How Angelides Can Win

by Randy Shaw on June 12, 2006

Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air. I said to my friend, I said, “What party is he?” My friend said, “He’s a Republican.” I said, “Then I am a Republican.”… I am proud to be with the Party of George W. Bush!
——- Arnold Schwarzenegger, August 31, 2004

Since 1980, Republicans and Democrats have pursued contrasting electoral strategies. Republicans have galvanized their base, while Democrats have sought to keep their base while moving to the center to win independent voters. The results? Right-wing Republicans now control all three branches of the federal government, and set the national debate. The message is obvious: Democrats must energize their base to win. Phil Angelides accomplished this in the primary campaign, but editorial writers and media pundits are now claiming he must “move to the center” to win in November. History says otherwise. Angelides will beat Schwarzenegger if he mobilizes his base, and convinces working and middle-class voters that he will stand with them against the big corporations and wealthy special interests that control both the Governor and the Republican Party. Here is how he can do it.

The Democratic Party’s biggest victory of the last 25 years was the Clinton-Gore “Putting People First” campaign in 1992. But despite winning the White House with a populist appeal, pundits continue to argue that Democrats must run away from their core supporters to win.

Urging Democrats to “run to the center” rather than mobilize their base has become a common strategy of opponents of progressive tax reform and economic fairness.

For example, in its first post-election editorial (“The Democrats’ Morning After, June 8), the Angelides-hating San Francisco Chronicle was already denouncing his “us-against-them appeal.” After reminding readers of Angelides’ alleged “beyond the pale” tactics during a 1994 primary campaign (reminiscent of decade old attacks on the Clintons for Whitewater), the Chronicle urged Angelides to stop appealing to organized labor and the Democratic base and to instead unite voters through “cooperation and conciliation.”

We trust that Angelides will reject this advice.

Here’s what Phil Angelides must do to win.

First, he must remind voters on a daily basis that he is running against an incumbent whose mentor was Richard Nixon and who is proud to stand with George W. Bush. Voters must know that Arnold Schwarzenegger is so committed to the Bush agenda that he flew to the pivotal state of Ohio to campaign for Bush on the eve of the 2004 election.

Arnold can run from George W. Bush, but Angelides can’t let him hide.

Second, Angelides must always talk about his tax plan by linking it to former President Clinton’s increasing of taxes on the wealthy in 1993. Clinton remains extremely popular in California, and Angelides’ must frame what he calls his “tax plan” as a “prosperity plan” that mirrors the strategy that brought unprecedented good times to California in the 1990’s.

Angelides should ask Clinton to accompany him on a campaign trip through California as soon as possible. The earlier voters make the connection between the Clinton and Angelides prosperity plans, the sooner Schwarzenegger and his allies in the corporate media will find their chief line of attack blunted.

Third, Angelides must ignore the “rule” that voters do not start paying attention to campaigns until after Labor Day. That logic allowed the Swift Boaters weeks of free shots at John Kerry. This campaign will be won or lost by the perceptions created in the next two months, and Angelides needs to get Clinton and Al Gore out here by August 1.

Arnold’s people have already put on television commercials attacking Angelides by misrepresenting his tax plan. The Democrat needs to fight back with his big political guns now, before it is too late.

Fourth, Angelides must stop linking the need for tax increases to the state’s budget deficit

Polling data aside, voters will not support tax increases to offset budget deficits. Angelides’ is right that Arnold did not balance the budget as promised, but there is no evidence voter’s care which candidate is the best deficit-fighter. If voters did, Mondale would have defeated Reagan in 1984, Perot would have bested Clinton in 1992, and John Kerry would be President today.

Fifth, Angelides must do a better job of conveying a mental picture of where the increased tax money will go.

For example, Angelides talks about increasing spending on “education” or “schools,” but those terms are too vague to resonate with voters. Even his pledge to reduce class sizes is too undefined.

Rather, Angelides should say in the course of his thirty second soundbites (for example) “high school classes are currently averaging 30 students. My plan will limit classes to 25.” Instead of saying how money will go for “arts and music,” he should state the number of art or music teachers statewide to be hired, how many school band instruments purchased, and how many schools will benefit.

This framing creates a visual image that enables voters to conclude that their family will directly benefit from the tax hike rather than assuming—as Republicans will argue—that the money will go to “administration,” “bureaucracy,” and to teacher salaries.

When politicians promote tax cuts, they create a visual image by talking about putting money in people’s pockets to use for vacations, remodeling, or buy a new car. Raising taxes requires the same use of images.

School Boards and the California Teachers Association may not like the Governor’s pledge to make specific allocation of new funds, but voters depend upon it. The easy defeat of Prop 82 last week further shows how easy it is to defeat school funding campaigns by arguing that money will go to administration and bureaucracy rather than for kids.

Some may ask: since only the wealthy will pay the taxes, why treat the issue as if the middle-class is paying? Because Arnold and the corporate media will be convincing middle-class voters that Angelides is primarily taxing them. Further, many middle and working class voters will not support increased taxes that they know will only impact the wealthy if they feel—as with Prop 82—that the tax is unfair or the money will not be well spent.

Finally, and most importantly, Angelides must connect his populist message to a grassroots field campaign.

Democrats constantly make the mistake of waiting until a few weeks before the election to spend money on field. The inadequacy of this strategy was even seen in the mammoth field campaigns supporting Kerry in 2004—pouring field staff into states a month or two before the election came too late to change voter attitudes.

Angelides must immediately invest at least $3 million in a statewide field campaign. The candidate and his strategy team need to sit down with groups like ACORN, who have a statewide capacity and proven track record of boosting voter turnout among working-class voters, particularly those of color. The cost of the field operation is a drop in the bucket compared to millions to be spent on television ads.

On a radio show before the 2003 recall election, Angelides emphasized the importance of grassroots campaigning. He clearly knows this is the route to victory, but Democratic campaigns have a way of being taken over by consultants who live and die by the mailer and television ad.

Phil Angelides has one chance to become Governor. If he combines a populist message with the biggest field campaign ever seen in California—and the Angelides field operation would be in addition to labor’s—he will terminate Arnold Schwarzenegger in November.

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