Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Bases are Loaded

A couple of interesting pieces illustrate how John Kerry can beat George W. Bush.

First is Kevin Phillips’s article in The Nation that explores a Kerry win by doing essentially what Ronald Reagan did in 1980 – win over the disaffected members of the other party.  The “Reagan Democrats” were the more conservative members of the party who were not happy with the leftward lurch of the party in the 1970’s.  Phillips points out that there is a group of Republicans who are not happy with the takeover of their party by the Religious Reich.

Strategizing on behalf of a family with more luck and lineage than gravitas, the principal strategists for each Bush President–Lee Atwater for number 41 and Karl Rove for number 43–have necessarily been Machiavellian students of the Republican presidential coalition and how to maintain it. After helping to elect 41 in 1988 because Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was an Ivy League technocrat unconvincing as an occasional populist, Atwater observed that “the way to win a presidential election against the Republicans is to develop the class-warfare issue, as Dukakis did at the end. To divide up the have and have-nots.” Since then, the focus on keeping Republicans together has evolved and intensified.

Despite the Republican weakness evident in 1992 and Bush’s second-place finish in 2000, Rove is notable for his preoccupation with the GOP “base,” which he presumably thinks of in normal majoritarian terms. However, in the case of Bush’s running for election or re-election, it is also useful–and the Democrats of 2004 would find it particularly worthwhile–to focus on the GOP’s “unbase.” This, in essence, is the 20-25 percent of the party electorate that has been won at various points by three national anti-Bush primary and general election candidates with Republican origins: Ross Perot (1992), John McCain (2000) and, in a lesser vein, Patrick Buchanan (1992). Most of the shared Perot-McCain issues–campaign and election reform, opposition to the religious right, distaste for Washington lobbyists, opposition to upper-bracket tax biases and runaway deficits, criticism of corporations and CEOs–are salient today and more compatible with the mainstream moderate reformist Democratic viewpoint than with the lobbyist-driven Bush Administration. Perot and Buchanan’s economic nationalism (anti-outsourcing, anti-NAFTA) and criticism of Iraq policy under the two Bushes is also shared by many Democrats.

Taking things somewhat further, these members of the “unbase” of the Republican presidential coalition ought to be the Democrats’ key target because (1) they have some degree of skepticism about Bush and (2) they are the segment of the GOP coalition most logically open to recruitment for a progressive realignment, short-term or otherwise. That is the way small or large realignments work: by wooing the most empathetic part of the current coalition.

In 1992, when Perot drew 19 percent of the November vote, George Bush Senior got only about 80 percent of the Republican vote. Most of the “unbase” and part of the base deserted. If McCain had been well funded in 2000, he might have been able to get 30-40 percent in GOP primaries nationally, and even without serious money, he did win the primaries in seven states, including New Hampshire, Michigan and Connecticut. Sticking with the idea that the GOP “unbase” is somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent, Bush can afford to lose 5 to 7 percent of the overall Republican electorate. But if he loses 10 percent, he’s probably done for, and if he drops 15 percent, he’s finished.

It could happen. Back in late winter, when Kerry still had a winner’s aura from the primaries, one CBS News poll showed 11 percent of those who had voted for Bush in 2000 were unprepared to do so in 2004. That was enough to put Kerry ahead, at least until the GOP’s spring advertising blitz.


To win this election decisively, John Kerry is going to have to feel the same outrage that Howard Dean felt, and he’s going to have to express some of it with the same merciless candor that the Republican dissidents have employed against two generations of Bushes. In today’s circumstances of a nation on the wrong track, most swing voters–especially wavering GOP men who grew up on John Wayne movies–will not be content with pablum. The Edwards selection seemed assertive, but if Kerry reverts to equivocation, he could face the ultimate epitaph on a political tombstone: Here lies John Kerry, the first Democratic nominee to lose to a Bush President who’d already dropped fifty points in job approval and earned the snickers of half the world.

David Gopoian notes in (subscription/Day Pass required) points out that Bush has reached the limit of his bases; he’s got the evangelicals and the conservative white males – the NASCAR dads – wrapped up. That’s all well and good, but it isn’t enough to win the election.

The votes Bush needs are to be found among moderates and liberals — hardly an auspicious prospect for him. It is possible, but unlikely, that Bush will amass enough additional votes from conservatives to make up for this deficit.


All things considered, Kerry (as well as the Democrats through him) has achieved remarkable progress in making himself and his party relevant following the post-9/11 political doldrums and the Republican tsunami of 2002. The data collected for the 2002 American National Election Study portrayed a Democratic Party tattered, fearful on national security matters, and lacking confidence in its own leaders. That Kerry stands poised to win a presidential election in the aftermath of the preceding few years is, in itself, extraordinary.

General trends corroborating the steep climb facing Bush were reported last week by GOP consulting firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. Findings from its survey of battleground states indicate that undecided voters there “are currently poised to break away from President Bush and to John Kerry.” By more than 5 to 1, these voters see the country as worse off rather than better off compared with four years ago.

The short version of both of these stories is that Bush has reached the limits of his appeal to the independent vote, and the Democrats have got to be, in a favorite phrase I hear all the time in my office, pro-active; to get the independents to not just abandon Bush but to actually vote for Kerry.