I-Bankers and TV Weathermen

Why the Republicans keep winning

If you were having lunch with Ken Mehlman, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, and you asked him, “Why did George Bush win the last presidential election?” Mehlman’s answer would sound a lot like an investment banker’s. His words would be complemented by heaps of data and statistics that elucidate not only why voters made the choice they did, but where the country is moving.

Mehlman would say: America is changing. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our political parties are very strong. Most independents are actually partisans who refuse to describe themselves as such. The number of “ticket-splitters” has been cut in half since 1988—from 16 to eight percent. And our country is closely divided. Until last year, no presidential candidate had won a majority of the popular vote since the President’s father ran 17 years ago. Americans face a wealth of information, and a poverty of attention. The average home has 70 TV channels; there is a 75 percent drop in TV ad retention; during the campaign, the average individaul received a thousand election-related messages a week.

He would continue: the Bush campaign understood this new political world. We understood that, because of technology, we could measure and test everything we did before we did it—and we used elections in 2001, 2002, and 2003 to establish best practices. We understood that the Internet creates thousands of new e-communities, and makes Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” irrelevant. We understood, after thousands of hours studying past presidential campaigns, that the right balance between headquarters in Washington, and workers in the field, is to set goals and constantly recalibrate them based on data we would receive every day. We understood that strict accountability—for the number of phone calls made, dollars raised, and doors knocked—is essential to success.

Mehlman would explain: the Bush campaign won because we had a four-year plan to register and motivate Republicans and conservatives, and produced an electorate that was 37 percent Republican and 37 percent Democratic—the most conservative in 80 years. We didn’t just target areas of strength, and we increased our share of the Latino vote from 35 to 44 percent. We invested in new media—and placed ads in places that the Democrats didn’t see: health club networks, and metro traffic reports. We believed in a volunteer-based workforce, because people trust their neighbors more than paid workers—and, through common interests like hunting or church or PTA meetings, attracted 1.4 million volunteers, and 7 million e-activists.

At the end of lunch, after fighting you for the check, Mehlman would lean in and say: above all, Bush won because we understood what this election was all about: the single most important issue to Republicans and swing voters was the war on terror—and we were disciplined and focused about making sure Bush seemed like the better commander-in-chief.

If, on the next day, you were having lunch with Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and you asked him, “Why did George Bush win the last presidential election?” Dean’s answer would sound a lot like a TV weatherman’s. He would anecdotally explain what he thinks he’s seen, or he would just tell you what you want to hear—and you’d wonder whether he actually knows what he’s talking about.

Dean would say: the trouble with our party is that we didn’t stand up for what we believe. We didn’t understand—as George Bush’s people did—that elections are about exciting your base and that we wasted our time appealing to swing voters. We should have used the Internet and technology more effectively to raise money. We gave up on too many states and focused only on the 18 battlegrounds. And we need to spend the time, between elections, building the state parties, and investing in a liberal infrastructure—think tanks, progressive media, and college newspapers.

With that, Dean would be finished.

Some of his arguments—particularly the last two—are correct. But many are plainly wrong, unsupported by the facts and the evidence. Kerry and his supporters actually spent more money than the Republicans. And for the thousandth time, Bush’s message appealed both to his ideological base and to swing voters like married women and white Catholics. There is simply no way to win 50 million votes with hard-core Democrats or Republicans alone. The McGovernite fantasy that a sharply social democrat/pacifist message will rouse the 49 percent of Americans that don’t vote will only mean more defeat for a losing party. It seems that, like bad parents, some Democrats would prefer their family’s real problems neither seen nor heard.

If you were a liberal, but a realist, and, having finished both lunches with the party chairmen, you stopped to think about the contrast—Warren Buffett for the Republicans and Al Roker for the Democrats—wouldn’t you be worried too?

Even still, I don’t think the answer has much to do with Howard Dean. Democrats have a talent problem all over the country, not just in Washington. Hopefully all the brilliant Harvard liberals who are “selling out” to join Goldman Sachs next year are really just preparing for a Democratic resurgence.

To correct the record: Richard Bradley—the former “George” magazine editor who wrote a book called “Harvard Rules” about Larry Summers—e-mailed to say that, contrary to what I wrote on March 17, he changed his last name for family reasons.

Brian M. Goldsmith ’05 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.