Democrats have one big chance for a comeback, in 2018. There’s a path to a win—a narrow one—but they could blow it.
The Republican power stranglehold is tightening. The Supreme Court is theirs, for a generation. They’ve implemented onerous voting restrictions in several states, and the new Court majority will likely let them do it in more. They’ve taken strong unions out of the equation in Wisconsin and are trying to replicate that wherever they can; they’ll surely get a big boost when the Court rules next year on Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which could decimate the most politically potent unions. They’re filling federal jobs (executive, regulatory, and judicial) with partisans and zealots.
A GOP win in 2018 comparable to 2010 and 2014 could be irreversible. That’s their intention—they’re using the power they’ve gained strategically, in order to not have to relinquish it.
Democracy, and the movements that breathe life into it, are in peril.
Electoral tests of early 2017 have given rise to several schools of thought among Democrats about how to win next year, and beyond. Proponents cite the fragments of evidence at hand—four House special elections, the Virginia primary, even the elections in Britain and France, for their cases. The focus of most of these analyses is on policy: Should candidates run to the Left or to the Center? Many issues are in controversy: single-payer health care (favored by Rob Quist but not by Jon Ossoff), abortion (Omaha Mayoral candidate Heath Mello’s position turned off pro-choice advocates), and pipelines (dividing the Virginia contestants).
One school, relying on Labour’s strong showing under Jeremy Corbyn, argues that a populist politics of the left is Democrats’ formula for winning. But that’s not only an unproven hypothesis, it’s also not been tested in a general election for president since McGovern-Nixon in 1972.
The ideal policy posture is an unknown. However, there are enough “known knowns” to sketch the path to a win.
The Republicans govern today without a popular majority because they had and held Congress, but Democrats can’t push them out with less than a majority. Ours is a two-party system; in the contest for the nation’s fundamental direction, third parties are irrelevant. David Koch figured that out after getting a million votes on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, and has been spending his vast resources ever since on making the GOP win, and serve his interests. That’s exactly what Democrats need to do.
A narrow majority is insufficient. Narrow wins for president don’t yield majorities in Congress; likewise, the coattails of statewide winners in close races don’t tip legislatures. To win statewide—whether for governor, U.S. Senate, or presidential electors, campaigns tend to follow an efficiency rule: maximize base vote (which for Democrats is highly concentrated geographically), and pursue swing vote selectively.
To take power, to win legislative branch majorities, both state and federal, Democrats have to compete successfully outside their geographic strongholds.
The GOP saw its opportunities at the state level, and funded the Republican Governors Association and, for down-ballot, the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Future Majority Project through the first decade of this century. While national Democrats left state campaigns to fend for themselves in 2010, the RGA and RSLC invested big, and won big. Led by Scott Walker, Reince Priebus, and Ed Gillespie, they ushered in a new era of ruthless right-wing government. Funders like Art Pope in North Carolina and Rex Sinquefield in Missouri kept pushing the limits of the possible further to the right, as have Governors Bruce Rauner in Illinois, Sam Brownback in Kansas, Matt Bevin in Kentucky, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in Texas. As has, now, the Trump administration.
Democrats can rely on few checks and balances to constrain these forceful adversaries, though when compared with their efforts in the early days of the Reagan presidency, the Democrats have been remarkably united and disciplined in resisting Trump’s initiatives. Resistance doesn’t naturally evolve into a majority, however; the pendulum hasn’t swung back in Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. It requires a plan.
Party primaries are supposed to nominate the stronger candidate—inherently stronger, or stronger as a result of the experience. Not always—Republicans nominated Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Sharron Angle in Nevada, costing them three winnable seats and the chance to take back the Senate in the wave election of 2010.
Republicans repeated that mistake in 2012, nominating Todd Akin in Missouri. But they learned their lesson, and applied it in 2014. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell was primaried by the Tea Party’s Matt Bevin, who ran a bitterly personal campaign, giving Democrats confidence that their nominee, Alison Lundergan Grimes, could beat McConnell in the general. But the Tea Party voters came home. McConnell won by 15.4 percent and took over as Majority Leader. (He returned the favor in 2015, when Bevin won the primary for governor, stoking Democrats’ hopes for their candidate, Steve Conway, who led in the polls from July through October, until the GOP voter base came home.)
Party unity is largely up to the supporters of primary losers. If they stay home, cross over, or vote third party, as many unhappy Republicans did in the those lost Senate races, they doom the nominee.
The lesson applies with equal force to centrist Democrats and left Democrats. Neither tendency is large enough to win general elections if the other stays home. Richard Nixon benefited in 1968 from anti-war voters refusing to vote for Hubert Humphrey and in 1972 from centrists refusing to vote for George McGovern.
Every primary battle raises the unity challenge anew. On gubernatorial primary night in Virginia last month, GOP neo-Confederate loser Corey Stewart said “there is one word you will never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity.’” But Democratic loser Tom Perriello tweeted “Congratulations to Ralph Northam. Let’s go win this thing—united.”
Republicans have tried to live by Ronald Reagan’s “eleventh commandment”—Thou Shalt not Speak Ill of Any Fellow Republican.
It’s a good principle, but it doesn’t go far enough to create victories. Democrats need their own commandment—Thou Shalt Support the Primary Winner. Not just a Big Tent; a battalion in which each wing does its part.
Trump wouldn’t be president if Republicans hadn’t closed ranks. They were clear about the opportunities for their own agendas afforded by a win, and the dangers of a loss.
The key to such victories is the parties. Rather than build up and rely on party structures, many prefer to invest in independent entities, like Americans for Prosperity on the right, and a host of organizations on the left. On the Democratic side, there are both the outgrowths of presidential campaigns (Organizing for America, Our Revolution) and independent expenditure entities based on constituencies with particular issue agendas.
These have undeniable benefits, both for the sponsors and for the party’s candidates. But the case for effective parties stands on its own. It resides in the mechanics of elections.
Just as Trump benefited from the instinctual unity of the Republican base, he also got a great boost from the operational improvements Priebus had built up in the Republican National Committee, like a sophisticated social media operation and a modern voter file. In contrast, the Clinton campaign didn’t (or couldn’t) rely on the DNC, in part because President Obama never made building a strong DNC a priority.
A well-run and well-resourced party is the means by which campaigns can build on what’s come before them rather than start from scratch.
There are many populations that can be targeted in the Democrats’ quest for voters who didn’t vote for Clinton; all of them, whether “base” or “swing,” require a persuasion strategy. A campaign that relies only on mobilization is unlikely to succeed.
But persuasion strategies rarely pay off quickly. Effective persuasion programs require organizing. And organizing success depends on credibility and consistency. These rules apply equally to strategies for driving a wedge into the opposition’s base, for attracting unaligned, disillusioned voters, and for engaging low-intensity or low-information base voters.
In other words, persuasion isn’t just about message. Getting the message right may be the least of it. It’s about messengers: For every dollar devoted to focus groups aimed at refining the message, Democrats need to invest 25 in organizing.
Many populations have been identified, post-election, for messaging and organizing work to expand the Democratic vote. The Prospect has filled a volume focused on the white working class. The DCCC has focused on rural, small-town, and exurban voters. Priorities USA has examined both drop-off voters and Obama-Trump voters. Seniors, Republican moderates, and disillusioned independents are also worthy of consideration. The search for the right message, and the debate about the implications of this year’s electoral tests, is as much about how to motivate likely Democrats who didn’t vote as about bringing back those who strayed to the other side. In fact, an argument is often made that the same economic message will work for both.
But Democrats lack credibility on economics. That became painfully obvious last November when Trump, with all his baggage, won the credibility battle on economics. But the Democrats’ problem is also that they have lost much of the infrastructure through which they once delivered an economic message, and worldview. In too much of America, the union hall is closed or quiet, the broadcast news comes from Fox or Sinclair, the ministers don’t preach the social gospel, the high school grads with liberal ideas have moved away, and people’s social media news feeds convey a completely different reality from that which liberals see.
As it is not known which constituencies will be responsive to Democratic organizing and persuasion, and can’t be known until it’s attempted, Democrats are obliged to explore each and every opportunity. That is an expensive proposition. Electoral campaigns won’t do it; they have to follow the rule of efficiency. The party could, but lacks the resources. Therefore, the responsibility falls to the independent non-party organizations. Their tactical strengths will be tested as they find and measure which potential voters respond to which messages, and reinforce whatever seems likely to pay off in the 2018 cycle, without cutting off efforts that have the potential to pay off over a longer time frame.
There’s a path back to winning. People fight hardest when defending their families, their property, and the things they believe in and believed they could count on. Millions of Americans, alarmed by the havoc that many years of right-wing rule would wreak, are signing up for the battles ahead. The other side may have more money, but it no longer has more intensity and more activists. It may even have less unity.
David vanquished Goliath. Guerrillas have defeated conventional armies. Underdogs who prevail do it through two methods: strategically, by exploiting weaknesses and contradictions of their enemy, and by reliance on sources of strength other than the obvious, material forces (money and numbers). Those non-material forces include morale, discipline, training, experience, focus, and unity.
Despite all its advantages, today’s powerful right could be tomorrow’s losers.
Americans will have to endure many blows along the way. Republicans’ preponderance of power is so great that we shouldn’t expect repetitions of the blundering rollout of the Affordable Care Act repeal.
But the strength of the resistance runs deep: millions demonstrating on January 21, thousands at multiple town halls and airport protests. That intensity, if combined with unity, discipline, and the other “non-material” forces, will create other strengths. It can generate so many funds that the usual Republican financial advantage can be greatly diminished.
By naming itself the “resistance,” the opposition has chosen a powerfully motivating brand. It has the flavors of determination, selflessness, and moral superiority, like Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. But it doesn’t translate smoothly to the electoral challenge of 2018. For one thing, it’s only attractive to those who weren’t for Trump before. Its primary focus is the president himself, secondarily the defensive battles against the administration’s initiatives, and only remotely about governors or state legislatures.
To win in 2018, Democrats will need to re-focus the energy they’ve shown fighting Trump on state and congressional politics. Republicans will fund their campaigns lavishly. They’ll have control of the electoral apparatus in most states and counties. They’ll be enforcing post-Shelby voter-ID laws and other restrictions.
Governorships are the most important opportunities. Statewide races can’t be gerrymandered, and every Democratic gain loosens the GOP power stranglehold.
The narrow path to a robust majority requires unity, a well-run and well-resourced party, organizing and messaging that reaches and engages the voters who weren’t there in 2016, and the re-focused energies of the resistance.
With a few exceptions, the key 2018 elections will be in states and districts where base-vote mobilization isn’t sufficient to provide a win. Some of the candidates will be leftist Democrats, some will not. They all have to win. Democrats need to campaign for them all, and raise money for them all, as if our lives depended on it.