Building an Enduring Democratic Majority

AP Photo/John Bazemore

Supporters of Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones react during an election-night watch party in Birmingham, Alabama

Union leader and progressive activist and strategist Paul Booth died suddenly on Wednesday, January 17. In the days before his death, he was working on this article. Links to Paul’s other Prospect piece, and to an appreciation of Paul by Prospect editor Harold Meyerson, are included at the bottom of this article.

Long before electoral organizers had the voter data and predictive models pinpointing which voters needed extra effort to persuade them to vote, and for whom, the standard nomenclature for campaign strategy identified two lanes—Base Vote and Swing Vote.

For that entire time, that’s been the fault line of debate about campaign plans, allocation of funds, and finger-pointing after defeats.

Somehow, “swing” got renamed “persuasion,” despite the fact that campaigns have to do persuasion both to get low-propensity base voters to vote, and to get swing voters to swing. 

Be they “swing” or “persuasion,” however, voters who shift their allegiance in a single election—while welcome—don’t necessarily foreshadow a realignment. To understand that distinction, examining the concept of “wedge” politics might help.

A number of notorious wedge strategies have brought Republicans to power over the last 40 years: The “Southern Strategy,” the gun issue, the pro-life movement, and the Sagebrush Rebellion each realigned voter blocs in the GOP’s favor. Correspondingly, Democrats have had success with wedge strategies bringing pro-choice women and Latinos into their coalition.

Republicans have to use wedge strategies because their sociological base is narrower than Democrats’.

Under some circumstances, the Democratic base yields a majority of those who show up to vote; that’s why it’s been variously called the Rising American Electorate and the New American Majority.

Under some circumstances, but not all—as 2016 demonstrated. Donald Trump’s victory rested in no small measure on trade as a wedge, and on the full realignment of the small town, rural, and (in some places) exurban vote.

The wedges have taken their toll. Once upon a time, few voters assumed that “Democrats will take away your guns.” Conversely, many assumed that “Republicans will take away your Social Security and Medicare.”

Changing conventional wisdom about guns required repetition and validation. It was the failure of Democrats to repeat and validate that permitted Republicans to muddy up the understanding of the partisan divide over Social Security and Medicare.

It is immaterial that one phrase is a lie, and the other true. Wedge politics needn’t rely on truth (as useful as it might be) when it can exploit insecurity, prejudice, and the legitimacy conferred by respected institutional voices (other than parties and politicians). 

Republicans captured the NRA to validate their wedge. They intimidated the AARP, which ceased to serve as an independent voice warning of the GOP’s threat to Social Security and Medicare.

Who can devise—and pursue—wedge strategies to help Democrats broaden their coalition?

Not the party. It recognizes, correctly, that its full focus has to be on turning out its Base Vote. Midterm elections bring that into sharp relief; drop-off within the Democratic base is usually greater than the GOP’s.

Nor can the party, even if it does much better than it’s done before, maximize its Base Vote by itself. Not only are its resources too few, but it has less credibility than entities on the independent side, both local and national.

The Alabama special election proved the indispensability of independent efforts; it took every effort of the candidate, the party, and independent groups to produce the mammoth base vote turnout that propelled Doug Jones to the Senate.

With all forces doing their utmost to boost base turnout, a candidate can also pursue swing voters, as Jones did successfully. (Roy Moore had to rely solely on the GOP base.) There is much to be learned from a granular examination of the suburban swing to Jones, identifying which suburban moderates swung and which did not.

But a campaign’s outreach to swing voters is not the same as a long-term wedge strategy, though both may be targeting the same set of voters. Campaigns have to evaluate every program proposal, whether for base or swing, in terms of how it contributes to getting to the campaign’s win number. There’s no room in a campaign budget for the long-term investment of a wedge strategy.

Candidates (with the exception of a Huey Long, motivated by building power above all else) don’t sustain the temporary inroads they make into the opposition. If it’s possible to bring one-time Jones voters into the Democratic coalition, it will require sustained commitment, repetition, and the leadership of validators. If those validators can be mustered, they will be found on the independent side.

That is precisely the formula that has brought about the realignment of the Latino vote. The backlash to California Governor Pete Wilson’s nativist initiatives in the 1990s produced sustained effort by institutions in the Hispanic community, most notably by the labor movement.

So little effort has been devoted to wedge strategies by Democrats that we have no hard evidence of what might work among—to cite a few possibilities—veterans, seniors, suburban moderates, small town/rural/exurban (STREX) voters, or evangelical Christians. Even the Latino realignment has been under-resourced; though resources have been made available for the issue fight around immigration and for civic engagement in election cycles, they have not produced a self-sustaining mass-membership organization, which could enroll millions.

Can Democratic seniors create a movement, engaging millions, pushing back against the forthcoming GOP budget? Can they transform the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Alliance of Retired Americans to lead that movement? Or should they create a new entity to take on the challenge?

Can Democratic veterans create a movement, engaging millions, to defeat the privatization of VA health care? Could Vote Vets lead such a movement, transforming itself into a mass-membership organization?

Can Christian Democrats build a large fellowship of evangelicals offended by the worship at the altar of Mammon and allegiance to the GOP?

Could Swing Left or Indivisible or any of the networks, post-election or pre-existing, organize a base among suburban moderates? Or might the moderates do it themselves? Perhaps suburban millennials can spearhead it.

Might rural and exurban trade unionists create campaigns for good jobs and economic security that attract the support of their neighbors?

These or kindred efforts require massive investment and sustained commitment. Money, organizers, coalitions and long-term plans are all necessary. Identifying a “persuasion universe” of potential swing voters for one election—as consequential as 2018 will certainly be—is not equivalent to the wedge strategies that brought the GOP to power. There are networks with the human resources, and funders with the capacity, to tackle these opportunities. There are leaders in these constituencies who sense the strategic opportunity, and hope to be able to seize it.

A robust Democratic majority, big enough to win back power in a majority of states, will not appear without some success in attracting some voters who’ve been within the Republicans’ electoral coalition.

Will anyone step up to make this happen?

Click here to read Paul Booth’s recent story, “Getting Serious About 2018.”

Click here to read Harold Meyerson’s remembrance of Booth.  

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