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Wesley Clark
How should candidates court the swing vote?

A new book about baseball is all the rage. Called Moneyball, it's the story of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane who built a winning record on one of the league's smallest annual budgets. Professional baseball is primarily run on inaccurate assumptions grounded in conventional wisdom - not unlike politics. While Beane accomplished his feat by defying accepted baseball logic using statistics, his story is also being touted as a template for revolution in many arenas, not just sports, so perhaps a copy is already on its way to the Democratic Leadership Council.

Ruy Teixera of the Century Foundation, a New York-based non-profit group that researches economic, social, and political issues, may personally inscribe one to DLC founder Al From. Teixera, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, co-founded the Emerging Democratic Majority think tank and co-authored a 2002 book of the same name, only to be beat over the head with it after the congressional elections that fall gave Republicans majorities in both houses. Meanwhile, From and his associates continue to argue that to win the 2004 election, the Democratic party must push a centrist message.

Political analysts agree that swing voters, comprised of several different demographics, are critical to a Democratic victory, but they differ considerably on how to appeal to them. (A story about the third-party vote is forthcoming in the Current.) The Gallup polling organization consistently finds that American voters break down as one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third independent. When pressed, however, most independents identify with one of the major parties, and those affiliations are reflected on Election Day, says Frank Newport, Gallup editor-in-chief. Nationally, more independents identify as Republicans or conservatives, and this holds true for Generation X, those currently ages 25 to 38.

Moderate strategists within the Democratic party often tie Gore's loss of the 2000 election to his campaign platform, encapsulated as "the people versus the powerful." Teixera says the DLC is missing the forest for the trees. Populist themes historically have been the glue that can, for example, bind stronger environmental regulations - favored by professionals - to job protection - favored by the working class.

Howard Dean
After closely analyzing the available statistical data, Teixera observed that Gore's popularity actually increased 19 percent among independent voters in Missouri after he introduced this populist theme at the August 2000 primary. This is significant as a sample of middle America, but it's also important for another reason: Gore lost votes that Clinton handily won among college-educated white males who listed Gore's untruthfulness as the main factor in their defection; as a whole, college-educated white voters without a postgraduate degree have tended to vote Republican. With Bush's approval rating steadily slipping, based in part on distrust over the cost of the Iraq war, this becomes a meaningful factor. Last week's multiple national polls show that for the first time, Bush is neck and neck with named Democratic opponents.

"The bottom line is, Bush is not looking very good nationally," says Newport, "with the caveat that the election is still a year away." Voters are consistently upset about job loss and Iraq, which Newport says are seen as linked in a very practical way - as in, we're paying for hospitals in Iraq and the hospital in my neighborhood just closed its doors. The general public also has never been that keen on tax cuts, he notes, and more than 50 percent of those polled would like the bill for Iraq to be taken out of the tax cuts for the wealthy.

There's also been talk recently of the NASCAR dads - the white, southern, working-class males that wholesale defected to the Republican party under Reagan. While John Edwards, the democratic hopeful from North Carolina, has sponsored himself a race car, independent political consultant Kelton Morgan thinks NASCAR dads, which tend to vote on cultural issues, ARE a lost cause.

Not so for their Midwestern equivalent, though. The Gallup Tuesday Briefing reports that Bush's support is weak among whites with the lowest incomes, who are part of this group. "They'll come back because they don't have jobs," says Morgan.

As for independents in Texas, Morgan says, "I'm not sure there are any anymore," although he lives in San Antonio and worked for John McCain in the 2000 race.

The McCain vote is another interesting pocket of potential voters for the eventual Democratic nominee. Last week, a Boston Globe poll showed that among New Hampshire primary voters, distaste for Bush ran highest among former McCain supporters. But Morgan thinks that the McCain vote is likely to matter only in the states whose primaries he carried or made a strong showing in, but that narrowly went for Bush. Howard Dean and Wesley Clark have registered positively with voters that went for McCain in 2000, but Morgan is quick to observe that the similarities to McCain are not substantive and he's not sure the infatuation will follow them to the polls.

Clark's candidacy raises a frightening specter for Republicans: the potential loss of the male vote. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week for the first time showed Bush losing the male vote to the former general. Clark doesn't appeal as much to women as other candidates, though, and Morgan notes that white conservative women are an important group whose vote can be split from their husbands, especially when issues like abortion, family leave, and childcare come into play. But if the party platform stays strong on reproductive rights and support for working mothers and their families, his attraction for male voters could be a big plus. As almost all pollsters observe, there are a significant number of men who vote for the candidate with whom they feel they could have a few beers and watch football.

Across the board, Bush's bungling in Iraq and failure to address unemployment is providing the foundation for a broad, popular platform for challengers. But in the final analysis, says Teixera, all Democrats have to do is not blow it and they will have a solid majority by the end of the decade. He believes this is so because the demographics that support Democratic policies and values - minorities, professionals, and urban dwellers - continue to grow while the traditional bastions of the Republican vote - rural voters, married men, and homemakers - are steadily declining.

Time will tell if Teixera turns out to be the Dems Billy Beane, but the numbers say Howard Dean's popularity is no fluke. •

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