vision 2020

Democrats Don’t Have to Choose a Path to Victory Until the Fall of 2020

People rally as they take part in a protest against Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in New York on March 19,2016.
A protest against Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in New York City, March 19, 2016. Photo: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with tentatively game-planning presidential general elections well in advance. Refreshing one’s understanding of geographical opportunities and challenges makes a lot more sense than succumbing to the habit of fighting the last war and/or relying on outworn stereotypes of “red” or “blue” states.

But you can easily jump the gun on strategic decisions that really don’t have to be made until far, far down the road. That’s what may be happening to some pols and analysts quoted in a New York Times piece that suggests Democrats need to make up their minds from the get-go whether to “redouble their efforts to win back the industrial heartland that effectively delivered the presidency to Donald J. Trump” or “turn their attention to more demographically promising Sun Belt states like Georgia and Arizona.”

This is posed as something of an existential choice, with the Rust Belt road to victory dictating an emphasis on “kitchen-table topics like health care and jobs, aimed at winning moderates and disaffected Trump voters,” versus the Sunbelt path, which means “unapologetically elevating matters of race and identity, such as immigration, to mobilize young people and minorities with new fervor.”

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent objects to this fork-in-the-road analysis as representing a false choice:

Grass-roots movements within the party have forced party actors to take racial issues more seriously through organizing and pressure. Trump’s naked demonizing of, and cruel agenda toward, vulnerable minority groups have also propelled these issues to the top of the Democratic agenda …

Democrats can’t back away from any of this. What’s more, the notion that this new emphasis somehow deprioritizes “kitchen table issues” is confused. Matters of race and identity are in many ways economic issues. There just aren’t really clear and separate lanes here, and the real story is that the leading Democratic candidates have internalized this complicated truth.

That’s all quite true, and important to note. But it’s also worth remembering that whether or not geographical choices require messaging choices, they do not necessarily need to be made — and perhaps should never be made — until the general election fault lines are very clear. The Times article rightly says the “dispute” over paths to victory is “not merely a tactical one.” But it is at least partially a tactical decision which will ripen in the summer and autumn of 2020.

A look back at 2016 makes this plain. Hillary Clinton did not lose the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2015. From a mechanical point of view she lost them in October of 2016, as Jim Tankersley noted soon after the election:

Clinton and the groups backing her aired three times as many ads as Trump and his supporters over the course of the general election, according to data from the Wesleyan Media Project. Despite that advantage, the Democrats left several key states essentially unprotected on the airwaves as the race came to a close.

From Oct. 14 through 30, they ran almost no ads in Wisconsin, Michigan and Virginia, and they aired less than half as many ads as Trump and his backers did in Colorado. By virtue of their spending choices, the pro-Clinton groups were essentially acting as if she had locked up as many as 248 electoral votes already.

They aired almost 3,000 ads in Arizona, 3,600 in Iowa and nearly 10,000 in Ohio. They were hoping for a landslide-case scenario of 375 electoral votes:

That was more than they needed, and far less than they got. And to the extent that national dynamics made states that should have been safe for Clinton marginal and then lost, the biggie, according to Nate Silver’s careful analysis, was the Comey letter, and again, that had nothing to do with some early geographical strategy by the Clinton campaign.

Who knows at this point what sort of variables will shape the October landscape in the next presidential election? The Times and others seem to think Democrats need an explicit “map” of target states before they choose a 2020 nominee. But for all we know right now, the general electorate is going to be so thoroughly polarized by party and by Trump that every potential Democratic nominee across the ideological and geographical spectrum would perform identically in the battleground states, and/or will vary based on factors such as debate performance that have little to do with where they are from or what “faction” of the party they are thought to represent.

Without question, Democrats should have learned from 2016 that complacency can be deadly, and that no candidate’s brain trust of data geeks and strategic wizards is infallible. If the 2020 nominee drifts toward the finish line making tactically dumb decisions, disputing those may be a really important task for conscientious Democrats. Deciding whether Michigan’s all-important, and what that means right now, is probably a waste of time and energy.

Democrats Don’t Have to Choose a Path to Victory Until 2020