Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dear Senator

Dear Senator:

I was very displeased to learn of your vote against gun background checks last week. I have not always agreed with you over the years but I have always respected your integrity. I do not expect my elected officials to respond to polls, per se, but when 90% of the nation supports background checks, I do believe that you should seriously consider the moral implications of betraying the will of the people.

Perhaps a story will help to clarify my views. Just after graduating college, I tutored high school kids in East New York, in Brooklyn.  One fine spring day, I took the train out to meet one of my charges.  A block away from the library, I noticed a crowd of people and police. At the center of attention was my tutee, lying dead on the sidewalk. 

We never learned why a 16 year old boy splattered most of her brain matter over a couple of parked cars. We did learn that the weapon was purchased at a gun show in Virginia, as part of a huge bulk buy, and was transported north for sale on the streets of New York for a tidy profit. The gun runner in question had committed a string of violent crimes, from Maine to Georgia, and had spent most of his adult life in and out of prison. 

Thou Shalt Not Kill is a precept we should take seriously. Checking the background of an adult before they are allowed to buy a piece of steel finely honed  to snuff out  a human life seems a reasonable thing to do. It will not bring my tutee back to her family. Your predecessors in Congress failed on that account, but it just might give another budding scholar a better lease on life.

I posted about background checks on a blog yesterday, and within hours the comment thread was besieged by “trolls,” including one commenter who said:

“Gun grabbers are the reason that 100 million Americans have 300 million guns and billions of rounds of ammo. Keep it up, trample our rights and we’ll stockpile even more. We know how to use it and unfortunate accidents happen.”

A second commenter quipped: " The only way you are going to get the gun control you want [background checks] is by civil war."

These were just two of a half dozen sinister missives my post provoked. All these comments were posted anonymously; the brazenness of the NRA member stops short at taking adult responsibility for owning their words in a public forum. I seriously doubt Thomas Jefferson would call these gentlemen  fine upstanding defenders of freedom, would you? The Second Amendment was written to protect the right of a nation to defend itself against a tyrannical King, by men of gravity who took a rather dim view of "unfortunate accidents."

You have spoken eloquently over your career about American family values and the Judeo-Christian heritage. How do these individuals' comments stack up?  

Not to put too fine a gloss on it, I am puzzled as to why you feel the need to hop in the political sack with such anti-Christian filth. It is shameful, and it is a betrayal of the trust voters placed in you.

Hate and boorishness are not family values, and stockpiling “ammo” does not make us free. When we feel the need to leave the house with a loaded gun, we have already lost our freedom, our human dignity, and our religion, just as I have irretrievably lost my faith in you.

You can receive notices about new posts on the Data Driven Beltway on Twitter @MichaelAgosta1

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Don't Bring an Action Alert to a Gunfight

The population of New York City is roughly 8.2 million. The combined population of Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Maine and Nebraska comes in at 8.6 million. Those conservative states sport 16 Senators, a veritable tyranny of the tiny, while denizens of the Big Apple share two  Senators with the rest of New York state.

So, why are we shocked that it’s difficult to shepherd a progressive agenda through Congress? Even Democrats in those small states are going to be pretty conservative. A national poll may show overwhelming support for gun buyer background checks but you wouldn’t know it by perusing the poll's North Dakota segment.

We put gun background checks up for a vote in this environment, and we got clobbered.

We are capable of amazing things (the 2008 and 2012 elections) because when we are good we are very, very good…but when we are bad we are terrible. We mounted an abysmal lobbying effort on this bill. Once we’d lost, a slew of groups pounced on Senator Harry Reid. We would’ve won, they argued, if only Senator Reid had killed the filibuster. Setting aside the inconvenient truth that Senator Reid never had the votes to end the filibuster, the gun bill moved forward under the filibuster rule. We all knew we needed 60 votes win—including a handful of Republican votes. But in examining our lobbying efforts, we sure didn’t act like we knew it.

We pretty much did everything wrong:

1)      We waited too long to rally the troops. Because big liberal email lists love to weigh in on every issue, they jump in on most issues at the very last minute. We waited until a day or two before the final vote to blast out most of our email alerts.  Last second appeals seem oh so savvy and enticingly "urgent," but by the time we were hitting “send” the press were already reporting the jig was up—we didn’t’ have the votes. 

Dirty little online organizing secret: many same-day-of-the-vote petition blasts are never delivered to their intended targets, and Senators are seldom truly undecided on the eve of a vote. Last minute activism is Kabuki Theater. A visit from a Senate leader might change a wavering Member’s mind at the 11th hour, but partisans putting their name on a petition or shrieking at an 18 year old Congressional office receptionist will not.

2)      We cannot persuade a moderate Republican Senator with Democrat activists alone. The size of a liberal email list is moot: if a group has 5 million names, but 99% of those names are liberal Democrats, that list will be useless. Evangelical churches came out in support of background checks, but they don’t subscribe to MoveOn. Senator Heller, the Nevada Republican, who is typically a reliable “nay” vote on our issues, doesn’t need to hear from MoveOn, he needs to hear from churchgoing GOP hoi polloi, but those folks didn't call him because we never bothered to ask them.

 3)     We won the 2012 election by targeting, targeting, targeting. Team Obama was a sophisticated, data driven crew, with (like it or not) a complex top-down strategy to organize thousands of canvassers and phone callers when and where we needed them. With action alerts, we send a two-sentence blast to everyone, and make no distinction between folks that have a “swing” Senator and folks living in safe-vote California. Our major online lists seldom if ever coordinate efforts or divide turf, and we never try to get more activists in states like North Dakota, where we desperately need them to sway conservative Democrats.

4)      We rely on the online grassroots and ignore the offline grasstops. To persuade a member of Congress, we need to couple serious citizen activists with business, religious and community leaders as well as local elected officials who carry personal weight. Encouraging donors from the Senator’s last campaign to weigh in is crucial, too, especially for folks like Heidi Heitkamp, who counted on out of state low donors to win her seat. Two sentence “sign the petition now” drives don’t build those offline coalitions.

5)      We didn't distribute serious talking points to our email subscribers. Indeed, as much as it pains me to admit, the Tea Party alerts had dramatically more sophisticated advice for their grassroots. When the tin-foil hat crowd is out-lobbying us, it’s time for some soul searching.

6)      Instead of organizing a few major events or protests we delight in encouraging everyone to stage their own, with no cohesive messaging strategy. We wind up with 30 tiny events in states that don’t matter. The average number of participants at these microprotests typically fit comfortably into the backseat of a Prius. We get no press at all or a scant paragraph buried beneath a story about someone stealing a puppy from a pet shop.

7)      We rely far, far, far, far, far too much on the email petition (I’d put in 35 more “fars” but you get the point). Email is the least effective form of communication to Congress. Surveys of Congressional staff by the Congressional Management Foundation find that only 4 or 5 percent of staffers consider email petitions "very important". Staff dismiss online petitions because they are too numerous; darn near anyone can collect a few hundred thousand signatures for or against any issue. Petitions are too simply worded to convey real conviction amongst the signators, and the accompanying "personalizing" messages our activists tack on are mere Internet snark, often as uninformed as they are crude.

Petition-oriented progressive groups often take a spokesperson to visit a few Hill offices with the mass petition results. They’ll grab a staffer by the elbow and say "1,000,000 people support gun control," capturing the affair on fashionably amateur-looking video which they’ll post online. These stunts are ignored by the press--we've done too many of them, even when the spokesperson is very compelling (MoveOn used the mother of a Virginia Tech victim).

8) When we use email to urge our activists to phone Congress, we send them to the phones with too little background information and no tips on how to lobby Republican staff.  

9)      Even the best players on our team were curiously inept. Obama For America (OFA) the President’s much praised campaign shop, is now a 501c(4) organization designed specifically to lobby for the President’s agenda, under the new banner "Organizing for Action."  Their alerts were better than average (they organized some real phone banks and had actual substantive talking points). But the timing!!!! OFA sent out a useless action alert on the day of the vote. Even worse, mine didn’t hit my inbox until 8:15PM, several hours AFTER the vote. That’s a rookie error.

10)      We encouraged folks from out of state to pile on. CREDO, on April 17, exhorted its members "Even if you are not represented by one of these Senators, make a call anyway." This is a singularly useless tactic, aggravating the very staff we are trying to persuade. How do you think Senators Boxer or Sanders react when gun toting Nebraskans call to give them a vitriol-infused piece of their mind? Do we think those calls persuade them to vote with the NRA?

11)   Very few groups bothered to thank the folks that supported us in the losing effort; the right was all over it, they take care to give praise when it is due. 

12)   The Tea Party ramped up an effort to lobby House members (hey, a bill has to pass both chambers of Congress) in the days before the Senate vote. We didn’t do crap. I suppose we’d have fired up some alerts on the day of a House vote, or perhaps the night before.

In 2012, Mr. Romney learned that his much-vaunted campaign was a clueless mess, driven by emotion rather than real data in the real world. We are staring down the same abyss with our allegedly awesome online activist infrastructure. But do we have the maturity to see it? How many alerts have folks received about the "next steps" in the gun violence campaign? Any at all? And NOW is the time to gear up for the Dream Act vote--it's not too early, but if your inbox is like mine, you are hearing crickets on that issue.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Demography is Destiny

You’ve seen the stories:  the Democrats are destined to have a demographic lock on politics for decades to come, due mostly to a rise in liberalism among young voters and a huge wave of Hispanic immigrants. Online forums are teeming with articles proclaiming a liberal dynasty towering over a GOP that will control little more than Utah and the Deep South.

Bloggers are eagerly anticipating two terms of Hillary Clinton, two terms of Chelsea Clinton, and two terms of Malia Obama. But is this true, or hype? Long term predictions tend not to pan out.  The Internet lives in the Permanent Present Tense. The web is obsessed with the new, and it’s difficult to do research on anything more than a couple of years old. Files are archived, web sites die and servers shutdown; recent history becomes ancient history.

If we turn back the clock just eight years to 2004, we find progressives were in despair. George Bush had just won a second term in the White House, and the future looked bleak.  The post election demographic picture was dire; a widely quoted article in the Los Angeles Times by Ronald Brownstein and Richard Rainey pointed out that Mr. Bush won 97 of the nation’s 100 fastest growing counties. Those exurbs and edge cities were, it seemed, the American future, and Democrats need not apply.

Democrats were further doomed by championing what many observers believed to be “unsupportable” social issues. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled same-sex unions legal, the left cheered but the right had public opinion on their side and they hit back. In 2004, 11 states added Defense of Marriage provisions to their constitutions, defining marital bliss as the sole provenance of ONE man and ONE woman. In each of those states, Mr. Bush enjoyed a hefty voter turnout bounce. Social issues drove votes—straight to the GOP. The first thirty times same-sex unions were on the ballot in the states, our team lost.

Today, the GOP “electoral lock” is more of a lock out.  The Democrats, it seems, have it made. Hispanic voters turned the southwest blue, younger voters are waxing liberal, and core urban centers are sprouting huge liberal voting constituencies with high powered incomes and graduate degrees. Public opinion on same-sex marriage shifted in our favor.  In 2012, provisions supporting same-sex marriage passed in three states and a Defense of Marriage provision was defeated in another.  Support for same-sex union ballot measures now comfortably bolster Democratic turnout. 

Still, our Democratic “lock” relies on some long term demographic trends that may not hold.

  1)      Democrats are relying on huge African American voting blocks in key swing states (especially Michigan and Pennsylvania).  To carry Michigan, we rely on gigantic victory margins with African American voters in Detroit (Wayne County) to counter massive losses in rural counties. But Detroit’s African American population plummeted from 868,992 in 2000 to 737,943 in 2010. Wayne County’s Democratic voting engine is sputtering. Mr. Obama captured 656,303 votes in Wayne County 2008, but just 595,253 in 2012. Michigan’s African American population is declining for the first time in the state’s history. 

More than one million blacks in the south were born in the north, and while the nation’s black population grew by 1.75 million between 2000 and 2010 75% of that growth occurred in the south.  This shift is large enough to cost us key northern swing states like Michigan, where voting margins between the parties is tight, but is likely not large enough to swing the very red south to blue.


  2)      Democrats are relying on sustained Hispanic migration for years to come. Immigration tends to come in waves. My grandparents were part of a wave that populated a huge swath of the Eastern Seaboard with Italian surnames. But immigrant waves tend to crest as quickly as they rise, and Spanish, not Italian, is now spoken on Brooklyn streets and alleys. But there is considerable evidence that Hispanic migration to the United States has peaked.

Border crossings by undocumented Mexican nationals, the driving force behind the need for a Dream Act, have plummeted. The number of border patrol agents has exploded, yet the number of Mexican residents caught crossing the border without documentation has dropped, from more than 1 million in 2005 to just 286,000 in 2011.

The Mexican born population residing in the United States is in decline.  A Pew report from  2011 found  “The Mexican born population grew 23% from 2000 to 2005, peaked in 2007 at 12.6 million and stabilized for two years before declining slightly in 2010. In 2011, the Mexican born population in the U.S. decreased still further, to 12.0 million.”

While deportations of undocumented Mexican nationals are on the rise, the number who say they will try to return to the US is falling: some 20% now say they will not try to return, compared to just 7% in 2005.


If immigration reform is enacted, the hot button issue driving Hispanic support for the Democrats will cool. The post-recession economy will have far fewer construction jobs—the industry that fueled the immigrant boom. In the coming years, we may well see an ideological diaspora among Hispanic voters. We forget, in the Permanent Present Tense, Mr. Bush’s significant gains among Hispanic voters in pre-recession 2004. There are potential rifts among Hispanic voters on social issues. Many young Hispanic women are staunchly Catholic and are conflicted on abortion; many young Hispanic men are attracted to political libertarianism or to the aggressive self-reliance touted by the National Rifle Association.

Thus far, there are no signs that Hispanic immigration will rescale its pre-recession heights. In 2011, for the first time in US history, more immigrants came to America’s shores from Asia than any other region. Asian immigrants will be less reliably liberal. Vietnamese immigrants in the 1970s tended to vote Republican, as did (and still do) the huge influx of Cuban immigrants who moved to south Florida after the rise of Castro.  Recent Asian immigrants include an increasing number from Islamic countries, fleeing the disorder and chaos of the Middle East. These religious newcomers trend more conservative, particularly on key social issues.

  3)      Democrats are counting on “reliable” red and blue states holding firm, but allegiances shift over time. Between 1952 and 1988 California backed the Republicans in every election save one (1964). Massive defense plants, fueled by the Cold War, dominated the Los Angeles economy and gave a conservative tint to the political landscape. In the early 1990s massive defense cuts, military base closings and a huge influx of Hispanic immigrants turned California blue and killed the GOP’s vote engine in Orange County.  Governor Michael Dukakis lost suburban Los Angeles’s Orange County in 1988 by a whopping 327,000 votes while Mr. Obama fell short by just 86,000 votes in 2012.

West Virginia, conversely, was once a bastion of blue, going for the Democrats in all but two elections from 1932 to 1996. In 2000, Al Gore took a principled environmental stand against mountain top coal mining.  King Coal glowered, turning the state red. We lost in 2000…and 2004…and 2008…and 2012.

So, do progressives have a demographic lock? Probably not. We need to stay electorally diligent, and we need to ignore the overwrought hype of a billion bloggers who think we can “just wait” until we have huge majorities in Congress and a decades-long hold of the White House to pass major legislation.

The Permanent Present Tense is dangerous. We have forgotten that Karl Rove’s claims of an electoral lock after the 2004 election were taken very seriously. We’ve forgotten how hopeless the rise of the edge city suburbs looked for our team. Mr. Rove was the political genius of the century in 2004; just eight short years later he is a laughingstock.

Hubris will get us nowhere. Demographic changes can be fast and harsh; it’s likely that divided government is here to stay for a while. We need to start lobbying harder NOW, while we still control the White House, moving the ball every inch toward the goal line that we can  rather than waiting for the “sure bet” touchdown pass we’ll get in 8 years when we will “inevitably” control all the levers of power. We need to pay attention to the recent success of the NRA. Could guns be the next wedge issue that kills us at the ballot box in 2016? Don’t count it out. Finally, we need to steadfastly continue to build broad based electoral coalitions, and we need to take nothing for granted. Ignore the voices proclaiming the dawn of a golden age; that day may never dawn. 

You can receive notices about new posts on the Data Driven Beltway on Twitter @MichaelAgosta1

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Numbers Game

Consider some recent polling data on support for same-sex marriage:

CBS News (conducted March 20-24)
Support:   53%
Oppose:   39%

CNN (conducted  March 15-17)
Support :   53%
Oppose:    44%

Now,  consider support for  an assault weapons ban:

Quinnipiac University (conducted February 27 - March 4)
Support:   54%
Oppose:    41%

ABC News (conducted March 7 – 10)
Support:   57%
Oppose:   41%

These numbers are close, but on same-sex marriage we are making progress while we are getting slaughtered on gun control.

What gives?

Taking a peek at the efforts of our opponents is instructive. Since January 1, 2013, the four largest Tea Party organizations fired off 48 email alerts on gun control. Among the frothy subject lines:

*”Top Secret” Gun Grabber’s Meeting
*Bang Bang
*Government Arming Up
*Home Inspections for Assault Weapons
*2nd Amendment Mom Attacked

How many alerts did these organizations send in opposition to same-sex marriage since January 1?


The GOP is slowly pushing opposition to same-sex marriage off their to-do lists. We are winning, by and large, in the absence of much organized opposition.  Karl Rove is popping up on network television predicting future GOP presidential candidates will support same-sex marriage, and in the last month, GOP Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark Kirk of Illinois joined the ranks of same-sex marriage proponents. Meanwhile, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has hinted that her views are "evolving." The dominoes are falling. Mr. Rove understands that the single most important demographic driving support for same-sex marriage is AGE. It is more important than party or religious affiliation. In that CBS News poll cited above, 73% of Americans 18-29 years old support same-sex marriage, compared to just 35% of adults 65 or older. Time is not on the side of our GOP opponents.

Focus on the Family and a smattering of other right-wing  groups do still float anti same-sex marriage initiatives on state ballots, but we now have enough public support to vote them down. It is important to note that not all "evangelicals" actively oppose same-sex marriage. There are divides within religious ranks; the megachurch movement in particular is pretty agnostic on the issue, choosing neutrality in this particular Culture War battle.

On gun control, conversely, we face a dedicated, focused opposition while we are an amorphous mess. Organization trumps polling numbers. We delight in mocking the NRA, citing the ridiculous statements by CEO Wayne LaPierre. We call him "nuts." History will call him "winner."

This isn't to imply that same-sex marriage is a slam dunk. We are stuck working on a state by state basis, and it is far easier to legalize same-sex marriage in Massachusetts than in Alabama. With gun control, it's national, but demographics don't play in our favor. Liberals are piled up on both coasts. All those conservative districts between DC and San Francisco keep us from getting 60 votes in the Senate or a majority in the House.

To win on gun control, we need to get both noisy and busy. Write letters to the editor. Urge Senator Harry Reid to bring the assault weapons ban to the floor for a vote. Write your Congressional representatives. Call the Republican National Committee and tell them you are finished with their party until they adopt a rational stand on this very crucial "family values" issue. The odds are long, but unlike same-sex marriage, those pulling numbers will not grow stronger over time. Support for reasonable gun control will slip the longer we go without another horrific slaughter.  

Do we have the will to make a difference?