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What Are Democrats to Do?

I wanted to close my blogging for the year by looking at the big picture for the future of the Democratic party. The 2016 cycle feels like it started even earlier than usual, and not just because Donald Trump’s bloviating got the media so worked up so fast. The Republicans, following old Dick Nixon’s Southern strategy to its horrifically logical conclusion, have become the party of open racism and violence: as Karen Tumulty suggested in the Washington Post, Trump can’t go over the line because there are no lines, they’ve all been obliterated. And Democrats are still in a debate over how to respond to the increasing nastiness and cynicism of their opponents.

One camp believes everything is okay, at least in presidential years, because the demographic trends favor us and because the Republicans are so damn good at alienating people. Another camp thinks we need to panic because the numbers of Democratic elected officials are so low and Hillary has weaknesses as a candidate. Both of these scenarios have some truth in them, but they get some big stuff wrong too. Demographic trends do favor us, and the Republicans are driving many of the demographic groups in the new American majority our way, but unless we have a serious strategy for taking advantage of these trends, we can and will still lose the majority of elections — as we have been in startling numbers two of the last three cycles. But given that Democrats have won more votes for president in five of the last six presidential elections, and three of the last five elections in general, the panic thing seems a little far-fetched. More on this in a moment.

Meanwhile, there is the Third Way position, which argues that we should drop all this talk of economic fairness entirely, especially when delivered in a populist tone, and focus instead on policies that are pro-business investments for growth. The paper they recently published, Ready For A New Economy, is an interesting document, actually presenting a few thoughtful policy ideas (once you get past all the corporate HR jargon about modernizing everything and unleashing everyone’s potential) while getting all the big stuff astoundingly wrong.

I will give Third Way credit for one important notion: that Democrats do need to address how technology disrupts key sectors of the economy and destroys thousands of jobs in the process. They make the point that strong profitable businesses with lots of workers (Kodak is their signature example) went out of business not because of bad policy or an uneven playing field, but because technology just changed. It’s not a unique point — plenty of commentators on all sides of the political spectrum, for many decades, have talked about technology changing markets and eliminating jobs — but there is no doubt that Democrats need to address this dynamic in their economic policy and message. However, where Third Way goes with that thought is to suggest a political message that only pro-big business Democrats would like: they want us to stop talking about fairness and inequality entirely. The irony is that even the Republican candidates for president are talking all the time about fairness and income inequality, although the proposals they are putting out would grow the problem exponentially.

President Jon Cowan made the following statement when they released their report:

“The left’s retro economic populism does not work substantively or politically and has cost Democrats the House and the Senate. To regain majorities and boost middle class prosperity, Democrats must move past populism and embrace a modern, pro-growth economic message and agenda. It’s time for Democrats to be Democrats, not Socialists.”

And former JP Morgan Chase Midwest President Bill Daley had this to say on behalf of Third Way:

“I am concerned about where the Party is today. Democrats have lost the middle class in three consecutive elections by an average of 7 points and a combined margin of 20 million votes. Economic populism is not the answer.”

Seriously? You guys are going to join the Republicans in calling most of the Democratic party socialist, and then suggest that will help Democrats win elections? You are going to suggest the entire Democratic Party marched to a unified populist message and that has been the reason for their downfall in 2010 and 2014, while enlisting former JPM exec Bill Daley to buttress your case against populism? This kind of argument is why Third Way has a hard time being taken seriously outside the corporate board rooms in which they raise their money. Here’s the thing: a majority of the candidates who lost the big competitive elections in 2010 and 2014 were running as the kind of centrist “New Democrats” that Third Way loves. Third Way favorites Mark Pryor, Mark Begich, Alison Grimes, Michelle Nunn, and Kay Hagan all went down to defeat in big Senate races both parties targeted. Third Way’s most beloved prototype senator, Mark Warner, was supposed to sweep easily to victory and came within an inch of losing. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates who won in swing states and tough races, even those running against huge spending by the Koch brothers and GOP, tended to be — wait for it — populists: Jeff Merkley, Al Franken, Gary Peters in the Senate, and Dan Malloy and Mark Dayton in tough governor races.

Not all populist Democrats won elections in the big Republican sweeps of 2010 and 2014, but the simple fact is that most of the Democrats in competitive races who were running with the Third Way message and New Democrat brand mostly got beat in those years. The New Democrat and Blue Dog caucuses in the House have been decimated.

The panic about Democratic prospects (in articles like this) is also way overblown. As I noted earlier, in three of the last five elections (2006, 2008, and 2012) we have shown we can decisively win a national election, and we have also had a series of strong candidates with an appealing message who have shown they can win even in big Republican years. Demographic trends are in fact moving steadily our way, year after year. What we have to do is keep from having the kind of blowout Republican years that we had in 2010 and 2014, especially in the non-presidential cycles. How do we accomplish that task?

What we have to do is reorient our strategy in those years. Instead of our candidates running for the hills and distancing themselves from anything remotely favored by the Democratic Party, we need to energize and mobilize our voters. Republicans were pumped up to come out and vote in 2010 and 2014, but Democrats saw no reason to come out because their standard bearers were not speaking to them. The most fundamental problem by far in those years was a lack of Democratic turnout. In his book Brown is the New White, coming out in February, Steve Phillips details these trends and argues for a massive new investment in turning out Democratic leaning voters in each and every election. Demographics alone will not win every election for us, but if we make a serious investment in turning those likely supporters out, it will make a huge difference.

Here’s the thing: I am a white guy from Nebraska who spent 10 years in the 1980s and early ‘90s doing organizing work in Iowa, and I have spent much of my career working to win elections in those tough swing states — places like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana - with a lot of white working class folks. Because of that, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out — and writing about — how to win working class white voters, even in small towns and rural areas. And I still believe that with an economically populist message, we can win more of those voters than we have been winning.

You would think that Phillips’ analysis re: Democrats focusing far more on GOTV among people of color would make me uncomfortable, but in fact I am so enthusiastic about Steve’s book that I signed on to actively help promote it. How do I explain this seeming contradiction?

Part of the explanation is that we are talking about resource allocation in campaigns. In terms of creating the demographic coalitions we need to win most races, extra dollars spent to register and turn out to vote new African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, and Arab-American voters — as well as progressive whites — are far more efficient and effective ways of spending money than ever more expensive TV buys trying to persuade increasingly smaller numbers of harder to get white people that are more conservative in their views. When you look at what campaign tactics and dollars will actually get Democrats more votes, focusing on turnout of the base is a better way to allocate dollars.

Here’s the other reason I don’t think there is a contradiction here: progressive messaging that motivates base voters who are people of color to vote also appeals to the kinds of white voters who are open to voting for Democrats: working class unmarried women, younger people, union members, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, less religiously observant people and non-Christians. A strong populist progressive message not only appeals to but actually motivates all of those kinds of voters as well as people of color. And these more progressive minded whites, in combination with people of color, do make up a clear majority of eligible voters in this country.

Even when you just look at the category of swing voters, I would argue that there are two kinds of swing voters Democrats should be paying attention to: those leaning our way, but not motivated about voting, and those more likely to vote but uncertain as to who they will vote for (the more conventional definition of swing voter). The former category of swing voters has a lot more people in it than the latter, and they are easier to close the deal with and get out to vote than persuading the other kind of swing voter. Additionally, there are a fair number of swing voters embedded in demographics that are traditionally thought of as Democratic base voters, and they too are easier to get than the classic white centrist voters: since most of the friends of your average Hispanic or unmarried woman or (pick another Democratic base group) are Democrats, it is easier to persuade them to vote for Democrats. Thus campaign dollars spent in these demographic sectors is far more effective.

Finally, the way you move enough white voters to the Democratic banner to win elections is exactly the way you motivate, engage, and turn out to vote base Democratic voters: a strong, clear progressive populist message. That kind of message is the message that helps both turn out and win over white working class unmarried women; it is the same message that appeals to and motivates white young people to vote; it works with the large majority of Jewish voters, LGBT voters, religiously unaffiliated voters; and it is most certainly the kind of message that appeals to white union members. Unlike the old conventional wisdom model of voting patterns which haven’t been updated since the 1990s, the key to Democrats winning elections is not to distance themselves from the base with Sister Souljah moments and welfare reform-style messaging, and it most certainly isn’t to appease the beltway centrists by standing up those pesky voters (about 80 percent of total voters) who love Social Security and Medicare. The winning strategy in 2016 and beyond is to motivate and appeal to both people of color and whites responsive to a progressive message.

So, yeah, I think there are swing voters, and some of them are white. And I do believe that at least some of them matter to Democrats who want to win elections, especially in more rural states. But I still think Steve Phillips’ book hits the right political strategy: we need to spend far more money on registering, turning out, and motivating people of color; and far more time and attention to voicing a strong progressive message that appeals both to those people of color and to progressive whites.

So what are Democrats to do? Stand up straight, and don’t be afraid. You can be proud of being a Democrat, and still win elections. There is a new majority in this country: we just have to appeal to them and turn them out to vote.

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