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Do Democrats Even Care About the Purple States?

If they want to win in 2020, they need to pay more attention to real life and less to the social media echo chamber.

Does the Democratic Party understand that the 2020 election is going to hinge on voters in a handful of purple states? The Republican and Democratic bases are set. The Electoral College, not midterm math, applies. It is possible that the election will be very close.

It’s unclear, then, why the top candidates are talking about things like reparations, how cool Pete Buttigieg’s hubby is on Twitter, why we must have a woman (vice?) president, how AOC/Omar (D-Late Night) are the future, how Stacey Adams got cheated and so deserves to be at least a senator, identity politics, trans-anything, and #MuellerPutinTaxesGate.

Democrats are blinkered to the gulf between social media and the real world. A significant number of mainstream journalists live in the former, so disgusted by Trump that in the third year of his administration they still cannot accept that people actually voted for him. (Esquire‘s political columnist added an asterisk to the word “president to signify that the election was bogus.)

Tweet “Trump is literally fascist Hitler y’all,” and you’ll be liked and agreed into a self-reinforcing coma. What you’ll miss is that Democrats who do not share political content on Twitter identify as more moderate or conservative in their views. Polls suggest gender and race are not decisive factors for most Democratic voters. Too few people talking to each other create narrow, and wrong, impressions. Clicks are not votes. Followers are not votes. Impulsive contributions online are not votes.

The central Democratic plank—Trump is bad—is not what it was expected to be at this point. There will be no obstruction trials or impeachment hearings on afternoon TV. Trump is still the only president since the Soviet Union fell who hasn’t dragged the country into a new war, and he has toned down some existing ones. He continues to enjoy strong ratings on the economy. Some 65 percent of Americans are paying less in taxes. Trump got 57 miles of the wall paid for after he declared a national emergency over the Dems’ dead body.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has tamped down the impeachment babble and dropped shade on her angry freshmen, seems to have a better sense of this than most. Dems did take control of the House but what have they done with that power? Since the midterms, purple voters have heard empty talk about socialism, listened to barking demands for less white supremacy, and endured ceaseless cries for more investigations to save a democracy that doesn’t appear to be in that much trouble.

Outside the Washington-New York-Twitter Corridor, things are different. House Democrats pushing for the release of the Mueller report say they are not hearing much interest in the subject from their constituents back home. “The vast majority of what I hear is about kitchen-table issues,” a Michigan representative said. Because, while the Dems might not have much to offer, the voters have their own lists.

Nobody wants to see children in cages. We all want the right thing done for the DACA kids. But the purple voter lives closer to home. Communities across the Midwest and South have been dramatically affected by immigration. Cultural and economic values have been challenged for years without anyone in charge seeming to care. It is not a new story in America, but it does matter, because purple voters understand the impact on their communities.

Purple voters know you can’t tell groups of people that what they believe is wrong, racist, and un-American, and expect their votes. Dems failed in just this way to enact gun control legislation—they said people who owned rifles in Iowa were complicit in killing children in Florida. Emotional essays have their place, but they should not displace specifics. Even if the media won’t ask the hard follow-up questions, they’re still on voters’ minds. Multiple candidates say they will abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Every country on earth controls its own borders in some fashion. So abolish ICE. And then? Reform immigration law. How?

You don’t have to agree with them or even understand it fully, but many purple voters are convinced they accept food stamps because they have to while others accept them because they are lazy. “It’s not about jobs, it’s about good jobs” somehow still isn’t the message. Less well-off purple voters understand economic inequality at a gut level. Most Dems sell it as a minority problem, pandering for black support, forgetting that many whites are very poor.

People need help with healthcare. But at some point, Medicare for All has to move beyond a slogan and explain how the government will simply do away with the multi-billion-dollar private insurance business, force doctors to change how and how much they are paid, legislate drug prices and institute cost controls for all medical services to keep the system from going broke (you need all this: that’s how it works in other countries), and, of course, explain how to fund it. The winning debate line is not going to be “We’ll tax rich people. Check my website for details.”

While his effect on purple voters is unclear at present, “Whither Bernie” looms large. The 2016 Bernie never imagined he’d do much more than use the primary to air his signature issues. That’s why in the beginning he didn’t run against Hillary so much as alongside her, always gentle on her tender spots like those damn emails. But his message resonated. Bernie 2020 starts with a large block of serious supporters and some good ideas.

But it’s still hard to see how a guy five years older than Trump who talks about socialism is going to fare. Last time around, the Dems buried Sanders in a rigged primary and lost many of his supporters. It’s unclear how the eventual Democratic nominee (you don’t really think the DNC will run an independent old white man with no corporate love behind him, do you?) will try to retain those voters. It’s also unclear how many voters will be hesitant to back Bernie. Which other candidate will they be traded to this time around?

It’s a primary, so the office-seekers think they are talking mostly to their base. But in a 24/7 always-on media environment, all statements are amplified. This is an old problem for Republicans, who in the past said crazy racist things to small rural groups and then tried to clean up their acts back in town. The “must do X to get nominated and then renounce X to get elected” paradigm doesn’t work anymore.

A good example is Buttigieg, who has made a little set piece out of calling out Mike Pence. Mayor Pete recently said, “If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my Creator.” Who is Pete talking to here? Evangelicals are not going to be brought over by being told that their reading of God’s word is wrong. Pete is pandering to a small segment of his base.

If Mayor Pete, who so desperately wants to be this year’s Plainspoken Heartland Warrior Poet, ends up in front of undecided voters having to explain that he won’t be just The Gay President, he’ll lose. If he can talk about a broad range of pocketbook issues in specific terms, he has a shot.

So here it is: Democrats, if you want a better chance at winning in 2020 rather than an opportunity to congratulate yourselves on being morally right, tone down the Trump hate. Stop emphasizing identity politics. Offer specific plans on immigration, infrastructure, and health care. Talk about economic inequality more broadly. Be very careful what you feed the base in the primaries lest you have to walk it back in the general election. Pay more attention to real life purple voters and less to social media. Get your angry freshman women off, and your candidates on, the front pages. Resolve your Bernie problem well. Stop criticizing as ignorant racist Nazis the very voters who can push you to victory.

Right now, Joe Biden (age 76 to Trump’s 72, lost twice) seems like the most competitive candidate the Democrats have, mainly because he hasn’t said much. That’s pretty sad. It’s still early, but we’re watching Dems set the stage to blow it in 2020.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.



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