Biden vs. The Red Horizon

Remember back after President Obama won in 2012? We heard from a lot of Democrats about how “demographics are destiny.” The idea was that the Obama coalition would simply carry the Democratic Party to future majoritarian status. In the time since, it’s true that Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 were built largely off of that coalition, but there have been cracks in the foundation that should be concerning, particularly given the radicalization of the GOP in the Trump era.

It is true that in the coming 20 to 30 years, the country should move from majority white to non-white in population. It is also true that within the next 20 years, half of the country’s population will reside in just eight (8) states. Yes, the diversifying country is happening in about 8 states, or roughly 16 Senate seats. In many of the more rural, smaller, more red states, the country may even be whitening. Those 42 other states will have 84 Senate seats. When you add on that the Democratic coalition of voters tend to live together in urban and inner-suburban House Districts, you get close to 200 Congressional seats where Democrats routinely win north of two-thirds of the vote, but those 200 seats aren’t enough for a majority. This means Democrats will need to win in more moderate suburban districts, where the politics can tend to be at odds with the politics in the blue districts that make up most of the Democratic caucus. In other words, an emerging non-white majority in America is in danger of being ruled by a shrinking minority of rural white voters, if Democrats can’t balance the politics just right to win the moderate suburbs.

Of course, all of this is assuming the current political alignment even holds, which is at best murky. If this isn’t clear yet, non-white voters in the Democratic Party tend to be more moderate than a lot of white Democrats, particularly the men. Making things even harder is a slight but noticeable split between white voters in the big cities and suburbs, breaking down clearly along educational grounds. When you combine more conservative non-white voters voting more ideologically than based on identity (seen in 2020 as very slight shifts towards Trump) with urban white working class voters behaving more like suburban are rural blue collar whites with their vote, because of culture grievances (canceling Christopher Columbus, Blue Lives Matter, “socialism,” etc.), you get the kind of minor cracks in the Democratic coalition foundation that can be lethal in the long-term. You get a 2016 to 2020 shift map of Eastern Pennsylvania with weird red pockets where you don’t expect them (see below).

That map tells us a lot of things, but what it’s screaming at us is that the places Trump did better are generally the places where Democrats have essentially one party rule- Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, Reading, Bethlehem, Easton. Again, we know the slight shifts among non-white men, and the more pronounced shift in white, blue collar urban neighborhoods explains a lot of this change. What I think we don’t appreciate enough is how hard it is to try and stop it. Big city mayors like Jim Kenney or Bill de Blasio are not going to be the kinds of spokes people that can push on more progressive politics, it’s antithetical to them winning. The same can be said for more progressive members of Congress that can increasingly win districts in cities and inner suburbs. While I loathe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the damage she does to Democratic candidates in the 40-50 competitive House seats left with her messaging and presence, she represents the district she represents. Asking her to “tone it down” would probably harm her as bad as asking the New York Mayoral candidates to endorse “stop and frisk.” She’d end her career taking that advice. Sure, it might help us in Long Island Congressional races and Presidential elections, but exactly zero members of Congress are taking one for the team like that. In short, the impediment of the politics in blue seats on Democratic victories is probably inevitable right now.

The map above screams a second thing at us- Joe Biden is a particularly strong politician. His ability to take the slight hits in Democratic strongholds across the country, but still flip nearly every major battleground state through suburban America is a unique political ability we haven’t seen in a long time. His coalition of voters probably had 90% overlap with President Obama or Secretary Clinton, yet he found the gains in the electorate that he needed to beat a motivated GOP electorate that produced the second most popular votes ever- behind him. Biden’s coalition was broad, really diverse, and most importantly improved on all the areas where Democrats underperformed in 2014 and 2016. Contrary to the views of pundits that Biden was “lucky” to get nominated, you could see the contours of his coalition in the primaries before Covid hit- he was winning black working class, white working class, and suburban educated voters, in some states literally taking every county. In short, Biden was the guy for right now.

So what can the President do to try and fight off the demographic and political doom that seems to be setting up a “red horizon” for us? While many Democrats are arguing policy particulars, I actually don’t think this comes down to how much they raise the minimum wage, or cut student debt, or any of the things people are rage tweeting about right now. I think there are three broad themes he needs to hit in this Presidency to stop our political decay.

  • End “Messiah politics,” turn down the political temperature. In short, be a boring, normal guy. Democrats, going back as far as JFK, have elected charismatic, big personality types. The GOP has done similar. We pretty much reached the peak with the Trump cult. Americans don’t elect kings, in fact we were founded on not doing so. The concentration of American power in Congressional leaders, nine lifetime appointed judges, and a singular American President has not done us well. It has divided leaders from the people, and created the perception of the “elite” ruling class. It has also made us concentrate a lot on the personal characteristics and scandals of Presidents, which short of breaking the law, should largely be irrelevant. The President doesn’t have to be a perfect person, in fact none of them are. The President can be boring, we don’t need to see them on TV every day. We certainly shouldn’t be hanging on their 1am tweets. The press is struggling with the lack of news from President Biden, and that is a good thing. Our hope and savior shouldn’t come from one elected leader, but from ourselves. Joe should be a boring guy, a devoted family guy with a very important job. We need to break our addiction to sensationalistic political news coverage that has become the new normal, post-Gingrich.
  • Deliver tangible victories and results for his base. I would say a $1.9 trillion recovery package that revolutionizes public health, saves small businesses, puts cash in pockets, eradicates child poverty, and does a bunch to kill Covid is the best start we’ve seen in forever. It is not enough. Voting rights must be codified through federal legislation. The right to organize for unions must be strengthened after decades of attacks. Public education needs to be strengthened and funded. Action on climate change and the environment is needed. President Biden needs to enact legislation with Congressional Democrats that touch the lives of as much of his 82 million voting block as possible, particularly those groups who made up the backbone of his coalition.
  • Convince whatever portion of the Republican electorate he can that government can still be useful, at least sometimes. This is admittedly the trickiest part. Most of the Trump voting block was less interested in policy, but more so in grievance politics. Thank God for that. Had Trump went beyond his isolationist rhetoric on trade and wars, and actually combined action for the “forgotten man” on economics with his white man grievance politics, he may very well have rebuilt the FDR coalition and governed a new dynasty. Fortunately the grievances are still the lede in the GOP platform, but they can’t cross their rich donor base. Trump used their bigotry views to align lower educated white voters with millionaire Republicans better than anyone in modern time, in part because many working class white voters haven’t felt they get benefits from the government acting in decades. Of course they do, but the connection isn’t made. Whether it is on Covid relief, a massive infrastructure bill, or creating green jobs, the Biden Administration needs to change that perception. Left with their current presumptions, 47% of Americans were willing to follow an ignorant con-man into the abyss. We are on the verge of losing one of our only two American political parties permanently to the conspiracy theorists descending from the John Birchers through the Tea Party, a set of loons who stormed our Capitol and romanticize a second Civil War. In fifteen years the Republican Party will either be a healthy political party with political ideas, or it will be a dangerous, white nationalist cult that is governing the majority of the country through essentially an apartheid government. How they are brought back to the table after President Biden will decide that.

Looking at the future through the lense of reality is hard. In a couple decades, we could be a hellscape of a nation. That is, unless Joe Biden can restore some public confidence in the institutions that govern us. Unless he can convince us that DC is not a bunch of out-of-touch, hyper educated folks representing interest groups and eschewing reality in our lives. If he succeeds, he’s one of our greatest Presidents. If he fails, we will fall to the chaos of extremist politics and a bleak future.

0.

It took me nearly a week to finally be emotionally and intellectually able to write this piece, but write it I will. Joe Biden is our President-Elect. Donald Trump has been defeated. Kamala Harris has made history. People danced in the street, they cried tears of joy, they prayed, they rejoiced. For me, Saturday was one of the most moving days I have ever had. The sting of Hillary Clinton’s loss obviously hit me personally, I worked for both of Hillary’s Presidential campaigns, but it hit me even more personally than that. Rarely in the Trump era did I feel targeted by his vitriol, because I’m a white, straight, Catholic, suburban raised man, and he wasn’t trying to scapegoat me. I watched his policies and his rhetoric aimed directly at the heart of family, friends, and acquaintances alike, and felt helpless. It made me angry. The feelings I had this past weekend were so much different, so much better. I watched millions of people genuinely rejoice, dance in the string, and dance. For the first time in my political career, none of the bureaucratic BS of the campaign mattered at all to me. I was just proud of what I had been a part of. Nothing mattered to me but how this made people feel. It’s a new day.

Now, some notes…

The man of the hour.

An ode to Joe Biden.

We don’t give Joe Biden enough credit for what a master politician he is. Just the black and white ink of his resume should have been proof enough- Senate Judiciary Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Chair, seven times elected Senator, two-term Vice-President of the United States, and yes, now the President-Elect. We tend to view Joe Biden through his losses, and lose site of what he’s achieved, be it personal or political. This man is one of the great American statesmen and politicians of post-World War II America. Don’t mistake him for a saint, but don’t dismiss him as Barack Obama’s “crazy uncle #2” either.

Joe Biden was in my top tier in this race from day one (along with Harris, Booker, and Klobuchar), so obviously I’m thrilled with this outcome. Obviously being a part of his team, this is personally fulfilling as well. A lot of people ask me why I felt he was right though, and I’ll give you this anecdote- on Super Tuesday in headquarters, I declared very early in the day that Biden would win Massachusetts, and I was basically laughed at (one super senior staff member simply replied “that won’t happen.”). A buddy on the campaign asked me if I was serious, to which I replied kinda yes, and he asked me why. I asked him what other candidate could possibly win Rep. Pressley (The Squad) and Rep. Lynch’s (Irish Catholic moderate) Boston districts. My point played out pretty well. Biden could build the broadest coalition in the race, because he could speak to and empathize with the most people. He’s got Bill Clinton abilities, combined with the experience of the Obama White House, and the wisdom of years. All of that played huge against Trump.

So much to see here…

The Broken Democratic Brand…

After 2016, one of the criticisms of the Democratic Party was that “the brand” was broken. The party had lost power in all three branches of the federal government at that time, and our 2016 nominee had ended the race deeply unpopular. The argument was basically that Barack Obama had won twice largely on personal popularity. The party itself didn’t poll very well, and seemed to hemorrhage voters they used to get.

Joe Biden won Tuesday’s election, the Democratic Party did not. Let’s be honest beyond Biden about what kind of candidates were winning. Mark Kelly and John Hickenlooper were remarkably strong Senate candidates. Roy Cooper and Josh Stein in North Carolina are very powerful Governor and Attorney General candidates. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro was the only Democratic row office candidate to win. House superstars like Lauren Underwood and Conor Lamb survived. Many of their freshman colleagues met a much harsher fate. Even at the Presidential level, Joe Biden joined Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama as the only Democrats of the post-LBJ/late 1960’s cultural revolution to win a national election. All were very gifted politicians and came to power on the back of a national crisis. We never win on generic ideology.

How bad are things though? In Pennsylvania, Democrats lost the popular vote for the US House by nearly 130k votes, at last glance. Democrats lost the entire New Hampshire state government, including both houses. Pennsylvania’s House and Senate Democrats sit at the exact same numbers they were at after the 2010 midterms. North Carolina’s legislature, just two years after Democrats broke the supermajorities, lost Democratic seats. Pennsylvania Republicans won their first row office victories in over a decade. New York State legislative Democrats lost seats. Minnesota and New Mexico Democrats lost Congressional races in good Presidential years.

I would not say 2020 was a terrible year for Democrats, but it was a correction of 2018’s majority. Like in 2016, late breaking voters seemed to decide giving us strong majorities was not in their interests. The reality is that Republicans have proven very capable of convincing voters to deny Democrats power, even in elections where they are rejecting the GOP. In 2018, Democrats were winning down ballot races in GOP strongholds. In 2020, Democrats lost some of those same seats back, limiting their ability to govern moving forward.

How it happened…

The Blame Game

Let’s dive into this week’s best political battle- the Conor Lamb’s of the world vs. the AOC’s of the world. I’ll start by stating the somewhat obvious- my politics aren’t a match with “the Squad,” and more so are with Lamb. With that said, I think that both sides have brought forward some interesting thoughts, both about Biden’s wins and the down ballot losses Democrats have suffered this cycle. For me, there’s lots of blame and credit to go around.

First off, I’ll state three obvious truths about Biden’s victory. First, there is no doubt that people of color, and more specifically their organizers, played a gigantic role in flipping Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and holding Nevada. Second, there is no doubt that Biden’s being more acceptable to suburban moderates in those same states got him those last few percentages of the vote that he critically needed. Third, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the unity encouraged by Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, and “The Squad” played a critical part in avoiding the lack of enthusiasm we fought in 2016. If you remove any piece of this puzzle, Joe Biden probably becomes the third Democratic nominee this century to win the popular vote but lose the crucial states needed to win. With all this in mind, I have to say that I’m not denying anybody the credit they are being given for this victory. When someone says Stacey Abrams deserves credit for flipping Georgia, all I’m doing is nodding in agreement, because you ain’t wrong.

… but let’s talk about the losing we did too. This is a tough love portion that goes in two parts, with the first being the impact of further-left messaging on the difficult races, particularly swing states and districts. The use of the term “socialism,” which is somewhat misleading anyway by “new left” Democrats, is a non-starter with many immigrant populations (especially Latinos) and suburban voters (swing districts). It played a huge role in losing Florida and Texas, and more specifically swing Congressional districts. Pointing out that candidates who supported Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal all won, while not pointing out that they represent safe blue districts, is dishonest at best. Talking about defunding the police, abolishing private health care, ending commercial flights, and phasing meat out of our diets, while quite popular in our liberal enclaves, is a straight ticket to defeat in the kinds of districts that you have to win to get a majority. For their popularity in blue districts, “the Squad” is a perfect boogeyman for Republicans to put front and center in their efforts to call moderate Democrats extremists. You can’t build a majority under the American government system for further-left politics. Fortunately, I don’t think the “socialist” messaging stuck to Biden in most places, particularly after he won a primary against that. It absolutely worked is scaring late-breaking voters in Florida, Maine, North Carolina, Texas, and Congressional districts in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Ohio, and even New York. It’s not about forcing everyone to be moderate, it’s about forcing them to be disciplined. If your policy isn’t to actually *defund* the police, don’t use words with that meaning to gin up voters who are already with us. If you’re not actually going to *seize the means of production,* don’t call yourself a socialist. Since anything you say will be used against you anyway, only give them words you mean to give them. I will give a rare rebuke to our leadership though on the Hill for this- if you don’t want AOC to be the face of the party in Iowa and Florida, start pushing some other voices out front and on TV more. If you don’t, don’t get mad later.

Let’s not limit the blame to just the progressives though. Not all of AOC’s critique of the party is wrong. The Democratic Party is not interested in party building at a precinct level, across the nation. Most state legislative caucuses are fully owned by their expensive television consultants, and their money flows there. AOC’s point about investing heavier into the online presence, which those of us in the industry call digital organizing, was proven right this cycle by those of us on the Biden campaign, who both organized Super Tuesday almost fully online, then spent literally months organizing digitally during the pandemic. Elections are literally won where the people are, not Washington, and that is online in communities, and at the most localized level, which is the precinct. Want some truth? Hillary lost Pennsylvania by 5 votes per precinct in 2016. Our organizing model does not view campaigns through that sort of lense (more later on this.).

So much fun…

The Waste of the Grassroots Donor

I don’t have to remind you that well-funded Democrats lost Senate races in Kentucky and South Carolina. I don’t have to remind you of the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on these races, which you may have contributed to. I doubt I need to dive too far into the relative disappointment for Democrats, particularly on the House and Senate level, with how we performed relative to how well funded we were.

This is not something that would have even been a thought before Howard Dean’s 2004 Presidential campaign, and it wasn’t even conceivable until after 2008. The old big donors would ask the party leadership essentially where to donate. With the shift away from PACs and institutional donors, there’s no way to focus donations into the most flippable seats. Let’s be honest about some of the well funded Senate seats we lost- Kentucky, Montana, South Carolina, Kansas, and even Texas- were not supposed to be competitive for President. The money still flowed there. Small dollar donors as our primary life blood in donations means a lot of money will go to waste. They will donate with their hearts, not their heads, and that’s their right to. That doesn’t help though.

Back in the primaries, I ripped the DNC for using the number of donors as a criteria to make the stage. I said it forced candidates to chase the whims of Democratic activists, not the average, median voter back home. I maintain that criticism after this general election.

Turns out this stuff works.

The Failed Democratic Organizing Model.

I’m just going to cut straight to the chase here- The Democratic Organizing Model being used nationally basically exists to make it’s managers look good. That’s it. It’s there to produce large scale numbers that look good to your potential next employer. It’s not there to do much else.

I told you earlier that Hillary lost PA by 5 votes per precinct, which she did. Did we react to that by partnering with down ballot candidates to increase our vote share, precinct by precinct? No. We instead focused on macro change, with the focus on statewide autodialers and big shifting numbers. This is not a Pennsylvania specific problem, and even in a victory it showed up in our losses down ballot. Democrats will lose roughly a dozen Congressional races nationwide, and lost close state legislative races in swing states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. This is specifically why we can’t govern and have nice things.

The average organizer was managing 25 to 40 precincts total. The organizing model in an area that size should emphasize quality, not quantity and efficiency. We should be building a precinct captain structure, and running each district as it’s own mini race. Recruitment call goals should take a back seat to one on one’s and meeting with clubs, party committees, and active citizens. We should be less reliant on predictive analytics to tell us who to talk to, because we should have volunteers engaging their neighbors. We should organize, not phone bank. Our turfs are small enough to do so.

Don’t limit this to just organizing. Our constituency outreach is one-size fits all, and often times turns off more people than it should. Our political outreach often times has no idea who the local electeds are. Our press teams spend way too much time on statewide and national press. In short, I think Democratic campaigns are too big and bloated in their structure, and broken in their execution. We got through that this time, because people worked hard and our candidate was made for this race. That won’t happen automatically again.

El oh el…

What I Got Wrong

In the beginning of this race, I said we needed to nominate Biden or someone like him, who could beat Trump in the close states- because I said then that Trump would get every vote of his 46% from 2016, if not more. I was right then, more so than I was right at the end. To this point, Trump has received nine million more votes than he did last time, and sits around 47.5%, a 1.5% upward shift. While his campaign and White House seemed inept, and he was polling around 41-42%, the fact is that this race played out very similarly- most of the undecided voters were actually for Trump. Trumpism was about more than a campaign or policies, but was inherently cultural. He proved much of the Democratic professional class wrong- you don’t need to quantify everything and be precise in every calculation to succeed politically. You can do it through blunt force and speaking directly to an audience motivated by things without a policy objective. Political incorrectness is what motivates their base, and we learned in this election that trying to match that turns off some of the folks we need to build a majority.

As I suspected, the demographic divides in our politics began to crumble. Biden made gains among white voters, seniors, suburbanites, and independents. Trump made gains among black men and certain Latino groups. Demographics were not destiny. I over-estimated the impact that would have in a few swing-states though- namely Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina. The truth is that the era of monolithic demographic movements is coming to an end. With that end, our politics will almost certainly re-align some more. This is probably good for Democrats, if they embrace it, as the GOP did not pay a price for their embrace of Donald Trump really.

There is another silver lining- I do not see another Donald Trump. He is their turnout machine, and he will not be on the ballot in 2022. while others will try to embrace Trumpism, I sincerely doubt their ability to do it. While he is morally troubling and intellectually lazy, Donald Trump is the greatest marketing mind on the planet and he managed to sell himself- an inexperienced, personally flawed, policy lightweight- as the symbol of political masculinity, the anecdote to political correctness, and the pushback to Obamaism is America. He knew there was no market for Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand crap, Cheney’s neocon wars, or even the moral smugness of much of the old school “Christian Conservatism” crowd. You may think a Tom Cotton, a Mike Pence, or Don Jr. can easily pick up his cause now, but you’ll likely find that is wrong. Much like Bill Clinton’s successors (Gore and Hillary) could not ride his popularity to the White House, and Barack Obama’s personal popularity didn’t push Hillary over in 2016, you’re likely to find its hard to find another Trump.

That’s all for now. I’ll gather this whole series up in one, later on.

32.

My current projection.

Rather than talking national polling in this post, we’ll focus on some state polling. Specifically the NYTimes/Siena polls showing Biden leading 49-42% in Pennsylvania and 47-42% in Florida. These polls are basically in line with other recent polling in both states. If you look over the recent Pennsylvania polling on RCP, Biden is averaging over 50% and leading by 6.4%, which is very close now to their national average. Biden is consistently hitting 49% across all the polls. In Florida, RCP has Biden leading by 2% at 47.8%-45.8%. He leads in all but one poll they used, though only once hitting 50%. In both states, the number of undecided is roughly 1 in 10, or less. Biden would probably carry Pennsylvania as is, but probably needs a slight bump to lock up Florida. In any case, Trump has huge problems in both. If he loses both? It’s over.

Meanwhile, the President remains hospitalized at Walter Reed. The campaign remains stopped in place. While I might give the edge to the North Carolina Senate race for weirdest race in the country this weekend, we’ve never seen a Presidential race like this. While people try to game out what will happen under each scenario, the truth is that we don’t totally know. This situation probably won’t move the decideds, but what will it do to undecided voters? It’s hard to game that out, but there’s a pretty good chance it won’t change the result.

So much is being made of the Biden campaign pulling down their negative ads. I know this isn’t what some people want to hear, but the decision makes sense. This is on brand for Biden. It also is highly unlikely Biden would gain using these ads during Trump’s hospitalization. Sure, Trump is continuing to attack- with the same garbage that hasn’t worked so far. Their campaign is a clueless operation. That’s why the polls are where they are.

Back this afternoon…

It Was Never About Trump

One of the most confusing things for the American left to understand is how Republicans keep supporting Donald Trump…

… and I get it, it doesn’t make so much sense. His personal life should disqualify him with Evangelicals, who carried George W. Bush politically. He’s blown a hole in the deficit, something that should have disqualified him with the alleged “fiscal conservatives.” He’s no Dick Cheney styled neo-conservative. In fact, the guy seems to have no real policy credentials or ideas. He’s flip-flopped on abortion rights, been inactive on his stated desire to bolster coal and fossil fuels, and even been largely ineffective on immigration. What exactly do they like about this guy? Why do Republicans continue to protect a guy cozying up to their one-time enemies in the Kremlin?

Do they like him? Like, for real? The polls say yes. Trump’s approval among Republicans routinely tops eight or nine out of every ten voters. Did they always though? No. Over the Summer of 2015, Trump’s approval within the GOP went up from 65% unfavorable to 57-40% approval to disapproval. Did anyone forget about who he was? Of course not. It was during that time that Trump upped his rhetoric on immigration and other cultural issues that drew Republican interest. It’s worth noting though, they knew all the stuff we knew, and they didn’t like him. But they could accept a person they didn’t personally approve of, once he was speaking their language. Indeed, they did by the Fall of 2015.

Eventually, Trump did win the Republican nomination, but he did so with 30% of the party’s delegates against him. Yet, today we regard his support as being like a cult. When did it change? Did it really? Is the GOP all in with him, really? Trump’s approval offers us a clue. Trump was elected with roughly 46% of the vote, but only 38% approval on that same day. At his lowest points in office, he has fallen about as far as 33% approval, and his ceiling has been just under his 46% vote share. A portion of the Romney 47% and McCain 46% that were solid GOP voters before, particularly suburban moderates, have become “never Trump” Democrats, helping them flip Congress. On the other hand, there was a near equal group of Obama-Trump voters who flipped from the Democrats in his favor. It’s fair to say that about 33% of the country love Trump, and intend to vote for him and Republicans across the board. It’s fair to say that there is another 5-7% of the country who usually approve of Trump, but are occasionally embarrassed by his antics. If you add these folks up, you get a 38-40% voting block that make up the base of the Republican Party. There is another 6% of the country that can’t bring themselves to say they like Trump, or the GOP for that matter, but generally end up voting that way in the end- because they prefer Republicans to Democrats. If you break down the full 46% that is the Trump coalition, you realize that about 13% (roughly very close to that 30% that opposed him at the convention) are less rock solid in their commitment to Trump. Democrats see this and wonder why these people don’t turn on Trump. Surely these fault lines in the party offer opportunity, right? Unless Democrats and the left are completely misreading Trump and his support- which they clearly are.

The choice these GOP voters made in 2016 was that they preferred a person they had problems with over Hillary Clinton, or for that matter a third-term of Barack Obama. They were not under any illusion about Donald Trump the person, or the political vision he put forward for the country on everything from immigration to climate change, to abortion rights and tax policy. This is why Trump has record setting negatives, as Clinton attacked his dirty language and personal character, but she could never quite put him away in the polls. They knew Donald Trump, good and bad. They were prepared to pick him over the Obama-Clinton Democratic Party. There was nothing about him that mattered.

As Democrats fret about impeachment polling not moving after hearings in the intelligence committee last week, it’s important to apply these past lessons- Trump’s coalition doesn’t care what Trump did. A solid 70% of them love whatever he does. The other 30% just don’t like the Democrats. Whether or not he was fair to the Ukraine isn’t going to suddenly awaken the “good” Republicans. Nothing about Trump will. Not his dirty language, his affairs, his love of Putin, or anything else. The policies don’t particularly matter. The man certainly does not.

The main animating principle of the Republican Party is opposition to the Democratic Party. The Republican base built by Trump is uniquely strong in the electoral college and U.S. Senate. This problem isn’t going away because Donald Trump did something bad. It was never about him anyway.

Understanding Republicans

One of the problems many Democrats have is that they don’t understand how they are different than the Republican Party, fundamentally. They look at Donald Trump, and they just can’t even fathom how 63 million people could vote for him. How could Evangelicals vote for a serial adulterer? How could Republican women vote for someone who doesn’t respect them? How could Second Amendment voters back a man who clearly isn’t a hunter? How could blue collar, lower educated voters back someone who doesn’t respect them? They view Trump through the relationship he has to his voters, and in that they miss what it means to be a Republican.

Democrats are defined as the “big tent” party, the patchwork quilt of different interest groups in the party, the “identity politics” party. They value diversity, and as a result have many different views of the world. Perspective is a part of being a Democrat. While not all Republicans are white men, all Republicans identify with “traditional majorities.” Black and Latino Republicans identify with the GOP majority through their work, their community, their class, and their religion. Indeed they view the world through those lenses. It’s precisely for this reason that Republicans circle the wagons in support of “the troops,” “the flag,” “police,” “Jesus” and other institutions that they view as representing traditionalism (note that I put these in quotations because these words only represent their interpretation of them). Because they have this shared identity among them, Republicans don’t spend a lot of time “pandering” to different demographics in their party, both because they aren’t plentiful and their voters aren’t particularly motivated by those divisions.

Democrats are a coalition of sometimes unaligned interest groups. As a result they try to build an intersectional ideology around common themes of justice, fairness, tearing down oppression, and destroying bigotries. Many times though, the identity driven divisions rear their ugly head.Since Republicans essentially have one shared “traditional majority” identity, they deal with this a lot less. Republicans are largely united by shared conservative ideology. There are certainly divisions between religious, economic, cultural, militant, and constitutional conservatives, but they are more differences of scale, style, and rhetoric, and less about actual policy. Republicans are fine with uniting after most messy primaries, because they’re all Republicans. Their values are shared.

The reality about Republicans is that their moderate-conservative divide is mostly a matter of posturing and messaging, and their voters are pretty much okay with it. A nasty primary is no reason to vote for a Democrat, because a Democrat does not share their values. Donald Trump emerged from a vicious primary with 17 competitors, flawed and all, and 90% of Republicans were willing to overlook whatever personal issues they had with his past behavior and beliefs, and still vote for him. Indeed, Trump failed to capture a majority of their primary vote, while Hillary Clinton won nearly 60% of her party’s, and yet it was Clinton that was dogged by divisions within the left, not Trump with the six in ten Republicans who didn’t support him in the primaries.

If we’re going to be fair, Trump has delivered Republicans the government they asked for, perhaps as well as any Republican in history. They got their tax cuts on wealthy people and corporations. Obama era regulations are being stripped away at record pace. Trump has delivered a packed federal judiciary of young, conservative judges, and two conservative Supreme Court judges who will be there for decades, cementing their control there. On immigration, Trump is at least attempting to deliver on the “hard border” policies they say they want. Sure, they have to put up with the semi-kooky trade talk, but he’s not really breaking up the corporate racket. Not only are Republicans getting the policies they wanted from Trump, his politics are a direct appeal to the white Democrats that felt most unhappy with their “place” in the Democratic coalition, the sort of political answer to the “Obama coalition” that can lead them to electoral college victories. The White House and cabinet are full of Republican operatives. He’s governing as a pro-life, anti-immigration, pro-gun, pro-corporate, big military Conservative. If all your here for is the ideology, you’re getting it from Trump.

Trump is delivering Republicans what they want, and as a result they’re following him. It’s why his approval among Republicans is over 90%, even as he’s underwater with everyone else. Oh sure, they “wish he wouldn’t tweet so much,” and he’s crass, and he’s “not Presidential,” but none of that stuff is what matters. He defeated the hated Clintons, he’s ripping apart the Obama legacy, and that is what’s important. He’s empowering their views on immigration and “American identity,” which again, is what matters. And most of all, he’s winning.

This is why the GOP has no one standing up to him- they realize they’ll be gone. Mark Sanford survived cheating on his wife and lying, but lost his 2018 primary for not being pro-Trump enough. Justin Amash’s weird views were tolerable, until he called for Trump’s impeachment, and now he’s had to leave the party. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and even Ted Cruz have had to bend the knee and accept and defend Trump. That would be the guy Trump published the phone number of, “Little Marco” and his small hands, libertarian Jesus Rand Paul, and of course, Lyin’ Ted, who’s father Trump said was involved in killing JFK. Supposed conservative brainiac Paul Ryan and much of the “moderate” wing of the House Republicans simply retired and went home, rather than fight back against the Trump brand. And Mitt Romney, who swore he was “Never Trump” in 2016? He’s bending over backwards to defend Trump in the Senate now. George P. Bush, the son of “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, the grandson and nephew of a President? He had to beg Trump for an endorsement and robo call on his behalf to continue the dynasty and survive the 2018 Texas primary for Land Commissioner. You’re not a Republican office-holder in 2019 if you’re unwilling to kiss the ring. There’s no constituency, no base of power for you.

Why are Republicans sticking with Trump? Democrats. The Democratic coalition is scary to them, it doesn’t share their values and world view. Democrats don’t share their views on capitalism, “western Christianity,” the English language, law and order, and just their general view of “Western Civilization.” They want to be a Christian, capitalist nation that speaks English. All the talk of “demographics are destiny” in the Obama era was (incorrect, for one) enough to freak them all out. They were willing to accept whoever could stop Hillary. Since he succeeded, they’re ready to stand behind him. It is really about “owning the libs” as much as anything else. John McCain and Mitt Romney’s “respectability politics” didn’t beat President Obama. George W. Bush’s entire Presidency lead to Obama. That brand of Republican was leading them to eventual defeat.

What of the “Never Trumpers” though? Notice a few things about the #NeverTrump crowd:

  1. Most of them were DC based staffers and consultants, not activists or elected officials.
  2. Most of them were regulars on cable news and other media outlets where they needed to maintain “respectability.”
  3. None of them, from Kasich to George Will, are influential in this White House, or even really working for the official GOP. I admire Rick Wilson and the whole crowd, but they’re as out of power as Hillary.

The #NeverTrump movement is not a thing in today’s Republican Party. They hold little influence. They represent less than 10% of the movement now. It turns out it wasn’t about their “small government” after all.

What Democrats can’t wrap their head around is what it all means. To conservative America, Trump’s flaws and imperfections are less important than what he’s delivering. They’re getting what they want in policy, rhetoric, and symbolism. He’s driving liberals literally insane. Do they necessarily like the tweets and racism? I don’t think they care at all either way. If that’s the price for the America they want, well they knew it wouldn’t come free. They’re not sitting around fretting over things that upset Democrats.

It’s worth noting that Democrats can and should defeat Trump in 2020, and should have in 2016. Democrats win the debate on a bunch of issues. They just happen to get defined by the issues they lose on. Rather than marketing themselves on the broadly popular things people like about them, Democrats are seen as having a debate between “identity politics” and socialists, and there’s not broad enthusiasm for either. Democrats are a coalition though, and you can’t yell at a portion of your coalition to sit down and shut up, or you end up in the food fight Speaker Pelosi has to have with “the Squad” a week or two ago. Frankly, Democrats constantly have to strike the balance between their different constituencies across the spectrum, or risk part of the coalition not showing up to vote. All the groups don’t just fall in line and march in lockstep.

The Republican Party has an easier base to manage, one that presents less consequences for their leaders when they make decisions. When you square this with their structural advantages, you understand why they’re able to be so effective. Their voters show up more frequently. They share an ideology. Voter “self-sorting” of where they live is an advantage for them. Half the population will live in eight states in twenty years, especially non-white voters, which should give them huge advantages in the Senate. When you dive into the entire psychology of American conservatism though, you start to realize that it’s just easier for their candidates to appease their whole base. This explains so much of why they seem more cohesive and organized than Democrats do.

A (Too Early) Look at 2020

November 8th, 2016 was shocking to a lot of people, but it should not have been. The Clinton campaign was built to maximize their total vote number, and it did, despite the candidate facing a number of challenges that were unique to her. The Trump campaign was built to maximize his swing state vote. Both succeeded. That gave Trump a win.

The Clinton campaign was very metric driven, producing huge call numbers and lots of volunteer shifts. Hillary’s campaign focused in on turning out the “Obama coalition.” Her travel scheduled focused on urban vote centers where the goal was turnout. She ran phenomenal vote numbers out of big cities- Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Miami- even as she lost swing states. She ran record breaking margins in the huge blue states (California and New York), and narrowed red states with large minority populations (Texas, Arizona, Georgia). The only candidate to get more votes than Hillary was Barack Obama- maybe the best political talent we’ve ever seen.

The Trump campaign made an early gamble that paid off- they could never get nominated in a conventional campaign, and the resulting “traditional” Republicans they lost in wealthy suburbs (the supposed “small government,” anti-tax breed) were less useful than the newcomers and Democratic converts they were targeting. Trump gambled that 90% of the 46-47% that had voted for McCain and Romney would stick with him, even as he ran harder on identity right-wing politics. With that base of about 42%, Trump took aim at Democrats that Hillary was less interested in- lower middle-class earning whites. He went after “Gephardt” Dem issues like global trade deals. He attacked illegal immigration, which Democrats used to decry as lowering wages. And he called her a war hawk. It didn’t hurt that Bernie Sanders attacked these same vulnerabilities in Hillary in the primary, but the strategy was very lucrative for Trump- those voters live disproportionately in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine- and Trump saw the benefits pay off in close state after close state.

Not much seems to have changed for 2020 so far. Trump is messaging to the exact same people so far. The only wrinkle in his strategy is an increase in talk about Israel, which clearly is meant to help him hold Pennsylvania and Florida. Democratic messaging hasn’t changed much either. Democratic messaging has focused on “expanding the base,” and increasing turnout. Both sides have largely doubled down on 2016. The result is a rather highly engaged electorate very early on- more people than ever say they will vote in 2020.

What can we gather from this? What will 2020 look like? I have some very early predictions about the electorate.

  • I expect turnout to be up from the 2016 number of 138 million to between 142-145 million voters.
  • I expect the electorate to be about 69% white and 31% non-white.
  • I expect the Democratic popular vote win to increase from about 3 million votes in 2016 to 5 million votes in 2020. I expect the Democrat to get about 72 million votes to Trump’s 67 million votes.
  • I’m predicting a 50% to 46% Democratic popular vote win.
  • Despite all of this, the election is no better than a toss up for Democrats. If I were a betting man, based on Trump’s approval taking a bump up after the first Democratic debate, I’d say he should be favored to basically hold around 300 electoral votes. He has a decent chance of holding his 306 from last time, and even expanding it. Re-running 2016 on both sides, or Democrats just trying to be “better” at it, is not likely to change anything. Trump’s current approval sits between 43 and 47%, while it was 38% on Election Day in 2016.

This runs counter to what you might think if you spend a lot of time interacting with progressive activists on Twitter, so it’s a bit jarring for many of us. The fact is that both sides are re-running the 2016 playbook, and I don’t see a lot of evidence that any Democrat is much (if any bit) stronger than Hillary. Of the 20 some candidates, my feeling right now is that there are three to maybe six with a chance to beat Trump. They’re not all polling at the top of the field. The chances that Democrats nominate someone who’s appeal is strong with all or part of the base, but not with swing voters, are real. If that happens, you could be looking at something slightly worse than 2016 for Democrats, an environment where Speaker Pelosi not forcing her endangered members to walk the plank early ends up paying off in preserving the Democrats as relevant in at least one chamber of the government.

The Five Big Things- 3. Tribalism and Nationalism

Race is not real. That’s not my opinion, that’s scientific fact. Genetics tell us that the real difference between white and black people is nothing. We created race. We created different religions. We created class. We created nations. And now those things separate us. There’s nothing inherent about our differences. We simply abide by them.

Untangling our demographic differences would be attempting to ignore the totality of modern human history. Wars, genocides, slavery, and apartheid has been committed in the name of our differences. Laws ban marriages and even interactions across demographic lines. Mick Jagger once depicted Satan as taking part in the Holocaust, the “Hundred Years’ War,” and the Russian Leninist Revolution. One can believe he would gleefully take part in some of the most divisive events in human history.

Nationalism and tribalism in general have served as rationalizations for some of the worst events in our world history. Today, tribalism serves as the driving force behind political isolation and gridlock in Western democracies. The “demonization of other” serves as a convenient way to scapegoat those who are different, and use them to explain away failures in society- and to inflict vengeance for them.

People don’t generally want to warm up to “being together.” Here in the United States nearly every group has faced bigotry and blame for societal issues. Obviously African-Americans faced slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism. Native Americans had the Trail of Tears, not to mention their land stolen by European settlers. Catholics faced the Klan. Eastern Europeans were subjected to “red baiting” throughout the Cold War. Japanese Americans faced internment camps after Pearl Harbor. European Jews were often denied asylum and left to die in the Holocaust. Even the Irish and Italians faced bigotry when they first got here. Americans like to celebrate Ellis Island and it’s symbolism, but rarely speak of it being shut down after the racist Immigration Act of 1923. It is not a wonder that people fear for Latino immigrants amidst talk of building walls on our southern border and separating young children from their parents. The same can be said for Muslim Americans amidst a “Muslim Travel Ban.”

American, and increasingly western politics in general are more divided than ever. Simply giving a person’s race, gender, education level, and religion can allow a skilled American political operative to guess their voting tendencies with relative ease. Nationalist movements are rising in places like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. White nationalists are speaking out in the United States. These divisions are incentivizing gridlock, as political parties find their supporters are increasingly likely to not support compromise with other political parties, whom they regard as less American than they are.

Nationalistic fervor, especially ethno-nationalism, does not lead to good outcomes. Populist movements and their scapegoating tendency do not lead to responsible policy making. Political tribalism and division do not lead to stable democracies and general acceptance of democratic norms as we knew them. To be fair, we can draw a direct line all the way back to the 1960’s that directs us to this moment. Leaders who continue to embrace these forces are not leading us to a better and more just future, no matter their intentions. They’re leading us towards a no-holds barred fight that leaves us less interested in the nation’s best interest, and more interested in our “tribe’s” best interest at the expense of the others. History tells us that’s when things get ugly.

Read big thing 2 here.

Read big thing 1 here.

Democrats are Easy to Hate

There’s a race for Mayor of Philadelphia on May 21st. Mayor Kennedy is probably going to get re-elected, but not because he polls well- his opponents are the pro-charter school State Senator he crushed four years ago and the City Controller who lost his primary for re-election just two years ago. Kenney’s own loss of popularity is somewhat tied to his passage of “the soda tax,” a well intentioned idea to fund Philadelphia Public Schools, which of course didn’t all end up going to the schools. Kenney’s standing in his former strongholds of South and Northeast Philadelphia don’t like it. He’ll probably win a very, very low turnout race by 20% though. There’s nothing to love.

The best way to sum up the public standing of Democratic Politics, both in Philadelphia and beyond, was the recent video of State Rep. Brian Sims having an altercation with a pro-life woman outside of a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. Intellectually speaking, I agree with Sims point. In fact, I usually agree with Sims, in terms of a political point. I probably agree with that woman on very little. Somehow, I watch the video though and feel like Sims was basically a dick, a liberal who wanted an altercation with a conservative, because she committed the crime of believing different stuff. It’s a bad look. This is particularly a quagmire because of the reality of the situation- lawmakers that woman votes for are passing bills like the Alabama and Georgia anti-abortion bills that will criminalize women for receiving constitutionally protected health care, and probably put the health of hundreds of thousands of women at risk. I get that. Yet, Sims makes the woman advocating for that the “victim” here, in the optics.

The Democratic Party, at it’s best, is the defender of the marginalized minority. We stand up for the rights and well-being of the disadvantaged, minorities, and those who are different than the majority of us. That would be those kids in the Philadelphia schools that Jim Kenney passed the soda tax for. That would be the women who need to have a choice, for their life and well being. It would be every African-American wrongfully shot by police officers. It would be the Asylum seekers we open our doors to, whether they be Bosnian or Guatemalan. It would be for all of us, when we fight to protect our environment. The Democratic Party that emerged from the 1960’s has been a party that fights for the marginalized, and that has been a valuable public service.

The problem has been pretty straight forward though- the other side has defined the American left as being against many of the institutions and norms that have been identified as “good” in American culture. Worse yet, they’ve done so by using the words and actions of those on the American left. Kenney’s soda tax shows he’ll “hammer the working class” to pay for the big ideas of “Center City liberals.” The Sims video reinforces that we hate religious people. Ilhan Omar’s use of traditionally anti-Semitic language to describe the Israeli lobby in the U.S. reinforces that “liberals hate Israel.” AOC’s release of a “white paper” on the Green New Deal that blames “cow farts” for climate change and calls for “economic support for people who ‘choose not to work'” was a treasure trove of reinforcement for stereotypes about Democrats. They’ve even managed to turn Black Lives Matter into Democrats hating police, only a quarter century after Joe Biden and Bill Clinton passed the COPS Act.

You can’t be against the local church, the hardworking police officers, a good steak on the grill, a bottle of “pop,” the state of Israel, the existence of national borders, and the basic existence of traditional, cultural norms, and win elections in most of America. Most Democrats aren’t, of course, but that is not the message being broadcast by Fox News, or virtually anyone shilling against justice and reform. That message worked for Nixon in ’68, Reagan in ’80, Gingrich in ’94, and Trump in ’16. It pulled people who voted for Barack Obama over to Trump, and it did so across most demographics. While it is important that we defend those who need it, it’s also important to remember that even most of our voters live fairly normal lives.

In poll after poll, Americans say they agree with Democratic positions on policy issues. That was even true in the exit polls in 2004 and 2016, the last two Republican Presidential victories. Democrats usually only lose the questions about leadership, relatability (who would you have a beer with), and honesty and conviction in our causes. Despite that, Republicans have controlled the White House for 32 of the last 50 years, the House for 20 of the last 26 years, and the Senate for almost 15 of the last 26 years. It turns out being “right” isn’t that important to winning elections and making change. Americans, despite their desire to see some changes and reforms, don’t hate their “way of life,” or view their culture as fundamentally flawed. We can argue the merits of how right or wrong they are, but that won’t change it.

My basic plea to Democrats is simple- stop sticking up for bad actions by those we deem as having good intentions or causes. It’s literally fueling the fire for the other side. As long as the voters outside of the big cities view us as dishonest brokers, who hate everything about their way of life, we’re going to continue to be electoral losers. As we saw with a disciplined message in 2018, lead by pros like Speaker Pelosi, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Demographics Won’t Save Us

Three facts:

  1. America is roughly a quarter century from the projected point where white people are no longer the majority.
  2. In 2040, roughly twenty years from now, half the country will live in eight states (CA, TX, FL, NY, IL, PA, NC, GA).
  3. When the country becomes majority-majority, at least 37 states will be majority white. That’s total population. Even more states will likely be majority white voters.

With those three facts, I think it is safe to say that demographics are not destiny. In 2020, demographics are a very real threat to actually doom the Democrats. Considering how far we are from reaching the point where current demographic politics tilt the other way, it’s fair to say that many of us will never see that day.

It’s also important to remember all the danger that can get done along the way. We’ve already seen the Voting Rights Act gutted of much of it’s enforcement powers, and now we’re seeing a real attempt to drive down Latino participation in the census by adding a “citizenship question.” If the Trump Administration is successful at curtailing legal immigration through draconian methods, including ending the lawful act of seeking asylum as we know it, the demographic future Democrats spoke of in the Obama years may be dramatically different. Couple all of this with Trump having won white millennials, and you can see the storm clouds.

All of this leads me to my main point here- Democrats shouldn’t rely on demographics saving them in 2020 or beyond. They need only look at their 2018 message and coalition to see their path forward to winning elections. It’s not division, but actually a broad agenda of progress. It’s not choosing who gets progress, but offering progress to the whole nation. This is hard for many activists, who deeply want to see accountability for the current disaster that is the GOP, and it’s voters. That’s a road to nowhere though. That’s not understanding why we lost in 2016. That’s believing that being right is more important than being practical. We should reject it.

Some Democrats Have No Idea Why They Lost In 2016

To hear my boss in North Carolina tell it, he actually thought we were going to win the Tar Heel state for Hillary Clinton deep into the night of November 8th, 2016. The numbers from Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, and Orange Counties, the backbone of Democratic power in the state, were hitting voter turnout and performance targets. Turnout was high statewide, presumably a good thing for Democrats. But it wasn’t enough. Democrats lost the battleground state by slightly less than 175,000 votes in the end.

In my native Pennsylvania, the story was similar. Hillary Clinton’s margin out of Philadelphia was greater than either of Bill Clinton’s, Al Gore’s, John Kerry’s or anyone else who won the state not named Barack Obama. She carried all four of Philadelphia’s “collar counties,” the former backbone of Republicans in the state, and in some cases carried them substantially. She carried Allegheny County (Pittsburgh area) by a margin exceeding President Obama’s. She carried places like Dauphin County (the state capitol) and Centre County (Penn State), something unthinkable when Gore and Kerry were carrying the state. Turnout was very high across the state. Like North Carolina, Hillary spared no efforts to win the state, visiting constantly.

The list of examples showing the same thing is fairly substantial. Hillary campaigned hard in Florida, and exceeded the early vote numbers that she was expected to need in almost every metropolitan area. She lost the state very close. Turnout was high, her margins in the cities were impressive, and yet every swing state seemed to break the same way. Yet the myth persists- Hillary’s campaign didn’t do enough to motivate the base Democrats and they didn’t do enough to spike turnout among “marginal” voters. Some Democrats insist that we must do this better to win in 2020. The facts would argue that we did this pretty well in 2016, AND that there may be only limited ability to do this better in 2020. Just about every candidate running would be lucky to match her performance among the base in 2020. I know, it’s a sobering thought, but the facts say this conventional talking point is wrong.

There’s also an equally false myth out there about Donald Trump- that he motivated tens of millions of new white “hillbilly” voters to turn out. Let me let you in on a little secret, he didn’t. Trump got a little less than two million more votes than Mitt Romney, which with the increased voter turnout, made for a 1% drop in the Republican share of the vote. Trump got the same percentage of the vote as McCain did in a blowout loss in 2008, which means he basically got the population growth difference. This may shock you, but basically if Clinton has received 49% instead of 48%, she probably would have won six more states, and an electoral blowout (provided they weren’t all in the big coastal blue states). Donald Trump actually had no special turnout machine, his margin was not a bunch of new white Republicans. His victory was actually fueled by key crossover Democrats in the swing states, and people disgusted with both that picked third party candidates.

The bitter truth is that Democrats lost the 2016 not because they didn’t do enough to motivate the base voters in Philadelphia, Cleveland or Charlotte, but because of voters they lost in Eastern North Carolina, Northeast Pennsylvania, Eastern Iowa, and suburban Milwaukee. Our ability to win them back isn’t the only factor that matters in 2020, but it is a very big one.