This year’s presidential election looks like it will be a close one, which means that turning out the base will be critical to both sides; whoever turns out more of their committed voters is likely to win. Recent polls have been conflicted, but on balance show the two candidates neck-and-neck among likely voters, with Romney slightly ahead by perhaps a percentage point. A Bloomberg poll last week purported to measure a thirteen point lead for Obama, but on further analysis it is either a statistical outlier or had a skewed polling sample.* To make a long story short: despite the electorate’s thoroughgoing 2008 rejection of the Republican record of failed wars and failed economies, the centrist Democrats in Washington have managed to make the re-election of their president an open question a mere four years later. They have managed this feat both through foolish policy and short-sighted politics.
The new monetary environment of our post-Citizens United oligarchy means that money is sadly more important than ever to winning elections. Obama officials know they are in money trouble, expecting an anti-Obama battle chest of one billion dollars from the Romney campaign and the PACs and other groups newly unleashed by the partisan and pro-oligarchy Roberts court. In this electoral environment the Democrats will be outspent in this election and every election from now on. That means that, for the Democratic party, doing the best that they can at fundraising while also doing well at every other kind of political organization is crucial. They will have to organize students and civil rights groups and labor and environmentalists, and they will have to maximize the turnout of every minority group, of women, of the LGBT communities, and of young people, all of whom lean towards Democrats: the activists of these groups are the core and base of the Democratic party, and henceforth will need to be mobilized like never before.
The problem is that the Obama and the centrist Democrats have insulted, neglected, pissed off, and alienated that very base.
Remember when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed them all as the naive and unrealistic “professional Left?” For example, Obama won in 2008 in part by mobilizing large numbers of young people with his message of change. Youth movements, as a manifestation of generational change, are always crucial during periods of political transformation — look at the history of democratic movements around the world, from the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960’s, to the democratic movements in Europe at the end of the Cold War, to the Arab Spring; youth who want a better future are a major driving force of systemic political change. It turns out that the policy weakness of the Obama era has, predictably, turned off the young people that once supported him. Another example: contrary to received wisdom, working class voters have not shifted rightward to vote based on values, but are still in bulk mainly motivated by economic concerns, the strength of the pro-labor left. The problem is that fewer of them are voting. The working voters concerned about pocketbook issues are just not showing up at the polls, having given up on the hope that politics will lead to positive change, and thus leaving the field to those who do do show up because they hate abortions or gay people. Because working-class voters are offered little real choice between the parties in terms of economic policies, they have given up on voting. Conclusion: if the Democrats offered them a real alternative economic vision, turnout would go up and Democrats would more easily win elections.
The Democrat’s centrist strategy — all centrist strategies — are neurotically self-defeating. They reflect a lack of long-term political philosophy and the political courage to achieve that vision. They are incapable of building the political will to bring about real change and to preserve democracy in the face of oligarchic assault. The best way to win is to have the political courage and stamina to put forth a political vision and press for it until enacted. Doing so is not only good policy, but good politics.
* The Bloomberg poll, when you dig into it, tells a more mixed story than the headlines alone. As the election approaches pollsters are now focusing on likely voters — those who most probably will turn out to vote on election day — rather than the entire population. Democrats, as a rule, tend to have fairly strong leads among the population at large, but that lead dwindles or disappears among likely voters, because Republicans tends to turn out more. The Bloomberg poll too, tries to measure likely voters, but even this poll is mixed: more consistent with other polls, it gives Romney a one point lead among "most enthusiastic" voters. It mainly differs from other recent polls with a polling result that showed more white voters supporting Obama than is usually the case, suggesting that this poll is indeed an outlier rather than a big shift to Obama. Further polling in the weeks ahead are likely to show a very tight race going into the summer, with Romney having a slight advantage.