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Will An Anti-Trump Message Be Enough For Democrats In 2018?

In this week’s politics chat, we sift through all the different lessons Democrats are taking from the 2016 election. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): There’s been a sudden resurgence of post-mortems on the 2016 presidential election. So today’s plan is to discuss the various conclusions that have been floating around. But let’s talk through them specifically in regards to what lessons Democrats should learn heading into 2018 and 2020.

Everyone got that?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): jksdfbdsafbskdf

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Sounds like a blast.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It’s a retreat to move forward, so to speak.

micah: Exactly.

OK, so question No. 1: Lots of people think Hillary Clinton ran too much of an anti-Trump campaign, as opposed to running on an affirmative vision for the country. Do we think that’s true? Do Democrats need a vision for 2018 and 2020? Or can they win just by running against Trump? (With the latest James-Comey-firing imbroglio, for example, there seems like plenty of material for Democrats to run on.)

natesilver: For 2018, an anti-Trump/anti-GOP message should suffice. For 2020, they’ll need that plus something more affirmative.

micah: What makes you say that?

clare.malone: There are governors races in 2018; don’t Democrats need an affirmative message in those?

harry: We do know that Clinton ran a very negative campaign. At least on television. That didn’t work. Or, it didn’t work well enough. Midterms can be very different, however. They’re usually a referendum on the incumbent president. That said, the relationship between a president’s approval rating and the midterm results is not as strong as you might think.


micah: Contract With America.

natesilver: That’s the only example, Micah. Think of another.

Go ahead.

Please proceed, governor.

micah: Democrats ran on an anti-war, anti-corruption message in 2006. That was a pretty consistent message nationally.

clare.malone: What if we’re in a new time, MAKING HISTORY, Nate? Isn’t there room to think that this might be a new paradigm? (Points for buzzword, right?!)

natesilver: You might need an affirmative message if you were running against a super-popular Dwight D. Eisenhower-type of president and trying to make the case for why he needed some constraints on his power anyway. But the Democrats are running against Donald Trump. And Republicans already control both branches of Congress, in addition to the presidency. It’s not a hard argument to make.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I have never thought that Clinton lost because she lacked a more positive message. Lots of people agreed with Trump’s core message that the country is struggling, Washington needs to be shaken up. And he appealed to cultural/racial concerns in a way that she couldn’t. I’m not sure a more focused economic message, whatever that means, would have won Clinton Wisconsin, for example.

And I think 2006, 2010, 2014 all showed that running largely against the incumbent president is fine for midterms.

natesilver: I’m not sure it’s true either, but I think this topic (whether Clinton needed a more positive message) has actually been a bit under-studied, relative to other causes of Clinton’s defeat. She was a pretty big outlier in terms of having so few non-negative ads. And whether this was the right decision or not, it probably had more impact than whether she visited Wisconsin, for instance.

harry: One of the questions that I haven’t seen answered is whether running against Trump could work merely because Democrats are fired up. Or whether they will need to win over Trump voters. Right now, the generic ballot suggests that Democrats won’t have that hard of a time convincing people to vote against Trump.

perry: People wanted to vote for Trump. Or enough of them, in the right areas. I think 2018/2020 are referendums on him. A 10-point plan on X is fine. But it will be ignored.

Who among us has read Chris Murphy’s foreign policy vision?

Or Elizabeth Warren’s new book?

micah: Who hasn’t!?

Pop quiz: What’s the title of Warren’s book?

natesilver: I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book written by a politician. Or at least not a “my vision” sort of book.

perry: “This Fight Is Our Fight.” I read it last week. Raise?

micah: At FiveThirtyEight, you actually get your pay docked for reading that kind of book.

perry: Murphy says we should double the foreign aid and diplomacy budget.

micah: That’s a winning message for sure.

natesilver: This Fight Is Your Fight. This Fight Is Our Fight. From California. To The New York Islands.

harry: One under-studied group is people who voted for neither Clinton nor Trump and voted for a Democrat or Republican for the House in 2016. Third-party votes made up about 3 percentage points more of the presidential than the House vote. If Democrats can win a good chunk of those in 2018, it could help them out on the margins.

perry: Right. It’s not clear Democrats need to win many Trump voters next year.

micah: OK, question No. 2: Do Democrats need a message or plan that appeals to white working-class voters?

clare.malone: They need a message that appeals to all working-class voters. We touched on this a little bit last chat (I think — they’re starting to blur), but Democrats need a front-and-center message that is hard-core populist economics (or at least rhetorically), appeals to white, black and Latino voters, and puts identity politics on the back burner a little.

That’s the real talk. It’s not that Democrats need to get rid of talking about identity politics — which is what people always read — but it’s an emphasis thing.

natesilver: There’s the issue that white working-class voters are overrepresented in swing states. And also in the House and (especially) the Senate, given that they have something of a rural bias.

perry: I think the empirical answer to this is “not really,” right? You can win through gains in the suburbs, among college-educated whites, etc. And according to a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute, the data suggests that white working-class voters are being moved to Republicans by Trump-style rhetoric such as “Make America Great Again” and a kind of cultural nostalgia. Democrats can’t out-identity the Republicans on issues like limiting immigration.

micah: Trump’s appeal to white voters along cultural resentment lines — particularly on issues like immigration — was huge, right? I mean, that was Clare’s thesis in “The End Of A Republican Party.”

perry: The PPRI study suggests that it’s not that Democrats talked about Black Lives Matter too much, but that Trump talked about the problems of illegal immigration just enough.

This is where the Bernie Sanders approach falls apart, to me.

If the issue is not Democrats talking about race too much, but that Republicans have found cultural issues that work or them, that’s a more complicated issue. How do Democrats appeal to white-working class people worried about cultural issues/the growing diversity of the country, etc?

That is what PPRI was highlighting.

harry: I haven’t read the report as in depth as you have, Perry, but I tend to think that over the long run, these things balance each other out. That is, it may not be tomorrow that Democrats win over enough college-educated whites in the Sunbelt to offset losses among working-class white voters in the Northeast and Midwest. But eventually, these things tend to work out to a 50-50 nation. (For what it’s worth, the PPRI study is not the first to mention the idea that Democrats would lose ground among whites fearful of the growing diversity of the country. It’s been long discussed in academia. It’s just that 2016 was the first time we really saw it in action on a national scale.)

perry: My point, to say this bluntly, is that if winning white working-class voters is about culture, not economics, I’m not sure what a Democratic message for them sounds like.

micah: Yeah, I can’t imagine a majority of Democrats will start dog-whistling on race.

natesilver: This point is a little hard to articulate, but are we overrating how much choice Democrats have in this area? A party, like any other large group, is sort of made up of its constituent parts.

clare.malone: Nate, by that do you mean … catering to local culture? Catering to the different factions of the party in different geographic regions?

natesilver: I mean, you basically have a party made up of (1) white urbanites; (2) some wealthy white suburbanites, especially women; (3) blacks; (4) Hispanics; (5) Asians.

I guess I’m just asking whether these things are self-fulfilling to a certain extent. People look at the sorts of people who are Democrats and they say, “That’s not me.”

perry: Right.

micah: But Democrats are recruiting 2018 candidates as we speak. Don’t they have some agency there?

harry: Candidates still matter in House elections. You’re probably not going to win in Wyoming if you’re a Democrat, but you have a chance to pick off some interesting seats if you run the right people.

perry: Yes, they have some agency. Candidates do matter. I’m suggesting, if I were recruiting candidates, I would spend less time on populism, more time on finding people with cultural ties to their areas.

To me, if we think Joe Biden would have done better than Clinton, we are talking about culture/identity, not populism. (Although I don’t deny they are related.)

clare.malone: The most interesting lab for all this are state legislative elections.

micah: Why, Clare?

clare.malone: That’s where Democrats can test hypotheses of who might win … or if their fate is sealed in certain places by demographics and a shifting culture.

natesilver: The party can and should be more inclusive. And that means finding the “right” candidate to compete in lots of red-leaning areas. And a “big tent” attitude that permits multiple messages at a time.

clare.malone: So you could take your chance and see whether or not a populist running in a more Trump-leaning area can actually sell something in the Democratic-brand. Or if he’s just perceived as, I dunno, the liberal elite’s tool in such-and-such locality.

micah: OK … next question: Do Democrats need a better media strategy?

(This is Nate’s question, so, Nate, please explain the thinking behind it.)

natesilver: Haha. I guess I meant two things by that.

The first component is that if we’re diagnosing what went wrong for Clinton, her media coverage was an important part of it, particularly the coverage of email related stories (including FBI Director James Comey’s letter).

micah: Here we go …

clare.malone: Please just see Nate’s 30-part series on this.

natesilver: So do Democrats need to push back more against the mainstream media when the mainstream media latches on to dumb narratives? It might feel unnatural for Democrats because the mainstream media — like Democrats — have a center-left orientation. But it was certainly a problem for Clinton.

micah: Clare, Nate’s series is a skimpy 10 parts at the moment.

perry: The greater media push back is already happening: See Bret Stephens. Or look at Neera Tanden’s Twitter feed. Democrats now constantly attack The New York Times.

natesilver: See, I’d argue that the pushback against the NYT, et al., is healthy for Democrats. The mainstream media has a lot of different hang-ups and biases, one of which is a liberal/cosmopolitan bias. But another one is that they respond to people who work the refs, and the right has been much better about working the media referees than the center-left has for a long time.

micah: Hasn’t the media gotten better about not getting bamboozled by criticism into slanting coverage? Remember when climate change was a “both sides” issue? That’s not the case anymore.


natesilver: The Times just hired Bret Stephens, and MSNBC just hired George Will, so I’m not sure that climate is the best example.

perry: Right.

micah: Lol.

I’m talking news coverage, though.

harry: I’d say Democrats did a pretty good job of getting a network like CNN to call Trump a liar on its chyron. Trump lies more than the average politician, but still. Isn’t that a sign that Democrats can do a pretty job of working the refs too?

clare.malone: Whoa. Stop, guys. The “Democrats” didn’t make CNN do that. Let’s give journalism some credit.

harry: Oh, I disagree tremendously. CNN was giving Trump wall-to-wall coverage with little pushback. For a very long time. I’m not saying CNN’s own journalists didn’t also fight back. But I think Democrats definitely worked the refs.

natesilver: CNN became a lot more sophisticated over the course of the campaign, which is not to say they don’t still have problems.

perry: Jeffrey. Lord.

micah: I mean, there was a learning curve for everyone in covering Trump. Us included.

natesilver: For sure.

clare.malone: Again, I’ll make my now-tired response: TV news was very different than other news in how they were covering Trump.

micah: Yeah, we really shouldn’t lump them together. TV has much different incentives.

micah: OK, so we think Democrats should keep working the refs?

perry: This will not be fun as a reporter, but I think the Democrats should invest as much time bashing the media as the Republicans have.

natesilver: Another media question: Do Democrats need to deal with the social media environment, the alt-right, “fake news,” WikiLeaks and the like?

perry: That’s where I think Democrats will have trouble. There is going to be active resistance on the left to the kind of misleading, false, crazy media style of some of the right-wing sites. Fake news, or what have you, can be an effective political strategy. And is dangerous for democracy.

clare.malone: The Democratic Party is a bigger tent. Breitbart works because of the out-group mentality of many Republicans and their relative demographic homogeneity.

harry: I’m not sure there would be that much resistance, at least based on my Twitter feed.

micah: With Trump in the White House, there definitely has seemed to be an uptick in liberal conspiracy theories. But I think Clare’s right that there’s something about the left culturally that keeps that wing of the party more contained?

perry: Right.

clare.malone: Although, they’re certainly more activated these days.

micah: So to Nate’s question about whether Democrats need a strategy to combat that stuff … do they? What would it be?

natesilver: Yes, they need a strategy. And, no, I don’t have any idea what the strategy should be.

harry: No clue. I mean I just go back to evidence-based reporting. Checking multiple mainstream media outlets as well.

clare.malone: If we’re going to revert to Nate’s idea that Democrats need only to run against Trump in the midterms, then they use Trump’s previous statements to the media, positions covered by Breitbart, et al., during the campaign, and use it against him. He didn’t #draintheswamp, for instance.

To me, that promise that he made during the campaign:

And then the reality of all the bankers that work in the White House right now, could be fairly powerful if deployed correctly.

natesilver: That could make sense, sure. There’s also the inherent tension that Brietbart defines itself in opposition to the establishment, and Trump is sort of the establishment now.

micah: David Brock and James Carville are arguing that Democrats can undermine Trump’s populist credibility on health care, too.

micah: OK, to close us out: If you were advising Democrats to take one thing away from the 2016 election, what would it be?

harry: There are no guarantees in politics.

clare.malone: There is a new order in your party: Recognize it.

natesilver: Mine would be: Don’t assume that demographics equal a favorable destiny for Democrats.

micah: Harry, yours is a total cop out.

Nate’s too, kind of.

perry: I’m just struck by all of the cultural anxiety research coming out. Economics are a factor too, of course, and these things are related. I think Democrats should SAY they are reaching out to working-class whites for sure. All the time. Every party should say they are reaching out to all voters. And they should try to reach them. But (i) I’m not sure how successfully they can really reach white-working class voters, (ii) they have to assume that means reaching working-class whites on cultural and economic grounds, and (iii) that is not simple.

harry: If Democrats reach out to black voters more and well-educated white voters, that could work as well. Alas, I guess that wouldn’t allow a lot of reporters to head to run-down towns in the Midwest, though.

natesilver: My lesson is: “It all comes down to turnout.”

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.