For all the talk about why Donald Trump was elected president while losing the popular vote and how he could win again, one of the least discussed results of the 2016 election offers valuable lessons for Democrats.
An astounding 7.8 million voters cast their presidential ballots for someone other than Trump or Hillary Clinton. The two biggest third-party vote-getters were Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson (almost 4.5 million votes) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (1.5 million voters). But others received almost another 1.9 million votes as well.
Libertarians and Greens may try to convince you that this reflects growing support for their parties. It doesn’t.
Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.
Remember, Johnson and Stein were also on the ballot four years earlier, and the former drew under 1.3 million votes and the latter not quite 470,000 votes.
In 2004, the two major-party nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerry, combined for 99 percent of the popular vote.
Four years later, Barack Obama and John McCain drew 98.6 percent of the popular vote. And in 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney took 98.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the Federal Election Commission.
But in 2016, Clinton and Trump together received only 94.27 percent of the popular vote.
Both were so widely unpopular that millions of voters opted to waste their votes by supporting third-party candidates who had no hope of winning.
Breaking down the votes
Two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, make clear what occurred.
The Democratic presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama’s popular-vote margins in those three contests ranged from a low of 144,000 votes in 2004 to 620,000 in 2008. In all three elections, the Democrat received a majority of the vote.
The weakest showing was in 2004, when Kerry won with 50.9 percent of the vote and defeated Bush in the state by 2.5 points.
But in 2016, Trump carried the state by 44,000 votes — just over seven-tenths of a point, even though he won 48.2 percent statewide.
Obama and Romney combined for 98.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in 2012, but Trump and Clinton combined for only 95.6 percent four years later.
While third-party hopefuls drew just under 83,000 votes in the Keystone State in 2012, they drew more than three times that number, 268,000 votes, four years later. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters couldn’t stomach either of the major parties’ nominees, so they cast protest votes for third-party and independent candidates.
The same thing happened in Wisconsin, but in an even more stunning way.
Wisconsin was a near dead heat in 2004. (Kerry won it by a mere 11,000 votes.) But Obama carried it by comfortable margins in 2008 (415,000 votes) and 2012 (213,000 votes).
Then in 2016, Trump carried the Badger State by fewer than 23,000 votes. But his vote total was less than what Romney received in 2012 — yet Trump carried the state while Romney lost it by over 200,000 votes.
Third-party and independent hopefuls in Wisconsin drew 39,000 votes in 2012 but more than four times that number, 188,000 votes, four years later.
At the same time, the major-party vote there dropped from just over 3 million in 2012 to 2.8 million in 2016.
Elsewhere, the same thing happened.
In Florida, the third-party presidential vote quadrupled from 73,000 votes in 2012 to 297,000 votes in 2016.
In Michigan, it increased almost five-fold, from 51,000 to almost 251,000, while the total number of votes in the state for major-party nominees fell.
Some third-party votes came from Libertarians, Greens and others who regularly vote third party.
But the surge in third-party and independent voters undoubtedly reflected the baggage of the major-party nominees in 2016.
Increased support for third-party candidates occurred in every state, though with differences in magnitude.
In very pro-Trump states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, the increase was muted, since there were fewer defections from Trump and Clinton in those states.
Many conservative and pragmatic Republicans found Trump vulgar, narcissistic, intellectually lazy and unqualified to be president, but they couldn’t force themselves to vote for Clinton.
On the other hand, some Democrats saw Clinton as insufficiently progressive and untrustworthy, and there was no way they could vote for her.
What it means for 2020
In theory, Trump could have reached out during his presidency to Republican defectors. Instead, he chose to double-down on personal attacks, nationalist rhetoric and divisive appeals to non-college-educated whites, who helped elect him.
That makes it unlikely for Trump to attract many of those who wasted their votes in 2016.
On the other hand, Democrats have the rare opportunity next year to woo progressives, Republicans and swing voters who threw their votes away by supporting third-party nominees.
Progressives now see the damage Trump has done, and Republicans who rejected Trump in 2016 have had their worst fears about him confirmed.
But if Democrats select a nominee who is again unpalatable to many voters, as Clinton was, that could send anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters back to third parties again in 2020.
While it is completely true that the Democrats “waste” large numbers of popular votes in California and New York, that’s not why Clinton lost in 2016.
She failed to mobilize anti-Trump voters, too many of whom decided that they couldn’t support either major-party nominee. Winning those voters who defected from the two major parties would be an important step for either side.
And right now, only the Democrats are in a position to take advantage of that, which is not good news for Trump, not only in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also nationally.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially on the Roll Call website on July 29, 2019.
If there was any doubt congressional Republicans want to make the 2020 election about something other than President Donald Trump, look no further than the House GOP’s campaign chairman.
“Republicans will make 2020 race a choice between socialism and freedom, NRCC Chair Emmer says, w starring role for AOC & Squad as ‘Speaker in fact,’ & rest of Democrats as the ‘new Red Army,’” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis tweeted last week about National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer.
That’s not a complete surprise, of course, since Republican candidates, officeholders and strategists have appeared intent for months to transform the 2020 elections from a referendum on Trump into a referendum on socialism.
Even before Emmer’s chat with reporters last week at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, in which he said “This is not a squad. This is an army of socialists,” the Minnesota Republican had signaled his intentions in an op-ed for Roll Call.
“After 100 days of accomplishing nothing but tax increases and bad headlines, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives boldly proclaimed her socialist Democratic caucus have the 2020 elections in the bag. Her faux confidence is misplaced; the past three months for her band of socialists were disastrous,” he wrote on April 15.
But one side doesn’t dictate what an election is going to be about, and you can be pretty certain that most Democratic strategists want the 2020 elections to be a referendum on the president’s character, judgment, integrity and priorities.
And since Trump occupies the highest and most powerful elected office in the land, it’s easier to make next year’s elections about him than about a handful of freshman members of Congress.
If Democrats are going to run on any “ism,” it’s probably going to be the alleged “racism” of the president and his party, a message that should have considerable appeal among minorities, progressives and college-educated swing voters.
Last cycle, Republicans spent time and resources trying to make the 2018 midterms about Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They failed — as I suggested they would in a Feb. 21, 2018, column — because the leader of the minority party in the House simply isn’t seen as running the country.
With Trump in the news daily and the GOP controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans never had a chance to make 2018 “about” Pelosi.
As I wrote last year, Republican campaign operatives didn’t have many options in their effort to hold the House, so I could understand the strategy. But that didn’t mean that it was likely to be successful.
This cycle, Pelosi and the Democrats control the House, so at least the NRCC can plausibly label her responsible for the nation’s ills and Trump’s failures.
Plus, some Democrats on the party’s left have become more vocal about moving their party in a more progressive direction, which plays into GOP hands next year.
But most voters don’t see the speaker of the House — or the Senate majority leader, for that matter — as dictating the direction of the country. They think of the president as in control.
That’s particularly likely to be the case when the incumbent president has a large personality, dominates the news and is inherently controversial, either because of his policies or his character and personality. And that description fits Trump perfectly.
Presidential contests are part referendum on the occupant of the Oval Office and part choice between the two parties’ nominees. But Trump’s personality and profile enhance the chance that 2020 is more about him than about anyone else.
All about the nominee
Of course, Emmer’s (and the White House’s) strategy is more likely to be effective if Democrats nominate someone for the presidency who can more easily be portrayed as a radical, and particularly as a socialist.
The most obvious example is Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has embraced the “democratic socialist” label over the years. But even Sanders currently leads Trump in national ballot tests.
But can’t Republicans use the high profiles of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — a.k.a. “the squad” — to define the entire Democratic Party, as well as the party’s national ticket?
Probably not, though it may be worth a shot given the paucity of other options available to GOP strategists.
The small band of controversial, progressive Democratic women might be able to keep themselves in the limelight if they make an effort so do so next year, which would play right into Republican hands.
But they almost certainly are too junior to become the face of their party, even though they receive an inordinate share of national media coverage now.
By next fall, almost all of the media’s attention will be on the presidential contest — and particularly on the two presidential nominees.
That’s why the Democratic presidential nomination is so crucial to Trump and Emmer’s strategy.
Trump will likely continue to use the squad as punching bags if he needs to (and he will), but most voters will see 2020 as a clear choice between him and his Democratic opponent, especially if Democrats nominate someone who wants to occupy the political center during the general election campaign.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 23, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
I understand Democrats’ frustration with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as their desire to send him into retirement in the 2020 elections. But once again Democrats have gotten ahead of themselves in their optimism that they can defeat the Kentucky Republican.
Six years ago, Democrats and many in the national media gushed about the prospects of Alison Lundergan Grimes against McConnell. Grimes was young, articulate and personable, and she was the state’s sitting secretary of state.
Plus, her family had a boatload of money and more national political connections than you could count.
We heard repeatedly how old and unliked McConnell was. He had been in Congress for decades and represented gridlock and the past. Voters wanted change and fresh ideas, just what Grimes said she was offering.
“McConnell continues to have an abysmal job approval rating with 54% disapproving and just 36% approving of his performance,” wrote Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, in an April 9, 2013, memo entitled “Democrats within striking distance of Mitch McConnell for 2014.”
But I never bought the hype, and McConnell ended up clobbering Grimes 56 percent to 41 percent, a reflection of the state’s partisan bent and his campaign defining Grimes as a liberal. Grimes carried only 10 of the state’s 120 counties.
Another year, same story
Amy McGrath is this year’s Alison Lundergan Grimes. A graduate of the Naval Academy and a veteran of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, McGrath was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the Marines.
Clearly, she has an interesting story, and she also has one congressional race under her belt and success as a political fundraiser. (Her haul of $2.5 million for her initial day of fundraising was remarkable.)
McGrath has plenty of assets, but she has the same liabilities as Grimes — maybe even more.
Her biggest problem is Kentucky’s demographics and political fundamentals, both of which make it difficult for a Democrat to win a statewide federal election.
McGrath won a competitive Democratic primary last year in the Lexington-based 6th District for the right to take on three-term Republican incumbent Andy Barr.
She raised about $8.6 million, and many observers expected her to win if Democrats had anything approaching a good year nationally.
But Barr carried 17 of the district’s 19 counties, defeating McGrath 51 percent to 48 percent at the same time that Democrats were netting 40 seats nationwide.
How did Barr survive? He and his GOP allies used McGrath’s own words to paint her as a liberal, including her comment at a Massachusetts fundraiser that she is “further left … than anyone in the state of Kentucky.”
McGrath’s decision to turn around and run against McConnell seems odd (considering the real possibility of consecutive defeats), though it is easy to understand why state and national Democrats would want her to run.
The state is even more Republican than the 6th District, so McGrath starts off with a more challenging electorate.
Democrats hold just one of the state’s six districts, while the other five voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.
Barr’s district was the most competitive of the bunch, since Trump received “only” 55 percent of the vote here.
In the other four GOP districts, he drew 80 percent, 72 percent, 67 percent and 65 percent.
McGrath should win the Democrat-held 3rd District, centered in Louisville, and she should be competitive in the 6th. But her prospects elsewhere in the state, initially at least, appear bleak.
How could the fundamentals be worse for McGrath than they were for Grimes, especially since Democrats have a chance of winning the state’s gubernatorial election in less than four months?
For one, Grimes’s loss occurred in 2014, a full two years before Trump won the presidency. Since then, national politics has become even more polarized and partisan.
That increased partisanship makes it more difficult for Democratic candidates to win statewide federal elections in Kentucky, Trump’s fifth strongest state, behind West Virginia, Wyoming, Oklahoma and North Dakota.
McGrath will need a large number of Trump voters in a state he won by almost 30 points. That is a heavy burden even if McConnell is not personally popular and Democrats have a politically appealing challenger.
McConnell will have plenty of opportunities to make the Senate race about both Trump and McGrath, and indeed, the overwhelming national Democratic response to McGrath’s candidacy gives Kentucky Republicans another weapon to brand the challenger as a liberal, a Trump critic and a favorite of the coastal elites in California and New York. Her comments on Wednesday about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, saying in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal she “probably” would have voted to confirm him, then reversing herself a little later, only add fuel to the GOP line of attack.
As for the 2019 gubernatorial race, it will tell us little about a federal contest, where party and ideology are more important.
McGrath has received a Beto O’Rourke-like reception from Democrats across the country who rightfully see McConnell as a poster child for hypocrisy and partisan abuses in government.
But Kentucky’s fundamentals are actually worse than Texas’ for Democrats. (And remember: O’Rourke lost his statewide race there to the unpopular Sen. Ted Cruz.)
Non-Hispanic whites made up 85 percent of the Kentucky population in 2017, according to Governing, and by most measures the state ranks near the bottom on education.
It is not the kind of electorate that seems poised to embrace an anti-Trump Democrat.
Democrats would almost certainly be better off to focus on their top four Senate prospects — Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine, as well as longer shots in Iowa, Texas and Georgia — than sink resources into Kentucky.
As I wrote about Grimes in July 2013, the burden is on McGrath to prove she can overcome the state’s fundamentals. At this point, I’m skeptical her prospects are much better than Grimes’ were.
Note: A earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 11, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
Michigan is surprisingly relevant in 2020.
The Democratic presidential nominee almost certainly has to carry the state next year to have any chance of denying President Donald Trump a second term. And Republicans are eyeing the seat of first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.
Democrats must net three Senate seats next November and win the White House to take control of the chamber. That is almost impossible if Republicans swipe two Democratic seats.
Alabama is an obvious GOP target and a likely flip. But there are a handful of other Senate seats that look appealing for Republicans, including Minnesota, New Hampshire and Michigan.
Trump won only one of those states, Michigan, which puts the state at or near the top of the Republican Senate takeover list.
Last year was a banner year for Michigan Democrats. They won races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, the state board of education and the Michigan State board of regents.
Democrats also picked up two U.S. House seats, and while Republicans retained control of both the state Senate and House (largely because Michigan is heavily gerrymandered in their favor), their margins shrunk dramatically.
But some Democrats remain nervous about their positioning in the state, particularly among white working-class voters.
In the 2016 exit poll, nonwhites accounted for 29 percent of all voters nationally but only 25 percent of Michigan voters. White men without a college degree — Trump’s core supporters — constituted 16 percent of voters nationally but 20 percent in Michigan.
Trump carried Michigan 47.5 percent to 47.3 percent in what was widely regarded as a stunning surprise.
Two years later, underdog GOP Senate nominee John James lost his challengeto Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow by only 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent.
James is running again this cycle, hoping to upset Peters.
For Republicans, these two results demonstrate that Michigan can and will be competitive next year, with both the president and Peters on the ballot.
Numbers tell the story
A more detailed look at Michigan election results, however, demonstrates that the GOP has a steep hill to climb in both contests.
No Republican presidential nominee has drawn a majority of the vote in Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988 (54 percent).
His son, George W. Bush, took 48 percent in 2004 — three-tenths of a point more than Trump — but he still lost the state by 3 points.
In the four presidential elections immediately before 2016, the GOP nominee received 45 percent (2012), 41 percent (2008), 48 percent (2004) and 46 percent (2000).
Given those numbers, Trump’s 47.5 percent does not look so different, except in one way — he won.
Trump’s victory was more about Hillary Clinton’s weaker-than-normal showing rather than his own performance.
The last Republican Senate winner in the state was Spencer Abraham in 1994, when he flipped a Democratic open seat by a comfortable 9 points.
Of course, that was during Bill Clinton’s rocky first midterm election, which produced a Republican wave.
Since then, Democrats have won eight consecutive Senate elections, including Abraham’s unsuccessful bid for re-election in 2000, when he drew 48 percent while losing to Stabenow.
In the last three Senate contests, the GOP nominee received 46 percent (James in 2018), 41 percent (former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in 2014) and 38 percent (Rep. Peter Hoekstra in 2012).
The 2014 race, during President Barack Obama’s second midterm election, should have been the Republicans’ best chance in recent years to win a Senate seat in Michigan. Instead, Peters ended up winning by 13 points.
The point is clear: Michigan remains a difficult state for the GOP in statewide federal races.
Trump carried the state by a mere 10,704 votes and didn’t come close to winning a majority of the vote.
James’ showing last year was better than the performance of most recent Republican Senate nominees, but that isn’t saying much.
Given all that, and considering Clinton’s relatively casual attention to Michigan three years ago, 2020 will be a challenging test for the GOP in both the presidential and Senate contests.
Democrats took Michigan for granted in 2016 and lost it to Trump. They are not likely to repeat it, though they will need strong turnout among minority and younger voters.
James looks like a credible contender next year. But he’ll need to outperform Trump’s 2016 showing and, like the president, avoid any defections in the suburbs and from white women with a college degree to have any chance of winning.
Michigan could be competitive again next year, but it probably is more likely that the Great Lakes State reverts to its traditionally Democratic bent, as it did in 2018.
Note: This column appeared initially in the June 18, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
The fight for the Senate starts off with only a handful of seats at risk. And that’s being generous.
A few other states are worth your attention because of their competitiveness or questions about President Donald Trump’s impact, but almost two-thirds of Senate contests this cycle start as “safe” for the incumbent party and are likely to remain that way.
Of course, a retirement or a public scandal could create a contest where one should not exist, and an implosion of the Trump presidency could create an opportunity or two for Democrats.
But the nation’s polarization and intense partisan divide, combined with the fundamentals of the 34 states that will have a Senate race next year, suggest that only a few states — and a few voters — will decide which party runs the chamber in 2021.
The Senate now stands at 53 Republicans and 47 in the Democratic Conference. So Democrats need a net gain of three or four seats to win control, depending on who wins the White House (since the vice president, as president of the Senate, casts tie-breaking votes).
Seven of the dozen Democratic seats up this cycle are in strongly Democratic states and not competitive: Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Rhode Island. Even Sen. Tom Udall’s retirement does not put New Mexico into play.
Among battleground states with Democratic incumbents, Virginia has been moving toward the Democrats as the Washington, D.C., and Richmond suburbs have grown. And Hillary Clinton’s 5-point victory in the state in 2016, combined with the following year’s gubernatorial result, suggests Trump is likely to be an albatross around the neck of the eventual GOP Senate nominee in the Old Dominion.
Minnesota and New Hampshire are competitive states that Democrats cannot afford to lose. (Clinton carried each narrowly.) Both states bear watching, though Democratic incumbents Tina Smith of Minnesota and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire start off with clear advantages.
In Michigan, a state surprisingly carried by Trump in 2016, freshman Democrat Gary Peters starts off with the advantage but must also prove his mettle. Again, his seat is a “must hold” for Democrats.
On the GOP side, 15 of the party’s 22 seats up next year are in states Trump won handily in 2016.
All are both Republican enough and conservative enough to not likely be competitive next year: Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.
The eight key races
That leaves eight Senate races for 2020 worth mentioning — two in states won by Clinton (Colorado and Maine) and six in states that backed Trump (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina and Texas).
Alabama, won by Trump by 28 points in 2016, is all but lost for Democrats.
Alabama Republicans would have to nominate Judge Roy Moore again to have any chance of losing this race, and while that’s possible, it’s unlikely.
Losing Alabama means Democrats will need to swipe four Republican Senate seats and win the presidency to regain control of the Senate. That’s a challenging task, but far from impossible.
Colorado and Arizona remain the Democrats’ top two targets.
In 2014, I repeatedly noted what a strong candidate Cory Gardner was and what a perfect race he ran, but 2020 is likely to produce a very different political environment in Colorado.
Gardner was an outsider who ran as a pragmatic conservative. He benefited heavily from Democratic incumbent Mark Udall’s ill-advised campaign, including his focus on reproductive rights.
Gardner ended up winning by just under 2 points. But two years later, Trump lost Colorado by 5 points, and the state’s growing suburbs clearly are not advantageous territory for him, as evidenced by former GOP Rep. Mike Coffman’s double-digit loss and Democrat Jared Polis’s double-digit gubernatorial victory in last year’s midterm elections.
Democrats look headed for a primary, but Gardner has not done enough to demonstrate his political independence.
While handicapping websites like Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all start Gardner’s race off as a Toss-up next year, the Colorado Republican is really more of an underdog in his bid to win a second term. (Check out my March 5, 2019, column about his prospects.)
Trump carried Arizona by only 4 points in 2016. The GOP retained the governorship last year, but Republican nominee Martha McSally narrowly lost her Senate bid, and she is likely to be her party’s nominee again next year.
Democrats have come up with an interesting and potentially formidable candidate in former astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was shot during a campaign event in 2011.
Kelly isn’t a politician by trade, and he’ll need to prove that he has the candidate skills necessary to win. But he has a great story, and Giffords’ presence on the trail should be a huge asset.
North Carolina looks like the Democrats’ next best shot at a takeover. Trump carried the state by 4 points, a similar margin to Arizona. But that was a stunning disappointment for Democrats, since most Tar Heel State polls conducted between mid-September and late October showed Hillary Clinton ahead by at least a couple of points, sometimes as much as by 6 or 8 points.
The incumbent, Thom Tillis, is a generic Republican who has generic Republican appeal. That should be good enough if Trump carries the state, but North Carolina could well be a presidential battleground.
Tillis unseated Democrat Kay Hagan 49 percent to 47 percent in 2014 (Barack Obama’s second midterm election), so he doesn’t have much margin for error.
The GOP’s fourth headache is Maine, where Republican Susan Collins has survived difficult challengers and hostile political environments.
She has built up personal relationships over the years, and she’ll point to instances where she has split from her party to show her independence.
But can Collins survive again after her vote supporting Brett Kavanaugh? We will have to see.
Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon clearly is interested, but others have also been mentioned. Democrats must make the 2020 Senate race in Maine about Trump, Kavanaugh and control of the Senate, while Collins will try to make it about herself.
Democrats may well need to defeat Collins to have a chance of taking over the Senate, so this is one of the top races to watch.
Meanwhile, Democrats cite three long shots to watch: Texas, Georgia and Iowa.
Trump won Texas and Iowa by 9 points, and Georgia by just 5 points.
Democrats will need a big Hispanic turnout in Texas and a continuation of the anti-Trump trend in Georgia’s suburbs to put those Senate contests in play.
They’ll probably need a rural revolt against Trump and the GOP, and a blue-collar swing back to the Democrats, to put Iowa in play.
And Democrats need to defeat Trump to have a chance at flipping the Senate. That would require strong Democratic turnout and possibly some additional defections from the GOP.
If the president loses re-election, the fight for the Senate is likely to come down to North Carolina and Maine. The Senate is broadly “in play,” but Democrats need things to break just right to flip the chamber.
Note: This column appeared initially in the June 4, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
If you’re on any Republican list, you’ve undoubtedly received emails from one of the GOP campaign committees or a Capitol Hill communications staffer calling the Democrats “socialists.” To those of us who were around in the 1980s and 1990s, that’s nothing new. We remember the late GOP campaign consultant Arthur Finkelstein’s strategy: Call your opponent a liberal again and again until voters believe it.
Finkelstein’s style was “unmistakable,” wrote Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post in 1996, “an avalanche of attack ads painting Democrats as ‘liberal,’ ‘ultraliberal,’ ‘embarrassingly liberal’ and ‘unbelievably liberal.’”
Each cycle, Finkelstein returned to his name-calling strategy, and each cycle, political reporters and handicappers rolled their eyes and snickered at his ads, which were as shallow and superficial as they were predictable. They were all about labeling and demonizing.
But in Finkelstein’s case, shallow didn’t necessarily mean ineffective. “Liberal” became a pejorative, and Finkelstein took advantage of that.
The consultant, who died in 2017, worked for a long list of high-profile and successful Republicans and conservatives, including Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Connie Mack of Florida, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York. He also worked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After a while, Finkelstein’s strategy grew stale. Democrats wisely nominated a politically moderate Southerner in 1992 in Bill Clinton, and 12 consecutive years in the White House left the GOP with enough baggage to hand the presidency to the Democrats (albeit with a little help from Ross Perot).
Still, it’s undeniable that the liberal label has been an albatross around the necks of Democratic nominees for decades.
A successful strategy
Now, Republicans have raised the stakes by trying to brand the entire Democratic Party as advocating “socialism.”
Of course, the Democratic Party is a long way from being socialist, but the election of a few high-profile, self-declared Democratic socialists has given Republicans the hook they need to portray the entire party as “socialist.”
Defining Democrats as “liberals,” “progressives” or “socialists” is likely to continue to be a successful strategy for the GOP.
February’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found only 23 percent of respondents identified themselves as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal,” compared to 38 percent who embraced the “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative” labels.
Of course, those numbers reflect how people see themselves, not where they actually fall on the ideological scale. But since people are more likely to pick a category they like over one with negative connotations, it is surely relevant that a strong plurality chose the conservative label over the liberal one.
As always, there is another side to the coin. The same February NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey asked respondents whether government should do “more things” (usually seen as a more liberal response) or whether it was already doing “too many things,” (the normally more conservative answer).
A surprising 55 percent of respondents said government should do more compared to only 41 percent who said it should do less. In fact, attitudes seem to be changing.
While Gallup recently found Americans age 30 and older continue to have a much more favorable view of capitalism than socialism, those aged 18-29 have a more favorable view of socialism.
The right response
In the near term, Democrats need to figure out how to respond to the GOP’s attempts at branding the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Biden.
Do they merely laugh off the “socialism” charge, aggressively dismiss the characterization or look for a way to fight back, possibly by turning the tables on the party of Donald Trump, Steve King, Mike Pence and Sean Hannity?
One possible but very risky approach would be to link Trump and his party to an extreme form of conservative populism: fascism. But few Democratic candidates or officeholders would want to get into a name-calling war with the president, and equating Trump and GOP with fascism would likely be seen as demagoguery.
Fascism is such a loaded word — evoking images of Mussolini and Hitler — that it could generate a backlash, putting the Democrats on the defensive. The obvious answer is to create and repeatedly use a new term, possibly “Trumpism,” that describes the president’s attributes and behavior, from his narcissism and problem telling the truth to his crude language, his appointments of unqualified people and his demeaning of opponents. It would include his gentle treatment of dictators, especially compared with his attitude toward America’s allies, and his efforts to undermine key American institutions when it suits his purposes.
Of course, instead of looking for a new label to define the GOP, Democrats could simply fall back on their traditional attacks – including charging that Republican policies are dividing the country and are hurting children, seniors, women and racial minorities. Depending on where the economy is, those more traditional attacks might well be enough to keep Republicans on the defensive.
Perhaps the best way for Democrats to push back against the socialist label is the simplest — to nominate a pragmatic progressive who, on an issue or two, deviates from liberal orthodoxy and is more concerned with self-discipline, integrity, tolerance, and the ability to unite opponents of Donald Trump than with mere ideological purity.
That would make the GOP’s “socialism” charge both hollow and ineffective.
This column appeared initially in the April 30, 2019 issue of Roll Call.