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The New Rules for Incumbents

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Hi, folks.  Patrick, twin brother of fearsome sauropod (snarkopod?) TRex, here.  I have a little experience studying electoral behavior and I have been doing some thinking about how the netroots (does anyone mind if I call them the ToobzRoots from now on?) have affected the electoral playing field and incumbency.  Ned Lamont’s victory on August 8th and the continued success of the ToobzRoots turns a lot of conventional wisdom about campaigning on its ear.  At a time of political upheaval, incumbency becomes as much a handicap as an asset, and the ToobzRoots seem to be greasing the rails. 

 Let’s examine:

Political scientists diverge on this topic, but many of them agree on these three primary advantages for the incumbent:

1. Name Recognition- In most races involving an incumbent, voters are at least passingly familiar with the Candidate, if for no other reason than they’ve heard his name on the news.  Many voters, especially in primaries where party identification is not a factor in deciding between Congressman Critter and The Challenger, the choice is between The Devil We Know and the Unknown Commodity.  Voters have a tendency to chose the former, especially in a vacuum of new information.  The way that voters have historically been introduced to the candidates and the issues being considered has been through the Op-Ed pages of corporate media.  This is how you get "debates" that read something like "Congressman Critter:  Great Guy?  or rilly, Rilly, RILLY Great Guy?"  

2. Fund Raising Advantages- There is a pipeline of lobbyist cash that runs from the K Street offices of Big Pharma, the NRA, the AMA, defense contractors and corporate lobbyists right into the campaign warchest of Congressman Critter.  Money is oxygen in campaigns.  (Or water , as the case may be…) 

3. Constituent Services/Porkbarrel Projects- I hate to lump constituent services in with Porkbarrel projects, but they serve essentially the same purpose for incumbents: Good PR.  Historically, American citizens have been able to call the offices of their Senator or Representative and ask for stuff.  If a constituent needs a passport application expedited or if they have a son or daughter who needs a recommendation to the Air Force Academy or West Point, they contact the Congressman’s office and someone on staff sees that it gets done.  This also used to work for things like street, school and playground repair.  If City Hall was unresponsive (or apparently so), one could call Congressman Critter’s office, and he could break the logjam (or light a fire under some people) and get things done.  This made people very happy, and they would then carry that warm, fuzzy feeling about Congressman Critter to a family reunion, Elks Lodge, Little League practice or neighborhood barbecue and say "Man, I may not agree with Congressman Critter’s position on Affirmative Action, but he really helped me out of a jam/got that pothole fixed/got a new roof for the high school."  

However, as the 435 Representatives and 100 Senators have seen exponential growth in the number of constituents that they serve, the utility of campaigning one household at a time has faded.  Additionally, people don’t congregate the way that they used to in this country, spending more time indoors (cable TV) and less in public spaces (PTA, Rotary Club, public pools, etc).  The advent of local newscasts in the late ’70s and early ’80s, however, created a new way for Congressman Critter to enhance his standing with voters in his community.  While newspapers had provided some utility at getting the message out, local news broadcasts brought us a whole new era of Ribbon Cutting Ceremonies.  Congressman Critter campaigns hard to get a federal project or factory to move to the district, then shows up on Ribbon Cutting day so that the mayor can say "Folks, Congressman Critter has worked really hard to bring the McDonnell-Douglas cruise missile factory to Smallville.  Not only does it give the citizens of Smallville a hand in securing our country against the Red Threat, we also get 200 new jobs!  Thanks, Congressman Critter!"

Thus, Critter gets butter on both sides of his toast- he gets a little pat on the head (usually right into his campaign fund) from the defense contractor for allowing them to build a factory in the most economically depressed part of his district (probably waiving their property taxes for ten years in the bargain), as well as getting some love from the voters for bringing home some jobs.  Win/win.  It’s good to be the King.

However, the ToobzRoots are eroding these advantages. 

On August 8th, TRex was sending me minute by minute text messages from Lamont HQ.  I was pulling for Ned, but knowing what I know about the Power of Incumbency, I was cautiously optimistic.  However, as midnight drew closer, I was stunned and amazed.  The next morning, I woke up and started writing.  Here are the New Rules for Incumbents that I came up with:

 1. Your largest donors are not your constituency.  They’re your mistress.  The voters know this (and if they don’t, plan for your opponent to tell them). and ActBlue are making it easier than ever for rank and file voters to support candidates.  This blunts the edge of special interests to run Capitol Hill.  This is democracy in action and it scares the hell out of a lot of very powerful people.

2. Don’t run against a reform candidate by beating on your "experience" and your "record."  This is like campaigning against an alligator by announcing that you’re actually a smoked turkey.  Also, don’t send your corporate lobbyist homeboys out to campaign for you .  It doesn’t really enhance your image.

 3. The voters aren’t stupid.  Individually, you may find that they have gaps in their knowledge and their experience, but collectively they fill each other in.  While Americans may not congregate over barbecue grills and at Church Camps like they used to, they sure do meet and talk here.  I lurk in the comments here all day, and I watch the conversations happening.  I am sure that people log off from FDL and Daily Kos only to carry their newfound knowledge to supper tables and barber shops, hunt cabins and the break room at work.  You can’t fool all of the people any more, especially now that they’re pissed.

 4. Black voters are not a windup toy, and they remember Katrina.  Do not condescend to them.  I found the overt race baiting of the Lieberman Campaign to be profoundly offensive.  I imagine that People of Color were REALLY pissed.  The race gambit is getting a little threadbare, even in places like Virginia .  It’s time to engage Black voters as American voters and it’s time to stop trotting out tired old stereotypes to manipulate voter behavior.

5. Poor people aren’t stupid and they’re pissed.  The gap between rich and poor is growing rapidly, now even more so due to the rising cost of energy.  There is one group of people in this country who do not know this.  These people are rich.  See #1.  It’s not class warfare, it’s gas warfare.  All of this is happening while the Petroleum Industry is ROLLING IN CASH.  Look, no one is going to vote for Friends of Scrooge McDuck in 2006.  

6. Do not speak to the voters (or on the record with media) about blogs.  You may as well talk to the public about astrology or hieroglyphics.  Nobody reads blogs.

 7. Do not talk privately to the media and pundits as if blogs don’t exist, because they are all reading them.  Everybody reads blogs. 

8. The race for your career will not take place in DC.  You cannot campaign from the floor of the Senate or the House, unless you have kept #1 in mind since 2001.  Most of you have not.  Go home and talk to the voters.  Go early, go often.  Also, see #2 and #3.

9. Stop listening to losers about how you should campaign.  AND STOP PAYING LOSERS TO GIVE YOU ADVICE.  No one should ever listen to Bob Shrum again.  Ever. About anything.  

What’s the upshot of all of this?  Specifically, Joe Klein doesn’t get to decide how the voters talk about Ned Lamont. Jane, Matt Stoller, Digby and Glenn Greenwald are facilitating discussions that don’t hide Congressman Critter’s cozy relationship with Big Pharma.

 This also means that incumbents don’t get to rely on their traditional head starts in funding, media access and voter recognition.  A lot of powerful and spoiled people are having their power threatened. That’s because people like you are more involved than ever.  I think that this is a good thing.  Democracy is working.

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patrick rex

patrick rex