Last month, the Democrats faced the most unpopular presidential candidate in the last thirty years, and lost. The victory of someone as dangerous as Trump against such an experienced figure as Hillary Clinton, the unexpected nature of the outcome by most commentators and the fact that she won the popular vote by over 2.6m have all contributed to a state of shock and despondency amongst Democrats and the left further afield.
Hill, not Bill
But the result should not have been as unexpected as it was. The Clinton campaign in 2016 was a world away from that of her husband in 1992: then, the plucky charismatic outsider beat the sitting, tongue-tied president – the ultimate insider. In 1992, Bill Clinton taunted Bush with “It’s the economy, stupid!”
In 2016, the roles were reversed: Trump played the charismatic outsider railing at the establishment; Hillary played the role of the target for all that anger. This time, it was the Democrats that were seen as an aloof elite that was out of touch with the economic problems of the ordinary person. Her perceived dishonesty about emails (not helped by her secretive and controlling nature), her cosiness with Wall Street, all contributed to a sense that she could not be trusted to deal with the problems that were hurting the most.
To me, that criticism seems misplaced, and to think that Trump is in anyway a solution seems bizarre. But that is beside the point, and it is a point that is not specifically about Clinton. The Democratic Party – once the party of the common man – seems to have lost its common touch.
The warning signs were there a long time before the primaries even started. Of the fifty states, only 16 now have Democrats as governors: there are more than twice as many Republican governors. Two years before Hillary Clinton lost Obama-voting states like Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, Republicans were re-elected to serve a second term as their governors. All of those states also have clear Republican majorities in both houses of their state legislatures.
The American system means that those outcomes are not unconnected – they are not simply different elections held within the same state boundaries. Governors, state officials and state legislatures get to set the rules of the electoral process, and that can matter a great deal in a close election. Those governors and state legislatures also get to draw up congressional districts every ten years: capturing those state positions in the 2010 Tea Party elections led to them redrawing boundaries to give them a baked-in congressional advantage in the 2012 elections that will remain in place until 2022.
Jesus, The Felon
Morning, Sunday 6 November
I’m in a rundown, dust-blown, neighbourhood a bottle’s throw south of downtown Phoenix. Between the empty housing lots, the ramshackle shotgun shacks look ready to collapse and join their departed neighbours. Canvass list in hand, I reach between the metal bars of the grille to knock at the paint-peeled front door. It cracks open and a heavily tattooed twenty-something man, dressed in a stained wife-beater vest, stares bleary-eyed at me as I ask
“Hi. Is that Jesus Ramirez? I’m Jackie and I’m a volunteer with the Democratic Party. Will you be voting for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday?”
“I can’t vote. I’m a felon”
I was in the States to see the Presidential debacle first-hand, helping out in my own modest way in Arizona, spending the last six days of the election knocking on doors to get the Democratic vote out in the Copper State.
Arizona was one of the Democrats’ better results among the states it lost. A state that Obama lost by over 8% in both his elections, it had not initially seemed competitive this time around, yet the result ended up being a lot closer here (3.5% behind) than those in Obama states such as Ohio (8.1%) and Iowa (9.4%), and slightly better than fiercely-targeted North Carolina (3.7%).
Clinton did well among areas with large Latino populations. Whilst the nation swung to the Republicans by 1%, Arizona swung the other way by 2.8%, California by 3.5% and Texas by 3.4%. In fact, the Democrats did better in once solidly Republican Texas than Iowa, which has voted Democratic in five of the last six presidential elections.
Elections are not just won at election time
With Arizona emerging as a late target state for the Democrats, it seemed clear that not much had been done in the way of canvassing until the final weeks: targeting of the Get Out The Vote efforts was at registered Democrats and non-partisan Latinos rather than electors identified as saying that they were likely to vote Democratic in these specific elections. Such work might have saved me the time of knocking on the door of Mr Ramirez on the last weekend day before the election.
More worrying though was this lack of preparation seemed evident in states that have long been targeted: a friend who assisted in Miami reported much the same – all the canvassing there seemed targeted at demographic profiling rather than hard canvassing returns.
If the Democrats are to reverse the trend of recent elections, they need to be out regularly getting this sort of hard data between elections, not just in a rush a few weeks before them.
Tackling Voter Suppression
But my story about Jesus Ramirez* tells a more important story.
Unlike the United Kingdom, having a criminal record for an offence that has a theoretical maximum sentence of over a year leads to a prohibition on voting in many states, and given the racial disparity in who has those records it tends to be Republicans that are keener to apply those penalties. Maricopa County – with a population of 4.2 million that makes up 60% of Arizona’s total – has had one of the USA’s worst records of racially-profiled arrests. The county’s notorious Republican sheriff, Joe Arpaio, took the view that any Latino was potentially an illegal immigrant and could therefore be stopped and searched, or raided (never mind that Latinos have been living in Arizona for much longer than Anglophone Americans). Minor issues where the police might turn a blind eye for non-Hispanic white citizens quickly escalated into significant crimes for Latinos. Arpaio then made life as miserable as possible for these “criminals” by making them work in chain gangs and making them live in prison tents in the scorching desert heat, along with making them wear pink underwear to humiliate them.
And of course once those “felons” were released, they lost their right to vote and to challenge the system that they fell foul of.
“Racist Joe” Arpaio is a throwback to those 1960s sheriffs of the Deep South, only with Mexicans at the receiving end rather than African Americans. In some ways, he was worse: at least those 1960s figures like Bull O’Connor and Jim Clark were acting out of a massively-misplaced sense of preserving what they thought of as law and order. Arpaio on the other hand was found to be in contempt of court for continuing his racial profiling practices. He knew he was acting illegally and yet carried on regardless. And being a sheriff for 24 years in a county of 4.2 million means that he damaged far more lives than O’Connor or Clark ever did.
Policing is not the end of the racial problems in voting in Arizona. In the state’s primary elections, huge queues deterred many voters in Phoenix and other parts of the state with large Latino populations. Those queues were caused by a huge disparity in the number of polling stations: the city of Phoenix itself (population 1.4 million, 41% Latino) had as many polling stations as the city of Flagstaff (population 70,000, 18% Latino), a twentieth of its size.
Despite these factors weighing against the Democrats in Maricopa County, for the first time in at least fifty years the county’s vote share for the Democrats exceeded the average for Arizona as a whole. The Republican county recorder, whose job it is to oversee election processes there, lost to her Democratic opponent. More importantly still, after 24 years of misrule, Arpaio lost his job to his youthful, tough-as-nails Democratic opponent, Paul Penzone, by a ten-point margin.
So, on a bad night for the Democrats, there were glimmers of hope in Arizona. If the Democrats can build on this, and undo the results of decades of racist voter suppression, they can do well here in the future, if they put the work in.
With the Democratic losses in the Rustbelt, results in areas with Mexican Latino voters and the better than average swings in Colorado, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina suggest that the Democrats increasingly need to adopt a Sunbelt strategy to offset declines further north. Part of this is about race – minority ethnic growth in the Sunbelt makes those states increasingly Democrat – and part of it is the linked issue of urban growth. The Sunbelt has rapidly growing cities, the Rustbelt has declining ones.
But victory will not fall into their laps: the Democrats seriously need to invigorate the dynamism of Howard Dean’s Fifty State Strategy of a decade ago.
Can The Democrats Win Next Time?
Given that the Democrats actually won the popular vote and only narrowly lost in a number of swing states, it would seem that if Trump’s presidency becomes unpopular it should be relatively easy for them to prevent his re-election. But such a victory is dependent on two conditions.
1. Laying the foundations
Given that the Democrats are in a minority in the Senate, House of Representatives, governors’ mansions and state legislatures, they need to make up ground fast if they are going to have a chance in 2020.
The House is probably too gerrymandered to make a majority in the 2018 mid-term elections likely and the selection of senate races then puts the Democrats more in the position of trying to hold on to what they currently have than being able to win new seats: the six-year election cycle for the Senate means that they are defending senate seats won in their strong performances of 2006 and 2012.
The Democrats might want to look at gaining Nevada or Arizona, but they will have a tough fight holding on to states like North Dakota, Missouri or Indiana.
So, meaningful gains are probably going to have to come from governor and state legislature races. My experience in Arizona shows though that it is precisely those state races that will matter most if the Democrats are to triumph in 2020. The map below shows the governor races that will be fought in the next two years – the greyed out states either have governor races in 2019 (Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi) or 2020 (the rest).
The Democrats would hope to win New Jersey and hold Virginia next year. In New Jersey, Chris Christie is term-limited and his administration is mired in the scandal on Bridge-gate. Virginia will need defending, as its governors cannot serve consecutive terms of office in this swing state, but they will start as favourites to hold on.
But for them to be in a position to recover the White House in 2020, they will need to be making significant gains in 2018. They need to be fighting back in those states where the 2010 Republican victories laid the foundation for Trump’s victory: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. They also need to be looking for gains in Sunbelt states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New Mexico. Texas may be a struggle, but they need to run a strong campaign there too: the presidential results suggest that the Lone Star State should be no harder to win than Iowa or Ohio.
That sort of strategy needs the right leadership nationally. The party chair able to mobilise and energise the Democrats sufficiently to have that competitive edge across the nation was Howard Dean in Obama’s 2008 victory and the 2006 mid-term elections that preceded it. Fortunately, Dean has put his name forward for that position again. The Democrats would be well advised to pick him if they are serious about winning again.
2. Picking the right candidate
The second, of course, is picking the right candidate in 2020. We do not yet know the conditions of that election, but looking back to November and where people have stopped voting Democrat, I would suggest that such a candidate has to not look like a member of ‘the liberal elite’. That probably means that they should neither be a Washington-based politician (a senator, a congressman or indeed the outgoing Vice-President) nor from a state that might be dismissed as representing that elite, such as California or in New England. The worst possible pick would be a New England senator, such as the much-touted Elizabeth Warren.
Those two conditions rapidly narrow down the field to the handful of Democratic governors not from those states. That is a fairly short list, that becomes shorter once you rule out those that are probably not viable as candidates: Minnesota’s Mark Dayton will be 73 by the next election, West Virginia’s Jim Justice (the state’s only billionaire) is too far from the politics of the party elsewhere, America probably isn’t ready to elect the openly bisexual Kate Brown of Oregon as its president.
That leaves ten:
- John Hickenlooper from Colorado
- John Carney from Delaware
- David Ige from Hawaii
- John Bel Edwards from Louisiana
- Steve Bullock from Montana
- Andrew Cuomo from New York
- Roy Cooper from North Carolina
- Tom Wolf from Pennsylvania
- Terry McAuliffe from Virginia
- Jay Inslee from Washington
Carney and Cooper have only just been elected, and so it seems early to judge them – although a swing state such as North Carolina would be a very good state to be based in. As of course would Pennsylvania, although Wolf will be 71 in 2020.
Virginia is another key swing state, but unfortunately McAuliffe is too much of a Washington insider (former chair of the national Democratic National Committee, and friend of the Clintons to boot) to be viable. Hawaii might be a bit too exotic to be relatable to blue collar America.
That leaves Bullock, Cuomo, Edwards, Hickenlooper and Inslee. Of the five, I think the strongest pick might be Steve Bullock: relatively young at 50 and Montana is far from the model of the “liberal elite”. With a record of job creation and defending union rights, he might be precisely what those blue collar voters who abandoned Clinton are looking for.
The candidate might not be a governor of course, but few other politicians from outside Congress would have the stature to be a strong candidate. One might be Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Obama’s Housing Secretary – a young, dynamic Latino who was briefly considered as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. He probably needs to run as the Democrats’ candidate for Texas governor to get the stature needed for a decent shot in the Primaries, but the strong Democrat showing among Latino voters in the Sunbelt this time suggests that he would be well-placed to inject some fresh appeal to the tarnished Democratic image.
So, that’s my formula for a Democratic Presidential victory in 2020: plenty of hard ground work between elections to get candidates known and to collect voting intention data; picking a Democratic National Committee chair who knows how to energise the party broadly across the states rather than narrow focusing on perceived swing states; expanding the map to include Sunbelt States like Arizona and Georgia; concentrating on governor and state level elections in the 2018 mid-term elections; picking a fresh-faced non-Washington candidate in 2020 from outside of New England like Steve Bullock or Julian Castro to have the folk-appeal of Clinton in 1992.
None of these are earth-shattering ideas, but they need the Democrats to make the right choices. It remains to be seen whether they will.
* Whilst I met a number of Jesus’s and Mr Ramirez’s in my campaigning in Arizona, I have used a pseudonym to protect the identity of the real “Jesus Ramirez”