SixFifty

lessons from America

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. Electoralvote.com 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

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August 24, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , | 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

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June 23, 2008

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