Imagine going into an election with a popular President, low unemployment, the fewest casualties in foreign wars in years, and both demographics and recent Electoral College history on your side – and still losing. Imagine blaming it on the Russians. Understandable if you are John Podesta – but did the Russians keep Wisconsin Millennials from voting for Russ Feingold? Or Pennsylvanians from voting for Katie McGinty? Aside from nominating a twice-unelectable standard-bearer who had a strangle-hold on fundraising and used dirty tricks to hurt her 74 year old socialist opponent, the Democrats must come to grips with how they stole defeat from the throes of victory. I am going to layout simply what the Democrats have to do to get back on track.
- Language – Democrats have ceded the term “party of the people” to the Republicans (or at least to nobody at all). The Democrats are indeed seen as Eastern or Western establishment, coastal, metropolitan, and campus-based. While the party has a substantial foundation of non-white voters, it has lost a connection with the broader base of voters who have been victimized by social and economic trends. In the party’s version of an autopsy for 2016, party scholars and leaders continue to refer to the “working class”, the “white working class”, and “ordinary Americans”. Arghh! Do you know anyone who calls himself or herself “working class”? Do assistant professors refer to their children as “ordinary”? How about terms like “we” ,“us”, “fellow Americans” or “aspiring Americans” — as opposed to automatically defining someone else as “the other”? This is not political correctness, but rather respectful bonding. It can go a long way toward changing an elitist party culture that implies that people who do not vote Democratic would really be liberal if only they were “educated”.
- Engage Millennials – former President Barack Obama captivated young people with a message of hope, an understanding of technology, and a spirit of global citizenship. Turnout among younger voters dropped dramatically in 2014 and 2016. Americans born after 1979 are 84 million strong and growing. They are neither an oddity nor a commodity and they will represent 40% of the vote by 2020. They need to be in the driver’s seat not the recipient of stale messaging. Democrats need to avoid “one size fits all” messages like those of the left (think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) or last minute phony pivots on free college tuition. (Millennials already know debt and understand there is no free lunch out there). There are young people like authors and consultants David Burstein and Joan Snyder Kuhl who know what Millennials are really thinking and are not dependent on party leaders for their next gig. They can also explain that young people do not relate to hierarchical structures.
- Fire All the Pollsters and Consultants – Information and data are powerful but they are useless if they are mainly used to validate ideas and messages that are already adopted as universal truths. Presently young operatives are trained to treat all local campaigns as wars. These are the organizers who go into competitive congressional districts to disrupt, destroy longtime bipartisan relationships, run negative advertising, engage in dirty tricks and do everything except learn what voters really need. Get rid of them all and start over by engaging real voters in real districts and developing real messages from there. Understand that many voters are tired of the crap.
- 50 States, 3,141 Counties – Former Presidential candidate and DNC Chair was prescient in engaging young voters through social media long before anyone else. He was also the one person who saw that the party had to nurture a broad spectrum of voters, encourage its activists and volunteers all year round (not just during election cycles), nurture future candidates, and curate both its traditional and new ideas in every state. Since George W. Bush’s pollster Matthew Dowd issued his post-2000 election memo arguing that the new President did not need to develop a majority governing coalition by reaching out to the middle, both sides have sought only to intensify their respective demographic and ideological bases. This has led to stasis, to the virtual impossibility of governing, and to increasing pessimism and anger on the part of voters who are left out in the cold. This politics of exclusion has to stop. Mr. Dean was right – build the party everywhere. To ignore that is to miss out on potentially vital resources, let alone votes.
- Building a Bench, Recruiting Candidates – there is plenty of talent out there but voters seem to distrust professional politicians more and more. I would closely look at two new sources of candidates and policymakers—mayors and community college presidents. These are men and women who must establish vision, communicate to a wide range of leaders, balance budgets, create initiatives with limited resources, be nimble enough to spot trends and act upon them rapidly, welcome newcomers, enable economic development, and suffer daily the narrow minds and whiny voices of the jaded. These are the people to learn from and welcome.
Rebuilding the party will involve more than throwing money at new technologies and preaching populist clichés. It will be about running young people for city and town councils, county commissioner, and state legislatures.
*Disclaimer* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of John Zogby Strategies LLC.