Over the next few months, and even the next few years, Democratic will be discussing how they need to rebuild their party. There will be talk about grassroots organization. There will be talk about fundraising tactics. There will be talk about voter registration drives. Basically, there will be talk about the same few things that we talk about after every election defeat.
However, I feel that the greater problem is not organization. Yes, we need to improve on how we organize, but we also need to look deeper. This post goes to the heart of what I think the problem is with Democrats, not just in Florida, but around the nation. The topics I will be discussing have rarely, if ever, been talked about in regards to party building. Some are also controversial. Most of this is based on political science. And, oddly, even though Democrats like to use science when debating climate change, they never want to look at it when talking about campaign strategy.
Do not treat voters female voters in a monolithic matter/Reduce influence of activist class.
For some reason, Democrats like to think that female voters will flock to their party simply because of reproductive issues. However, as in almost every other election, white women went for the Republican candidate in this election. If we look at the American National Election Study for the 2012 election, 49.3% of white women supported President Obama. Additionally, in the same study, most white women didn’t think it was important to have a female president. Basically, race plays more in a role in female vote choice (regardless of race) than gender.
Democrats need to move away from the idea that white female voters are somehow a “liberal base”. In fact, it is the total opposite…they are probably the most competitive vote out there. Therefore, the patronizing way in which Democrats campaign to women, acting as if reproductive issues is every woman’s top priority, is not productive. Why? First, those who consider reproductive rights their most salient issue (which I will get to later) are usually going to vote Democratic anyway. Second, reproductive rights are not even near the top of the list as far as important issues for all women.
Democrats need to move from this parochial view when it comes to gender politics and expand the field. One of the problems with this is that the activist class continues to push policy instead of looking for a campaign strategy that works. Activists should first learn how to win elections, and then push their policy once their candidates are elected.
Understanding salient issues.
This is another problem that Democrats have had for years. Voters vote on issues that are important to them, not necessarily on a left-right continuum. For example, a Democratic polling firm might find that 80% of Democrats, 70% of Independents, and 60% of Republicans support free chocolate ice cream on Sundays. However, free ice cream on Sunday’s is not an important issue. If we look at primarily activist-led issues, we see the same. Most Americans are pro-choice. Most Americans are for gay marriage. Most Americans are for many of the socially liberal issues of the Democratic Party. However, year after year, what is seen as the most important issue to the voters? Yep, the economy, not social issues.
Democrats, therefore, spend too much time campaigning on issues that don’t matter to a vast majority of Americans. If we look at Bernie Sanders’s rise in the Democratic primaries, it had to do with the fact that he was talking about issues that people cared about. Hillary, in the general election, did not.
Valence politics: How Trump Won.
What is valence politics? Harold Clarke introduces to us the impact of valence politics in 2004 with his examination of British elections. Basically, valence issues are those issues that everyone agrees on. Do we want to make America great? Yes we do. Do we want low unemployment? Of course. Do we want Americans to make more money? Yes, everyone if for that.
The problem is that Democrats haven’t figured out how valence politics works yet. Instead of trying to find a common factor that can connect all Americans to the Democratic Party, the Democrats try to convince people that their way is the best, and then campaign on that. If we look at this election, Democrats tried to make multiculturalism a valence issue. However, it isn’t one…many people oppose multiculturalism. We saw that in this election. The “changing the hearts and minds” approach Democrats have taken just doesn’t work.
Remember, this is how Obama won in 2008. He campaigned on a message of “hope and change”, yet rarely gave policy specifics. This was a powerful tool, and the right message in 2008. And when seeking reelection, candidates need to know how to spin their accomplishments in a manner that reflect valence politics. In 1984, Ronald Reagan also campaigned on valence politics, with what I consider the best political commercial of all time. If Democrats can figure this out (which I think they have with Bernie Sanders’s message), they will do better in the future.
Ditch the polls…look at hard data!
Utah pollster Dan Jones said that “those who live by the polls die by the polls”. And if 2016 taught us anything, it is that polls are not always useful. However, there are different ways to go about gauging the public, and that is looking at hard numbers.
When I created my forecasting model for this election, I looked at hard numbers (early voting numbers) to determine if one party had more of an enthusiastic turnout than the other party. In that model, I saw that Republicans were constantly outperforming Democrats. It is this type of approach that Democrats need to take.
There are good things about hard numbers. First, they are fact. The fact is that Donald Trump received more votes in Florida than Hillary Clinton, that is not in dispute. However, if we look at the exit polls, there is always room for dispute. Second, hard numbers have zero margin of error, because they are the entire universe. Democrats need to infer from previous elections to determine future campaign strategy. Unfortunately, polling and focus groups continue to dominate Democratic politics.
LISTEN TO POLITICAL SCIENTISTS!!
I would say that this is the biggest problem that we have with running campaigns. Every political consultant thinks that they offer sage advice to their clients because of their years of experience. However, many of them do not. Are you a consultant that has told someone that they need to do direct mail pieces? Have you recommend robocalls? Then you are part of the problem, not the solution.
The problem with this “consultants know best” approach is that their campaign tactics are never tested. For example, let’s say a campaign sends out five direct mail pieces and wins the election. The consultant (who made money off of those by the way) will say THAT was the reason why the campaign was a success. But was it? Did demographic shifts have an impact? Was it a “wave year”? Was the opponent caught in a prostitution ring? Did your candidate have a stellar debate performance? Were the newspaper endorsements helpful? Basically, when someone says that “our direct mail pieces words”, they are full of crap, primarily because they have not tested to see if they worked by ruling out a host of rival explanations for the victory. That is political science.
If there is ANY book a political consultants should own, it is Get Out The Vote by Donald Green and Alan Gerber. Unlike direct mail vendors, these two political scientists have actually tested campaign methods to see if they work. Guess what, it take 200 direct mail pieces to influence ONE voter in a partisan election. As far as robocalls….forget about it! They basically said they are useless.
We need to use campaign tactics that actually work…and have proven to work because they have been empirically tested…not because on consultant has a crystal ball in their hand and thinks they hold all the answers.
Yes, Democrats need to rebuild this party, but also need to take a new approach to campaigning. Unfortunately, I feel the status quo will continue.