Three Things Democrats Should Not Do in 2020
Recently, there have been a wave of stories about what Democrats seem to want, or should look for, in selecting their next presidential nominee…in other words, how to win in 2020. The problem is, Democrats never agree on anything (that's why they're Democrats – if they agreed with each other, they'd be Republicans). So there is little prospect of consensus emerging on what Democrats should do.
But what if, as George Costanza suggested, we do the opposite, and look at what history and political evidence tells us Democrats should not do. Could we at least avoid some major pitfalls? I would like to suggest that there are three big potential mistakes Democrats could avoid.
Number one: assuming this will be easy.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a road we are already on. Fox News recently found that 78% of Democrats believe that Trump is unlikely to be re-elected. Saint Anselm College Survey Center confirms the same sentiment in an early primary state among 84% of New Hampshire Democrats. This makes some sense: that same Fox News survey found only 38% of voters wanted to re-elect the President, and then there’s, you know, all this.
But don’t believe it. First of all, things change more often than not, as analyst Harry Enten points out: “Americans said they wanted their president re-elected at this point in the 1980 and 1992 cycles. Both times the president would go on to lose. At this point in the 1984, 1996 and 2012 cycles, Americans said they didn't want to re-elect the president. The president would go on to win.”
Moreover, many political strategists believe that there is a natural tightening – especially true in the last 25 years given growing partisan divisions – that occurs down the stretch in high-profile races, as voters who affiliate with one party decide that whatever their candidate’s shortcomings, the alternative is worse. That has happened in 14 out of the last 16 presidential elections. Over the last year, Trump’s average approval rating floor has been 40%. It doesn’t take too much tightening from there to make this race real competitive real fast…and Trump has the resources to make it happen – by the end of last year he’d raised a jaw-dropping 26 times more than Barack Obama had at the same point in the 2012 cycle. Clearly, a lot of people still think he’s a good bet.
And for those Democrats mentally citing Trump’s recent track record and thinking, at this point, how could anyone look at the misogyny, racism, corruption, and greed and still vote for him, ask yourself, was the picture so different in October, 2016? Were any of those traits unknown to voters, from accusations of harassment or outright assault, to the candidate’s own characterization of Mexicans as rapists, ties to Russia, and Trump University?
The risk of Democratic overconfidence is that it leads to mistake number two: assuming that Democrats can go as far left as they like with candidates, tone, or ideas. I’ve shown previously that (unlike Republicans) the safer Democrats in Congress think they are in their next election, the more liberal their record becomes. The same is true of the party writ large. So overconfidence on the prospects of beating Trump naturally breeds a leftward drift.
Some argue that this is not a problem, but rather a strategy. High-profile liberal policy proposals seem widely popular. Polls have indeed found initial support for the Green New Deal at 80%, Medicare for All at 70% (including 52% of Republicans), and Free College for All at 60%. However, those results are thinner than Roger Stone’s cover story. Support for Medicare for All drops to 48% when voters are informed that it is the same as single-payer, and 34% when told that it might raise taxes (is there any universe in which Republicans would not claim it would raise taxes?) Meanwhile, polling on elements of the Green New Deal has seemed a good deal shakier in more recent results, Democrats are divided on the kitchen-sink approach of lumping job, education and social initiatives in with carbon-fighting, and Republicans are becoming openly giddy about the proposal becoming a massive political liability.
Let’s also not forget the elephant in the room: Democrats still need to win in the electoral college. So, not by further running up the score in California (which accounted for Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win), but by re-taking Midwest and mid-Atlantic states Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (where collectively 77,744 votes determined the 2016 result), and/or flipping Iowa and Ohio, not to mention holding on to Minnesota and Virginia. It is not a coincidence that the only current or potential presidential contenders from those states – Amy Klobuchar, Terry McAuliffe, and Sherrod Brown – have been tapping the brakes hard on the more progressive policy proposals currently dominating Democratic discussion.
All of which leads to mistake number three: assuming that the path to victory comes through converting previous Trump voters. Harvard Professor Gary Orren teaches effective Persuasion, and says that there are four types of attitude change — Conversion, Activation, Reinforcement, and De-activation — known by the acronym “CARD.” People tend to assume that persuasion equals Conversion…in other words, you used to feel X, but I get you to believe Y.
In politics though (and I would argue more broadly), almost all persuasion is of the “ARD” variety. Look, for example, at this report from HuffPost about the drop-off in voting from the 2012 presidential election to the 2014 mid-terms: 22 million fewer Republicans voted, but 33 million fewer Democrats. That 11 million voter difference is what turned a good Democratic year in 2012 to a good Republican year in 2014. It’s not that in two years, millions of people were flipping sides — that’s not the mechanism in politics these days, when there are many fewer active swing voters, and partisans are unlikely to be switching. It wasn’t Conversion. It was all about who was feeling sufficiently activated or deactivated to actually turn out to vote.
Some argue that Democrats need to inspire progressives by being way more progressive, not to mention more combative. But urgency to show up and beat Trump is not Democrats’ 2020 problem…Republican urgency to defend him against a scary alternative is. This isn’t about activating Democrats, it’s about de-activating Republicans. Fear and anger are awfully powerful motivators, which is why you see so many negative ads in elections. Democrats should not cower at the prospect of being attacked – Trump will attack them viciously no matter who the nominee is – but they shouldn’t fall into Trump’s tactical trap either by swinging hard to the left in policy or, as I argued in my last post, disdaining and dismissing Republicans. That would be a massive gift to Trump, giving his campaign added tools to scare people to the polls. Which is pretty much what happened in 2016, abetted by the Trump campaign, bad circumstances, and Russia.
The bottom line is that Democrats who agree on nothing do seem fairly clear about one thing – they care more about winning in 2020 than anything else. A recent poll from Monmouth University found an ability to beat Trump was more important than a candidate sharing a voter’s policy preferences by 56 percent to 33 percent (national and Iowa CNN polls were similar). To succeed, Democrats must ensure that they don’t let overconfidence lure the party into doing Trump’s work for him, driving enough reactive Trump support to let another four-year nightmare unfold.