Monday, September 24, 2012

As voting begins … campaign tidbits

But wait a minute .. aren't there still 43 days until election day? Well yes, but half the states have begun collecting absentee ballots and a few have begun in-person voting.

Though I'm plenty busy with the campaign I'm working on, I quickly scan a lot of campaign journalism and punditry, looking for choice observations. As the polls have swung toward President Obama, lots of people have lots of ideas about what's going on, some insightful, many merely amusing. What follows are a few I'd like to either highlight or comment on.

As we all know, Mitt Romney has been beating the bushes for more money, hoping to find enough cash to bury Obama with nasty TV ads. And when he goes out to beg, he gets an earful.

Video of a high-dollar Mitt Romney fundraiser posted by Mother Jones reveals that even Romney’s most ardent supporters — the ones who attend $50,000 per plate dinners to help him get elected — are anxious that he’s just not a likable candidate. In the video, recorded at a May event, the donors can be seen confronting Romney about how he relates to the public, and begging him to improve.

… Donors are not political strategists, but some pay the hefty price to get close to a candidate so they can pretend they are. Any fundraising event undoubtedly features unsolicited advice about what ad to run or what rhetoric to use.


This describes one of the afflictions of fundraising in all campaigns. People who can give money expect to be able to tell the professionals how to win -- and they are probably even more likely to have wacky ideas about how to do that than the average voter on the street. By definition, the donor class lives in a different world than the average voter, but the average, disinterested voter is the person the campaign needs to connect with.

The conventional wisdom has been that the Koch brothers and a bevy of self-interested conservative billionaires will ensure that Romney has a considerable financial advantage over Obama. Well, yes, all those Citizens United Super PACs are cleaning up, but a remaining fragment of campaign finance regulation still helps level the playing field. Candidates themselves are legally assured "the lowest unit charge" for their ads, while all those outside guys have to pay whatever jacked up prices a crowded market makes inevitable. Capitalism at work makes Karl Rove's millions stretch less far than the aggregated sum of the President's small donors. Read all about it from Walter Shapiro in the Columbia Journalism Review.

So in the end, all the fluff and furor will come down to the opinions and whims of actual voters. As most people know, Republicans have little confidence they can sell their version of lonely individual self-sufficiency to a majority, so they've set about trying to alter the composition of the electorate in their favor by excluding people who might have other ideas.

… the current voting rights issue is ... a coordinated attempt by a political party to fix the result of a presidential election by restricting the opportunities of members of the opposition party’s constituency—most notably blacks—to exercise a Constitutional right.

This is the worst thing that has happened to our democratic election system since the late nineteenth century, when legislatures in southern states systematically negated the voting rights blacks had won in the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Elizabeth Drew, NYRB

Drew has covered politics for a generation, usually as a moderate voice of reason, so this is strong stuff.

Political scientists have been studying undecided voters and learning that there aren't very many of them, really. Anyone who actually talks with voters could tell you that. In fact, when phoning for a candidate or initiative, it rapidly becomes clear in which direction most people you talk with will jump, even if they don't know yet themselves. You have to listen to them. I suspect I annoy my co-workers when I get off a call and say "she'll vote with us …" or "that one will never change." It comes of doing this for a long time.

These researchers discovered that 94 percent of us knew how we would vote in the presidential election in December 2011. The parties are fighting over the remaining tiny fraction who happen to live in contested states:

Voters who are undecided initially and those moving to uncertainty after expressing an initial preference look similar: They are less interested in politics than voters who have made up their minds; they know less about politics; they are more likely to be moderates or unaware of their political ideology; and they are less likely to have a party identification.

So, when the underlying division in the electorate is quite even, our elections are decided by the least engaged segment of the population.

Or, just maybe they needn't stay disengaged, at least in local contests. A report from San Antonia points out that, on a small scale, the conventional wisdom can be changed by direct invitations to vote.

In local elections, though, the crass conventional wisdom that I often heard from political professionals was simply, “Latinos don’t vote.” But uncritical adherence to this conventional wisdom often results in a self-fulfilling prophecy: young Latinos are ignored in local races because of their prior voting record, which ensures similarly low turnout in future elections. In 2011, as an inexperienced campaign manager for a young, Latino city council candidate on the south side of San Antonio – a heavily Latino area – I faced this conventional wisdom directly.

He made sure his candidate canvassed young Latinos and their votes elected him. More of that, all over the country, does change the electorate and hence results.

What every candidate and initiative is up against in the contemporary United States is that there are no universally trusted sources of information. None. Gallup has recently documented that overall distrust of the mainstream media has hit a new high.

Americans are clearly down on the news media this election year, with a record-high six in 10 expressing little or no trust in the mass media's ability to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. …On a broad level, Americans' high level of distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry.

This creates a terrible challenge to those of us who are trying to convey messages based on facts that are not easily intuited. And then we also have one political party that has responded to public distrust by concluding it has no obligation to stick to generally agreed facts in its assertions. Steve Benen describes what he sees coming from the Republicans in horror:

I was always taught that campaigns can spin, slice, fudge, and distort the truth, but they couldn't literally make stuff up. The political fabric of our democracy tolerates a generous amount of duplicity -- so long as there's at least a kernel of truth in the claim somewhere -- but demonstrable lies are unacceptable.

Not so, apparently for Mitt Romney's media advisers.

Yet barring some unexpected turnaround, all the intentional distortions of both facts and the electorate are not working for the Republicans. Mitt Romney hasn't found a way to run a plausible campaign. I'll leave the last word about that to the wise Ed Kilgore.

… the Romney campaign is so locked down on tactical day-to-day maneuvering that it’s lost sight of any coherent strategy or rationale-for-candidacy, as the days quickly pass.

Let's give yet another last word here to President Obama's campaign manager who knows what it will take to get from here to a successful election.

Jim Messina, President Obama’s campaign manager, spoke by conference call to more than 100 members of his Virginia staff last Sunday night to ask whether they’re meeting their door-knocking, phone-calling and voter-registering goals — and to urge them: “Now is the time to push even harder.”

The next night, the call was to Colorado. On Wednesday, he met privately with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill to deliver a similar message. And on Saturday, he traveled to Wisconsin to meet with field organizers, neighborhood team leaders and other volunteers there.

“Ignore the polls,” Messina said on the call to Virginia, he recalled. “There are always going to be polls showing us up. There are always going to be polls showing us down. None of that matters. What matters is your voter contacts in your state.”

Washington Post, Sept. 22, 2012

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