Yeah, okay, this hasn’t been the Clinton campaign’s best weekend ever. The media and the Trump campaign both have reasons to play the ‘basket of deplorables’ quote and the health issue up, so of course we will hear a lot of overheated talk about how horrible all this is for Hillary. The simple fact, though, is that neither a quote that needed a little tweaking (if she had said “some” of Trump supporters rather than “half,” the quote would not have been news), nor the news about walking pneumonia is going to change the fundamental dynamics of this race.
When Hillary performs well in the first debate on September 26th, all the health talk goes away — just ask the veterans of the Mondale and Reagan campaigns about good debate performances putting such questions to bed. If Trump wants to get into a discussion about the quote in that debate, it will just give Hillary a chance to pivot and talk about all the nasty racists who are part of his campaign. I guarantee she will not be playing defense on that topic.
So I’m not worried about this irritating weekend. What I am worried about is that Democrats will take off their eyes off the ball and forget the fundamentals of this election, which just aren’t that complicated and aren’t about the gaffe du jour. The 2016 election is about whether Democrats seize the day and get Democratic voters excited about this election. The Rising American Electorate (RAE), a term coined by pollster Stan Greenberg, consists of growing demographic segments within the American voting population: people of color, unmarried women, and young people. All of these groups will strongly support Hillary and other Democrats at the polls. The RAE is now over 55% of eligible voters. If we get them motivated and inspired to vote with a strongly progressive populist message, we will not only win big percentages of their votes, but win more than enough white working class voters as well.
The numbers are clear on this point. As just one example, the Washington Post‘s most recent poll gives Hillary Clinton a modest five point lead over Trump, but if Democratic voters turn out in equal numbers to Republican voters, the lead rises to 10%. Greenberg, who also coined the term ‘Reagan Democrats’ in the 1980s and has studied white working class voters for most of his career, points out, the white working class that is Donald Trump’s base is only 18% of the likely electorate this year. That’s half of what it was in the Reagan years. And we can get some of those voters with the same message that appeals to the RAE.
If Hillary and other Democrats focus the election on the economic narrative of leveling the playing field — the same economic narrative Hillary and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have all focused on over this election — we will win this election, and win it big. If we talk about creating good, new jobs through rebuilding roads and highways and investing in solar and wind power; if we talk about paid family leave and affordable child care; if we talk about raising the minimum wage; if we talk about holding Wall Street accountable; if we talk about free college for low- and middle-income students; if we talk about getting the drug companies to lower their outrageous price increases; if we talk about not letting big money control our politics anymore; in other words, if we talk about the Democratic platform Hillary and the entire party have already endorsed and campaigned on, we will win this election.
There just aren’t that many swing voters in the presidential election left in an America where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are people and brands people have known a whole lot about for a very long time. But there are two kinds of voters Democrats need to be worried about: people who would be voting for us yet might not vote due to a lack of enthusiasm, and people who would never vote for Trump and thus are Hillary voters. These likely Hillary voters are not necessarily sold on other Democrats down ballot in races they may not be paying much attention to yet. There are millions of voters in both categories, and rather than worrying about voters who might suddenly decide to vote for Trump because Hillary has a touch of walking pneumonia, we need to focus on making our case to those two crucial sets of voters.
Because of Trump’s historic weakness as a presidential candidate, but even more because of demographics and because this kind of economic agenda and narrative produces a strong majority in the polling, this can be a Democratic wave year of historic proportions. But we can still blow this huge opportunity. Democrats are spending way too much time worrying about Reagan Democrats when the guy who coined the term thinks we need to be focused on messaging to and turning out people of color, unmarried women, and young people. We need to stop worrying about voters we will never get, and we need to stop fretting about the little day-to-day stories that will take care of themselves.