The Richmond Register


November 29, 2012

Political geniuses, political fools

In a couple of days, the top operatives of the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns will gather at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics to discuss the strategies and tactics they used this year.

In the past, it has been a very illuminating exercise. After campaigns are over, the winners always look like geniuses and the losers always look like fools, but the truth is rarely that simple.

Campaigns are made up of thousands of decisions, large and small, many made after deep study and some done on the fly. In addition, circumstances beyond the control of either side as well as sheer, dumb luck often play a part.

One of the things I hope the operatives will discuss this week is voter suppression, how it was supposed to work and how it failed.

Voter suppression is not some fantasy or conspiracy theory. It is a real tactic. Campaigns want to “get out the vote,” but only among their voters. The other guys’ voters? Well, maybe they can be discouraged a little.

Shortly after one Election Day, a group of top Republican legislative aides met on Capitol Hill to discuss the future. “The whole point was, how can we stop, how can we suppress their people from voting?” a disgusted Republican staffer who was at the meeting told me. “It’s just so stupid.”

The staffer believed the future of the Republican Party should be to win over Democratic voters, especially minorities, instead of suppressing their votes. “Why don’t we give that a shot?” he asked me.

“We could poll-tax them,” he added sarcastically. “And giving them shitty voting machines seems to be the latest tactic.”

That meeting was held a dozen years ago. I wrote about it in a book I did on the 2000 campaign. Voter suppression was on the minds of Republican operatives because they could see the future, and it didn’t include them. John McCain’s chief pollster, Bill McInturff, noted that America was becoming a “black and brown country.”

Matthew Dowd, George W. Bush’s chief pollster, wrote a secret memo after the 2000 campaign warning Republicans that they were underperforming among minorities, especially Hispanics. Unless Republicans could make up this gap, they were soon going to be doomed as a national party, he said.

Dowd did not advocate suppressing minority voters. Instead, he advocated reaching out to them, especially Hispanics.

Due to a Republican hardline stance on immigration, however, some felt suppression seemed a more likely pathway to victory.

And they have had a dozen years to work on it. That work, in state after state, did not go unnoticed this time around, In a speech in September, Bill Clinton said: “Do you really want to live in a country where one party is so desperate to win the White House that they go around trying to make it harder for people to vote if they’re people of color, poor people or first-generation immigrants?”

Speaking to young voters in July 2011, Clinton had said: “One of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time.”

He concluded: “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”

According to a lengthy article in Rolling Stone in July 2011, more than a dozen states had adopted “new obstacles to voting.” In Florida, people waited in lines for up to seven hours to cast a ballot this year. As the Miami Herald noted: “Early voting the Sunday before Election Day used to be allowed. But it was eliminated by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Scott last year after Barack Obama used early voting to help him win Florida in 2008 – and therefore the presidency.”

On the night he was re-elected, Obama said: “I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time.” And then he sternly added, “By the way, we have to fix that.”

What is the ethical difference, you might ask, between early voting, which has favored Democrats, and voter suppression, which has favored Republicans?

Simple. Early voting facilitates exactly what this nation is supposed to be about, encouraging people to exercise their right to engage in the most fundamental process of government, the process of voting. Voter suppression is the opposite: It is intended to exclude people from their constitutional right to vote.

In a speech in Fort Dodge, Iowa, shortly before Election Day, Joe Biden said: “The problem is, you never can outrun your shadow. It’s just not possible. You know, it always catches up with you. Unless the sun goes down.” And then he added, “I think the sun’s about to go down on those boys.”

Some of those boys are going to gather at Harvard this week where, it is to be hoped, a bright light will be aimed on some of those shadows.


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