Voting Trump out next November will mean igniting the passions of two key groups: those who do the most political labor and those with the most barriers to voting. The outdated idea of “playing to the middle” has become a predictable strategy for failure, but the idea keeps lurching on — despite modern history and current analysis.
“If your goal — I know my goal — is to beat Donald Trump, we have to have someone who can beat him,” proclaimed Jill Biden at a campaign event for her husband in New Hampshire. While winning is obviously the goal for all of us, it’s dangerous to put forth a candidate who demonstrably causes folks to “swallow a little” when they vote, particularly when there are other candidates successfully inspiring hope and generating the kind of excitement we need. (Sorry Jill.)
The Biden campaign and many other centrist-oriented pundits rely on an outdated political calculation: Appeal to the widest swath of voters and minimize the risk of alienating any.
Don’t be too bold, don’t think too big, and definitely don’t scare away white men by not being one.
At first glance, there is a rudimentary logic at play: 15% of voters self-identify as liberal and 20% as conservative. Though polarization continues to rise, most people see themselves as somewhere between the ideological extremes. It’s easy to see where playing it safe has wide appeal. The problem is that this idea keeps failing over and over again.
Instead, we see that candidates win when they inspire enthusiasm and lose when they play it too safe. It’s why our only Democratic president of the 21st century was Obama, a man who caused no end of handwringing about electability, while every losing Democratic candidate in modern history has been viewed as the standard bearer for the status quo. For better or for worse, America hates boring.
Enthusiasm is the key.
The bottom line is that elections are determined by those who show up. Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts will once again be the most critical aspect of the 2020 campaign. We should be thinking more strategically about who we need to get to the polls and the most effective ways to get them there. We need a candidate who can inspire enthusiasm with those voters who make the difference come election time.
There are a few well understood factors that tend to bolster enthusiasm with candidates: hot button issues, inspiring love or inciting fear, and relatability. We want a candidate who we feel “gets us” and who will look out for us. This is why Trump is so beloved by his rabid base. Pandering or no, he fulfills that need for them. Obama did the same for us. We desperately need that level of enthusiasm again.
Engage where it matters.
There are two kinds of eligible voters: those who always vote, and those who don’t. Irregular voters make up 65% of people eligible to vote, and range from those who vote sporadically, registered but rarely vote, and those who aren’t registered at all. They are more likely to be left leaning, secular, women, people of color, under 50, and those making under $75k a year. Irregular voters are the least likely to see themselves represented in the political process. But when they do, they tend to show up.
Additionally, irregular voters often face the highest barriers to voting. This group has been relentlessly targeted by systematic voter suppression, has seen weakened political power through gerrymandering, and tend to have individual and structural barriers to voting. These are people with kids, jobs, homework to do, and households to manage — those with the longest to-do list and the leanest of resources. Irregular voters lean democrat by more than 20 points and are the key to winning in 2020.
Conversely, regular voters are more likely to be men, white, married, over 50, earning over $75k, and who self-report as attending church regularly. Not surprisingly, this group tends to skew Republican.
Regular voters who are Democrats are highly unlikely to stay home on election night (nor are they likely to suddenly switch to Trump if *gasp* a woman or person of color were the nominee). This group is the most likely to “vote blue no matter who” and will vote for their second, third or fourth choice candidates. Regular voters vote, and regular Democrat voters will vote in 2020 against Trump. We need to focus our efforts on the irregular voters if we want to win.
While we need a candidate who inspires, we also need to invest in proven strategies that will actually get folks to the polls. The most effective strategies are the most personal, with in-person canvasing the most tried and true tool to drive voters to the polls. Personal phone calls also tend to be effective, as well as personal social media posts and emails. Mass emails and calls are significantly less effective than the passion of real people, particularly people you know. Enthusiasm is contagious, but it needs agents. We need a candidate who motivates and speaks to those who traditionally do the most political labor.
There is little demographic data available on organizers at the grassroots level, however Democratic optatives often note the same characteristics: Those who are out there doing the work are disproportionately women and people of color, and driven by a deep moral conviction. We need a candidate who inspires those primed to do the work. We need those already on the front lines of social change to work even harder. Calls for moderation won’t do it.
We want to win. We want to nominate an individual who can trounce Trump and lead us out of this national nightmare. Given that we do live in a country that is far too comfortable with racism and misogyny, there is a reasonable fear that could lead us into making the perceived “safe” choice of an older and established white man.
Indeed, the Biden campaign’s current high polling numbers are primarily attributed to the perception that he is the most likely person to beat Trump in 2020. Unfortunately, focusing on the safe choice directly alienates those who are most critical to a Democratic victory: irregular voters and political organizers.
When thinking about electability, we shouldn’t ask who is most palatable to the widest swath, but rather who is able to inspire the most passion. Who is worth standing in the rain for? Who will get people to knock on doors? Who is someone we’re willing to fight for? Who speaks to those who show up to do the work, and who inspires those who have the least reason to show up at all? Playing it too safe is the riskiest political calculation if we want to win.
And we want to win.