Hope Is A Strategy
In recent years, Republican leaders seemed to have a problem with hope. In a 2010 dig at Barack Obama, Sarah Palin sneered “how's that hopey, changey stuff working out?” Rudy Giuliani scoffed that “hope is not a strategy,” echoed in ensuing years by Chuck Hagel, John Boehner, and Mitt Romney.
But for Democrats, I would argue that hope is a strategy. Maybe the most critical one. In fact, there are two big reasons why Democrats should strategically embrace a more positive and hopeful approach: one political, one patriotic. I’ll tackle the first today, the second next week.
The political reason for the Democrats to make their approach more positive, forward-looking, optimistic – and yes, hopeful – is simple: it counteracts Republican winning tactics.
In recent years, Republicans have had an increasingly narrow demographic base. White voters overall lean Republican 51% to 43%, while other ethnic groups lean overwhelmingly Democratic: African American voters 84%-8%, Hispanic/Latino 63%-28%, Asian 65%-27%. And Democrats lead among women 56%-37%. The area where Republicans are thriving most is among white voters without a college degree, especially in more rural areas, and especially in older segments of the electorate.
One might think, if Democrats are doing better with so much of America shouldn’t they, you know, win all of the time? (that was indeed a popular strain of thought in Democratic circles starting about 20 years ago, and one that remains current today: that Democratic strength in growing segments of the electorate should mean eventual Democratic dominance…one can see why Democrats find the idea intoxicating).
The answer has been “no” in large part because the segments of the voting public where Republicans are strongest also happen to be the ones that most heavily turn out to vote.
That is why there is a clear pattern in American politics, one that pollsters know well: Democratic candidates and positions do best in broad polls of all American adults, then a little bit worse in a smaller subset among just registered voters, and then worst of all as you move to the smallest subset – likely voters. In other words, all things being equal, a broad electorate tends to be good for Democrats, a narrower electorate is usually better for Republicans.
What does that mean? Republicans’ strategic interest is to compress the electorate in each race as close as possible to the base voters on each side, because then it’s a much more even fight numerically. And given that the electoral map tilts their way both at the presidential and congressional level, the net result is an advantage for Republicans. For those same reasons, Democrats should be strategically looking to expand the electorate.
The parties totally understand this. It’s one of the reasons that Republicans generally favor voter ID laws and other measures that tend to lower overall voting, while Democrats generally favor automatic voter registration and other measures to increase voting. Republicans have also made efforts to “shape the electorate” by lowering turnout among certain groups like African American voters and young women…in fact, President Trump was so self-aware of the importance of these efforts that in 2016 he thanked African Americans for not voting.
You can also see it clearly in messaging. One the most effective ways to decrease turnout among less reliable voters is to make campaigns negative. To be clear, opinions are mixed among political scientists and campaign professionals about whether negative campaigns decrease overall voter turnout – they actually probably fire up your base. But there is good evidence that negative messaging deflates enthusiasm and depresses turnout among voters who are less motivated to begin with. In other words, disproportionately Democratic-leaning voters. It’s like a loud argument at your family Thanksgiving: a few who feel strongly want to engage, but the ones who don’t just want to leave the table.
No one gets it more than President Trump and his now-banished political guru Steve Bannon. From his dark inaugural address focused on themes of economic fear and American “carnage” to the dire messages about caravans in the runup to the 2018 midterm, to his choice of key agenda items (travel ban, migrant family separation, transgender military ban, China trade war), President Trump has shrewdly picked issues that incite passion from his base and howls of indignation from Democrats…leading to an angry partisan back-and-forth that ultimately plays to his advantage.
While the results in 2018 suggest that Americans have soured on Trump enough that this approach may not ultimately work in 2020 (though it may, more than most Democrats seem to think), it’s still the best path to victory on the Republican side. By contrast, Democrats should be looking strategically to follow a different path – by not taking the bait on the flashpoints that Trump chooses, and reducing the turn-off effect for marginal voters by lowering the volume and pivoting to issues where they have a positive future vision: affordable health care coverage, meaningful clean technology investments that fight global warming and spur job growth, building the infrastructure that America’s businesses rely on for competitiveness in a global marketplace, and resuming our place leading a strong global network of democratic allies (this will be especially hard at a time when around 1/3 of Democratic primary voters in key states have as their top priority that their candidates “take the fight to Trump”).
No one would argue that Democrats should unilaterally disarm, forego all negatives, and stoically turn the other cheek on issues they care about. But they must avoid getting drawn into the cycle of rage and retribution. To get onto the most favorable strategic ground, they need to frame their messages, agenda, and approach with a healthy dose of inspiration, change, and yes, hope.