HALF EMPTY

I am just going to say this without applying a sucrose coating: the left blew some opportunities in this election. The "Dewey Defeats Truman" pessimism that, no matter what, Obama would find a way to lose passed from prudent to quaint to irritating to counterproductive over the final months. I and everyone else who voted for Obama wasted time and energy fretting on a race that was, for all intents and purposes, over six to eight weeks ago. We saw the numbers, refused to believe them, and kept our focus on a blowout race while marginal seats in Congress and ballot measures could have been pushed past the tipping point with our all-out effort.

It seems odd to say that such an overwhelming Democratic win involved missed opportunities, but they were there. And they stem directly from the fact that Obama supporters stubbornly refused to accept reality – that their candidate had a statistically significant lead in nearly every state required for an Electoral College victory. Just like die-hard McCain supporters but for very different reasons, many Obamans were convinced that all that data was simply wrong. It was not the finest hour for logic. After so many years of losing, winning becomes inconceivable. Of course some degree of skepticism is healthy. It would have been irresponsible for Obama supporters to say "Fuck it, we got this one" or simply take a victory as a given. But there are opportunity costs to the singular focus on the presidential race.

For example.

In California, the presidential race was not competitive. Prop 8 certainly was. It would have made sense for left-wing activists to put Obama and McCain out of mind and devote full attention to state and local races of import. So what was the Bay Area Obama campaign doing? Rounding up busloads of volunteers and driving them to Nevada to campaign for Obama. Was that logical? Well, only if you managed to convince yourself that Obama's 8-to-10-point lead in the Nevada polls was more in need of elbow grease than the uphill battle to push Prop 8 below 50%.

Now, I don't want to suggest that every California Obaman behaved identically, that no one thought of this before the election, or that no one gave Prop 8 their all. But this is anecdote is just one example of the consequences of failing to see the line between prudence and irrationality. Nevada simply wasn't that close – certainly not close enough to import volunteers across state lines. There is always a race right where you live that could benefit from your attention. I can't help but wonder, for instance, if the amazingly tight Senate races in Oregon and Minnesota would have benefitted from the attention of Obama voters in those uncompetitive states. Prop 8 – largely a victim of ignorance and a terrible campaign on the "no" side – could have. Perhaps rather than jumping to Americans' favorite political conclusion ("Let's scapegoat the blacks!" Stay classy, Dan Savage!) the "no" supporters should ask themselves if they did all they could and presented their case effectively or if they wasted a lot of time worrying that McCain would employ some manner of sorcery to forestall the obvious.

Let's take a deep breath and get it through our (apparently) thick skulls – the polling was essentially correct and we can in fact win one every once in a while. Obama led where the data suggested he led. If anything, Rassmussen, Zogby, Strategic Vision, and other right-leaning pollsters caused the aggregate polling to understate Obama's lead. The key in future elections will be to strike a careful balance between overconfidence and neurosis. Lapsing into the latter was costly. Success can never be taken for granted, but we must do a better job of asking ourselves if we are putting our scarce time, energy, and money to the best possible use or if we are hurling them at an uncompetitive race out of paranoia. What did that last $50 million raised by Obama do for his campaign? Nothing. What could it have done for Prop 8? We don't know, but now we have to wonder.

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6 Responses to “HALF EMPTY”

  1. Brandon Says:

    I think you're right on target. Part of the problem, I think, is that we just invest so much damn power in this one winner take all position, that it becomes a life and death battle that marginalizes peripheral political battles. So people took a risk that the 1% chance that the polls were wrong and that Obama might lose was a more serious threat than the 50% chance that Prop 8 might win, or that or Republicans might hold on to a couple of Senate seats that they were supposed to lose. Hopefully Democrats will learn their lesson after this, well, at least until the next agonizingly close presidential election they lose :-)

  2. Chris Says:

    After the close races of 2000 and 2004 and decades of losing are factored in, it would have been too much to ask for Democrats to accept the Obama blowout numbers until the election day numbers were set in stone. You're correct: It isn't logical, and it is a psychological issue.

    It would have nice if the Democrats would have used their time and resources more efficiently. I guess all you can do is be thankful for what did go right, and, as they say in sports, there's always next year.

  3. ladiesbane Says:

    I see your point, but does the significantly more slender margin of the popular vote mean anything in this discussion? Not that I care about the mandate aspect; only what we are considering the breadth of the win.

    My negative vibe pre-victory was pure fear and high anxiety, rather than pessimism as such, and it still stinks up my sweet relief and schoolgirl giddiness. I still am receiving nutjob emails from right-wing Christians prefaced with "I'm not a racist, BUT" (– but they still need a disclaimer to announce the huge crock of bigotry that follows.)

    I wonder if Prop 8 was not grabbed by the campaign itself because it still divides the party — perhaps somewhat as suffrage for women scared people who thought it would give black women the vote. ("Ain't I a woman?") After working to get Bill Clinton elected, gays were cannon fodder to keep cons busy, and were rewarded with DOMA.

    I don't think that sort of thing will happen with Obama — of course, I didn't think it would happen with Clinton, either. But even Kal-El might have to throw a bone to the cons. (Is there anyone lower on the priority list than gays right now? Facetiousness aside, I think it might be children, who are dealt with inequitably, who are not represented, and who don't vote.)

  4. j Says:

    Living in the bay area, California, I was lucky enough to get to experience the firestorm of Prop 8 advertisements firsthand. I thought the No position actually had a very good advertising campaign. One of the oft-repeated ads featured endorsements by Obama, Feinstein, the public teacher association, and….Schwarzenegger! I expected that that should have been enough to speak to at least 80% of the population who likes at least one of those testimonials. Further, I would put the ratio of No ads to Yes ads that I saw at about 10 to 1. In addition, the goddamned San Francisco Channel 7 6:30 news replayed a five-minute on-set interview with Nancy Pelosi for several days leading up to the election that was devoted entirely to the No on Prop 8 message. Even an old lady I talked to a few days before was trying to get me to vote No on 8!

    I was actually quite surprised when the vote showed Yes, because I had heard No so many times that I couldn't see Yes possibly winning. Of course, I don't research polling data. And yes, the gays I know were rather unhappy :(

  5. Indira Says:

    Yes, this was precisely the problem in California. The degree of complacency ensured that the no on prop. 8 people were beginning GOTV efforts when it was too late. At the same time, I think you're misreading Dan Savage's post. He isn't pinning all the blame on African-Americans…he knows the numbers don't add up. However, I (like Savage), am tired of pretending that homophobia isn't a huge problem in minority communities. It's true that minorities aren't all bigots but I would imagine that for Savage, bigotry hurts the most when it comes from someone professing to be your ally.

  6. Brandon Says:

    Indira, I agree with your point about homophobia in minority communities. I think if somebody had written a blog blaming the passage of Arkansas's ban on gay adoptions on ignorant, gun totin', bible thumpin' rednecks, it wouldn't really be regarded as controversial. I'm perfectly willing to heap scorn on this group for their reactionary attitudes. But blacks and whites in Arkansas voted for the ban in fairly comparable numbers, according to exit polls. Savage and others may have gone too far in pinning the blame too exclusively on one group, to be sure, which doesn't strike me as a constructive strategy. But I'm puzzled by how people react differently to pathologies being exposed in different communities.