Where We Are

Publish Date: 
Friday, November 3, 2006

Democrats need to start winning again – for the good of our country and for the health of our democracy. The Republican Party is in a position of dominance unseen in our lifetimes. Their misguided agenda threatens to put our country on a dangerous downward path. It is up to us to offer an alternative way – a vision for our country and a smart political strategy to implement it.

I have no doubt that in the coming weeks, the conversation about where Democrats need to go and how to get there will grow in intensity – as it should.   It is a vital conversation that is essential to our party’s future.

For the conversation to succeed in helping us tackle the challenges in front of us, it is crucial that we start first with an accurate assessment of where things stand today. In the spirit of NDN’s continuing mission to help build a better, stronger, winning Democratic party, here is our analysis of where we are.  In coming days, we will outline our ideas for a path forward.

Our Challenge:  Republicans Ascendant

1. The Republicans have become the dominant national party.  They control the White House, both Houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.  They now also control more governorships, more state legislative chambers and more state legislative seats than the Democrats.  They have more political power than any time since the 1920s.  Our 62-year run as the dominant Party in America – from 1932 to 1994 – has come to an end.  What worked for Democrats for so long is no longer working.  We need a new modern strategy that faces squarely where we are, and understands how to craft a new Democratic Majority for the 21st century.

2. The Republican/conservative alliance has built a superior information-age political machine.  By investing billions of dollars over 40 years in a vast array of powerful institutions and capacities, the Republicans have changed the national political playing field.  Their combination of mature and modern intellectual, political and media capacities is simply bigger, better, more coordinated and more strategic than the arrayed set of institutions on the progressive side.  We like to think of it as an information-age Tammany Hall.

Even at the campaign level they have a much more modern model for reaching voters.  They began investing heavily in databases and direct one-to-one marketing in the 1970s, and have built a campaign communications system that has much greater ability for “smart” narrowcasting – personalizing messages to specific groups and individual voters and reaching them through specialized communication.  Though we made great strides in the last two years, our campaigns are still built around an aging “dumb” broadcast model that blasts a more generalized message to a larger and much less differentiated audience - which in an era of Blackberrys, Amazon.com, Tivo, hundreds of television channels and even radio simply cannot compete with the personal, increasingly iterative, segmented “smart” model used by the other side.

3.  As an intellectually-based movement born when the Republicans were a true minority Party, their infrastructure is built on a foundation on the need to persuade.  At the very core of their collective institutional ethic is that they must persuade, persuade, persuade.  The institutions and leaders were born and grew when few listened to them, let alone agreed.  In a recent Washington Post piece, incoming RNC Chair Ken Mehlman talks about their plan to persuade – through issues and message – Republican voters to vote for the President.   All of their infrastructure, talk radio, direct mail, and television ads are built around a modern argument about where they want to take the country.  Our politics must become much more about sophisticated communication of a compelling message. We cannot assume voters know what we are talking about.

4.  9/11 gave the Republicans an opening that they have adroitly exploited.  The recent Republican gains have been much more pronounced at the federal level, than at the state level, where Democrats have gained ground.  While there are many issues that play differently at the Federal level, the basket of issues around security are the most electorally salient, and the area of the greatest Republican advantage.  Democrats must look hard at the new post-9/11 security environment as a major cause of the recent Republican surge.  Particularly study should be made of how these issues may have created their big gains with white women.

5.  Bush’s brand of conservatism has had a particularly big impact in the South.   Often overlooked in the press is that George Bush is the first truly southern Republican incumbent president Democrats have ever faced.  While national polling numbers have never shown great strength for Bush, he has helped his party gain disproportionately in areas with high level of social conservatives, particularly the South.  Much of the gains Democrats made after 1994 in the South have been reversed.  Our Senate losses in 2002 and 2004 were largely in areas of high concentrations of social conservatives.  Reversing the very strong gains made by Republicans in the South during the Bush years has to be one of the Democrats’ highest priorities.
Bush’s politics has been less transformative in the more libertarian Mountain West, where even under Bush we’ve seen Democrats score significant wins in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming, and hold strong along the West Coast.   In 2004, Bush saw his winning margin decrease in 10 states that he also won in 2000 – 8 of them were the western states Montana, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming.

6.  The new Republican momentum with Hispanics is a grave threat.  With Hispanics projected to become a quarter of all voters in our lifetimes, Democrats must make reversing the Bush gains with Hispanics one of our highest strategic priorities.  In the last two elections, Bush has more than doubled the GOP share of the Hispanic vote, taking Dole’s 21 percent in 1996 to 35 percent in 2000 and 40 to 44 percent in 2004.   If the Republicans can consolidate Bush’s gains, and keep the Hispanic vote in the high 30 to low 40 percent range, Democrats will have a very hard time winning national elections.

However, with NDN’s historic $6 million, multi-state Hispanic Project, we also learned in 2004 that when Democrats communicate directly and specifically to Hispanics, we gain ground.  With Hispanics only continuing to grow as a percentage of the population, the number of Asian-Americans growing nearly as fast, and African-Americans always remaining an essential part of the winning Democratic coalition, it is clear that NDN’s Hispanic Project needs to be replicated across the party as a way of communicating persuasively with minority voters, particularly African-Americans.

Reasons for Optimism

1.  Democrats have kept it close in recent presidential elections.  Elections may be about winning, but not all losses are the same.  Our loss in 2004 was narrow, not a wipeout.  A few breaks in Ohio, a few more votes in NM and NV and we have a very different national narrative.  We’ve received 48% or more in the last three Presidential elections, 250-plus Electoral College votes in the last two, and have won more votes in three of the last four.  These numbers are not the numbers of a Party deeply out of touch with America, or that far away from the road back.

2.  The Democratic brand remains strong.  In a poll taken in mid-November, the Democratic Party had a 54%/39% favorable/unfavorable rating, a net positive of 15 points  The Republican Party, on the heals of its strong showing, had only a 49%/46% rating, a net positive of 3 points.  Despite losing, Kerry won independent voters, 49%/48%, and moderates 54%/45%.

3.  While the Washington party was weakened, the Democratic Party’s national infrastructure became stronger.  As NDN has been arguing for the last two years, we suffer from a capacity gap on our side.  Billions of dollars of investment, intrepid entrepreneurs and a forward looking-strategy has given the Republican/Conservatives a superior mechanism to develop and bring their ideas, values and politics to the American people.

In the last two years we’ve seen progressive investors and our own entrepreneurs working successfully to close the capacity gap.  New voices like Air America, Center for American Progress, Media Matters, Democracy for America, the Democracy Alliance, JohnKerry.com, MoveOn, ACT, America Votes, Democracy Radio, a revamped NDN, the influential blogosphere, and a revived and smarter DNC and state parties have given us a much greater capacity to bring our ideas and values to the American people, helping counter the vast message machine on the right.

4. We have the resources we need to compete.  Thanks in large part to the leadership of Chair Terry McAuliffe, who worked tirelessly to turn a moribund infrastructure into one that can sustain the party for the 21st century, the DNC outraised the RNC in 2004 for the first time on record. Defying predictions of a fundraising blowout for Bush and the Republicans after the passage of McCain-Feingold, Democrats actually raised and spent $925 million to the Republicans’ $822 million in the presidential election.   The party and our presidential candidates adapted to the new fundraising reality, capitalized on Internet fundraising, and added millions of new small-dollar donors across the country.  We’ve built a strong and growing donor base to keep our party on solid fiscal ground.

5.  Our ground game is the most sophisticated it’s ever been.  The DNC and the state parties,  America Coming Together, the America Votes partner organizations, the labor unions, and the Kerry-Edwards campaign combined in 2004 to create the strongest ground game our side has ever seen.  Nearly six million more voters turned out for Kerry in ’04 than did for Gore in ’02 – 554,000 more in Ohio alone.  Our ground operations contacted more voters, in more sophisticated and personalized ways, than ever before.  We know how to identify our voters, and how to get them to the polls.

6.  We can win back key Bush voters.   Bush won in 2004 in part by making gains with white women (particularly married women) and Hispanics – groups that have traditionally been strong sources of Democratic support.  Still, he did not win with insurmountable margins, and we still have the opportunity to prevent the Republicans from creating a solid, long-lasting majority.  We have won these groups before and we can win them again if we do not take their votes for granted, and instead make a smart, concerted effort to persuade them.  Moreover, with a strong message on national security, Democrats can close the gap among white male voters, including those in the South.

7.  Democrats are gaining ground at the state level in all regions of the country.  The red state/blue state maps that show the 18 states Kerry won in the presidential election only tell part of the story.  Despite losses at the Federal level in 2002 and 2004, we won elections at the state and local level in tough places at the same time, with strong candidates and state parties.  We flipped governorships to Democratic control in NJ and VA in 2001; in AZ, IL, KS, ME, MI, NM, PA, OK, and WY in 2002; in LA in 2003; and in NH and MT in 2004.  We held on to governorships in IA in ’02 and WV and NC in ‘04, despite Bush’s wins there, and had encouraging wins in the statehouses in Colorado and Montana.  Moreover, we protected Senate seats in IA, LA, and SD in ’02 and ND in ‘04, and won Republican-held seats in AR in ’02 and CO in ’04.  Add all of these recent gains at the state level to Kerry’s states in ’04, and you see 33 “blue states” (including DC.)

8.  The Republicans are not a permanent majority party yet, and they’re not proving to the country that they should be.  The numbers at the state level show convincingly that while the Republicans have built a sophisticated operation that is winning elections, they have not achieved permanent majority status yet.  Nor are they proving to the country that they deserve it.  Americans are less prosperous, our country is less safe, and our government is significantly less fiscally responsible than when Bush took office. Iraq has become a massive foreign policy disaster, and the Republican majority in Congress has succumbed to DeLay-style excess.  With complete control in their hands, Bush and the Republicans have no one to blame for the results but themselves.  By failing to govern successfully, they’re leaving the door open for us to present a stark contrast and a winning message to the American people.  It’s an opportunity for us to win in the near term, not just the long haul.