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THE SEVEN-PERCENT CONVOLUTION! Krugman revisits a powerful problem. Why don't Big Dems seem to care? // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2006

THE WAY TO WIN FAVOR: As we rushed from the house last Thursday afternoon, the mailman gave us The Way to Win, the much-discussed new book about presidential campaigning by John Harris and Mark Halperin.

The book is very good in some ways. We think it officially articulates, for the first time, the notion that our political discourse has turned into a clownish “Freak Show.” Although the boys are somewhat disingenuous about parts of this problem, we think this aspect of their book is almost all to the good.

But the book is amazingly bad in some ways. Most strikingly, Harris and Halperin persistently minimize the way their own “Old Media” news orgs have been willing participants in this ongoing Freak Show. This is especially striking as they try to explain Campaign 2000, the two-year event in which their cohort essentially suffered a group nervous breakdown. It’s very hard for mainstream scribes to be honest about that history-changing campaign. Harris and Halperin don’t really come close, as we’ll explain (most likely) next week.

Yes, we want to work with the book a bit more before we offer our analysis. But we thought the authors’ method was captured in one magnificent early sentence. The boys are discussing the brainless discussions of Candidate Kerry’s troubling hair-do:
HARRIS/HALPERIN (page 5): As it happened, folks at the Republican National Committee had been paying attention [to Kerry’s hair], too. Sometime earlier, a tasty nugget of news raced around RNC headquarters. Would you believe that Kerry gets his hair cut at the Washington salon of Cristophe? Yes, exactly, that Cristophe—the same guy who did Hillary Clinton’s hair. Cristophe was also the stylist who was trimming Bill Clinton that time in 1993 when Air Force One sat on the tarmac in Los Angeles while the whole world cooled its heels (never mind that reports about delayed air traffic turned out to be false).
What a wonder that highlighted sentence is! (And no, it’s not alone in this book.) Please note—the boys acknowledge, in their parenthetical final clause, that no one was delayed by Clinton’s haircut. But before they acknowledge that fact, they first must say that “the whole world cooled its heels” while Clinton got his trim. It’s rare to find boys who will make it this plain—their intention of making contradictory statements so that everyone can hear the story they like. Or perhaps this—their plan to recite the bogus account before they let us hear the real truth.

Some parts of this book are quite constructive. But these boys seem to know the ways to win favor—the ways modern scribes can play the slick courtier. This is most apparent when they limn Campaign 2K—the most awkward event for their class to discuss. More next week—but in the meantime, just drink in that two-headed statement. Before the boys will tell you what’s true, they feel an obligation—to tell you what isn’t.

THE SEVEN-PERCENT CONVOLUTION: Hurrah! We think it’s a very important point, and Krugman discussed it again last Friday. We don’t know who’s going to win next month’s House elections. But in his column, Krugman explained a “G.O.P structural advantage” in the way our House elections now work:

KRUGMAN (10/13/06): Unless the Bush administration is keeping Osama bin Laden in a freezer somewhere, a majority of Americans will vote Democratic this year. If Congressional seats were allocated in proportion to popular votes, a Democratic House would be a done deal. But they aren't, and the way our electoral system works, combined with the way ethnic groups are distributed, still gives the Republicans some hope of holding on.

The key point is that African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are highly concentrated in a few districts. This means that in close elections many Democratic votes are, as political analysts say, wasted—they simply add to huge majorities in a small number of districts, while the more widely spread Republican vote allows the G.O.P. to win by narrower margins in a larger number of districts.
Because of concentrations of Democratic voters, many Democratic votes are “wasted” in congressional races. Krugman goes on to rework the math for this fall’s elections. According to Krugman, Dems could win the popular vote by a healthy margin, and still not take back the House:
KRUGMAN: My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that because of this ''geographic gerrymander,'' even a substantial turnaround in total Congressional votes...would leave the House narrowly in Republican hands. It looks as if the Democrats need as much as a seven-point lead in the overall vote to take control.
Dems will need to win by at least seven points! For the record, that’s what Mort Kondracke said last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/11/06). In April, Krugman estimated that Dems might need to win by 8-10 points to take control of the House (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/24/06).

To state the obvious, that’s a remarkable state of affairs. And here’s an equally remarkable fact—we Democrats never discuss it! We never discuss the fact that we need to win by at least seven points if we just want to break even! Is there a way to redistrict in various states which would reduce this “structural disadvantage?” Who knows? We’re Democrats! We don’t seem to care! To all appearances, our leaders are perfectly happy to keep finishing second, as we have told you before.

This seven-point “GOP structural advantage” is important for two basic reasons. First, it keeps Democrats from gaining control of the House. Let us ask you a simple question. Can you imagine the modern Republican Party sitting still for a built-in, seven-point disadvantage? For ourselves, we find that quite hard to picture. But then, as has been clear for a good long time, the GOP’s leadership cares who wins. The Dem leadership doesn’t much seem to.

But there’s a second reason why this is important. Let’s say the following happens next month: Let’s say Dems out-poll Reps by seven or eight points—but Republicans retain a narrow margin in the House (perhaps one seat). Democrats will be ridiculed all over the press—and no one will mention the fact that we won a significant margin of votes. Our party is too lazy to fight for a real chance to win—and too stupid to care about optics.

Go ahead—ask yourself if you can picture Karl Rove accepting a seven-point built-in disadvantage. For ourselves, we can’t picture that. But then, Karl Rove tries to win.