Democrats as a species are nearly always filled with dread and doubt, like Charlie Brown to the Republicans' Lucy. Except when they win, in which case they turn on each other with nearly as much venom as on their Republican opponents.
David Plouffe, President Obama's 2008 campaign manager, is a pretty good therapist and life coach, as cool and calm as his boss, as he showed at a Hollywood fundraiser late Tuesday night. He also previewed the Democrats' message for the fall campaign. Expect it to get ugly.
It was hard not to listen to Plouffe — talking to a group of young Democratic donors called Gen44 at the swank Bardot Hollywood on Vine– and think they may be better off than is widely believed, especially with this one-time college dropout acting as senior adviser to the whole apparatus. In California, with its heavy Democratic majorities, there would seem to be clear paths to victory for Sen. Barbara Boxer and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown.
First, though, the bad news for Democrats. As Ezra Klein noted this week in The Washington Post, elections are usually determined by basic pocketbook issues, most notably disposable income, which of course is a function of the labor market.
This isn't an assertion. It's backed by a ton of political science data.
We like to think of elections as great epic contests of interesting personalities — the Kennedy brothers! Ailes and Atwater! Rove! Plouffe and Axe! — and we buy millions of campaign books, which have become debased airport potboilers, but the reality is that the economic fundamentals are what matter.
Of course there are exceptions, and they are notable, and presidential elections may be easier to predict than congressional elections because a congressional election can be localized. (In 2000, 2002 and 2006, the economy wound up not being a good predictor, though each year offered good reasons for being exceptions — Al Gore's terrible campaign and the candidacy of Ralph Nader; 9/11 and the coming war in Iraq; and then the failing Iraq War, respectively.)
But again, the economy is the best predictor of elections. And the recovery remains tepid at best.
As Plouffe pointed out Tuesday, Democrats also have 13 million voters who cast ballots for the first time in 2008. They, and many other Democratic voters — especially poorer and less educated voters — may not be the types to come out for a non-presidential election, especially when things don't seem to be much better now than in 2008, even if they stopped getting worse.
Republicans, meanwhile, are passionate and can't wait to vote against the party of the Kenyan. (That was a joke, so hold off on the angry comments.) Plus, Democrats are holding a huge number of seats that really should be Republican because they're in districts that went for John McCain. Add it up, and it sure feels like the GOP will take the House.
Plouffe knows this. In fact, he's known for being to political operatives what Nate Silver is to baseball and political bloggers — a student of data. He knows the score. But he's looking at the landscape and wondering if Democrats can make this one of those exceptional years when all signs pointed to one party's victory, but somehow the other party wound up winning, or at least not losing as badly as they should have.
The first key is obvious: Make the election a choice, not a referendum. If the election is a question put to voters about whether they feel prosperous, Democrats lose. (The slogan: “If not for us, we'd be in another Depression” doesn't have a good ring to it.) But if it's between Democrats and Republicans who wants to privatize Social Security or coddle BP, then you've got a race on your hands. (California Republicans seem to have nominated electable candidates.)
This is a delicate way of saying the campaign is going to get ugly. “Democratic campaign are going to have to have a bit of an edge,” Plouffe said euphemistically.
Next up, Democrats will need to fire up that ground game that was Plouffe's baby in 2008, the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who knocked on doors. As he noted, 20 percent of those 13 million voters who went for Obama in their first election have moved, either in or out of state. How does he know this? Because he has a database and is obsessively tracking them.
Plouffe seems genuinely fascinated by the changes sweeping the American media landscape. (Like many Obamans, he loves attacking the 'Who's up? Who's Down?' Beltway media, though you just know he pays pretty obsessive attention to it.)
As he noted, only 18 million people watched network television of some kind last week. There was a time, of course, when that's all there was, which made old white men newscasters incredibly influential. No longer.
More than half of all people get no direct political media at all. They get information from email, Facebook or other social media, or conversations with friends and family.
“Direct contact with voters works. That's not an opinion. You can measure it,” Plouffe said. Just last night, Democrats sent out a cheat sheet on Wall Street reform, expected to pass soon, so Democrats on the 12-million strong email list can annoy their friends and family at weekend parties
“These are small increments of movement. The margins. But that's where elections are won.”
Plouffe ran off to another fundraiser before the Weekly could grab him for an interview.