Democrats Learn a Big Lesson for 2020 Vote About Taking on Trump
(Bloomberg) -- Democratic strategists are absorbing a big lesson from their electoral success this month -- stay focused on economic issues and refuse to play on President Donald Trump’s turf.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was happy to engage with Trump on issues like stopping refugees and banning Muslims, and she seized on opportunities to go after his temperament and denounce his insulting rhetoric.
In 2018, Democrats largely ignored Trump’s provocations about the caravan of refugees in Mexico and a call to end birthright citizenship, and didn’t engage with most of his inflammatory talk delivered through a string of campaign rallies. Instead they focused on health care and economics, and won sweeping victories, taking control of the House and picking up seven governor’s mansions.
The laser focus on health care, Social Security and Medicare helped Democrats carry Republican strongholds in Orange County, California, and in the suburbs of Dallas and Oklahoma City. It lifted them to victory in all six gubernatorial and Senate races in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If Democrats win those states and hold the ones Clinton won in 2016, they’ll win the presidency in 2020.
“The lesson for 2020 is that when he does and says outrageous things, assume that it’s on purpose and remember that you don’t need to fight every battle that he chooses,” said former Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. “In 2016, we thought a lot of the fights he selected for himself were so obviously disqualifying that we were happy to lean into them and indulge some of the controversies he stoked.”
“We underestimated how much turnout he was able to generate in white rural areas by having extended fights on the issues he wanted,” Fallon said. In the midterms, though, “people didn’t give in to the conversation about the caravan. Democrats successfully sidestepped Trump’s attempts to make that the all-consuming issue.”
Embracing Trump’s Bluster
The uncomfortable lesson for Democratic strategists is that large areas of the country embrace Trump’s bluster and nationalist message centered on fears of illegal immigration, crime and globalization.
Engaging with him on those terms, they say, merely helps that message break through to rural and working-class white voters -- and prevents Democrats from reaching the more diverse and less-frequent voters they rely on.
It’ll be tougher for Democrats in 2020 to ignore Trump when he’ll be on the ballot, said Dan Pfeiffer, former adviser to President Barack Obama. The party will need “a Democratic candidate who is able to tell a clear and compelling story that doesn’t feature Trump as the main character,” he said.
“Trump’s greatest political strength is ability to move the political conversation off topics that matter to Democratic and swing voters and onto topics that excite his base,” Pfeiffer said in an email. “The challenge for the Democrats is not allow Trump to drive the conversation every day. We have to think creatively and strategically about how and what we communicate and do it with relentless discipline.”
After this month’s elections, the Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA commissioned a survey in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It found that many voters are concerned about Trump’s temperament, but that such disenchantment doesn’t always translate to votes against him, because many support his policies, said Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil.
‘Taking Trump On’
The voters who backed Trump in 2016 and Democrats in 2018 were moved by substantive arguments, the survey found. Cecil said the party’s path to victory in 2020 requires winning some 2016 Trump voters, not by focusing on his temperament or language but by “taking Trump on right where it hurts for him.”
The Priorities USA poll found that health care will be the most important issue for Midwestern Trump-to-Democrat voters in deciding who to support in 2020. They also were moved by Democrats’ argument that Trump’s tax cuts will boost the federal budget deficit and ultimately lead to cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
Trump won the electoral college in 2016 by running up the score in small towns and rural areas in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and the upper Midwest, while weak turnout for Clinton in the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit proved fatal to her campaign.
In 2018, upscale suburban areas saw a dramatic swing toward Democrats. White college graduates voted for Trump by 3 points in 2016 and House Republicans by 10 points in 2016; in 2018 they preferred House Democrats by 8 points, exit polls published by CNN show.
The suburban strength wasn’t enough to save Senate Democratic incumbents in deep-red North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, although those states won’t get Trump close to winning re-election in 2020. And Florida, an electoral vote-rich swing state where Democrats lost governor and Senate races this year, reveals the party’s danger of getting crushed in rural areas with high concentrations of older, white and non-college-educated voters.
Narrowing the Gap
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson lost re-election in Florida and progressive star Andrew Gillum lost the governor’s race, both by narrow margins after recounts. Exit polls published by CNN showed that white voters without a college degree were pivotal -- Gillum lost them by 30 points and Nelson by 31 points. They made up nearly 40 percent of Florida’s electorate.
Suburban-rural Pasco County in Florida, north of Tampa, epitomizes the problem for Democrats, said Steve Schale, who managed Obama’s successful 2008 campaign in the state. Obama lost the county by about 8,000 votes that year; Trump won it by 52,000 votes in 2016. Both Nelson and Gillum lost it by more than 30,000 votes in 2018.
“To win Florida we don’t have to win a lot of these places. We have to do a little better -- take a county you lost by 40,000 votes and lose it by 35,000 votes,” Schale said. That means “signaling to these voters that we’re not going to contribute to the economic pressure they’re feeling in terms of your pocketbook.”
Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who’s leaving office after two terms, said in an interview that a lack of civility in campaign discourse contributed to Democratic victories in races for governor, Senate and House. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by less than 11,000 votes out of almost 4.8 million votes cast. Snyder said winning it in 2020 will require a message of “building bridges” rather than “finding conflict points.”
“I believe diversity is a positive power, not something that should divide people,” Snyder said.
Republican strategist Brad Todd said suburban areas will be key to Trump and the GOP’s prospects in 2020. Getting votes from Trump skeptics will require winning some economic debates against Democrats, he said.
“The battle has to be won by Republicans in the suburbs by getting voters who care a whole lot about the economy and taxes and crime and national security,” he said. The question for Trump, Todd said, is “How do I get those voters that have voted Republican their whole life but are not in love with me?”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.