Sunday, February 12, 2017

How can the Democrats improve in Wisconsin?

As we deal with the consequences of the 2016 election, and Repubicans driving the country into the ground in control of the presidency, Congress, and many states, many of us are curious abut how the Democrats can change this disastrous course and get back into power. And there is no shortage of those opinions in Wisconsin, where Republicans won statewide elections in a presidential year for the first time in 32 years, and now hold the largest majorities in the State Legislature in 60 years.

One of these essays comes this week from former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who has a cover story in the Isthmus where he talks to a number of politicos and political scientists to get their thoughts on the Dems' road back. This segment where former Mayor Dave talks to the leader of the Professional Fire Fighters' Association of Wisconsin, Mahlon Mitchell, whose work during the Act 10 protests in 2011 led to him being the Lieutenant Governor candidate for the Dems in the 2012 recall elections. Mitchell says that Hillary Clinton's tendency to list individual groups of interest had the adverse effect of ticking off people who weren't part of those groups.
I ask him to name a group that got left out. “Well, obviously white guys,” he says with a laugh. In other words, a lot of his members.

Mitchell also echoed a common theme of those I interviewed. Democrats, he says, rely too heavily on reason and policy proposals. “But politics is about getting people in their gut. It’s about emotion.”
I couldn't agree with that last statement more. So much of politics is not wrapped up in policy debates, but instead in how you feel about something, such as "the country is going in the right/wrong direction", or a certain politician is honest/dishonest, and many people do not vote on pure ideological left/right scales.

UW Political Scientist Ken Mayer echoes Mitchell's points in Cielewicz's article, where he sees a large segment of Americans and others in the world who have lost their economic and political status. They are angry about that situation (or what they think their situation is), and the Dems aren't seen as having answers to that decline.
“A segment of the electorate feels like they’ve been left behind. Whether or not that’s true is beside the point,” he says.

But he does cut the Democrats some slack. He emphasizes that what happened in Wisconsin is not just a national phenomenon. The white working class seems to be in revolt against the establishment everywhere. He notes the Brexit vote and other movements in Europe. He also reminds me that while Wisconsin had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Reagan, many of the Democratic candidates won by razor-thin margins.

But he doesn’t think the prescription is to double down on identity politics. “The Democrats are perceived as a party of identities as opposed to a party of interests,” he says.
And that perception helped lead to this result on Election Night, where many formerly Dem-voting counties switched to Trump, which allowed him to sneak out the win in Wisconsin by less than 0.8%.

In no way do I think Dems should abandon inclusion and equal rights and reproductive rights and respect for all as a central tenet. But what it does mean is that candidates and the party shouldn't be concentrating a large amount of their campaigns solely around gender issues, or LGBT rights, or turning the debate on "economic inequality" solely into a discussion of the minimum wage (which leaves out the people working jobs that pay $12-$20 an hour). These are important issues, no doubt, but I think they can be better handled from the outside by organized interest groups whose main purpose is to promote and fight for those issues. What the party and candidates need to be stressing is a larger, central theme out there of "A better America/Wisconsin" that includes ALL of these issues, with improved economic and political opportunity and fairness being the centerpiece of the campaign.

The reason this doesn't happen seems to be an institutional problem within the party, and was illustrated this week in an excellent article by Dave Gold in Politico Magazine titled "Data-Driven Campaigns Are Killing the Democratic Party." Gold says that while data and demographics are important to the professionals in party offices, and gives a livelihood to many a political consultant, what matters more in winning elections is the ability to connect to voters in ways the voters understand and react to.
Though the problem for Democrats is urgent, the challenge is not new. Before the clamor for a “data-driven” approach, the “best practices” embraced by much of the Democratic Party apparatus encouraged campaigns that were predominantly driven by issue bullet points. In 2000, for example, the Gore presidential campaign had no shortage of position papers, but it would be challenging (at best) to say what the campaign’s message was. In contrast, in Obama’s 2008 campaign, “Hope and Change” was not only a slogan, but a message frame through which all issues were presented.

Years ago, my political mentor taught me the problem with this approach, using a memorable metaphor: issues are to a campaign message what ornaments are to a Christmas tree, he said. Ornaments make the tree more festive, but without the tree, you don’t have a Christmas tree, no matter how many ornaments you have or how beautiful they are. Issues can advance the campaign’s story, but without a narrative frame, your campaign doesn’t have a message, no matter how many issue ads or position papers it puts forward....

Ironically, in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, Secretary Hillary Clinton presented a similar metaphor—American society as a village where everyone is interconnected. “From the moment [children] are born, they depend on a host of other ‘grown-ups,’” Clinton wrote, “untold others who touch their lives directly and indirectly. … Each of us plays a part in every child’s life.” Yet in 2016, instead of using that as a narrative frame, the Clinton campaign presented health care, jobs, debt-free college, paid family leave and myriad other issues as emotion-free position papers without any connective thread tying them together.

Despite the wealth of available scientific findings, Democrats have all too often relied on position papers and issue ads instead of telling emotional stories, a failure that cost us many winnable races before 2010. Then things got much worse after Obama’s 2008 victory was credited simply to his being data-driven.
Yes, I know I write a lot of posts that are all about numbers and economic/political data, so it may seem funny that I'm agreeing that Dems care too much about data over "gut instinct.' But I'm also not trying to get voted in by someone who has 500 other interests in their lives beyond politics, and those voters don't have the time or desire to dig into numbers and make comparisons on issues and results. They just want to see their lives get better and have a state or country they can be proud of and see a positive future in. Instead, far too many Dems (and especially party officials) rely on "the data" instead of trying to CHANGE THE MINDSET AND THE ANSWERS of the voters.

Compare the Clinton campaign's "emotion free" grab bag campaign to what the Trump campaign did, using data from Facebook, Instagram and other social sites to better target messages to voters' fears and anger, and to try to discourage people of certain pro-Clinton demographic groups. The GOP media propaganda machine also has a role in this, where certain GOP messages can be targeted and evaluated for effectiveness on outlets like Fox News and AM radio. These messengers appear to be outside of conventional politics, so the average dope is more likely to be swayed compared to hearing the same words from a politician, of whom they are more skeptical. And then those unsuspecting people are primed to fall for similar rhetoric from those politicians when election season rolls around.

Democrats have thought that politics is a debate society for the last 20 years, and have failed to understand that instead we are in a propaganda war for hearts and minds. Republicans get this, and have bought outlets to amplify their propaganda, and use psy-ops to refine their message to reach people outside of big cities. The GOP has been largely successful in the 2010s with these methods, and the Dems need to get with the times, and get out to match the lie machine with an equally emotional message based on facts. Which is where data sources like mine and many others can be used - to bolster a central theme, not to be the argument itself.

These arguments need to be made NOW by the Dems, to lay the groundwork for 2018 and 2020. The majority of these messages shouldn't be coming from Washington D.C. or from the floor of the State Capitol in Madison, but instead needs to be done by planting messages in rural and small-town Wisconsin, and it doesn't need to be identified as coming from Democrats. Simple billboards, radio ads, and targeted online ads saying things like "Trump/Walker thinks you are a SUCKER," "Why is Wisconsin still falling behind the country?" and "Turn off hate radio 620/1130" could have a serious long-term effect on people's attitudes. It will lead some voters to nod their heads from being reached by something that rings true to their experience.

That's how the Dems get back into power, from understanding the audiences that they need to reach, and tailoring the message accordingly. Dems have already won the votes of a number of demographics because they are not the racist party, are not the stupid party. Now they need to be the party that believes in checks-and-balances in government, and the party that stands up to big money (instead of tries a Clinton-like "I like everybody" tightrope act that fools no one). They need to be the party that believes everyone deserves a chance to succeed in the country, no matter where you live and no matter who your parents are and what they do, and they need to be the ones that care about what the country looks like in 20 years, both economically and also in restoring an ethos of decency and respect that applies to everybody.


  1. Good post. I agree. There's a reason bumper stickers work. I would add, Dems need to pick 2 to 4 statements and all Dems repeat them over and over again. Dems need a brand.

  2. Good writing, Jake, and I agree with Middle Class Guy - Dems need a brand. I think the problem in part stems from a lack of attention to deeper issues.

    A brand isn't just something you choose and put on a bumper sticker. It's something you develop and promote.

    Our Republican friends, for all my disagreements with them, are possessed of an intellectually defensible, if misguided, vision for the country. Going back to Ronnie Raygun, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and even Emerson, the self-reliance/bootstraps trope taps into people's self-image. Government isn't the solution.

    There is no comparable unity on the Dem side in part because we haven't done the hard work of pounding out a competing point of view.

    The closest we've come is the Democratic Socialism of Bernie Sanders, but the party turned away from that perhaps out of fear for the word "socialism" perhaps thinking this was Hillary Clinton's year.

    People need a box to store things - a context in which to view them and decide where they stand. Right now, the Democratic Party is just a lot of loose ideas laying on the floor.

    1. Good point by both of you. There is no one centralizing message that Dems have had in recent years where they can say "This is why I'm running and you should elect me."

      It should be easy in 2018- "We're not crooked assholes!" or "We actually care what happens to you" or "You know this GOP garbage isn't working."

      Sure, it's not a positive message, but when you're out of power, and people hate the direction the state and country is going, why not start from that reality?