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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Channeling Bad Memories of 2016–For Victory

As the midterms approach, it’s hard for many Democrats to forget what happened in the last nationwide general election. I wrote about the positive side of that trauma for New York:

Things looked even sunnier for Democrats this time two years ago, right? And then the nightmare began …

The sense of déjà vu is intensifying with reports of increased Republican enthusiasm, and in some places, better polling numbers for the GOP. Could it all be happening again?

That’s the question being posed by Orange County, California, Democrats in a close-up piece by the Washington Post’s Matt Viser:

“[V]oters there seemed racked with uncertainty. They want to feel optimistic, but they said that after Trump’s unexpected victory, they will never trust their expectations again.

“‘I’m getting anxious. I’m getting very anxious,’ said Carol Barnes, a 70-year-old retired clinical laboratory scientist from East Anaheim. ‘We just have to keep going and hope for the best. I don’t want to go home crying again.’

But at least one Democratic congressional candidate in the area, Katie Hill, is actually using the bad memories to keep her supporters motivated:

“Terrified of reliving the dejection they awoke to on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, they are attempting to harness those nervous emotions and inject a bit of fear in the hearts of their supporters.

“Katie Hill, who has emerged as one of the party’s most promising first-time congressional candidates, looked out at a group of about 100 supporters days ago and revealed that new polling indicated a four-point swing against her in what for decades has been a conservative stronghold, driven by consolidation by Republican voters into the camp of her opponent.

“‘We were ahead by a few points just a few weeks ago,’ she said from a campaign headquarters sandwiched between a vape shop and a gun store. ‘The last poll we got back a couple days ago has us exactly tied.'”

This isn’t the first time Democrats have exhibited Post-Trump Stress Disorder, as I observed at a similar juncture last year during the off-year Virginia gubernatorial contest:

“Earlier this week the Daily Beast’s veteran political reporter Sam Stein wrote that Democrats were ‘panicked’ over Virginia, worried about a lack of enthusiasm for their candidate and the absence of the kind of massive national small-dollar investments in the campaign that characterized the congressional special election in Georgia earlier this year. A prominent Virginia activist penned a piece that rocketed around the internet with this headline: ‘Heads Up — An Impending Disaster in Virginia.’ And Vox’s Jeff Stein penned a classic glass-half-empty assessment noting that polls showed the race as ‘surprisingly close’ while ‘worried’ Democrats fretted over Gillespie’s ‘culture war’ attacks on Northam.”

Then, as now, Republicans were getting very Trumpy in their efforts to motivate conservative voters with savage cultural themes.

“[T]he more Gillespie’s campaign begins to resemble Trump’s in its borderline-racist savagery about criminal gangs of immigrants and politically correct efforts to take down Confederate monuments, the more Democrats relive Election Night 2016, when all those objective indicators of a Clinton victory proved illusory.”

But it all turned out well on Election Day in Virginia, when Democrat Ralph Northam actually over-performed his polling expectations. It’s unclear whether the “Democratic panic” so palpable in the home stretch of that race helped motivate Northam’s supporters, or tempted them to hide under their beds. And it’s also unclear whether gambits like Katie Hall’s will make a positive difference in her prospects on November 6. It is very clear that if Democrats failed to win the House after a solid year or more of talk about a “Democratic wave,” left-of-center voters may not trust election punditry or projections for a good while.


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