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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: An Outbreak of Common Sense on Electoral Strategy?

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Ron Brownstein has an excellent article on CNN on the fallacies of a turnout-based strategy, such as Sanders has repeatedly advocated, for winning the 2020 election. He effectively summarizes the key points I and others have made against this strategy. But perhaps the most interesting part of the article is a series of quotes from Sean McElwee going on record that he, too, thinks the turnout strategy is bats.

This is a bit surprising since McElwee rose to prominence through his advocacy of the “abolish ICE” slogan and his fervent support for the AOC-brand of strenuous progressivism. He went on to co-found Data for Progress, whose work has generally seemed aimed in the same direction. That said, they have done some good work and are to be commended for fighting their battles on progressive strategy with data instead of dogma and assumptions.

Perhaps it was the experience of staring over and over at the actual data that has led McElwee to part company with orthodox Sandersism on this issue:

“[James] Carville has emerged as a leader among Democrats concerned that nominating Sanders will doom the party to defeat against Trump and put the House majority at grave risk as well. Unlike Carville, Sean McElwee, founder of the liberal-leaning group Data for Progress, believes Sanders can find a pathway to victory against Trump by attracting working-class voters across racial lines. But McElwee agrees with Carville that no candidate, Sanders included, can bet on winning mostly by transforming the nature of who votes.

“I think that all campaigns are incentivized to portray themselves as doing something unique and groundbreaking and really changing the structure of turnout.” McElwee says. “But turnout is a pretty durable attribute and it tends to correlate with intrinsic human identities: Older people tend to vote at much higher rates than younger; college educated vote more than non-; homeowners vote more than renters. It is really, really hard using the tools available to campaigns to change that.”

This dispute has profound implications as Democrats’ assess Sanders’ potential viability as a general election candidate. The Democratic front-runner brushes off concerns about whether his agenda will alienate swing voters by insisting he can compensate by bringing in millions of new voters to overwhelm them.”…

If Sanders can’t win a general election by changing the electorate, as these Democratic experts believe, that means he, like any other potential nominee, would need to win primarily by converting swing voters. Though Sanders always stresses mobilization, especially of young people, some of his supporters — and advisers — believe that he would be more likely to beat Trump by attracting working-class voters across racial lines, including whites, African Americans and Hispanics.

“If you are hitching your wagon on a youth quake [of new voters] you are in a bad place,” says McElwee. “But Bernie doesn’t have to hitch his argument on that. Bernie has a persuasion argument for swing voters.”

Now I have my doubts about Sanders’ ability to appeal to swing voters–or even interest in doing so–but at least we’re aiming at the right target here! Sanders could indeed be the nominee and he could indeed win, but to do so he will have take some of this wisdom on board.

He will also have to deal with these problems, as summarized by Brownstein:

“* [S]ubstantial resistance to his unprecedented tax-and-spending plans among the college-educated suburbanites who moved toward the party in 2018 because of their distaste for Trump. (A recent analysis using 170,000 interviews from the nonpartisan Nationscape survey found that Joe Biden and Sanders posted similar leads over Trump overall in tests of 2020 sentiment, but that the former vice president ran much better among college-educated white voters.)

* [R]esistance to many of his views on issues relating to race and culture. Polls last year by the Marist Institute found that most noncollege whites supported such core Sanders economic proposals as a wealth tax on large fortunes and raising the minimum wage. But they registered overwhelming opposition to other ideas he’s embraced: In one Marist survey, 67% of noncollege whites opposed eliminating the death penalty, 72% opposed decriminalizing illegal border crossing and 76% rejected providing subsidized health care to undocumented immigrants. In the Marist polling, a majority of noncollege whites have also consistently opposed one of Sanders’ core policy proposals: a single-payer national health care system that would eliminate private insurance with only a very few exceptions.”

It’s a steep hill to climb once you discard the turnout mythology. Perhaps it can be done, but it will require Sanders and his advisors to stop getting high on their own supply.

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