Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Election Results and the Art of Local Spin

There are many good sites where you can find all the Wednesday morning quarterbacking and lots of bloggers all too happy to tell you what went wrong yesterday in Virginia. Most of what they say is true.

The campaign from the top down was not well managed. The lack of a coordinated campaign and the disorganization of the DPVA, the DGA's not coming through with money in the general election, our being seriously outspent, the campaign itself not having a coherent message or strategy - all true. Yes, they stayed on the thesis far too long and spent far too little time talking about who Creigh Deeds was and what he stood for. There was no positive message, no reason for voters to vote for Deeds. And the Deeds Country tour was ill-conceived . Deeds should have been campaigning in the urban crescent of Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Road. And on and on.

And, yes, they were going against a stiff head wind from history. For 24 years, the party that takes the White House loses the state house in Virginia. In addition to all the campaign missteps, a blow out this big also says that the Democratic base was dispirited and unhappy with the Democratic Party. And to deny that Obama had anything to do with it is pure self-serving spin.

Lowell is fond of quoting Jim Webb, "the fish rots from the head." Guess what? It does. And that head isn't in Virginia. Not when we also lost New Jersey and an important vote on same sex marriage in liberal Maine. It's all unconnected, all local - oh really?

Some want to claim that our loss in Virginia is all the fault of the state party and the campaign and is unconnected to what went on elsewhere.

Yeah, right!

It's as if they never read Huffington Post, which daily runs diaries by well known progressives about why they are discouraged with Obama's leadership. There is this from Arianna herself.
Indeed, reading the book, I often found myself wondering what Candidate Obama would think of President Obama. Would he look at what the White House is doing and say, "that's what I and my supporters worked so hard for?"

How did the candidate who got into the race because he'd decided that "the core leadership had turned rotten" and that "the people were getting hosed" become the president who has decided that the American people can only have as much change as Olympia Snowe will allow?

How did the candidate who told a stadium of supporters in Denver that "the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result" become the president who has surrounded himself with the same old players trying the same old politics, expecting a different result?

How could a president whose North Star as a candidate was that he "would not forget the middle class" choose as his chief economic advisor a man who recently argued against extending unemployment benefits in the middle of the worst economic times since the Great Depression?
Huffington goes on to rightly castigate Obama's reliance on Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser and former Clinton-era Treasury Secretary, who opposed extending unemployment benefits and favored bank bailouts but no aid to middle class homeowners facing foreclosure.

Following Huffington's blog post, is this one from Dave Zirin, sports correspondent to Nation Magazine.
But if last night's election results reveal nothing else, the time for swooning over photo-ops has long passed. This is not rocket science. Throughout the country, Republican turnout stayed the same as in 2008 while Democratic turnout cratered. That's what happens when you don't deliver the goods. For all the people who voted Democrat because they wanted to bring home the troops, stand for civil rights for all people, and see real job creation and union protections, the last year has been a thin gruel indeed.

It's not about accomplishing my personal laundry list of wishes. It's about forward progress -- or even effort -- from the Oval office. The White House didn't say one word about the Maine referendum to protect LBGT marriage equality. AG Holder even said last week that he didn't "know enough about it" to comment, which was both a lie and a slap in the face. Obama hasn't fought a lick for the pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act known as ENDA. And please don't mention Afghanistan, Iraq or the Wall Street bailouts. Please don't mention an economic policy geared toward socializing debt and privatizing profit. There is no effort coming from the White House that moves the people toward the direction that people rallied, campaigned, and voted for in 2008 and that is an indictment of this administration. It also reveals something very bankrupt about the nature of our political system and the Democratic Party. The people spoke and it mattered little. Now we need to do more.
Indeed, there has been a steady drumbeat of disappointment with Obama's leadership and his choices over at Huffington Post, Firedoglake, Daily Kos, and other national progressive sites.

Don't get me wrong. None of these people dislike him. None of them want to take their vote back. But progressives nationally are growing disheartened as they watch health care reform, the public option, EFCA, cap and trade and a bunch of other Democratic legislation being pushed to the back burner by delay after delay. After all, this is the party that won 53 percent of the presidential vote, 59 seats in the Senate, and should be claiming a mandate, not kissing Queen Olympia's ring and begging for her approval.

To be sure, I think a large number of people really do want bipartisanship. And they want civility. They can see clearly that Obama is civil and has tried his level best to achieve that bipartisan cooperation. He's stood up to his own party's liberal to attempt compromise with Congressional conservatives . I think most voters get it that he's done his level best and that the other side has been intractable. Now, those voters who went to the polls last November really want the change they voted for.

While Virginia Democrats squabble that Deeds lost young people and blacks didn't show up, the reason that happened was both that Deeds didn't give them a reason to, and neither has Obama, Emanuel and Harry Reid. Voters wanted civility. But they didn't want real reform sacrificed to a false god of bipartisanship. And the public hungers for a leader, not a capitulator in chief. That's why a good deal of the base stayed home.

That is especially true in Northern Virginia. Look, lots of voters here are federal employees. Or they work for contractors. In either case, they are more plugged into Washington than Richmond. And they have a better grasp of beltway politics than they do of state politics. Perhaps more than in any other part of the state, what happens in Washington, DC actually is local for them.

Finally, Nate Silver, one of the best statisticians offered this comparison between Virginia and New Jersey, the other state that switched from blue to red, though with not nearly as devastating a result.
In New Jersey, you had an electorate that gave Barack Obama a 57 percent approval rating -- the identical fraction to the 57 percent that elected Obama last November. In Virginia, Obama's approval rating was 47 percent, a significant drop from the 53 percent of the vote that he earned.

In New Jersey, it was Jon Corzine who tried to nationalize the race, making sure that everyone knew that Chris Christie was a Republican. And insofar as this went, it worked: voters who said their main issue was health care went for Corzine 78-19 (!), according to exit polls, and he won voters focused on the economy and jobs 58-36. Christie won because he focused on two local issues that are very important to New Jerseyans -- corruption and property taxes, and won overwhelmingly among voters who keyed in on these issues. In Virginia, meanwhile, it was Bob McDonnell who won the economy voters -- 57-42, and the candidates split the vote among those most concerned about health care.
As much as I hate to go against the wind in the Virginia blogosphere, Democrats have to realize the truth, which is that all politics isn't local - that oft-quoted statement was made by a very wise man in the middle of the last century who didn't live long enough to experience the instant connection of today's Internet, blogs, and Facebook and Twitter feeds, which make the whole globe local.

Indeed, a bank that fails on Wall Street can bring down an economy in London, Germany, and Singapore. So much for our definition of local

All politics is local, national and global. It's all interconnected now. So Creigh Deeds' bad campaign, growing impatience with change that is getting harder to believe in, and Democrats running for cover from governing by hiding in Olympia Snowe's coat pocket all had a hand in the debacle. Because it wasn't local. We lost Virginia big. We lost New Jersey, and we lost an important vote on same sex marriage in Maine. That's lack of leadership and competence from the top down.

Anything else is just spin.


aznew said...

Karen - Great post, and so true. Yes, the campaign was a poor one on many levels and for many reasons, but given the field of play set up by Obama, it is doubtful even an excellent campaign could have won (at least without some help from a major screw-up by McDonnell).

Anonymous said...

Great post - Ultimately I am not sure if Deeds could have won. However, since I live in Centreville and spoke to many of my neighbors. There concerns were bread and butter concerns: economy, jobs, taxes, and traffic. All Deeds offered was yet another descent into the culture wars. McDonnell's greatest strength was his refusal to fight on that plane.

Anonymous said...

Karen great post you are so right if anybody thinks that Obama didn't have a part in giving the Republicans a victory they are kidding themselves.Obama's tax payer funded trips to Va to campaign did more to energize the Republican base that it did to energize the Democrats base.Karen this Republican knew this was going to happen. Last year two of my neighbors were going door to door every weekend and this year they didn't even vote themselves thats quite a change in a years time.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Thank you all who agreed with me. Many whose opinions I greatly respect did not.

To make it clear, I believe that the administration's caution on dealing with the economy - not being more proactive in job stimulation - and its quest for bipartisan support long after the GOP had made clear it would never support healthcare reform because it openly wanted the administration to fail, set up a climate of uncertainty among voters.

Obama remains personally popular. Many voters said their vote for McDonnell and other Republicans was not a rejection of Obama and I believe that.

But like many progressives who strongly support Obama, I would like him to use his considerable gifts to lay out a road map for the economy and other important issues and challenge Congress to follow it.

And I would like him to hold the door open for any Republican to join him in fixing our problems but be willing to make the needed changes with just the Democrats if he has to.

He does not have to "come out swinging" and be somebody he is not. His talent for finding common ground, remaining calm under fire, and treating people with respect are great gifts. The public has made clear it wants civility.

But when they see a clear lack of reciprocity from the GOP, I believe they would forgive Obama for concluding post partisanship might not be possible and he needs to just move on and work with Democrats for the change he promised.

How this figured into the recent gubernatorial election is that many of those who voted for Obama stayed home for two reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that Deeds' campaign did not excite them. Nor should it have. Deeds never came up with a coherent plan on important bread and butter issues. It depended on a very negative attack on a thesis that nobody cared much about.

It failed to change course when it saw its strategy not working. And it never caught on in voter rich Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads - the urban crescent.

But it had an uphill battle because voters were in a sour mood over the economy, the lack of a coherent healthcare package and the suspicion that Democrats were abandoning the change the public had voted for. So, it was swimming upstream.

I don't know if Deeds could have won with a better campaign, but a more effective game plan would have prevented as much loss as we had.

I think we will be in a much better position next year if we learn the right lessons from this debacle. That is that you have to excite the base, deliver what you promised, remain positive, and provide real solutions to people's problems. That is a winning strategy.