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Jonathan Leigh Solomon Headshot

Tapping Barack Obama's Phone

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I'm thinking of tapping Barack Obama's phone. Yeah, why not? I want to find out why he's been sharing milkshakes with Antonin Scalia.

While I'm waiting for him to come on the line, let me run this by you: Remember Mark Penn? Former chief strategist for Hillary Clinton. He of the Pinochet Lite clients. In his book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes he explains the logic of going after swing voters, as Obama has been doing with such great zeal over the past week or so. And, it's good logic.

Actually, it's simple math: (You may already know this, but for me it was like the first time I saw Paris.) It takes only one swing voter to equal two voters from your base. That's because -- obvious, once you think about it -- the swing voter not only votes for you, he doesn't vote for the other guy. For that reason, tending to the base -- getting the base out to vote or increasing their number -- is not as important as appealing to the swing voter. In fact, it's less important by half.

But wait just a minute, I hear myself saying while cupping the receiver tightly against my palm -- Penn's book was published in September of '07! Since then -- let alone since 1996 when Penn's guidance kept Bill Clinton in the White House -- Obama's message and mojo, and the extended Barack-Clinton primary fight, brought a jump in Democratic Party voter rolls to a number in the neighborhood of four million. Nice neighborhood. So, isn't there enough of a newly acquired base to make the old ways of running a campaign obsolete? Obama's "new kind of politics" is entirely doable, not just in how one governs once in office, but in how one wins office. Turn out the newly humongous base, while adding a bit to that base, and you win. The drunk guy in front of the 7-Eleven said so just this week during one of our lengthier discussions.

Only one problem -- there's more numbers. I'll let the 7-Eleven guy sleep off his delusions, but the rest of us should have this other math in mind while we are deciding just how much to excoriate Obama for his tack to the right. Fact is, for all the talk of "changing the face of politics for a generation to come" and "ushering in a new Democratic majority," the two-for-one logic still holds, at least when it comes to presidential campaigns.

According to polling by Pew Research Center, as of June of '04, 7% of the electorate still had not decided if they were voting for George Bush or John Kerry, and a total of 21% said that they might switch their vote by election day. Is today so different? Right now, June of four years later, according to the average of leading polls, 12% of voters are undecided and you can assume that at least a small additional percentage is soft support. 12% of a voter turnout that will easily exceed the 122,000,000 who voted in 2004, tops the increase in the number of new Democratic voters by about ten million. Ten friggin' million. If you lose those swing voters, your base -- even up by four million, even if Obama's voter drives adds another million -- gets stomped.

There's more -- how this breaks down state by state, swing states, popular vote, electoral vote. But, suffice to say, when Obama eschewed the pundit's red-blue-purple state preoccupation during his '04 Democratic Convention speech, he was choosing poetry over polls. Mark Penn may have spent the last year or so proving he's an idiot, but the Obama brain trust has proven themselves to be brilliant at winning elections and they've obviously decided that even if some of their newly humongous base stays home, it's a necessary evil. So, considering the math of presidential campaigning, is being disillusioned a necessary evil, too?

Wait... Obama is coming on the line! I think... Oh, nope. Damn -- that's him alright, but he's tapping my phone...