With the long primary contest finally behind us, the US Democrats must now focus on accomplishing 10 critical tasks that are key to winning the presidency this November.
Presidential election campaigns are simultaneously national campaigns – with a national narrative – and a series of separate State campaigns, each with its own dynamics. So our first question is where do we wage the State campaigns that will win us at least 270 electoral votes?
1. Spread the Field. One of the most positive outcomes of the long primary campaign is that it mobilised Democratic organisations in every State. That fact, coupled with Obama’s personal appeal in "non-traditional" Democratic States, will help us spread the field in the general election.
Here is my list of first tier swing targets: Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Missouri, New Mexico, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Secondary swing targets include: Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Montana, Arkansas (if Clinton becomes Obama’s running mate), Kansas (if Kathleen Sebelius becomes his running mate), North Dakota and Texas.
Don’t laugh. This is a much wider field than Democrats would normally target, and some might question if it is remotely possible for Obama to win Florida, much less States like Texas. But Obama’s ability to reach out to independents and disaffected Republicans, plus his ability to mobilise an unprecedented African American and youth turnout, might result in victory in every one of these States.
Using the first ever Democratic resource advantage to take the offensive in Republican turf is critical. When you’re on the defensive, you are losing. We want Republicans on the defence every second of the next five months.
2. Pour unlimited resources into Ohio. There is no road to Republican victory that does not pass through Ohio. Democrats have a number of winning scenarios that don’t involve Ohio. But it makes sense for Democrats to fight for Ohio tooth and nail, both because our success there would deliver a death blow to Republican hopes and also to divert Republican resources to the State. Ohio is so critical to Republicans that they will be forced to match us dollar for dollar, ad for ad.
Our resource advantage will allow us to invest unlimited sums in Ohio and still have resources to win over a very large playing field.
3. Obama should not even think about opting into the system of publicly financing the general election. The best thing that Obama can do to promote real, lasting campaign finance reform is to win this election.
Remember, of course, that his financial advantage over McCain is built upon a foundation of over two million internet-driven small donors. It has nothing to do with the traditional big money sources that are the targets of all campaign finance reform. But just as importantly, remember that Republicans have done everything in their power to block public financing of elections. They will have a whole new attitude about public financing if they are walloped by a Democratic candidate who figured out how to aggregate more private money from small donors than they could raise from America’s fat cats. And, of course, an Obama victory is necessary to put a president in the White House who will actually sign a serious public financing bill.
Democrats would be crazy to give up our first resource advantage over the Republicans in recent memory in the critical closing months of the campaign.
4. We must devote a mix of resources to persuasion and to mobilisation that is appropriate to each State. In any US election, there are only two groups of voters whose behavior can be changed by the campaign: persuadable voters who always vote, but are "switch hitters"; and mobilisable voters who would vote Democratic but are unlikely to vote unless they are motivated to go to the polls. Each of these two groups is important in every target State election, but the significance of the two groups varies.
In States like Virginia and North Carolina, the key is to mobilise African Americans and young voters. In States like Montana and North Dakota, Obama’s ability to persuade independent and disgruntled Republican voters rises to the fore. In many States – especially Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio – persuasion and mobilisation are equally important.
5. The campaign must create a national mass movement. Mass movements are different than simple campaign organisations. Most campaigns rely on highly coordinated systematic voter contact that is all initiated and controlled by the campaign itself. Make no mistake, we definitely need that kind highly disciplined, leave-no-stone-unturned organisation to win.
But we also need mass mobilisation that relies on "chain reaction contact" – where campaign activity explodes virally – to involve millions of self-initiating campaign activists. We need a campaign where millions of Americans wear an Obama button, where people self-report to walk precincts and use online voter contact tools in droves.
Obama’s primary campaign provides a model, but now that model needs to explode into a social movement that defines the identity of its participants in the way the civil rights and anti-war movements did for an earlier generation. When they consider their role in this campaign, activists need to think about their participation the way volunteers in the civil rights movement thought about their roles at Selma – that they will proudly tell their kids and grandkids that they were there, that they played a part in the transformational 2008 presidential election.
Obama has an inspirational message, and his campaign has a culture that could actually seed that kind of movement. And it is that kind of movement that could change the electorate so fundamentally that it makes states that are unthinkably Red into Blue States this fall.
6. Democrats must convince skeptical swing voters that Obama is safely on their side. A generic Democrat decisively leads a generic Republican in the polls. But Obama (or Clinton, for that matter) barely leads McCain in the polls. In Obama’s case this is not mainly because he fails to reach out to independents. Instead he has a hard time consolidating some Democrats. To bring these Democrats home – and further expand his base among independents – he needs to make people feel "safe": that he is on their side, that he understands their lives.
Obama needs to communicate that message through his speeches, appearance and behavior. But it will be communicated most effectively by a field operation comprised of people’s neighbors and friends – people who go door to door to tell their neighbors that they feel safe with Obama. Nothing is as persuasive in communicating that someone understands you and your needs as a testimonial from a person who is just like you.
7. Democrats need to convince swing voters that McCain would usher in a third Bush term – that he’s not the "independent maverick" he pretends to be. Every day we need to drive the message that McCain is McBush. Of course, McCain is Bush when it comes to neo-con foreign policy and trickle-down economics. He is Bush when it comes to his 95 per cent pro-Bush Congressional voting record. He is Bush when it comes to the coterie of lobbyists who manage his campaign.
Once people learn that McCain isn’t the candidate they thought, he begins to poll like any other Republican.
8. Democrats need to undermine public confidence in McCain’s competency and judgment with respect to the War in Iraq. It turns out that the polling shows that if people think things are getting better in Iraq, they think that’s a good reason for us to get out. If they think that if things are getting worse in Iraq, that’s a good reason for us to get out. In other words, whatever they think about the current situation in Iraq, they want American troops to come home.
That should provide us an amazing advantage over the "stay in Iraq 100 years" McCain. Yet McCain still beats Obama by two points on "confidence in managing the War in Iraq." That’s why our message focus needs to be on McCain’s competency and judgment. His vote for the War and his continued support for it is not about policy – it is about his judgment. That’s why statements that betray his lack of understanding of the difference between Shias and Sunnis are so important.
McCain may have been a war hero, but that doesn’t make him an expert on foreign policy – far from it.
9. We need to drive the contrast between a change candidate with a vision for the future and a candidate steeped in the ways of Washington. Eighty per cent of America wants change. And the contrast between Obama and McCain is set in relief by their difference in age and life experience. McCain is the candidate of Washington insiders. Obama is running to change Washington.
10. Obama must continue to appeal proudly and self-confidently to progressive values. Most Americans agree that we’re all in this together – not "all in this alone". Most Americans agree that by working together we are more successful than we are by ourselves. Most Americans believe in unity not division. They don’t believe that selfishness is a moral value. They understand that America was built by people who made commitments to their country – to others – not just themselves. They want to hope, not fear.
In 2004, Democrats lost in considerable measure because our campaign talked about "policies and programs" while the Republicans talked about right and wrong. More than anything else Obama understands that people want to believe again, to hope again, to be proud again – to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves and can play a significant role in a historic movement for change. More than anything else people want meaning, they want to be empowered and inspired, and they want to be called to commitment.
That is the tone of a winning campaign this fall. It focuses on and identifies with the economic hardships of everyday Americans, the imploding economy, the squeezed middle class. But rather than resolve those hardships into anger it transforms them into hope and possibility.
If our campaign has that tone, if it is bold and brave and hopeful, if it proudly appeals to progressive values, it could mark the beginning of an historic progressive transformation. It could sweep into power a large Democratic majority and set the stage once again for the kind of progress America experienced after Franklin Roosevelt’s historic victory in 1932.
This is an edited version of a piece first published on Huffington Post.
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