Monday, August 18, 2008

Why Democrats Face An Uphill Battle In The Suburbs

[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

Matt Stoller has been out canvassing in my onetime stomping grounds, the suburban precincts of the greater Seattle area’s Eastside — specifically, Mercer Island — trying to help get out the vote for Darcy Burner, who’s running against Republican Rep. Dave Reichert in Washington’s 8th District.

He came away with a keen insight into the uphill fight Democrats face on the ground this year, despite their many surface advantages:
All of this is to say that walkable neighborhoods and public spaces are very good for politics. As most of the country is suburban, it is very hard to find public spaces where politics can be conducted. Robocalls, TV ads, radio ads, direct mail, and phone banks are all proxies for a lack of civic culture, in which pestering voters with jackhammer-like messaging screaming IRAQ or TAXES takes the place of engaging with people in real conversations. This kind of politics is literally built into the fabric of the suburbs, which is one reason why certain types of authoritarian messaging works really well in both the Democratic and Republican parties. The web functions differently, based on varying levels of trust, but that is not how relating to the general electorate operates.
One of the realities I recall from my years of working on the Eastside as a reporter and editor (at the old Bellevue Journal American, where I was the news editor) was that it was not unusual to send a reporter out to talk to neighbors of someone who had made the news (usually through some tragedy or crime) and come away empty-handed. Neighbors often did not know each other at all; the preferred lifestyle in many of the suburban neighborhoods was simply to roll into their fortresses at the end of the workday, roll the garage door behind them, and retreat to their little patches o’ heaven.

And as I explored a bit in my book about a slice of the Eastside’s history, Strawberry Days, suburbs like these were essentially founded as exclusively white enclaves, and predicated on providing homeowners personal security, away from the crime of the cities. So making political appeals in these districts entails finding ways to break through the barriers they build around themselves — while still reassuring them that you intend to help keep their "way of life" intact.

For Democrats, it takes a special awareness and finely tuned framing. You have to speak in their language. Candidates like Burner have their work cut out for them — especially when their opponents are paternalistic authority figures like the former sheriff.

Tomorrow is Washington’s primary election. Burner has built up terrific momentum so far — she’s out-raising Reichert by a wide margin (inspiring a certain desperation on his part) and closing the gap in the polls. She’s even managed to overcome the loss of her home to fire, thanks to the outpouring of support from around the country and her district.

But on Tuesday it will be up to voters on the ground in the 8th District to make that momentum real. Getting a majority of the votes in the primary won’t mean anything concrete, but it would provide an important psychological boost, as well as change the narrative in the campaign.

Once again, regional media are pretending that Reichert is a "moderate Republican," and Darcy is being dismissed as a netroots darling. It hasn’t been pretty. A primary win could alter that narrative for good.

So for those of you who are voters there, remember at the least to make sure you make it to the polls today. And for those who can, sign up to volunteer for Darcy today. You can make a difference in getting out the vote.

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