May 19th 2010

Eight Lessons from Tuesday's Primaries

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.
Lesson #1. Bad news for Republican leaders. First and foremost, the results from Tuesday night were very bad news for the Republican leadership.

In the lead-up to the vote, Republicans set the bar, claiming that a win by Tim Burns to fill the Pennsylvania 12th District House seat of the late John Murtha would be the harbinger of this fall's "Republican wave." It didn't happen. The overwhelmingly blue collar, Western Pennsylvania district elected former Murtha Economic Development Director, Mark Critz by a solid 53% to 45% margin of over twelve thousand votes.

Democrats have won all of the last seven special elections for the House. The result in Pennsylvania 12th will damage the Republican "sweep" narrative that they hoped to use to raise funds and create momentum for the fall mid-terms. Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee sunk a million of its scarce dollars into the failed effort.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, former Admiral and Congressman Joe Sestak is likely to be much tougher for Republicans to beat than thirty-year veteran Arlen Specter. His image as an outsider and giant killer won't hurt at all as he takes on "Club for Growther" Pat Toomey next fall.
Of course, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was yesterday's big loser as Tea Partier Rand Paul clobbered the McConnell establishment candidate, Trey Grayson, 59% to 35%. The magnitude of the defeat will fuel the mounting consensus that McConnell is an incompetent leader.

Finally, Democratic turnout in the Kentucky Senate primary won by Attorney General Jack Conway far exceeded Republican turnout in the national "marquee" Republican Senate race. This bodes very well for Democratic chances to make the Kentucky Senate contest a major battleground this fall.

Lesson #2. Dance with the ones that brung ya.
In politics, voters don't like people who they think have abandoned their core constituencies or their core beliefs.

Sestak's brilliant final TV commercial closed the deal on his argument that Specter had supported Bush's Republican agenda until it served his personal political interest to jump into a Democratic lifeboat.

Bill Halter forced Senator Blanche Lincoln into a runoff because the Democratic base - both inside and outside of Arkansas - thought she betrayed the core principles of the Party. That was especially true of organized labor.

And Paul appeals to a motivated Republican base that feels disaffected from the Republican "elites" - people who hate Wall Street as much as they hate Washington.

Lesson #3. In primaries turnout is king. It will be in the mid-Terms as well.
Any time you have an election that generates historically lower voter interest, turnout is the key variable that will determine victory.

Two factors affect differential party turnout:
· Inspiration.
· Organization.
In the Pennsylvania 12th CD, Democratic turnout was sparked by the hotly contested Senate primary, and by a well-organized ground operation conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Obama's Organize for America.

In the fall, Democrats must rely heavily on inspiring and mobilizing their base to win. That's why the White House and Congressional leadership need to press hard to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform to inspire Hispanic voters and Clean Energy to inspire its younger voters. That's also why they need to leave no stone unturned when it comes to get-out-the-vote operations.

Lesson #4. In this economic climate, populism always beats being an "insider."
It's almost always true that Democrats do better when they are positioned as populist outsiders than when they allow themselves to be positioned as "elite insiders." That's true especially in bad economic times.

The Great Recession has left voters angry. The elites who allowed it to happen will be blamed. In the mid-terms, Democrats better make sure that the real culprits - the big Wall Street Banks and the rest of the "$10 million bonus" crowd -- are blamed and held accountable. If not, those who run government - Democrats - will be.

Last night the candidates who positioned themselves as populist outsiders were successful. Those who were labeled as insider elites lost. Paul, Sestak, and Halter all successfully positioned themselves as populist outsiders.

Lincoln would have done even worse, had she not become a champion of holding Wall Street accountable in the Senate over the last few weeks.

Lesson #5. The power of endorsements has big limits - and sometimes they backfire.
Endorsements in politics are massively overrated. They mostly matter when they are accompanied by money and troops - as in the case of the Labor backing for Halter against Lincoln in Arkansas. Specter's material support by the Democratic organization in Philadelphia clearly kept him in the game, but even that was not enough.

In fact, in the current anti-insider environment endorsements can be downright damaging. The sum of Specter's endorsements probably did him more harm than good by branding him as the insider, Washington candidate. The same was true of Grayson in Kentucky.

President Obama did what he had to do for Specter. The President had no choice but to back both Specter and Lincoln, since he has desperately needed their support for his initiatives in the Senate. But it is difficult to transfer political loyalty, and especially the personal qualities, that make Obama such an attractive candidate to a guy like Specter.

Lesson #6. All politics are personal.
In the end, voters cast their ballots for individual people. Specter did not lose because of his voting record or position on issues. In fact, Sestak's voting record is pretty similar to Specter's since Specter switched parties. Specter lost because Sestak convinced the voters that Specter was a flip-flopper that lacked core loyalties and values - that he was a pure opportunist.

Organization and turnout certainly helped Critz win in Pennsylvania 12. But much of his support came because he convinced the voters that he was the heir of Jack Murtha who many twelfth district voters personally admired. Critz was Murtha's Economic Development Director - the guy who helped bring home the bacon, who knew many people in the district firsthand for a long time.

Lesson #7. Personalizing the race is not necessarily "localizing the race."
Saying all politics is personal, does not mean - as some commentators persisted in arguing last night - that "localizing" Congressional races is good politics.

All of last night's Senate races were very much about the national economic and political situation. They created a narrative about individual candidates in the context of the broad national narrative. But they did not ignore national issues for "local" issues. The Critz race was not about local "issues," it was about local candidates.

In fact, history shows clearly that the party that nationalizes mid-term races - that controls the national narrative - almost always wins.

The popularity of the President by Election Day will greatly affect the outcome. As will the general feeling of people about the pace of economic recovery.

But the major reason controlling the national narrative is so key, is that it will help define who is on the offense and who is on the defense.

Lesson #8. When you're on the defense, you're losing.
Last night, that proved true once more. The campaign that was on the political offensive - that defined the debate on its own terms - won.

In the fall, when it comes to health care Democrats cannot spend time "defending" health care reform. We can explain it and assure that people have clear information about how it will improve their lives. But the bulk of our political communication should explain the damage Republicans will do to people's health care if they take over the House or Senate.

For instance, we need to explain to seniors that Republicans want to abolish Medicare and replace it with a voucher system - which is exactly the plan the Republican ranking member of the Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, has laid out. Focus groups show that when swing voters learn that about the Republican platform, it has a massive impact. People like the Democratic program of Medicare.

Instead of defending "cap and trade" we need to attack Republicans for protecting Big Oil and for maintaining our dependence on dirty oil that pollutes our natural resources, and foreign oil and the countries that produce it that wish to do us harm.

The narrative that the media wants to pitch is that Democrats are in for a terrible defeat in November. If Democrats let their guard down, the media could be right. But if, for the next six months, we remember the lessons of Tuesday's primaries, the outcome will be very different.

Robert Creamer's recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "