Saturday, November 8, 2008

The advantages of the long primary

Because the Democratic primary process didn't wind down the first week in February as many assumed it would, Oregon got to be in the national spotlight for the first time in a couple of decades. And well-deserved state vanity aside, the excitement of a primary that actually mattered was a boon to Democratic voter registration in the state.

Markos points out that were bigger things at stake from the prolonged primary season than just Oregon:
On Tuesday, perhaps the two most dramatic shifts from Red State to Blue State occured in North Carolina and Indiana. They were the only double-digit Bush states to flip this election.

Not coincidentally, those two states held late primaries -- May 06 -- and represented the last seriously contested day of the primary cycle. While Clinton went on to rack up big victories in states like West Virginia and Kentucky, Obama had already begun shifting to General Election mode. May 6 was the last chance for Clinton to shift the media narrative in her favor by taking a state with friendly demographics for Obama. Obama desperately needed to reverse recent Clinton momentum (especially that big Clinton victory in Pennsylvania). So both states were fiercely contested over the course of two weeks.

Ultimately, North Carolina fell easily to Obama, while he nearly pulled off a shocker upset in Indiana. At that point, everyone but the Clinton operation called the primaries over and moved on to more important matters.

There's a bunch of bullshit to come out of the primary process, some of which I'll address in the coming weeks. But the extended calendar and the participation of all of America in the decision was perhaps the best that came out of it.

Indiana ran 22 points higher for Obama than it did for Kerry, and North Carolina ran 12 points stronger.

Could Obama have made those kinds of dramatic improvements without having to build infrastructure and deliver his message in those states all the way back in May? I'd bet "no".

Three years ago (!), I wrote about the Democrats' latest bout of infrastructure envy. Here was Bill Bradley's description of the "pyramid" that conservative Republicans had carefully built over four decades:
Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.
(First, let's just take a moment to savor those three names: Rove, Mehlman, and Reed. To the extent that movement conservatism stands on the brink of the political abyss today, those are three very big names in the process that got them there. )

It was very popular among Democratic Leadership Council-type Dems to imagine that the Democratic party needed its own top-down pyramid like that. It was very popular to mock the new head of the Democratic National Committee, Howard "The Scream" Dean, for talking about something as goofy as a "fifty state strategy." Top Democratic strategists--many of whom hadn't won an election in quite a while but had perfected the art of making good money while losing--insisted you needed two things to run a successful presidential campaign: a short list of deep-pocket donors, and a short list of states whose electoral college votes totalled to 270.

Dean--and building upon his work, Obama--had no interest in the top-down model. They built an infrastructure from the ground up. And the drawn-out primary process created both the time and the incentive for Obama to extend its reach as far as possible.

The results speak for themselves: Indiana--blue. Virginia--blue. North Carolina--blue.

Oregon--tons of new voters (without whom Jeff Merkley would be returning to lead the state Senate House [oops] and Gordon Smith would be headed back to the US Senate to help his fellow minority Republicans block any legislation that isn't Oregon-bound pork).

(Obama didn't thank Dean by name in his Tuesday night victory speech in Grant Park, but he could have with justice.)

So Democrats have their infrastructure: It's bottom-up, not top-down; it's decentralized, not centralized, it's centered on a fifty-state strategy, not a swing-state strategy, and it's powered by lots and lots of small checks, not a handful of big ones.

And a Smithless Oregon with thousands of new Democratic voters is one of its beneficiaries.


Chuck Butcher said...

Merkley = OR House
Kate Brown = Senate

Nothstine said...

Knowing perfectly well what I had typed, I had to stare at your comment for several moments to realize the problem. Thanks.

What can I say--"Merkley" and "Senate" just seem to flow so easily out of the fingertips and into the keyboard.