Monday, June 13, 2005

Appealing to Independents

While I was wading through some things that piled up while I was away last week, I came across this post by Digby, which alerted me to Rick Perlstein's week old guest post on Political Animal. Here's what I saw as the most interesting part of Perlstein's essay.

Here's a riddle: what is a swing voter? More and more, it is an American who thinks like a Democrat but refuses to identify as one.

...If it is true that party identification -- which, as Stan Greenberg argues, is a form of social identity that endures over the long term -- is the best predictor of voter behavior, isn't getting this selfsame public to identify with the Democratic Party much, much more than half the solution?

So how to do it? Democrats must stop looking leaderless, fumbling, unfocused, disorganized, and confused. They must give voters something to identify with. They must no longer judge themselves sophisticated when they cancel all the old long-term dreams. They need new long-term dreams.
If the idea that swing voters or independents are Democratic sympathizers is true anywhere, it's true here in Massachusetts; after all, roughly 85% of the population is represented by Democrats on the state level and 100% on the federal level, and Democrats generally dominate state-wide offices, excepting of course the Governor's. I touched on this theme earlier, when I noted that independent voters are not necessarily in the political center. From voting patterns, it would seem that independents in Massachusetts are generally friendly to Democratic causes, however the conventional wisdom is that they do not want to hand over control of the entire state government to what they see as an unaccountable, entrenched, Democratic machine.

This brings me to Joan Vennochi's editorial last week. In her discussion of Deval Patrick's candidacy, she opines that "on paper, [Harvard Pilgrim CEO Charlie] Baker and [Attorney General Tom] Reilly both appeal to independents." Presumably, this is because of their so-called centrist positions on various issues. Now, Baker's positions are unknown to the majority of Massachusetts voters at this point, but on some level his positions hardly matter. A Republican governor -- even a popular one -- can only do so much 'damage' to the Commonwealth before the legislature stops them. I think voters are aware of this, so while they may prefer Democratic policies, they also don't want their taxes raised. so they are content to have Republicans in the corner office.

On the Democratic side, of course, the dynamic is completely different. I think that where a candidate stands on various issues is much less important than whether or not the candidate is perceived as part of the existing political apparatus. That is, where a candidate falls on a left-to-right axis is not nearly as important as where they fall on an inside-to-outside axis. My unscientific guess is that if you asked a dozen people off the street whether Shannon O'Brien was a liberal, moderate or conservative, you'd get more "I don't remember" than anything else. On the other hand, if you asked whether she was a Beacon Hill insider or outsider, most people would remember her as the former.

It's this inside-outside dynamic that makes it hard to say who, of Reilly or Patrick, will appeal to independents. Reilly has taken some middle-of-the-road positions, but he seems almost embarrassed by them sometimes. He also can somewhat credibly take the mantle of a Harshbarger-style outsider, who is willing to take on entrenched Beacon Hill interests. The bigger question is whether he has the political skill to do so. As for Patrick, most of his appeal to Massachusetts progressives is not so much that he's more liberal than Reilly, but that he is a charismatic outsider who happens to be a liberal. It's for that reason that I think Patrick, could appeal to independents as much as, if not more than, Reilly. That said, I'm not yet ready to bet the farm on Patrick -- his candidacy has not really been battle tested yet. Aside from defending himself against a couple of snipes from the Herald, all Patrick has been doing is travelling around the state, talking and listening to people. I think that's great, but at some point all that talk is going to have to turn to action -- even if it's just taking leadership on one or two issues -- and that will be when we'll see the make-or-break moment in his campaign.