Hillary Clinton DNC
Credit: Maggie Hallahan/Wikimedia Commons

After World War I, the French built the Maginot Line as their defensive strategy against a repeat invasion from Germany. It was a spectacular and expensive failure, and now serves as an analogy for all costly and stupid backward-looking endeavors. No two wars are the same, and no two presidential elections are the same either. For this reason, figuring out why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 is important but not necessarily that helpful for figuring out how to avoid defeat in 2020.

There are many possible mistakes the Democrats could make. They could decide that Clinton was too moderate and did too little to engage the base, without realizing that the base is going to be engaged this time no matter who the nominee is or what they espouse. They could take the suburbs for granted and pursue policies that make them deeply uncomfortable and willing to stay home, vote third party, or even go for Trump. They could write off all of small-town and rural America as hopelessly and irredeemably deplorable and let Trump roll up even bigger numbers in those areas. I don’t normally take advice from Charlie Sykes, but he’s not wrong about this:

…Trump could still win reelection, because he has one essential dynamic working in his favor: You.

Trump’s numbers are unmovable, but yours are not. He doesn’t need to win this thing; he needs for you to lose it. There are millions of swing voters who regard Trump as an abomination but might vote for him again if they think you are scarier, more extreme, dangerous, or just annoyingly out of touch.

There are some indicators that can be taken to support and rebut what I am saying here. For example, new survey results from Emerson Polling show that both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are leading Donald Trump nationally by a wide ten-point margin. This supports my contention that ideology is overrated for motivating the base while undermining my contention that ideology can depress the middle. What I think it really shows, however, is that Trump is a dead man walking and his only hope is for the Democrats to screw up. So, the question then is, “how can the Democrats blow this election?”

Clinton’s loss can most easily be explained as a failed experiment in swapping votes. She took millions of votes away from the Republicans in the suburbs but lost even more in small towns and rural areas. It’s a realignment that has continued during Trump’s presidency and could be seen in the results of the midterm elections. What changed is that Trump’s rural advantage contracted while the Democrat’s suburban advantage exploded. If the trend continues, the Democratic nominee really could win by an almost unheard of ten points, or even more.

If the Democrats continue to eat away at Trump’s areas of strength while maintaining their suburban advantage, they should be successful in 2020, but their base is not rural and the base still considers itself urban even if it’s really now an unnatural urban/suburban alliance.

Maybe it’s because I am from the Mid-Atlantic region, but these dynamics are not new to me. Successful Democrats in this area are not the kind of folks who bring a pitter-patter to progressives’ hearts. They’re people like Andrew Cuomo, Chuck Schumer, Ed Rendell, Bob Casey Jr., Joe Biden, Tom Carper, Cory Booker, Bill Bradley, Chris Dodd, and (I hate to say it) Joe Lieberman.  They’ve been winning with the support of liberal-minded rich white suburban professionals for a long time because they had no real alternative.

I never thought this was a desirable national model because I come at politics from the perspective of looking out for the little guy first, and pandering to people who are already comfortable usually comes at a cost for those who are most vulnerable. I’ve tolerated Mid-Atlantic Democrats more than admired them, and I’ve generally judged them by a different standard than national Democrats. For me, growing up in New Jersey, clean politicians like Bradley and Booker were godsends compared to the Hudson County machine politicians we usually had to stomach. If they were a little too friendly to the financial services sector, well, Louisiana and West Virginia Democrats are too friendly to the energy sector, and at least they didn’t belong in jail.  It also helped that they had a formula for success, because who wants to be governed by Chris Christie or Tom Corbett?

Unfortunately, the country as a whole has come to more closely resemble the Mid-Atlantic. Not only that, but Pennsylvania is now one of the pivotal states that will decide the next election, so the formula for winning the Keystone State is pretty close to the formula for winning nationally.

The good news from my perspective is that Trump’s ceiling is so low that it should allow a good margin for error. The bad news is that the Democrats could easily blow past that margin if they they’ve learned the wrong lessons from the last war.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Trump’s formula barely worked. He traded suburban votes for small-town and rural votes and it was enough to get him an Electoral College win even as he was trounced in the popular vote. The trend-line since the 2016 election has continued in a way that is unfavorable to him. This is why he’s trailing badly in both public and internal polling. The Democrats will probably win as long as they don’t interfere with this movement.  The best way to keep it going is to recognize that the goal is to hold down Trump’s small-town/rural votes while maximizing their own suburban vote. In other words, don’t tamper with a formula that failed in 2016—it should work in 2020.

In fairness, part of the reason it failed in 2016 is because the Democrats didn’t realize that their gains in the suburbs were more than being wiped out in the sticks. They can’t let that happen again.

The good news is that what was immediately obvious after the midterms is that many Trump voters and lifelong Republicans had turned out and cast a vote for a Democrat. While Trump remains popular in small-town and rural areas, his support is waning and he’s showing vulnerabilities on several issues, including health insurance and the cost of prescription drugs. Few people realize it, but the supposedly unmovable “deplorable” vote has already moved against the president to a measurable degree.

Voter-file analysis recently conducted by Catalist, the Democratic data firm, indicated that the party’s gains in 2018 House races were actually strongest in rural areas, not the suburban ones that got more media coverage, relative to the results of the 2016 presidential election. The gains “weren’t enough to get over 50 percent and win seats in many rural districts,” Catalist’s Yair Ghitza wrote — but winning a bigger share of the rural vote in key swing states in 2020 could put Democrats on a path back to the White House.

To get back to Charlie Sykes’ point, the Democrats can screw this up by sounding too out of touch in rural areas and by appearing “scarier, more extreme, [and] dangerous” to their suburban base. This is about the last thing progressives want to hear, and I don’t blame them. This is the kind of political alignment I grew up with in New Jersey and didn’t like and didn’t want for the country as a whole. But it’s the alignment that Trump has created with his racist and populist messaging. It changed the winning formula for both parties whether we’re happy about it or not.

Having said that, I am not particularly concerned that the Democrats will alienate people through progressive policy prescriptions. While a candidate exclusively focused on climate change might seem out of touch to a lot of rural voters and a candidate who constantly berates anyone who works in the financial services will lose a lot of suburban support, a balanced approach that looks for solutions on health costs, a fairer, less monopolized economy, more affordable education, a serious approach to climate, solutions for the gun violence and opioid crises, and a cleaner and better-protected electoral system can probably include some very progressive proposals and still fall within the margin of error. The Democrats don’t need to nominate an Andrew Cuomo to win. One of the advantages of Trump being such an outlier is that it opens up the middle for more progressive solutions.

The key is to make sure that it’s solutions that are being offered rather than infighting and grievances. And the battle is to keep the middle open and to own it.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com