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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democrats’ Critical Challenge: Seeing the World Through Red State Eyes

To regain lost support in Red State areas the indispensable step Democrats must take is to regain the ability to genuinely “see the world” through the eyes of the people who live there.

This does not mean abandoning basic Democratic positions and values. Some Democratic elected officials like Senator Jon Tester and Governor Steve Bullock of Montana have retained their seats in recent years without abandoning the basic Democratic agenda but in a vast number of other states and districts Democrats have lost their elections and popular support.

At the same time, frustration with losses in red states and disgust over the support Donald Trump received from these areas in 2016 has led many progressive Democrats to dismiss them as completely lost causes. Excitement over the growing wave of Democratic victories in special elections has revived optimism for 2018 but without producing any change in the cynical and dismissive view that many Democrats have of the people who live in these regions.

This has to change if a major Democratic revival is to be achieved in the coming years — and such a change is indeed possible. The special election results in Pennsylvania, Virginia and even Alabama demonstrated that there are actually enough potential Democratic supporters in red state America to swing a significant range of state level and congressional level elections if Democrats can regain the ability to genuinely and sincerely speak to those voters and win their trust as they were able to do not so long ago in the past.[1]

Since the 2016 elections there have been a large number of rather superficial journalistic reports filed from “Trump country,” so many, in fact, that the genre has been given the label “parachute in reportage” because it is based on correspondents’ brief visits to these areas.

The best place to start is with the special collection of articles that was published in the winter issue of Democracy Journal:

What is Red State Liberalism

Beyond this collection, the following articles also offer useful discussions of the issue:

Rural Divide: America’s Cultural Divisions Run Deep
Loyalty and Unease in Trump’s Midwest
Fear of the Federal Government in the Ranchlands of Oregon
Rural and Urban Americans, Equally Convinced the Rest of the Country Dislikes Them

During the 2016 campaign and after journalistic “safaris” to red State America proliferated. Here are two interesting descriptions of these “parachute in” journalistic endeavors.

Visiting Working Class America
On Safari in Trumps America

A number of articles in progressive publications have suggested strategies for how Democrats can regain the lost support.

Democrats Rural Voter Problem and How to Fix It
How the Democrats Can Take Back Rural America
This County Was a Democratic Stronghold and Then Came Trump
Democrats, left for dead, see an opening in Pennsylvania

For a deeper understanding of red state America there are five books that are absolutely essential reading:

Katherine Kramer, The Politics of Resentment
Arlie Hotchschild, Strangers in Their Own Land
Justin Gest, The New Minority
Richard Wuthnow, The Left Behind
George Packer, The Unwinding

In contrast, the following list of articles includes some of the more insightful journalistic and analytic views of red state America. They represent an essential resource for serious Democratic strategists.

And then finally, here is a useful TDS Strategy Memo:

Exclusive: “Top Secret” 2018 GOP Advertising Strategy Now Exposed

Well, OK, it’s not exactly top secret.

What actually is available is a new book that on the surface appears to be an in-depth sociological portrait of Trump voters in a wide range of Rust belt cities, small towns and rural areas. It presents the conclusion that, contrary to popular stereotypes, these folks are really all just basically decent Americans–heartland populists who voted for Trump out of a mixture of patriotism, legitimate economic grievance, defense of traditional values and anger at condescending coastal elites.

At first glance the book, The Great Revolt–Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, looks like a substantial and indeed an impressive piece of ethnographic research. One of the authors, a professional journalist, is described as having traveled 27,000 miles across the upper Midwest in order to interview over 300 people. The book includes 23 extended profiles of individuals, each one presented in substantially greater depth than the usual journalistic dispatches that one encounters in articles in newspapers and magazines.

But there’s something about these profiles that’s just a little bit odd. Not a single one of the 23 subjects who are profiled expresses even the most microscopic iota of prejudice or bigotry toward any group–not African Americans, not Latinos, not Muslims, not GLBT individuals. In the book they and the over 300 interviewed people that they represent are all described as being just decent, hard-working, “salt of the earth” Americans–Norman Rockwell illustrations come to life. Most of the people interviewed, in fact, are either Obama-Trump voters or independents and not one is a firm Rush Limbaugh ideological conservative.

Since the book clearly gives the reader the impression that it is presenting a representative group of “typical” Trump voters, and not a carefully selected subgroup of tolerant, non-racist Trump supporters, this is, to put it mildly, more than a tad improbable. Interviewing over 300 “typical” Trump supporters without encountering a single racially prejudiced individual is statistically about as likely as interviewing 300 attendees at the annual National Book Awards ceremony and not finding a single English major or interviewing 300 people at a Grateful Dead concert and not finding anyone who had ever smoked marijuana.

But when the book is viewed, not as sociology, but as a market research document prepared for the major GOP advertising agencies, it suddenly becomes both extremely interesting and profoundly important for Democratic candidates to study and understand.

When a major business corporation like Ford or Apple begins to plan a massive ad campaign for a new product like their latest model car or home entertainment system the company’s ad agency usually starts by doing a substantial amount of focus group and interview research in order to prepare a series of “target customer profiles”— detailed descriptions of the intended audience. These profiles are designed to guide ad copywriters about how to talk to them. These documents typically analyze how the people in the target audience see themselves and how they want to be seen by others, about what things they value and care about in their lives and about their trials and disappointments in the past and their dreams and hopes for the future. The goal of these documents is not to create a totally objective psychological profile but rather a picture of how these customers like to think about themselves and how to use this information to sell them goods.[2]

Seen this way, the book suddenly makes sense. It is organized into seven categories that the authors call “archetypes” but the labels they attach to these categories clearly locate them in the familiar world of market research and market segmentation e.g. “Red Blooded and Blue Collared,” “Rotary Reliables,” “Rough Rebounders.” These are the typical kinds of names that ad agencies give to defined submarkets within an overall target audience, groups that they intend to individually target with special ads and other messaging.

As a result, what the book actually provides is seven detailed customer marketing profiles–guides for how a GOP candidate should craft his or her ads to appeal to the non-racist sector of Trump voters who will not vote for Trumpist candidates in 2018 simply because such candidates offer an explicitly racist or conservative ideological platform.

The truth is that there actually are a substantial number of decent and basically tolerant people in blue collar and red state America and it is they, not the die-hard bigots and right wingers who will provide the critical margin of victory in many of the elections next November. That is why it is so vitally important for GOP candidates to have in-depth market research to effectively communicate with them.

It is therefore no accident that the book has been touted by Trump himself and has blurbs from Rush Limbaugh and Tom Cotton. It is, in reality, a detailed marketing handbook that the ad writers for GOP candidates will use to craft their appeals to the non-racist sector of rural, small town, suburban and white working class voters.

But critically, in order to do this the book cannot avoid also being an extremely useful “advance guide for Democratic candidates” about what they should expect next fall – a preview of how their opponents will craft their TV, radio, direct mail and internet messaging, what topics they will try to avoid and what kinds of narratives they will try to emphasize. It indicates the likely techniques GOP ads and messaging will use to appeal to this pivotal group of voters

With this information in hand, democratic candidates can begin even now to plan their responses to ads that won’t appear until September. This is very valuable advance political intelligence.

As a result, the ironic consequence is that even if the analysis that the book presents actually had been stamped “Top Secret” and carefully locked away in an ad agencies’ secure storage area instead of being published, it would have been worth it for Democratic strategists to launch a “mission impossible” type covert operation to sneak in and steal it. Instead they only need to tolerate the minor annoyance of having to buy a book that is specifically designed to assist their opponents.


[1] For details, see Ruy Teixeira’s commentaries on these elections in his “Optimistic Leftist” website.

[2] Writing in The New Republic Sarah Cliff reviews the book as social analysis

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