Democrats far and wide are asking: is it really possible we might lose to the guy who seems to be trying to brand himself as the worst person in America? Spewing racist rhetoric and conspiracy theories? Check. Making one misogynistic comment after another? Check. Joking about the assassination of Hillary? Check. Encouraging his supporters to beat up protesters? Check. Cozying up to evil dictators? Check. He’s done it all and more, brazenly. And yet somehow Hillary is tied with him in some national polls, even behind in a few.
I will admit to being nervous, but I am always nervous before an election because surprising things often happen. I was far more nervous than most Democrats when we were ten points ahead in the aftermath of the two conventions and Trump’s idiocy in attacking a Gold Star family. You just never know what will happen in an election, even right up to the end. Indulge me in a little history on the topic of Election Day surprises (I won’t even mention all the times candidates who won were well behind in the late summer or September of the election year).
In 1980, right up until Election Day, the pollsters were talking about the election probably being one of the closest in history. A lot of people thought Carter would squeak out a win over Reagan. Instead, we got a historically big Reagan/Republican landslide that also lost us control of the Senate and working control of the House because things broke their way in the last few days. In 1994, very few people were predicting that Republicans would win the House and Senate; most forecasts had 20-25 House seat pick-ups for them. Instead, they picked up 52 House seats and 10 Senate seats.
In 1998, most people predicted that Republicans would pick up 25-30 House seats because of the Lewinsky scandal, but a late breaking “time to move on” movement (that launched Moveon.org) gave the Democrats a five seat pick-up. And in 2006, only a few people were predicting the House would go Democratic, and almost no one thought the Senate would, since that would require Democrats winning almost every single competitive Senate race. Democrats won the House with room to spare, and won seven of the eight closest Senate races, giving them control of both Houses.
So nervousness is warranted, but panic is not. Let me suggest an alternative: calm and focus. It is absolutely clear what is happening in this election and what the path is to Democratic victory. The underlying fundamentals in this race have not changed since Hillary and Trump established themselves as the forerunners in the nomination, and those fundamentals favor us Democrats if we effectively take advantage of them. The electoral-college math favors us, and the demographic math favors us, as the Democratic base groups of people of color, young people, unmarried women, union members, LGBT folks, and other progressive constituencies make up over 60% of the electorate. Plus Trump’s general offensiveness helps us a lot with higher educated suburban voters.
Here’s where we are not fully delivering on turning those fundamentals into a decisive victory: we are underperforming with our base. It isn’t rocket science to fix this problem, but we must pay attention and put some serious elbow grease into turning this around.
The polls are all over the map, but there are some trends suggesting that Clinton is not doing as well right now as Obama did among all of the major segments of the so-called ‘Obama coalition,’ with African-Americans, especially younger black folks; Latinos; young people; and unmarried women. You can check out the gory details here and here. There’s even one poll that has Trump getting 20% of the African-American vote.
A couple points to make here. First, Donald Trump is just not going to win 20% of the African-American vote or get a higher percentage of Latino voters than Romney did. Every presidential election I have ever been involved with, there are some fluctuations in the numbers for both parties in terms of their base voters, but certain things have never happened and will never happen.
A Republican presidential candidate has not gotten more than 12% of the African-American vote since 1964, and it is not to going to happen with Donald “look at my African-American over here” Trump. The man who called Mexicans rapists and murderers, and said a judge of Mexican-American descent couldn’t fairly rule on his case will not be more popular among Latinos than Romney.
The poll numbers don’t reflect that Democrats, people-of-color-led groups, labor, and other allies will spend the final seven weeks working these constituencies with reminders of every rotten thing Donald Trump has said. They will get the Democratic-leaning members of these constituencies out to vote.
The second point is this: the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party must focus on base turnout like a laser beam. I have confidence they will — they are already doing a lot of the right things. But this is where the ballgame is going to won or lost. Here’s what needs to happen:
1. We must put a lot more money in the closing weeks into Latino media, both Spanish- and English-speaking. Even more importantly, we need to invest far more than we have so far in Latino field operations for voter registration and GOTV. We are not yet maximizing our vote with this crucial constituency, and we have relied too much on the dislike of Trump among Latinos to drive GOTV. We need boots on the ground, and we need to give people a reason to vote for Hillary, not just against Trump. This, as you will see, is a repeated theme of mine.
2. We must invest a lot more money and attention into social media. Despite the big fundraising edge that Clinton has had over Trump, the Trump campaign has spent more on social media. He spent at least $19 million on social media in July and August alone. Hillary’s lagging poll numbers among young people are due in part to the fact that we are not paying as much attention to the media platforms they use as Trump has been.
3. We must get all the Bernie voters we can get. Admittedly, there are some Bernie bros who will reject Bernie’s plea, and almost every other progressive leader’s plea, to vote for Hillary. But there are still plenty of Bernie people who are genuinely torn. Only a tiny percentage of them will vote for Trump. Most are still deciding between Stein, Gary Johnson, Hillary, and not voting at all.
We need to make a sustained, positive, heartfelt series of pitches to them, to convince them that Hillary will get some good things done. Yes, we need to remind them that Trump will do the horrible things he has said he would do, but mostly we need to inspire and motivate them. Hillary Clinton has embraced a large number of progressive economic and social issues that Bernie voters care a lot about, like free college for most people and doing something big about climate change, and we need to make that case to the Bernie folks.
4. What all of these strategies have in common is the simple idea that we must make a much stronger case about voting for Hillary, not just voting against Trump. A campaign that is all negative with no positives will drive down voter turnout, so that only the people who always vote end up voting, giving us a Republican electorate. Check out 2010 and 2014 to see that electoral dynamic — the people who always vote are older, whiter, and better off than Democratic base groups. Disliking a candidate is rarely enough to get people off their butts and into the voting booth.
Democrats have the edge on the demographics and the issues needed to win this race — not just in the presidential, but across the ticket. We just need to focus on winning our natural coalition and do the hard work it takes to deliver that coalition to the polls.