Does the Democratic Party understand the 2020 election is going to hinge on purple voters in a handful of key states? The red and blue bases are set. Electoral College, not midterm, math applies. It is easy to predict a close vote deciding the election.
It is unclear then why the primary candidates are talking about things like reparations, how cool Mayor Pete’s hubby is on Twitter, why we must have a woman (vice?) president, that AOC/Omar (D-LateNight) are the future, how Stacey Adams got cheated and so deserves to be at least a Senator, identity politics, trans-anything or #MuellerPutinTaxesGate.
Democrats are blinkered to the gulf between social media and the real world. If you fell from outer space and had only Twitter to help you understand this election, you’d be convinced the electorate is demanding a female, black, left-handed trans-nominee to drive through an agenda centered on banning online hate speech. A significant portion of the MSM lives in that ecosystem, so disgusted by Trump that in the third year of his administration they still cannot accept that people actually voted for him (Esquire’s political columnist adds an asterisk to the word president* to signify the election was bogus.)
Tweet “Trump is literally fascist Hitler ya’all” and thousands will “like” and agree into a self-reinforcing coma. They’re missing that Democrats who do not share political content on Twitter identify as more moderate or conservative in their views. Polls suggest gender and race are not decisive factors for most Democratic voters. Too few people talking to each other create narrow, and wrong, impressions. Clicks are not votes. Followers are not votes. Impulsive contributions online are not votes.
The central Democratic plank — Trump is bad — is not what Dems expected it to be at this point. There will be no obstruction trials or impeachment hearings on afternoon TV. Trump is still the only president since the end of the Soviet Union who hasn’t dragged the country into a new war, and he has toned down some pre-existing ones. Trump continues to enjoy strong ratings on the economy. Some 65% of Americans paid less tax under the new laws. Trump got 57 miles of the wall paid for after he declared a national emergency over the Dems’ dead body. The Resistance piffed away, achieving little while its Hollywood heroes molested each other. The Women’s March ate itself with infighting.
Nancy Pelosi, who has tamped down the impeachment rabble and dropped shade on her angry freshmen, seems to have a better sense of this than most. Dems did take control of the House and have done what… with that power? Since the midterms, purple voters have heard empty talk of socialism, listened to barking demands for less white supremacy, and endured ceaseless cries for more investigations to save a democracy that doesn’t appear to be in that much trouble.
Outside the Washington-New York-Twitter Corridor, things are different. House Democrats pushing for the release of the Mueller report say they are not hearing much interest in the subject from their constituents back home. “The vast majority of what I hear is about kitchen-table issues,” a Michigan representative said. Because while the Dems may not have much to offer up, the voters indeed have their own lists.
Nobody wants to see children in cages. We all want to see the right thing done for DACA kids. But the purple voter issue lives closer to home. Communities across the midwest and elsewhere have been dramatically affected by immigration. Cultural and economic values have been challenged for years without anyone in charge seeming to care. It is not a new story in America, but it does matter, because purple voters understand the impact on their communities. They are well-aware the New York Times pundit’s great-grandfather came over from Poland with five dollars in his pocket, heck, their grandfather came over from Poland with two dollars in his pocket. They are tired of being scolded.
Purple voters know you can’t tell groups of people what they believe is just wrong, racist, and un-American and expect their votes. Dems failed in the same way to enact gun control legislation by saying people who own a rifle in Iowa were complicit in killing children in Florida. Emotional essays have their place, but they should not displace specifics. Even if the media won’t ask the hard follow up questions, they’ll still exist in voters’ minds. Multiple candidates say they will abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. Every country on earth controls its own borders in some fashion. So abolish ICE. And then? Reform immigration law. How?
You don’t have to agree with them or even understand it fully, but many purple voters are convinced they accept food stamps because they have to while other people accept them because they are lazy. “It’s not about jobs, it’s about good jobs” somehow still isn’t the message. Less well-off purple voters understand economic inequality at a gut level; most Dems sell it as a minority problem pandering for black support and forget many voters are both very poor and very white.
People need help with healthcare. But at some point Medicare for All has to move beyond a slogan and explain how the government will simply do away with the multi-billion dollar private insurance business, force doctors to change how and how much they are paid, explain how to legislate drug prices and institute cost controls for all medical services to keep the system from going broke (you need all those parts, that’s how it works in other countries.) And of course, explain how to fund it. The winning debate line is not going to be “We’ll tax rich people. Check my web page for details.”
While the effect on purple voters is unclear at present, “Whither Bernie” looms large. The 2016 Bernie never imagined he’d do much more than use the primary to air his signature issues. That’s why in the beginning he didn’t run against Hillary so much as alongside her, always gentle on her tender spots like those damn emails. But his message resonated. Bernie 2020 starts with a large block of serious supporters and some good ideas.
It is still hard to see how a guy five years older than Trump who talks about socialism is going to fare. Last time around the Dems buried Sanders in a rigged primary and lost many of his supporters. It is unclear how the eventual Democratic nominee (you don’t really think the DNC will run an independent old white man with no corporate love behind him, do you?) will handle him this time to try and retain those voters. It is also unclear how many voters will be hesitant to back Bernie, wondering in the end which other candidate they’ll be traded to this time around.
It’s a primary, so candidates think they are talking mostly to their base. But in a 24/7 always-on world all statements are amplified. This is an old problem for Republicans, who in the past said crazy racist things to small rural groups and then tried to clean up their act back in town. The “must do X to get nominated and then renounce X to get elected” paradigm doesn’t work anymore.
A good example is Mayor Pete, who has made a little set piece out of calling out Mike Pence. Pete recently said “If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my Creator.” Who is Pete talking to here? Evangelicals are not going to be brought over by being told their reading of God’s word is wrong. Nope, Pete is pandering to a small segment of his base by scolding Pence’s.
If Mayor Pete, who so desperately wants to be this year’s Plain Spoken Heartland Warrior Poet, ends up in front of undecided voters having to explain he won’t just be The Gay President, he’ll lose. If he can talk about a broad range of pocketbook issues in specific terms, he has a shot.
So here it is: Democrats, if you want a better chance at winning in 2020 instead of just congratulating yourselves on being morally right, tone down the Trump hate. Stop emphasizing identity politics. Have specific plans to offer on immigration, infrastructure, and healthcare. Talk about economic inequality more broadly. Be very careful what you feed the base in the primaries lest you have to walk it back in the general election. Pay more attention to real life purple voters and less to social media. Get your angry freshman women off, and your candidates on, the front pages. Resolve your Bernie problem well. Stop criticizing as ignorant racist nazis the very voters who can push you to victory.
Right now Joe Biden (age 76 to Trump’s 72, lost twice) seems like the most competitive candidate the Democrats have, mainly because he hasn’t said much. That’s pretty sad. It’s still early days, but we’re watching Dems set the stage to blow it in 2020.