Fear and Losing on the Campaign Trail

Okay, so the Democrats.

My favorite saying about them comes from Will Rogers: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

Divisions within the party are the norm. The Rogers quote comes from 1930. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition consisted of Midwestern progressives, Eastern working people, and Southern whites, and after he died, it was up to Harry Truman to hold that unlikely mix together. How did he do? When he ran for president in 1948, he wasn’t just facing the Republican, Thomas Dewey. He was also facing Democratic opponents Henry Wallace to his left and Strom Thurmond to his right. No wonder the newspapers assumed he would lose.

Roosevelt, Truman, and Henry Wallace after the 1944 election. Doesn’t Truman look like Rudy Giuliani here?

By the time I came along, the Democrats were split between pro-war and anti-war factions, and thanks to the party’s support of civil rights, Southern whites were defecting first to segregationist George Wallace, then to the Republicans. Along the way, the Democrats suffered four setbacks that led to even more internal strife: the violent 1968 Chicago convention, George McGovern’s crushing defeat in 1972, Jimmy Carter’s dithering reign (he makes a much better ex-president), and Walter Mondale’s landslide loss in 1984. Yet the party retained majorities in both houses of Congress until losing the Senate in 1980. The House of Representatives remained Democratic until the infamous Contract with America election of 1994.

By then Bill Clinton was president, championed by the Democratic Leadership Council, which cut adrift the party’s left wing and embraced a middle-of-the-road corporate identity. Those are the folks hanging on now as a reinvigorated left seeks to supplant them.

The pride of the Democratic Leadership Council, plus Chelsea.

So from my perspective, the Democrats don’t need to be united, or have a unified message. They can win even while throwing rocks at each other.

Their real challenge is campaigning effectively.

Every time I think they’ve finally mastered the art and science of winning a modern election, they prove me wrong. Howard Dean became party chair in 2005 and developed the 50 State Strategy: the Demos ran candidates in districts they’d been ceding to the Republicans for years. After surprising success in 2006, I thought, this is it, thank you Howard! They won in 2008 too, although that was due mostly to the disasters of the Bush Administration. Dean then retired. Barack Obama’s use of big data and the internet helped propel him to victory twice, but on the Congressional and state levels, the Democrats failed to build on Dean’s foundation and were clobbered. Then Hillary Clinton forfeited Obama’s digital advantage on the presidential side.

Given how bad they’ve become at campaigning, the Democrats need to try new strategies. A number of them are doing so (take a bow, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!), but for me the critical one is Stacey Abrams, the Georgia gubernatorial candidate. She saw that Democrats were consistently losing state elections by a quarter-million votes — and that more than a million registered Democrats weren’t voting. So rather than pay for TV ads, she’s organizing a massive field operation to get those apathetic party members to the polls in November. She’s smart, compassionate, and funny — she won me over in this interview with the Commonwealth Club — and if she succeeds, she’ll not only provide the Democrats with a template for winning in supposedly hostile territory, but announce herself as a potential presidential candidate. I’m sending money.

Stacey Abrams (by Kerri Battles for the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, 2012)

(For the record, I registered as a Democrat when I turned 18, but became a Green around 1990 and have since changed my registration to Independent.)

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.