If appealing to moderate voters is the key to Barack Obama's victory this fall -- Elaine Kamarck says democratic strategists need to memorize Bill Clinton's political playbook. In this photo, Obama joins in the thunderous applause following Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo)

As the Democratic Convention got underway, the assembled party seemed to have forgotten everything Bill Clinton’s two successful terms had taught them. Every speaker on Tuesday night mentioned the hot button issues of abortion and gay marriage. And then on Wednesday evening, as the prime time window opened, the convention trotted out Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who came to prominence when earlier this year she was shut out of a hearing on contraception, to talk, once more, about abortion and contraception.

At that point, some Democrats like me, pro-choice but veterans of earlier campaigns, were getting a bit nervous that in a year of intense concern about the economy, the Democratic Convention was turning into a Planned Parenthood Convention. And then Bill Clinton spoke and did what no one had yet managed to do – create the economic case for re-electing Barack Obama with a 50 minute parade of devastating one liners that will keep Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on their heels for weeks.

The basic math tells us that moderates are more important to Democrats than to Republicans.

In these first two days we’ve learned that the Democrats need Bill Clinton but frankly, they need “Clintonism” even more. Clintonism is a way of understanding the modern American political world. It starts with the recognition that in every presidential election since 1980 the number of conservatives has substantially outnumbered the number of liberals. In presidential years the electorate has averaged 20 percent liberals, 33 percent conservatives and the remaining 47 percent moderates. From election to election this has varied — but not by much. For instance, in 2008, 22 percent of the electorate was made up of liberals; in 1988, the liberal quotient was 18 percent.

What this means as a practical matter is that winning the moderate vote is more important to Democrats than Republicans. And sure enough since 1980, no Democrat has been elected President without winning at least 60 percent of the moderate vote cast for the two major parties.

Moderates, as opposed to Independents, are close to liberals on the social issues; favoring abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. But they differ from liberals on one critical dimension; they tend to be more religious than self-identified liberals. Bill Clinton’s party platforms were famous for their sensitivity to these values.

By Wednesday afternoon, President Obama was preparing to join Bill Clinton on the stage and to practice a little Clintonism as well. Turns out DNC organizers had left God out of the Democratic platform, along with a long-standing pledge that Jerusalem remain the capital of Israel. Under direct orders from the President, the convention, in its first piece of business on Wednesday, voted to put Him back into the platform. The vote, however, was not unanimous and in an embarrassing moment – in an otherwise perfectly choreographed convention – it took three votes before He was gaveled back into the platform.

This episode should remind Democrats of two things that Clinton never forgot. One, the number of secular liberals in the electorate is simply too small to elect a president. And two, for victory Democrats rely on that broad swath of voters who call themselves moderates.

As the delegates rehearse Clinton’s great lines about the economy they might want to add another one that will help them win over moderates. When Bill Clinton talked about abortion he said that it should be safe, legal, and — rare.

Tags: DNC 2012, Election 2012, Religion

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  • destor23

    I think that secular liberals are getting a little tired of this lecture. I know I am. If they put mention of god in the platform, I guess I’m fine with it, though I think it’s silly. But if I had a say in the matter, if somebody asked me to vote on it, of course I’d vote no. Because… it’s silly.

    Your phrasing about how the party “trotted out” Sandra Fluke is frankly offensive. Should we really be denied an unapologetic defense of sexual rights and liberties? Do we really need to apologize to moderates over it?

    • durr

      Here’s the thing. if you’re truly secular – as i am – then why give a fuck whether they mention God or not? From a pragmatic perspective, it literally makes no difference, it’s not like we’re on the hairy edge of becoming the baptist version of Iran, so WHO GIVES A FUCK. this was a stupid and embarrassing gaffe for the dems.

  • jc46202

    This is why the convention has three days of speakers … so that a broad spectrum of issues can be addressed. Seems like you need to get a bit more patience.

  • Sk8sonh2o

    If rights are God-given, do Hindus have more rights than we do? How come the atheist Ayn Rand wasn’t sold into slavery? Rights were fought for and earned and sued for and died for by people. Just ask Jesus what rights he ever got from God, N O N E. The only people talking about God-given rights are spoiled brats who forgot about the 3/5 people rule and Jim Crow and the days before women voted.

  • Linnie

    Well, I think the author is right — and mirrors what I have been thinking, that if one truly cares about the big picture here,politically, in this country, and if one believes that the Democrats more accurately reflect one’s vison (given all politicans and parties are as broken as humanity is, only more publicly) – then everything she says is correct. If you want to be a purist, fine; if you believe that who holds power for the next two or four years is irrelevant, fine; but if you think that who gets to name the next supreme court justice matters, say, then you should care about tactics absolutely necessary to remember when running an election in a country as large and as divided and as messed up as ours

  • Daniel Healy

    It seems to me the problem is ‘trotting’ out Bill Clinton, who did not have sexual relations with that woman. They screamed ‘Monica, Monica, Monica at Hillary during a recent visit to the Middle East. It seems the only people that forget are the ‘liberals’…. (and of course anyone in Massachusetts)

  • razorfish

    My takeaway from Elaine Kamarck’s piece is that there’s no one so cynical as an elitist Democrat. Her appeal to her fellow Democrats is not to embrace faith, but rather to fake an affinity for people of faith in order to get elected. This is Standard Operating Procedure for Democrats; that is, in order to cobble together enough votes to win, they have to pretend to be many things that they’re not. So, you get Obama and his “clinging to their guns and religion” routine at that San Francisco fundraiser in 2008, describing people whose votes he needs in order to win a state like Pennsylvania, but for whom he doesn’t even bother to hide his contempt when he’s among kindred elitists.

  • Sister1040

    Since you don’t know Elaine, don’t know what type of a person she is, or you have any idea about her faith… how can you possibly call her an elitist, or accuse her of faking an affinity for people of faith?
    Thanks though for resorting to name calling, it let’s everyone know you just aren’t informed enough to make intelligent comment.

    • razorfish

      True, I don’t know Elaine. She’s probably a lovely person. I’m responding to what she wrote, not to who she is.

  • J__o__h__n

    Lets keep pandering to the ignorant.

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