Ben LaBolt served as the national press secretary for President Obama’s 2012 campaign and as part of the team that implemented the reelection strategy beginning in 2011. He is alarmed that President Trump is replicating Obama’s successes.
The Democratic Party is focused on choosing a nominee from about 24 options, while the Republicans are working under the assumption that Trump will be their nominee again in 2020. This frees the GOP to raise money for the general election and focus on the states and districts that they believe will decide the outcome. For LaBolt, this is the same kind of advantage that Obama utilized in his reelection bid, and it’s giving Trump an early leg-up that may prove impossible to overcome.
Presidents who have recently won reelection seeded their victories not in the final sprint before Election Day, but by executing a two-year campaign to exploit a contentious primary on the other side, reconnect with their base of supporters, and define the election as a choice, not a referendum. I served as the national press secretary on President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, when we used that strategy to great effect. Now I’m watching President Trump executing the same strategy that powered Obama to reelection, while the Democratic organizations that could answer him have left an open playing field in the battleground states where the election will be decided.
Because LaBolt is currently a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive, “a communications and digital-marketing agency that has in the past served as an advertiser for Democratic presidential campaigns and super PACs,” he monitors political digital advertising very closely, and this column could be considered as a pitch for business. His concern, however, is that the Democratic presidential contenders are not using messages that will help them in the general election. That might seem obvious, since the candidates are not currently trying to win a general election, but it means that Trump is getting almost a free pass. He’d like to see someone send a different message to the voters who will be most critical to outcome in 2020.
There is no dearth of advertising material to air. The Chinese are importing soybeans from Russia and Brazil instead of Iowa and Ohio. Trump is steadily unwinding protections for LGBTQ Americans. Taxes have gone up on some voters who pay state income taxes after Republicans repealed the state and local tax exemption. And Democrats are again fighting to protect health-care benefits. The content writes itself.
Yet, since the Democratic contenders are not in a position to do this themselves, at least in any consistent and strategic way, LaBolt makes a plea for others to step into the breach.
Because primary campaigns have finite resources and shorter-term needs to address before they can get to the main battle, the DNC and allied super PACs need to begin advertising now in battleground states to provide air cover for the future nominee while he or she is tied up in what will likely be a highly competitive and lengthy primary race.
Donors, including those waiting to pick their favored candidate, should invest now in a serious, year-long fill-the-gap effort that ensures that the Trump campaign’s dominance is checked as quickly as possible. And activists, as they engage in primary organizing, should also consider what steps they can take today to win next year’s election, from registering voters to persuading swing voters in battleground states.
If Democrats don’t act now, the Trump campaign will define the general election on its own terms, before we can even choose our nominee.
While acknowledging that LaBolt has some self-interested reasons for giving this advice, he does have the relevant experience to know what he’s talking about. It’s not so much about what the Democrats are doing wrong as what Trump is able to do without any competition. He’s targeting the exact voters and areas he needs, and he can do it cheaply and somewhat invisibly while everyone is focused on the drama and fireworks on the Democratic side. Obama benefited greatly against Mitt Romney because he had the same luxury that Trump is enjoying right now. Someone on the Democratic side needs to organize a response so that history doesn’t repeat itself.