This is the third episode of “Party Time,” a mini-series from FiveThirtyEight’s Politics podcast examining where the two major political parties are heading in the Trump era. Throughout February, we’re talking to lawmakers, strategists and stakeholders who hold different views within the parties. In the first two episodes, we heard from people representing different positions within the Republican Party: Trump allies and Trump skeptics.
In the final two episodes, we hear from the Democrats. The Democratic Party, with less power in federal and state government than it has had in more than 80 years, is juggling competing internal pressures as it tries to chart a path out of the wilderness. Progressives want the party to pivot to the left on economic issues, in the vein of Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism. The establishment sees the 2016 presidential election loss as a failure of strategy and message more than a flawed platform.
In this episode, we hear from the progressives: RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of the labor union National Nurses United; Jenn Kauffman, senior vice president at political media strategy firm Revolution Messaging; and U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Here is a partial transcript of our conversation with Kauffman. At Revolution Messaging, she helped develop digital strategy for Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign:
Galen Druke: As Democrats start to pick up the pieces after this last election, there’s somewhat of a debate within the party over its future direction — whether it should pivot to the Sanders/Warren wing of the party or stick with what they’ve got but maybe find more popular candidates. Where do you come down on that?
Jenn Kauffman: We see what happens when we don’t connect with voters about why we’re the party that’s fighting for them. This election, so many people felt pessimistic. Many people thought that things aren’t working. And, you know, I see hats that say, “America’s already great.” I’m a progressive, and I’m not sure that I always feel that way. I think that there’s a lot of voter frustration and we need to speak to that, and at the heart of that is economic inequality. At the heart of that is so much that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and the like have been addressing.
We need to take a hard line, and it’s hard for us to do that if we don’t divorce ourselves from some of the ties that are preventing our party from moving forward and really tackling this head-on. I’m lucky enough to have been able to buy a home, and when I was negotiating on a sales price, I didn’t come in at the highest price, right? I came in, and I tried to negotiate. And I feel like that’s what the progressives have been urging the Democratic Party to do, and I feel like so often in the past, we’ve seen our party come to the table with the most milquetoast propositions and walk away with something that makes no one happy. And I don’t think that that’s how we’re going to win voters and move our agenda forward.
Druke: What lessons have you learned from the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign that you think could be applied more broadly?
Kauffman: Authenticity, I think, was the biggest takeaway. Authenticity permeated every aspect of the campaign. I think that’s, perhaps, a lot of what’s driven the appeal on the Republican side behind Trump. There isn’t this filter, right? When you saw Bernie Sanders and you saw his hair blowing this way and that way, when you knew there wasn’t this stylist, this image maker, there wasn’t this committee of people who determined what he was going to wear that day and what he was going to say that day. The way that the campaign was people-powered, meaning that it was fueled by millions of people who gave small-dollar donations. It was like $218 million mostly through those small donations of an average of $27. That meant that the campaign and Bernie Sanders didn’t have ties to special interests. And I think that was a really big takeaway: Authenticity really was the winner.
Clare Malone: Was there a moment when Sanders really broke through? Was it a conscientious decision on the part of [your team] to say, “We’re going to go everywhere; we’re going to talk to everyone”? … Bernie Sanders is now just “Bernie.” But he wasn’t a year ago, a year and a half ago. And so I’m wondering what it was.
Kauffman: You have to be issues-focused. I think that was how he was able to stand out from this field in which he had very little name recognition. In some ways, because he didn’t have that name ID, he had to be for something. He had to define himself by his positions on income inequality and the system being rigged. We had tremendous success early on advertising on Facebook, with petitions — urging people to sign on to a petition that would be sent to their governors stating their support for refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. And that does two things. It defines Bernie and the issues that he stands for, and it begins to form a movement. It connects them with the issues that they care about, and it begins to build a narrative for what the country can look like and how we can move forward.
Druke: How does your experience from the campaign change the conventional wisdom about how to run a campaign moving forward? Ultimately, the candidate who had a pretty ad-hoc strategy for much of the campaign and raised far fewer dollars than his opponent ended up winning (Donald Trump).
Kauffman: One interesting thing that I think wasn’t reported enough about was modeling. People talked about the models and the models being wrong. I would posit almost that we need to stop relying on models entirely — and it’s not because they’re right or wrong, but because models mean that we’re going to reach out to people based off of past voting behavior. These are audiences that are modeled after what likely voters look like. And we see here in the U.S. that we have really abysmal turnout numbers. At the high, maybe 50 percent of voters are turning out. At a low, like in local elections, it’s 20 percent. And I would posit perhaps why we’re seeing those kinds of numbers is because we’re only talking to certain people.
One of the huge successes behind the [Sanders] campaign was that we weren’t heavily micro-targeting — we were talking really broadly, and we were talking to audiences that in the past have not been communicated with by political campaigns. And people were hungry for it, and they really responded, and I think that’s the path forward.
Malone: You’ve pulled a lot of triggers here for us when you say, “maybe we don’t need models anymore,” because we talk a lot about how campaigns have used data in the past, even 10 years, to move forward. Are you saying, “Hey, we’re mostly done with that”? Is there room for a different kind of model?
Kauffman: The model is also based off of past cycles, and there hasn’t been someone like Trump in cycles past. So, you know, the model might have been right if the candidate opposite Hillary Clinton had been anyone but Trump.
I do need to step back. My dad has a Ph.D. in statistics and would kill me if I were to say, “Throw out all the models.” But I think the reality is that we need to be smarter about targeting. … I mean, there are really cool things that you can do with micro-targeting. You can have messages that are tweaked for specific audiences, and that’s really cool. As a digital user, I like it when I get a message that’s created just for me. I’m a Latina whose last name is Kauffman, and when I get something that’s in Spanglish, that’s perfect. That’s right at the nexus of the story, in essence, of who I am. That’s really cool for me.
So we can do really awesome things like that when we’re smart about using models and data to target. I think, though, to only target people who are within those universes is the big mistake, and you can’t have such unique, siloed messages that only go to certain people and certain audiences because then I think that undercuts the authenticity, and we’ve seen that authenticity is king. It’s just so important to voters these days.
Malone: This is perhaps an uncomfortable question for a lot of Democrats, but do you think the Democratic Party was too top-heavy on cultural issues and was not paying enough attention to core economic messaging? And tied into that — how does the party balance civil rights issues, gay rights issues while also trying to put the pedal to the metal on appealing to the working class that in some places, black or white, doesn’t share certain progressive cultural values?
Kauffman: That’s a really good question. I do think it’s possible to be focused on both economic and cultural issues at the same time. I think from a strategic standpoint, perhaps one of the mistakes was not focusing on our frame and moving it forward and instead constantly being distracted by Donald Trump. I think that those distractions prevented us from being able to shine a bright enough light on our economic message. He would tweet about something and then everybody would get up in arms and they would respond back, and it felt like the news cycle was just wash, rinse and repeat. Every 24 hours, there was something crazy that he would say, and everybody would respond to it.
And I think at the end of the day, a lot of people, even sometimes I said it: “Oh I wish Hillary Clinton would have had a better economic message.” In the end, she had an economic message. I think it didn’t cut through. And I think that part of that was because everyone, me included, we were all too focused on responding to Donald Trump’s “Trumpster fires” as we were referring to them. It meant that more resources needed to be devoted to cutting through the noise by promoting social media content and by having more digital advertising to cut through that echo chamber, to cut through the noise and deliver that economic message, along with cultural messages to voters.
Malone: I know you’ve worked with a number of labor groups. Labor has been on a decades-long decline as far as power. A lot of labor households voted Trump this year, and I’m wondering what is the future of the labor movement within the Democratic Party.
Kauffman: One thing that’s going to be key is letting union members know what’s happening. Donald Trump had talked about “draining the swamp,” and he’s turned around, and he wants to stack his Cabinet with picks from Goldman Sachs and Exxon. To stack the Cabinet with Washington and Wall Street insiders is the opposite of “draining the swamp,” and I think for union members, they’re going to be really concerned when they connect the dots and realize what’s happening.
With regard to where does labor go from here, it’s a really interesting question, and it’s something that the labor movement has been asking themselves. We’re seeing them redefine what it means to be in the labor movement. Do you work? Then, yes, if you work, then you’re part of the labor movement. Work has value, and that means you’re part of this movement and part of what makes America great.
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