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.

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.

How Trump Gets Re-Elected

It’s 3am, the wee early hours of Wednesday, November 4th, 2020. You’re continuing to click refresh on the New York Times/Politico/MSNBC’s election results site, trying to make sense of the results. Donald Trump has been re-elected, despite losing the popular vote by a record margin for a victorious U.S. President, a margin the commentators are saying “will approach 5 million votes.” Democrats narrowly came up short of re-taking the Senate, winning 49 or 50 seats, but narrowly coming up short in three other pick-up opportunities. While it looks like Democrats will hold the House, they will lose seats, and Donald Trump is claiming a mandate. There are real fears that Trump will not only get to replace Clarence Thomas on the high court, but also liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The commentators talk of impending doom for Democrats on television.

You watch as ugly scenes break out in the streets of several major U.S. cities. The cable news shows continuously show the crying faces of young campaign workers at the Democratic nominee’s election night party. While this time they didn’t schedule a fireworks show to cancel, the look of shock seems to be hanging on the faces of Democratic pundits all night. How could they be so wrong? Democrats won nearly all the individual issues in the exit polls. Turnout was up among the electorate at large, reaching 140 million for the first time. Minority and youth turnout even went up. How did this happen?

By the slimmest of margins, Trump held onto Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona, six states he held by under 500,000 votes in 2016. Trump also managed to flip Minnesota and New Hampshire, and still may flip all of Maine to go with his ME-2 victory. While he lost New York and California by record margins, and saw his margins in Texas and Georgia shrink, Trump seemed to hold on in all of the swing states. His growing margins in red America enabled him to get to 46%, losing the popular vote by 4%. The Democratic nominee is being savaged by pundits for going too far left, while their defenders point to increased turnout and margin as proof that the nation wanted change.

It’s all you can do to watch the clips of Trump’s defiant victory speech and not scream at the television. What happened to America? It just doesn’t feel fair.

**********

I’m probably not as excited about the 2020 field of Democratic Presidential candidates as most people reading this. I like something around a dozen of them. I also think only something like 3-5 of them are electable. Half of the 24 candidates have a roughly 0% chance of being nominated, and should not have been allowed on a debate stage (I’m looking at you, Tom Perez). We still have the non-Democratic cancer from Vermont in our primary field to wreak havoc, and he still won’t promise to support the nominee without pre-condition. I can see the fault lines that could shift beneath our feet.

We have a front-runner who can’t get out of his own way. We have another who has a “white paper” for everything, a treasure trove for GOP operatives to cherry pick and misrepresent. We have another who has twice said she would kill private insurance altogether in her advocacy of Bernard’s “Medicare for All” plan, and the requisite tax increases. Mind you, these are three candidates I really like, and would happily vote for, both in the primaries and general election. But our first set of debates not only featured the whole field saying they would give undocumented people health insurance on the government dime (without the opportunity to explain why that’s smart policy, no less), but had a debate over 1975 busing policy, complete with a states rights position and one candidate basically calling the other a cop. It wasn’t our party’s strongest hour.

The Democratic Party definitely is moving left, for a variety reasons- misreading Bernie’s success in 2016, addiction to grassroots fundraising from online activists, a falling share of elder white voters and rising share of other groups, and the natural propensity of Democrats to want to move left after tough defeats. The debate put that on full display. The group think in DC is that Hillary lost because she didn’t excite “the base.” Hillary did of course win the popular vote by 3 million votes and get more votes than anyone not named Barack Obama in our history. 2016 turnout was also record breaking. Hillary’s margins in places like metro Philadelphia and Wake County (Raleigh) were historic though, and suggest the group think. Hillary lost because virtually every swing voter broke against her at the end of the campaign, thanks to a lot of factors. What you have to ask yourself is this: do you think those swing voters were mad Hillary wasn’t further left? If you punt on those voters, can you really find enough new voters in the base to offset that? The answer may not be what you like.

Maybe a more useful question to ask is *who actually makes up the electorate in the swing states?* In the swing states Hillary won- Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada in particular- a good chunk of the “rising electorate” of minorities and youth is present. In states where she lost or dramatically underperformed President Obama- Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine particularly- millions of older white and moderate voters switched sides or turned out as new voters for Trump. The states of North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona are all states that were very close and have both characteristics in them- but they all went for Trump. It would suggest that if both parties pump up their base, Democrats will win the popular vote comfortably, but probably not the election. The Trump base is what exists more widely in the swing states. If Democrats want to win the electoral college, they will have to persuade some people not in live with the party.

**********

Donald Trump can be re-elected, and he won’t need a majority to do it. That’s the breaks of our federal system. He can do it by inciting fights over the Betsy Ross flag, school busing, women’s soccer players that 80% of his base never heard of (and 100% instinctively dislike), and immigration. It’s all culture wars, maybe 10% policy, and it requires little to nothing in thought. Trump will call it all “socialism”- identity politics, tax increases, and big spending- and his base will eat it up. We already saw this happen in this year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

While Trump himself is incapable of coherent policy statements, it’s important to understand the ideological shift he represented. He moved himself into the space politically we might call “Gephardt Democrats.” He attacks global trade deals as being anti-worker (even as he makes them worse). He echoes past Democratic rhetoric on immigration, saying “illegal immigration” hurts wages (though we know he doesn’t care about that). He talks of wanting to avoid war through diplomacy with North Korea (and Russia), echoing in his own incoherent way non-proliferation talk. It sounds like Democrats of only a generation ago, even if it’s all nonsense and jibberish. Meanwhile he gets out of the way as more progressive Democrats tear down Democratic leaders of just a few years ago, from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden. A lot of the “Trump-Obama” voters liked those guys and voted for them. Now they hear major Democratic candidates trash them, and the positions of the “Gephardt Democrats,” and they come away with the impression that Democrats are at least as crazy as the Republicans. As Trump sounds a nationalist alarm, he sounds at least like he “cares” about them, to them, while Democrats argue whether they should even bother with them. The results are a small, but catastrophic shift across the swing states towards Trump. Sure, he’s losing Manhattan and Chicago by record-setting margins. He was going to lose them anyway. He only cares about the voters in the states that matter to his electoral pathway.

***********

To be clear, I do believe the Democrats can and should win in 2020. Donald Trump’s approval is not very high. It doesn’t take much to flip six states in 2020- for less than 500,000 votes, Democrats could win over 330 electoral votes and deal Trump a crushing defeat. With a half decent campaign, Democrats could take the whole government, actually. I’m just not betting the house on it. Impeachment, a hijacked message from younger House members, more debates with fringe figures and subject matter like the first one could derail 2020.

Like I said, don’t bet the house on it.

All the Things Democratic Campaigns are Getting Wrong

It was Friday. I wanted some intel on a Presidential campaign I’m interested in working for. I got in touch with an organizer in Iowa to ask about her day. Her response? She’s in the office, calling through a volunteer list. Just as the other days. The scene this young lady described to me was not unusual, it was in fact very similar to what friends on other campaigns I’ve talked to have described. This makes it no less disturbing to me.

The Democratic campaigns for President have not yet, on the whole, made it clear they understand the mistakes of the Clinton campaign in 2016. This is not an alarm that I think they’re hopeless, or that Trump is a lock to win, it’s simply an observation of weakness that I’m making from more experience than some of the folks put in position to screw this up (thus far).

What are some of the failures I’m seeing? What should be different? I’ve compiled a small list of the things that stand out:

  1. The DNC and the campaigns are joining forces to ruin the future of digital organizing. An organizer in Iowa said to me “with all the young people online, we need to meet them there.” She’s right, but that’s not what we’re doing with digital organizing. We’re using digital as an ATM. Why? Because someone at the DNC decided grassroots donors would be a good metric for access to the first debate. Why? I guess because Bernie did it well in 2016- as though Bernie 2016 was the ideal campaign. Turning digital organizing entirely into an arm of the finance department makes zero sense when you look toward a future where actual organizing online will be an essential part of campaigns, but I guess burning a major potential future tool on an unsustainable model now is cool to someone.
  2. Organizers should organize, not just phone bank. The HFA organizing model had one main goal- produce enormous numbers. It did that. What it didn’t do was produce neighborhood organizing teams, or persuade swing voters in any of the decisive swing states. It was built off the idea that the election was purely a turnout battle, that there weren’t really any undecided people to persuade, so the most important thing to do was hit huge numbers, assuming that would cause higher turnout. The entire premise of the program was wrong. Clinton somehow won the popular vote by three million votes, but fell short in the six closest states by under a half million votes. As dumb as I thought the program was for a general election, it’s even dumber for trying to win an Iowa Caucus. Caucuses are all about personal relationships, getting quality captains, and the overall quality of your organizing work- not raw quantity. Unless you’re going to have paid staff at every caucus site in the state, it’s absolutely crucial that you build the best, most motivated, most strategic grassroots leadership teams in each caucus site, so that they know what to do on caucus night and have a plan to get it done. Organizers need to spend their daytime hours out, meeting with the people who may potentially be their caucus captains out there leading the charge. Build the relationships. Build the plan. Train them. You don’t do that phone banking.
  3. Bernie’s policies are not what helped him in 2016. Bernie Sanders didn’t get over 40% of the vote in 2016 because people loved his policy on Medicare-for-All or free college. A huge chunk of his votes came from people who didn’t want to vote for Hillary. Some of them were more moderate voters who have since peeled off to Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and others. Some were more ideological lefties that now are dividing between Bernie and Elizabeth Warren. Even so, a majority of Democratic primary voters ultimately voted for Hillary. Why so many candidates thought it was smart to chase him on policy issues is beyond me. Why they’ve all chosen to accept his paradigm, of eschewing major Democratic donors and pledging to take “no PAC or lobbyist money,” is beyond me (note- unions and liberal aligning organizations have PACs and lobbyists too). Much of Bernie’s support was built off of personal feelings toward Hillary, not specific policy issues. Trying to replicate that in a race with different people is idiotic.
  4. Make your damn candidates accessible. One of the reasons Hillary never got the benefit of the doubt in her campaigns was that the press didn’t like her. One of the main reasons they didn’t like her was that she never was overly accessible, and when she did talk she was often safe. People aren’t that ideological, and they aren’t policy experts. They do like authenticity, some real answers, and to hear from their leaders. And the press are junkies for access, and will treat candidates differently who give them their fix. Give interviews. Have your candidates tweet. Do all the social media. Try to make them fun.
  5. People want something positive. The percentage of the population with whom shitting on Donald Trump is a motivator is fairly baked in. Hillary got 48% running ads about what a bad man Trump is, and that wasn’t enough, as appalling as that is. If you’re going to win in 2020, it’s going to take something more. Speaking to the base, trashing Trump, and praying for demographics to win the election for you aren’t going to work. Put forth a bigger vision, speak to more people, and give people some hope again. Bill Clinton gave them hope. Barack Obama gave them hope. Hell, even Donald Trump in his crude way asked “what the hell do you have to lose?” If you want to win the election, go with something positive and hopeful.

That’s my two cents at least.

When the Idiots Rise

Legislative work is hard. The people who work at the top levels, both leadership members and their senior staffs, are highly skilled operators. They can count votes with the best of them. They know the rules inside and out. They also know how to read a poll. They are, at their core, political beasts. They understand public sentiment, particularly in their endangered members’ districts. They understand how an appropriations bill can help a member, and how a tax bill can kill the same member. Not everything is about getting their absolute way, they consider politics at the core of their decision making, because they understand that when you are losing elections, you lose all political power, because you can’t govern.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true of everyone in the legislative or political processes. In fact, increasingly, most of the folks in the process are clueless to all of this. Restrictive campaign finance laws and self imposed campaign fundraising rules have empowered single-issue interest groups to do the heavy lifting of financing candidates for higher offices. Individual legislators represent increasingly homogeneous, “safe” districts where their chief concern is a primary challenger, so they wish to “represent their districts,” at the expense of party functionality and winning elections on the whole.

It’s out of this climate that most of the people working within the political process arise. Operatives who are increasingly just glorified activists, people living in their confirmation bias bubble. If something in the process gets in the way of their goals, they argue it’s time to blow up the process- regardless of the potential downfall. Some of these folks honestly believe they can have their cake and eat it too, that there’s a way to do whatever you want, and never have to live with the consequences of the other side doing it to them in the future. They have no sense of history, of why certain laws are the way they are. They think compromise is both bad and unnecessary. They think there’s a clear majority for their full ideological agenda. They believe persuadable voters aren’t worth the effort, and aren’t needed anyway. Some of these folks aren’t just low level, rookie organizers. Some are sitting in formerly important jobs, like chiefs-of-staff.

Gerrymandering and voter self-sorting, flawed campaign finance systems, significant barriers to working in the political system for “commoners,” and confirmation biased media are just a few of the poisonous factors destroying our politics. This “fantasy land” of politics has created a situation where some stone cold morons have risen in our system, and some very bad ideas have become the group think of the enlightened village of Washington, DC. Operatives who couldn’t survive five minutes in a swing district or a swing state read off of polls they don’t understand and pontificate about how the answer to electoral woes in those areas is to either ignore them or do more of the prescription they wanted to do in the first place. They talk of national trends in a nation with no national elections. They talk of what the base wants, when they can’t build a base that constitutes a majority in swing districts and swing states. They talk of issues that draw passionate responses at rallies, but can’t build a winning coalition out in the states. They’re, in a word, clueless.

What’s worse though? These voices find followings among the passionate activist class. You hear people say they really wish Nancy Pelosi, the most effective political leader in the Democratic Party right now, should be more like freshmen members of her caucus who haven’t passed a single major piece of legislation yet. You hear activists defend legislators who can’t pass legislation of any kind by attacking the process and “the establishment.” It’s like a cancer of ignorance is spreading on our politics.

Believe it or not, political gravity still exists. Most voters are not as ideological as those of us in the process are. In fact, the best rule a political operative should live by is a pretty straight-forward one: we are all weird. Those of us inside the process don’t represent a majority of anything. It’s why we so often fail to inspire the mass uprisings of the people we espouse wanting. I would argue right now that our politics simply don’t connect to most of the people. The result is a rising idiot class leading our politics right off of a cliff that will not be pretty for our future.

The American Left and All the Wrong Lessons Learned in 2016

To hear it be told, Hillary Clinton lost because she couldn’t turn out enough base Democratic voters. To hear it be told, she couldn’t turn them out because she didn’t have the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party, she must have run as a pro-corporate shill. Turnout wasn’t way up over 2012. She didn’t win the popular vote. She didn’t get the most votes of anyone not named Obama ever. She didn’t run abnormally high numbers out of Philadelphia, or win it’s suburbs, or win a huge number out of Wake County (Raleigh), or cut the margin in Texas by a million votes (mostly by turning out new Latinos), or hit all the early vote numbers in Florida that she supposedly needed to win. By that matter, all the unabashedly progressive candidates in swing and red states won in 2016 and in 2018 by running to her left, and Senator Feingold is calling on Minority Leader Schumer to step aside and let AOC show us how it’s done in the Senate!

Sssssttttttttttaaaaaahhhhhppppp it ya comedian!!!

The new logic out of socialists and social justice lefties alike is that any candidate running for President that moderates (they’re all basically looking at you Joe, even if they’re boo’ing Delaney and Hickenlooper off the stage) is damned to lose, because that’s what Hillary did, or at least she did it in their story, so now we need to not do it again. To hell with the majority of Democrats wanting a moderate. To hell with how poor impeachment polls, do something, Nancy! It’s time for Democrats to push left. We want to believe Hillary didn’t push left, even though she did, and we want to blame her not giving us a pony for her defeat. Got it? Never mind that she was the more liberal primary candidate on domestic policy in both of her campaigns for President. To hell with facts.

Even if we take them at face value, does being perceived as moving left actually work? Sure, AOC got elected in a district in Queens and the Bronx, and some other unabashedly liberal new members have won in Silicon Valley, Detroit, and the Twin Cities lately, but what’s that got to do with winning nationally? How did Russ Feingold do in Wisconsin? How did moving left end up in Florida, Georgia, or Texas last year? Did Bernie actually lose the nomination by 15%, or was it just under? How has Medicare-for-All done at the ballot box, like say in Colorado in 2016? Did Ben Jealous win? I could go on.

Hillary Clinton did about as well as could be expected at turning out the Democratic base in 2016, given the circumstances. No one can be expected to follow Barack Obama and match his numbers in some key constituencies. She had serious baggage from a quarter century of attacks on her character. She wasn’t the kind of natural politician Obama or her husband were. She was the first woman nominee, and did face serious sexism. Bernie did inflict damage on her with the left. There was a Comey letter. Wikileaks happened. Her campaign did make some major strategic mistakes. Russia did act against her. Despite all that, she basically matched President Obama’s 2012 raw vote count. She did win the popular vote by nearly three million votes and two points. Despite everything, Hillary Clinton did well by every metric that wasn’t the important one- the electoral college.

Let us be clear, Hillary Clinton won astounding victories in big blue states like New York, California, and New Jersey. She made up significant ground in large red states like Texas, Arizona, and Georgia by turning out new voters, particularly non-white voters. Turnout in the 2016 Election was at a record high. Enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, pure passion that turns out voters, was high. She did appeal to blue state America, as was evidenced by her raw vote numbers and margins in the blue bastions of America. Let’s stop beating around the bush here- Hillary Clinton did not lose because of, nor did she have a problem with turning out the base of the new Democratic Party coalition of non-white voters, unmarried women, and educated white voters. There’s no evidence that taking more progressive positions would have appeased the Berniecrats and far leftists. There’s no track record that those policies are any more electable in big statewide contests that decide the Presidency.

So why the hell did she lose then?

If Hillary Clinton had a special electoral problem with any specific group of voters in the electorate, she had it with swing voters in swing states. For the most part, it could be summed up as “Reagan Democrats,” though that’s probably too general in description. These voters are pretty common though in some of the swing states she narrowly lost- Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin obviously, but also Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Iowa have plenty of the non-college educated, traditionally Democratic white voter. Maine, New Hampshire, and Minnesota only narrowly avoided flipping for basically the same reasons as well. It’s too generalized to call them all “Reagan Democrats” in the traditional sense, because there were different religions and even to a small extent races and genders involved in this subtle movement. They were mostly white though. They were in some cases Obama voters. They were less ideological voters. They were less partisan. They mostly didn’t live in center city of a major metropolitan city.

There’s absolutely no evidence that moving leftward will move these voters. History tells us that these voters aren’t overly moved by policies- they supported action on climate change and Obamacare in 2007 and 2008, before opposing those policies in 2009 and 2010, but re-elected President Obama in 2012. John Kerry won nearly every issue in the 2004 exit polls before losing the election. Again, they’re not ideological.

So what did they not like about Hillary, or for that matter John Kerry or Al Gore? For one thing, they found her, and them, to be less than authentic. They didn’t believe they would “fight for them.” They were all questioned on their honesty and integrity. They were all called “boring,” and lost the “would you like to have a beer with this candidate” question. All were viewed as smart and qualified, but lacking in integrity and charisma. Go back into the 1980’s, and even the 1970’s, and it typically holds up. Contrast this with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom won twice, and both of whom were viewed like rockstars by the public.

What about Barack and Bill though- were they progressives? In truth, they were on some issues, but both basically ran as center-left candidates. Neither of them made overt appeals to leftists. While Barack did benefit from being anti-Iraq War and Bill was viewed as pro-working class, neither did much of anything to reach Nader or Stein voters. So would Hillary have benefitted from going harder left? Considering she had the “most progressive” party platform in history, and still lost some of their votes, I think we already know the answer to that. Winning elections, for Democratic Presidential candidates, has had nothing to do with presenting bold, left policies.

Every losing Democratic nominee since Humphrey has faced questions about their honesty, their authenticity, and their ability to connect to voters. Every winner has been likable and authentic. All three Democrats who have won the White House in that time were center-left to centrist. All three were likable and were coming in to fix a mess. The trends are clear, and none of them are matching up with what the American left seems to want 2020 to be about.

Of course, one of our great talents in the Democratic Party is never understanding why we actually won. We look at 2008 and 2012 and want it to be about the “rising new electorate,” while not admitting to ourselves that the Obama campaign was successful in ruthlessly tearing down the McCain and Romney tickets in the swing states, essentially winning them all. We want 2008 to be purely about our success in electing women, rather than looking at who those women were- veterans, prosecutors, corporate attorneys, and other professionals in traditionally male-dominated businesses- a collection of tough women that swing district voters liked.

So now the working theory of the lefties at the Justice Democrats and in AOC’s office is starting to largely sync up with the working theory that governed headquarters in Brooklyn during Hillary’s campaign- we’ll grow our way out of this political mess. It’s cheaper, more efficient, and allows us to move our message left if we target turning out more people like the voters we win now, growing our base. Chasing swing voters forces us to equivocate on some issues, costs more, and is harder. It makes Democrats feel better too, it forces no self-reflection on how we’re doing and if we’re contributing to a destructive political culture. We can be loud and proud, and believe the future will be better for us.

This future is an electoral hellscape though. In 2020, Texas is still a million votes away (based on 2016), and Georgia is still a reach. The battleground map, at a minimum still runs through Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, Ohio, and Iowa, all states that Trump won in 2016. Meanwhile the Trump campaign will zero in on flipping Minnesota, New Hampshire, Maine, New Mexico, and Nevada, and may even get a few. The Senate map for 2020 is narrow too, and offers the Democrats a half dozen real opportunities to flip three seats, most of which are in swing states. In the long term, perhaps Democrats do eventually turn Georgia and Texas blue, while Arizona becomes a swing state not unlike Nevada or North Carolina. But do Republicans turn Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine into red states?

The future isn’t going to be won this way. Following the AOC’s of the world, on policy, politics, style, and substance, will yield popularity in blue districts and blue states, but America is not New York, politically. In 20 years, half the country will live in less than ten states, and close to 40 states will have white voting majorities. Demographics are not destiny. Socialism as an ideology is not the answer. We did very well at what we did in 2016, by every metric not called the electoral college, but building up our base is not a strategy to win Wisconsin. It’s not even necessarily a strategy to win Florida. For one thing, you have to go to swing voters and actually campaign to them. Two, you need to authentically talk values, not just give them increasingly less realistic policy proposals that aren’t going to pass Congress. Being “bold” about things we can’t deliver isn’t going to solve much.

Political parties are a collection of what they want to be though. If the Democratic Party wants to be incapable of consistent electoral victories when we don’t have a JFK like talent, we’ll get our wish. Putting forward a likable, authentic, realistic Presidential candidate in 2020 will get us much further than throwing red meat to our base.

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.

About Electability

We are now far enough into the 2020 Election that I can feel comfortable saying this- stop dismissing electability. To be clear here, this is not to say you should accept overly basic, thoughtless analysis that says only a white man can beat Trump, but if you’re going to make an argument that runs contrary to current head-to-head polls, it should not begin with “don’t discuss electability.” The fact is electability is literally the most important thing in the 2020 primaries, and it has to be a concern. If you’re a Democrat, and you happen to believe that representing Democratic voters is actually an important thing, then you have to win elections. Parties that lose elections don’t get the power to do anything. Period.

Polling right now suggests that Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke are the most electable candidates. That’s powerful evidence. While I despise him, Bernie Sanders does overcome cratering personal numbers yet, when matched up with Trump (For now. Wait until the negatives start.). This isn’t the final and definitive say on electability though. You can argue, for instance, that while Amy Klobuchar is a relative unknown yet today, her winning track record in Minnesota shows an electable candidate. You could argue that Kamala Harris has a track record of winning major statewide elections, and will mobilize Democratic base voters better than anyone else. You can argue that Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has been the best run to this point, and his ascent shows a special talent that is unique. Argue whatever you want. Don’t try to skip out on an electability argument though.

Beating Donald Trump is actually, most likely going to be really hard. Elections this century suggests that a Republican nominee starts with a floor of 46%, regardless of who they are, or what they run their campaign on. Democrats start at 48%, but are totally capable of losing the electoral college to a Republican holding their base, at this level. President Obama won his elections with 53% and 51%, and still was winning most of the swing states fairly close. It’s worth noting also that while he did turn out the base, he also spent hundreds of millions of dollars appealing to blue collar white voters by beating the bejesus out of McCain and Romney on the economy in swing states. Democratic Presidents have to be able to do two things at once to win an election. If they can’t both energize Democrats and win over the bulk of the 6% of the country not in either column to begin with, they will lose the electoral college. Full stop. Losing candidates can’t protect your health care, keep children out of cages, or do anything at all about climate change.

Maybe that electability thing actually does matter, doesn’t it?

Where There Aren’t Good Guys

I made the newspaper this weekend- the Saturday front page. Before any of you congratulate me, don’t. A candidate I was doing social media for politically got hit with a rocket, and her campaign is a mess. Basically, she probably supported Donald Trump. That’s not a good idea when you want the Democratic Nomination for District Attorney.

Without boring you with the details too much, the candidate is currently the Chief Public Defender of Northampton County, appointed by the Democratic County Executive. She’s been a significant donor to Democrats such as our Congresswoman, State Senator, current District Attorney, County Executive, and Mayor of the County’s largest city. I had served with on the transition team that built the current county government. She switched parties in November to make this run, which really wasn’t the best thing politically, but I took her at her word that she wasn’t a Trump supporter in 2016. There were rumors during the race of her support and having aTrump sign in her yard, but those were denied too. Then the picture above surfaced, suggesting strong reason to doubt those denials. I resigned last week, quietly. I felt it was the appropriate thing to do.

That’s all context, not really the point of why I’m writing this. In so far as I can tell it, that race is over- Trump is a non-negotiable in a Democratic Primary. I don’t have much more to say about the race. Since I’m involved though, I have a few thoughts:

  1. When neighbors are in conflict over a political race, our politics are dangerously toxic. This whole story happened because the candidate’s neighbor took pictures of the sign on her door. She did that because they had altercations during and about the 2016 Election. I’ll be charitable here- it’s weird to take pictures of your neighbor’s political signs to use against them later. Like, that’s the kind of thing that makes me want lots of space and no neighbors. Yes, this person supported Hillary (like I did, as an employee of her), but I still find this concerning. You know what concerns me more though? Neighbors being in conflict over an election. This isn’t healthy. Most of you will never spend two minutes in conversation with a Presidential candidate. You shouldn’t be so emotionally invested in them that you’re ready to drop the gloves with your neighbors over them, or in this case, fight over yard signs. Trust me, I have spent time with candidates.
  2. Candidates, please don’t omit things when talking to your team, just because you don’t want them to get out. Yes, you did something bad before. Maybe you slept around, or you were a big partied when you were young, or you fell behind financially (I know nothing about these sins). If you have no past, particularly no negative past, voters should seriously doubt you and examine you. Obviously if you’re a convict, it might disqualify you (I’m not sure anymore). Here’s the reality though- whatever it is, it’s coming out in your campaign. Assume it. Own it. Put your spin, your story on it first. We all make mistakes. You voted for Trump? That was your choice. Tell us that, and why you changed, before someone else tells us about it. They don’t have the context you have. They won’t be nearly as kind to you as you will be.
  3. If you want to have a political “change of heart,” actually have it and present it to the public. The problem with switching political sides is that it’s usually one of two reasons- either your party has changed to the point you can no longer support it, or you’re an opportunist. Sometimes, it can even be both. The problem is, to claim it’s something actually changing and not naked opportunism, you need to get out ahead and explain it. You need to explain the catalysts for your move. You also need to stay consistent then. You also need to not get caught in any lies. Basically, be honest and transparent.
  4. It’s amazing what decides elections. A three year old yard sign trumps (pun intended) the policy positions, debates, qualifications, and speeches. Our politics are so tribal, so toxic, that anything that casts doubt on you personally matters more than what you’re running for. I’m not saying personal failings shouldn’t be a consideration, but I’m also saying we all have a lot of them. Whether they’re personal, financial, or past associations, we all have things we shouldn’t be proud of, or we haven’t lived. In this case, it’s a yard sign. Should it have mattered? Actually, probably, yes. But we should be generally more measured in reacting to these things.
  5. Operatives should never consider it a good day when they’re in the press doing anything but representing their candidate. I saw my name in the paper and cringed, and that was in spite of the fact the writer was really nice to me. She quoted me properly and presented me evenly. The point is that I’m not the candidate. Not the star. Not the story. And I don’t really want to be. I want to go to work, do my job, and be done. There’s no score worth settling, publicly, nor should anyone want to read me trashing a former client. And I didn’t. But I still didn’t want to be a story.

God speed, America. God speed.