As the presidential poll numbers tighten, I have recently heard the following: The American people are stupid, voters have again been manipulated by the media, working class voters will again vote on cultural, not economic, issues, and the United States will never elect an African-American President. This deep-seated distrust of the “average” U.S. voter appears to conflict with progressives’ stated faith in the wisdom of “the people.” For many progressives, the past week has brought back memories of 2004, when an openly right-wing president prevailed despite forcing the nation into a disastrous war. Some now believe that the 2004 scenario will be repeated, particularly in a media climate as supportive of McCain-Palin as it was toward Bush-Cheney. Not to spoil people’s misery fest, but 2008 is not 2004. And those lacking any confidence in voters’ ability to decide which candidates really represent “change” should become active in something other than politics.
A single Gallup Poll of “likely” voters that had John McCain 10 points ahead has sent many progressives into despair. Forget the fact that a Sept. 8 CNN poll has the race tied, that the race is tied in most polls, and that the Gallup poll is widely considered suspect due to its sampling (the difficulty of assessing who is a “likely” voter as early as September, and the excessive number of Republicans surveyed.)
Forget the fact that every electoral vote and Pollster.com counter still has Obama ahead. This is about psychology, and as my colleague Paul Hogarth put it to me, Obama backers are acting like stockbrokers climbing on to ledges before the Great Crash in Oct. 1929.
Progressives’ election defeatism
Of the last seven presidential elections, the five winning Republican candidates implemented policies that increased economic inequality. The fact that millions of voters cast ballots for candidates who reduced their own relative incomes while making the rich even richer has caused some progressives to abandon the notion that U.S. voters make rational decisions when casting ballots in presidential elections.
Add this to the often-cited cultural, religious, and racial factors, and some progressives see millions of the nation’s voters as easily swayed by images and media, and impervious to reason-based arguments. To their mind, voters will go into the polling booths in November assuming Democrats have run the nation for the last eight years, blaming the Democrats for the recession, and concluding that it is John McCain—not Barack Obama—who is the reformer.
Some of those who do not doubt the intelligence of the electorate reach the same conclusion by asserting that the United States is simply a conservative country. Not only will we never elect an African-American, but voters are willing to accept economic hard times and the lack of health insurance.
Based on this analysis, one wonders how Barack Obama won the nomination against the powerful Clinton machine. Or how Democrats retook the House and Senate in 2006, winning key seats in such red states as Virginia, Montana and Missouri.
Progressive defeatism is an illness. It is not a rational response to surrounding political conditions.
Professional and highly successful progressives often combine defeatism with the belief that any show of confidence will “jinx” a positive outcome. So all must be woe until after victory, as if such a negative attitude is necessary to prevent overconfidence and slacking off.
Nobody should give up working for change, or should get overconfident about November. But adopting worse case scenarios and “the sky is falling” attitudes will not improve the chances for victory.
The political landscape: Virginia, Ohio, Colorado
For those diehard pessimists, let’s look at the electoral math.
What state did John Kerry win in 2004 than Barack Obama will not win in 2008? Michigan? Pennsylvania? I don’t see voters in either of these economically hard-pressed states switching to the Republican candidate in November, and it’s hard to think of another “blue” state in 2004 where McCain has even a good chance.
What states did Bush win in 2004 that Obama can win? The Democrat is well ahead in Iowa and New Mexico. He faces a very hospitable political environment in Virginia, a state which saw Tim Kaine elected Governor in 2005, Jim Webb overcome the massive statewide operation of Republican incumbent George Allen in 2006, and which has Mark Warner running for Senate of the same November 2008 ballot.
Virginia’s Democratic Party and grassroots allies have become extremely well organized. Obama did much better than expected in the Virginia Democratic primary, and has a great chance to seize this longtime red state.
Ohio in 2004 had not elected a Democrat to statewide office in a decade, had a broken down Democratic Party lacking much field capacity, and Bush campaign co-chair Ken Blackwell administered the election in his role as Secretary of State. Despite the above, Kerry narrowly lost Ohio, which would have given him the election.
In 2006, Democrats won the Governorship and key state offices. The Ohio Democratic Party has been reborn, and combined with the Obama campaign and independent efforts, there is likely more on the ground for Obama in Ohio today than there was a week before election day in 2004.
Bush’s record rural and suburban Republican turnout swung the Ohio election in 2004, but the economy has worsened and the demographics of the electorate have shifted. I don’t think the McCain’s Ohio forces can replicate the Bush effort, and even if they did, this year it likely will not be enough.
Colorado went heavily Democratic in 2006, Latinos will vote Democratic in even higher numbers, and popular Senate candidate Mark Udall is on the November ballot. Colorado may be close, but this is another red state in 2004 where McCain is in trouble.
The bottom line
Barack Obama has created the greatest field campaign in the history of Democratic presidential campaigns, staffed by the “community organizers” for which Sarah Palin and the Republicans show such scorn. If you lack confidence in their efforts, and are among those already second and third-guessing Obama campaign tactics (much of the advice on blogs is contradictory), maybe you ought to focus on fantasy football this fall while others work for change.
Randy Shaw is the editor of BeyondChron.org and the author of the forthcoming book Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.