At the Edge of the Abyss, Democrats Need a New Strategy
The Democratic talking points after losing two more House special elections, including one in Georgia that many people thought they would win, were partly right. All four of these congressional races were in deeply red districts, and we did considerably better than past Democratic candidates in those districts had done. If we over-perform based on past numbers in the competitive districts on the map in 2018, we’ll have a good year.
But with Trump’s numbers in the toilet, lots of Republicans with mixed feelings about the Donald, and Democratic outrage unleashing a flood of money, volunteers, and voter turnout, we had four special elections with legit opportunities to win… and we blew them all. We need to do a serious re-evaluation of our strategy as a party, and we need to do it right damn now.
I say this with a hyper-awareness that we are entering the week where the Republicans will try to not only repeal the Affordable Care Act, but will in the same bill be repealing Medicaid itself, one of the landmark achievements of the 20th century progressive movement. You heard that right, and this isn’t getting nearly enough attention: we’re not just talking deep cuts in Medicaid funding, we’re talking about ending the guarantee of health and nursing home care for the people dependent on Medicaid.
The money instead will be shifted into block grants, where the states -- which for the most part aren’t exactly bastions of compassion -- can do whatever they want with the far smaller amount of money they will be given. And understand this: Medicaid is not just for a small number of the poorest people in America. Twenty percent of Americans get their health coverage from Medicaid. Two thirds of the people in nursing homes have those bills paid for by Medicaid. And if you have disabilities and need medical care, odds are that those bills are paid by Medicaid as well. This is a BFD of maximum proportions.
You know what else I am hyper-aware of? That Donald Trump is turning America into a banana republic. He is a dangerous corrupt man giving largesse to his cronies and wreaking havoc wherever he goes. If Democrats don’t start winning elections in this election, in big numbers, our democracy will be in peril, as will the achievements of the last century in terms of civil rights, workers’ rights, the environment, health care, education. So much that is decent and good about our country will be blown to dust.
So when I say Democrats need a new strategy, that we need to start winning elections right away, I’m not just talking about how it’d be a little nicer to have more Democrats win. We are at the edge of the abyss, folks, and we desperately need to try something new when it comes to elections.
Here’s what we need to do:
1. Compete everywhere, districts that are more blue collar and rural included.
Too many Democratic Party leaders have decided that we can’t compete very well among the “white working class.” That is one reason why the Kansas and South Carolina races were virtually ignored by the national party, and why national Democratic groups got out-spent almost ten to one in the Montana race, while a higher income suburban district in Georgia that was just as Republican as the other three got the lion’s share of money and attention from national Dems. In this political environment -- where Trump and the Republicans are deeply unpopular, and where Democrats have far more enthusiasm about voting, volunteering, and giving money online -- we should be competing everywhere and paying attention to the kinds of races we normally don’t.
Just because a lot of working class voters supported Trump last year doesn’t mean they will never vote for Democrats, a lot of those same voters voted for Dems in 2012. And news flash: white working class voters aren’t the only working class voters around. When you talk about issues that matter to blue collar voters -- health care, Social Security, raising taxes on the wealthy, getting tough on Wall Street abuse of power, creating jobs and increasing wages, paid family and medical leave, child care -- you are also reaching African-American working class folks, Latino working class folks, unmarried women, and young people who are working class folks.
2. Stop thinking of populism as some crazy lefty Bernie thing that can’t win in tough districts, that the message needed is safe and cautious “centrism” (whatever that means).
Jon Ossoff ran a campaign very similar in targeting, message, and overall strategy to Hillary’s campaign -- target upper-income suburban Republicans with an overwhelming amount of TV ads and mail with a safely centrist message mostly devoid of issue specifics and a ton of attacks on the opponent. But neither Hillary nor Ossoff won very many of those voters in spite of the millions spent on trying to do so.
Now, I will be the first to say that a candidate and their message need to fit the district, and GA-6 is a mostly suburban and upper-income district. I get how Ossoff was trying not to scare people that he was a crazy lefty, but there are plenty of older voters in GA-6. The Republican health care plan is unpopular everywhere, including GA-6, and he could have attacked it using quotes from popular groups like AARP and hospital CEOs. Social Security and Medicare are popular everywhere, and he could have talked more about the critical threats they face.
Running safe, mushy campaigns doesn’t win over very many Republicans; doesn’t usually work in getting swing voters on board; and doesn’t help turn out Democratic voters either.
At the same time, national Democrats didn’t think the more populist candidates in the more blue collar districts would appeal in the other three districts and made only very small investments in those districts while Ossoff was raising money hand over fist -- more than $40 million was spent between the two candidates, making it the most expensive House race ever. Yet, we came closer in the South Carolina district totally ignored by Democrats, and we came very nearly as close in Kansas and Montana. If we had invested a fraction of the money spent in Georgia -- 10% would have been $4 million -- in those other three races, we might have picked up a couple of those seats. Populism sounds different from different candidates; different issues resonate in different districts, but in general, populism plays well in blue-collar districts.
Too many party strategists seem to believe that bland mushy messages win elections, but Republicans keep electing boldly conservative tea partiers and people like Trump. Democrats need to take populism back.
3. Less TV, more Facebook.
Hillary vastly outspent Trump on TV in 2016. Multiple Democratic Senate candidates in swing races out-spent their opponents on TV and lost. Ossoff vastly out-spent Handel on TV and lost. Notice a pattern here? Republicans from Trump on down consistently spent more than we did on Facebook.
The reasons Democrats should be paying far more attention to Facebook and far less to TV are many. Fewer and fewer people are watching traditional TV, and when they are, they are figuring out plenty of ways to avoid watching commercials. And more and more people are spending more and more time on Facebook. TV commercials are the least trusted source of political information while content from your Facebook friends is among the most trusted sources of information. Most importantly, you can target individual voters on Facebook and learn from their reactions to ads and organic content. Democrats have many weaknesses in their electoral strategy, but if the only thing they did was shift 50% of their TV spending to Facebook (both in terms of turning out the vote and persuasion), they would start winning far more elections.
In order for our democracy and our decency as a country to survive, Democrats need to start winning elections again. But we won’t get there without a new strategy that actually reaches out to working class voters of all races and ages, and fights for issues that matter to their every day lives. Our strategy must shift from TV into the age of Facebook, and it needs to happen now.