Democrats, Stop Obsessing Over Base Turnout. Remember 2018?
For years, left-wing candidates and pundits have complained that the big problem with the Democratic Party is that it just doesn’t energize progressives. The argument goes like this: If you nominate a self-described socialist or a true champion of far-left policies, you’ll mobilize a hidden treasure trove of progressive voters who have been just sitting at home waiting for a “real” progressive to come along—and you won’t even have to talk to a single Trump voter. There’s no doubt we will all see this base-obsessed strategy on full display in this week’s debate, which will feature Democratic presidential candidates leapfrogging each other to the left on almost every issue imaginable. Sen. Bernie Sanders will call for Medicare for All, Julian Castro will pledge to repeal the law that makes unauthorized border crossings a crime and Andrew Yang will extol the virtues of a Universal Basic Income—all with the hope that exciting the base will put them in the White House.
I have just one question for the purveyors of this mobilization theory. Can you give me one example of a competitive election where it’s actually worked?
The United States is in the midst of a crisis. A racist, lying egomaniac is occupying the White House. This simply isn’t the time to bet on an untested hypothesis that sounds good but has never resulted in a real-life win. The stakes are too high. Instead, Democrats should run the 2018 playbook that just delivered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the gavel and put Democrats in the governors’ mansions of purple and red states from coast to coast. To beat Donald Trump, of course Democrats must mobilize voters. But the party also must persuade voters beyond its base and build a broad coalition—and that base must include some of the folks who pulled the lever for him the first time around.
This isn’t an academic debate. We just had a major test called the 2018 midterms, and the results couldn’t be clearer. Sanders and his allied organizations Our Revolution and Justice Democrats said they were going to use that election to prove their case. They ran a bunch of far-left candidates in Democratic primaries across the country who carried their agenda. Breathless media coverage insisted that revolutionaries like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan were taking over the party, and Sanders personally campaigned with congressional candidates who agreed to push his policy agenda. So what happened? Only a third of those candidates could even persuade enough Democratic voters to win their own primary in swing districts. And not a single one of them flipped a Republican seat—in a cycle that saw Democrats gain a total of 41.
Instead, the crop of diverse and dynamic candidates who actually turned red seats blue were mainstream Democrats like Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Colin Allred of Texas, Sharice Davids of Kansas and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico. These candidates ran on kitchen table issues like reducing the cost of health care, raising wages and cleaning up corruption in Washington. Gay and straight, white, black and brown and led by some incredible female first-time candidates, they inspired historic turnout and persuaded swing voters that they were better equipped than Republicans to address the concerns that keep them up at night.
The list of winners who delivered Democrats the House doesn’t include a socialist among them, and the only two candidates who ran ads on single-payer health care in swing districts lost despite the Democratic wave. Not a single candidate who flipped a seat ran ads on free college or a federal jobs guarantee. Far from embracing open borders, as Republicans tried to claim, they emphasized border security and a pathway to citizenship to push back against Republican anti-immigrant attacks. They prevailed in the places Democrats will need to win to defeat Trump in 2020.
You don’t have to take my word for it—progressive data firm Catalist ran the numbers. Based on an in-depth look at the voter file data, they determined earlier this summer that 89 percent of the improvement in Democratic margin from the presidential election in 2016 to House races in 2018 came from people who changed their vote. That means only 11 percent came from adding new voters to the mix, and 40 percent of new voters actually pulled the lever for Republicans (disproving the notion that every voter added is a Democratic voter gained). Why did persuading those who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton make up so much more of the margin than adding new folks to the rolls? Because a persuaded voter counts for double: You not only gain one in your column, you take one away from your opponent. In short, that means for every gettable voter Democrats decide not to try to persuade, they need to conjure up two new ones to make up for that choice. And we know there are a bunch of gettable voters out there, since they just voted for a Democrat in the midterms.
It’s not just the House. Democrats just won governors’ races in the exact Blue Wall states that are the quickest path to victory in 2020—and they did so by running on mainstream ideas that both energized Democrats and persuaded voters we lost in 2016 to give Democrats another chance. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won by 406,534 votes in the must-win state of Michigan not by promising to usher in a socialist revolution but to “fix the damn roads.” Gov. Tony Evers flipped the bellwether state of Wisconsin by focusing on “real solutions” for crumbling public education and rising health care costs. Both of them assembled a broad coalition of black, brown and white voters from cities, suburbs and rural areas. Take it from these winners in these key Electoral College states: Democrats don’t have to shout like Bernie Sanders to rebuild the Blue Wall—they just need to talk about the things voters care about (and not be fooled into thinking the Twitterverse is in any way representative of the American electorate).
So during Thursday night’s debate, pay attention to the candidates that are talking about issues that unite a wide swath of gettable voters—like expanding economic opportunity, making work pay and reducing the cost of health care—rather than those who are racing each other to impress activists on the left. Turning out your base is important. No one is saying it isn’t. But mobilizing progressives alone isn’t enough to actually win. And in 2020, Democrats need to win. Concentrating on anything else right now will hand the White House to the worst president in history—again.