TonyAngelo wrote his “brain dump”, so I guess I can dump my brain too.
Maybe that didn’t come out as I intended. Anyway, I’m not going to try to connect everything into some grand theory of everything, but I’ll share what I’m thinking, what I’ve noticed that I think is worth noticing, but I’m not going to go into too much detail. Some of these don’t have more than a paragraph worth saying, and some need posts all their own. I certainly don’t have the time to write them all, so anyone else, feel free to take off on something, elaborate or disagree as you see fit.
We’ve had a year of doom and gloom before election day, and a lousy election day. Much of what follows will only add to that, so I’m going to start out with something positive. Otherwise, these might be in no particular order
Demographic trends remain in our favor
New voters have leaned Democratic for several elections now, and leaned heavily for three at least (not sure about 2004). People who vote for the same party their first several elections tend to habitually vote for the party thereafter, so winning immigrant and young voters so resoundingly is building a permanent advantage. We’re doing well among groups increasing a portion of the population, while Republicans seem to be banking on appealing to bigotry. Long term, I’d rather have our problems than theirs.
OK, on to the less happy parts.
The stimulus was far too small
I’m going to contradict myself right away, because I’m putting this first on purpose, and I’m going to elaborate a bit, because this is where the election lost. This campaign was essentially about compensating for this mistake.
Economists who pushed for a stimulus said there was $2 trillion lost in the recession, but the administration and Congress tried to fill a $2 trillion hole with only $900 billion of dirt. It was kept under the $1 trillion mark to avoid scaring conservatives who don’t get basic economics or history.
Those economists pushing the stimulus made clear that spending to create jobs and stop state and local governments from laying off workers was more stimulative than tax cuts, yet a third of the stimulus was tax cuts. The tax cuts were done in the most stimulative way, but after including tax cuts for the political benefit, Congress and the president undersold them so much, most people still think taxes were raised.
Then the too small stimulus was further reduced in response to Republican attacks. The Republicans attacked the stimulus by attacking individual projects with gross mischaracterizations, so in an attempt to mollify conservatives of both parties, the attacked projects were dropped. The stimulus was cut to roughly $720 billion — yet no conservative votes were coming, and thus the pattern of this Congress was established.
The stimulus saved or created roughly 3 million jobs and stabilized the economy (along with the financial bailouts) when it looked headed into the second Depression. Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain what amounts to alternate history when the economy remains stagnant, and saved jobs just aren’t visible like created jobs. A proper sized stimulus, with job creation instead of tax cuts, would have meant not just stabilizing the unemployment rate, but lowering it. For all our talk about bad messaging, falling unemployment would have made it easy: “unemployment is falling”. That would have been just about the whole campaign, all we’d have to say, while Republicans would have had to explain how they got it wrong. Instead, we had the explaining to do, and Republicans had the easy message, “unemployment is staying high”.
A big enough stimulus, and our discussions of message mostly go away. An attempt at a big enough stimulus, and the blame at least gets shared. That said, we should acknowledge having the stimulus at all was as politically courageous as it was economically obvious, and a lot of Democrats took a risk by backing it. OK, the rest of these will be much shorter.
Tip O’Neill was wrong
Democrats are fond of repeating that quote by Tip O’Neill, “All politics are local”. He was wrong, or at least the application of his wisdom was wrong. Midterm elections have been nationalized a bunch of times, and attempts to localize races never works. Democrats learned a lesson from 1994 that they should not be caught unaware again, but localizing each election was a disaster. October was actually pretty good, with the effort to energize the base and push GOTV, with some themes finally being found, but the rest of the campaign was horrid. I was mystified at why the campaign was taking so long to get started until I learned to my horror in late September that this was a deliberate strategy.
I recognize that the unevenness of the bad results argues a bit against me. Democrats had a really good day in Delaware, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.
Defying your own president never works
Running against Obama, and Pelosi for that matter, seems to have worked for almost nobody, judging by the radically reduced number of blue dogs. It didn’t work for Republicans to run against Bush either. Democrats ran against Clinton in 1994 and Carter in 1978. It never works, and I suspect it drags down other candidates of the same party.
The enthusiasm gap was spotty
It’s true we had a drop-off this year, but I’m not at all sure it wasn’t normal for midterm elections. Republicans were unusually energized, but waiting upon polls on who turned out, I suspect we matched them by the end, at least in Minnesota, and probably in states that had decent nights. I also suspect we benefited from a slight enthusiasm gap the last couple elections, but I’m more of a mind that swing voters all swung one way each of the last three elections. On the other hand, the gap appears real in some states, and I’m thinking of Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida particularly.
The base versus swing district dilemma
Our efforts at GOTV in heavily DFL areas increased turnout enough to win statewide. However, in legislative races, while that strategy does increase DFL candidates’ margins, increasing the winning margin from 70-something percent to 80% doesn’t actually win more seats. We actually won more congressional votes, all districts together, but that didn’t save the 8th. We lost the legislature by just a few votes, and take out the districts where we didn’t put up a candidate (more on that in a moment), we actually got more votes. Proportionally, the legislature should be a narrow majority, but we have districts, not proportionality.
I call this a dilemma because if resources had gone into legislative and US House races, we might have scrounged up a few more DFLers and persuaded just enough swing voters and saved our majorities. However, the price of retaining Jim Oberstar might have been Gov. Emmer. Somehow, we have to figure out how to do both and not make it an either/or situation.
By the way, this seems like a national pattern. Lots of state Democratic parties have exactly this problem of holding densely populated base areas that make them competitive statewide, but unable to win a majority of districts. We’re typical.
Revive the 50-state strategy
Now about that not running candidates in some states and districts: we can’t have that. Even a token candidate has a shot if something weird happens like a safe incumbent has a scandal. Had we had candidates in the districts where we had none, they would have been squished, but at least we’d have had a minuscule shot. Howard Dean’s goal was to build state and local parties enough that we wouldn’t even leave legislative seats uncontested, let alone US House and Senate seats. That’s how surprising wins were pulled off the last couple elections. More on Dean’s successor in a bit.
I recall hearing in 2004 that Republicans supposedly boosted turnout through microtargeting, which meant appealing to potential Republican voters in Democratic precincts where the Republicans had no hope at local offices. Scrounging out those few Republicans helped at the state level, which helped Bush. I’m not sure I buy that they got more than token votes that way, I have other ideas on what happened in 2004, but it seems plausible and worth trying. It also sounds tough. You can’t just knock on every door and figure most of the votes are Democratic. It means somehow figuring out who might be the Democrats in, a purely random example, the exurbs at the southern end of CD8, maybe by knocking on lots of doors where the canvasser is told to get lost.
If you know why that particular use of “a purely random example” was snark, you might be a politics geek.
The wrong chairmen are being pressured to go
Michael Steele has been permanently embattled as RNC chair, even though he told Republicans some thing they needed to hear, but didn’t want to. Some have come down hard on DFL chair Brian Melendez. I’m not one of them. The chair who does need to go is Tim Kaine. He showed poor judgment taking the job while he was a sitting governor, both full time jobs. The 50-state strategy seems to have fallen away, and this election we even had a senate seat go unchallenged. As a public spokesman, Kaine is so horrible, he was claiming right before the election we would keep the house. That tells me he thinks his job is to go on interviews and speak utter nonsense. It also tells me Dean’s success didn’t register much at all. Kaine has to go.
A candidate won with seemingly no campaign
Getting very local here; Minneapolis school board candidate Rebecca Gagnon won an at-large seat with no staff, no lit I saw, no yard signs, a minimal web site, and the endorsing convention deadlocked so she didn’t even have a party endorsement. She did however help with canvassing, spending enormous amounts of time on the phone or at doors, impressing people one at a time and even in a city this size, that worked. I’m not at all sure that it has any bigger meaning, but it is interesting.
Voter intimidation seemed not to work
We don’t know for sure of course, but anecdotally, it seems not to have kept voters from the polls. Turnout was down, but it seems no worse in targeted precincts than elsewhere. Given that Dayton did a bit better than Hatch in base DFL areas, it backfired if anything. On a related note…
Where was the voter fraud?
OK Minnesota Majority, tea parties and their ilk, where was the fraud? You had volunteers all over watching for it. The incidents of over-aggressive poll watchers suggest the problem wasn’t passivity on your part. Where was it? Guess I managed to sneak my illegal aliens past you as usual, and it is usual — you’ve had challengers at DFL precincts for many years, and you still can’t produce any evidence.
Maybe Republicans have seen the light on touchscreen voting
The complaints from Nevada that Angle voters saw touchscreens changing their votes to Reid sounds like each election since they came into use, except it was always Democrats finding their votes changed to GOP, and we got no love from the GOP in our complaints. GOP, do you finally get why these things are a dreadful way to vote? Why we always suspect these machines when they produce statistically unlikely results that go against us? Maybe this is one election reform we could actually agree on.
The blowback on health care reform was predictable
Maybe someone can explain why conservatives go so nuts over health care reform. They always have, and I have no idea why every time there’s an attempt at health care reform that gets any traction, they react like we’re trying to turn them into gay Franco-Mexican Muslims whose guns were taken away. Not only did we just suffer blowback over Obama’s reform, but the same thing happened in 1994 when Clinton got close, and in 1966 over anger about the passage of Medicare. Even FDR, with all the big ideas he turned into law, thought health care reform was too much. Does anyone have enough insight into conservative psychology to explain this?
Macacca moments mattered a lot less
In case that’s obscure, think back to 2006, when Sen. George Allen called a Democratic tracker of Indian descent “macacca”, which caused a flurry of research until someone found it was a racial slur used by French North Africans, like Allen’s mother. Allen’s reelection turned from in the bag to narrowly lost. Our own Michele Bachmann had 2008 in the bag, until her call to investigate other congressmen for being “anti-America”, and suddenly her race was close.
This year though, there were loads of macacca moments, moments of craziness, and clear stupidity, and it didn’t matter. Now matter what crazy or racist candidates said, after the primaries, the polls of these candidates’ races hardly moved. If the self-inflicted damage wasn’t done before or very shortly after the primaries, it didn’t matter. It’s like voters’ minds were made up so early that anything new they learned during the general election campaign was ignored. So I’m going to contradict my “no particular order” statement again, because…
Attack the crazy, and early
It seems like Democrats who demurred from pointing out the stupidity, or waited too long, suffered for it. If they waited until October, there was such a flood of stupidity, it was hard to get press and voters’ attention. Tarryl Clark wasn’t going to win no matter what, but she diminished her chances with the localization strategy that shied from the crazy. Emmer defined himself with the $100,000 waiters, and partly recovered, but he was already defined in mid-Summer (no, I don’t think the drunk driving ads helped at all). In fact, MNGOP morale sunk for a good reason, because this was where Emmer lost the election. The lesson is point out the nuttiness and ignorance, and do it early, even before the Republican primary.
Where were the $100,000 waiters?
OK, I’m putting one more in order. Why did the attacks on Emmer not go after the $100,000 waiter remark and the institution of the tip penalty? Even DFLers cringed at the drunk driving attacks, and voters were allowed to forget how out of touch Emmer is with working people. That was the biggest messaging error of the gubernatorial campaign.
Poll the legislative races
My first job out of college was sitting at a phone bank, conducting the DFL’s internal polls, and a lot of the questions were about legislative races. I don’t know how much that cost or if they were cost effective, but considering how the legislative losses sneaked up on us, we should consider polling those races.
Negative ads have diminishing returns
Is there really a value to seeing the same attack ad for the 15th time? I question the conventional wisdom that negative campaigning always works. After the attack has created a campaign issue, it seems the law of diminishing returns kick in. This is one of those topics worthy of its own posts, so I’ll just refer again to that Texas Observer article I keep mentioning on grassroots campaigning, which was able to do some comparing between spending the same money on ads or canvassing.
The media have started 2012 presidential campaign already
It could be worse. I distinctly recall in October 2006, some media outlets spent more time on the 2008 presidential race than on the midterms that were a few weeks away. Still, it’s only November 2010. Press, please stop for a while!
Special elections are special
I mean they aren’t predictive. Scott Brown’s win was supposed to herald Republican competitiveness in blue areas, but Republicans went 0-for-Massachusetts. Democrats tried to counter the spin by a special election win in John Murtha’s district. Right — and how did things go in Pennsylvania? The DFL had a long winning streak over the last decade in legislative special elections, so we should have been untouchable in legislative races — maybe not.
Bye Bye Blue Dogs
We rightly mock the GOP for its ideological purity, and the permanent disadvantage they’ve inflicted on themselves. I see the value of someone who’s with us just 75% of the time over a Republican, and it’s good we accept a diversity of ideas — up to the point where someone starts screwing over other Democrats and hindering the party’s top priorities. Many of the conservadems took advantage of the inability to pick up any GOP votes to make stupid or petty demands, even being willing to join GOP filibusters instead of just voting no. Blue dogs and conservadems took a shellacking much worse than Democrats in general, and while I hate losing the majority, sorry, but I simply will not miss you Evan Bayh, Bobby Bright, Blanche Lincoln, Jim Marshal, and Parker Griffith. You were more hindrance than help. If that sounds a wee bit petty on my part, tough. You weakened or blocked legislation thereby damaging your whole party, and I’m glad most of the damage was inflicted on you.