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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Richard Lugar and the End of Moderate Republicanism

UPDATE: As predicted, Lugar lost his primary challenge to Mourdock, 60 percent to 40 percent.

If Indiana Senator Dick Lugar loses his Republican primary race to Tea Party challenger Richard Mourdock tonight, as polls indicate is likely, his defeat will signal the end of moderate Republican internationalism in the US Senate and the GOP more broadly.

Lugar, a two time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee best known for his work on arms control and nonproliferation treaties, used to be one of the GOP’s leading figures on foreign policy. Now he’s an outlier.

The Senate Republican caucus was once filled with the likes of Dick Lugar—sensible realists such as Lincoln Chafee, Chuck Hagel, George Voinovich and Olympia Snowe. Now they’re all gone or going, casualties of a Republican party where diplomacy, multilateralism and bipartisanship are dirty words. (A Mourdock ad called Lugar “Obama’s favorite Republican.”)

The decline of Lugar’s brand of pragmatic internationalism on foreign affairs helps explain why neoconservative veterans of the Bush Administration are now the principal foreign policy advisers to Mitt Romney. As I wrote in the latest issue of The Nation:

Elder statesmen from the George H.W. Bush administration like [Colin] Powell and [Brent] Scowcroft are much closer to Obama than to Romney. “The foreign policy experts who represent old-school, small-c conservatism and internationalism have been pushed out of the party,” says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the center-left National Security Network. “Who in the Republican Party still listens to Brent Scowcroft?” Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Powell, says the likes of Powell and Scowcroft are “very worried about their ability to restore moderation and sobriety to the party’s foreign and domestic policies.”

Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, elaborated in a recent interview with Fareed Zakaria. “I’ve been called a RINO, a Republican in Name Only,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve changed at all. I think the party has moved.”

In March, Hagel was asked, “Do you still consider yourself a Republican?” He responded, “I don’t know what the Republican Party is.”

On the contrary, I’m guessing that the likes of Hagel and Lugar know all too well what the GOP has become.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, now out in paperback.

Why Economic Populism Is a Winning Strategy for Obama

The centrist Democratic group Third Way has a new report out about “Swing Independents,” who they claim are the Soccer Moms/Reagan Democrats/Rockefeller Republicans of 2012. (I prefer to think of them as the fickle souls who can’t make up their minds.)

These Swing Independents, according to Third Way, make up 15 percent of the electorate and currently favor Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 44 percent to 38 percent. But despite their soft pro-Obama leanings, Third Way argues that Obama’s populist message of economic fairness is turning these voters off. Swing Independents care about “opportunity,” not fairness, prioritize cutting the deficit over reducing income inequality, don’t believe the US economy is skewed to favor the wealthy and “consider themselves to be haves, not part of the have nots,” according to the report. In other words, Obama should cozy up to the banks (as if he hadn’t already), stop campaigning on the “Buffet rule” and make the Bowles-Simpson debt plan the centerpiece of his presidency. (The presidency already tried that strategy for much of 2011, and it didn’t work.)

It’s hard to know who is more out of touch—Third Way or the “Swing Independents” they claim to speak for. At the very moment that prominent Republicans are admitting that Obama’s focus on income inequality has put the GOP on the defensive, Third Way wants the president and Democratic candidates to drop the issue. That would be political suicide, not to mention terrible public policy.

This week a new ABC News/Washington Post poll asked voters: “what do you think is the bigger problem in this country—unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy, or over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity?” Fifty-two percent answered “unfairness,” while only “37 percent” mentioned “over-regulation.” A December 2011 Pew poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe the US economic system “favors the wealthy,” with 36 percent saying it was “generally fair.” In a November 2011 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 61 percent of the public said the federal government should “pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less-well-off Americans,” with 35 percent saying it should not. So much for the canard that income inequality is an issue the public doesn’t care about.

Following the president’s State of the Union address in February, the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner tested a “middle class opportunity” message versus a “‘fair shot’ for the middle class” message on voters. “The two messages produced similar overall results,” GQR found, refuting Third Way’s findings. The middle-class opportunity/economy meme “was the strongest message among independents,” GQR found, while the economic fairness theme “performed best in Congressional districts won by President Obama in 2008 and by a Republican in 2010 and among white seniors.” Pitting opportunity against fairness is a false choice. It makes no sense to discard a populist message that is clearly resonating among a majority of the electorate.

The argument that progressive economic populism repels independent voters is “absolutely wrong,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told me. “If economic populism means championing the middle class and making sure the wealthiest pay their fair share as a way to address our problems, they’re for that.”

In the current economic climate, the president’s advocacy for the Buffet rule and higher taxes for the wealthy is the right approach, Greenberg says. “Talk about fairness and inequality does not turn off voters,” he says. “They agree with the assessment. They want those things in order to solve the main problem, which is what’s happening to the middle class.” Under this narrative, greater fairness leads to expanded opportunity.

The Third Way memo reflects the same kind of bad advice that self-proclaimed centrist Democrats bestowed upon Al Gore in 2000. Third Way is a successor of sorts to the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council, which for many years “waged a scorched-earth campaign against ‘populism’ in the Democratic Party,” wrote John Judis. These corporate Democrats blamed Gore’s “people versus the powerful” speech at the 2000 Democratic convention for his loss, a hypothesis that Judis discredited long ago.

Wrote Judis in 2002:

According to the Newsweek poll, Gore was down 48 percent to 38 percent just before the convention. At the end of August, he was ahead by 49 percent to 38 percent, a 21-point turnaround, the poll showed. Commented Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, "There can be no disputing the polls that showed that Gore's quasi-populist message at the 2000 Democratic convention helped send his numbers soaring past George Bush."

…If you look at Gore's poll ratings before and after his speech at the Democratic convention, his support shoots up among the very voters whom the DLCers believed were cool to such populist appeals. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Gore's support increased 12 percent among voters who make between $50,000 and $75,000 per year (and by 19 percent among independents, according to the Gallup poll). If you look at the final results, Gore did relatively well among upscale voters, particularly those with high levels of education. Where he slipped precipitously from Clinton's margins in 1996 was among white working-class voters.

Gore lost the white working-class vote because of his stance on wedge issues like gun control and his negative association with Bill Clinton. Economic populism had nothing to do with it. Concluded Judis: “Gore's campaign on behalf of the ‘people versus the powerful’ almost lifted him to victory rather than plunging him to defeat.”

Obama could lose the 2012 election for any number of reasons. But focusing on income inequality and fairness for the 99 percent will not be one of them.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

The ‘Voter Fraud’ Fraud

As President Obama spoke about Representative Paul Ryan’s budget yesterday, Fox News broke away from the president’s remarks to cover “a stunning case in South Bend, Indiana.” The story covered an indictment by the St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office alleging that local Democratic officials forged signatures to get Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards on the Indiana Democratic Primary ballot in 2008. “Indiana State Police investigators identified a total of 22 petitions that appeared to be faked, yet sailed through the Voter Registration Board as legitimate documents,” Fox reported. Eric Shawn, of the Fox News Voter Fraud Unit, said that a local election worker was “ordered to forge presidential petitions for Barack Obama, illegally faking the names and signatures of unsuspecting voters to put the then-Illinois senator on the presidential primary ballot.”

The new report will no doubt underscore the belief among Fox News viewers that Obama was illegitimately elected in 2008. According to a 2009 poll by Public Policy Polling, “52% majority of GOP voters nationally think that ACORN stole the Presidential election for Barack Obama last year, with only 27% granting that he won it legitimately.” Conservative commenters are pointing to the indictment as further proof of rampant voter fraud and more evidence of the need for voter ID laws nationwide.  

There are at least two major problems with this argument.

Number one: there’s no evidence that the alleged forgeries played a decisive role in getting the Democratic candidates on the Indiana ballot in 2008 or determining the outcome of the primary or general election. “No one could seriously argue there wasn’t enough popular support for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to justify their appearance on the primary ballot, or that it had any effect on the primary results, or any vaguely remote effect on the general election,” writes Ed Kilgore of The Washington Monthly. “So maybe this was ‘election fraud’ in the broadest sense of the term, but hardly ‘voter fraud.’” 

Number two: Indiana’s voter ID law, passed in 2008 and the model for the nine states that have adopted similar laws since the 2010 election, did nothing to prevent the alleged signature fraud, nor did it stop Indiana’s Republican Secretary of State, Charlie White, from committing felony voter fraud in the 2010 election. (White was sentenced to a year of home detention on felony fraud convictions.)

Indeed, the Indiana indictment reinforces how thin the conservative case about voter fraud really is and why voter ID laws are a misguided solution to a miniscule problem. As I reported in Rolling Stone last fall:

A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop. Out of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud – and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility. A much-hyped investigation in Wisconsin, meanwhile, led to the prosecution of only .0007 percent of the local electorate for alleged voter fraud. "Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere," joked Stephen Colbert. A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading advocate for voting rights at the New York University School of Law, quantified the problem in stark terms. "It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning," the report calculated, "than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."

 

More recently, Steve Benen of Maddow Blog notes that “Texas recently went looking for examples of voter fraud and found fewer than five incidents of ‘illegal voting’ out of more than 13 million votes cast in the 2008 and 2010 elections.” Concludes Benen, after examining the Indiana indictment: “the takeaway here is that real examples of fraud are incredibly rare.”

Indeed, between 2000 and 2007, there were 32,299 UFO sightings in the United States, 352 deaths caused by lightning, but only nine cases of voter impersonation, according to a great new infographic by Craiglist founder Craig Newmark.

Yet conservatives continue to hype the extremely rare occurrence of election fraud as if it were something that happens every day and is somehow responsible for the election of Obama and Democratic candidates across the map. And there is evidence that they’ve been successful in pushing this fact-free narrative among the broader public. In 2009, Peter Dreier and Christopher Martin of Occidental College studied the media coverage of ACORN during the 2008 election and concluded:

  • 82.8% of the stories failed to mention that actual voter fraud is very rare

  • 80.3% of the stories failed to mention that ACORN was reporting registration irregularities to authorities, as required by law

  • 85.1% of the stories about ACORN failed to note that ACORN was acting to stop incidents of registration problems by its (mostly temporary) employees when it became aware of these problems

  • 95.8% of the stories failed to provide deeper context, especially efforts by Republican Party officials to use allegations of "voter fraud" to dampen voting by lowincome and minority Americans, including the firing of U.S. Attorneys who refused to cooperate with the politicization of voter-fraud accusations—firings that ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

The real story in 2012 is how the myth of voter fraud has been advanced by Republicans to justify new voting restrictions in more than a dozen states, which could disenfranchise up to 5 million voters on Election Day, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That’s a whole lot of casualties in response to a few bad actors.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.  

Minnesota’s War on Voting

Last year, Republicans introduced legislation in thirty-four states to mandate government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot. Nine GOP states have passed voter ID laws since the 2010 election, including Pennsylvania earlier last month. Minnesota, another important battleground state, could be next.

Last year, Minnesota Democratic Governor Mark Dayton vetoed a bill from the GOP legislature that would have given the state the strictest voter ID law in the nation, prohibiting passports, military IDs and student IDs as valid documentation. Now the legislature is bypassing the governor by approving a constitutional amendment for voter ID that will go on the November ballot. The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the legislation; once agreed upon, the measure will go on the 2012 ballot. If approved by voters, the 2013 legislature will implement the particulars of the law.

Voter ID laws are the latest attempt by conservative groups and corporate interests to shape a GOP-friendly electorate and consolidate the power of the 1 percent within the political system. According to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 11 percent of US citizens lack government-issued ID, including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans. “While the photo ID constitutional amendment would impede the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans—including active duty service members and other absentee voters—it will disproportionately impact the elderly, students, foreclosure victims, the working poor and minorities, the very citizens who most need to use the democratic process to counter the influence of the superwealthy and the political entities they finance,” says a report from the grassroots progressive group TakeAction Minnesota.

According to an analysis by the Minnesota secretary of state’s office, 215,000 Minnesota voters—7 percent of the state’s electorate—do not have a driver’s license or ID card with a current address on it. The voter ID law could also end the state’s popular system of Election Day voter registration, which 18.5 percent of voters used in 2008. Minnesota has the highest voter turnout in the US and is often held up as a model for the rest of the nation.

Voter ID laws have been a top priority of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafted a model voter ID bill for state legislators in 2009. ALEC members sponsored voter ID legislation in five states that passed such laws in 2011. ALEC’s state chairman in Minnesota, Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, also happens to be the lead sponsor of Minnesota’s voter ID legislation in the state house. Fifteen ALEC members of the legislature have co-sponsored the bill. Reported the AP: “ALEC provided a copy of its voter ID model bill to The Associated Press. Kiffmeyer's 2011 bill is not identical, though there are several similar sections about ID requirements, counting provisional ballots and issuing a free ID to those over 18 who don't have a valid driver's license.”

Turns out Kiffmeyer has a rather checkered history when it comes to voting rights. Reports Colorlines:

Rep. Kiffmeyer, the lead sponsor on the vetoed [voter ID] bill, is Minnesota’s former Secretary of State. During that tenure, she attempted a number of actions that might have disenfranchised voters had courts not blocked them. In 2004, Kiffmeyer attempted a rule that would have required voters to have a valid ID that “exactly matched” the information on her registered voter rolls. Two years later, she ruled on Election Day that college students could not use utility bills to prove their residence when voting. Same year, she tried to ban special identification cards used by Native Americans unless the voter could prove they were residents of their tribe’s reservation. In every case, courts overturned Rep. Kiffmeyer’s maneuvers.

 

After losing her re-election campaign for secretary of state in 2006, Kiffmeyer formed a conservative group called Minnesota Majority, which has hyped unsubstantiated fears of “voter fraud” in order to promote the voter ID law. “Minnesota Leads the Nation in Voter Fraud Convictions,” claimed a report last year. The group alleged that 113 felons were convicted for unlawfully voting in 2008 election, which, even if true, would be the equivalent of .004 percent of the 2.9 million Minnesotans who voted. Still, Minnesota Public Radio labeled that claim “inconclusive.” Noted TakeAction: “No one has ever been convicted of voter impersonation in Minnesota.” Minnesota Majority also created a racially incendiary picture on its website showing a black man in prison stripes and a Latino in a sombrero and mariachi clothes lining up to vote.

Even if the facts are not on their side, Kiffmeyer and her fellow Republicans in the legislature have powerful backers in the state’s business community. According to TakeAction, “executives from Minnesota’s three largest banks—Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and TCF—led and funded a series of inter-related campaign entities that were instrumental in the Republican takeover of the Legislature that put members of ALEC in the House leadership and placed an attack on the voting rights of Minnesotans at the top of the 2012 legislative agenda.” These networks of banker-funded groups spent almost $500,000 to elect 25 new Republican legislators in 2008 and 2010 and more than $375,000 for 21 legislators pushing the voter ID amendments.

Once the constitutional amendment reaches the ballot, these groups are likely to spend lavishly on its behalf. A poll last year of 12,000 Minnesotans at the state fair showed 50 supporting the voter ID law, with 46 percent opposed and 2 percent undecided. “The more Minnesotans know the cost, burden and barriers of voter ID, the less they support it,” says Liz Loeb, TakeAction’s democracy campaign manager.

Should the constitutional amendment pass in November, it will likely face significant legal challenges. Minnesota, like Wisconsin, has an article protecting the right to vote in its state constitution. A Wisconsin circuit court judge recently found his state’s voter ID law unconstitutional. “These disenfranchised citizens would certainly include some of our friends, neighbors and relatives,” wrote Judge Richard Niess.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback. 

DOJ Blocks Discriminatory Texas Voter ID Law

The Justice Department today blocked Texas’s new voter ID law, which is among the toughest in the country, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, noting that “over 600,000 registered voters do not have either a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by [the Department of Public Safety]—and that a disproportionate share of those registered voters are Hispanic.”

The data provided by the state of Texas on two different occasions shows that Hispanic voters are more likely than white voters to lack the ID now required to cast a ballot. The law was clearly intended to benefit Republicans; for example, a handgun permit is considered an acceptable form of ID but a university ID is not. 

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez summarized the department’s findings: 

“We conclude that the total number of registered voters who lack a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS could range from 603,892 to 795,955. The disparity between the percentages of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who lack these forms of identification ranges from 46.5 to 120.0 percent. That is, according to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification. Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by DPS, and that disparity is statistically significant.

The state has provided no data on whether African-American or Asian registered voters are also disproportionately affected by S.B. 14.”

A separate analysis by the Texas secretary of state found that 18 percent of registered voters across Texas lack state government-issued photo IDs to match their voter registration cards, according to the Houston Chronicle. Those numbers were highest in counties with a significant minority population.

For those voters who lack the proper ID, obtaining the correct documentation can be a difficult task. Texas is required to provide a free ID to voters, but an applicant must possess supporting documentation in order to qualify. “If a voter does not possess any of these documents, the least expensive option will be to spend $22 on a copy of the voter’s birth certificate,” DOJ writes. That expenditure can be rightly construed as a poll tax, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited.  

Moreover, getting that ID from the DMV is not as easy as you’d think. Hispanics in Texas are twice as likely as whites to not have a car. There are DMV offices in only eighty-one of the state’s 254 counties. Not surprisingly, counties with a significant Hispanic population are less likely to have a DMV office, while Hispanic residents in such counties are twice as likely as whites to not have the right ID. “During the legislative hearings, one senator stated that some voters in his district could have to travel up to 176 miles roundtrip in order to reach a driver’s license office,” wrote DOJ.

In addition, the state has undertaken no voter education effort to make its citizens aware of the new law, nor has it trained poll workers to familiarize them with the election changes.

“Should this legislation ever see the light of day, it would immediately become the strictest voter qualification law since the poll tax,” says State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “Worse yet, photo identification requirements for voters drastically affect the electoral participation of the poor, the elderly, and the transient, which means those who need their government's ear most will be the last to be heard.”

The voter ID law is part of a broader effort by Texas Republicans to suppress the minority vote in a state that is becoming increasingly diverse. The League of Women Voters called the state’s redistricting plan, which favored white Republicans even though Hispanic and African-Americans comprised the bulk of population growth, “by far the most extreme example of racial gerrymandering among all the redistricting proposals passed by lawmakers so far this year.”

Texas is the third state where DOJ has blocked a discriminatory voting law this election cycle. In December, DOJ objected to South Carolina’s voter ID law, since “minority registered voters were nearly 20 percent more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised,” Perez wrote.

The department also recently opposed Florida’s restriction of voter registration drives and curtailment of early voting. Minority voters were twice as likely as white voters to register to vote through voter registration drives and to use early voting in 2008.

A three-judge US district court panel in DC will now decide whether the laws should move forward. DOJ’s efforts are but one part of a broader pushback against the GOP’s war on voting rights. A Wisconsin circuit court judge recently issued a temporary injunction against the state’s new voter ID law until a trial next month decides whether the law violates the state constitution.

Yet Republicans are intent with moving forward with new voter restrictions. Within days, the crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia will become the latest GOP states to pass legislation erecting new barriers to voting, and the first in 2012.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, now out in paperback.

Super Tuesday's Big Winner: Obama

Lost amid the post–Super Tuesday analysis is the fact that Barack Obama actually got more votes than Mitt Romney in the crucial battleground state of Ohio last night, 547,588 to 456,205, according to the Ohio secretary of state.

That statistic is largely symbolic, but it is indicative of Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate (and Obama’s rebounding strength), which has become magnified as the GOP primary goes on. Self-identified Republicans made up 69 percent of GOP primary voters in Ohio, but only 65 percent of GOP primary voters said they would “definitely” vote for the GOP nominee in November.

The real story of the GOP primary—and Super Tuesday—is not that Romney won't be the GOP nominee (he will be, eventually), but how bruised he will be entering the general election. The polling on Romney over the past week has been dreadful for the Republican frontrunner.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama leads Romney by six points (50-44) among all voters, seven points among independents (46-39) and eighteen points among women (55-37). Last year Romney led Obama among working-class white voters by 14 points (52-38); now that lead is down to five. Notes Ron Brownstein: “By comparison, in 2008 non-college white voters backed John McCain over Obama by a resounding 58 percent to 40 percent; Republicans won even more of them (63 percent) in the 2010 Congressional election…. No Democratic presidential nominee since 1988 has carried more than 44 percent of non-college white voters.” Romney’s blue-collar problem is one of many he’ll face entering a general election.

According to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, Obama leads Romney by twenty-five points (65-30) among unmarried women—a crucial segment of the Democratic base that dropped off in 2010. And he leads Romney by a staggering fifty-six points among Latino voters (70-14), a twenty-point improvement for Obama over John McCain in 2008. If these numbers hold, Obama will defeat Romney in every Western swing state and almost certainly win re-election.

Indeed, Romney is looking less like Ronald Reagan and more like Bob Dole as the race intensifies. Writes Neil King of the Wall Street Journal:

Not since the 1996 presidential candidacy of Republican Bob Dole has a party's likely nominee been viewed negatively by a plurality of Americans at this point in an election. Yet Mr. Romney's challenge in building a favorable image is steeper than Mr. Dole's was then.

The poll found that nearly 40 percent of Americans view Mr. Romney negatively, compared with 28 percent who view him positively, a gap of close to 12 percentage points.

Pundits have often compared the 2012 GOP presidential primary to the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. But they couldn’t be more different. The Obama/Clinton contest energized Democrats in 2008, while the GOP primary has seemingly depressed Republicans this year. Writes NBC political analyst Mark Murray: “Four in 10 of all adults say the GOP nominating process has given them a less favorable impression of the Republican Party, versus just slightly more than one in 10 with a more favorable opinion.” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina noted on a call today that GOP turnout fell in six Super Tuesday states compared to the GOP primary in 2008, continuing an overall trend in the GOP primary so far.

All the while, the Obama campaign is quietly building a strong organizational foundation in the battleground states, while Romney and his Super PAC are spending money at a furious pace on a primary contest that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. “The longer the GOP primary goes, the more we continue to build,” said Messina. For example, Messina said the Obama campaign registered 3,000 voters in North Carolina over the weekend and a “couple of thousand” in Virginia.

That’s not to say that Obama’s election is guaranteed or he will have an easy path to victory. The economy, whose improvement sparked Obama’s comeback, could doom his re-election if the job numbers backslide. A global crisis, such as an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facility, could throw the race for a serious curve. The coming onslaught of GOP Super PAC money—which Messina estimates could total $500 million—will surely increase Obama’s negative ratings. And Romney, despite his rising vulnerability, has retained an aura of competence on the economy, Greg Sargent notes.

Still, given everything the president has been through over the past three years, Team Obama has to like their chances at this stage of the game. “We are encouraged by what we see,” Obama strategist David Axelrod said today. “We’re fortified for a tough race.”

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

Who Will ‘Reagan Democrats’ Support in 2012?

In 2008, the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner described Macomb County, Michigan—home to the bellwether suburbs north of Detroit—as “90 percent white, half Catholic, 40 percent union families, one third over 60.” Macomb was once the most Democratic suburb in the country, giving LBJ 75 percent of the vote in 1964, but it swung sharply to Republicans in the 1980s and has been a pivotal swing county in the state ever since. Gore won it by two, Kerry lost it by one and Obama won it by eight.

The archetypal “Reagan Democrats” make up a fifth of Macomb’s electorate. These blue-collar, non–college-educated white voters abandoned the Democratic Party in the ’70s and ’80s, out of anger at Democratic support for policies like welfare and affirmative action, and leapt into the outstretched arms of Ronald Reagan, who won Macomb County by thirty-three points in 1984. They’ve been an important part of the GOP coalition ever since. “In the 2008 Michigan primary,” wrote National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, “57 percent of GOP voters lacked a college education and 75 percent earned less than $100,000 annually.”

It’s become conventional wisdom to suggest that Rick Santorum, with his blue-collar background in Pennsylvania, will run strongly among these voters. “He has a big appeal to people we used to call Reagan Democrats,” said former Ohio Senator Mike DeWine. A recent Gallup poll showed Santorum leading Mitt Romney by double digits among Republicans without a college degree and making less than $90,000. Romney’s unfavorable rating among voters making less than $50,000 jumped twenty points in January, which Greg Sargent termed “Romney’s White Working Class Problem.”

Yet these national poll numbers haven’t translated to an advantage for Santorum in Michigan or the other states that have voted so far (there’s no exit poll data for Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, where Santorum won). “Santorum's performance doesn't show much more variation by income,” notes Brownstein. “In Iowa, his share of the vote rose steadily with income.”

Romney narrowly leads Santorum in the latest Michigan polling. In an NBC/Marist poll, they are tied among voters making less than $75,000, but Romney is up five among voters making more. Romney leads by two among those without a college degree and by one among those who’ve graduated college. “There’s lots of evidence that Reagan Democrats have pulled back from Romney,” says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who has studied this group of voters for three decades. “But we don't know yet whether they’ll embrace Santorum. They do not really know him, though conservative pundits think he will have more of a working class appeal than Romney. Could be true—but only because Romney went Wall Street.”

Nor will Santorum’s outspoken social conservatism necessarily help him win Reagan Democrats. “I don't think they are particularly socially conservative, if you are referring to abortion and family issues raised by Santorum,” Greenberg says. “They are fairly libertarian and anti-government intrusiveness—and are much more concerned with guns than the pill. They were/are strongly NRA in our research.” In 2008, Romney won Macomb County with 45 percent of the vote, while evangelical favorite Mike Huckabee came in a distant third.

No matter who wins the Michigan primary on Tuesday, the GOP nominee is likely to lose the state in the fall to Obama. Obama leads Romney by eighteen points in the latest NBC/Marist poll and Santorum by twenty-six. He also leads Romney by twenty points in Macomb and neighboring Oakland County (which is more upscale) and Santorum by twenty-two. Obama now has a 51 percent approval rating in the state. Fifty-five percent of Michiganders say the worst of the economic crisis is behind them, while 63 percent believe the auto bailout—which Obama supported and Romney/Santorum did not—was a good idea (GOP primary voters narrowly oppose it).

Obama’s numbers among working-class whites help explain why his re-election prospects are improving. In 2008, Obama lost the white working-class vote by eighteen points. Democrats lost that group by thirty points in 2010, which many pundits predicted would be replicated in 2012. “Preparations by Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class,” Tom Edsall wrote in November 2011.

Edsall’s prediction generated a lot of buzz, but turned out not to be true. Obama has a 43 percent approval rating among working class whites in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, higher than it was in 2008. At the beginning of 2011, Romney led Obama by around twenty points among blue-collar whites in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, according to internal polling by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. At the end of last month, Romney led the president by only three among such voters in these Rust Belt battleground states, a seventeen-point swing over the past year. “White non-college voters in these states moved drastically away from Obama and Democrats between 2008 and 2010, but since then they have come back to basically the same levels they gave Democrats in 2008,” says GQR vice president Andrew Bauman. 

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

Romney’s Koch Brothers Connections

Tomorrow Mitt Romney will speak at the Michigan Prosperity Forum, alongside Tea Party icons like Andrew Breitbart and Michelle Malkin. The event is sponsored by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which receives the bulk of its funding from the Koch brothers, whom the Romney campaign has described as “the financial engine of the Tea Party.”

It’s the third time Romney has appeared at an AFP gathering this cycle—he spoke before the group in New Hampshire over Labor Day and at their “Defending the American Dream” summit in November 2011. AFP, one of the main organizers behind the Tea Party, recently ran a $6 million ad campaign criticizing the Obama administration’s loan to Solyndra.

The Koch brothers, in turn, have been major supporters of Romney. David Koch endorsed him in 2008 and held a fundraiser for Romney at his Southampton home in 2010. Bill Koch and his coal company, Oxbow Carbon, have donated $1 million to the Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future. At a recent retreat in California, David and Charles Koch pledged to spend $60 million during the 2012 election to defeat President Obama, which would no doubt give a major boost to Romney if and when he becomes the GOP nominee.

Romney’s estate tax plan alone could save the Kochs billions of dollars. His advocacy of the oil, gas and coal industries would also be a major boon to the Koch brothers’ many energy interests.

The Obama campaign is already using Romney’s Koch connections as a fundraising appeal, writing in an email today: “Tomorrow Mitt Romney is hanging out with the billionaire Koch brothers at a Tea Party forum. I imagine they’ll get along.”

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.

The Buying of the President 2012: Meet the Super PAC Mega-Donors

The more we learn about Super PACs, the uglier the picture gets.

A new analysis by USA Today found that just five super-wealthy individuals have contributed 25 percent of the money raised by Super PACs since the beginning of 2011. The New York Times added that “two dozen individuals, couples or corporations have given $1 million or more to Republican super PACs this year…. Collectively, their contributions have totaled more than $50 million this cycle, making them easily the most influential and powerful political donors in politics today.”

The hierarchy is topped by Texas businessman Harold Simmons, a major funder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, who has donated nearly $15 million to three different GOP candidates (Perry, Gingrich and Romney) and the Karl Rove–founded American Crossroads. He’s followed by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who’s given $10 million to Gingrich’s Super PAC and says he may give an additional "$10 or $100 million to Gingrich” before the primary season is over. “Take away Sheldon Adelson and the pro-Gingrich ‘Winning Our Future’ PAC is just a federally registered lemonade stand,” Stephen Colbert joked.

While Gingrich is wholly dependent on Adelson, Rick Santorum’s Super PAC raised the bulk of its money in January from just two individuals, Wyoming billionaire Foster Freiss and Louisiana energy executive William Dore. Even insurgent candidates must be propped up by billionaires nowadays to stay competitive. In contrast, the Super PAC of erstwhile front-runner Mitt Romney raised $5 million last month from twenty-five donors. That’s a diversified portfolio compared to Santorum and Gingrich. Virtually all of the money contributed to these Super PACs came from $25,000 checks or higher. The Super-PAC era gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “the buying of the president.”

A recent report from Demos and US PIRG found that 196 people have contributed nearly 80 percent of the individual donations to Super PACs in 2010 and 2011 by giving $100,000 or more each, for a total of $79 million. That’s 43 percent of the $181 million total raised by Super PACs during this period (the rest comes from businesses, unions and other PACs). Demos and US PIRG provided me with the names of these donors and which Super PACs they gave money to. Click here to see the document (pdf). They are the .000063 percent of the electorate who will shape the 2012 campaign on both sides of the aisle.

“I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections,” Adelson told Forbes this week. “But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it.” That’s the best argument yet for overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out in paperback with a new afterword.

Howard Dean Predicts Obama Re-Election, Democrats Retake House

No incumbent president since FDR has been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 8 percent. Despite that daunting precedent, an increasing number of political analysts and prominent Democratic Party figures are now bullish about President Obama’s re-election prospects. “Obama’s chances have definitely improved,” former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean recently told me. “If Mitt Romney’s the Republican nominee, I would say it’s a one- or two-point win for Obama.”

Dean also likes his party’s chances at the Congressional level. “I’m predicting flat-out that if Obama wins, Democrats take back the House,” he says. Other analysts have recently raised that possibility, even though GOP domination of the redistricting process gives Republicans a major edge in 2012. 

In the wake of last month’s surprisingly strong job numbers, Obama’s re-election prospects have steadily inched upward, from a low of 45 percent in October 2011 to 60 percent today, according to Intrade. Four new polls this month have shown Obama with a five- or six-point lead over Romney, who remains the likely GOP presidential nominee. A Pew poll released yesterday shows Obama up by eight on Romney, his largest lead to date. The president’s approval ratings have also returned to 50 percent for the first time in many moons. In a notable departure from 2010, Democrats now say they are more excited to vote than Republicans.

It’s too soon to know if this is a temporary blip or a more durable boost for the president on his road to re-election. Any number of things could go wrong for Obama—the unemployment rate could spike if the economy slows, Europe’s debt crisis could escalate or there could be a new foreign policy crisis with Iran. As it stands now, Americans by a 2-1 margin still say the United States is headed in the wrong direction (though that’s a big improvement from last summer, when as few as 14 percent of Americans were optimistic about the country’s prospects). The economy is also performing worse in a number of key swing states.

Nate Silver projects that the economy needs to create roughly 150,000 jobs a month for Obama to feel comfortable about his re-election. A recent survey of economists by the Philadelphia Fed forecast an average of 144,000 new jobs per month this year, with the unemployment rate at 8.1 percent by the time of the election. That should make Obama a slight favorite heading into the fall. “The rising tide of consumer optimism directly parallels the upward trend in Obama’s overall job approval rating,” writes Huffington Post polling analyst Mark Blumenthal.

Looking at the Electoral College map, Dean predicts that Obama will win 296 electoral votes to Romney’s 242. He believes that the president will hold the crucial swing states of Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, and “could have a shot in Arizona because of the Latino vote.” Dean cautions that Obama “could lose Pennsylvania and Michigan and will probably lose North Carolina,” where Democrats are holding their convention this fall, along with Indiana. Still, all the president needs is 270, and currently has a number of different pathways to victory.

Dean believes the Hispanic vote will give Obama and Democrats a major advantage in crucial swing states out west. “The Latino vote will break for Obama big time,” he predicts. Obama beat John McCain among Hispanic voters by 36 points in 2008, 67-31 percent. A Pew Hispanic Center poll at the end of the year showed Obama beating Romney by 45 points among Hispanic voters, 68-23 percent.

Romney’s hardline immigration rhetoric and policy positions could be one of a number of major vulnerabilities in a general election. “Republicans are going to look better when they have a nominee,” Dean says. “But boy, they’re in big trouble now. This has been a disastrous primary season for them. Too many debates have compelled Romney to say some things that are going to be landmines for him in general election if he’s the nominee.”

In the past Dean has been critical of the Obama administration, particularly its handling of the healthcare bill. (He also famously clashed with former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.) But after a rocky last year, he believes the president is now on surer footing. “I think he’s doing great,” Dean says. “He’s been hitting on all cylinders. It started with the jobs speech and he hasn’t looked back. He’s a terrific campaigner and he’s in full campaign mode.”

Obama’s unveiling of a jobs bill last September shifted the focus of his administration away from austerity and toward public investment. The Occupy Wall Street movement subsequently drew the nation’s attention to the long-ignored problem of income inequality, creating the first real progressive populist moment of the economic crisis.

The debate over the economy is now unfolding on turf far more favorable to Democrats than Republicans. “If Obama is re-elected, he will owe an enormous debt to Occupy Wall Street, which he will never acknowledge,” Dean says. “Their core message is ‘the emperor has no clothes. It is the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.’ Americans have felt like that for awhile, but they couldn’t say it or talk to each other about it before OWS.”

Dean says he understands that many supporters of OWS are frustrated with the Democratic Party and Obama administration, which they view as captive to the moneyed interests of the 1 percent. But he says that boycotting the election or voting for someone other than Obama would only make things worse. 

“I believe we need a progressive party in this country,” Dean says. “But for progressives to not vote for Obama is crazy. Citizens United would have never been put into law and America would never have been sold to the highest bidder had Al Gore won in 2000. Obama, if he wins, is going to appoint maybe one or two more Supreme Court justices. That could make all the difference. For that reason alone, you can’t say there’s no difference between the parties. Politicians in Washington may not be able to help you much, but they sure can hurt you.”

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, now out in paperback with a new afterword.

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