Doing it With Hustle

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Marin Cogan reports on Tom Perriello’s continuing efforts to stay true to his progressive convictions while representing a not-so-liberal congressional district in Virginia:

While some vulnerable Democrats are lying low after taking a tough vote in favor of health care reform, Perriello is doing the opposite: crisscrossing the district in his white pickup to talk directly with constituents about how his vote will affect them — and to tell them that he’s working hard to revitalize southern Virginia’s depressed economy.

His confrontational approach underlies a stark political reality: As a liberal freshman who won his conservative district by just 727 votes in 2008, he is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country. A February poll found him tied with state Sen. Robert Hurt in a hypothetical matchup. The National Journal has ranked Perriello’s district as the 14th most likely to switch parties in November.

Perriello’s efforts to win re-election through hard work rather than casting bad votes is worth putting in the context of empirical research on the electoral benefits of a reputation for moderation. The research suggests that being seen as a liberal rather than a moderate could cost Perriello two percentage points worth of support. In a close-fought election, that’s the difference between winning and losing. At the same time, two percentage points is not an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, it indicates that it’s perfectly possible for a principled progressive (or a principled conservative) to win in a moderate district. But you need to come up with some way to make up the lost ground. Tireless campaigning might be the thing that works.

Another thing to say in favor of Perriello’s approach is that it’s not totally clear what sort of behavior will win you a reputation as a moderate. If you vote for the Obama budget, and the Obama health care plan, but not for ACES or financial regulatory reform does that win you votes? Or is backing the Affordable Care Act enough for you to be deemed incorrigibly liberal?