Thursday, August 28, 2008

Democratic Convention smorgasbord


Maybe no one needs this, but I can't resist a post on various campaign commentaries that have caught my eye during the Democratic Convention.

Is anyone paying attention?
After all, though political junkies like me and presumably most of the people who drop by here are fascinated, it seems very likely that most people scarcely are noticing this made-for-(sporadic)-TV extravaganza. Even I honestly can't remember a thing about most Dem conventions since 1968 -- except that Jesse Jackson was riveting in 1984. (Just looked at the text. Still riveting.) Apparently the answer is that lots of people are paying attention, but still only a small fraction of us. Ari Melber reports on attention through Tuesday:

About nine percent of the U.S. population is checking into convention coverage, according to Nielsen. The share is higher among African Americans -- about 12.7 percent are tuning in to see the first nomination of a black candidate by a major party in American history. Divided by age, the audience for this convention skews towards older Americans. One out of five Americans over age 55 caught some convention programming.

Apart from the hoopla, are any real conversations happening in Denver?
Perhaps yes. The way campaign finance law works, corporations and other interest groups are limited in how much money they can throw directly to candidates. But they can sponsor "educational" events around the edges of a gathering like the convention. And they do. So, naturally, the little fish imitate the big fish and out of that, some interesting panels are taking place. Rinku Sen from Colorlines reported on an event billed as "The Culture Wars: the role of Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Religion and values in the Fall Campaign" that featured a bunch of mid-level Dem pols and some media types. These semi-luminaries hacked away at questions about whether long Obama/Clinton contest had aroused or put to rest issues of race and gender. Rinku comments on how groups who all get hammered in the "mainstream" narrative get set against each other:

No marginalized group of people has been exempted from media stereotyping.

Because we don’t notice it when we’re not the target, it's easy to project our jealousy, based on no evidence, of another group’s supposed power to preempt racist crap. It’s going to be hard to build solidarity when you can't see your allies' real situation because you envy this perceived power.

So this is a nice show, but where's the campaign?
The organizer in me is in love with the Obama operation. I like the candidate fine; I love how they are approaching winning this thing through people to people organizing. This operation is an experienced field organizer's dream. They are mining the data, trusting that they can find the persuadable voters, training and equipping volunteers -- the voters' neighbors -- to talk with them, and trusting their results. Further, the campaign is allocating the resources, the money, needed to make this happen. That just has never been the case in any major campaign I've worked on. Never. But the Obama folks are out-organizing the Republicans across the board. More here.

Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com reports that Obama campaign manager David Plouffe laid out how his campaign's use of polls is different from what media oriented campaigns do:

Plouffe also warned against "making too much" of focus groups when asked about the Frank Luntz group of undecided voters that received a fair amount of attention this week. "We certainly don't use [focus] groups to make assessments of swing voters," he said. They conduct focus groups, mostly "to hear people talk" about the issues and candidates, but when it comes to identifying "true undecided" voters, their emphasis is on quantitative data, including traditional surveys and data on registration and vote history collected from lists and supplemented with information gleaned through direct voter contact.

That's someone who trusts his organizing program, who is betting on organization to trump hype. We're about to see whether this can be done on a national scale.

Is the Obama campaign stumbling in its media messaging?
It certainly looked that way most of August until the convention and it has something to prove going forward. Can the themes developed in the convention get traction against McCain's slime campaign? David Kurtz of Talking Points Media made an insightful observation about what might be hobbling the Obama media operation (while the field chugs along.)

One thing I've come away from here in Denver, in talking to various people, is the sense that the Obama campaign has become consumed with its brand as an end in itself. They did such a good job of packaging hope, optimism, and change that they are now resistant to any campaign strategies or tactics that might, in the eyes of some people, damage the brand.

Can a jaded old leftist cynic like me still get inspired by the first ever African American to win a major nomination for the Presidency?
Maybe I just can. When Obama speaks tonight on the anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I know I am going to be thrilled. There are not a lot of discouraged old cynics I think are wiser than Billmon and even he has caught the fever.

But there are loyalties that go deeper than policies, deeper than ideas, deeper, even, than folly and cowardice. When I turn on the TV and see the crowd at a Democratic National Convention -- black and white and every shade in between, Anglo and Hispanic, gay and straight, old and young, Jew and gentile, I know somewhere deep down in my gut that those are my people, the Americans that I want to be my fellow Americans.

We can worry later about making of a President Obama the kind of leader the country and the world need him to be. For today, I plan to simply enjoy him.

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