DO THE DEMOCRATS HAVE THE DISCIPLINE TO WIN IN 2020?
The Democrats are simply not yet showing the discipline needed to be assured of defeating Trump and the congressional Republicans in 2020. Democrats should not want to have their victory depend upon Trump imploding or the economy tanking. The source of this lack of discipline lies in the weakness bred miscalculations of too many of the Democratic presidential candidates.
I will assess this conundrum in two columns. This column will analyze the lack of discipline leading to mistakes. A subsequent column will offer recommendations for how the Democrats can implement a disciplined strategy for crafting a message which can lead the Democrats to victory in November of 2020.
The tipping points for a Democratic victory are pretty clear. To win the Democrats need to secure: 95 percent of Democratic voters (and the Democratic share must be at least 35 percent of the overall vote); 42 percent of white voters (who will probably constitute a 67-68 percent share of the total vote); 58 percent of women voters (and women voters need to be a 53 percent share of the total vote) and 45 percent of male voters; 94 percent of African-American voters (and the turnout needs to be at least 64 percent of eligible African-American voters which will translate into a share of 14-15 percent of the total vote); 70 percent of Hispanics (who need to be at 12 percent of the total vote, taking their share to the 2 percent growth level from the 1 percent level of growth each in the last two presidential cycles); 72 percent of Asian Americans (whose share of the total vote needs to be at the 4-5 percent level); 56 percent of Independents as well as 8 percent from Republicans (Republicans should be no more than a third of the overall electorate); and 68 percent of millennials (who need to hit a 23 percent share of the total vote).
If the Democrats hit those 10 tipping points they will certainly defeat Trump, while holding their majority in the House and providing themselves with a real opportunity to narrowly take back the Senate’s majority. If Democrats exceed those tipping points in 5 of those 10 voting blocs, they will not only hold the House, but also carry the Senate and their margin in the presidential race will be comfortable (in both the popular vote and in the Electoral College).
If, however, the Democrats underperform those tipping points in at least 6 of those blocs, the Democrats could lose their majority in the House, the presidency and any chance of winning a majority in the Senate.
In the tough to win purple states with more red than blue shading (e.g., Florida, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina as well as Texas in the congressional races), the ability of Democrats to win the votes of older white, blue collar women, middle aged Hispanics, true Independents and yes Never Trump Republicans, as well as securing a high turnout among African American voters, will represent the balance of power. It should be no surprise that the recent WSJ/NBC news poll from July 7-9 revealed that the demographic breakdown of the 21 percent of all voters who could vote for either one of the Democrats or Trump was 40 percent Independents, 32 percent Hispanics, 31 percent moderates and 30 percent under 34 in age.
I put forward these targets on tipping points with certainty, not because I am so smart (because I am not), but because the political arithmetic is so clear. In fact, I am quite confident that if a bi-partisan group were convened who have actually directed or polled for winning national campaigns from both parties (e.g., Karl Rove, David Plouffe, Cornell Belcher, Tom Reynolds, Rahm Emanuel and Kellyanne Conway) they would not dispute the accuracy of this math.
Consequently, you have to scratch your head at the way many of the Democrats’ presidential candidates are careening around the primary track.
First, it was nothing less than political malpractice that most of the Democratic candidates in the second July debate, criticized President Obama more than they did President Trump.
Second, successful campaigns against an incumbent President should seek to train the electorate’s focus upon an unpopular incumbent. Neither FDR in 1932, nor Reagan in 1980, took their campaign’s focus away from why Hoover and Carter were unpopular.
Yet, July’s debates, the Democratic candidates rarely if ever trained their guns upon the Republican AGs’ lawsuit, (supported by Trump’s Justice Department), aimed at overturning the ACA and thereby extinguishing the protections on pre-existing conditions (the leading issue which turned control of the House in 2018). Nor did they hone in on Trump’s opposition to blocking foreign interference in our elections (beyond a glancing blow from Julian Castro against Mitch McConnell). This too was political malpractice.
Third, in the first July debate, Sanders and Warren may have won the debate as scored by debate coaches, by not yielding an inch to the Greek chorus of moderates (Delaney, Hickenlooper and Bullock). Meanwhile, that Greek chorus began to win the general election argument reflecting the concerns of Independent voters, especially over choice regarding private health insurance.
The latest Hill-Harris survey of how Independent voters view the direction of each party: 48 percent of Independents believe the Democratic Party leans too far left vs. only 38 percent who believe that the Republican Party leans too far right. This flipped the perception among Independents which powered last year’s Democratic victories in the mid-terms (when exit polls showed Democrats carrying Independents by 12 percent).
Democrats will not win the Presidency or control of Congress without carrying Independents by double digits. That assertion is a theorem, not a postulate and it ought direct Democratic candidates to focus like a laser on how their messaging resonates in the ears of Independent voters.
Fourth, let’s examine the tactics of some of these Democratic candidates. Julian Castro is a very smart guy with polish and real debating skills, but his main debate thrusts have not contributed to the Democrats’ prospects for victory. Castro has neither been unable to establish a beachhead regionally in Texas, nor has he established his reach across the great diversity of the emerging Latino vote (e.g., Nevada). Castro has been mired at polling levels at somewhere between 1-2 percent of Democratic primary voters.
In an attempt to blast out of this polling dungeon, Castro blistered O’Rourke in June’s debate and then Biden in the July debate, on the decriminalization of the border in the June and July debates. Castro was taken to task in a Washington Post op-ed by Jeh Johnson, Obama’s Director of Homeland Security, after the first debate, on the practical policy implications attending decriminalization of the border. But not before Castro’s debate thrust had nudged most of the other Democratic candidates to raise their hands in support of decriminalization.
Two points to consider here, not just older white voters, but many of the middle aged Hispanic voters, who gave Trump just enough support to hold on in Florida, North Carolina and Arizona in 2016, and who will be the difference between the Democrats hitting the crucial 70 percent of support threshold among Hispanics, are leery of decriminalization (especially in states like Florida and Arizona).
Two, and most importantly, Trump’s campaign chest, heading towards a billion dollars, will be prepared to demagogue on race and immigration, napalming Democrats with negative ads. The question becomes why is Castro giving the Trump campaign fodder for tearing apart the Democratic coalition? Isn’t the smarter approach to focus upon ending the “zero tolerance” policy and its immoral separation of parents from children (i.e., keeping the public focused upon Trump’s unpopular policy)?
On MSNBC on the night of the second July debate, Steve Kornacki did a very nice job of establishing that the polling data clearly shows that decriminalizing the border is not only divisive within the Democratic primary electorate, but absolutely toxic in the general election. Little wonder that Bret Stephens wrote in his portion of the New York Times break down of the winners and losers in July’s debate that, “At some point, will it occur to Democrats that the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary is a walking, talking gift to the Trump 2020 campaign?”
Castro is not alone along the road of political weakness leading to policy miscalculation. Let’s look at Kamala Harris. Going into the first debate in June, Harris had squandered her early momentum, unable to choose between whether her best path to the nomination should lead her to contest Biden’s lane of traditional liberals, moderates and older black voters, or the crowded progressive lane dominated by Warren and Sanders. That indecision has led to Harris waffling on policy choices, best evidenced by her shifting positions on whether Medicare for All would allow or end private health insurance.
That in turn directly led to Harris’ brilliant tactical take down of Biden on bussing in the first debate. She had to hit a Home Run in the first debate and she did. She raised one third on her money for the last quarter on the heels of her taking Biden down in the late June debate, which means she had raised only $8 million of the $12 million raised that filing period, before she took Biden apart in the first debate. But Harris was unable to establish enduring momentum, precisely because the morning after the June debate she switched positions on the allowance of private health insurance.
In a less noticed proposal, Harris advanced a bold home ownership program geared only to the African American community. One imagines that if this were his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama would have advanced that same home ownership program, but packaged it to assist both rural home owners in communities ravaged by the opioid crisis and those facing inner city poverty, while also including Hispanics, not limiting the program to African Americans. Obama would not have felt so weak among black voters, that he would have passed up on opportunity to build bridges combating urban and rural home ownership gaps in one fell swoop.
Weakness also reared its head in John Hickenlooper’s campaign. Early in the campaign, despite being a small businessman, Hickenlooper fumbled a question on whether or not he was a capitalist. As if to exorcise his guilt over that blunder, Hickenlooper has again and again accosted his more liberal rivals, warning of the dangers of socialism. Why is Hickenlooper handing Trump’s campaign ammunition to launch at the Democrats? Karine Jean-Pierre of MoveOn.org is quite correct, Hickenlooper is wrong to go down this road.
My point is not to disparage Castro, Harris or Hickenlooper. I believe that each has shown a real gift for public service and each has significant political potential. Instead, my point is that so far the Democrats collective presidential field needs to project less of their current political weakness and more of the party’s potential for growth, with their eyes keenly focused upon how to advance the Democrats prospects for victory in 2020’s general election.
Fifth, too many of the presidential campaigns are acting as if all the Democrats’ need to do the beat Trump (and win both houses of Congress) is to carry royal blue district and states, by ever larger margins. That is neither how general elections are won in the Electoral College, nor how swing seats are secured to create Democratic majorities in Congress. Simply put, Democrats won’t be able to govern effectively with a message resonating only with coastal voters.
This reminds me of a poignant anecdote from David Halberstam’s classic on the Vietnam War “The Best and the Brightest.” According to Halberstam, then Vice President Lyndon Johnson came to see his ailing mentor Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House. Johnson went on and on bragging to Rayburn, about how smart Kennedy’s foreign policy team was (the team that later led Johnson into the tragic quagmire of what became the Vietnam War). Rayburn told Johnson, that was all well and good, but that Rayburn “wished that just one of these guys, had run for Sherriff just once.”
Rayburn correctly prophesied that these brilliant men could become blinded to common sense. I wish more of these Democratic presidential candidates and their advisors had run or managed a winning race in a swing state just once. I am increasingly nervous that the drift in the Democrats’ primary race for President is opening the door for a Democratic defeat against Trump’s Republicans in November of 2020.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an Adjunct Professor of political science at the University of Albany.