As part of an effort to understand the state of the Democratic Party — both inside and outside Washington — in the wake of Donald Trump's victory, I am embarking on an occasional series of email conversations with people who will be part of what comes next for the party. I began this project by talking to Guy Cecil, a leading Democratic strategist. The second installment was a chat with Jason Kander, a former Missouri secretary of state, who nearly unseated Sen. Roy Blunt (R) in November. The third was my conversation with Seth Moulton, a Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts first elected in 2014. Below I talk to Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster specializing in electing female candidates and speaking to female voters. Our conversation was conducted via email and lightly edited for flow. Have a suggestion for a Democrat I should talk to for this series? Email me at email@example.com.
FIX: Okay, Celinda. Let’s start at the start. Diagnose what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 and what — if anything — it says about the Democratic Party in these early days of the Trump administration.
Lake: While we can talk about many factors that clearly were specific to this campaign — turnout models, FBI letters, the allocation of resources — I think it is far more important to look at the long-term impacts of where the Democrats are and what challenges we face. Moreover to face our problems we have to look at the losses over time up and down the ticket, not just at the presidential level.
First, it's the economy — still. Democrats must establish, fight for, and articulate a clear, bold economic plan for the country that will get good-paying jobs for all Americans. Democrats on the eve of the election were 17 points behind the Republicans on the economy. And Hillary was 6 points behind Trump. We have never won presidential or gubernatorial races when our candidates have not been ahead on the economy. In post-election work, with Trump/Obama voters, we have found that voters are able to articulate elements of the Trump economic plan like trade, investment, tax breaks but remain unable to articulate what the Democratic economic plan is.
When we claimed how good the economy was and what we had done, we seemed out of touch with many voters' concerns, including elements of our base like unmarried women and millennials. The exits found 62 percent of the voters thought the economy was not good or poor, and they voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
Second, Democrats need to be about change, not the status quo. Voters are angry at lobbyists in their states and in the Capitol. They are angry about the role of big money and politics. The Democratic base is angry too. We should be the party of reform and mean it. The system is rigged and we should change it. The exit polls showed that many voters said the number one character trait they were looking for was change and they [went] overwhelmingly for Trump. We will not get millennials out to vote unless we are for changing the system.
Third, certainly racism and sexism played a role in this election. We will not abandon our values. We will not hide them in euphemistic language. That said, we do need to look at how we expand and offer opportunity for all Americans and stand up for communities of color. We will not hold our base if we abandon these ideals, and we shouldn't. We will not be able to get our base out to vote in the numbers we need if we don't. We need to engage in a national dialogue about our values as a nation and the kind of nation we want to be for the future.
Fourth, we must build infrastructure from the grass roots. We should utilize officeholders like rural country commissioners, attorneys general and mayors to articulate our message and the choices we face. We should have a 50-state strategy. We should establish an accountability project that gets out the records of the Republicans in Congress now and for the next 18 months. And we should work with community organizations to connect with voters so we can truly get them out to vote and not just land two months before the election. There were many efforts across the country that are models for this kind of organizing.
FIX: This sounds — in large part — what Howard Dean was advocating as chairman of the Democratic National Committee when lots and lots of establishment Democrats rolled their eyes at him and marginalized him.
Am I oversimplifying there? Or was Dean ahead of his time? And if so, why didn’t the establishment get it then, but what makes you think they will now?
Totally agree with you on the absence of a real economic message for Democrats in 2016. But aside from acknowledging that you need to have one, what are the two or three BIG ideas that have to be in that plan? If Trump is trade, investment and tax breaks, what are the big three for Democrats?
I also wonder — tied to the economic messaging question — if you think the party should tonally go with the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders idea of “millionaires and billionaires” ripping off the middle class. Is that the right message for down-ballot candidates in 2018?
Lake: Dean was correct for his time. Now we are listening. Losing like we did is very focusing.
Tonally we need to be positive and aspirational, not just negative. We need to offer clear, bold alternatives. The issue is not just who is the villain but what are we doing. For working families.
There are a number of things we could offer, including Medicare for all; major infrastructure investment including schools with prevailing wages paid for by a millionaires tax; fair trade; and crack down on Wall Street abuses.
FIX: It’s been my experience that no matter how good the ideas a party has, you need a messenger to carry them. Bill Clinton is the obvious example from Democratic Party past. Clinton was the embodiment and salesman of the new Democratic Party/third way messaging. Without him to sell it, those ideas never go anywhere.
The two most commonly mentioned candidates to run against President Trump in 2020 are Warren and Sanders. Are they the faces who can carry the economic message you are talking about? And are they close to the ideal messenger for that message? Why or why not?
Lake: I honestly disagree with the premise. Part of Bill Clinton's strength was he “caught” the message. Our success will come. Because everyone from state legislator in Park County, Montana, to governor of California needs to use the message. We need to echo the message and repeat repeat repeat. That's what the Republicans and Trump have done. Have a simple message and repeat it. That said, I think Warren and Sanders can be very strong. They are change-oriented, populist, for the little person, and for bold economic change. They also are comfortable saying the economy is not good now.
FIX: Okay, last question. Democrats seem divided at the moment between two strategies:
1. Fight Trump on all fronts
2. Pick your spots more strategically
Which of these two do you think the party should pursue between now and June? And why?
Lake: I think we should pick our spots and offer alternatives. We need to evolve from resistance to reasons. We need to give an alternative vision. This is a difficult balancing, with base vs. swing. But our biggest long-term problem is defining our vision.