In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected President, along with solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Congress had been solidly Democratic basically since FDR, and Clinton went about governing the first two years, as he had been elected to. His approval was actually very good throughout most of the two years, and he would go on to a commanding re-election, but in 1994 the Democrats lost both chambers of Congress with a dramatic thumping. In the years since 1994, Democrats have held the House of Representatives for just four out of twenty-four years (4 of 24). The Senate side has been slightly better for Democrats, with them holding control for 9.5 years out of 24.
For the better part of the last quarter century, Congress has been a Republican institution. Democrats have shown they could win a couple of wave elections during a very, very unpopular war and economic crash, but that’s about it. The result has been that for just two years each in the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Democrats were actually able to govern. While Democrats have won the popular vote for President in every election since the Cold War ended, except for 2004, it has been the Republicans who have presided over the actual business of governing this country. Presidencies are great, but Congress is where governing happens.
As a veteran of the Hillary campaign, one of my chief beefs with our leadership from that campaign was the geography of our campaign- that is, that our candidate continuously visited the large metro areas, and did not spend as much time out in the suburbs or in small cities as past Democratic nominees. Hillary Clinton never stepped foot in northeastern North Carolina, the traditional swing area that I worked for her, and neither did her husband (he was quite popular in the area). She never went to traditional Democratic strongholds in Pennsylvania like Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, State College, Reading, or Bethlehem. There is the whole Wisconsin story, which is pretty famous now, about her not going at all. How much do candidate visits actually matter? More so when you don’t do them, especially when the opposition’s line against you (in both the primary and the general) is that you are an elite who doesn’t care about the everyday people in these places. That sentiment did Clinton in with some of these swing state voters. While Hillary carried all of the suburban Philadelphia counties, and carried a traditionally unbeatable 400,000 vote margin out of Philadelphia itself, she lost Pennsylvania. She saw a 40,000 vote swing against her in Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre), a 15% swing against her in Lackawanna County (Scranton), a fall from a 15% win to a 900 vote win in Monroe County (the Poconos), and became the first Democrat to lose Northampton County (Easton and Bethlehem) since 1988, by 5,000 votes. All of those counties have a Democratic Congressman. All of those counties voted for Barack Obama. And John Kerry. Three of them were for Al Gore. And Bill Clinton.
There is a certain comfort for Democrats in the urban core, particularly in national races. The fact of the matter though, is that Democrats do better when they get beyond their safe havens. While Hillary lost North Carolina by under 200,000 votes, Roy Cooper was elected Governor, and Josh Stein Attorney General- both campaigned across the state. While Hillary lost Pennsylvania by just over 40,000 votes, Josh Shapiro was elected Attorney General, Eugene DePasquale as Auditor General, and Joe Torsella as Treasurer. Our obsession with our “blue” enclaves has a serious impact on our ability to win statewide elections, but it’s even more pronounced in Congressional and state legislative races, where the governing actually gets done. Democrats have close to maxed out the cities for seats in Congress. You can find one or two seats left in the New York Cities of the world, but you can’t find the 24 we need to win back the House in 2018. The road to the majority does not go through the places where our base vote lives.
Fortunately for the short-term Democrats, 2018 is shaping up as a potentially good year. The President has several senior aides under indictment or headed to jail, his approval has consistently been below 40%, and we have an enthusiastic female base that might just barely give us back the House on their own, organically, if we don’t stop them. There are 23 seats that Hillary won who have a Republican House member (and about 5-10 she lost with a Democrat), and an increasing list of retiring Republicans in somewhat vulnerable seats, which should give us an opportunity to win the House, this year. Suburbs in Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Alabama gave Democrats solid wins in 2017, fueled by disapproval of Trump. The short-term is good for us, thanks to just being on the wrong side of 2016.
If we do win the House in 2018, standard logic is that we should be able to hold it in 2020. The GOP was able to hold their new majorities in 1996 and 2012, even as they lost Presidential elections, and Democrats held their majority fine in 2008 after the 2006 wave. Of course it’s worth noting that Democrats then lost their majority in 2010, and 2022 could be a similar election if we are successful in defeating Trump in 2020.
Here is the simple fact: whether it’s beating Trump in the electoral college in 2020, or building a lasting Congressional majority, the road to doing so is not bleeding more votes out of our base. This doesn’t mean stop registering new Democrats in our strongholds, this doesn’t mean throw the base under the bus on policy issues, and it doesn’t mean to talk about some new message that we don’t have yet, that will supposedly change voters minds. First and foremost, it means be present in more places, in more communities. Second, it means running authentic candidates for the communities they are running in. Third, it means centering the conversation at a district level, not a national, one-size-fits-all approach. Finally, it means talking about more, if not all, of our platform, and not just the things our insiders want to see. You see, you have to offer people things they are interested in, if you expect to get their vote. We have stuff for suburban voters to like.
There is a resistance to some of these ideas though. There are Democratic activists (just look at my Twitter) who are both absolutely opposed to bothering with any Republican voters at all, but also to trying to embrace the Bernie-left. They have a math problem. Democrats are almost assured of 48% in national elections, going back to Bill Clinton in 1996, every Democratic nominee has received at least 48%, and we’ve won Congress just twice. Our base of votes can’t build us a durable majority right now. It’s not big enough.
Their response usually centers around people who are not voting now. End voter suppression, register more people, cater to our base, they say. Those are all good things, I don’t oppose a single one of them. There is a chance that if we do that, we win in 2020, although it is not an absolute lock- again, Hillary hit her metrics in the Philadelphias of the world, while still losing. Trying to expand the base more could win us back the White House, so it’s good, but it’s also the right thing to do. I support it. It will not build us a durable, lasting majority.
If you bring in a bunch of new voters in Democratic areas, they will probably be Democrats. If you bring in a bunch of new voters in Republican areas, they will probably be Republicans. Voter registration is great, but it’s not magic. Demographic trends tend to stay true with new voters, as they are with existing ones. Unless there is some magic way to only bring new people in from one area (it’s called targeting), there’s not a real advantage to it. If we target right, we can add tens of thousands of new voters- in already blue districts. There are about 190 solid Democratic districts in this country, and this strategy will make them even more solid. That doesn’t get us to a lasting 218 seats in the House though.
In the end, the way forward for Democrats is we have to persuade someone. The Berners say this should be the white working class voters who began leaving us after Civil Rights, but frankly, that’s not workable. You’re not going to bring in people diametrically opposed to your base and think that coalition can last. White collar suburbanites main issue with us is taxes, but they are bothered by the blatant racism coming from our President. The truly poor white voter, making under $30,000, voted for Hillary in 2016, and could be a group with targeting for growth, but it’s not entirely that simple. Not persuading any group to come over is not really an option for Democrats though, if winning a majority in the majority of the seats is the goal here.
The solution is probably in the portion of the electorate who voted for Trump but had misgivings. His low point in approval was 32%, he’s currently sitting around 37%, and he got 46% in the 2016 Election- so there is a small pocket of people who picked him because they didn’t pick her. There’s no love there for either party, probably just opposition to taxes that out-weighed concerns and dislike for Trump. For a lot of Democratic activists, targeting these people is sacrilege. In reality, they’ve yet to show a better idea.
Regardless of who, in the end the point is that Democrats must grow beyond their existing base. A nation in which we are assured 48% and they are assured 46% yields consistent Republican majorities in Congress, which has lead to a consistent chipping away at the values Democrats hold dear. Being willing to lose, just so you can hold purity in your views, is the height of privilege. People who are suffering don’t get that option. As the party who is supposed to represent them, neither do the Democrats.