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An Agenda and Narrative That Wins Elections

This blog post is partly about politics and partly about economic policies that will expand America’s middle class and make it more prosperous in the modern era. The story of the 2014 election was that Democrats can’t succeed at the former without succeeding at the latter. A Democratic strategy, that is superb and state of the art on voter targeting and turnout, can’t succeed if you haven’t delivered the goods to the generally younger and less prosperous people you are trying to turn out. Carefully refined political positioning and focus group tested ads won’t win swing voters, if those swing voters haven’t felt the benefits of you being in office. And economic policies that deliver better stock prices and profits to businesses, and even create a fair number of new jobs, don’t feel to voters like prosperity when they never get a raise or when those new jobs being created pay low wages. To be clear, Democrats don’t deserve all or most of the blame for an economy that still punishes the poor and middle class 7 years into the economic crisis that began building in 2007 just because Obama has been president for most of those years — not even close. It was George W. Bush’s policies and regulators who led us into economic collapse while cluelessly ignoring the bright red warning signs flashing everywhere around them. And the Republican House and Republican Senators in the last 4 years who blocked good policies that would have helped create more jobs and raise a lot of workers’ wages (infrastructure spending, minimum wage increase, etc) deserve a great deal of the blame. But the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was the one who pushed for the most massive deregulation of the financial industry in modern history, and Obama’s made a series of decisions that haven’t helped either — failing to restructure Wall Street excess when he had the chance to in 2009, agreeing to a program of extreme austerity when the economy was still severely damaged in 2011, and keeping his executive actions to raise wages and spur the economy much more modest than they could have been over the last 2 years. And beyond the facts on what Obama has or hasn’t done on the economy, when you are presiding over an economy this bad at raising wages, you are going to get most of the blame from the voters. So let’s talk about the politics first, starting with the Rising American Electorate (RAE) that Democratic strategists like Stan Greenberg frequently talk about — African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, unmarried women, and voters 30 years old and younger. In the Obama years, and in the Democratic wave election of 2006 that was a precursor to Obama’s decisive 2008 victory, those voters have tended to be Democratic base voters, although there are more swing voters in those demographic categories than many casual observers realize. The problem for us as a party is that if you look at what has happened to these constituencies income, net wealth, job prospects, amount of student debt, and political rights during the Obama presidency, they haven’t done very well. If you want to look at why those constituencies didn’t vote in higher percentages, or gave a lower percent of their vote to Democrats in 2014, you can clearly start with that as an explanation. Yes, it is true — and important to point out — that Republicans’ policy prescriptions are a lot worse for all those constituencies than Democrats, but at some point we also have to deliver some tangible benefits to our voters. The RAE is central to any Democratic prospects for the foreseeable future. We have to deliver on policies that tangibly improve their lives. We have to cultivate, motivate, register them to vote, and turn them out to vote. But for at least another couple of generations, especially in non-presidential election years but even in presidential election years too, we still have to do relatively well with the white working class voters that used to be the foundation stone of the old New Deal majority. The numbers don’t add up in swing Presidential states like OH, PA, MI, WI, IA, NH, or MN, which tend to be a little too old and a little too white to win 51 percent of the vote with a political calculus geared mostly around the RAE. The fact is we won these states in 2008 and 2012 not only because we did so well at turning out RAE voters to vote and winning strong percentages of them, but because we did respectably among white working class — mostly because of the herculean efforts of the labor movement. Similarly, a RAE-centric and Obama-centric strategy doesn’t add up to wining a majority of the Senate, where Democrats have an overwhelming majority of seats in states won by Obama, 41-11 but we still have to win some seats in the 24 states carried by Romney: if Landrieu loses, there are only 5 Democrats among those 48 Senate seats. And even if you were to lessen the impact of gerrymandering, which has been a fact of political life since the earliest days of the American republic, there is no way we get to a majority in the House without doing better among white working class voters because so many RAE voters are concentrated in heavily Democratic urban core House districts.

Let me take you down to the county level to show how this worked in the 2014 election. I’m going to use a couple of examples given to me by Paul Booth from AFSCME, one of the best political strategists in the labor movement. I have talked about why and how RAE voters overall were not as motivated to turn out this year. But one thing Democrats proved is that they could be successful mechanically with great GOTV operations in targeted places. First example: the labor movement and other Democratic forces decided that the way to win the Florida Governor race was to do a massive turnout operation in heavily urban and Democratic counties in the state, and they picked 5 as their top targets, the 3 big South Florida counties as well as Pinellas (the St Pete/Tampa area) and Orange (Orlando). They did an incredible job: Crist had almost 123,000 vote higher margin because of the work in those 5 counties than the Democratic candidate (Alex Sink) did in 2010, which was more than double the goal they had set for themselves. The problem was that the Republican margin for Scott in the 60 more Republican counties — mostly more rural and whiter — increased by about 131,000, meaning instead of winning by 56,000 as he had in 2010, he won by 64,000 instead. Here’s a 2nd example: the turnout operation for Democrats in Milwaukee and Madison was incredibly successful — they went so far above projections in Madison that they ran out of ballots by late afternoon and had to print more. But again, Walker’s team won by bigger margins in rural Wisconsin than he had in 2010, and it was enough to carry him to victory. As Paul said after telling me these stories: “we need to go beyond Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy. We need a 3,144 county strategy.” (That’s how many counties there are nationwide).

This is not fashionable talk among some of my fellow progressives. Among some people I talk to, the natural tendency of younger, lower-income, black, Hispanic, and unmarried voters in presidential years will solve most of our problems, especially if we do a good job of turning them out to vote. But that’s not what the numbers say: if we only get the 38 percent of white voters we got this year in 2016 in places like OH, MI, MN, NH, IA, PA, WI, CO, and other swing states, we will not win either the presidency or the Senate back, let alone the House.

So where do we get those extra voters who are white? Union members who are not people of color are part of the answer, but union membership continues to slip every year. Young whites are part of the answer too, but our numbers among that demographic have slipped a lot from the Obama 2008 high, and their economic problems aren’t getting any rosier. We got a lot more white unmarried voters, especially unmarried women, in 2008 and 2012 than we did in 2014, so hopefully we can win more of them, but again, this economy isn’t tending to lift them up much.

We can win back a lot of the swing white voters in the categories above with a stronger message and outreach strategy, but with the weak economy continuing to be a drag, I believe it won’t be enough. To solve the problem Booth identified, we have to start a serious re-engagement with working class white voters — in message, outreach and organizing, and policy. We can’t ignore them and hope the surging RAE vote alone carries us to victory. The way to win more votes in those whiter, older, rural counties is a message of economic populism. The good news is that economic policies and messaging that appeal to white working class folks also appeal to RAE voters. As I wrote yesterday about progressive populist candidates who won important statewide victories in 2014 (Merkley in OR, Franken in MN, Peters in MI, Shaheen in NH, and Malloy in CT):

Let me note one other fact about these races: In a year where white, working-class swing voters mostly deserted the Democratic party, all of these candidates did well with this demographic group. Of the states where we won those victories, only one — Michigan — had a significant people of color population. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Oregon are four of the whitest states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012, with neither a large African-American or Hispanic population. And in Michigan, while there is a large black population, a Democrat can’t win without competing well in the mostly white working class suburban Detroit counties like Macomb, which Peters did. A populist message and narrative worked for those Democrats.

Democrats need a clearly defined and strongly messaged economic platform that helps low and moderate people. We can’t only bash the Koch brothers and Wall Street, although we certainly should do our fair share of that — it helped the candidates I mentioned above win, and kept others running steeply uphill races in this terrible cycle like Braley, Udall, Hagan, and Begich in the game all the way to the end. But we also need a Democratic economic agenda that provides a compelling roadmap as to where we want to take the country: a $15 per hour minimum wage; an investment in road, bridge, and school construction; putting insulation into every public building that needs it in America, and saving billions of dollars of utility bills in the process; millions of new manufacturing jobs in wind and solar energy; a fair trade and currency policy that will create millions of new manufacturing jobs; an end to a tax and regulatory policy that encourages job out-sourcing and reckless financial speculation; a rigorous anti-trust policy that helps small businesses compete with big corporations; and a welcoming hand to the hard-working immigrants bringing their talents to our nation.

Armed with a real agenda like that, we can create a narrative about who we are, what we believe in, and what our values are. The story that we can tell is about an America that built a prosperous and expanding middle class where everyone who wanted a job was able to find one, where workers actually got raises and decent benefits most of the time, and where there was dignity in work and our families had the chance to pursue our version of the American dream. Over the last few decades, we lost that America, as the level playing field got tilted more and more to wealthy CEOs and big businesses who could get sweetheart deals because of their insider connections. The things we are advocating for are more jobs, better jobs with higher pay, and a level playing field so that workers and small businesses can get a fair shake rather than being rolled by big money.

As progressives, that is what we fight for, that agenda and that hope for the future of America. Based on all the evidence I see, even from the rotten year of 2014 but also from other polling and evidence, that agenda and narrative about America will build an electoral majority.

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