The United States Capitol. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The political predicament of Republicans wasn’t the only topic of discussion at the Inside American Politics conference at the Florence, Italy, campus of New York University this month. We also talked about the big political problem facing Democrats: how to convince voters to entrust them with power again.

Pollster John Anzalone, partner at ALG Research who worked on both of former president Barack Obama’s campaigns and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, was clear-eyed about the solution. Forget about nationwide litmus tests that don’t speak to the state- and district-level concerns of voters. Candidates in the big-tent Democratic Party need to run campaigns in 2018 and beyond that speak to voters where they live. And running a campaign whose only message is President Trump is an awful president won’t be enough.

The by-product of Trump is that there are so many people running. In every governor’s race, we have five or six really good candidates. In every congressional race, we have five or six good candidates.

Our challenge in our party is to understand that we have a really big tent….On both sides of the coasts, it’s white liberals, white moderates.  It’s African Americans….I mean, we have [Rep. Jim] Clyburn of South Carolina and [Sen. Cory] Booker. They don’t have a lot in common, even though they’re African American legislators, in terms of their approach and where they came from. And then you have this growing Latino population in our caucus, too. Guess what? It’s really diverse….

My point being is is that there is this myth that there’s some unifying message for the Democratic Party. And when I caution our party is that, guess what? We have to let Democrats from all over the country, where they are find their value set from their region or their district, find the issues that are important and wrap around an important Democratic message that touches and impacts voters in a way that is reliable and credible to them because, let me just tell you, an economic message in the suburbs of Georgia, where it’s high-income and high education, income inequality isn’t that message there. It’s not Midland, Ohio. You know what I’m saying, right? It’s not Ottumwa, Iowa, where they’ve lost everything….

From left, Ron Christie, John Anzalone, Todd Harris and Steve McMahon during an Inside American Politics panel forecasting “What could be next?” at the NYU Florence campus on Oct. 20. (Courtesy of ​La Pietra Dialogues, NYU Florence)

Part of Anzalone’s analysis took into account the impact of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the Democratic Party and compared it to that of white supremacist former White House senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon on the GOP.

And that, to me, is the destructive part of someone like Bernie Sanders, who I actually don’t believe cares about the Democratic Party, and I don’t think he wakes up every day and says that unifying the Democratic Party and making us successful and getting the House and the Senate and the presidency is what he wants to do. And so, in that sense, the schism is very difficult. He’s very much like Bannon. Bannon doesn’t give a s— about the Republican Party. He wants to destroy it. Bernie, I don’t think, quite frankly, gives a s— about the Democratic Party. He only cares about himself, and he’s not interested in building it. He’s interested in making a bunch of points and principles, and I think that is detrimental to the Democratic Party.

Anzalone then went back to the Democratic big-tent to show how its caucus has evolved to reflect the areas that elected it.

We won the House the last time on the backs of Southern white guys, like Travis Childers from Mississippi and Bobby Bright in Alabama and Charlie Melancon in Louisiana and Heath Shuler in North Carolina. That’s how [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] became speaker. Is that we had at that point to a point, Blue Dogs, probably a good 15 members in the South. I don’t think we have any now. …We can’t have a majority and speaker of the House without people who can talk to their electorates in places, and it’s not just the South. It could be Will County, Illinois, which is a pretty conservative place. It could be the western front of Colorado, which used to have a Democratic [congressman] John Salazar. So, again, that’s the difficulty on these litmus tests going into 2018.

Republican political strategist Ron Christie, who served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and informally advised Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) during the 2016 primary season, agreed with Anzalone’s assessment of Sanders and Bannon. But Christie tipped his hat to them and Trump for being able to represent and give voice to the real rage in the electorate.

I agree with you, John, absolutely. I don’t think that Bernie or that Trump gave a flying hoot about the respective parties that they claim that they represent. They represent their own ego, their own self-gratification and their own path forward. But, yet, Bernie and Trump tapped into something that Republicans would be wise to recognize, which is disgust with the establishment, disgust with the status quo and a yearning for something different. And they were both extraordinarily successful in channeling that energy and that spirit to catapult Trump to the top and Bernie nearly to bring down Hillary Clinton, which I found astounding.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign rally at Clinton Middle school Last year in Clinton, Iowa. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a town hall meeting at the Music Man Square last year in Mason City, Iowa. (Photos by Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

During the question-and-answer period, an NYU student asked Anzalone about the anti-establishment mood that Trump and Sanders tapped into in the United States and how candidates run for office in that climate.

They were tapping into the frustrations of voters, not just on the political system, but on the economic system. And I actually think that both Trump and Bernie, that their accelerant was tapping into a group of voters who had just been through, you know, a six or seven-year recession. And we tend not to dissect it that way or report it that way. I don’t mean media report, but in terms of the analysis. And I think that the much deeper connection with voters happened to be on the economic frustrations, as well as, listen, the dysfunction in D.C., and dysfunction in Congress. These were the people who felt left out. And it was, again, deepened by coming off of a recession where they’re seeing the economy moving, but they’re not feeling like they’re being, they’re part of the economy. It’s all going to the top. It’s all going to the corporations. It’s all going to other people.

At the same time, we’re dealing with a real cultural identity in the United States where there’s a group of people who were feeling left out, not only on the economic front, but that there were all these people who were put in front of them in importance, whether it was immigrants and whether it was refugees or whoever it was. Those are real feelings and they’re still there today.

But I think it’s much more about the economic frustration about people not feeling that they’re being heard or that they’re first. There’s no rallies for [the] middle-class guy who was emasculated in the recession from Pittsburg. There’s no bumper sticker. There’s no buttons. You know what I’m saying? And I think that that is still there.

And so whether it is the establishment candidate or not, which I don’t buy into those labels, I think it’s just whether a candidate, a candidate can tap into those voter frustrations, whether it is a Democrat or a Republican, this is who will be successful, that I’m going to be on your side and what we’re going to do is impactful for you to make sure you have opportunities in the economic life.

I think that’s the big debate of 2018. I think that if Democrats go down this rabbit hole of believing this race is all about Trump, you know, and same thing with Republicans, and don’t talk to people where they live in their communities, in their economic lives, then we will have missed the boat again.

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington in 2013 to air their grievances against the Internal Revenue Service and their distrust of growing government bureaucracy. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Eugene Robinson reflected these points in his column last week.

“The rise of Trump and Sanders and the fact that some of their campaign positions were identical — … the ‘system’ is rigged to favor the rich and powerful at the expense of the middle class — suggest to me that the familiar left-right spectrum is no longer an accurate schematic of public opinion,” Robinson wrote. “Today’s key fault lines may be between … families who have benefited from the globalized economy and those who have not; and between an anxious, shrinking white majority and the minority groups that within a couple of decades will constitute more than half the population.

“My advice to Democrats is to say the word ‘opportunity’ so often that it becomes the party’s trademark,” Robinson concluded. And “opportunity” should be defined and tailored to the needs of candidates’ and members’ respective districts. But that might be easier said than done when Dems have the hot breath of Sanders and his merry band of purists on their necks.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj
Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast