Thursday, May 18, 2006

Where the votes are: Bayh courts the center

Where the votes are: Bayh courts the center

For Howey Political Report May 18, 2006

It's the sort of scenario that must be driving democrats crazy these days: A group of Cub Scout parents are waiting for a den meeting to end at a Catholic church in a firmly Democratic enclave of suburban Maryland.

"So, you still happy you voted for President Bush?" one asks with a tinge of "I told you so" in his voice.

Over the next 10 minutes the five moms and dads nod in agreement as each cites reasons behind a growing discontent with both the administration and the Republican Party. Cracking down on illegals will hurt the construction business and tank the economy, says the head of a multi-million dollar design/build firm. Energy prices are killing the family budget, explains the mom who home schools her two boys. Another is worried the war on terror might lead to an irreversible loss of civil liberties, and all signal their fears about prospects in Iraq.

Voters dissatisfied

The general sense points to a group of moderate voters representing both parties who are convinced little if any progress is being made on serious challenges facing the country. These same voters also make it a point to accuse the democrats of failing to muster a unified, much less viable, opposition. Each voices a familiar litany of criticisms - the party is too fractured, the fringe is too noisy, Hillary doesn't have a chance, they don't have any good ideas, and so on.

"There are plenty of good Democrats with good ideas who aren't Hillary Clinton," interjects one dad. "Mark Warner and Evan Bayh are two you just don't seem to hear much about."

But - and this is the maddening part - it quickly becomes clear the others aren't interested in learning the substance of those "good ideas" as the conversation moves to a discussion of plans for this summer's family campout.

Quite the opposite is true of voters on either side of center. Leaders on the left and right have no trouble identifying solutions that motivate their bases around the sort of issues you can number using a few fingers. Just yesterday Indiana Rep. Mike Pence told a group of conservative bloggers that if Republicans are to have a chance in the midterms they need focus on a mere three issues: Limited government, fiscal discipline and rule of law (Human Events). A quick visit to the Daily Kos website reveals the gist of the far left's agenda: Rid the world of one George W. Bush.

A near impossible task

Politicians who court the center - like Sen. Evan Bayh - face the near impossible task of crafting a message that appeals to a wide range of moderates, a group that by definition represents a multitude of views concerning any number of issues. As noted on Wikipedia, "Some political moderates are 'bi-polar' in the sense that they side with right-wingers on certain classes of issues, but with left-wingers on others, rather than consistently staking out intermediate positions across the board."

If it's difficult to get the attention of a moderate, it's even harder to get them to listen. Fiscal conservatives are naturally attracted to Rep. Pence's fiscal and constitutional conservatism, while politicians like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) or Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) rally left-wing liberals by voicing opposition to the Iraq war. But it's not so easy to rally moderate voters who often are influenced by multiple and sometimes competing messages and issues before solidly, if ever, identifying with a candidate.

So why should a politician expend considerable amounts of time and money to establish a broad-based reputation among moderates, when it would be easier and initially less expensive to claim the high ground on just one or two issues among voters more closely aligned with an ideology? Because that is where the votes are. In the 2004 presidential election, network exit polls indicated voters most often considered themselves to be moderates (45%) before conservatives (34%) and liberals (21%) (CNN). As Sen. Bayh reportedly has said, "Do the math."

Overcoming the challenges

It appears Sen. Bayh employs a multi-prong strategy to overcome the challenges he faces in the struggle to be considered a leading presidential contender: Create name recognition; articulate for the record substantial positions on key issues; introduce hallmark legislation and work for its passage; woo Democratic donors; build relationships with influential party members and candidates; and, reach out to a range of Democratic, independent and Republican voters who might by election day be persuaded to align themselves with a Bayh presidential ticket.

As noted time and again by HPR, he has laid considerable groundwork for the cause. No other candidate to date has spent as much time speaking at state Jefferson-Jackson dinners, meeting with potential donors, fund raising for Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, and influencing the national party agenda, all while tirelessly working to further solidify his credentials as a lawmaker. As evidence consider his schedule over the next several days. Tomorrow he flies to Iowa where he is slated to speak at the Polk County Spring Fundraiser in Des Moines and on Saturday at a fund raiser for local candidates in Osceola, Council Bluffs and Sioux City. On Sunday he returns to Indiana to offer the commencement address at DePauw University in Greencastle, which will be aired at a later date on CSPAN. On Monday morning Bayh visits the Rahal Letterman Racing Team Ethanol garages at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway "to promote ethanol use as a key provision in [his] energy plan."

Seeding the field

Last weekend he was in town to speak at the Indiana J-J and to address the 100-plus participants in Camp Bayh, a three-day event at IUPUI to train present and future political professionals and candidates in "the nuts and bolts of organizing campaigns." As a participant, this reporter found the camp to be highly informative on the basics of campaigning and was most impressed with his plan to seed a select group of 50 graduates among key state and congressional races throughout the country.

These efforts have been recognized by many and disregarded by some both in and out of the party. Analyst Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report wrote last week that Bayh has "a great shot" if "Democrats are feeling pragmatic." On the other hand is John W. Mashek of U.S. News & World Report who, while stipulating the difficulty of winnowing the Democratic field, leaves Sen. Bayh out of the list of contenders.

So far it looks like the 2008 presidential race will be unlike any other in recent memory. Perhaps Evan Bayh's dedication and work ethic and his innovative strategy and targeted tactics will succeed in securing him a place on the ballot. Only time will tell.


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