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Monday, June 12, 2017


Campaign 101

by Tom Sullivan

Over the weekend, Sen. Bernie Sanders' supporters gathered in Chicago for a "People's Summit." The New York Times, sniffing at a growing rift, so-called, between factions within the Democratic Party, went looking for some political disaster porn:

The growing tension between the party’s ascendant militant wing and Democrats in conservative-leaning terrain, where the party must compete to win power in Congress, was on vivid, split-screen display over the weekend: in Chicago, where Senator Bernie Sanders led a revival-style meeting of his progressive devotees, and in Atlanta, where Democrats are spending colossal sums of money in hopes of seizing a traditionally Republican congressional district.
Four thousand or so activists showed up fired-up in Chicago, so as these stories go it's bad news for the Democrats.

After reprising much of his 2016 stump speech Saturday night, Sanders told supporters:
The Democratic Party cannot continue to be a party of the East Coast and the West Coast. It must be a party of all 50 states. The working people of Mississippi and Wyoming, of South Carolina and Oklahoma, of Texas and Kansas, of Nebraska and Utah, and many other states will support a progressive agenda – if we bring that agenda to them.
But who is going to deliver it?

Everybody wants back Howard Dean's 50-state strategy. “You cannot be a national party if you are willing to write off entire parts of our country,” Dean said back in 2008. Hillary Clinton announced in 2015 her presidential campaign would emulate it. But in the end, it was election campaign organizing, not the sustained party organizing Dean wrote about this time last year:
The plan that Clinton began to execute this week is a 20-year strategy to create a new vision for America. To fulfill it, she is dispatching staff to all 50 states and is working to identify and organize supporters in each one.

There are a lot of reasons why adopting a 50-state strategy is both the right thing and the smart thing for Clinton to do. For one, voters deserve it. When candidates write off entire states or regions for being too blue or too red, they also write off the people who call those places home.
Sanders concurs. "The current model and the current strategy of the Democratic Party is an absolute failure," Sanders boomed to applause Saturday night. He reminded the crowd that there is more at stake nationwide than the presidential election. Yet even people who should know better don't. A friend observed that at a 2012 election night watch party, when it was announced that Barack Obama was reelected, people went crazy clinking glasses and making toasts. Meanwhile state Democrats got clobbered in legislative races. Who noticed?

North Carolina is not unique. Democrats there speak of implementing a 100-county strategy. With large blocks of Democratic votes in the few urbanized counties, Democrats last November elected Roy Cooper as governor by the skin of their teeth. But they left him facing Republican super-majorities in both houses of the legislature. Those legislators aren't elected statewide. They are elected by districts. The bulk of those districts lie outside the cities. Republicans dominate there, in part, because Democrats don't show up.

In recent years Democrats have lost almost a thousand state legislative seats, Sanders reminded his supporters. Republicans control 32 legislatures and 33 governorships. Democrats now rely largely on the courts, not voting strength, to hold the line against voter suppression measures enacted systematically by Republican legislatures across the country. "Today in almost half of the states in America, the Democratic Party has almost no political presence at all," Sanders said.

Yes, progressives want a 50-state strategy. But the left and the Democratic Party have not shown a commitment to it in the past and have yet to.

Steve Benen wrote this time last year:
That’s always been the challenge with implementing a 50-state strategy: a candidate, eager to succeed, wants to invest limited resources where they’ll produce the largest short-term gains. If you’re a Democratic presidential nominee, and your focus is on winning, do you divert money from Ohio in order to help build the party in Oklahoma? Isn’t it more important to win the race you’re in and work on future cycles in the future?

The problem with that line of thinking, of course, is that there will never be an ideal time to do the hard work in states that aren’t currently competitive. In 2016, Clinton and her team believe they can do both: win the election with staff in literally every state, while laying a stronger foundation for future cycles.
Neither happened. A year later, Bernie Sanders is telling enthusiastic supporters the same thing. Democrats need a 50-state plan. It sounds great in the abstract. But who is going to deliver it?

This is Campaign 101. At meet-and-greets and in stump speeches, candidates wrap up by looking neighbors in the eye and asking for their votes. Voters need to be asked. But....

"You cannot create a movement of the common people if you hold the common people in contempt," author Thomas Frank told the People's Summit on Sunday. Frank referred to the Democrats' leaders as out of touch while ignoring sentiments widely held in the room. With the still-simmering anger at Donald Trump and his voters, fueled daily by Trump himself, again, who is going to deliver that progressive agenda to 50 states? And to states and counties where the only voices voters hear are on right-wing talk radio? Who is going to reach into those rural places where Sanders says the Democratic Party has no presence, deliver a progressive message, look people in the eye, and ask people for their votes when they are people – what did Hillary Clinton call them? – a lot of us simply refuse to talk to? If my social media feeds are any indication, that could be as much an obstacle as lack of money.

The left first has to solve its chicken-and-egg question. Are we not talking to rural voters because they don't vote with us? Or are they not voting with us because we don't talk to them?