Want to Win in 2020? Stop Thinking So Much.
The cycle is here, so the angst has begun. How do the Democrats take out Trump in 2020? What’s the secret formula? Do they need a moderate who can win over suburban women? A progressive who can energize millennial turnout in the cities? A brawler who can go toe to toe in the ring? A billionaire who made his or her money legitimately? Did the midterms represent a victory for progressives? Or were they a sign that voters want more centrism and moderation? The answer is none of the above.
Democrats, often in their well-intentioned way, tend to out-think and out-worry themselves. If we can just come up with the right algorithm or just add those extra five bullet points to the policy brief or just add three more Yale grads to the team, we’ll crack the code and win the election. Given that only one Democrat has captured the Oval Office this century, it’s pretty clear this approach doesn’t work.
Voters don’t vote for algorithms. They vote for candidates – people who genuinely speak to them, who excite them, who make them feel heard and relevant. Those candidates don’t have to align with the voters on every policy issue. They don’t have to check every identity box and have something in their bio to appeal to every demographic. They don’t need the approval of every host on MSNBC or every endorser who can write a big check. The formula doesn’t matter. The checklist doesn’t matter. Only the candidate does.
Look at the midterms. Beto O’Rourke didn’t come so close because he had the right talking points for each and every constituency. He didn’t win more votes because he was a white man running for office in Texas or capture less votes because he was a white man trying to mobilize progressives. He attracted so much energy, so much money, so much excitement because he felt like a real person with real ideas and real, genuine beliefs – and not just a caricature of what a politician is supposed to be (the reason voters rejected Al Gore and John Kerry and Hillary Clinton is because they really, really don’t want someone who’s been preparing to run for President since the third grade).
Look at 2016. Trump didn’t seem like a viable candidate to any expert on any side of the aisle. But even if you think he’s authentically awful, he’s still authentically him. Many of his policies were nationalist, even racist. But on other issues like prescription drugs or trade, he aligned squarely with progressives. He was just him and who he was – like it or not – spoke to enough voters to win.
Look beyond Washington. Republican Charlie Baker easily won another term as Governor in Massachusetts – the same state that elected Elizabeth Warren and Ayanna Pressley – because he does a good job and the voters like him. Same for Larry Hogan in Maryland. Voters in New York chose a hard-core progressive in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Congress and a sort-of centrist in Andrew Cuomo for Governor because each candidate felt right in that election and at that moment. That’s all you need.
If the Democrats want to pick a winner in 2020, they shouldn’t worry so much about picking the exact right contrast to Trump. The best candidate isn’t inherently a moderate, a progressive, a brawler, a billionaire, an insider or an outsider. The best candidate isn’t the one who looks right on paper or who feels comfortable to party insiders or activist outsiders. The best candidate is the one who fits the zeitgeist of our times – and you don’t have to figure out what that is; the right candidate will do it automatically. The best candidate is the one with the vote getting gene (you can’t strategize your way to having it; either you’re born with it or you’re not; just ask the Clintons and the Bushes). The best candidate is whoever the voters take to – even if you think that candidate doesn’t match up well against Trump. The party doesn’t have to sort it all out beforehand. Let the process play out. And to be clear, any candidate who has to “reinvent” themselves as anything – as Mark Penn is now predicting Hillary will do to run yet again – is the polar opposite of what the voters want.
The last few election cycles have made it abundantly clear that the strategists, the pundits, the columnists, the pollsters and everyone else who considers themselves an expert don’t know much more than the rest of us. There will be endless prognosticating, endless rendering of garments over who the Democrats should pick in 2020. There is no should. All that matters is who emerges from the scrum, who feels right to the voters. Picking that candidate is a good way to re-take the White House. Engineering your way to a specific, pre-ordained outcome is a great way to lose again. Trump understands that better than anyone. The Democrats need to start understanding that too.