, the balance of power is shifting. There are new and more terrible weapons – new and uncertain nations – new pressures of population and deprivation. One-third of the world, it has been said, may be free – but one-third is the victim of cruel repression – and the other one- third is rocked by the pangs of poverty, hunger and envy. More energy is released by the awakening of these new nations than by the fission of the atom itself.

President Lyndon Johnson
Atlantic City, 1964

I report tonight as President of the United States and as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces on the strength of your country, and I tell you that is greater than any adversary. I assure you that it is greater than the combined might of all nations in all the wars, in all the history of this planet. And I report our superiority is growing. Weapons do not make peace. Men make peace. And peace comes not through strength alone, but through wisdom and patience and restraint.

Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey
Chicago, 1968

Last week we witnessed once again in Czechoslovakia the desperate attempt of tyranny to crush out the forces of liberalism by force and brutal power – to hold back change. But in Eastern Europe, as elsewhere, the old era will surely end and, there, as here, a new day will dawn. And to speed this day, we must go far beyond where we've been, beyond containment to communication, beyond differences to dialogue, beyond fear to hope. We must cross the remaining barriers of suspicion and despair. We must halt the arms race before it halts humanity.

Sen. George McGovern
Miami, 1972

Now, it is necessary in an age of nuclear power and hostile forces that we'll be militarily strong. America must never become a second-rate nation. As one who has tasted the bitter fruits of our weakness before Pearl Harbor in 1941, I give you my pledge that if I become the President of the United States, America will keep its defenses alert and fully sufficient to meet any danger. We will do that not only for ourselves, but for those who deserve and need the shield of our strength – our old allies in Europe and elsewhere, including the people of Israel who will always have our help to hold their Promised Land.

Gov. Jimmy Carter
New York, 1976

The foremost responsibility of any President, above all else, is to guarantee the security of our nation – a guarantee of freedom from the threat of successful attack or blackmail, and the ability with our allies to maintain peace. But peace is not the mere absence of war. Peace is action to stamp out international terrorism. Peace is the unceasing effort to preserve human rights. Peace is a combined demonstration of strength and good will. We will pray for peace and we will work for peace, until we have removed from all nations for all time the threat of nuclear destruction.

President Jimmy Carter
New York, 1980

You and I have been working toward a more secure future by rebuilding our military strength – steadily, carefully, and responsibly. The Republicans talk about military strength, but they were in office for 8 out of the last 11 years, and in the face of a growing Soviet threat they steadily cut real defense spending by more than a third. We've reversed the Republican decline in defense. Every year since I've been President we've had real increases in our commitment to a stronger nation, increases which are prudent and rational.

Vice President Walter Mondale
San Francisco, 1984

As we've neared the election, this administration has begun to talk about a safer world. But there's a big difference: As president, I will work for peace from my first day in office – and not from my first day campaigning for re-election. As president, I will reassert American values. I'll press for human rights in Central America, and for the removal of all foreign forces from the region. And in my first hundred days, I will stop the illegal war in Nicaragua. We know the deep differences with the Soviets. And America condemns their repression of dissidents and Jews; their suppression of Solidarity; their invasion of Afghanistan; their meddling around the world.


Gov. Michael Dukakis
Atlanta, 1988

We must be, we are, and we will be militarily strong. But we must back that military strength with economic strength; we must give the men and women of our armed forces weapons that work; we must have a Secretary of Defense who will manage – and not be managed by – the Pentagon; and we must have a foreign policy that reflects the decency and the principles and the values of the American people...Yes, we must always be prepared to defend our freedom. But we must always remember that our greatest strength comes not from what we possess, but from what we believe; not from what we have, but from who we are.


Gov. Bill Clinton
New York, 1992

That's what the New Covenant is all about. An America with the world's strongest defense, ready and willing to use force when necessary. An America at the forefront of the global effort to preserve and protect our common environment – and promoting global growth. An America that will not coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing. An America that champions the cause of freedom and democracy from Eastern Europe to Southern Africa – and in our own hemispheres, in Haiti and Cuba.

President Bill Clinton
Chicago, 1996

We are fighting terrorism on all fronts with a three-pronged strategy. First, we are working to rally a world coalition with zero tolerance for terrorism. Just this month I signed a law imposing harsh sanctions on foreign companies that invest in key sectors of the Iranian and Libyan economies...Second, we must give law enforcement the tools they need to take the fight to terrorists. We need new laws to crack down on money laundering and to prosecute and punish those who commit violent acts against American citizens abroad... Third, we will improve airport and air travel security. I have asked the Vice President to establish a commission and report back to me on ways to do this. But now we will install the most sophisticated bomb-detection equipment in all our major airports. We will search every airplane flying to or from America from another nation – every flight, every cargo hold, every cabin, every time.

Vice President Al Gore
Los Angeles, 2000

The price of freedom is sometimes high, but I never believed that America should turn inward. As a Senator, I broke with many in our party and voted to support the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait – because I believed America's vital interests were at stake ...I will keep America's defenses strong. I will make sure our armed forces continue to be the best-equipped, best-trained, and best-led in the entire world. In the last century, this nation, more than any other, freed the world from fascism and communism. But a newly free world still has dangers and challenges, both old and new. We must always have the will to defend our enduring interests – from Europe, to the Middle East, to Japan and Korea. We must strengthen our partnerships with Africa, Latin America, and the rest of the developing world.

The Case for Edwards

If it's true that John Kerry has narrowed his vice presidential choice down to Dick Gephardt and John Edwards, he should pick Edwards.

Although his emergence as the best stump speaker came too late for him to win either Iowa or New Hampshire, Edwards was a popular and dynamic campaigner who built a strong following last winter during the Democratic primaries. By early March, when Kerry had locked down the nomination, I was convinced that Edwards would make a superb running mate.

After hearing Democratic pollster Celinda Lake's presentation at the Take Back America conference last month, I am even more certain of Edwards' value to the Democratic ticket, because the North Carolina senator is both Kerry's safest and most aggressive pick all rolled into one.

A Safe Bet

During the primaries, Edwards refined his message and presentation to near perfection. Seeing him up-close for the first time at a small event in Iowa Falls last January, it was obvious how well Edwards connects with audiences, especially in close, personal settings. His charms derive in no small part from his country-lawyer style and uplifting biography.

Plus, as I remarked from Iowa at the time, Edwards fixed the problems with Al Gore's ambiguous "people v. the powerful" message from 2000 by offering a purer dichotomy with his own, "two Americas" theme. Whereas some suburban professionals were understandably unclear as to which side of Gore's people/powerful divide they resided, Edwards's seamless version left no ambiguity: You are either among that select group of Americans with the luxury of fancy tax lawyers and special shelters when April 15 rolls around each year, or you suffered under the tax rules that apply to "everybody else"; you either had private insurance and access to the best specialists in the country, or you grappled with the spiraling costs and administrative hassles so familiar to "everybody else." And so on.

Because he energized a larger bloc of devotees than any other candidate save Howard Dean, Edwards is also generally acceptable to wide swaths of the center-left Democratic community. If reports about Kerry's private conversations with some labor leaders are accurate, even Rep. Gephardt's incomparable labor credentials are no hurdle to Kerry picking his fellow senator over Gephardt (labor wants to win as badly as any other constituency in the "anybody but Bush" movement). Edwards' Democratic Leadership Council credentials, coupled with his courageous anti-poverty themes, make him exactly the sort of pan-ideological ambassador who can repair any residual, center-left tensions with the Democratic Party (that is, beyond the helpful contributions of a certain 43rd president).

If Edwards actually entered the 2004 presidential race to position himself for the vice presidency this year or another presidential bid later, his plan worked. He not only sharpened his campaign skills, but in the process essentially vetted himself among both the media and party regulars. Though Kerry will lose the extra boomlet of attention that would attend a "surprise" veep pick, Edwards remains Kerry's best pick precisely because he is the safest bet.

An Aggressive Pick, Too

Yet, especially in terms of political geography and demography, Edwards would also be a very aggressive pick.

As fellow Gadflyer David Lublin and I argued in the American Prospect last February, the North Carolinian would be a superb asset to the Democratic ticket in swing states outside the South that will decide the outcome. Because key suburban and rural constituencies within border and Midwestern states like Ohio, West Virginia, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri bear striking similarities to constituencies south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Edwards can help Kerry swing undecided voters with southerly sensibilities in these states.

What Lublin and I wrote still applies: "Edwards' greatest asset is that he has the legitimacy to persuade voters in these states to focus on economic issues instead of the social and cultural wedge issues upon which Bush hopes people will cast their votes...His biography also gives him greater credibility in delivering the more subtle message that socially conservative whites ought to be thinking about kitchen-table economic issues."

Celinda Lake's survey findings offer further validation of Edwards' demographic appeal to important constituencies that will decide the election.

Lake identifies five "Republican opportunity" groups – that is, five demographic groups that lean Republican but are potentially winnable by the Democrats this year. They are (with share of total electorate in parentheses): devout Catholics (9 percent); white married moms (10); older, white blue-collar men (10); white post-graduate men (6); rural white women (12).

Whether Kerry's Catholicism is help or hindrance, the first GOP opportunity subgroup is his alone to win or lose. But Edwards' style and story could lure key segments of the other four groups to the Democratic ticket in sufficient numbers to push Kerry over the top in key states. To wit:

- Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, are ambassadors ideally suited to approach suburban, white wives because, aside from his trail lawyer background, the Edwards family typifies the modern, exurban family that is leaning ever more Republican;

- The senator's stories about how he paid his way for school emptying tractor trailers in 100-degree heat allow him to connect with blue-collar men striving to make a better life for themselves and their children;

- As a still-young professional, Edwards can explain to successful white male professionals why conservative policies used to appeal to them are deceptive, shortsighted distractions from the more truly future-oriented education and investment programs to which conservatives mostly pay lip service; and

- Finally, with his southern and bootstrap biography, Edwards can bring to rural American audiences his personal experiences, rather than mere platitudes, in ways few politicians can.

Notice, too, the gender specificity of these persuadable groups. As Lake points out (to great laughter from audiences), 73 percent of husbands say their wives will vote the same way they will, yet only 49 of their wives say the same about their husbands. There's a growing disconnect within households, even rural households – a tension that John and Elizabeth Edwards, especially in tandem, could be very useful in exploiting.

The New Big Dog

Asked by CNN's Larry King last week whether he had any advice on running mates for Kerry, former president Bill Clinton demurred. But Clinton noted the obvious: That as the only presidential decision a challenger gets to make, Kerry's choice of running mate will be scrutinized as an important indicator of his leadership capacity.

There is some scuttlebutt in Washington about Kerry either not liking Edwards, or worrying that the more junior senator will somehow eclipse him. (Sidebar: Let not Ralph Nader's recommendation last week that Kerry pick Edwards be disregarded on account of its source.) I suspect the rumors about Kerry's wariness toward Edwards are based more on conjecture than fact. But even if true, Kerry would impress fellow Democrats, his media detractors, and at least one former president – not to mention he'd prove himself a New Big Dog who is unfazed by petty grievances – by picking Edwards.

Because Edwards, who is simultaneously the safest and most aggressive pick, is Kerry's best option.

Not So Keene

Will George W. Bush suffer defections from his conservative base this fall?

Fret not, says American Conservative Union president David Keene, in his recent essay published in The Hill: Unlike with his father 12 years ago, conservatives will stand firmly behind this President Bush.

"There was no talk of a primary protest against the current president this year for the simple reason that, while we might oppose such things as his Medicare prescription drug program and believe he could do far more to cut government spending, few believe he's abandoned us or the principles we like to believe we represent," Keene writes. "No president is perfect, but most conservatives believe that this is one who deserves another term."

That's right, Mr. Keene. Or more aptly, that's the Right -- willing to compromise on niggling matters of principle, like small government and fiscal responsibility, in the interest of the broader conservative agenda of...well, what, exactly?

Conservative crack-up

The indictment that any true conservative could issue against Bush is manifold. Let's take a quick timeout to examine the bill of particulars, including as it does the following:

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Chasing the Latino Vote

While talking heads bray about whether Tecate's "Finally, a cold Latina" slogan is offensive or complimentary, a far more important national campaign to gain market share among Latinos has been underway for several months now.

But the New Democrat Network's "Hispanic project" is not targeted to changing what beer Latinos are drinking. Rather, NDN's new outreach program is focused on the partisan commitments of the nation's largest ethnic group, and what they are thinking.

Since December, NDN has been saturating Latino communities in four battleground states with a series of television ads, in both English and Spanish, aimed at instilling or reinforcing Democratic support among the ethnic voting bloc that everyone from NDN president Simon Rosenberg to Bush political adviser Karl Rove believes can break the current partisan deadlock.

"This is not about reaching out to an ethnic minority group," says Rosenberg, matter-of-factly. "This is about building a national party majority."

Rosenberg founded NDN in 1996 as part of the third-way political movement fostered by Bill Clinton. And although the Latino community surely was part of the original calculus of a new progressive politics, the niche that NDN has recently carved out for itself with this project is as visionary as it is surprising to many who viewed NDN as an informal, fundraising adjunct of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Rosenberg's efforts are bolstered by the contributions of top NDN strategists Maria Cardona and Gil Meneses, with polling support from Sergio Bendixen. This formidable cadre sees an opportunity to mobilize and persuade a good chunk of the two million Latinos who live in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

Indeed, their survey research has shown that a majority of Latinos in these four states not only get their political information from Spanish-language media (from an estimated 54 percent of New Mexicans to a stunning 80 percent of Floridians), but that roughly two of every five Latinos are still persuadable.

The reason, Cardona explains, is political socialization. Much like the trend underway in white, suburban middle-class communities, many Latino families in the last two generations have simply failed to socialize their children into partisan politics (the obvious, notable exception to the declining political socialization in the United States in the last half-century is the African American community, which puts MLK photos over the mantle the way grandma used to put up FDR photos).

As a result, notes Cardona, there are at best weak political associations and partisan attachments exhibited by recently-immigrated Latinos, or first-generation children who have reached or are approaching voting age. Unlike an older generation that can "remember the farm movement and Cesar Chavez," the newer generations comprise the swing subset within the Latino community. The ads are thus targeted at them.

Some of the NDN ads tout issues, especially education. Others introduce the current generation of rising Latino politicians, such as U.S. Representatives Bob Menendez and Loretta Sanchez. Still others are geared toward older voters with memories of Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy and even Franklin Roosevelt. (When was the last time you saw a political ad showing a picture of FDR?) In another ad, a pre-teen Latina asks the President why he broke the "promesas" he made in 2000.

According to Bendixen's before-and-after surveys, the campaign is working. The partisan identification and issue-trust ratings for Latinos in Las Vegas, where NDN has run these ads, far outstrip gains made in Reno, where NDN has thus far been dark (some partisan movement over the past few months is attributable to external factors, most notably the President's waning approval numbers). Ditto for partisan movement in Albuquerque (live) relative to Sante Fe (dark).

Bendixen claims that Orlando Puerto Ricans made a net partisan swing of 27 percentage points in just over four months, a change that could have a huge impact. In his profile of Jeb Bush, the New Yorker's William Finegan reported recently that South Florida's bloc of Cuban Republicans, upon which the President's re-election depends, is showing some signs of defection.

In 2000, says Bendixen, the Bush campaign outspent Al Gore by a 5:1 margin in Spanish-language media. NDN is determined not to let that happen again: In addition to the ad buys thus far, the organization plans to raise and spend another $5 million between now and the election to blanket the new markets and reinforce in places where they have already been advertising.

As I have written previously, although the Southwest does not have as many electoral votes as the Southeast (yet), the increasing competitiveness of southwestern states make it the emergent swing region.

Indeed, look at presidential results. George H. W. Bush carried Nevada and Arizona by more than 20 percentage points in 1988; combining Ralph Nader's votes with Gore's, just three cycles later, Bush 43 carried these two states by a whisker. New Mexico went consecutively for Richard Nixon twice, Gerald Ford once, Ronald Reagan twice, and George H.W. Bush once, before the Democrats carried it during each of the past three elections. If John Kerry can hold the Gore states and pick up just Arizona (which now has two more electors), he can win the White House.

Latinos will comprise an estimated nine percent of the 2004 electorate, a share that will rise as this still-young ethnic bloc matures and expands as a share of the voting-age population. Rosenberg and NDN are paying attention, moving pro-actively to persuade there-for-the-partisan-taking Latino swing voters.

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