Instant Replay

How Democrats are trying to make 2010 like 2008.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

The year 2008 worked out pretty well for Democrats: 21 House seats, eight Senate seats, and one president. Devising a strategy for 2010 has therefore been relatively simple: Let’s see that again!

Not exactly that, of course. Midterm elections aren’t like other elections. The president’s not on the ballot, for one thing. They’re also smaller and more fractured, and they usually don’t work out well for the party in power. Democrats have therefore devised a strategy that seems geared to recreate 2008 under 2010 conditions:

Bring back the old team. Barack Obama! David Plouffe! Mitch Stewart! Tim Kaine, sorta! The gang is all here, fired up and readier than ever to tie Republicans to George W. Bush. The Obama team lost some of its stars in the wake of the election, most notably (and vocally) former deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand. But the core members are still around, wielding the almighty List that allowed them to target likely supporters.

Nationalize the election. Every off-year election, the party in charge must decide whether to “nationalize” the race—that is, make it about the president and his administration—or to let each candidate distance himself from national issues. It usually depends on the president’s ratings. In 2002, a year after 9/11, Bush was so popular that just about every Republican candidate tied himself to the president. The GOP picked up seven House seats and two in the Senate. In 2006, when Bush’s ratings were near their all-time low, Republicans ran from him, and Democrats retook both chambers.

Team Obama is going national. On Monday, Obama’s campaign arm released a video kicking off “Vote 2010,” the Democratic effort to turn out as many of the voters who helped elect Obama in 2008 as possible. Obama’s national job approval rating hovers around 48 percent. But he’s still popular enough among Democrats—the voters who turned out in droves to vote for him—that he would help rather than hurt.

But don’t nationalize it too much. Democrats are aware that Obama isn’t popular everywhere. “We’re interested in doing what’s helpful,” says Lynda Tran, a spokesperson for Organizing for America, the grass-roots group that is the successor to the Obama campaign organization. “We always want to be a value add.” If a Democrat doesn’t want help from Obama—because he’s in a district that elected McCain, say, or that has been skeptical about health care reform—he doesn’t have to take it. The type of activism may also differ by district. Places that are more Obama-friendly are more likely to hold big rallies featuring the president, for example, while redder areas might focus on quiet outreach like e-mails or phone calls.

Bring back the “surge.” Obama credits his success in large part to first-time voters— “the young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008,” he says in the new video. Winning in 2010 means turning first-time voters into second-time voters. There’s the usual door-knocking and sign-waving. But this time, Democrats also have some “pretty sophisticated modeling and targeting,” says Tran, based in part on data collected in 2008. When Dede Scozzafava dropped out of the House race in New York’s 23rd District, for example, OFA knew which individual voters were most likely to switch sides and targeted them aggressively. (It seemed to work; Bill Owens won.) In 2010, Democrats have a good sense of who the likely Obama voters are. It’s just a matter of getting them to the polls.

Play up popular policies …  Out: bailouts. In: job creation. A lot happened during Obama’s first year, but Democrats will be emphasizing only part of it. The $800 billion stimulus package may have been necessary, but that doesn’t make it popular. Democrats will probably leave that out of their campaign literature. Regulatory reform, on the other hand—poll-tested and christened “Wall Street reform”—enjoys wide support. If it passes, Democrats will brag. Somewhere in the middle is health care reform. Democrats insist that the more Americans learn about it, the more they like it. But polls show skepticism lingering even after the legislation passed.

… And promise new ones. Democrats are building a raft of 2010-friendly policies. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid started by promising to pass immigration reform this year—a convenient priority for Reid, who is facing re-election in a state whose population is 25 percent Hispanic. A bank tax also appears to be in the works. And Democrats will likely extend the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans. The beauty of fighting for these policies is that even if Democrats lose, they win.

The reason all this matters is not so much 2010 as 2012. Sure, Democrats are poised to lose seats in November. But even Michael Steele has said he’s skeptical Republicans will take back the House. From an organizational standpoint, this year’s election is really a dress rehearsal for the next presidential election: an opportunity for Team Obama—and Team Steele—to see which strategies work and which don’t.