DO THE DEMOCRATS HAVE THE DISCIPLINE TO WIN IN 2020?: PART II
I had originally planned to address this question of whether the Democrats had the discipline to defeat the Trump led Republicans in two columns. But given the many comments and questions I received from readers in the wake of the first column, it will take three columns to do the job.
In an August 13th column for Empire Report, I analyzed the lack of discipline emanating from the Democrats’ Presidential field (Part I). That column spotlighted the 10 tipping points for a Democratic victory in the American electorate. The Part III column will proffer 10 steps the Democrats could take to secure and perhaps exceed those tipping points in next year’s elections and hence, winning the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress.
This column will take a step back assess where the state of play really stands heading into the 2020 campaign. Four lessons and three inconvenient truths are worth internalizing.
One, winning campaigns almost always achieve three essential tasks. First, successful campaign’s maximize the party’s base turnout (exciting the base should be the foundation of any campaign). Second, smart strategists identify the characteristics of that year’s swing voters (which varies in each campaign, based both on events and the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates on the track) and then structure a message of persuasion designed to carry a majority of those swing voters. Third, winning campaign’s work hard to shave just a little bit more off their opponents base than they are taking away from their base. A winning campaign needs to work doggedly on all three tasks simultaneously.
Two, don’t fall for the mirage of fighting the last war. There is a tendency to see the next campaign as a mere extension of the last campaign. In reality, seasoned campaign strategists realize the need to reconstruct a new majority (or victory margin in a field of three of more candidates) in each campaign.
A mistake the Clinton campaign made in 2016, was the false presumption that they would easily hit the marks Obama hit back in 2012 among black, Hispanic and millennial voters. Consequently, the Clinton campaign avoided the hard work of persuasion and missed the late slippage among minority men (especially young black and middle aged Hispanic men), white suburban women (particularly blue collar women and the well educated often affluent Independent and moderate Republican women, where Trump had a real weakness in the polls until the last fortnight of the campaign) and those with some college but not a four year degree(according to the exit polls Obama carried this third of the overall electorate by 4 percent in 2012, but Trump carried this bloc by 9 percent in 2016).
This blind spot in the Clinton campaign meant that they forgot an old empirical truism: presidential campaigns often bring large numbers of cross over voters from one party to the other (e.g., from Eisenhower to Kennedy in 1960, from Johnson to Nixon in 1968 and from Bush to Obama in 2008). In 2016, estimates put the aggregate number of cross over voters who went from Romney to Clinton and from Obama to Trump at well over 10 million voters. Those cross over voters helped Clinton carry the popular vote (best evidenced by the tightened Republican margins in states like Arizona, Georgia and Texas), but enabled Trump to pull off his inside straight in the Electoral College (i.e., Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania).
Three, which leads directly to a mistake many pundits are making today. The easy and incorrect answer is to focus upon the very narrow margins of victory from 2016 in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and therefore focus upon too few targets of opportunity (e.g., improving the African American and millennial turnouts). That presumes that Democrats won’t have to work hard to hold the votes of the millions of Romney to Clinton voters (e.g., highly educated whites and moderately conservative Independents from the suburbs) and the small but not insignificant number of Never Trump Republicans.
Alternatively, a smart national campaign in 2020 would lead the Democrats to reconstruct a new majority tapered to next year’s mission, (winning back the White House and both houses of Congress, with a sharp eye at governing after victory). In turn, that mission necessitates winning a clear majority in the Electoral College and the swing districts in the House as well as swing states in the Senate races (Maine, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina) and perhaps a seat or two from the hard to win states (Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas and Texas), where Democrats have to do better with white voters to enable their support from minority and millennial voters to achieve victories.
As an aside, let’s never forget that the Democrats’ problems with white voters dates back to 1966 and that Barack Obama outperformed Dukakis, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton in terms of the share of the white vote he garnered in both 2008 and 2012. The Democratic problems with white voters at once precede and extend beyond the Obama campaigns. In terms of pure electoral arithmetic, the surge of support from minority and millennial voters (the essence of Obama’s electoral legacy) only produces victory, if Democrats do the hard work of cracking into the low 40’s in terms of their percentage share of the white vote.
In the end, a disciplined Democratic campaign should strive to pass the Popeye test (eating the political equivalent of spinach), especially in regard to the hard targets to reach (e.g., middle aged Hispanic men, younger black males, blue collar white women and older white voters, increasingly troubled by the economic insecurity impacting their retirements). All four of these vital voting blocs will require persuasion to come before mobilization can produce hard votes.
Four, a successful Democratic campaign should neither ignore the progressive pulse nor the need to capture moderate swing voters. The Democrats’ best electoral chemistry needs to meld both of those fuel sources into powering one turnout engine. Most of all, Democrats must stop being condescending toward voters at the core of either wing of that coalition. Any other approach would be a “deplorable” mistake (pun intended).
Ultimately, the need for Democrats to harness both their hearts and their heads is buttressed by three inconvenient truths. The first is that Donald Trump is not self-funding his 2020 campaign, nor is he going to run it on a shoe string budget as in 2016. Instead, Trump is likely to have a billion dollar campaign fund with the resources to exploit each and every mistake or opening the Democrats provide.
The second factor, is that Democrats would be wise to avoid either the pessimism of June (when Trump’s polls were moving up) or the optimism Democrats feel heading into Labor Day (after Trump has been battered in the August polls by self-inflicted wounds from licensing racial hatred to disrupting the economy with an unpopular and unproductive trade war). In short, the Democrats need to focus upon harvesting the clear majority which today opposes Trump’s presidency, whether Donald Trump is stumbling or sprinting in the Fall of 2020.
Third, study your opponent. Donald Trump is a cunning, but flawed political figure. Democrats should not fear Trump because of his many flaws, but they should respect his cunning use of asymmetrical political weapons.
As we head toward the opening of another NFL season, it dawned on me that Donald Trump is actually the political equivalent of the late football coach Buddy Ryan. Like Buddy Ryan, Trump plays defense as if it’s an offense, taking what seems like reckless chances blitzing his opponents. Like a Buddy Ryan defense, a Donald Trump campaign is designed to win by deploying relentless pressure as a means of controlling the contest.
But like Buddy Ryan (as a head coach), Trump lacks any understanding of how to sustain a cohesive offensive strategy. Therefore, the trick to beating Trump in 2020, is the same thing that always stopped Buddy Ryan’s Eagles: the Democrats must establish a balanced game plan, aimed at avoiding mistakes, which will ultimately force Trump to recklessly gamble and then making Trump pay for the openings exposed by these gambles.
Democrats should harbor no illusions, the worse things look for Trump, the more pressure he will bring to divert attention from his weaknesses (e.g., bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers regarding sexual assault to the second debate against Hillary Clinton in the immediate wake of the Access Hollywood tapes in October of 2016). For example, Trump is fully capable of caving to China on trade, in order to salvage a portion of economic growth.
So when it comes to the discipline required to defeat even a weakened Trump, Democrats should remember General Patton’s admonition, “the only discipline is perfect discipline.” In practical terms, that argues for Democratic candidates putting forth bold ideas, but in a way that resonates both with the Democrats’ base and next year’s swing voters.
The central problem Democrats currently face is not the unpopularity of liberal or progressive ideas (many of those ideas are growing in popularity), instead the Democrats dilemma is that after five decades of relentless and often brutally effective conservative messaging, broad swaths of swing voters and appreciable pockets of the Democrats’ base, do not really trust liberals to govern effectively or responsibly. After all progressives call themselves progressives today because being tagged a liberal became harmful to Democratic candidates across far too many of America’s precincts.
Democrats would be wise to internalize all that of those uncomfortable truths. In fact, the only way to overcome the ensuing political challenge is to govern effectively. Meanwhile, the best way to govern effectively (and over a sustained period of time) is to produce a realigning majority from the voters and then govern effectively with purpose, precision and passion. In the final analysis, Democrats need to be disciplined to meet these intertwined challenges. To paraphrase Shakespeare, for Democrats the electoral success is not in their stars, but in themselves.
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.