lessons from America

Denver Diary – Sat 23 August

My first root beer float.  That’s a good abiding memory to have of a day.  Photo will come, but need to download it from my phone.  The other great part of that brunch dining experience was the free shots of whisky (and ginger ale chasers) from the diner / bar where we ate.  My hosts are regulars there, so they get good treatment. 

And then, after an afternoon of relaxing, it was time to head to my first – and one of the only – big sponsored offical Convention events I am able to go to.  This one was the Media Welcome Party / celebrate the host city party. My flatemate’s father is a journo and had a spare pass to it, which I eagerly accepted.  The event took place in Elitch Gardens, a theme park adjacent to Downtown Denver.  Opened up to delegates / the media for the evening, with free food and alcohol, free goes on some of the rides and games, street theatre and entertainment, plus a concert too. Awesome.  The Obama influence / effect was perhaps responsible for the inclusion of an acrobatic dance troupe from Kenya.


Official proceedings in the arena kicked off with the National Anthem.

Then time for speeches from the dignataries.  A veritable who’s who of Colorado’s finest politicians – Senator Ken Salazar, Governor Bob Ritter and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper – and a good reminder of the recent Democrat success in this State.


And then on to the part that many of the locals had been waiting for: a live concert by the very talented, wonderfully political and progressive and recently signed (and hopefully breaking into the big time) Denver band ‘The Flobots’.  Top show by them. Hip-hop with political lyrics, and the bonus of a violinist to soften the musical edge and give the tunes a different flavour.  The Flobots have a new fan in me … and in many of the non-Coloradan residents at the show who had never heard them before.


Towards the end of the concert there was an impromptu audience chant of yes we can

The evening’s programme ended with a firework display, though the drinking and eating and funfair rides continued for a while longer.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Biden not bed

And so I stayed up for several hours awaiting the official annoucement – and media reaction – to Obama’s picking of a Vice Presidential candidate.  Eventhough it looked like it might be Biden for the past few days, I still wanted to wait up to hear the news.  So that’s what I did.  Though interestingly CNN kept on repeating that it had the info from Democratic sources speaking on anonymity, even quite a while after the Obama campaign had confirmation and updated Obama-Biden images on its site. 

So what do I think of Obam’s decision.  in truthm,  I am a bit disappointed that he picked Biden. Not because there is anything wrong with him (and that Neil Kinnock quote was a one time failure to acknowledge his source, not exactly a major misdemeanour).  In fact the more I read about Biden the more impressed I am with him as a person and as a politician.  [That has increased many-fold after his performance and words at Springfield, Illinois this afternoon at his first official appearance with Obama).
But I guess I was hoping for someone that was more outside Washington or a bit more of a risk; someone who resonated more with Obama’s new politics.  But that idealistic scenario may not have been a runner.
I agree that someone who had been a governor or had direct financial management experience may have been a good idea given the current economic crunch.  (NB that’s not on Hillary’s resume either).  But there are signs that the US economy is stablising.  And the root causes of many of the economic problems are geo-political ones – oil, conflict, power struggles – so Biden is going to be well suited to dealing with those.

My worry is that Obama seems to be being hurt by being portrayed by the Republicans being aloof, cocky, overly intelligent etc.  That old ‘who would you most want to have a beer / bbq with?’ test.  I’m not convinced Biden helps him there, but again the more I see of him the better I feel. 

August 24, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Denver Diary – Fri 22 Aug

The mighty Mississippi River.  It was only when flying over it did it really hit me that I was on my way to Denver, and a location and an America I had never experienced before.  East Coast and Mid-West, yes.  Further west, no.  So that bit of excitement, as well as the natural beauty stretching below, prompted me to record the moment.


Shortly before landing the chief stewardess said she had an important announcement to make.  Here was I thinking she was going to tell us who Obama had just picked for VP (which was expected any moment), and instead it was for a worthy but less sexy cause – a reminder for us to donate our unwanted coins to BA’s ‘change for change’ scheme.

Proper excitement at the airport, when I saw Sir David Steel a few metres in front of me.  I met him a couple of months back at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Reform.  No chance to chat with him though, as he got whisked through security and VIP arrivals.

The whole journey – including the immigration checks and security – and the political fiesta and protests that await remind me very much of 2001 and my trip to Genoa for the G8 Summit.  That was back in the day when I did more of the big demos and activisty stuff around debt cancellation and anti-globalisation.  I am reliving my summit-hopping days!  This time let there not be tear gas and running street battles, please. 

On the trip to the Capitol Hill area of Denver where I am staying, we passed by the Invesco stadium, where Obama will be speaking on Thursday.  Wow the stadium is gorgeous and impressive in size and style.  there was a pre-season friendly going on and the atmosphere seemed to be amazing.  Lucky people who get in there on Thursday is what I say.

After a brief rest at the apartment, I head out with my new Denver flatmate, buddy and host for the week: Hunter.  After a few drinks and a quick calculation that the clock on the wall which says 11pm shoudl actually say 6pm for me, I make my way back home and to bed.  At least that was the intention.  Obama – or, perhaps more fairly, the TV news networks had other ideas …….  VP time.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary | , , , , | Leave a comment

Life imitating art imitating life

How to prepare for Denver? That’s my challenge. In under a week I’ll be there, following the Convention from my base in the Big Tent. So I’ve watched the West Wing – the final two series all about the post-Bartlet primaries and the general election. You can see the Obama candidacy emerging first on screen, mapping the path to the White House for a political outsider with a funny name and non-white skin who proclaims a message of change and fires up the young people and Democrat activists.

Then I watched the entire run of Commander-in-Chief. A Hillary-vehicle, some cynically said, as it offers us a world with a credible liberal woman as the first female occupant of the White House. The series ends as battle lines are drawn for an election run, so we never know what happens next. Intriguingly, the show not only sympathetically features a black chief-of-staff, but also has him about to take up the post of Vice President. A case of hedging bets before the primary season perhaps?

Now, I’m at the Edinburgh Festival. Along with happily sampling the usual comedy, musical and theatrical fare – and some fantastic live African music – I’m trying to discern if there’s an American election undercurrent around. In past years (this is my 4th Festival in a row) I’ve managed to pick up and follow a theme: one year it was blogging and diaries; another it was constitutional reform (you gotta believe it). I am on the hunt to see if US electoral politics is on the menu. And I don’t just mean anti-Bush rants / jokes. I’m looking for Obama and McCain gags, “Si si peude” chants and November references.

Leafing through the fringe guide, there weren’t nearly as many obvious references to election year as I imagined. Only two shows have it in their titles: Jeff Kreisler ‘08 (an American comedian’s stand-up show taking aim at contemporary political and pop culture); and ‘Tina C – Tick my box‘ (a spoof about a country & western singer running for president). Both have ads in the guide which depict electoral images, like ballot papers or campaign posters.

There were another two shows that focused on politics and elections stateside: ‘The Americans’ (a sketch show from a trio of Comedy Central actors depicting the nation as a once proud family on the verge of collapse); and ‘Queen of Wyoming’ (a musical about the protagonist’s father running for Governor of a Midwestern State). ‘Attack of the Soccer Mums’ sounds like it could be an account of the 1996 election, or even a Obama horror story, with women rising up to support Hillary Clinton, but is no such thing; instead being about over-competitive parents. Another that flatters to deceive in its name is ‘Jaik Campbell – The audacity of hopelessness’ – but full marks to the riff on Obama‘s book title. I wonder how many people here actually get that joke though?

I did however manage to dig up one show that Obama would be proud of. ‘Word-up’ is billed as an insight into the hip-hop generation, dealing with the post-segregation world and the fall out from global economics. That sounds more like the spirit of change.

Two long-running Festival favourites that draw heavily on the elections are ‘News Revue‘ (the satirical look back at the year) whose finale features Bush, Condeleeza, Clinton and Obama in a Bat out of Hell pastiche; and ’Political Animal’, a revolving group of comedians talking and joking about politics nightly.

The legacy of Bush‘s ‘War on Terror’ is perhaps the one issue that has captured the passion and imagination of artists. The Patriot Act (a serious play); ‘The Axis of Awesome’; Jesus: the Guantanamo years; Eco-friendly Jihad all draw inspiration in their titles – if not always their content – from that rich artistic vein.

Iraq may be a lot less prominent that in previous years, but Bush’s chief ally – our very own former PM – still attracts an audience; with two shows about him (Tony of Arabia / Tony! The Blair Musical). He is on a par with Mugabe, who also gets two shows about him: ‘I am Mugabe’ and ‘Requiem to Robert Mugabe’. Compare that to Gordon Brown or John McCain: neither get to be the subject of shows. Neither may get to win an election either.

And so the November election. ‘The Americans’ ends with Obama in the ascendant, but possibly about to be denied victory by someone fixing the election for the Republicans. Only time will tell whether life imitates art in this respect.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America, the world wants obama | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red State gambles

Interesting to note how a non-traditional campaign – one not predicated on winning 50%+1 (or in this case 270 electoral college votes) – is worrying party apparatiks and those whose careers and advice is based on swing state and micro-targeting strategies. makes a good comment:

“Barack Obama has taken Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy to heart. He is waging a campaign and spending millions of dollars in red states that most professionals expect him to lose, with one exception (Virginia). The other states are Indiana, North Dakota, North Carolina, Montana, Georgia, and Alaska. All told, Obama has spent $7.8 million on TV ads in these seven states (vs. $1.6 million for McCain). Many Democratic insiders would rather have him abandon them all except Virginia and spend the money in Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Iowa, instead, all of which will be very close. After the election results are in, Obama (but mostly his advisors David Axelrod and David Plouffe) will be seen either as geniuses or dodos.”

NB. First published on MMVC blog 5 August 2008

August 24, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , | Leave a comment

The American reality is currently only a dream for us

A copy of ‘America goes to the polls – a report on voter turnout in the 2008 Presidential Primary’ from a US voter engagement org has just landed in my inbox and I couldn’t wait til tomorrow to share some of the highlights with you.

1) More than one in four of all eligible voters participated in a primary or caucus. This is a rate not seen since 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18.

2) Voter participation in Democratic primaries was up 112% and caucuses by 223% compared to 2004 – ie.the turnout in Democratic primaries doubled and tripled in the caucuses.

3) Youth participation rose at a faster rate than any other age group. Turnout by voters ages 18-29 went up for the third consecutive national election year (2004 and 2006).

But alongside these startling facts, there is a salient message: besides competitive elections (which are very important) or the date of the primary, a number of factors influenced voter turnout. Election Day Registration and Early Voting most likely contributed to higher turnout in many states.

“Election Day Registration (EDR): Allowing voters to register or fix their registration at the polls ensures that more voters can successfully participate. Of the states with some form of Election Day Registration, most held caucuses. The three states with primaries, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and North Carolina, had high participation. Voters in North Carolina, normally a lower turnout state, benefited from the state letting early voters to register and vote at the same time up until 3 days before the election.”

“Early Voting: Allowing voters more and better opportunities to vote early can raise turnout in contests with traditionally lower turnout, like primaries3. Four of the ten states with the highest 2008 voter turnout – Oregon, Illinois, Florida and California – have broad early voting systems in place.”

Maybe both are measures the Ministry of Justice should be more seriously considering within its Governance of Britain discussions and consultations, rather than just the tinkering round the edges that constitute its proposals on weekend voting and giveaways at polling stations.

And perhaps the main lesson to take away from the report is that:

“The 2008 election provides fresh evidence of the difference made by meaningful competition and a diverse field of candidates and the higher levels of voter mobilization and participation this engenders.”

Meaningful competition. A diverse field of candidates. Those phrases are right out of the electoral reform playbook. To continue with the sports analogy, the MoJ really should be allowing these discussions onto the field of play; rather than leaving us – and logic – shouting from the sidelines

August 24, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , | Leave a comment

Two academic responses

Here are two well-considered responses to my previous post: my report and opinion on David Lammy’s speech on lessons from America.

1) Sunder Katwala – Fabian Society

Malcolm, A good analysis of the speech. My own (unofficial!) reading of this was that the critique you are looking for was implicit in what Lammy had to say about the difficulties of defining yourself negatively and the politics of managerialism and the need to connect with and mobilise broader movements. The shortcomings of micro-targetting are quite close to that.

If he was unwilling to spell it out, I felt that it had perhaps as much to do with his several times steering a bit clear of questions asking him to discuss or predict anything about the US general election battle between the parties (as opposed to the lessons of the primaries), and perhaps feeling the question fell into that category. He was somewhat scrupulous in noting that he had to observe the formalities of government neutrality about the race. (He was rather imaginative in finding quite so many ways to make his argument about lessons from Obama AND McCain, although his personal support for Obama is hardly a secret and was pretty clear despite his observing the letter of the diplomatic code).

On the other hand, I think he wanted to place the emphasis on changing the culture of our politics: I guess that he may perhaps be sceptical as to whether and how far institutional reform necessarily brings about a cultural shift. So you will have to try to work on him to make the link – but he’s clearly opening up a debate that we need about the culture of our politics.

2) Nick Anstead -doctoral student, Royal Holloway University

Malcolm, many thanks for name checking my comment. In the seminar, I was really responding to a point made by a previous speaker, which seemed to be implying that what is happening in the US in 2008 is analagous to Labour’s 1997 successes in the UK. I don’t think it is. The British events fit into the classic single election cycle, personality driven upsurge. Furthermore, it only partially and briefly offset a long term trend – reflected in both declining partisanship and membership. In the contrast, the 2008 seems to be part of a much more significant civic upsurge in the US.
But I have to confess that I think you are wrong about David Lammy – for my money, he entirely gets the key elements of this issue, what is driving it and offers good ideas on how to harness it. I also think your focus on the fifty-state strategy is actually misplaced. I would volunteer a number of reasons as to why.
Firstly, I am yet to be convinced that it is more than a rhetorical device. There certainly seems to be precious little data out there which proves a big shift in the spending priorities among Democrats. The DNC took on a some field activists and sent them off across the country, and then flagged it as a big triumph for 50-statism, but I’ve not seen any data which indicates changes in the bulk of their election expenditure has been shifting. Furthermore, the DNC accounts for a tiny proportion of Democratic expenditure – the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees, as well as (obviously) campaigns, are huge spenders. I have recently been doing some interviews for research purposes with activists and professionals who have managed campaigns at the congressional level, and they assure me that the single most important factor in deciding whether you win is if you manage to gain support from the DNC or the DCCC. In order to get this support, candidates have to show viability in the early stages of the campaign (they do this through both opinion polls and fundraising). If you get party support, you are in a strong position, if you don’t you are fatally weak. So there is clearly still massive targetting of resources going on.
Obama’s campaign has also (I think mistakenly) linked with the fifty-state strategy. There are two reasons for this. Firstly due to how he won the primary competition. While Obama’s geographic coalition was broad, what he actually ran was a small state strategy, using big wins in small states to offset small loses in large states. Make not mistakes: Obama’s primary strategy was wholly about winning the nomination, and he took what was essentially the only route open to him. Secondly, there is a belief that Obama might reshape the general election map and bring more states into play. Possibly – it is really too early to say yet. He is certainly looking at a large playing field. But let’s also keep things in perspective. Obama’s campaign have just taken out it first ad buy, which encompasses twelve states, not fifty (rather than the normal six). In part this is because he can afford to, and in part it is because he looks weak in some traditional swingers (i.e. Florida) and needs to bring other states (North Carolina and Virginia) into play. I also suspect the field will contract as we move towards November.
But let’s assume that the fifty-state strategy does amount to a significant change. Should it be something that British parties seek to emulate? I’m still not sure. I think you make the mistake of assuming that the fifty-state strategy is causing change and re-engaging activists. Might it not equally be argued that it is a sypmtom of other changes that are occurring? The Democratic Party is in the ascenency, its fundraising is good (although interestingly the DNC is the exception to this rule – their fundraising is actually relatively poor at the moment), the GOP and President Bush are very unpopular, and the US is on the verge of recession. If strategy is generated by circumstances, then we have a problem. The Democrats are in a huge position of strength, and have a groundswell of support with which to work with. With the best will in the world, Labour is not. That, necesserily, has impacts on the strategies a party is able to adopt. Labour’s finances alone would seem to be a very high barrier to funnelling resources into seats which are, in the short term, unwinnable.
And finally, I also think that comparing states with constituencies is a flawed analogy. The obvious difference is size. A more appropriate analogy in this sense is the congressional district – and there is no way that either the Democrats or the GOP are active in every Congressional Distict. But more importantly, states, unlike any political sub-unit in the UK (even the devolved assemblies) are stupendiously self-contained and powerful – they control taxes, gun legislation, the death penalty and other huge issues. They are not just unitary political prizes, but contain multiple centres of power and genuine internal political competition. For this reason, they also have their own party systems. It might even be argued that the Democratic Party isn’t one party but fifty stuck together. This changes the behaviour of voters too, who have are culturally comfortable with “ticket splitting” – that is voting for different parties for different offices. This creates a level of flexability in the system which almost always makes some form of state level competition a worthwhile activity. In contrast, in the UK, our political discourse is so focused on the unitary authority of Westminster, people almost always use their vote, in any election, to make a point about national politics. There is little scope for regional, much less constituency parties, to run independent campaigns. Without this, it is hard to imagine a fifty-state style strategy working. Whereas Vermont and Texas Democrats, for example, are able to offer a radically different plaform to appeal to their respective constituencies, it is very hard to imagine who Labour would balance the competing political ideals of the North East and South East.
This isn’t to suggest that active parties aren’t a good thing. Far from it. But I can’t help feeling that any attempt to impose an alien political strategy, derived in very different circumstances would be a mistake. And more than that, I think it might actually engender exactly the wrong ideas about campaigning at a crucial moment. Any kind of central dictate (we will campaign everywhere and distribute resources accordingly) builds the idea that campaigning is something that comes from Washington / London. I would much rather see an organic growth in campaigning, fuelled by grassroots activism and decision making. I might be active at the next general election, but you can get your life I will get on a train and go to a marginal constituency to work. People will vote with their feet and we should trust them to do so. What Labour should be doing is opening up its institutions and lowering barrier to participation, and then trusting supporters to decide how resources are distributed.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy, lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

Lammy’s lessons from America

David Lammy, Labour MP and Minister, gave us his ‘Lessons from America’ at a special Fabian Society event. Lammy’s full speech is here.

His thesis: its the way we do politics that has to change – very much agree with that. His conclusion: that there is still time for Labour to build up a popular movement (which New Labour never was), to gain momentum back and to change the culture of the party and our policy-making to be more responsive and inclusive.

However, despite very good observations about what has worked and is different in the US (see my notes of his speech below) he either couldn’t being himself to express just how Labour could repeat some of these great strategies, or in fact really just doesn’t get it at all.

Paul Hilder and Nick Anstead both pointed out that while you can build up movements quickly it sure helps to have the right culture, tactics, organisation and behaviours in place. These things don’t happen overnight.

As Nick pointed out, what we are seeing in the US is phenomenal but hasn’t come from nothing. The metrics on participation and donations was already well up in 2004 and trending that way beforehand. Compare that to the UK where the Blair-inspired Labour membership increase was a mere blip on the long historic trend of party membership decline. [read Nick’s great analysis of the Democrat Primaries here].

Then it came to my question to Lammy. “What does he think of the 50 State strategy? And how could it be applied to the UK? They didn’t start with the strategy a year ago but have been building since 2003/4 and Howard Dean. The Democratic National Committee has been spending millions of dollars on supporting local activity and organising, on building the base on the ground, rather than on central party / national campaigning and initiatives. Activists are empowered and energised. Ordinary voters have responded too, as they feel that their voice is being heard and they are being taken seriously, no matter where they live.” I would have liked to have added “when are we going to have a 650 seat strategy here?”

Lammy’s answer was disappointing to say the least. He had to be promoted to address the question and then didn’t seem to understand either the 50 State strategy or its purpose, let alone how it could translate here. There seemed to be a real unwillingness to accept any of that decentralisation of campaigning and messaging, of pouring resources in locally rather than spending it centrally, of fighting for council seats even in areas with no short-medium term prospect of a Labour MP, or of giving the impression that everyone’s votes count that has so made an impact in the US.

Its a shame, as I think he is ahead of the game and thinking in much else of his analysis on the US elections. Maybe as the months go past he will connect the final dots on this one.

[below the fold] Here’s where’s he’s up to then (my notes of his speech:

There were unique factors in US: charismatic personalities; back-stories of Obama and McCain; symbolism of first woman / first African-American; of gender versus race equality; and the galvanising factor of a deeply unpopular President.

However, there were new ways of doing politics that are applicable to the UK and that we can learn from:

1) who does politics

Obama and McCain both are running as outside the political establishment, and against Washington. A reaction against political language and methods of 1990s / inside the Beltway tactics. Promising to change politics.

–> There is a reaction in the UK against the political class, not the upper class. Commons has always been host to a wide range of people from different backgrounds and professions. But in the past decade Westminster has created its own industry of think tanks, public affairs companies, special advisors and the like. Parliament is now suffering blind spots and from homogeneity and group-think. People struggle to find connections now with their MPs / Parliament. Instead people are channelling their political energy to where they feel listened to: either single-issue campaigns, or extremist parties and groups. We need to lower barriers to involvement; give political parties powers to create mechanisms for promoting diversity; more ways of getting voices heard; more directly elected mayors and youth mayors; greater accountability and Parliament “open, inclusive and representative of the public as a whole”.

2) political strategy & policy

Messages and methods of the 1990s are now out-of-date, out-of-touch with what people want, and unpopular. Obama and McCain have taken bigger risks on policies. They have turned away from the politics of calculation and triangulation. They are defining themselves against the challenges they face rather than the old dividing lines and closing down of debates.

–> to define and communicate what we are for and our vision going forward, rather than bland managerialism and bullet points. To remove the fear we have of public conversation and debate.

3) political movements

Nearly 1.5 million people have given to the Obama campaign. 47% of his funding has come from donations of $200 or less. Commitment of resources into grassroots organisation and mobilising young people. Connecting activists to each other and allowing them the freedom to campaign, debate and interact on their own terms and messages. Low floors and high ceilings has been the strategy of the Obama campaign. Lack of reliance on formal structures. Encouraging people to take ownership of campaign.

–> Need to get the feel again of permanent activism and being and sustaining a movement. Tapping into the progressive energy of NGOs and 20-somethings.

First published on MMVC blog 1 July 2008


June 23, 2008


August 24, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy, lessons from America | , , , | Leave a comment

Voting in America event at Parliament

In June, Rob Richie – head of FairVote USA – was over in the UK doing a short speaker tour. One of his stops was in Parliament, to talk to the All-Party Group on Electoral Reform, who were hosting an American elections special. Anthony Barnett, of Open Democracy, was the other guest speaker. Here’s a summary of their contributions, along with my own commentary at the end.

America APPG meeting panel - cropped.JPG
Rob Richie – FairVote

There are over 2 million elected representatives in the US – that’s a lot of elections! This can lead to dispersal of accountability and lower turnout for many elections.

There is quite a large amount of institutional inertia. Only twice (1994 and 2006) in the last 56 years has there been a change of party in the House of Representatives. Some State Senate seats have not swapped parties for over 100 years.

This is the first time since 1952 that no sitting President / Vice President has contested the election. Obama is a freshman Senator and barely 3 years from taking his seat is his party’s figurehead and stands on the verge of leading his country. NB. Interesting comparison with Cameron, who took over running his party 5 years after being elected and within 9 years of becoming an MP may be Prime Minister.

1.5% of all Americans donate to a candidate in any even given election cycle. 10% of Iowans voted in their caucus in January.

The Democrats use PR delegate allocation which roughly equates to delegates reflecting the vote share state-wide, though various anomalies and complicating factors. The Republicans use a winner takes all system. Before the other candidates dropped out of the race, McCain was winning all the delegates in many States, but with no more than 37% of the votes. Republicans missed out in media attention and in party building and in voter id as a result of their primaries no longer be competitively fought after 5 Feb.

McCain and Obama both support Instant Run-off Voting (the Alternative Vote). The US has no national referendum or elections. Even the president is elected via State-wide votes, not nationally. Nebraska and Maine are in the only non straight winner-takes-all elections within the Electoral College. But even they are winner-takes-all, just based on the vote not just state-wide but within congressional district. Neither 2 States has yet split their electoral college vote between candidates.

Bush only bothered polling in 18 States in the last year of his 2004 election campaign. The rest did not matter. Voters under 30 are much more likely to turn out to vote in a close election than if it is not a competitive race.

There is at last some real momentum behind reform of the electoral college: the national popular vote campaign, seeking for each state to pass a law which would give that State’s electoral college votes to the candidate who had won the most votes nationwide.

Anthony Barnett – Open Democracy

Why doesn’t reform happen? Global imperial powers, didn’t want possible Napoleon emerging, but wanted to strong centre and potential to remove any political elites who overstep their mark – ie. wanted ability to vote the ‘buggers’ our but not anything else that might enhance democracy. Time may have moved on, but the political elite’s view of government and power has not. Wales, Scotland, London and Lords are all institutions which surround the central state and are all slightly freer to adopt different voting systems and ways of working than the Commons. You won’t get Turkeys voting for their own Xmas.

Below are the points I raised in the discussion afterwards. Not directly looking at what we could use over here, more how American system could be improved. But obviously there is a crossover and some lessons we could usefully bear in mind. These are all strategies to expand the political map, give incentives to participation, enhance democracy and try to modernise the ‘imperial power’ still within our system.
1) Primary versus Caucus – the former involves many more people and is easier to participate in; the latter is better at fostering meaningful political debate / dialogue, being more of a community event, and increasing volunteer activism. Perhaps there is a case for more States to follow Texas’s lead and have a two-step process: 75% delegates apportioned to the primary results and 25% to the caucus results.

2) PR delegate apportionment – needs more fine-tuning: an end to even-number districts and a greater winner’s bonus. Otherwise might be more of a backlash against it.

3) 50 State Strategy – value of having your vote heard and issues articulated, even in safe seats / areas. Supports wider PR arguments and is part a step towards the type of politics and campaigning we would want to see. Also has positive impact on voter registration and turnout.


NB first published on MMVC blog 23 June 2008

August 24, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

50 States not 42 days

This is a theme I’ll be returning repeatedly to over the coming months. Its about how to expand the electoral map; about how to build up the party base and win down-ticket races; about how to encourage more people to turn out to vote and be convinced that they have a stake in the political system. Its about all of those things and more.

In the American context, the 50 State strategy / campaign was first raised by Howard Dean and is now taken on by Obama, who has just promised to open up campaign offices in every single state. Now, as Markos (founder of the Daily Kos), explains:

“It doesn’t mean Obama will win 50 states, obviously. But it does mean a commitment to 1) an expanded presidential battleground, 2) long-term party building, and 3) attention to the down-ballot races that will ultimately decide whether the Obama Agenda will see the light of day. The more seats Obama’s Democratic Party can amass in the House and in the Senate, the stronger his influence and the bolder his legislation can be. In other words, this is much bigger than the presidential race, and I’m extremely encouraged that a presidential campaign has decided to take such a broad approach to these coming elections.”

Challenging this view / perceived hype, Charlie Cook, a top political analyst, responds:

“Presidential campaigns are pass-fail, and pass is defined as winning 270 electoral college votes. Ask former Vice President Al Gore about moral presidential victories. With 270 electoral votes the definition of success, “50-states” isn’t a strategy, it’s a cliché. Sure, a candidate might give some modicum of attention to all 50 states; the appearances are important. But if that candidate spends significant resources in the 20-25 states that are a lock for him or his opponent, he will look pretty foolish when his top priority states run shy on money down the final stretch.”

So there we have it, the necessity of relentlessly pursuing swing states demanded under the winner-takes-all system may well squeeze out the room for a healthier dynamic. It’ll certainly take a concerted effort to overcome the received wisdom of the standard electoral maths. And in one sense it – and maybe this is a slightly heretical point – it doesn’t matter when push comes to shove in the final stages of the race and resource decisions get made solely in favour of ensuring that “pass”. For the first stage of the strategy, and a worthy one at that, is trying to persuade people that their voice and their vote matters, and that they have a stake in the political process, no matter where they live. The appearance of trying to be competitive in as many places as possible is a good starting point for that; especially if (and this I know is far from current political reality) you can then go back to voters and explain that you will be campaigning for a change in the way the electoral college works so that there is more of an incentive for campaigning for votes everywhere right through to polling day. Interestingly, there is something brewing on that front: the campaign for a National Popular Vote.

But for the moment we have this potential scenario, which psephologist Stu Rothenberg sees as a possible byproduct of the 50 state strategy:

“Obama is likely to “waste” votes in Illinois, New York and California (winning them with large majorities), and he may gain some ground in normally Republican states — getting closer than most Democrats normally do, but not winning. If this happens, and if Obama narrowly loses one or two larger, traditionally Democratic states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, we could see an updated version of 2000, with McCain winning the White House at the same time that Obama gets more than half a million more votes.”

What this shows is that even a 50 State strategy is not sufficient to counter the negatives of a winner-takes-all election. Some form of electoral reform – proportional representation of one manifestation or another – is needed to ensure votes count whereever they are cast and the result reasonably accurately reflects how people nationwide have voted in an election for a nationwide position.

And, as closing thought: millions of wasted votes in safe seats and unwinnable ones; a ‘wrong winner’ nationally. Can’t happen here in the UK, surely? ….

NB. This post first published on the MMVC blog 11 June 2008

August 24, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , , , , | Leave a comment