Will Trump Steal a March on Democrats in the Midwest?

Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

Senator Bernie Sanders addresses a crowd during a campaign rally in Pittsburgh.

Memo to the Democrats who claim their presidential candidates are moving too far to the left to beat Donald Trump: Stop worrying and get to work.

Before and after each of the last two sets of Democratic debates, I read countless opinion pieces and heard numerous pundits arguing that Democrats are moving too far left and handing Trump re-election on a golden platter. In an unprecedented Democratic nominating process, in which a whopping 24 candidates are competing to take on Trump, it’s only natural that they are looking for ways to separate themselves from the pack. Most of them have long records of service and got involved in politics because they care about a core set of issues—so it’s not shocking that they are going to use the campaign to talk about those issues.

The pundits can write all the pieces they want suggesting a grand scheme of “winnability” and which issues they would like the candidates to put forth to win the voters they think the Democrat needs in the general election. Often, they will admonish the candidates who are raising issues and taking positions that don’t fit into their (the pundits’) view of what will yield success.  

But the nominating process is never pretty or orderly, it never goes by a script, and it rarely if ever leaves a party perfectly positioned to win the general election. This crop of Democratic contenders will continue to debate the issues and I believe a candidate will emerge from the pack who best answers the questions posed by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who won re-election in 2018 in an increasingly conservative state: “Elections aren’t about some electability calculation. They’re about [variations on] one question: Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of workers or corporations? Are you on the side of consumers or Wall Street? Are you on the side of patients or drug companies? Are you on the side of voters or dark money?”

In January, I laid out an electoral strategy for Democrats to win the presidency in 2020. The key takeaway is that Trump cannot win the 270 electoral votes he needs for re-election if Democrats win back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.Trump must win at least one of these states to secure re-election.

If you want to talk about “winnability,” let’s note how all three of these states are winnable for Democrats next year. Until 2016, Democratic presidential candidates had carried each of these states in every election since 1992. Have the demographics or voting patterns in each of them changed in such a way that makes them unwinnable for Democrats? Not at all. Hillary Clinton lost Michigan by just 10,704 votes, out of 4.8 million cast; she lost Pennsylvania by 44,292, out of 6.1 million cast; and she lost Wisconsin by just 22,748, out of 3.0 million cast. For those of you doing the math, Clinton lost these three states by approximately 78,000 votes, out of more than 13.9 million cast, and her campaign largely neglected all three states.

In 2018, however, statewide Democratic candidates stormed to victory in all three states—gubernatorial nominees won by a collective margin of more than 1.2 million votes. By no means, then, are the “big three” moving away from the party, despite their 2016 results. If Democrats do their work right, and begin now, they can lock these states down, denying Trump a path to victory.

But while Democrats are having this debate over vague ideas about electability, Trump’s campaign, which has already raised $124 million, is actively engaging voters in all three of these states. Trump has visited each of them this year and his campaign has been spending huge amounts of money on digital ads there. And yet the latest Morning Consult tracking poll showed Trump’s approval rating under water in Michigan (40 percent), Pennsylvania (44 percent), and Wisconsin (42 percent).

The Democrats’ path to victory in all three states is clear. First and foremost, Democrats must turn out large numbers of voters of color; their drop-off in 2016 doomed Clinton in Michigan (where minority turnout fell by 12.4 percentage points from 2012) and Wisconsin (down by 12.3 percentage points). Next, they must keep in their column the suburban, exurban, and white working-class voters who went from voting for Obama in 2012, to Trump in 2016, then back to the Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2018.

So Democrats know the states they need, and know which voters in those states are necessary to win. They also know tried-and-true techniques for communicating with voters:

1)  Talk about the issues.Voters would prefer to talk about issues than to talk about Trump. A May Real Clear Opinion Research poll found that health care and the economy were by far the top issues for American voters. These are the same issues Democratic candidates around the country ran and won on in 2018.

2)  Start early. The earlier Democrats start to communicate with voters and develop relationships with them, the better. They don’t like it when Democrats wait until late in the campaign and then hound them for their vote. To all of the long-standing Democratic allies that make up what I would call the “brick and mortar” groups—labor, climate groups, women’s organizations, LGBT groups, and so on—don’t wait! Ramp up your programs in these states now. It’s great that you’re talking to each other and mapping out plans, but now is the time to start talking to voters. And big progressive donors need to double down in their support of these organizations. Invest in organizations that are mobilizing voters of color in the battleground states. Groups like Fight for $15 and For Our Future are making plans in conjunction with locally based organizations to communicate with voters in cities like Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Milwaukee, Kenosha, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and more. This work needs to start now.

3)  Personal contact. The more personal the contact, the better—ideally from someone whom voters can relate to, and better yet, from someone they know. Family members, friends, and co-workers can have a greater impact than strangers. Some people have taken to calling this “relational organizing,” but I just call it “organizing.” The CIO started doing this in 1944, and in the decades since—in various forms and using constantly evolving tools—it’s proven to be effective whenever it has been employed.

4)  Keep the resistance alive. Groups like Indivisible, Sister District, Swing Left, and the thousands of local chapters of these and other groups that grew out of resistance to Trump over the last two and a half years must kick into high gear now; don’t wait until next year. These groups were enormously effective in 2018, generating waves of volunteers to persuade and turn out voters in the suburban and exurban battlegrounds that led to sweeping Democratic victories across the country. There is a lot of work that can be done now, like spreading the word on what Trump is doing to undermine the working and middle classes.

5)  Continue building the party. Invest in state and local Democratic Party groups that have pre-existing voter mobilization plans in these states. Additionally, the Democratic National Committee is training 1,000 young organizers to dispatch to the battleground states for the general election next year. Efforts like this should be supported.

Democrats and their allies need to kick into high gear now in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. I’d add Minnesota to the list, too, since Trump is also organizing there now; and if Democrats are successful in thwarting him in the “big three” Midwestern states, Minnesota is Trump’s next-best bet.

Once Democrats lock down these states, they should absolutely contest such other potentially competitive states as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.

So, Democrats: Take a deep breath, put your crystal ball away, and get to work.

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