Given the utter train wreck that the Donald Trump presidency has been from day one, logic would suggest that Democrats could run a basket full of dirty, mismatched socks for president in 2020 and stand a better than 50-50 chance of winning back the White House.
But logic has rarely applied in the Trump Age, and Democrats—let’s face it—haven’t been so good at politics in recent years, though Trump has been the best thing that’s happened to them electorally since “Yes We Can,” producing a winning streak that has been consistent since the four overhyped GOP wins culminating in Georgia’s ruby red 6th District last June.
Conor Lamb’s epic squeaker against a Republican in a district so flagrantly gerrymandered for the GOP the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled it illegal and abolished it—in a district so Republican that longtime incumbent Tim Murphy had run unopposed in his last two races only to step down after he was caught encouraging a mistress to have an abortion, and which Donald Trump won by 21 points in 2016—is a bright red flashing warning light for Republicans. With Trump in office, Democrats are outperforming the partisan lean in the districts where they’re running by 17 points on average. In PA 18, they produced a 22-point swing.
While it lasts, Pennsylvania’s 18th district is R+11, meaning on average it has performed 11 points more Republican than the country has in presidential years. There are 119 districts less Republican than that, including Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, which is R+4 and home to one Paul D. Ryan (R-Janesville), speaker of the House.
Republican strategists I texted with on Election Night were realistic, and blunt: their party is in trouble in November; it is losing married white, college educated women and it is being utterly shunned by young voters and voters of color. In fact, Republicans are quickly becoming a party of white men, some of their wives and a few of their adult children. And Trump is even beginning to underperform with the white working class, who though not becoming Democrats, appear to be staying home.
Trump is holding solid at around 38 percent approval, which was clearly enough to get him over the Electoral College hump in a toss-up year when his female opponent’s name has become the equivalent of Voldemort to a wide swath of Americans, but it may not be enough to re-elect him. And it is highly unlikely to save his party this November.
Assuming Democrats don’t fumble the ball in the midterms, we could well be on our way to a Constitution- and collective mental health-saving check and balance on this dangerously unhinged presidency.
But what lessons can Democrats carry into 2020? More importantly, how can they avoid learning the wrong ones?
A much-trafficked piece in The New York Times by several writers including Sean McElwee raises the question of whether Democrats would be better off ignoring the 9 percent of voters who pulled the lever for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but switched to Trump in 2016, and instead spend their time and money wooing the 7 percent of voters who went from lining up for Obama to not voting at all. The latter comprises about 4 million “missing” voters.
The piece has sparked lots of debate, with some arguing that the Obama-to-Trump voters are more “valuable,” in that they are voters, not abstainers, and thus in David Leonhardt’s parlance, “each effectively counts twice as much as a missing Obama voter, because they didn’t just disappear. They voted Republican.”
The idea that encouraging different voting behavior is more efficient than attempting to build voting affinity nearly from scratch might sound compelling. But the persuasion argument assumes that the reasons for the 2016 party switch were merely policy based, and not also cultural. If the shift away from Democrats in 2016 was strictly based on policy, those voters might still be won back. If it was cultural, they are likely gone for good.
Voting for Obama in 2008 required only one cultural adjustment, although admittedly an historically huge one: accepting the notion of a black president. On a policy basis, it required only that most voters follow the trajectory of their existing economic fears. The Bush administration had tanked the economy, and Obama was the fresh faced new guy who vowed to fix it. In 2008, he wasn’t making a racial argument for his presidency—quite the opposite. He simply benefited from the wave of desire, from black voters ready to see someone who looked like them in the White House and from more than a few white ones ready to see their country rise above its difficult racial history. Likewise, 2012 was a choice between the economic recovery that was finally making life feel normal again and a tone-deaf patrician who slagged nearly half of his countrymen as useless “takers.” That and the strong determination of voters of color to return Obama to the White House made his re-election by a wide margin happen.
The 2016 race was more complicated. As Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute has charted, White Christian America was in the throes of a seismic upheaval, driven by anxiety over the swiftly changing culture and demographics of the country, both of which were amplified during the Obama years. And these voters were being asked to follow a two-term black president with a woman.
If Democrats believe that Obama-to-Trump voters, who are whiter and more culturally conservative than Obama-to-non-voters, and not as working class as the bullet points suggest, voted for Trump because they were still looking for that economic fix, it would be logical to think they could be pulled back across the line by an argument that their wallets will be fatter and their healthcare and union benefits safer under a Democrat.
When my producers and I interviewed a panel of seven steelworkers in Lorain, Ohio—all Democratic union men; six white, one Hispanic—in August of 2016, we met what I am convinced were at least some Obama-to-Trump voters. All had voted for Obama, twice. All but one exhibited deep skepticism if not antipathy toward Hillary Clinton (though they seemed to like Bill Clinton despite hating his NAFTA policy) and an openness to Trump’s arguments, particularly on trade. When we asked what Clinton might do to earn their votes, some said they simply wanted their party’s attention, making the point that neither the Clinton campaign nor the candidate had visited their dying steel town. As Conor Lamb’s campaign underscored, personal attention from the candidate pays off. These voters wanted to hear how their town, which once boasted thousands of jobs from two steel plants and now was mostly populated by dollar stores, would be brought back to life, something Trump and the SuperPAC that ran the epic Man of Steel TV ad seemed to directly address. They wanted to keep their healthcare. They supported their union. They didn’t want to see Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid go away. I’d wager they are unimpressed by an $18 a week tax cut.
Could the right combination of personality and policy win voters like these back to the Democratic fold? That’s what those arguing for persuasion certainly believe, and it’s probably true on a case by case basis. Democrats would have to go back into those communities to find out.
And what about the non-voters? They would seem to require both inspiration, which is what Obama offered that brought many former non-voters to the polls for the first time in 2008, but also some sense that their votes will actually produce change.
Many Obama-to non-voters, including a small but significant share of voters of color, stood down in 2016 out of a sense that the euphoria they felt in electing the first Black president didn’t materially change their lives. It’s what I feared when I wrote about the “Mandela temptation” in a piece on Obama in November 2009. The notion that a leader like Mandela in South Africa or Obama in the U.S. could work miracles can have the effect of dampening voter enthusiasm once reality sets in.
Can Democrats find a candidate in 2020 who represents change and newness, like Obama did, and delivers a message of inspiration and economic restoration while also making a compelling case that they can actually enact new policies that helps bring more progressive, more ethnically diverse non-voters off the bench?
Looking at 2018, it seems that Trump’s epic unpopularity gives Democrats a fairly straightforward path to do just that, as long as they field strong candidates who fit their districts and are willing to put in the shoe leather to work them. And that doesn’t mean throwing young, white, male Marines at every race. Every district and state is different, and Democrats would be fools if they tried to cut a Conor Lamb mold nationwide and ignore the kind of voters who elected Doug Jones in Alabama (namely black women) or if they default to their usual menu of white self-funders, known names and approved voices (though, real talk, Lamb was chosen by the state Democratic Party.)
Smart politics is local. And no, Democrats, there’s no need to humbly vow to remove a woman from fourth in line for the presidency to try and appease conservative white male voters. Take out Nancy Pelosi and Trump and Republicans will simply move on to trying to take out the next powerful woman, and then the next, and then the next. Maybe try reminding the country that the Democratic Party actually supports strong women, which is why they’re running and winning with so many of them.
As for 2020, when we asked our show audience what they would like to see in a Democratic presidential nominee, the answers varied. Some love Joe Biden (though there are questions about his age and his long record that opponents could pick apart, starting with his support for the ’90s-era crime bill and his grilling of Anita Hill. Others love Kamala Harris or Cory Booker. Some pine for Joe Kennedy III. And there were boomlets for House intelligence committee ranking member Adam Schiff, war hero Tammy Duckworth, and California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. (Sorry, Ted Lieu fans, he’s a naturalized citizen so constitutionally ineligible—something we maybe ought to change.) And, of course, it’s likely Bernie Sanders runs again.
Whoever the Democrats nominate to run against Trump, the formula that works is this: They must be able to win four in ten white voters including as close as they can get to 50 percent of white women. They must be able to secure huge voter turnout among voters of color: reliable black voters, historically low-turnout non-Cuban Hispanics and fast-rising Asian-Americans, to mitigate against voter suppression (and they could use some good lawyers to help with that, too). They must spark excitement among Millennials and Generation Ys who turn 18 in time, including by demonstrating their willingness to stand up to toxic lobbies, from Wall Street to the NRA. They should represent a forward look for America, which a little youth and newness wouldn’t hurt. And they must provide a sharp contrast to the Gilded Age cynicism of Donald Trump and the Republican Party he’s busy destroying.
If they do that, Democrats ought to be able to build enough turnout to make party-switcher persuasion the icing on the 2020 cake.