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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

‘Big Tent’ vs. ‘The Base’ Strategies:” Either/Or or Both/And?

Here we go again with yet another article about Dems having to chose between a ‘big tent’ vs. ‘turnout the base’ strategy. Clare Foran has some interesting observations on the topic in her article in The Atlantic, “Can the Democratic Party Win Back Voters It Lost to Trump? Liberals may need to decide whether to focus on energizing their base or expanding their coalition.”

As the Democratic Party contemplates what’s next in the wake of its defeat in the presidential election, liberals may have to decide what matters more: Building a big tent party where far-left voters and moderate centrists can co-exist even if they occasionally disagree on policy and strategy, or focusing on the demands of the party’s progressive base, potentially creating a more like-minded and ideologically rigid coalition in the process.

In an effort to persuade Democrats to embrace a big-tent strategy, Third Way, a center-left think tank, argues in a new report that voters aren’t necessarily rigidly attached to a particular party, and might be won over as a result. The report, titled “Why Demography Does Not Equal Destiny,” concludes that demographic change in the United States won’t deliver Democrats a winning electoral coalition by default, but that there are still opportunities for the party to convince Americans to vote for Democratic candidates even if they haven’t always done so in the past

….[Third Way V.P.] Erickson Hatalsky argues that voting trends suggest that some voters swing back and forth between the two parties rather than remain consistently loyal to one party or the other. For example, hundreds of counties across the United States flipped from voting for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election to voting for Trump in 2016. Some congressional districts also delivered victory for Trump while at the same time reelecting Democratic members of Congress, like Cheri Bustos in Illinois and Matt Cartwright in Pennsylvania.

Foran has Alan Abramowitz present the counter-argument, that investing more in turning out the Democratic base is a more promising strategy:

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, is skeptical that Democrats can significantly grow their base by converting large numbers of either Republicans or Trump voters. He believes Democrats would be more effective if they focused on increasing turnout of core Democratic constituencies, such as African American, Hispanic, and younger voters.

“There’s a reason why campaigns are devoting more and more resources trying to energize the base rather than trying to persuade people. It’s because trying to persuade people is extremely difficult in this day and age,” Abramowitz said in an interview. “That’s not to say there won’t ever be any movement back and forth between parties,” he added, “but I just don’t see there being any large number of movable voters.”

Abramowitz notes that looking back at the voting behavior of independents spanning the past several decades may fail to adequately recognize that party loyalties are much stronger today than in the 1970s and 80s. Instead, he points to increasing ideological division among voters in recent years and what he calls “negative partisanship”—a phenomenon whereby animosity toward the opposing party becomes a driving factor behind how a person decides to vote—to argue that there likely isn’t a significant number of voters up for grabs.

But few Democratic strategists are saying that it must be all about one or the other option. It’s more a matter of allocating resources optimaly between turning out the base and targeting persuadable voters, including those who have voted for Republicans.

There is a third category, however, which doesn’t fit neatly into either the ‘persuadable’ or ‘base’ voter pidgeon holes, non-voters who are waking up to the reality that their lives are indeed affected by politics, thanks in large part to Trump’s scary extremism. Review the articles about the women’s marches across America leading up to Trump’s inauguration, and you will find numerous quotes from women and some men saying they have not been politically-involved, but now they are worried.

This is a new constituency for Democrats. It’s not that they are ‘persuadables’. It’s more that they are now available. Nobody knows how large is this segment of new likely voters. But Democrats could use some creative ideas for reaching them.

One comment on “‘Big Tent’ vs. ‘The Base’ Strategies:” Either/Or or Both/And?

  1. Stephen Cataldo on

    I think the “Big Tent” as centrist and “the Base” as left is partly in error.

    The “Big Tent” means running a party that is true to it’s word and that has a clear message, ready to buck the establishment. Today, career-building is hiding under the label “centrist.” Career-building politics is not the “Big Tent.”

    There is a matrix of choices: left vs centrist, clean-house vs let the machine run things. It doesn’t have to be this way, but right now only two of those boxes are filled: left and clean-house vs centrist and let the machine keep running.
    (1) The “Big Tent” is either centrist or left, but demands we clean the house. People not repulsed by Trump/Pence who voted in that direction mostly don’t care about left-vs-right.
    (2) Much of the base would prefer a left answer but demands we clean house.

    There is no large center to American politics looking for what the DNC has been providing, candidates who match undecided* voters on a the left-right axis but are beholden to corporate interests and appearing not to listen to them.

    Where is your heart? People care about things. Some care about left. Some care about right. Not many really get fired up about being average and having not much preference. They are fired up about something else. Trump did not score a bullseye in reaching out to the people tired of the left-right fight but he vaguely talked to people and talked about issues his opponent didn’t.

    * “Undecided voters” is a poor label. Many voters who can’t decide between left and right have strong opinions in other directions entirely. We are used to seeing the world as left-vs-right, so they look like roadkill in the middle of the road.


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