Down and Dirty: What Democrats Need to Do to Win Future Elections

"If liberals are so smart, why do they always lose?"  

The above quote (paraphrased to make it PG) was uttered by Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy on the hit HBO series The Newsroom.  The context for the quote involves McAvoy describing why America is no longer great and has him go on the offensive toward both his Democratic and Republican guests on stage.  In the end, McAvoy ends up going on an epic tirade that has gone down in the annals of TV history for its brutal honesty regarding America's standing in the world, ending by simply stating that "America is no longer the greatest country in the world." This clip became a rallying cry for those who believed America was losing her top spot on the world stage and that the myth American exceptionalism was finally being exposed for all to see.

Yet, despite the impact of the speech in the public eye, one overlooked aspect of it is the line that I highlighted.  Why do liberals consistently lose elections?  We saw it at both midterm elections, and we saw it again this past Tuesday night.  If Americans are, as Joe Biden has gone on the record as saying, "with Democrats on every major issue" then why can't Democrats win non-presidential elections?  Why are they vastly outnumbered in the House?  Why are they losing more and more state races?  And why are they losing on local progressive ballot initiatives?  

The issue is a complex one, but not one without solutions.  First off, the issue of gerrymandering cannot be ignore, especially when it comes to the House.  In 2014, we saw Republicans take 57% of the House seats despite only having 52% of the vote.  Thanks to the 2010 midterms, a number of right-wing governors were elected who immediately went to work gerrymandering the bejesus out of their states.  The biggest winners (read:  losers) from 2010 ended up being Pennsylvania and North Carolina who both saw a disproportionate number of Republican representatives elected compared to the overall vote totals in each state.  In Pennsylvania, Democrats won 44% of the overall vote but ended up sending 5 representatives to Congress compared to 18 for the Republicans.  In North Carolina, Democrats also won 44% of the overall vote but sent 3 representatives to Congress compared to 10 for the Republicans. The two states were the most egregious offenders but by no means were the only ones.  

Because of gerrymandering, congressional candidates are reelected at an astonishing 96% rate. At a time when Congress' approval rating is hovering between 10-15%, 19 out of 20 of these congressmen and women and being told by their constituents that they are doing a bang up job.  In fact, at this time there are likely to be less than 20 competitive races throughout the entire country in 2016 when a total of 435 races will be taking place.  No matter what happens at the presidential level or even if the Senate switches hands, Republicans will maintain control of the United States Congress by a healthy margin.  It will continue to be that way unless Democratic governors are elected in some of the worst gerrymandered states such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida.  

However, the gerrymandering of congressional districts is only one battle the Democrats have to fight.  The second issue, and the one we came across Tuesday night, is the fact that Democrats are godawful at getting out the vote in off-year elections.  With this past Tuesday being an off-off year (one with no congressional or presidential election) Democrats absolutely shot themselves in the foot by not getting people out to vote.  As John Oliver pointed out on his show, these elections were literally about life and death in that the future of Medicaid expansion would be decided in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia.  People's lives could be saved by electing democratic candidates who have vowed to fight for Medicaid. 

So what happened? 

Democrats lost all three races.  Badly.  They lost all three races because they suck at messaging.  For example, Kentucky Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin ran a campaign where one of the central themes was the repeal of Medicaid.  He is now backtracking on this promise but still has vowed to freeze the program which would cause tens of thousands of low-income Kentuckians to lose their coverage.  Kentucky, one of the poorest states in the country, had been the poster child for the successes of Obamacare.  Thanks to Democratic governor Steve Beshear accepting the Medicaid expansion in 2014, Kentucky had seen 530,000 citizens added to Medicaid and the state's uninsured rate drop nearly 6 percentage points from 2013 to 2014. Despite the fact that Obamacare is wildly successful, only 33% of Kentuckians have a positive opinion of President Obama.  

The reason?  Democrats suck at messaging.  Especially in Kentucky.  It's the same mistake Allison Lundergan Grimes made in 2014 by running away from the president.  Only this time, rather than run away from the president we had a candidate in Jack Conway who wasn't able to come up with a coherent campaign message.  Hey Jack, here's a campaign message for you: Matt Bevin Is Running To Kill Kentuckians.  That's it.  Use that.  It may be harsh but it's true.  In a state with a large percentage of low-information voters that's the one thing your campaign should have been saying since day one.  None of this Affordable Care Act/Obamacare/Medicaid terminology.  Simply say that a vote for Matt Bevin is a vote for someone who will take away your health insurance.  Say it in every campaign speech you make.  Say it on every ad.  Yell it from the rooftops if you have to.  The phrase "Matt Bevin will kill Kentuckians" should have been one of those phrases that will live in the infamy of political campaigning.  Harsh? You bet.  But in this case, true and more to the point, a truth that your opponent has openly admitted.

Lastly, Democrats also lose on progressive issues at the state and local level.  The reason again boils down to their messaging.  The problem is that Democrats have no idea how to go on the offensive.  Take for example, Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which had provided equal protections for the LGBT community in the workplaces, houses, and public accommodations.  This ordinance was repealed on Tuesday with over 60% of Houstonians voting to strip city residents of protections that had been in place since May of 2014.  The opposition against the ordinance was centered on a grotesque campaign that painted the ordinance as being one that would protect potential rapists who, thanks to the ordinance, would be able to enter opposite sex bathrooms and do as they please because the "identify" as a certain sex.  Of course, this is nowhere near the case of the law, but the scare tactic worked and the people of Houston bought it hook, line, and sinker.  

In 2008, Barack Obama created the most well-organized political coalition this country has ever seen.  Today, millennials, African Americans, Asians, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, and women are all firmly entrenched in the Democratic corner.  The majority of people today believe in climate change, equal pay, marriage equality, immigration reform, a raised minimum wage, affordable health care, and a foreign policy based on diplomacy which are all things opposed by the Republican Party.  Joe Biden was right:  The American people are with the Democratic Party on every major issue.  It should be a given that any candidate with a (D) next to his or her name wins an election in a non-gerrymandered state or district.  

Yet, as we saw on Tuesday Democrats still lose and lose badly on campaigns and issues that should be slam dunks.  The reason?  Democrats refuse to play politics.  They refuse to get down in the mud and play dirty.  They feel that it's beneath them and that they will be seen in a negative light if they stoop to their opponent's level.  They feel that campaigns should be issue-based and that attack ads are out of line and are morally reprehensible.  Democrats today would much rather look good and lose than look bad and win.  

Which is a shame because nobody remembers the guy who ran the good, honest campaign and lost.  People today look at Barack Obama and see the man as a paradigm of virtue and, in many cases, he his.  However, Barack Obama would not be where he is today if he hadn't gotten down and dirty.  His ad "firms" where he attacked Mitt Romney for outsourcing jobs and having off-shore tax havens was seen as the most devastating ad of the entire 2012 presidential campaign.  In addition, he essentially wrapped up his reelection during the second presidential debate where he called out Romney's infamous "47 percent" comment.  Dirty politics? Perhaps. But there's no denying how effective the ad and debate were in crushing Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations.  

For Democrats to succeed in today's political landscape they need to grow a spine.  Go on the offensive early and often.  Call out the BS when you see it.  Tug at people's heartstrings and get them emotionally invested in the issues.  Matt Bevin will take away your health care.  Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance protects your loved ones and your neighbors.  Marco Rubio's inaction on climate change will destroy the places we cherish.  As soon as the general election is over in 2016, Democrats need to find and identify strong gubernatorial candidates for the 2020 election.  Don't wait until the last minute or else it'll be at least another decade until you can retake the House.  Ramp up the voting efforts in rural areas.  Explain to poor, southern folk why they have affordable health care for the first time in their lives.  Fight fire with fire and call out your opponent's lies.  You have an army of fact-checkers on the internet that won't allow your opponent to get away with things and if he tries, make sure the voters know he's trying to pull a fast one on them.  

But most of all, Democrats need to assume nothing.  Don't assume an issue will easily pass. Don't assume a candidate will win despite what the polls tell you.  The Republican base, although dwindling in number, goes outs on election day and swarms the polls like sharks to blood.  They will vote on November 8, 2016 and they will vote on off-off election years.  They see and (R) on the ballot and they'll vote for that person regardless of whether or not he wants to take away their health insurance.  The only way to get Democrats to the polls is to get them fired up about an election and the only way to get them fired up about an election is to tug at their heart strings and get them emotionally involved in a cause.  If you have to do that by playing dirty than by all means do it.  There's simply to much to lose by not having Democrats turn out and vote.  

Our future depends on it.



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