LONGFORM: The Fundamental Question
A Lesson About The Message Of Change In America
On Tuesday night and Early Wednesday morning, the greatest show on Earth hit a screeching, stumbling, and ostensibly hard stop. With all the drama of one of those car chase scenes that end in the inevitable car crash, the 2016 Election Cycle was finally over. Now had this have been what were considered a normal election cycle, the end of a campaign spells, there is a short period of introspection that occurs and then a regrouping, and then the Election Cycles begin anew in all 50 states across our country. Think of it as a grieving process for America, as the election cycle brings about so many emotions about the questions surrounding life here in America. However, occasionally cycles produce emotions that spill over after the end of the election, and the 2016 cycle has been one of those. With protests happening across in cities across the country, the grieving process for this cycle is going to take a lot longer than most expect, and even then there will still be large, visible scars at the end of this process. For me, this is my grieving process for the election, but it will not be a message of anger, instead an attempt to understand and share this understanding with you. A year ago, I decided that I would like to write about the end of this cycle because this cycle was, even then, shaping up to be a monumental cycle. I think that still holds today, but in what capacity that this is an election of proportion is still out, and now we know that the victors of the cycle were the Republicans. In politics we always know the victors agenda, as they have a “mandated” agenda, by the people. However as to the question of what remains of our country, that ball is now in the court of the Democrats. What kind of opposition will they take to what will be a combined Trump-Republican Agenda, and in what ways will they be willing to work with the administration and majority? That’s why this first installment of a series of longform writings shall be dedicated to figuring out the phoenix that lies in the ashes of the Democratic Party. Thus the question that we seek to answer is the fundamental question: What should the Democratic Party now look, act, feel like, and believe? or as Simon Sinek would say “Start With Why?”. I’ll split this into two main themes, looking back at the 2016 election, and then I’ll introduce my very own platform for the regrouping of the Democratic Party.
A TOTAL GROUND-GAME FAILURE: THE CLINTON COLLAPSE
I think that the fairest way to analyze is to start at the top of the ticket, with the Clinton/Kaine presidential race. Many things will be written about the 2016 election, but I think none so eloquently describe the end result as this statement does: “It was a total failure of ground game at the point when Clinton need it the most”. There are two stats that I want to point out here that point out to me this failure.
First, Clinton had offices is all 50 states, while Trump has offices in only 12. The Trump strategy focused on staffing in a key few states, mostly swing states and also in a couple of core deep red states. Theory in elections recently has usually determined that this is a terrible strategy that yields an undesirable outcome (Romney v Obama in 2012 as an example), however this theory is then turned on it’s head by this election. We have to ask then, why in this election did the strategy work? To answer that I think we need to look at what it would take to pull off such a victory. To win a candidate needs to do two things simultaneously, shore up the base and then expand the fringe. These are the basic necessities to a successful campaign, and thus leads to expectations that a large multi-state strategy, whereby you open campaign offices in as many of the populated areas in the country as you can afford, would be the successful strategy in a nationwide election. In essence, the 50-state strategy that Democrats pioneered when Howard Dean was the chair of the DNC, and then used to success by Barack Obama in 2008. This was the core of the Hillary Clinton Strategy. Failure of this strategy comes when one of two things happen, when you over-extend and fail to focus enough on core states, or when your opponent outstretches you. Many I have seen and will probably continue to see will argue for the first reason, Trump focused on the 12 states that mattered to his bid, and spent nearly all his time in these states. And while this is true, I will argue here that what Trump actually did was inflame a grassroots movement of people who haven’t felt engaged in a long period of time and instead of using offices to coordinate, utilized a spiderweb of grassroots resources and communities to push the campaign forward, which reached farther than the Clinton Campaign, to local levels, and notoriously to communities on the internet. I’ll leave digital to a section of it’s own, because it is inherently important in it’s own right.
The second statistic is that at 4pm on election day, early statistics had Clinton in the lead with early voting estimates, and polling significantly ahead. Before you start the “THE POLLS WERE WRONG BRANDON!!” rebuttal, I want you to consider polling, and what they mean for the campaigns. The only source of “scoring” comes from polls. From experience, I can tell you that there aren’t very many tangible ways to gauge the expected outcome of a election, and the history of polling and the science that goes into the accuracy of polls have instilled confidence in the whole industry of politics. I’ve experienced both success and failure in politics, and I can tell you that there are many things that you feel differently in a winning and losing campaign, and through the commonalities, each campaign feels different in itself as well, but the one thing that is fairly standardized and has stood through most of modern campaigning are the polls. I would even tell you that of the polling done in 2016, most polling hit the nail on the head, as polling happens at every level of campaigning, however the one race that everyone relied on polls for information for, the Presidency, ended up being wrong. In every election cycle, there are going to be polls that are wrong and polls that are right. In this case, with the best available datasets to both candidates saying that Hillary Clinton had a strong chance to be the winner of the evening, leading to an awkward moment of President-Elect Donald Trump ending his victory speech with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones.
With all the time spent on data and projections in the tech-addled, decimal-crunching, social-engineering, modern political era, the best and brightest of both parties predicted a Clinton victory, and in the end were wrong, and this only comes when the vote on the day of Election Day, the only immeasurable day in a campaign, turns out completely different than expectation. This means that somewhere there was an utter and complete failure to motivate voters to get to the poll. That, ladies and gentlemen, is ground game collapse, that in the end all the systems the campaign built to motivate and enable voting could get enough people to vote during the early, trackable periods, and then completely fail on election day in the very same task. The word to describe this is “unprecedented”, and not because it doesn’t happen at the state and local levels, which it does, but because at the highest level and with the highest stakes, the ground game gave out in an astonishing manner, in the end overturning expectation and most likely changing campaigning in the future.
SENATE RACES: AN OPPORTUNITY PARTIALLY TAKEN
In 2016, 34 Class 3 Senators, or Senators last elected in 2010 were up for re-election. Each set of senatorial cylces start with one of 2 stances on the picture as a whole: Defensive (We have to defend more seats than we can win) or Aggressive (We have the opportunity to take more seats than we are defending). For the Democrats, Class 1, (2012–2018) is a Defensive cycle, as the focus will first be on ensuring that 23 Democratic seats up for election are maintained and then after that they will try to win the remaining 8 Republican seats, and push or pull weight in the 2 remaining Independent seats, Class 2 (2014–2020) is an Aggressive cycle as there are 12 Democratic seats up for re-election, and 21 Republican Seats, and Class 3 is also an Aggressive cycle as the Democrats protect 10 seats. So this 2016 election for the overall race was an Aggressive race. Traditionally in an Aggressive cycle, time is often spent on building the campaign infrastructure needed for these new candidates in building a statewide federal campaign. This often takes a significant amount of resources both monetarily and in time. Senate races can be especially tough as at this level the incumbent-challenger balance is quite ridiculous.
To give you an example of how ridiculous this gap can be, according to FEC Data, challenger Maggie Hassan started her campaign committee on October 25, 2015, and on January 1, 2016 New Hampshire Incumbent Kelly Ayotte had $6,284,694 in cash-in-hand (Around $5 for every resident of New Hampshire). For my Wichita friends reading this, that’s a little under a third of Wichita State’s Fiscal Year Operating Athletic Budget the last time I was on the Board of Directors there. If you’re not Wichitan, this could operate a full year of many the NCAA Division I’s 351 basketball programs. In other words, upstart Maggie Hassan had to build a campaign from scratch that competed against a behemoth of a campaign. In the end, the New Hampshire campaign ranks as one of the most expensive Senate campaigns in history. In the end, Hassan won, but not after the Democratic Party and partners spent an immense amount of resources in New Hampshire.
All was not at a loss though, as the Democrats gained two seats in the Senate, the other seat was from Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth who challenged Illinois junior Senator Mark Kirk, holder of the Senate’s famed Candy Desk. He was a relatively weaker candidate in that health concerns plagued Mr. Kirk, who suffered a stroke in 2012, and spent nearly a full year before being able to resume the duties of a Senator. This challenge was not as large as Mr. Kirk had an incident where he made an offensive and racist comment about Senator-Elect Duckworth, and many in-state endorsements that Kirk previously held did not re-endorse him. Defensively, outgoing Harry Reid’s seat was open and Catherine Cortez Masto retained it after beating out sitting Congressman Joe Heck. Chuck Schumer of New York again retained, as he continued his streak of near invulnerability.
These gains do overshadow the weight of the losses, as a heavily invested campaign in the State of Missouri between Republican incumbent Roy Blunt and Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (Whose skills include putting together an assault rifle blindfolded.) was a clear opporunity lost by the Democrats hoping to tie Senators to Donald Trump in states where he was unpopular in the Republican Presidential primary. In Indiana, a weird candidate switch situation that reeked of insider politics after the primary was over led to former Senator Evan Bayh (Who had $10 Million leftover in his campaign chest) running for Senator and losing to sitting congressman Todd Young. In Florida, a Marco Rubio return from promising to end his career wasn’t effectively stopped. In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson and Russ Feingold renewed a six year old rivalry and a clearly winnable race for Republicans, that in the end resulted in a retainment for Republicans. Even less competitive were challenges in strongholds such as Alabama and Kansas.
HOUSE RACES: A PLACE OF CERTAINTY
One of the greatest features of being a Congressman/Congresswoman is the relative job security you have. In most $170,000 a year jobs across the United States, there is an intense amount of competition, however in the United States House of Representatives there is strikingly low turnover. Even as a United States Senator, which is basically a promotion, there is the possibility of well-funded competition from Representatives and statewide offices such as a Governor or Secretary of State. Not only do The House of Representatives members not face competition from the other chamber, they often don’t see as many statewide officeholders appear in their races, as the biggest political entity in congressional districts are Cities, which can provide a political pipeline but often don’t as these two groups of politicians are very different in nature. In reality, this is the faster moving chamber of Congress, but it also is marked by relative stability in political representation. Democrats did gain back 5 seats, however this still leaves the party as the party out of power in the House. None of these seats weren’t considered tossups at the beginning either, no surprise victories for either side, and relatively little changed in the 435 seat lineup. I’ll take this time though to explain why the House had such a boring election.
House elections often have an interesting narrative though worth analyzing, because if you want to see how federal policy impacts Americans, look at the House elections. If you want to see what issues are up-and-coming, look for breakout candidates in House elections. Want to see how strong the bench for Senatorial races might be, the House is a great start. Want to see how deep a party’s bench is in a state, look at the opposition candidates in the House races. All of this is to say that the media spent a lot of time talking about the Presidency in this cycle, because of the glitz and glamour, but if you want to see the gritty and dirty process that creates change, this is the chamber it starts in. Relative safety keeps the Congressperson able to be agressive in policymaking, but redistricting keeps the Congressperson beholden to a possible change in representation, and money and influence keep the Congressperson stable in their support for certain policy. Keeping that balance between passive and aggressive is the real aim of a member of the United State House of Representatives, when they succeed at this task, they keep their seat, and when they don’t, like Former Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS01) who couldn’t manage influence and became the first KS01 rep not on the Agricultural Committee in 50 years (This district contains 423,000 farmers according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics), they will get beat.
In addition, to build control in the House, a party must have significant control in their state, as each state draws the boundaries, and though it should be fair, often the party in control to begin the decade controls the ability to make the playing field supremely unfair for the other, resulting in large changes to the House at the 2XX2 year mark or at the 2XX4 year mark, depending on how much court litigation the boundaries go through. So if strong state parties are necessary to build control of the House, and you want to see the relative strength of state parties from the national scale, you can look at the makeup and the function of the House to see this. For example, a divided, contentious session, where members keep to their party lines is one where the leading parties have significant relative strength in their states. On the same token members who cross party lines often have incentive to do so, such as staving off opposition in a balanced district or seeking to expand their “war chest” for a run at a Senate Seat.
STATE RACES: ABYSMAL PERFORMANCES STILL
As of this writing, on the 14th of November in 2016, the Republicans hold 34 Governorships, and the Democrats hold 15, with North Carolina’s impressively close race still to be determined. Democrats in the 2016 cycle lost 3 total governorships. By any measure, and in almost any sport, getting beat 34–15 is not a good measure. The term limitation of Jay Nixon of Missouri was a key race, as Democrats had the opportunity to extend control of the Missouri Governorship for the second time since 2000. In Indiana, the vacancy left by Mike Pence to the Republican Presidential ticket, left Democrats for a chance to increase their tally in the Republican stronghold that is the Midwest. In State Legislatures, total control remains fairly even, Democrats lost control in Kentucky, Iowa, and Minnesota, meanwhile gaining control in New Mexico along with a both houses in Nevada. Republicans control 66 of the nations 98 partisan chambers, and in total legislators at the state level, Republicans still maintain about a 4000–3000 majority. Republicans gained significant control of state legislatures in 2010, flipping 24 of the 98 chambers. For Democrats this poses two main issues, one that they risk a dwindling bench for their pipeline, and two that they risk losing significant control in the redistricting processes in states. This is a critical danger to the Democratic Party right now. I could add more, but I feel like that explains it significantly enough.
DIGITAL: DID NOBODY LEARN FROM OBAMA OR SANDERS??
Politics and technology make really strange bedfellows. Some of that has to do with the startup world’s rather loud disinterest in the slow movement of government and maybe some of that has to do with the fact that the first set of millennials are just getting to the point that they have political influence. It also could be that the first Digital Natives (After Millennials for those curious) are just getting to be voters in this Presidential Cycle. Either way, the days of ignoring digital communities are coming to an end. As technology is increasing in the ability to bring people together in groups of shared interests who can form a bubble, the value digital communities have in the political sphere is going to increase substantially. The last three Presidential elections are pioneering a new age of digital engagement in politics. Obama twice over showed a mastery of digital communication and engagement, and the Sanders and Trump campaigns took that even further with radical engagement among supporters at even the grassroots level, bringing people who never would have been engaged otherwise into a role of political discussion. This cycle saw a huge development as Reddit became a hub for engagement for Trump’s online army. At the same time, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram, and other media became the host for Bernie Sanders’ message. Some clever people even used the Dating App Tinder to match people and get them to vote for Sanders.
In the ’08, ’10, ’12, and ’14 cycles, the focus had been digitally on what are deemed “impressions”, or the ability for an audience to see your content. These impressions were thought to be the gold of the internet for campaign politicos. For cheaper than ever, campaigns could spread their message to people who they would normally have to pay thousands of dollars at a time to be in front of. However the ’16 cycle has increased the importance of digital, as something new formed from impressions, and that was “engagement”. Grassroots movements coming from utilizing not just Facebook and Twitter, but also Instagram, Snapchat, and other sources that normally wouldn’t be hosts to engaged communities. In the ’16 campaign cycle, there are more interactions than ever, and organizing on a moments notice, this is something that will come to be studied by politicos throughout the next few years and then attempted and refined until it becomes norm, and then only to be broken again by something else. Digital communities are built to evolve, and politics has to adapt to this to be relevant to Digital Natives.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
In the end, the silver lining of the 2016 Election for the Democratic Party is that for the first time since Calvin Cooledge was President, the party has a true shot and mandate to evolve and become something better than itself. At this point in time, the party holds a majority in none of the branches of the Federal Government, is losing ground at the State Level, and the systems of a working party are going to be strained. For the last eight years, it has been easy to rely on the fact that we had the Presidency, and that generally in recent years the Supreme Court agrees with a forward thinking view on major things, but this no longer the case. The Democratic Party has to go back to the drawing board, and rebuild, to go back to ask itself why it exists. For most of my life, it has existed to govern, but it also has championed a great many number of things. In 2008, New York Senator Chuck Schumer challenged Democrats to define in seven words the mission of the Democratic Party. I agree with this basic proposition and that is where we need to start. This isn’t to say that the 2016 platform is a great document, and we need to be doing everything we can to achieve those aims, however these items, there are the “what?” and sometimes the “How?” of the Democratic Party. But they are not the “Why?”, they are not the soul. It must also be communicative to everyone, and I don’t just mean the everyone that we usually talk about as Democrats, I mean the everyone that includes the people who wouldn’t normally support us, who may never in the end support us. We must have a why that is simple but profound, one that says little but means alot, and one that in the end resonates with Americans. In the wake of the election, I have been asking fellow Democrats why they are Democrats, many things come to my mind and I myself am pretty long winded about it, but honestly, if I encapsulate all my thoughts and all those I have heard from others, it comes out to something like this:
In the end, America, and our universe, is better off when we turn outward and dare to dream instead of building walls and being afraid, that an America where we all aren’t afraid to confront our problems and chase our passions, whatever or whoever, that may be is ultimately more rewarding, more prosperous, and a place where everyone actively calls home. To build that place for all Americans is the goal of the Democratic Party.
So it’s not quite seven words, and it doesn’t tell you everything, but it is a simple core statement that is profound. Firstly, it’s one sentence that activates so many images, so many beliefs, so many different possibilities, and that is one of the most important parts of the Democratic Party, that we are the party where all American’s regardless of classification and boundaries, everyone who believes in our principles outlined above, even if you or I disagree with their vision to some extent, can have a say without fear of retribution or being identified somehow. Second, a vision like this communicates something you can sense, you can see it, you can feel it, you can hear it, it evokes something meaningful, that outlines what all of our policy should be doing, and is not just a catchy slogan.
Now that we have a Why statement base, we have to build around that, asking ourselves again how are we going to achieve our grand policy visions of the Democratic Party. It is no longer a simple answer, we cannot just be complacent in saying we will “advocate” and “create” policy. Those sound great, but to a majority of Americans these are just things that exist in a vacuum, in Washington D.C. and sometimes in their state’s capitol. This is literally the party of inclusivity saying the way they are going to be inclusive is by doing actions that are politically exclusive! This is unacceptable, and part of the reason that people in places that don’t have active governments aren’t Democrats. If those people never see these actions, then the opposition will define being a Democrat the way they want, which by looking at our State Legislatures, Republicans have been doing a really good job at. If you feel like you are a “D.C. Insider”, I challenge you to get out of the bubble, and go out to visit the rest of America, you know, the America that isn’t filled with large buildings and fancy dinner parties, the America where people go to work in a struggling factory at 7:50am and leave at 5pm, to go home to eat whatever food they can afford to put on their table, the America where a day’s work may start by milking cows at 4am and doesn’t end until you can’t see the horizon, this America, where actions that “D.C. Insiders” make are nascent in American life. We need to challenge our own views in order to make sure that progress isn’t a word that is synonymous in America with “taking away my livelihood and beliefs”. Instead of these exclusive actions, we need to take a step towards inclusivity and add actions to our “How” that connect with Americans, enabling voting to just be a first step in the process of becoming politically involved.
But that is not to say either that we need to take steps backwards, but instead that we should take steps forward in places that haven’t seen progress since the 1930’s, one example is Rural High-Speed Internet access. In 2017 America, nobody should be excluded from infrastructure that enables economic growth and personal growth, this is a progressive belief that hearkens back to when most of these communities were bastions of progressive policy. It is also a service of two facets of the needs of the party, the first is that if we strive to be inclusive, we must find a way to reach and help rural populations live a connected life and not ignore them, and the second is that the information flow in these areas are dominated by the Republican talk-radio machine, and if we have any chance at defining who we are to these Americans, we need to be able to at least compete in offering ideals, solutions, and a path to having their say in these communities. Not only do we have incentive to do work in these communities, but we also need to connect with these communities.
Every cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee puts over a million hours and many millions more dollars into Congressional campaigns, which is pretty much all spent in competitive districts, which is logistically understandable with the 50-State Strategy, however, focusing only on these races underpins a flaw in non-competitive races, and that is the ability to work over a period of time, investing some resources into these races in order to down-the-line make them competitive and eventually turn them. We need to be working in districts and states to build strength even when the first few times we possibly and probably will fail. A sports analogy to help you visualize, is like the early 2010’s Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs in that you aren’t going to win all these races, but you are going to be able to build a bench that is capable of winning races and defending the next cycle for extended periods of time. Doing this will also stress the NRCC and NRSC, as funding requirements and manpower needed to retain seats increase as Democrats become more competitive, making more “Lean D” seats safe, and allowing the Democrats to be more aggressive in policy stances.
On the opposite end, the Democratic party must ride the wave of the new progressive movement enabled by Bernie Sanders to victory. A Clinton victory in the primary may have quelled the establishment fears of rebellion in the Democratic party during the Presidential race, with some Sanders supporters getting involved in down-ballot races like Zephyr Teachout in New York. Sanders supporters have indicated their hunger for change in the Democratic establishment, and now would be a great time to integrate a new generation of frontline activists and young passionate people into the party, allowing it to grow and move into a party that is more relevant to a younger base of voters as well.
2016 was also a resource intensive battle throughout all levels of elections, and so there will have to be innovation stemming from the State party organizations, as they gear up to fight for taking back control of state chambers and executive organizations as we near the redistricting process once again, which is important for both State and National elections. As well, national priorities need to shift to be able to invest in both bench-building and capacity-building in the next cycle for the State Party organizations and then the execution of this strategy during the 2020 election cycle for the legislatures, and in the 2018 and 2020 cycles for the Statewide executive branch positions and Governorships.
In the future we must build an better and quicker way to respond to events, engage our grassroots and partner organizations, incentivize governmental actions to be taken, and build capacity for effective campaigning. Natural partner organizations for the Democratic Party are also going to feel the stress as their causes will likely take a backseat in a GOP led government, and some of the more moderate organizations will be likely to increase their influence with GOP elected officials. Digital platforms for activism have grown and the parties have not caught up with citizens in their usage of the technology, and competence in guiding the users of this technology in the grand scope of our platform where possible needs to be built. As Democrats, we need to create an initiative that creates solutions to the aforementioned problems and provides us the ability to create meaningful experiences that engage citizens with rapid deployment, as to be loud and effective in combating toxic legislation and actions, as well as providing unity to the nation when it needs it most.
There are 721 days until the next election cycle. Right now it seems like ages away, November 7, 2018, but the next two years are going to go faster than you expect. Atul Gawande, in 2013, wrote about the concept of slow ideas, ideas that took a relatively long time to become solutions. Many of the solutions needed to empower the Democratic Party to be as successful as possible are in this category. These ideas are going to take the kind of buy-in that crosses the country, works on thousands of different schedules, needs the work of numerous individuals, and will have to be revised constantly. It’s going to be tough work and it may be demanding at times, but it will be rewarding in a way that most tasks aren’t. On November 8, 2018, if we can build the system in an inclusive way like that of what you see here, that day won’t be filled with fear and hate, but one of love and openness.
To close, there are 66 days until Inauguration Day, when President-Elect Donald Trump and the Republican Congress take full control of both the Legislative and Executive, we must begin to put together a strategy to leverage partner organizations, ready state legislatures, engage grassroots activists, and prepare for an all out assault on the progress that our country has made. This isn’t much time, and right now I know there’s no feeling you want more than to grieve, but we’ve taken seven days, it’s time to roll back up our sleeves, and again put ourselves back in the trenches, because we may not be the people who directly suffer, but there are millions of Americans who are afraid of this day, and it is our job to stand firm not when times are easy but when times are hard, and as hard as the 2016 election was, these next two years are going to be the hardest fight. Infighting has cost us in so many ways between the traditional and progressive camps, but today we are one again, it’s time for us to stand stronger together. Loss in political prominence is going to make our capacity to craft policy that ensures the American Dream is here for all Americans. A long campaign means that funding is going to be again at a low and in need of a recharge, and fundraising will be harder now that we are the “out of power” group and so many donated in 2016. More importantly, we’re probably most likely going to lose more battles than we win at first, grappling with our new position. I know that you are tired, tired from a long fight that ended in a loss, I know that you are tired of the long hours and not so great pay that come with the trail, however, if there are people scared of just being alive in this country because they are afraid our President-Elect will deport them, or round them up and list them out, or potentially try and push laws that will allow for more police instigation in their lives, or attempt to dehumanize them over who they are, as a Democrat is our charge to stand by these people, these Americans, even if we are not one, because it is not an issue to one American, but an issue to all, and in the hours of darkness for the the progress of our country, it is our duty to stand in the light and declare that we do this not because it was the easy choice, but because it was the hard one, the worthwhile one, and the one America needs. I know that is where I will be, and I invite you to join me.