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Elections 101

Monday, March 19, 2007
Eli at Firedoglake, in the process of bemoaning the influence of the DLC, wonders why Democrats want to win centrist voters in the middle of the electorate.

I have answer - because they want to win elections. It's called the Median Voter Theorem. When there are 2 parties and turnout is constant, voters in the ideological middle of the electorate determine the winner. It's pretty obvious, really. As a political strategy, you want to win voters who swing between the parties, because they decide who wins.

Now if you were paying close attention, you noticed the "only two parties" and "turnout is constant" provisos. Both of these demonstrate the dangers of the "race to the middle" strategy. The first is that you can alienate your base and a 3rd party on the extremes will form. This happened in 2000 with Ralph Nader, whose 3% denied Gore a clear-cut majority. The second is the source of the "base mobilization" strategy: if you can get your base to turn out at a higher rate than the other side, you might not need the middle. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that your efforts to mobilize your base won't a) lead to a defection of the political middle (which happened to the Republicans in 2006), or b) lead to a counter-mobilization of the other side's base (which happened in 2004).

But wait, if the base mobilization strategy is such a bad idea, why did it work for Rove in 2004? Well, because he didn't exclusively use that strategy. Because of 9/11 and concerns about national security, Rove was able to both mobilize his base AND appeal to swing voters.

Which is a pretty good description of how one wins elections. You can't just make your base happy, and you can't just appeal to the middle. You have to do both. Democrats managed to do that in 2006 because of generalized disgust with Republicans (Although oddly the Republican base still turned out. If it hadn't, the Democrats would have won 60 seats rather than 30).

Having said all that, accepting the importance of centrist voters says nothing about the relevance of the DLC. You need to define some differences between yourself and the opposition, and the DLC seems eager to compromise on everything. As a matter of strategy, I can understand the desire to blur the differences on either foreign policy OR economics OR social policies, but if you do all three then you're just mush and NOBODY will vote for you. And I think that the DLC has failed the basic political test - its candidates have failed to win elections - because it has taken its base for granted, because it has failed to woo the middle, and because its policies have not delivered as promised.

But this does NOT mean that Democrats can kiss of the middle. I mean come on guys, we're finally winning them over! Why give up on them now?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:28 AM
  • Great post. Your analysis of 2004 is dead-on - what's strange is how the two narratives about that election (base mobilization and swing-voter appeal) so rarely seem to be properly connected. As you point out, it was a good election for Rove because the major issue was one where swing voters shared the same concern as the base. Thus, an intense campaign to mobilize the base would also appeal to the middle.

    As for the DLC, I think the problem is that it doesn't even understand - or like - the Democratic base. And its attempts to appeal to the middle, while strategically correct, tend to be stylistically confused. The DLC style gives the appearance of celebrating an unprincipled triangulation, which also makes Democrats generally look weak and unprincipled.

    The irony is that, policywise, they do have some good ideas. And as you point out, they're entirely right about the need to appeal to the middle. But how you do it matters, too.

    By Blogger Paul, at 12:54 PM  
  • Usually DLC proposals are distinguished from conventional liberal ones sylistically rather than substantively. Where you see real issues cleavages, and the real debate about the location of the "middle," is on trade & labor issues. DLC'ers think free trade is a great thing, and are suspicious of labor unions. Neopopulists (like myself) am very sceptical of the way free trade agreements have been constructed, and are very supportive of labor unions.

    Other than that complex of issues, though, I really do have a hard time coming up with major differences between the DLC and the "left." MUCH more heat than light.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 2:18 PM  
  • I haven't looked at the DLC's policy papers for a while, actually. Have you seen any sign that they're moving toward any sort of accomodation on the trade issue, or are they still taking the hard line?

    By Blogger Paul, at 2:44 PM  
  • I'm mainly judging them by rhetoric. They recognize displacement, but their brilliant solution is wage insurance and re-training, which haven't accomplished a great deal.

    There was a very interesting debate over at TPM Cafe with Jeff Faux recently. Essentially it seems to come down to those who'd rather have no trade deals than bad trade deals (the populist position), and those who'd rather have bad trade deals than no trade deals (the position of the media, the DLC wing, and the Republicans).

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 3:35 PM  
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