Rookie Mistake

Will the Democratic focus on first-time voters cost them control of Congress?

President Obama. Click image to expand.
Did the Dems err by wooing Obama voters?

Each week until the election, I’m posting some of the questions I’m trying to answer based on news of the week or something that’s come up in my reporting. In the following weeks, I’ll try to answer some of these questions. Feel free to weigh in with answers—or with more political questions—at slatepolitics@gmail.com or in the comments section below. Here are this week’s questions:

Did Democrats make a mistake focusing on first-time Obama voters? There’s still three-plus weeks till Election Day, but campaign strategists in both parties have already started to make their postmortem assessments. One theme several have hit upon is that Democrats had a bad organizing strategy. Both the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, the apparatus Obama created for the 2008 campaign, have focused on first-time Obama voters. (See David Plouffe’s pitch.) In early summer they pledged $50 million toward a concerted effort to turn out some portion of those 15 million first-timers who voted for Obama. Critics say that money and attention would have been better spent on traditional Democratic groups—African-Americans, Latinos, and young voters—rather than the narrow group from the last election. Polls show Hispanic voters need a motivational boost, as do younger voters. Such an alternative strategy would have built on the Democratic wave from 2006 that Obama rode to victory in 2008 rather than focusing so much on the edge that he added to the Democratic coalition.

I asked DNC Chairman Tim Kaine about this while he was in Nevada speaking to Latino reporters in a late effort to boost the vote, which is sagging in this crucial state (proof perhaps that these critics are right). He said the focus on new voters was a tactical necessity in a world where the Washington Democratic apparatus can only do so much. “I can’t run every campaign,” Kaine said a couple of times. “Our working assumption was that voting lists are so good right now, coordinated campaigns know who the every-year voters are. They don’t need a lot of our help,” he said. What the DNC can do, he said, “is communicate with the first-timers. If we communicate persistently with first-time voters, starting in June at the door, in e-mail, through the mail, and with the president, we think we can increase the normally abysmal relationship with first-time voters. The idea was, how can we add value?”

How much will today’s unemployment report matter? Today the Labor Department announced another anemic jobs report: Overall, 95,000 jobs were lost in September, and private-sector job growth was just 65,000. In one sense it was grim news for Democrats. It was another reminder that the recovery is very slow. But as a political matter, while this number related to the most important issue of this campaign, it was never likely to have any impact. (The same could be said of this piece of good news about the Dow, which closed above 11,000 today for the first time since May.) Voters who are disappointed in the economy and likely to take it out on Democrats made their determination long ago. Even if this jobs report had been great, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the vast majority of Americans just aren’t feeling the recovery.

Can both parties successfully play the same card? There’s one thing both Democrats and Republicans can agree on: Their opponents have backed policies that have shipped jobs to China. Democratic senatorial candidates Lee Fisher in Ohio and Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania have both made this charge. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio is also raising the China menace in the gubernatorial race there. On the Republican side, House candidates Mark Schauer, Martin Heinrich, Robert Hurt and Spike Maynard are all running ads on that theme. For Democrats this argument appeals directly to their union supporters. When I talk to Republicans, they see the complaint as touching on a couple of core issues—feelings of nationalism and anger about the deficit (China is our largest creditor). So is this a universally powerful message, or does one party benefit more than the other?

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