Right wing's worst nightmare: The master stroke that turns red states blue

Our divisions are phony: There's broad agreement on more issues. Here's how we convert the Tea Party

Published July 27, 2014 7:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Chris Carlson/Molly Riley/Photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Chris Carlson/Molly Riley/Photo collage by Salon)

Elizabeth Warren's rock star reception at Netroots Nation came as a surprise to absolutely no one, but not so her popularity as a draw for red state Democrats running for Senate, like West Virginia's Natalie Tennant or Kentucky's Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Yet, there shouldn't be anything surprising about Warren's broad economic populist appeal. It was, after all, the foundation of Democratic Party power from 1932 through 1968, a period in which Democrats won seven of nine presidential elections and controlled both houses of Congress continuously with only two brief blips in 1946 and 1952. It was a period of single-party dominance unmatched by any other in U.S. history, except for the First Party System, which the Democratic Republicans dominated so thoroughly from 1800 on that the opposition Federalist Party eventually just disappeared. The New Deal era may have been a long time ago, but its political basics remain as popular as ever — as seen in programs like Social Security and Medicare, which even conservative Republicans think we're spending too little on. What's been lacking in recent years is the political leadership and infrastructure to tap into that popular sentiment, which is just where Elizabeth Warren comes in.

Indeed, while 2016 is still a long way off, there's good reason to believe that having Warren on the ticket could be the key to a Democratic victory that would finally break through the logjam of Republican obstructionism — despite a mountain of conventional wisdom to the contrary, which claims that it simply can't be done, that what is now must forever be. In a recent piece for the National Journal, “Half of America,” Ronald Brownstein did a particularly adept job at laying out the conventional wisdom case for inevitable structural gridlock. Whichever president from whichever party, he argued, the pattern remains the same:

In one key respect, each president's tenure has followed a similar arc. Each initially sought the White House promising to bridge the nation's widening partisan divide. Clinton pledged to transcend "brain-dead policies in both parties" with his "New Democrat" agenda. Bush declared himself a "compassionate conservative" who would govern as "a uniter, not a divider." Obama emerged with his stirring 2004 Democratic convention speech, evoking the shared aspirations of red and blue America, and took office embodying convergence and reconciliation.

But by this point in their respective second terms, each man faced the stark reality that the country was more divided than it was when he took office.

Of course there are obvious differences that Brownstein ignores, beyond the fact that Clinton and Obama both won their elections, while Bush won a lawsuit instead. Most notably, both Clinton and Obama really did try to reach out to Republicans — and were both soundly rebuffed for their troubles. Neither enjoyed the traditional presidential honeymoon period. Bush, on the other hand, was more moderate in style than in substance, as shown by his out-of-the-gate insistence on massive tax cuts, passed at the cost of losing the Republicans their majority control of the Senate, as it helped precipitate Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' departure from the party — a fitting testament to Bush's alleged moderation. But blindness to such differences is par for the course, the entry fee for punditocracy membership.

Brownstein goes on to describe the problem as “persistent polarization” due to “structural forces” creating “an environment in which presidents now find it almost impossible to sustain public or legislative support beyond their core coalition.” And in turn, he argues that this goes back to “institutional changes” turning Congress into “a quasi-parliamentary institution” and an underlying “deeper divide in the public itself” between rival non-overlapping voter coalitions, “younger, racially diverse, more secular, and heavily urbanized” on the Democratic side, and “older, more religiously devout, largely nonurban, and preponderantly white” on the Republican side. All this is quite familiar, and much of it is even true — as far as it goes. But its evenhanded treatment consistently glosses over at least two fundamental asymmetries, beyond the differences already noted.

First, the Democratic coalition is larger than the GOP coalition — Republicans have won just one presidential election since 1988 with more than 50 percent, Bush's reelection in 2004 ... the closest reelection since Woodrow Wilson's in 1916. Their current House majority is built on pure gerrymandering — House Democrats got half a million more votes than Republicans did in the last election. Republicans can keep up only by keeping Democratic voters down. They cannot compete on a level playing field. Voter suppression, political intimidation, mud-slinging that turns people off to politics completely, these are overwhelmingly Republican weapons of choice, because the two coalitions are not equally balanced. Smaller, off-year electorates favor Republicans. If everyone votes, Democrats win consistently. That's not a sign of two equally large political coalitions.

Second, the Republicans are more ideologically extreme, dogmatic and uncompromising, as well as being far more reliant on long-range deep-pocket funding to shape the political landscape/battlefield. This combination makes them tactically strong, at the cost of being strategically vulnerable, but only if Democrats are willing to challenge and change the way that politics is played. The Democrats' numerically dominant big-tent, loose coalition, on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand approach makes it child's play for the Republicans to engage in tactical divide-and-conquer games, primarily because Democrats have taken their eyes off the ball, the underlying populist economic vision that appeals to virtually all elements in their coalition—and many Republicans as well.

Putting Warren on the ticket in 2016 — either in the top spot or as vice president — would help Democrats take maximum advantage of the first asymmetry, and overcome the disadvantage of the second one. And that's not just my own pet theory. We have a solid set of polling data from 2008 to support this view (presented and analyzed here), polling data showing John Edwards — the most populist candidate in the field — giving candidate Obama a substantial boost from the V.P. slot against any of the GOP tickets he was tested against, a boost unmatched by any other V.P. candidate tested. Indeed, the boost was so significant that based on polling data in early July, an Obama/Edwards ticket put Georgia, Texas, both Carolinas and Mississippi into the toss-up category, while putting Montana and North Dakota into "lean Obama." You want a “map-changer”? Edwards was the very definition of one — and Warren could be one, too. Perhaps most dramatically, Edwards expanded Obama's lead in safe state electoral votes from just over 2-1 (207-90) to over 5-1 (286-52) , an electoral map change so profound it could not help having profound implications for House and Senate races as well.

The data I'm referring to derives from a series of polls conducted by Survey USA after both party primaries were over, in which they paired Obama and McCain with a wide range of potential V.P. nominees. Sarah Palin was not included, but Michael Bloomberg was, on both sides of the contest. SUSA did its polling in two main rounds, with a different mix of V.P. candidate in each. Edwards was part of the first round, featuring stronger candidates on both sides. It's particularly instructive to compare how he did with “popular son” candidates — like Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Jim Webb of Virginia and Bill Richardson of New Mexico — as well as looking at his performance in bellwether states like Iowa and Ohio.

In Iowa, John Edwards gave Obama almost a 10 percent average advantage over all the McCain-headed tickets (Huckabee, Lieberman, Pawlenty, Romney) he was polled against. The only other Democrat to help Obama at all was James Webb, who added about 1 percent. Bloomberg lost Obama less than 1 percent, while McCaskill lost him more than 4 percent, Hagel lost him almost 7 percent, and Sebelius and Ed Rendell lost him 10 percent.

In Ohio, Edwards helped Obama by an average of just under 5 percent -- the only V.P. candidate to do so. Ed Rendell — former governor of the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, lost almost 7 percent on average.

Speaking of Pennsylvania, in that state Obama was beating McCain by 8 points, while Edwards helped him add an average of 5.5 percent. Favorite son Ed Rendell only added 1.25 percent.

In Missouri, Obama's lead in one round became a deficit in the next. Looking only within rounds, Edwards helped Obama by an average of 4.5 points, while favorite daughter Claire McCaskill only helped him by .66 points against a much weaker V.P. field.

In New Mexico, Richardson had by far the strongest favorite son showing. He helped Obama by adding a very respectable average of 4 points. Edwards did 50 percent better — he added an average 6 points, against a much stronger V.P. field.

In New York, Edwards added 6 points, Bloomberg added nothing (against a weaker V.P. field), and everyone else lost ground — anywhere from 5 to 9 points.

In Virginia, Edwards added 6 points to Obama's margin, while Virginia Sen. Jim Webb added just over 2 points, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine added nothing.

I selected these states for obvious reasons. But Edwards was even more impressive in some other states. In Minnesota, for example, Edwards was the only V.P. candidate to help Obama, rather than harm him, even helping Obama by 2 percent facing McCain paired with favorite son Tim Pawlenty.

In the end, of course, Edwards turned out to be a deeply flawed individual, much less a deeply flawed candidate. But that's not what these poll figures were about. They were about the resonance of his populist “Two Americas” campaign theme — a resonance that only grew more intense after the Wall Street crash that September.

In one broad measure of how much impact Edwards had, I looked at all the variance in the different poll matchups as providing a measure of the potential swing in each state. I then looked at how well Obama did with Edwards in each state. Looking at a 15-state average, Edwards reduced the swing by 14 percent — and he cut Obama's worst performance in each state by the same 14 percent average, raising the floor, as it were. That figure never fell into single digits for any of the states, a strong indication of how consistent and broad-based his populist impact was.

I also looked at how much Edwards helped with specific sub-groups in various states. In Ohio, for example, Obama had a 6-point lead among white males, but with Edwards on the ticket his lead ranged from 10 to 23 points. Among Virginia white females, Obama trailed by 6 points, but with Edwards on the ticket, he won by 5 to 14 points. Among New Mexico seniors, Obama trailed by 4 points, but with Edwards, he only lost by 1 point against a single V.P. pairing, and won the demographic with three other pairings, up to a high of 12 points. These are just a few samples showing how Edwards helped Obama in a range of states with groups that aren't part of the traditional liberal core.

Finally, in early July, I looked at how Edwards would help Obama nationwide, using the average bump he provided in each state SUSA had polled, and the average of all his state averages for all other states. I used a simple poll-averaging model from my Open Left blog mate Chris Bowers as my baseline, which showed Obama leading McCain in electoral votes by almost 100, 293-194 (with 51 toss-ups), and a popular vote lead of 48,3 percent to 43.8 percent. In solid states — those with a margin of 9 points or more — Obama led McCain by more than 2-1, 207-90. But with Edwards on the ticket, Obama's electoral vote lead expanded to over 250, 344-90 (with 104 toss-ups), and a popular vote lead of 51.5 percent to 40.0 percent. In solid states, Obama's lead soared to over 5-1, 286-52.

In short, with Edwards on the ticket, Obama was ahead in a map-changing avalanche. And all the data supporting this conclusion comes from months before the Wall Street crash. There's every reason to believe that Warren would have a similar, if not greater impact in 2016 — it's just that no one has bothered to gather the relevant data, at least not yet.

There's a strong probability that Hillary Clinton will be elected president in 2016. The GOP field is a mess, and the media's desperate attempts to revive corpses like Chris Christie and Rick Perry only makes the picture even clearer. But the attacks on Clinton will surely escalate exponentially, putting the prospects of a landslide in doubt, no matter how inadequate the GOP candidate turns out to be. The Edwards record from 2008 strongly suggests that Warren as V.P. could help to ensure that landslide — and with it, a workable Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, even despite the intense GOP gerrymandering that currently has the House paralyzed.

What happens after that will be crucial, of course. If, like Obama and her husband before her, Clinton tries to “move to the center” and spurn her party base, then the 2018 midterms will be yet another disaster, and political gridlock and dysfunction will continue in the years ahead. The Ron Brownsteins of the world will be “vindicated.” But if Elizabeth Warren does have some influence, if Clinton does learn from past Democratic mistakes, then maybe, just maybe, we could see America break with its recent history of almost 50 years dominated by divided government and return to a more traditional, more functional political pattern, in which one party — and its vision — dominates for a period of decades, and the other party survives by adapting to the world that the dominant party has created.

The raw numbers tell us this is the direction America wants to go in. Elizabeth Warren could be the key to getting us there. Otherwise, it's endless deadlock, as far as the eye can see.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Editor's Picks Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton John Edwards Media Criticism