The year was 2004 and Democrats had just lost 4 seats in the Senate, held a mere 202 seats in the House and had lost the popular vote to a Texan who pronounces nuclear “nuculear” by 2.5 million votes. Dark times! The party was unsure where to go and had an internal debate about the direction it wanted to take.
Fortunately, events favored them. Bush went on to push Social Security and Immigration Reform which was opposed by Democrats and some in his own party. But, Democrats also made a conscious choice to expand their efforts beyond the Northeast and Coast in an effort to woo conservative suburban and rural voters. The result was the “50 State Strategy” that gave them massive majorities at the start of 2009.
Democrats have since squandered their massive majorities. They ignored the issues and concerns of many suburban and rural voters and paid the price. By going largely with the concerns of their urban base they have cost themselves the support of these once swing voters.
But, Democrats have also squandered a campaign apparatus in the 90’s that was second to none. Today, the party’s get out the vote efforts are a shadow of what they once were. The transition to micro targeting and identity politicking pioneered by the Obama administration has had damaging consequences for the party.
The Price of Ideological Hubris
Today, the Democratic Party’s political apparatus is in shambles. The Clinton campaign’s reliance on TV ads and only a late get out the vote push clearly shows this. Worse, the DCCC (the party’s Congressional campaign arm) invested only in a handful of competitive races until near the end of the campaign. Districts where they invested the most money (VA-10, CO-6) represent significant expenditures for no return. Considering the polarized nature of the electorate and number of competitive districts (it’s small) Democrats will need to win more than just suburban and moderate swing districts in diverse locales.
In the 80’s the DCCC and DSCC (Senatorial campaign arm) were at the top of their game. They were outworking their GOP counterparts in polling, oppo research and targeting. Southern Democrats pushed these campaign arms to hit on issues with broad appeal. This led to a generation of up and coming campaign strategists who found success in dozens of races over the years.
In years past Democrats competed in dozens of contests that fell outside the term “competitive.” Nowhere was this more apparent than 2006 when Democrats competed in conservative territory against long-term incumbents. When many races became competitive in September and October the party and its nominees were ready due to investments in infrastructure (introductions to donors, labor groups, volunteers, etc.) and messaging.
Along with supporting nominees the party also went out of its way to recruit the best and most competitive candidates. This led to rural districts having a gun supporting, pro-life Democrat run against a similar Republican. At best, Democrats were successful. At worse, the party forced the GOP to spend in what should be a safe seats. In the cases of 2006 and 2008, the party was ready to take advantage of a wave or a favorable national political environment.
One of the most notable examples was in 2006, when then DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel recruited former NFL QB Heath Schuler to run in a North Carolina district held by a Republican incumbent for over 15 years. Emanuel hammered home why Schuler needed to run, explained to him how to do it, the support he would receive and in the end he got Schuler and the party held the seat until Schuler retired in 2012.
Where Democrats Went Wrong
Of course, 10 years is a long time in politics (and not so long at the same time). By 2016, the DCCC and DNC had lost much of its edge. It ceded much of its campaign planning and infrastructure to the massive Clinton campaign. They’re get out the vote efforts were added into the Clinton campaign’s. The DNC largely became a puppet of the Clinton team.
The result was less than stellar. The Clinton campaign only invested late in down-ballot races, made tactical and monetary mistakes and insulated individual candidates from outside support. The DCCC and DNC in particular refused to do anything beyond what Manhattan dictated and the result was many “reach” contests candidates never receiving support. We all know the result.
What accounts for this failure beyond Manhattan? Part of it is the ideological nature the party has become beholden to. Winning over voters who do not agree with the party on hot-button issues has dropped significantly as a priority. Instead, an emphasis on demographics and goosing urban liberal turnout has increased.
This is a narrow view. Republicans might not have liked Trump but they embraced his candidacy and supporters when push came to shove. They did not run around crowing about how these voters were racist and sexist. The party did not believe it could not win over different voters. Instead, the Republican coalition that elected Trump and their Congressional majorities was incredibly diverse (including many Clinton supporters).
For Democrats, they can no longer afford to be complacent. Ideological surety is great until you lose election after election and find yourselves 60 seats in the minority. You would have thought the Clinton campaign would have recognized this immediately because they won many McCain/Romney districts in their 2008 primary bid. Not so much.
Worse, this ideological surety has infiltrated campaign arms. The DCCC and DSCC threw their weight behind specific candidates and ignored many other (and perhaps better) prospects. Candidates and volunteers could not reach high ranking staffers in the party. Instead, Democratic staffers agreed with millions in spending on issues voters did not care about or character assassination ads. There used to be a time when the party would hold focus groups on what people outside the Beltway care about. Not anymore.
Part of this can be blamed on a lack of accountability. To be fair, this extends beyond just the party’s campaign arms. How else can one explain how Nancy Pelosi is still Speaker of the House? Or how Ben Lujan is still head of the DCCC after a pathetic 2016 showing? Staff have the loyalties of Democratic leadership which comes from predominately safe districts. As a result, not only are staff and leadership ideologically out of step with the country but they have no idea what a competitive candidate needs to win in swing territory.
In the late 80’s and throughout the 90s the Democratic Party invested in training academies and policy think-thanks. The Centrist Democratic Leadership Council trained hundreds of staffers. Today, the DLC is defunct and much of the DCCC’s training efforts have been contracted out to organizations with strong ideological leanings (like Wellstone Action).
Ideological surety, lack of accountability and weak training have hurt the party. But, so has near non-existent candidate recruitment. In several competitive districts in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois the party did not field strong challengers before the filing deadline. In Texas, the party did not even field a candidate in a district Clinton won.
In many of the contests Democrats won they did it by recruiting either Legacy Candidates (Carol Shea Porter) or facing flawed incumbents (Scott Garrett, John Mica, Charlie Bass). In many other cases, the party went with subpar candidates that passed the ideological test (but did not fit the district).
What Do You Have To Lose?
Today, Democrats are so far in the hole what do they have to lose? They might as well try out new tactics and strategies. It’s clear simply relying on their base won’t win them a majority or even a decent minority. They should also go back to past strategies that worked out well.
Some of these include investing in key races early, focusing intensely on candidate recruitment, messaging tooling, introducing candidates to key local groups and more. Races are not won in the final two months of a campaign. A candidate has to have the ability to take advantage of changes in the race and they do this with the help of the national party investing in them, early and often.
Whether Democrats do this or not is an open question. The party is currently embroiled in an ideological debate (as exemplified by the DNC Chair race) and is still struggling to understand its 2016 losses.
But, the answers are clear. Recruit leaders who understand modern communications, campaigns and desire to see change within the party. They need to reach outside the Beltway for messaging ideas and tips, listen to the concerns of average Americans and understand ideological surety does not guarantee success.
Most importantly, the party should invest in creating a new generation of strategists and campaign managers that span the ideological and cultural spectrum of America. The party could rely on these strategists and managers now and in the future to build successful campaigns. Much has been given to how Democrats need to build up a farm team of potential national candidates. Well, they need the same thing for successful leadership. For a party cannot be successful without them.