Why the Democrats won’t retake anything in November

By Barney Keller

The Democrats won’t win in November.

They won’t retake the House, or the Senate, or a majority of governorships. There are a variety of reasons for this, none of them understood by Democrats, and I’m beginning to think they will never get it.First, take the fact that all polling data indicates that the President is extremely unpopular. Only 40 percent approve of the job President Bush is doing. Disapproval of the Republican-controlled Congress is at 70 percent according to a recent poll. The war in Iraq is not going smoothly, and every story on the news is of another reputable author criticizing the Bush administration for deceiving the American public, perhaps the most flattering thing said about the President these days.

Yet Bush’s approval rating has increased about 10 percent over recent months. About two weeks ago, a generic poll of voter preferences in congressional races showed a tie, after Democrats had held a wide lead over Republicans all year. This just isn’t rational. People don’t vote for people they disapprove of.

Or do they?

Karl Rove has been spending the last few months framing this mid-term election as a choice between the lesser of two evils, and the Democrats have been letting him do it. Instead of hearing about the unpopular war in Iraq, you’ve been hearing about the “war on terror.” Instead of hearing about the shame of Republican lobbyist scandals, you’ve been hearing about the threat posed by Nancy Pelosi Democrats. While the Democrats should be concentrating on how they can defeat terrorists and how Iraq has been costing us thousands of lives and billions of dollars, they’ve allowed the Republicans to divert the debate’s focus to whether or not to use torture on murderous Islamic fascists. To much of the Democratic leadership, this is politically incorrect. Most Republicans are taking a different view, described by a phrase that has Rove’s fingerprints all over it: Use any means necessary to protect the American people.

Some experts say that when you see polling data on torture and civil liberties, you should add 20 percent to the percentage of people who in their hearts support beating critical information out of detainees but who say they don’t because they feel uncomfortable confessing that to the interviewer.

Issues aside, in the end, the congressional elections will be won by the party that identifies sympathetic voters and gets them to the polls, and the Republicans still rule this aspect of politics. In Rhode Island, incumbent Senator Lincoln Chafee, a liberal Republican, faced a tough primary challenge from conservative Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. Rhode Island is a blue state, and the Republicans figured Laffey for a sure loser against the Democrat in November. They needed turnout from independents in the primary to save Chafee’s seat.

The Republican National Committee pumped $400,000 dollars into the race. Using a massive computer database called VoterVault, they targeted independent voters with mail, phone calls, and door knocks. The turnout exceeded the previous Republican primary record by 38 percent. One news account noted that “in the last 11 days of the campaign, Republican volunteers made 198,921 voter contacts, 190,350 phone calls, and 8,571 door-to-door visits.” I didn’t even know that there were that many people in Rhode Island, let alone people who vote Republican.

Issues matter; organization matters more. When the Democrats blow the most winnable mid-term election cycle of our times, it will be because they failed on both fronts: by letting themselves get trapped in a bad corner on terror issues and by failing to do their ground work properly. I’m glad I’m not a Democrat. Who wants to watch winnable elections be blown again and again, while you sit there and wonder: What did I do to deserve this?