President Obama won the 2008 Democratic Primary and then two Presidential Elections. Thus began a decade of what became known as the Obama Coalition. There were multiple factors that impacted the results of the 2016 Presidential Election, one of which was the fact that neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders could unite and energize the Obama Coalition. Donald Trump peeled off working families that had felt abandoned, enough to win a narrow victory in several key battleground states.
Many Democrats like to say Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes as some sort of moral victory or to limit the message of the Trump electoral victory. However, she won California by 4.2 million votes, meaning Clinton actually lost the national popular vote in the rest of the country by 1.2 million votes. In any case, however the pundits try to slice it, Clinton lost the Presidency by a total of 77,000 votes spread across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It could happen again…
Rather than capitalize on Obama’s victories, the Democratic Party strategy has dangerously devolved into wholesale reliance on identity politics. The party perilously panders to demographic groups – Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ. I do not argue for them to abandon these groups, much the opposite. Their policies and platform should oppose any and all discrimination, but also strongly espouse priorities that appeal to all Americans, including members of these groups. The mistake in identity politics is assuming or treating any demographic group as a political or ideological monolith. For example, there are plenty of faith or values voters in the Black community, some of whom do not support LGBTQ rights or abortion rights.
Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation does not dictate one’s political beliefs and views of the economy, foreign policy, climate change, etc. People of the same demographic group have different priorities based on their needs, experiences, and beliefs. Identity politics plays to division. These groups have some disparate interests, not complete unity of purpose or priority. Democrats should stop pandering to special interest groups and develop a cohesive platform of strong policies that benefit the entire nation. That should unite all Americans, including a majority of these groups as well as bringing in more voters.
To be fair, Republicans play a similar game just from the opposite side, targeting reprehensible and illegal voter suppression efforts at minority voters. They believe these voters, especially in lower income, more vulnerable communities, overwhelmingly support Democrats, thus they risk little by preventing them from casting ballots. Republican leaders publicly make false claims of voter fraud to conceal what is really their own nefarious conduct to prevent authorized voters to case ballots. They have the power of statewide elected offices and local law enforcement to effectuate these efforts and evade consequence. The recent Georgia Gubernatorial Election was greatly influenced by minority voter suppression. Democrats must press the war against these efforts and see that perpetrators are brought to justice. Same with Gerrymandering efforts that also grossly offend the Constitution, voting rights, and our democracy.
The Democratic Party must focus on developing a coherent and cohesive platform including critical issues of the economy, health care, climate change, immigration, national security, the national debt, and other pressing issues important to the American people. Most elections are decided on foreign policy, but in 2020 voters need a sense of security with vexing issues of China, North Korea, and Iran as well as restoring commitment to NATO and our traditional allies. The stronger their platform, the greater will be their support. That support will naturally span different demographic groups without resorting to identity politics. Democrats can ill afford to alienate any demographic or subgroup of voters. Only an effective national strategy, an all of America strategy, will rescue the party. Sure, Democrats need to remain true to their core values, but need to do so in a way that effectively communicates to a wider swath of voters across the country. The more Democrats are viewed as a coastal elite party, the less competitive they become (remain) to control Congress and the White House.
If the Democrats drift too far left, they become less competitive nationally. Republicans have befallen the same challenge when they drift too far right. Between the extremists in the Republican House, the hard-core McConnell Senate block, and the Trumpists hurting the traditional Republic brand, Republicans risk being seen as too right wing. However, if Democrats are seen as too far left, distracted by the Democratic Socialism debate, it could cost them in 2020, a year they should be exploiting the Republican rightward drift and proving themselves as a national party to the American people. Democrats need to demonstrate they are the party of reason and the better option for a stronger future. American voters prefer a center-left Democratic Party to a more right-wing Republican Party. However, voters are less fearful of a traditional conservative Republican Party than they are a radical left Democratic Party.
Because of the Electoral College, Democrats concede many states to Republicans in Presidential elections, focusing their efforts to solidify what they see as the traditional Blue Wall. The Blue Wall worked twice for Obama, but crumbled in 2016, with three key states voting for Trump and a few more close calls. The strategy is not reliable because it leaves little room for error. It also fails to account for the paramount need to win the Senate, making that goal harder to reach. By conceding those states to the Republican Presidential candidate, Democrats make it harder for the Democratic Senatorial candidates in those states. Additionally, by conceding states to Republicans, it allows them to focus resources on more challenging races to achieve Congressional majorities. races and increase their number of victorious races for the White House and all of Congress.
It is not enough for Democrats to win the White House. They must take control of the Senate or any Democratic President will accomplish little. Remember Merrick Garland? Remember Mitch McConnell’s pledge that his only goal in the Senate was to make Obama fail? McConnell held up thousands of judicial nominations, holding the seats empty for years hoping Republicans would win the White House in 2016. With McConnell now operating at lightning speed, Trump has packed the courts with extremist judges that will influence the judiciary and the nation for decades. McConnell is ramming every pick through, needing only 50 votes after the rule change. Democrats have little or no opportunity to vet the nominees and certainly no ability to block any that are not qualified or problematic. McConnell will not allow any votes on legislation Trump opposes, no matter how otherwise popular or necessary. With a Democrat in the White House, he would refuse to allow votes on Democratic legislation as he did with Obama. This is not how the Senate was supposed to function and is detrimental to our national interests. Democrats must win control and only a national strategy will produce that result with the ability to maintain control.
Democrats must field the most competitive candidates in every House and Senate race. The nominee must play strongly to the needs and priorities of their constituency. However, the national party must push a platform and communications strategy that supports candidates across the country and in all states. No more concessions. The party can push core values and priorities, but in a way that does not alienate and eliminate so many potential voters that it becomes impossible to win Congressional control. For example, faith voters vehemently oppose abortion, but often share more Democratic values on the economy or climate. Democrats must do a better job of increasing their voter base, albeit without abandoning core values. Otherwise, the party shrinks and becomes less competitive. 2020 will be an extremely important and telling election. Are Democrats up to the task?