In the last weeks of winter and early weeks of spring the national political discourse has been whipsawed by a series of disjointed news stories, seemingly bereft of real meaning, let alone any connection to the country’s immediate needs.
There was the contraception fight and its foil, the battle for religious liberty. There were slut wars and mommy wars. A skirmish between political flacks even turned into a semi-serious debate about whether Mitt Romney — who once strapped a dog to the roof of his car for a long drive to Canada — is a better friend to canines than President Obama — who ate dog meat when he was a young child living in Indonesia.
On Capitol Hill last week, Republicans narrowly avoided a Democratic trap that nonetheless resulted in 31 male Republicans voting against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. Simultaneously the parties continued to skirmish over how to prevent an automatic spike in student loan interest rates, and who’s at fault for putting young up-and-comers in financial jeopardy in the first place.
If you’re a casual news consumer, the natural response to these schizophrenic politics is “WTF?!” Even political junkies have a hard time making sense of it. But there’s a signal buried in all this noise — several, in fact. And as clearly as any polling data, they’re alerting us to the factional politics that will decide what’s likely to be a very close election.
If the parties believed the 2008 election was about to repeat itself, or that President Obama was so damaged that Republicans were headed to a decisive victory of their own, the news these days would look a lot different. But what the data show, and what the parties’ actions reflect, is the fact that familiar Democratic and Republican coalitions are taking shape again — that an evenly divided electorate will determine the outcome of the 2012 election, much as it did in years past.
And that means the parties are fighting for votes at the margin — locked in equal and opposite efforts to rally their own bases, depress their opponents’ and maybe, if they’re lucky, make inroads with typically hostile constituencies.
Aim the past weeks’ disjointed news through this prism, and an ordered logic comes out the other side.
“This is all about base motivation [and] opponent base demotivation,” Trey Grayson, a former GOP Kentucky Senate candidate and director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, told TPM Monday.
A fight about contraception ironically begat the slut/mom shout-fests — but each of these dust-ups was really about growing or diminishing Democrats’ large advantage among women voters. The GOP helped Dems pad an organic lead by opposing the Obama administration’s new rule requiring employers to provide female workers with insurance that covers contraception. Things arguably got worse when Rush Limbaugh — an influential figure in Republican politics — attacked law student Sandra Fluke, a poster-child for the contraception mandate, and called her a slut. So when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen made an infelicitous comment about Ann Romney, Republicans devoured it like heavenly manna. It wasn’t just a narrow opportunity to neutralize an unflattering media cycle but a chance to sow doubt in the minds of female voters about which party best respects their interests; perhaps even to energize Republican stay-at-home moms, dispirited that their partymen consistently come down on the wrong side of issues that matter to them.
The rule holds no matter how untethered the campaigns appear to be. When David Axelrod and Eric Fehrnstrom jab at each others’ boss’ unfortunate run-ins with Lassie, it’s not because they’re vying for the undecided dog-owner vote. They’re both signaling different things to Republicans’ heavily white, religious, rural base — and even to some Democrats. The Obama camp’s message is that Romney’s not one of you. The Romney camp message is that Obama’s not one of us.
“The Romney dog story showing Romney’s rich and out of touch, that plays well into the Democratic base story,” Grayson said. “For people who think Obama’s different or somehow foreign, if you’re Romney you’ve got to get those folks back in the fold. The Obama eating a dog story might be one way to do that.”
That isn’t to say the campaign will be defined entirely by brief but repeated bouts of bizarre mania. Months from now when undecided voters finally tune in, the campaigns will have to soften their pitches. And as Bill Burton, a senior strategist at the pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA argues, those voters will only be interested in these kinds of stories insofar as they serve as a guide to the candidates’ broader values
“Yes, there are pieces of information that are more important to some people than others,” Burton said. “There’s no doubt that those particular issues have an impact, but on the whole people are looking at a much bigger picture.”
But for the moment partisans are the target audience “Now is the time to do it,” Grayson said. “The swing voters aren’t paying any attention right now and your base voters are probably more engaged. Sometimes these phony stories are how you get your voters engaged.”
In the coming weeks, the U.S. Capitol will become a prime venue for similar, more substantive fights. VAWA and student loans are just two examples (young voters were a huge help to Obama in 2008).
As acrimonious as things can become in Washington, though, on the trail, it has the potential to get very ugly. Earlier this month, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer identified Romney’s Mormon faith as a de facto political liability. Romney, Schweitzer said, could suffer with Montana Republicans because his father was “born on a polygamy commune in Mexico.”
The Obama campaign condemned the remark, but as the election nears and the parties become more desperate, these coded attacks could escalate.
“[C]ynical minds might wonder if there is a strategic outsourcing of the below-the-belt attacks to surrogates not officially affiliated with the campaign,” wrote National Review’s Jim Geraghty. “Of course, if the Democrats want to make this race about which candidate is closer to a polygamist ancestor … we can play that game.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.