The Midterms Will Be Won or Lost in Trump Country

I agree with Paul Waldman that the Democratic Party as a party would depress their own base and harm turnout if they were to adopt a mealy-mouthed apologetic national message for the midterms. The thing is, I don’t think that’s really what people are recommending that they do. Oh sure, there are some concern trolls like former FBI Director James Comey and members of Third Way who are warning the Democrats to keep an arm’s distance from the Democratic Socialists in their midst. But there’s really little chance that the DNC, DSCC, and DCCC are going to start blasting out a coordinated message that sounds more like the platform of the Working Families Party than the Democratic Party.

Waldman is correct when he argues that Democrats have failed in the post-Clinton era when they’ve tried to run to the middle in presidential elections. I’d argue that the last Republican to successfully adopt that strategy was George W. Bush in 2000, with his compassionate conservatism schtick, but he actually lost the popular vote by a lot and only became president by a combination of poor ballot design in Palm Beach County, Florida and a very partisan Supreme Court decision. The midterms aren’t national elections however, and control of the Senate will turn on whether Democrats like Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota can win reelection. Control of the House may or may not hinge on similarly Trump-friendly congressional districts, but certainly the Democrats won’t win much of a House majority without making significant inroads in traditionally Republican areas.

Most of these congressional seats, whether in the House or Senate, are not held by Republicans today because the Democrats didn’t turn out in sufficient numbers. They’re mostly safe Republican seats that only become vulnerable when the GOP is in a very bad cycle or the incumbent becomes embroiled in scandal. When Democrats hold these seats, they usually do break with the national party fairly often. Former Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and Kent Conrad of North Dakota infuriated me on a regular basis, but once their seats were lost, they were seemingly lost for good. The same wasn’t true of Joe Lieberman’s Connecticut seat, but it might be for Manchin’s or Donnelly’s or Heitkamp’s.

The national Democratic Party absolutely should not adopt a national message suitable for winning a statewide election in states Trump carried by thirty or forty points, but they should be mindful that the success of the midterms still will turn on whether Democratic incumbents can win in those states.

The solution isn’t to water down or confuse the message but to find solutions and messages that can work in both Democratic and Republican strongholds. That may challenge people’s imaginations and assumptions, but it’s possible. And Waldman makes a good point when he says this:

There’s a misconception at the heart of this debate, one that says that this is nothing more than an argument over whether persuasion or mobilization — trying to convert those who aren’t already supporting you or trying to get your own supporters to the polls — is more worthwhile. The balance between those two strategies is an important part of this (and every) election. But when we frame the choice between persuasion and mobilization as a debate about ideology, we make a fundamental mistake: believing that the way to persuade voters who aren’t already supporting you is to moderate your positions on issues.

While that may seem perfectly logical if you’re a political junkie, in the real world it seldom works. The reason is that most voters don’t think in ideological terms. They aren’t maintaining a running tally of positions candidates have taken, then assigning each candidate a score (plus 1 for her positions on abortion and health care, minus one for her position on NAFTA), then seeing which candidate’s total comes closest to the ideological score they’ve assigned themselves. That’s just not how voters make decisions.

People are much more apt to respond to cues that tell them whether you are on their side or not than to make that determination based on a careful analysis of policy proposals. It’s easy to let people know you have contempt for them and people like them, and that’s when they stop listening. If the national Democrats want to make life hard for their most crucial Senate candidates, they can send powerful signals that they don’t respect whole regions of the country or even want their votes. They won’t do that by proposing this health care bill or that one, but they might just say as much when talking to their own base.

If the Democrats are going to have a successful midterm, they have to respect the people whose votes they are going to need, and that’s not the same thing as running to the middle. Republican policies are generally unpopular in theory and even more so in practice, but that doesn’t prevent them from competing in most areas of the country. That’s because they really excel at convincing people that they’re on their side. That they do so by consistently appealing to people’s least generous and most fearful emotions isn’t something to emulate but it is something that has to be countered effectively in this upcoming election. To begin with, the party can start by doing no harm. Don’t try to turn up base turnout but alienating voters you’ll need. Then, recognize that people have selfish reasons for opposing the Republicans as well as broadminded ones, and that there is plenty to legitimately fear about how our country is being presently governed. This is as true in the shale and coal fields of North Dakota and West Virginia as it is in the emerging socialist strongholds on the urban coasts.

The Democrats don’t need one unified message, but insofar as they have one, it should be unapologetically populist and exclusive of as few people as possible.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.