lessons from America

Michiganders stick 2 fingers up at McCain

If you don’t live in a swing state, you can become accustomed to not getting much attention from the presidential campaigns.  Maybe there a number of state-wide or prominent local races that are very close and keep you interested.  Or maybe you just are resigned to casting a vote that doesn’t matter; or even not bothering to turn up and vote at all. 

But when you live in a swing state and are used to being courted and treated special, then one candidate makes the decision to ‘pull out’ – to drastically cut staff, advertising and campaigning of all kinds and move these resources to other more places they consider better bets – what is your reaction?  You’d likely be p***ed at the guy who jilted you, who tells you you no longer matter. 

And hey, that’s what we seem to have in Michigan.  Last week the McCain campaign announced they were no longer treating Michigan as one of their battleground, target states.  And now, as reported by 538, 

Rasmussen has the first polling out of the state since that announcement, and it gives Barack Obama a 16 point lead. This is a state that, as recently as a month ago, looked like it might be the most important swing state in the nation. Voters really, really don’t like it when you blow off their state. That’s why Hillary Clinton romped to such huge margins in West Virginia and Kentucky in the Democratic primaries, where Obama essentially refused to campaign. It’s why Obama won by more than expected in Wisconsin and South Carolina, which Clinton pulled out of early. It’s why Rudy Giuliani’s decision to ignore every state that didn’t begin with an ‘F’, end with an ‘a’, and have ‘lorid’ in the middle was a catastrophic failure. … If you act like you don’t care about somebody’s vote, you aren’t going to get it.

And before something says it’s just a reflection on the national trend. Well, yes Obama has been increasing his support in most states these past 2-3 weeks.  But the gains in Michigan not only outstrip those of the national tracking polls, but also the average gain in most other places.


October 10, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , , , | 1 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