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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


Many Americans are in a clinical state of denial about the systematic GOP attack now underway against the American system of government

Every serious democratic strategist is aware of the systematic GOP attack that is now underway against the American system of government. It is being prosecuted at every level – from threats of violence against individual vote counters to new laws that give the GOP control over the entire process. 

Third Way has published a vivid, easy to read summary of the threat at the presidential level.1
As they say:

This isn’t Rudy Giuliani and his clown car full of “lawyers” holding a press conference at Four Seasons Landscaping…It’s not Sidney Powell threatening to “release the Kraken”…

This time the threat is coming from the core of the Republican Party. It is a systematic,
sophisticated, and serious plot to execute a coup. Their plan? To steal the 2024 presidential election – and it is well underway. 

Their plot has five distinct parts

  1. Suppressing the Vote 
  2. Installing Big Lie Vote Counters 
  3. Threatening Election Officials
  4. Seizing Legislative Control 
  5. Sabotaging the Electoral College

Read the rest of the memo.

Erica Etelson, author of Beyond Contempt – How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide provides an extended analysis of this issue:

As for those who are in some degree of factual denial, I don’t have a fleshed-out strategy for how to prompt people to embrace reality, but I think there are some lessons to be drawn from the worlds of cult deprogramming and from public health education campaigns. What I see as key here is defusing conflict, building trust and meeting people where they’re at, not where we wish they were at.

Public health educators ask people what their concerns are about getting vaccinated, acknowledge that it can be a hard decision especially when there’s a lot of conflicting information out there and they don’t know who to trust. After the vaccine skeptic has had their say, the educator then offers to give them information and leaves it to the person to make their choice. They know that, as soon as they start strong-arming the person into getting vaccinated, using fear, shame or social pressure, the trust will be broken.

Cult deprogrammers, from what I understand, take a similar approach of trying to build trust and to demonstrate that their motivation stems from their caring about the person’s well-being rather than a desire to control or coerce them. Cult followers are getting something out of being in the cult — a feeling of belonging and/or a sense of being “in-the-know”, the satisfaction and sense of superiority in seeing the reality the “sheeple” are blind to. Those who deny the Trumpist coup may be coming from a place of distrust of the mainstream media sources and partisans who are sounding the alarm. Or, as you note, they may feel like they have too much to lose by acknowledging reality.

Candidates: Start Planning Now For The Day After Elections.

July is the month when voter contact and door-to-door canvassing shifts into high gear in preparation for the election just four months away. But the biggest mistake Democrats continually make in their political campaigns is to focus only on the immediate election and not on what happens the day after.

Every election cycle, the day after the voting ends the campaign offices of Democratic candidates are closed, volunteers are disbanded and, aside from being used to send out an occasional e-mail message, supporters contact information is stored away in file cabinets and hard drives until the next election.

This is a huge mistake.

Democrats should think about ways to insure that the organizing they do during the campaign will be carried on after Election Day and form a solid and ongoing foundation for future campaigns–either by the candidate or by other Democrats who follow in his or her footsteps.

As historian-activist Lara Putnam said in a recent article in Democracy Journal:

The short-sightedness baked into current Democratic Party strategy means that even when campaigns get the canvassing right, they miss the chance to build. [Conor] Lamb volunteers had tens of thousands of conversations with potential voters in southwest Penn this winter. None of these conversations ended with “there’s a group of us meeting monthly down at the library. We’d love to see you there.

Here Are the Steps Candidates Should Take

  1. Tell the volunteers and door-knockers that the network of volunteers and supporters that is being built up will not disappear after November–and have them pass that message to all the people that they talk to. Let people know that the campaign is seriously committed to the long haul. You yourself might not run again but someone else will and the organizing you do in your campaign can be the vital and essential foundation for their later run.

2. Find a person who wants to continue to be active after November and designate them as a point person for after Election Day activities. Whenever someone wants to know what will be going on after the election, you should be able to say “Go talk to Jane or to Joe. They’ll know”. Give the person you select a campaign social media account or phone number so people seeking post-election activities can get in touch with them. Preserve and modify the campaign website and Facebook page for post-election messaging.

3. Start now to identify community gathering points where supporters and volunteers can meet and plan continuing activities after the election. A real-world “clubhouse” is the anchor that holds a community of organizers together. All sorts of places can play this role–restaurants, bars, bookstores, libraries, churches, community centers and often people’s living rooms. The fundamental fact to keep in mind is that keeping grass roots political networks alive and growing requires regular personal contact and socializing. It is the friendships that are made during activities and the connections and camaraderie that results that creates the bonds that cement and holds together a grass roots campaign organization after an election is over.

4. Don’t think only about organizing activities that are specifically focused on politics. Successful organizations include a steady flow of purely social events. In small, old fashioned towns these could be picnics, bowling tournaments, street fairs, barbeques, square dances or family fishing tournaments. In more hip districts the activities could be local art shows, independent film screenings, book club gatherings, and lectures at local universities or wine tastings. In every kind of district there are various outdoor and sporting activities that are always popular–activities ranging from hikes and bike rides to basketball games, snowshoe treks in winter and kayak and canoe trips in spring.
This social element of grass roots organizations is the key to success. The NRA has always understood this and their useful firearm safety courses were the traditional foundation of the organization. Churches, of course, have always had social events, and the Christian Right used those gatherings as central organizing targets in their campaigns.

In fact, in the past the Democratic Party also understood the importance of regular social events. Consider this description of the early 20th century Democratic “machine”:

Politics under the machine was an urban festival, with picnics and chowders, boat rides, excursions to the country or the new amusement parks, balls and cotillions, block dances, and “beefsteaks,” atavistic rituals in which men donned aprons and devoured endless amounts of buttered steak with their teeth and hands.

5. One important approach that can very effectively expand the reach and influence of a political campaign organization is participating in local community volunteer activities. These can range from cleaning up a stream to planting trees or gardens, helping the homebound elderly or tutoring elementary school kids. This kind of activity need not, and indeed should not, be limited to projects conducted jointly with traditional Democratic allies like environmental groups or low income advocacy organizations. There are many neighborhood problems that are not usually associated with Democrats but where a campaign can participate like assisting in the organization of neighborhood watch programs in areas where car break-ins and mailbox theft are common. Modern neighborhood websites like Nextdoor.com can provide an up to the minute picture of local neighborhood issues and concerns.

Above all, however, outreach should be firmly based on the principle that it is the real needs of the community, not any preselected menu of options that should determine the kinds of activities that campaign organizations should try to engage in.

6. Campaign organizations should also pay particular attention to working with churches and other religious institutions. These have been major centers of support and recruitment for conservatives and the GOP since the 1980’s, even though many of their members are not genuinely committed Republicans or conservatives and many of their community activities have a firmly non- partisan flavor. Don’t view them solely as places to push a Democratic or a candidate centered message. Have campaign members’ support and join in their community activities as neighbors and friends rather than political activists and let political influence develop naturally and organically out of shared activity.

7. Finally, after the elections candidates should take the time to establish working relationships between their post-campaign organizations and the local and state Democratic party, existing progressive grass roots groups (such as labor unions like SIEU) and with the campaign supporters of other Democratic candidates. The nature of these relationships will vary in different districts and at different levels of politics but in all cases democratic campaigns should seek to avoid allowing their supporters to become isolated after the election from other pro-Democratic groups and campaigns that are also engaging in ongoing organizing.

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

Warning Democrats: Some Campaign Tactics Actually Lose Votes

Writing in The American Prospect, historian and grass-roots political organizer Lara Putnam offers a vitally important warning to all Democratic candidates this year based on the experience of the Conor Lamb campaign. She says:

Democratic Party leaders need to take a hard look at the incoherence of super-sizing last-minute, get-out-the-vote efforts, while failing to support the most basic structures for sustained local participation.

….Democratic strategists remain fixated on one-off voter “contacts,” with ever-more emphasis on digital tools like apps that use personal data to automate messaging. Such tools multiply the channels for connection-less contacts, transforming distant supporters’ enthusiasm into counterproductive spam, and distracting party leaders from the real organizational problems that need solving…

Putnam offers Lamb’s Pennsylvania race as example

… As Election Day neared, the Lamb campaign’s own GOTV surge collided with national attention. Progressive groups pushed digital voter contacting tools to distant volunteers, and these “contacts” metastasized. Since 501(c)3 nonprofit groups cannot coordinate with campaigns, the phone calls, texts, and canvassing teams run by outside groups hit the same people that the Lamb campaign itself was now re-contacting over and over.

….People began refusing to answer the phone. Volunteers got in an apology at best before doors slammed shut. A 93-year-old woman seemed to speak for the district as she fought to maintain her manners after my Election Day knock had dragged her in her walker all the way to the door. “Please. I can’t not answer the phone, it might be the doctor. But please, can’t you all just stop?” Every activist I know has stories of friends and neighbors they had to talk off the ledge, persuading them not to protest the onslaught by refusing to vote.

The problem of excessive, annoying phone messages is particularly acute this year because there has been an unrelated but absolutely mammoth increase in the volume of commercial robo-calls and fraudulent offers from call centers in other countries, to the extent that many people now refuse to answer any calls from unknown numbers.

In principle, door to door canvassing is a far more meaningful and productive method than phone calls but this generalization conceals a vitally important distinction — personal contact and persuasion by neighbors and people from a voters’ local community is indeed effective but hired, often out of town canvassers, reciting prepared scripts can be completely ineffective or even counterproductive.

Given the widely acknowledged importance of a good “ground game,” campaigns like to tout statistics that show they’re knocking on huge numbers of doors. These statistics can make their ground games sound quite substantial.

But, in reality, large “knock” numbers often conceal lackluster ground games. Why? Campaign operatives often rush through neighborhoods, hurrying to rack up impressive numbers of “knocks.” However, these hurried efforts often fail to reach most voters at all and entail only perfunctory interactions with the voters they do. Campaigns’ ground games can thus sound sizable in terms of “knocks” when they haven’t had any conversations with voters at all.

And, to actually affect voters, research shows that having an actual conversation is crucial. Canvassing seems to work best when voters who don’t care much about politics engage in a genuine conversation about why voting is important. So, when canvassers rush through scripted interactions, just trying to cram their message into voters’ minds, the impacts they leave are minimal–voters might as well have been sitting through a television ad. On the other hand, research has consistently found that authentic interpersonal exchanges usually have sizable impacts.

This suggests a picture that should frighten candidates, campaign managers, and donors alike. Even if field operatives have racked up millions of “door knocks,” when one looks under the hood of these operations, there often isn’t much reason to believe they’re having many quality conversations with voters at all.

The alternative Putnam suggests is a massive return to traditional precinct and neighborhood based organizing, both within and outside the Democratic Party. In the Lamb campaign unions and grass-roots groups inspired to activism by the 2016 election quickly filled this role:

Even before the [Lamb] campaign opened offices, grassroots groups began weekly canvasses: convening at a Panera cafe in one county, a leader’s living room in another, they shared “walk lists” of target voters with volunteers who fanned out to knock on doors and make the case for change. By late January, the campaign was logging 3,000 to 4,000 personal conversations each weekend. Some volunteers canvassed their own neighborhoods, leveraging prior personal ties. Others traveled to the same communities repeatedly, learning to appreciate local issues as voters opened doors and shared their thoughts.

From January to March, Independents’ support for Lamb nearly doubled (from 24 percent to 46 percent), and Trump voters (in this district, many of them registered Democrats and on canvassers’ walk lists) supporting Lamb nearly tripled (5 percent to 13 percent). This shift, even as Lamb was hammered with over $7 million in Republican attack ads, testifies to the impact of sustained grassroots and union outreach.

But Putnam notes that even the Lamb campaign itself missed a crucial opportunity:

The short-sightedness baked into current Democratic Party strategy means even when campaigns get the canvassing right, they miss the chance to build. Lamb volunteers had tens of thousands of conversations with potential voters in southwestern Pennsylvania this winter. None of those conversations ended with “There’s a group of us meeting monthly down at the library. We’d love to see you there,” unless someone went off-script. Literally.

The opportunity cost of failing to build participation is cast in stark relief by the enduring impact of those eras when hands-on politics did happen. Some grassroots activists invoke a father who was a union steward, or a mother who as Democratic committeewoman knew every voter in her precinct by name.

Putnam offers two specific recommendations:

  • The Democratic Party can get serious about opening doors for regular people to become active local members. The Democratic Party still has the bones of a membership organization. It has bylaws and rules for precinct representation, tax status and liability insurance, quorum requirements for the day when allies disagree–the infrastructure needed to forge diverse desires into sustained joint action.
  • National progressive groups can work to spread their outreach to voters long before Election Day, and ensure that each of those conversations includes an invitation to some local group that meets regularly.

The basic message is clear–candidates must try in every way possible to encourage and foment the growth of local community networks both inside and outside the Democratic Party even as they run for office. The reality must be faced: the vote this November will not be the end of the 2018 campaign; it will be the beginning of a long-term campaign to rebuild a local community progressive and Democratic infrastructure that will continue through 2020 and beyond.