For the new season of his documentary podcast series The Wilderness, Jon Favreau sought out Democratic voters who went AWOL in 2020. Why did 19 percent of Obama voters either stay home or vote for Donald Trump or a third-party candidate in 2016, according to a study by Data for Progress? And what will they do in November?
Hillary Clinton outperformed Barack Obama by 75,000 votes across Pennsylvania’s three most populous counties in 2016, but Donald Trump won the state by tallying two-thirds or more of the vote in almost all of the rural counties. Blue counties got bluer and red counties got redder, but red counties got much, much redder.
“Democrats can’t just count on running up the margins in Philly and in the suburbs,” says Favreau, a Crooked Media co-founder and former Obama speechwriter, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “You have to go into the middle of the state. Trump’s base turnout will be off the chart, so we have to at least cut into his margins in some of the rural areas.”
It’s the same story in Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s also the same story in Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams came within two points of getting elected governor by campaigning in counties that Democrats usually skip as too red to contest.
Favreau co-founded Crooked Media as a progressive news and commentary outlet in 2017 with former Obama aides Tommy Vietor and Jon Lovett, and their popular Pod Save America podcast has been a campaign stop for almost every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.
Favreau sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about his reporting for The Wilderness and about a changing—and maybe changing back—electorate in 2020.
Why did you want to make this project a documentary series instead of just including it in your Pod Save America coverage?
Pod Save America handles so much of what’s going on day to day, and we don’t have space to dive deeper into what’s happening in the states and what’s happening on the ground. The first season of The Wilderness was such a deep dive into what voters were thinking, and that’s something that’s missing from a lot of the way we talk about politics. We want to make sure we’re continuing to cover that.
You did four focus groups around the country for this new season. Did you notice particularly ideas coming up in every focus group?
I got a deep cynicism about politics and a deeper distrust of media than I was expecting. The Phoenix group were more attuned to what’s happening in politics, but they were pretty cynical as well. The groups in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Miami were much more removed from the daily news cycle and didn’t mention the Democratic candidates very much beyond Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. They weren’t really following the Ukraine scandal.
That’s pretty typical for this far out from an election, though, right?
Interest in the election is higher than at this point in past elections, according to the polling data that we’re seeing. We were talking to people who plan to vote in 2020 but who are more disengaged than the average voter. We want to talk to those people because this is a race that’s going to be won on the margins with Democrats and Republicans targeting hard-to-reach voters.
Stacey Abrams talks in the series about how her 2018 campaign in Georgia went into more Republican-leaning areas of the state where a Democrat wouldn’t ordinarily go. Will the 2020 Democratic nominee for president will run that kind of campaign?
After 2016 and 2018, the party is starting to learn the lesson that you have to go everywhere and organize locally. I really hope that the eventual nominee understands that lesson. Joe Biden can go into working-class areas. Elizabeth Warren has done events in Mississippi and Alabama.
If you were running the nominee’s campaign, would you say Georgia is on your map?
It depends on how much money I would have—and I think we’ll have a lot of money—but I’d go into Georgia. People talk about turning Texas blue, but that would be so incredibly expensive. The Atlanta media market isn’t cheap, but Stacey Abrams made a pretty compelling case for Georgia. The six states we mention in The Wilderness are Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, but the next state I’d try to flip is Georgia for sure.
Will Michigan and Wisconsin slip away from Democrats at some point?
The trends for Democrats aren’t favorable with non-college-educated whites, but there was an arrest of that in 2018. In the upper Midwest, we won some of those voters back. One concern I talk about in The Wilderness is that a lot of those non-college-educated whites don’t vote in midterm elections.
One thing we talked about in our 2018 interview was that Ruy Teixeria’s predictions about demographic change were more or less right but that he missed how much the white vote would shift toward Republicans.
Democrats are now winning college-educated white voters, which we haven’t won in the past. Democrats have probably gained more voters than they’ve lost nationally, but it’s different in the battleground states. Trump can run up margins in some of the rural and exurban counties in Wisconsin even more than he did in 2016, but can we replace that with moderate, independent, Republican-y types in the wealthier suburbs of Milwaukee? Yeah, maybe.
I’m persuaded by the Wisconsin turnout numbers in 2016 that there was a definite lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.
Democrat Russ Feingold had won statewide races in Wisconsin and lost the Senate race in 2016 on the same ballot as Hillary Clinton. Lack of enthusiasm only explains part of it. When I sat down with the Milwaukee focus group—people who voted for Obama, then voted for Trump, and then voted for a Democrat in the 2018 midterms—they don’t suddenly love the Democratic Party. They say they voted for change. Obama was change, Trump was change, and [Governor] Tony Evers was a change from Scott Walker.
Nationally, that could be good news for Democrats in 2020. One thing we saw in 2016 is that if you were a voter who disapproved of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, you went for Trump by a very large margin. Now, people who approve of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are polling for Biden.
If Florida winds up having what amounts to a poll tax for former felons, do you foresee nonprofit groups and wealthy activists coming into the state and wiping out those costs?
Andrew Gillum’s organization—Forward Florida Action—has been working on that issue, and you’ll hear from him in The Wilderness. The groups who are on the ground in Florida are going to pay a lot of attention to this issue, and they’re going to work to make sure that upwards of 90 percent of former felons know they don’t have fees to pay to be able to vote. That will take a lot of organizing work.
Will voting-rights groups in states like Georgia and Florida that had issues in 2018 have more lawyers working on this in 2020?
It’s going to take a ton. We raised $2 million at Crooked Media for voting rights in 2020, and that’s exactly what Stacey Abrams is doing. She’s raised a lot more than that [$15 million to date] to fight voter suppression in 20 states between now and November.
Where will it be a big priority?
The states where it will be the biggest issue are the states that are in Republican control and have been able to pass laws that make it more difficult to vote. Wisconsin has been purging voter rolls, but the good news there is same-day registration so you can show up on election day and vote. Every state is dealing with different laws, but the Republican-controlled states will have the most issues.
Virginia now looks pretty firmly blue. How much does North Carolina look like Virginia?
North Carolina looks a lot like Virginia demographically, but the voter suppression there—especially taking away early voting—has made it much harder to vote in North Carolina. That’s not a state like Wisconsin or Michigan where the demographics are trending away from Democrats. There are a lot of college-educated whites moving to Research Triangle, and you have a huge black vote. That combination should make North Carolina very competitive.
Will the Democratic nominee flip Arizona in 2020?
Maricopa County, where Phoenix is, was the biggest county by population that Donald Trump won in 2016. In 2018, [Democrat] Kyrsten Sinema won the Senate seat in Arizona and won Maricopa County. A lot of younger people and people of color are moving from bigger cities on the coasts to Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas that all trended Democratic in 2018. The suburbs have trended toward Democrats partly because they’re getting younger and more diverse.
New Mexico was supposed to be a battleground state for Obama in 2008, and he wound up winning by 15 points. Does Arizona mirror how New Mexico changed?
Potentially, yeah. Arizona has taken longer than New Mexico partly because there are so many more Trump-y retirees in Arizona, and the big influx of people to Phoenix is relatively recent. In the Arizona episode, we follow Christine Marsh, a teacher from suburban Phoenix who lost a state senate race by 200 votes in 2018, and she’s running again this year. So we talk a lot about what’s happening in that race.
I’m tired of hearing about Donald Trump and—I hate to admit—starting to tune out. Do you see any media organizations covering 2020 differently than they did 2016?
No. Nope. Not at all. Democrats sometimes believe that it’s the media’s job to fact-check Trump and call him a liar, and that’s just not how the media operates. Republicans realized a while ago that they needed to create their own media channels, and Democrats have to do the same thing. We just have to do it in such a way that doesn’t peddle lies, hate, and fear. Democrats need to think about traditional media as part of a strategy to get their message out, but we’re going to be incredibly disappointed if we depend on it.
Following the bouncing ball has become a futile exercise. I didn’t keep track of every Lev Parnas development. It’s not going to matter a month from now.
The election will be different. People know in their heart what the outcome of impeachment will be because Republicans are going to cover up for Donald Trump, but the election is not set like that. We talked to all these voters in focus groups who aren’t following the daily news but are going to vote in November. Democrats have to reach those people, and it will take a lot of on-the-ground organizing.