Blogs > HNN > Woo the Swing Voters, Screw the Base: Lose the Election? - By Karyn Strickler

Sep 8, 2004 1:55 pm

Woo the Swing Voters, Screw the Base: Lose the Election? - By Karyn Strickler

"He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat."
- Napoleon

The last thing the ductile Democrats -- the “I’m-more-Republican-than-you-are,” pusillanimous Party want to do is -- anything to offend the few swing voters in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Democrats seem to have forgotten who brought them to the dance. They’ve gotten the wrong message about how to win campaigns. There are two things that actually matter in electoral campaigns -- raising money and contacting voters. The broad, diverse Democratic Party activist base are the folks who give and raise the money. They donate the activist energy to contact and inspire undecided voters, turning them out to vote on Election Day.

If you fire-up the base, they become the foot soldiers out there in grassroots America influencing swing voters. Tick them off and -- if Maryland is any example -- look out John Kerry.

Maryland, widely regarded as an overwhelmingly Democratic State, now has a Republican Governor for the first time in more than 35 years, because Kathleen Kennedy Townsend took her base for granted in the 2002 Gubernatorial contest with incumbent Governor Robert Ehrlich.

The race was Kennedy Townsend’s to lose. People were already talking about her Presidential prospects when Kennedy Townsend overlooked Ike Leggett, a popular, effective African American County Council member, and chose former U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent, Admiral Charles Larson for her running mate. Larson changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, shortly before joining Kennedy Townsend in the race.

That began an overly cautious campaign, lacking the luster of bold ideas. Enthusiasm among Kennedy Townsend’s base shrunk, and so did her chances of becoming Governor of Maryland. Kennedy Townsend’s choice to focus her campaign almost exclusively on soliciting swing voters, likely ended her political career.

The message for Democrats from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s race is that pandering to swing voters and moderates does not work. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall -- period. Kennedy Townsend angered her activist base and did slightly worse than average in her most supportive counties. She lost badly in moderate and conservative counties, some of which her outwardly progressive, Democratic predecessor, Parris Glendening had won. For example, in conservative Allegany County, the Democratic percentage fell from 52 percent to 35 percent; in swing areas: Baltimore County from 49 percent to 38 percent; and in Howard County from 53 percent to 44 percent.

When Kennedy Townsend passed on the chance to assemble an historic ticket, Robert Ehrlich seized the opportunity by picking rising star, Michael Steele, who was featured at the Republican convention after becoming Maryland’s first black, Lieutenant Governor.

In an effort to cultivate swing votes in the U.S. Presidential election, Democratic nominee John Kerry is following Kennedy Townsend’s losing strategy. Instead Kerry should seriously address critical issues, for example: there is scientific consensus that we are experiencing a worldwide emergency with global warming. The insurance industry worries that it cannot cover the cost -- expected to reach $150 billion annually -- of increasingly violent tornadoes, cyclones, floods and fires resulting from global warming. Even a Pentagon’s report said “climate change and its follow-on effects pose a severe risk to political, economic and social stability.”

America’s energy policy as it relates to global warming affects every aspect of life including the environment, economy, health, national security and war in the Middle East. John Kerry should provide unflinching leadership to create the political will to end our worldwide addiction to fossil fuels, making a quick, complete transition to clean renewable energy sources, as one step toward solving global warming -- arguably the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.

There are gaping holes in the ozone layer, huge dead zones are developing in the Pacific Ocean, the polar caps are melting and the asthma rate in children has doubled in the last 5 years. Access to safe and legal abortion has eroded as 84% of counties have no abortion provider, voting rights are being destroyed by partisan gerrymandering, civil rights are threatened by the Patriot Act -- but we’re not hearing solutions from John Kerry. Instead, we hear, “We Wage War and Fight Terrorism Better,” than George W. Bush.

If Kerry’s base walks away in disgust, it could spell disaster for the Democratic nominee. The “anybody but Bush” sentiment is strong this year and the Democrats are hoping that will keep their base engaged. It’s a gamble since campaigns are won by energizing your base to help move large blocks of voters, not by a campaign of defeatist docility, designed to influence a few undecided voters.

Ironically, swing voters seem to agree that what they’re hearing from Kerry is not persuasive. In a Pennsylvania focus group with these voters, the Washington Post discovered, everyone thought Bush was more specific in laying out this agenda and they liked that, even if they didn’t agree with him. But, “In more than six hours of discussion over two separate nights, [swing voters] are hard-pressed to say anything positive about…either candidate.” Still, you don’t see the Republicans alienating their base by abandoning their core values in order to influence the swings.

As part of the disgruntled Democratic base, I feel as disenfranchised as the voters of Dade County, Florida, in the 2000 Presidential election, who had the votes they cast tossed into the trash can -- left, without a choice.

Woo the swing votes, Screw the base: Lose the election? -- the awkward rhyme may foreshadow poetic justice for a Democratic Presidential candidate who is unable or unwilling to distinguish himself from the most extreme right-winger ever to occupy the White House.

Copyright Karyn Strickler, a campaign expert, activist and writer living outside Washington, DC. You can reach her at .

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More Comments:

Bob Dilworth - 9/10/2004

Damn it! I'm really, really pissed at the Dems. I count myself as one of the base and Karen's posting here speaks directly to me. There are LOTS of us that are really, really angy. Angry at Bush and the conservatives, angry at the republican-lite dems (McAullif, Dashle, et al.) I'm sick and tired of being unrepresented in this country! My views - my LIBERAL views are as valid as any damn conservative's and yet they're ignored and derided by the power structure of this country.

Well damnit our day is coming! There's lots of people suffering at the hands of the conservatives and repub-lite dems. Won't someone stand up for what's right anymore?