Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hillary, Obama and Bubba: old networks v. new in the democratic primary


On the campaign trail: Old networks vs. new in the democratic primary

We used to call them Reagan Democrats. Nowadays the national media have taken to calling them the “white working class.” In the South, they’re called Bubba. In 2008, they are the key to victory.

As campaigns have adopted the technology of the consumer economy, politics has become an industry that markets to targeted groups. Campaigns know your age, your gender, your race, your education level, your ZIP code and carrier-route, your brand preference in automobiles, the assessed value of your house, and lots more about your behavior as a consumer, as well as how many times you’ve voted in recent elections—and it’s on the basis of these consumer data that campaigns design their outreach to you.

David Axelrod

You’re being sold soap, insurance, brands of dog food, clothing, cars, and now, this year—based on how you buy soap, dog food, cars, and the rest—you’re being sold an ideal of national leadership.

The consumer preferences of many groups have already been identified. The campaigns know what most women want. They know what the African-Americans, the Hispanics, the Ford drivers, the Volvo drivers, the mini-van drivers, the mini-mansion owners, and other groups all like—and now the people who are up for grabs are white males, including Bubba.

That’s because Bubba seems, at the moment, no longer completely sold on being a Republican. Just last week, a tax-raising Democrat won a special Congressional election in a Louisiana seat that had been Republican for a generation. That means that the South could be an actual battleground in the election of 2008.

The battle for Bubba

The South has voted for Republicans since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964—except when Bill Clinton ran in 1992 and 1996, when the Clinton-Gore ticket broke the GOP grip.

In 2000, Tennessee native Al Gore lost his own home state. It was a style thing. In 2004, genuine decorated war veteran John Kerry lost with a campaign so incompetent that he was knocked out entirely by George W. Bush, a candidate who acted like he was a Bubba, notwithstanding degrees from Yale and Harvard and a military record based on licensed premises.

Market researchers know that Bubba fears and Bubba resents and Bubba is not future-oriented. The Bill Clinton campaigns of 1992 and 1996 assuaged Bubba’s fears and micro-targeted its way to a coalition of the hopeful and of the resentful. The marketeer veterans of 1996, and of Hillary’s own Senate wins in 2000 and 2006, are targetting Bubba in 2008. That’s the explanation for Hillary’s economically nonsensical position on lifting the federal gas tax: Her people are smart enough to have focus-grouped the “elitism” question and to have identified it as Obama’s weakness—just as it was Kerry’s weakness and Gore’s weakness.

But Chip Forrester, a leading Tennessee Democrat, thinks that Barack Obama will be able to pull off in 2008 what Gore and Kerry couldn’t—and he thinks that he’ll be able to do it differently than Bill Clinton did.

An Obama insider speaks

How Forrester became an Obama delegate, and how he thinks Obama can win back Bubba, might tell the story of this election.

Tennessee was Clinton country in the 2008 primary. It borders Clinton’s home state of Arkansas on the Mississippi River. Hillary benefited from the ongoing popularity of former governor Ned Ray McWherter, who stumped hard for her. McWherter is as wily a pol as you’ll ever meet. During the most conservative Reagan and Bush 41 years, he sold anti-tax Tennesseans on new revenues for education thusly: He wanted all Tennessee children, no matter how poor, to learn to read Scripture on their own. It was masterful.

McWherter was about as close a political confidant as Bill Clinton ever had, and he and the Regular Democrats delivered his state for Hillary in the 2008 primary.

Chip Forrester, however—despite having been Al Gore’s state director when Gore was a Tennessee senator, as well as having been director of the party, a Congressional candidate, and now the treasurer of the state party—says Obama will win because Obama has, simply, the best campaign operation he has ever seen.

And that campaign operation, plus a message strategy that defies the micro-targeting of the Clinton approach, could just gather Bubba into a winning coalition.

Forrester knows how hard it will be for Obama to bridge the racial gap in the South. Chief Obama strategist David Axelrod acknowledged as much when Axelrod recruited Forrester last summer—back when former South Carolina Senator John Edwards, plus senior Democratic icons like Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, were very much in the running for the nomination.

“David asked me to read Obama’s books,” said Forrester, whose own unsuccessful congressional campaign Axelrod had advised back in 1992. “I looked at his record and saw that Obama had a history of dealing with Republicans, and let me tell you—this is a state where you simply have to be able to reach across party lines.

“But then it got to be a very practical call,” said Forrester. “Obama’s campaign was technically the most competent operation I’ve seen.”

Forrester is one of 66 members of the State Democratic Committee. He has yet to receive an email, a text message, or a call from the Clinton campaign, but early on and ever since, both before and after the primary, he receives updates from the Obama people.

“That’s the blocking and tackling of Democratic party work,” Forrester says. “You get all those folks into the database. You keep in touch with them, make them feel involved, give them something to share back in the office or in the grocery store line. It’s not about fundraising, it’s about networking. And the network is a whole lot bigger than insiders like me. It just keeps growing.”

But is that kind of networking going to bring Bubba in? Forrester was cautious but optimistic.

“There are more people coming into the party right now than I have ever seen before in my life,” he said. “It’s Obama bringing them in. It’s the block clubs and church-service groups, FaceBook and clubs, you name it. It’s just a whole different animal than traditional political organizing.”

Labor’s take on it all

Some people don’t buy it. In fact, some grizzled veterans see Hillary Clinton coming from behind and picking up such enormous momentum out of Obama’s stumbles with “elitism,” problems with Jeremiah Wright, and Hillary’s tremendous appeal with working-class voters that they believe she will overtake Obama just as she did in Indiana.

One anonymous analyst, a senior political strategist for labor, shook his head in wonder and admiration for Hillary.

“She’s got balls as big as basketballs,” he said. “How the fuck did she get up, day after day through all those months she was losing, and just go out there and work, work, work? She has earned this thing.”

Obama simply won’t sell, he said, echoing recent comments by local and national leaders of the steelworkers, AFSCME, and other big unions.

Who won’t buy?

“Guys like me,” he said. “And guys I work with. And women who work. We’ll take him as vice president in a minute, but Hillary’s ours. She is one tough broad.”

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