Chaos At The Southern Republican Leadership Conference

Earlier, I'd said I was really looking forward to finding out the results of the 2008 straw poll being held at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference this weekend in Memphis. I take it back. It seems that Republican infighting has likely rendered the results largely useless. Taegan Goddard of Breaking Blue fame (who also writes for a little site called Political Wire) uncovered two interesting and related stories out of the SRLC.

First, John McCain, one of the clear front-runners for the 2008 nomination, decided to throw a monkey wrench into the whole process by telling conference-goers not to vote for him, but rather to write-in President Bush's name instead. "For the next three years," McCain said, "with the country at war, he's our President, and the only one who must have our support today." It's an eye-roller to be sure, but if you're thinking this is McCain once again sucking up to Bush, it's not that simple. I'll come back to this in a bit.

The real chaos kicked in when Trent Lott, himself a McCain ally, attacked the credibility of the straw poll's results, saying that it was being fixed in favor of Bill Frist. Here's what he told CNN.

"Frist is bussing people in," Lott said, referring to Senate Majority Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), whose political organization is working to ensure he wins this unscientific early test of election viability. "These are not real delegates. These are people being bussed in to produce the results. It is a rigged deal. It doesn't matter."

That possibility -- that Frist might bus supporters to Memphis for the event -- is one that I raised in my first post about the SRLC. And if it turned out to be true, then Lott's suspicions might have been correct. But crying to CNN about a rigged election before the election's even held is pretty unfair, as it prejudges the outcome and calls the validity of the whole process into question.

What's so interesting to me about these stories is the fact that the only two people openly trying to wreck the straw poll are McCain and one of his supporters. In urging attendees not to vote for him and instead write in Bush, McCain set himself up in a position where he can't lose. It's a total cop out in that, if he performs poorly, he can point to the fact that he wasn't trying to win anyway, going so far as to endorse someone else. And Lott calling the whole process "rigged" by Frist is the icing on that cake, stripping what remained of the poll's credibility. This is nothing but scorched earth. McCain obviously didn't feel he was strong enough to win the poll, so he had to tear it apart instead.

The Southern Republican Leadership Conference Straw Poll

This weekend, the Republicans will be having a pretty big 2008 cattle-call down in Memphis, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. For our purposes, the most important thing about the event will be Saturday's presidential straw poll, which is being sponsored by The Hotine.

Like Chris, I'm a big fan of straw polls to gauge the enthusiasm among a party's activist base for candidates. The attendees at these events really are the opinion makers who will have a lot of influence on primary voters. Even if the primary voters themselves don't yet know who they're going to be voting for, these straw polls can serve as a fairly good indicator.

So how is the track record of the SRLC's straw poll? Well, check out the results of the poll in 1998. It was pretty good when it came to calling the front-runner, even if it relegated John McCain to the same also-ran pool as Christie Whitman, George Pataki, Bill Weld, and Alan Keyes.

GOP Primary Matchups
                                     1st Choice           2nd Choice         1st/2nd Combined
                                     Raw     %age       Raw     %age       %age
 George W. Bush           201     18%         132     13%         31%
 Steve Forbes               161       15           100     10             25
 Dan Quayle                 132       12           124     12             24
 Fred Thompson           107       10             98       9             19
 John Ashcroft               100       9             96         9           18
 Lamar Alexander         88         8               91       9             17
 Newt Gingrich               69         6             56       5             11

Now, one thing that can really muck up a straw poll is a candidate stacking the deck. Let me give you an example. At the Conservative Political Action Committee convention in 1999, Gary Bauer wound up winning the presidential straw poll. If you're scratching your head as to how that's even possible, I don't blame you -- Bauer never had any serious chance of winning. But he did manage to stack the deck at the conference by paying for a number of activists to attend via "scholarships." They came, cheered loudly for Bauer, voted for him in the straw poll, took part in a few specifically anti-choice events, but otherwise, did not get too involved.

Now, something similar could play out here. Home state Senator Bill Frist has apparently been trying to organize groups of local activists from Nashville to make the trip to Memphis for the conference. So if Frist wins big in the straw poll, I'd say it's not really so much indicative of the feelings of conservatives as Frist's local organizational prowess. On the other hand, if Frist performs badly, it's very bad news for him, as it means he couldn't even rally locals to his cause. This is why I don't think it makes sense for candidates to try to game straw polls. They stand to lose credibility for an outcome that's ultimately not all that helpful, especially if the result is less than legitimate.

I have a feeling Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee could surprise people with a solid showing, based on the geography factor -- his constituents live right across the river. If Senator George Allen performs well, it will give him some buzz, coming on top of his first place showing in the CPAC straw poll. These are just two examples of possible outcomes, so we'll have to wait and see how everything plays out. Along with just about everyone else interested in 2008, I'll be very interested to find out the results on Saturday night.

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Debating Democratic Data Mining Efforts

To chime in on the Dean v. Ickes data mining story, I think it's yet another case of The Washington Post massively overstating bad news about the Democrats. As Matt wrote, Ickes "doesn't think the DNC is in the game." While I'm not downplaying the fact that this is indeed a very real conflict, I don't necessarily view it as a bad thing in this case.

The fact that these are parallel efforts could serve two important functions. One is to force both entities to bring their A game and try to top the other. And data from both can theoretically be utilized and cross-referenced to produce a more refined product. While the existence of two competing efforts may cause some maniacal giggling among those at the Post, I fail to see how it's a net negative in and of itself. Once again, we're a party full of grown-ups -- unlike the weak Republicans, we can handle some internal competition.

For some background on political data mining, despite my irritation with the Post's headline choice, their description of how it works is definitely worth reading. As MetaData wrote in the comments of Matt's post, "Databases are critical." The Republicans' effective use of data mining in GOTV efforts proves the point.

In 2002, for the first time in recent memory, Republicans ran better get-out-the-vote programs than Democrats. When well done, such drives typically raise a candidate's Election Day performance by two to four percentage points. Democrats have become increasingly fearful that the GOP is capitalizing on high-speed computers and the growing volume of data available from government files and consumer marketing firms -- as well as the party's own surveys -- to better target potential supporters.

The Republican database has allowed the party and its candidates to tailor messages to individual voters and households, using information about the kind of magazines they receive, whether they own guns, the churches they attend, their incomes, their charitable contributions and their voting histories.

This makes it possible to specifically address the issues of voters who, in the case of many GOP supporters, may oppose abortion, support gun rights or be angry about government use of eminent domain to take private property. A personalized pitch can be made during door-knocking, through direct mail and e-mail, and via phone banks.

So far, some controversy has been stirred up by rightist conspiracy theorists, convinced that they are seeing a power grab by Hillary Clinton, whom Ickes is close with. That narrative seems to be getting some play from those on our side of the aisle as well, with Sean-Paul at The Agonist writing, "Hillary's first move in taking over the party. Watch this. It's important." He may be right that one of Ickes motives in making this move is helping Clinton. But it's not going to benefit just Clinton. This is the type of project that has the potential to greatly improve the ground game of all Democratic campaigns.

Recognizing that many will disagree, the takeaway message for me is that Democrats are working fast and furious to fix something that's widely viewed as being in need of repair. So what if it's being done by both a private firm and the DNC? There's always the risk of too many cooks being in the kitchen, but it's not as if the DNC has hired three different firms to work on the same problem in-house, where it could really gum up the works. Ickes may be right that this hasn't been a strong suit for the DNC, personally, I don't know enough to say. Either way, I'm glad someone is doing something to build alternative infrastructure rather than just griping to the Adam Nagourney about how the party is hapless. This situation isn't ideal, but I'm not ready to call it a crisis.

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Democrats and Iran

The following story was written by Tim Dickinson at Rolling Stone. It discusses what the Democratic Party should do concerning Iran. I think he makes a reasonable argument. Your thoughts?

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Outlawing Choice No Longer Exists In The Abstract

As you've undoubtedly already heard, Governor Mike Rounds has signed into law a bill banning abortion in the state of South Dakota. While there is an exception in the bill if the life of the mother is at risk, there are no exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or situations where the health of the mother is compromised. The South Dakota ban is likely to be followed shortly by a similar ban in Mississippi, which does allow exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Right now, each state only has one abortion clinic.

Now, neither of these bills is really going to outlaw abortion in either state. Yet. Rounds openly admits that the South Dakota ban will be bogged down in the courts for years to come. Both (again, as you've undoubtedly already heard) are designed to challenge the precedent of Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court, where their backers expect to find a receptive audience with John Roberts and Samuel Alito. This is the moment that every pro-choice voter who has ever voted for a Republican never thought would come. They voted for Republican tax cuts, confident that the social agenda was just some sort of ruse to win over the Falwell crowd. For example, in September of 2004, polling indicated that in the crucial state of Ohio, support for Bush among self-identified pro-choice voters was much higher than support for Kerry among self-identified pro-life voters. This is a critical point. Throughout the pro-choice electorate, there has long been this assumption that the woman's right to choose is not seriously threatened. It has always been an incredibly stupid and undisciplined thing to assume. Elected Republicans haven't been pandering to the Falwell crowd. They are the Falwell crowd.

And this fight isn't over. It doesn't end with Bush naming Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court. If not Bush, the next President will name a replacement to John Paul Stevens, whose death Republicans are gleefully hoping for because it will likely push the court decisively one way or the other (or at least more than it has already been pushed). A quick review of Republicans likely to run for their party's nomination in 2008 shows that ignoring choice at the ballot box is no longer an option. John McCain, George Allen, and Mitt Romney have all promised that, like Rounds, they would sign the South Dakota ban, as has darkhorse candidate Mike Huckabee.

Advocates for choice have been warning voters about this for years. Obviously, after a while, those warnings sounded alarmist and unrealistic to some. Unfortunately, they were neither. So here we are. This issue no longer exists in the abstract.

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