In any political campaign, the battle of the airwaves, which now includes the phones in our pockets as much as the TVs on the walls, requires playing both offense and defense. Offense requires sharing our candidate's ideas and plans and attesting to his or her character. This must be primarily a positive message, which is what some of us wish politics were about more of all the time. Defense requires calling out all the opposition's lies and attempts to sow division, exposing them for the utter bullshit they are. There's still a place for inspirational rhetoric, but this is what politics is, or seems to be, all about all too often. Especially now.
Last time around-2016-did you get out there and inform everyone you could find about Hillary Clinton's plans on taxes, community colleges, jobs and wages? Probably not, or very infrequently. I know I failed on that score. I spent all of my time and energy retweeting coverage of the latest Trump outrage. And while all this outrage certainly did motivate many of us, we did not help the candidate reach potential supporters with her economic message. And of course the press paid close to zero attention to that part of her platform, or any of it, because that's how the press rolls these days. The big three TV networks spent only thirty-two (thirty-two!) minutes on issue coverage in 2016. Press coverage of campaigns has become more Jerry Springer, less Walter Cronkite.
A good defensive campaign against lies and fabrications is necessary, and the discussion of how best to play defense follows, but we cannot let ourselves disappear down this toxic rabbit hole. We must take command of the conversation-play offense-by painting the contrast between the incumbent and our Democratic nominee, by emphasizing the positive case for our nominee, by motivating the individual voter to do just that-vote for something, not just against. I'd like to talk about the more pleasant task first.
In the Trump era, most voters are locked in, about sixty-five million of us-the number I cited in the introduction-are very unlikely to vote for the man. #NeverTrump. About sixty million are very unlikely to vote against him. The vast, vast majority of these Trump supporters have not wavered and never will, no matter the evidence, not even if their lives have been made demonstrably worse by his actions and policies.
Clinton famously denigrated half of these folks as "deplorables." Some clearly are. But that was a lot of eggs to put in that basket, and it was self-evident enough without having to step on a political landmine to underline it. Did the comment have any effect? I haven't seen any conclusive data, but it did turn into a rallying cry that likely increased GOP enthusiasm and activism.
My point is let's not worry about people we can't convince or who fall into the trap of thinking, "How can all these people vote against their own self-interest?" Seriously, get rid of that kind of thinking. People like to define their own self-interest, not be lectured to from an ivory tower about what it should be.
Let's focus on those who are gettable. In the impending election, there will be plenty of Americans who are going to vote-we'll address those who are at risk of not voting in a later chapter. And a portion of these "definitely voting" voters are not locked in, which to us has to mean that they may vote for the Democrat. They're real, not mythical. They don't look like unicorns. They are as ordinary as the neighbor next door, and we can win some of these good people.
In 2020, they'll likely fall into the following categories:
Historically this cohort skews heavily Democratic, but we absolutely cannot take them for granted. Some will be undecided.
A higher percentage of Clinton's voters than Trump's who were flirting with a third-party vote never came home to her, based on exit polls and other postelection research. It could have been in part because while clearly these voters did not love Clinton, they loved Trump less, but they thought she was going to win so it was OK to cast a protest vote. The votes collected by the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein were not an insignificant factor in her loss and may have turned the election.
That math is straightforward: Trump's ceiling was 46 percent nationally and 47 to 48 percent in key battlegrounds. He won the critical state of Wisconsin with just 47.2 of the vote. The two main third parties accounted for almost 6 percent of all votes cast. It was the largest percentage for third parties since the Perot years. In 2020, Trump's ceiling may still be in the same range as in 2016-not 50 percent. All of the possible third-party voters won't vote Democratic, but we need to bring on board as many of them as we can to make his win number as high as possible, and therefore not attainable.
An unlikely sounding metamorphosis, I know, and when this species was discovered, I had a hard time believing the news-but these much-talked-about voters are alive and well, especially in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest. How had they preferred the young, skinny black guy with the Muslim-sounding middle name, voted for him twice, in fact, and then pulled a 180 and got down with the old racist with a gold-plated commode? I think the votes in '08 and '16 can be best explained as support for the most "changey" candidate, and the votes in '12 and '16 as support for the candidate believed to be the most authentic fighter for people like them. In '16, they were duped, obviously, and that's infuriating but also motivating: we can undupe at least some of them, maybe many.
People who voted for Trump in '16 but are open to an alternative
Some may be voters who had deep reservations about Trump but even deeper reservations about Hillary Clinton. Or they feel that everyone has so much baggage, the corruption has been going on forever, everyone does it, my vote doesn't make any difference anyway-any number of equivocations. Still others somehow convinced themselves that Trump would drop the clown act and be more "presidential" once he got to the White House. Some might even have serious substantive problems with one or more of Trump's key initiatives, especially the tax cuts for the rich or attacks on health care. And could some have succumbed to an unacknowledged misogyny? Not impossible. It saddens me to say this, and I could be wrong, but I think there is more resistance to a woman president then there is to any male from a minority group, or a male of any sexual orientation. Hillary put cracks in the glass ceiling, but it is stubbornly strong.
Voters who did not vote for Trump in '16 but are open to him this time around
Amazing but true. Sometimes these are referred to as Romney-Clinton voters, and yes, they do exist. Admittedly a small universe, this one, but there are no doubt Republican and Republican-leaning voters, many of them in suburban areas, with a higher than average income, who just couldn't pull the lever for Trump based on his appalling lack of character. They could become "transactional" voters, those who still think Trump is a personal Dumpster fire but for whom one litmus-test issue may be all that's required, and in 2020 the economy may be it for Trump. They like the tax cuts, how the economy is working for them, the rollback of many regulations. In other words, he'll have a chance to make his case to them this time. And so will we.
Much of the Democratic nominee's campaign will be spent obsessing over and communicating and measuring progress with these relatively small slivers of the electorate-in the core battleground states, just a few hundred thousand people; if the battleground map expands, a couple million. You and I need to be engaged in this arena as well.
Barack Obama was a man of high character and ethics. He had a good sense of humor. He won the "have a beer with" test in both his presidential elections. But the core of his success, especially when he won reelection with the highest unemployment rate of any president in history, was a strong sense within the middle class and among people striving to enter the middle class that no matter the color of the man's skin, his weird name, or his party affiliation, he would go to the mat for them.
Hell, he'd run through the wall for them, and he proved it with his desicion to save GM and the American auto industry.
At the time, that gambit polled at 10 percent. It was a bad business idea, many thought and, surely, an even worse political one. Wrong. In 2012, the unofficial reelection slogan and rallying cry was simply "Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive." It showed up on social media, on billboards, and sides of barns in rural areas, and Vice President Joe Biden ultimately took it out on the stump. As much as everyone in the country was thrilled that the terrorist leader had been brought to ultimate justice by our Special Forces, the last part of that message was far more personal and compelling in many parts of the country, in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, for example.
In 1992, Bill Clinton's team had relentlessly focused on James Carville's mantra "It's the economy, stupid." Years later, both Obama victories were built on messages and policies aimed at convincing working-class voters that he had better solutions than his opponents. I am writing this book not knowing who the Democratic nominee will be in 2020, but as I stated in the Introduction, for the work required to uproot Donald Trump, it doesn't matter. What matters is the deep understanding that the nominee must win the economic argument with Donald Trump among those voters who will decide this election.
I learned all about this in the 2012 reelection campaign against the plutocrat Mitt Romney. Countless conversations throughout the country, especially in the midwestern battleground states, went something like this: "I don't agree with everything Obama has done. I wish the economy were recovering faster. But he stuck his neck out to save the auto industry. Romney would have let it die. Obama wants to cut our taxes and raise taxes on the superwealthy. Romney wants to cut taxes for people like him. And who is going to understand and fight for people like us-a corporate raider like Romney or the son of a single mom who was recently still paying off his college loans like Obama?"
That's not to say that other issues won't be important with many voters. Think health care, education, immigration, national security, lack of American prestige in the world, and climate change. They will be critically important, and the Democratic nominee needs to speak to them persuasively, but the economy will be the central front in this war. No matter what else is said and what else happens, target voters will need to see clearly that the Democratic candidate will wake up every day, take the elevator down from the White House residence, walk across the Colonnade to the West Wing, enter the Oval Office, and make decision after decision aimed at bettering their lives and the lives of their families. Unless voters feel this connection and trust in their guts, the odds that Donald Trump wins reelection will soar. If November comes and persuadable voters testify that "he drives me crazy with the tweets and I think he's a terrible person, but I think he's been OK on the economy and the Democrat wants to turn us into a socialist country," we will likely lose.
Your candidate's baggage is bigger than my candidate's baggage? For sure that's the case in this next election, but this kind of calculation will win . . . second place. Which is last place in a presidential race. Voters want to know, that is, feel, what the candidate stands for, not just against. The GM decision proved that President Obama, at great political risk (10 percent approval!), was willing to take on heavy political barnacles to fight for the American worker.
In 2016, Donald Trump's campaign worked relentlessly to undermine Clinton on the grounds of her assorted baggage-the emails, Benghazi, her husband, and the rest of it—but all this could only help support the orange-haired candidate's peculiar but nonetheless effective economic messaging.
The message was often dishonest and hypocritical to the point of shamelessness, but it worked. With many voters it's still working. Learn from history: Hillary Clinton and her campaign undoubtedly could have done a better job of getting across her economic arguments, and for sure they could have drawn a more effective contrast with the Republican, but the success with which Trump played the role of fearless fighter for the forgotten middle class was one of the most remarkable feats of utter bullshit in modern American political history. If he gets away with this again . . .
"He's got my back. He has never lied to me." How many times have I read or heard this explanation from a Trump supporter? I, like you, want to yell, "He does not have your back! He has lied to you every single day. He will say anything! You know this! He has sold you down the river!" But of course, yelling out of frustration isn't the answer. We have to calmly prove that this emperor has no hair, orange or otherwise, and we have to help the Democratic candidate make that gut connection on kitchen-table issues.
The identity and character of the Democratic candidate will be the most important factor in closing the sale on the economy in 2020. If target voters like and trust this man or woman and have faith in their commitment to help improve their own lives, our job will surely be easier. But if we rely solely on the nominee's charisma and perfectly run campaign to get people to pull the right lever, we will, once again, come up painfully short.
We don't know what the state of the economy will be as we head into Election Day, but we do know two things. One, despite the low unemployment rate, many Americans feel no better today than they did three years ago, much less ten years ago. Trump promised that he and he alone would change this vulnerability among "the uneducated," as he so ungraciously labeled them, but people are having to work harder than ever, stringing together multiple jobs, many part-time and without benefits, to get by, no matter how high the Dow soars. Remember, only about half of the country is in the stock market at all. And two, just about everything Trump has done-the tax cuts for billionaires, the trade and tariff wars that hurt rural communities and farmers, undermining health care enrollment and removing labor protections-all of these measures have taken dead aim at the people he claims to be fighting for.