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Nothing really matters

For those of you who aren't obsessively following the Democratic primaries, here's a little recap. Clinton basically banked everything on winning early due to her name recognition on Super Tuesday. Obama actually did very well on Super Tuesday, basically tying Clinton, and since then it's become increasingly clear that Clinton's campaign had no plans past Super Tuesday. They apparently blew through a lot of their money early on, they didn't build up get-out-the-vote organizations in subsequent states, they misunderstand the rules of the Texas primary delegate allocation, they missed the deadline to get their delegates on the ballot in Pennsylvania, etc., etc.. Now after they've lost each subsequent primary, they've poo-poo'd the loss, saying that state didn't matter - it had too many black people, it had too many latte liberals and not enough real working class americans, it was a red state that democrats will never win in the general, etc., etc.. It's become something of a joke, waiting to hear why the most recent state Clinton lost "didn't matter". Now we're seeing the poll numbers flip in Texas (Obama had been polling behind Clinton but now he is polling ahead). Texas was formerly one of the states that "mattered" because Clinton expected to win big there due to her support in Hispanic communities. Now they're saying... but before i get to that, here's another part of the recap.

No one likes that Iowa and New Hampshire get to vote so early in the primary season because it essentially makes these two states kingmakers, knocking out a lot of potential candidates if they don't win early and get the momentum. However, no one wants to publically come out against Iowa and NH's positions because then they'll get rejected by the voters in those states. So what Dean (head of the DNC) did this year as a compromise was move up the primaries for two additional states, Nevada and South Carolina, thinking to give the West and South representation up front. However, Michigan and Florida also tried to move up their primaries, and to penalize them for breaking the rules, the DNC has stripped them of their delegates (the states still have the ability to hold legitimate primaries any time up until June). Candidates were told not to campaign in those states. In Michigan, all the candidates except Clinton actually took their names off the ballots. When those primaries were held, Clinton won them (certainly no surprise in Michigan). Now Clinton has been pushing very hard to have those primaries included.

So back to Texas. Here's the latest spin:

I'd love to carry Texas, but it's usually not in the electoral calculation for the Democratic nominee. Florida and Michigan are.

Now aside from the obvious sour grapes, there's some real strategic problems with talking about how all these states don't matter, and saying that certain states aren't 'in the electoral calculation'. The first point is that you're pissing off everyone in those states.

For the second point we have to look at the difference in general election strategies that Clinton and Obama will have. Clinton will follow the strategy that worked for her husband, and that Gore and Kerry attempted. That is, rely on the states that are solid "blue" (i.e., always vote for Democrats), ignore states that are solid red, and campaign heavily in the "swing states" that could go either way. A strategy like this makes sense in the short term, but it has diminishing returns - in each subsequent attempt, you are letting support for your party in all but the swing states atrophy and die. South Carolina, for example, will most certainly go to the Republicans, in this election, but in this primary we saw a huge turnout and a lot of enthusiasm. If you ignore that groundswell, it will have nowhere to go, but if you cultivate it, maybe in 3 or 4 election cycles, it can make South Carolina contestable. Furthermore, you lose the benefit of letting downticket elections ride on the presidential coattails. If all those people are encouraged to turn out for the general election, even if they don't win the state for the president, they will also be voting for senators and representatives and state legislators and dog catchers with a D next to their name, ensuring that your party has more power overall. Even if you're only in it for the power grab and not the advancement of your party's ideals, this makes sense because it means you have more supporters in the legislative branch to pursue your agenda.

Howard Dean's solution to this is his "50 state initiative" (and no, it doesn't entail setting up a super hero team in each state, unfortunately), which contests every election in every state. The downside of this is that you are spreading your resources more thinly. This has angered some strategists (like the loser James Carville), because it potentially takes money away from candidates who seemingly have a better shot of winning than candidates that seem hopeless. Dean proved them wrong in 2006 when we saw a number of "hopeless" candidates win - something that would have never happened if they hadn't gotten support from the DNC. But even aside from short term victories, the 50 state initiative is really about a long term approach - building movements and organized party structures in every state that can be mobilized for each election. It takes advantage of the Dem's grassroots advantage over Republicans, who, aside from their (waning) support from the Christian right, generally defeat the Dem's popular support with corporate power. And it forces the Republicans to spend money in areas that they originally thought were 'safe'.

Obama will be taking the 50 state approach in this election, and with his massive grassroots appeal, it should work wonders for the Democratic party as a whole. And this is another reason i'm becoming very hopeful about him winning the primary.

By fnord12 | February 26, 2008, 9:15 AM | Liberal Outrage