There’s been a lot of discussion in recent days about civility in our politics, and I think the conversation has run off the tracks. I don’t think we’re getting at the point arguing over whether Rep. Maxine Waters should have encouraged the public “shunning” of Trump Administration officials or not, or whether Leaders Pelosi and Schumer should have responded or not (they should have). I’m certain the discussion of Red Hen kicking Sarah Huckabee Sanders out of their restaurant misses the point. I definitely don’t think we have time to debate a State Representative in Philadelphia giving Vice-President Pence the finger either. All of this is a distraction.
To be clear, I don’t particularly like or approve of any of this increasingly intense and confrontational “resistance” at all, and I don’t think it’s helpful or good. Holding that position is particularly uncomfortable though- because I do think Mike Pence and Sarah Huckabee Sanders deserve it. Even more so, I don’t want to tell African-Americans, Latinos, women, and LGBTQ people they shouldn’t express their rage at an Administration that is directly targeting them with their hateful policies. I can’t tell them how to react to being directly attacked by their President, because I can’t relate. Since I realize all that, I’m going to refrain from saying what people should or shouldn’t do. Basically, do you.
I’m going to make a different case though, basically one that is analytical- debating civility in politics, and engaging the Trump Administration this way, will lose us the 2018 Election. Rather than debating this in “right and wrong” terms, or the morality or decency of it, I want to discuss it in terms of campaign analytics, and basic marketing terms. Does any of this stuff win us converts at the ballot box? Does it win us converts in the right places? Are we marketing a message that is speaking to the audience we need? We should be asking ourselves these three questions in everything we do until November.
Let me start by laying out a few basic facts about races for Congress in the United States in 2018. The first, and most important thing to know is that Republicans have won ten of the last twelve elections for the United States House. Congressional elections, because of both our system of district level races and the demographic and economic distribution of our population, currently have a systemic bias towards electing a Republican House– because Democratic voters are heavily concentrated together. The districts that Democrats have to win in November to win back the House of Representatives are comprised of a majority of voters that voted for their current Republican Congressman in 2016, and some of them for much longer. Almost all of these districts lie outside of major cities, though there are a few exceptions. While voter registration and turning out likely Democrats who are new voters will have value to us (particularly in Senate and Governor races), this mid-term election is more about persuading people who are uncomfortable with or don’t like Donald Trump to vote Democratic, which is something we failed to do in 2016. In short, this election is not about self-described liberal and progressive voters.
A few years back, I was field director for Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman in NJ-12. She was elected in 2014, a bad year for Democrats. She was elected in the “whitest” district of any member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a district that was over 70% Caucasian. Her district’s “Democratic Performance Index” was 62%, which nobody thought we could actually hit in that environment, and she got 61% that year, a virtual match. The reason we got there was the way we matched our messaging to the multiple audiences in our district, using voter scoring and analytics. We didn’t moderate or contradict ourselves. We talked about relevant issues to the right audience. To be fair, that district is more Democratic than America, so we can’t exactly replicate what was done there. We can apply the theory in practice to the electorate we’re facing in 2018.
The average voter in the districts we need to win in 2018 is or has been represented by Republicans like Leonard Lance, Darrell Issa, Charlie Dent, Rod Blum, and Ryan Costello. They have not been represented by Joe Crowley, Bernie Sanders, or Albio Sires. What motivates voters in Philadelphia won’t win us votes in the Lehigh Valley. There aren’t enough new voters on our side to turn out and win us 23 more seats. We’ll have to get people who split their votes between Hillary Clinton and a Republican Congressman in 2016. We’ll have to convert the small portion of the Trump vote that regrets their 2016 vote, or are embarrassed by it. We’ll have to convert people who “picked the lesser of two evils” in 2016. That’s who lives in these suburban swing districts that are in play in 2018.
Here’s the good news- I actually think Democrats can and should succeed in 2018. I think a small majority of them are with us. I think we can win by attacking Trump and Congress for trying to take away our health care. I think we can win by attacking the Republican tax scam, and the ballooning deficits it created. I think we can win by pointing out the moral failing of placing the children of asylum seekers in cages like criminals, and separating them from their mothers. I think we can win talking about rebuilding our infrastructure and funding our schools. I think we can win calling for a clean DACA bill, now. I think we can win on the content and substance of the issues this year. I think we can win on pointing out the incompetency and failings of this President and Congress. I think the tide is with us, and the public wants us to win. I just also caution you that this doesn’t make it a sure thing.
I think we have to remember that the audience we need to market our party to doesn’t quite share our passion and anger. Debating the civility, or lack thereof in our politics allows for too much “both sides”-isms. Matching the ugly tone of the Trump Administration, the demonization of our opponents, gives the target voter a way out considering us the adults in the room, and they showed us in 2016 they will take it. Unfortunately, we’re being held to a higher standard, even as much of the public is deciding they aren’t happy with the status quo. You play the game on the field you’re assigned though, not the one you hope for.
I’m not saying anyone needs to be nice to Mike Pence or Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I’d like to flip them off too. I’m just saying we should all consider whether or not feeling good will really make us better off in the long term. Is this really converting someone into a new voter, or a convert from the other side? If not, I’d humbly say maybe it’s not worth the trouble.