In an interview late last year, after his narrow loss to incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) last November, former Missouri secretary of state Jason Kander (D) delivered a bit of truth-telling to the Democratic Party. He did it by way of analogy. There’s a trial with the two opposing lawyers making closing arguments to the jury.
The first lawyer comes out and gives about a 10-minute, very passionate closing argument with a real central theme as to why you should [decide in favor of] their client. Now sometimes, this lawyer wanders off and is kind of incoherent. And oftentimes [that lawyer] is offensive. But at the end of it, you know why that lawyer wants every member, all 12 members of that jury, to find for their client.
Then the next lawyer comes up, and the next lawyer, in front of the entire jury, goes juror by juror and individually makes a very customized and very compelling and very scientific case to each juror as to why that juror should find for that lawyer’s client. And very conspicuously, [that lawyer] skips about three of the jurors. Just kind of figures, “Hey, I’m in a state where the rule is you need nine out of 12 in a civil trial,” so they say, “Well, I only need nine.” So [the lawyer] skips three of them, and the whole jury sees that. Well, at the end of those arguments, the jury is going to go, “Well, I see what they’re saying to me, but I also see that they said something very different to every other juror, and that they skipped those other three, and by the way, those three aren’t voting for [that lawyer].” [The jury is] going to really question the authenticity of the argument that was made to them, and they’re going to have a hard time remembering exactly why it is that they’re supposed to find for that client.
I first heard about this from Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of Third Way. The vice president for the social policy and politics program at the centrist think tank recounted it during a panel discussion that pondered the question “Is Demography Destiny for Democrats?” The short answer is no. And Erickson Hatalsky elaborated as she put a finer point on Kander’s comments.
“They’ll go to the first juror and say, ‘Juror number one. I have a thing for you. You’re Latino. I have immigration. Juror number two, you’re millennial. Free college. Juror number three, you’re not my people. Can you go get a coffee?’ ” Erickson Hatalsky said about how Democrats talk to the electorate. “That message was received. The ‘you’re not my people. We don’t need you’ was a message we clearly sent and, boy, did it carry.”
Changing that message is an existential mission for Democrats and progressives. As Kander and Erickson Hatalsky argue, continued reliance on bespoke messaging tailored for specific demographic groups of the progressive coalition doesn’t guarantee Democratic wins at the ballot box. But a new analysis from Third Way, “A Tale of Two Districts: Demography and Divergent Partisan Politics,” shows that doing so is asking for trouble. Through four case studies, the study illustrates “how assumptions based on demography can take you down the wrong path and demonstrate the acute need for a more multi-faceted understanding of the American electorate,” writes Ryan Pougiales, author of the report.
Take the first case study, for instance. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) could not be more different. The former is an unabashed progressive, the latter a proud tea party conservative. Yet, Third Way shows that the demographics of their respective districts “look remarkably similar.” They each have metropolitan hubs that are home to university-attending millennials and big business. Languages other than English are spoken in a quarter of homes — usually Spanish. And thousands have moved into those districts from outside the state and country. As Pougiales notes, these two districts “could be considered Rising American Electorate country” given their demographic makeup. Yet, demography isn’t destiny, as they continually send political polar opposites to Congress. The same can be said of the other three case studies in the report.
“Evaluating individual elections, or the broader national political climate, through a narrow demographic filter risks being blindsided,” Pougiales writes. A conclusion proved by President Trump’s win. But the Third Way analyst raises a red flag that Democrats should take to heart. “To be sure, growing voter groups often tagged as the Rising American Electorate are a core component of a winning Democratic coalition,” Pougiales pointed out. “But they can’t be the entire coalition, and they shouldn’t be taken for granted as assumed Democratic votes.”
In the next episode of my podcast “Cape Up,” I talk with pollster Cornell Belcher, whose recent focus groups in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Milwaukee for the Civic Engagement Fund proves Pougiales’s point. What Belcher found was the newest bloc of swing voters. And you’ll never guess who they are.
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