This is the third installment of a series. In Part One I discussed how a candidate must run for something, not merely against Donald Trump. In Part Two I talked about how voters don’t fall neatly onto a left-right spectrum, meaning that trying to “claim the center” is a mistake. In this installment I talk about where, if not the center, a Democratic candidate wishing to win Ohio’s 12th Congressional district should go.
In the last installment I talked about how voters’ position on the political spectrum varies by issue. Rather than be uniformly conservative or uniformly liberal, people tend to have preferences which defy a clean left-right categorization and which render the idea of a candidate trying to split the difference between the left and the right ineffectual.
This is not to say, however, that there are not clear, predictable patterns of where people fall on the issues. It merely means that you have to look at more than just the standard old left-right ideological dimension and look past how people, broadly speaking define themselves politically.
In the wake of the 2016 election, a lot of people have taken a look at voters, trying to break down their preferences across multiple dimensions. One study that has gotten a lot of play is by political scientist Lee Drutman. His study looked at 12 issue dimensions, ranging from the economy to faith in government to moral issues to racial issues to foreign policy and a host of others. Drutman’s findings on all of those things are interesting, but we need not concern ourselves with a dozen varying issues at the moment. There was, however, a broad takeaway that Democratic candidates — especially ones in Republican-leaning districts — should take to heart:
Nearly three-quarters of the electorate is economically liberal.
Yes, in the year that Donald Trump won the presidency and Republicans retained their hold on Congress, 73.5% of all voters espoused broadly liberal views on economic policy, which include protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, seeing to it that Americans have access to quality health care and addressing things like the repair and replacement of our nation’s infrastructure. They’re likewise, quite surprisingly, happy to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to accomplish these goals. Meanwhile, only 26.5% of voters identified as economic conservatives.
If three-quarters of voters identify as economically liberal, how did Trump win? In two ways, really. He (a) delivered a shockingly popular anti-immigration, socially conservative message while; (b) espousing some markedly liberal economic views.
Item (a) tapped into the other large political divide Drutman identified apart from the economic divide: social conservatives — including those who responded favorably to Trump’s anti-immigration messaging — totaled 51.6% of the electorate while those identifying as social liberals totaled 48.4%. Trump galvanized the former group with a nakedly nativist and at times xenophobic platform that either appealed to their prejudices or exploited their fears. He married this message — though cynically and disingenuously — to economic messages, saying, explicitly or implicitly, that by keeping immigrants out he’d save jobs and ensure that government benefits went to Americans, not foreigners. Included in this appeal were promises of restoring jobs and reviving industries thought lost and committing America to big public works projects, the sorts of which unreconstructed New Deal liberals once promised.
Those socially conservative attitudes exploited by Trump aren’t going away. There has always been and will remains a subset of voter who will, above all else, vote their values or their prejudices first and foremost. An appeal to these voters alone, however, has rarely if ever been sufficient for a candidate to carry the day. It was made possible last year, though, by the sheer shamelessness of Trump’s appeals to prejudice and bigotry AND his willingness to evoke economically liberal talking points and hint at economically liberal programs which resonated particularly loudly in blue collar areas in the Midwest.
The circumstances which allowed Trump to thread that needle — mobilizing social conservatives while bringing along just enough economic liberals to carry the day — will not exist in OH-12 in 2018. This is partially because Trump’s anti-immigrant, socially conservative appeals did not, on balance, motivate OH-12 voters nearly as much it motivated voters elsewhere (remember, Trump performed worse in OH-12 than Republicans usually do). This is mostly due, however, to Trump’s own doing and the doing of Congressional Republicans, who are in the process of alienating huge swaths of the electorate with policies that are utterly hostile to their interests.
Republicans are now committed to a massively unpopular fiscal and economic agenda which no one, apart from the wealthy donor class, much cares for. They attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and failed miserably due to a public uproar that took them completely off guard. They are now in the process of trying to pass a tax bill that benefits only the very wealthy and promises to, at best, do nothing for the middle class and the poor but which will likely lead to future cuts in benefits and services upon which they rely. These policies, if enacted, will result in a radical reduction in their own voters’ standard of living to the benefit of a tiny, elite class of wealthy donors and corporations.
This is not just me editorializing, however. It’s the sentiment currently held by the voters themselves, including large numbers of Republican voters. And it’s a sentiment that is intensifying by the day.
One poll released in the past week shows that only 16 percent of Americans believe the tax plan will lower their taxes, while 59 percent say the plan will favor the wealthy over the middle class. Another found that 78 percent of Americans — including roughly 70 percent of Republicans — don’t believe that a corporate tax cuts will result in any benefit to them. These results do not yet capture sentiment in response to yesterday’s CBO analysis which shows that the tax bill, as currently constructed, will require $25 billion in cuts to Medicare next year alone. When that sentiment is captured rest assured that displeasure with the Republican agenda will be even greater. As a result of all of this, Republicans are faring horrendously in the polls. So bad, in fact, that it appears as though an unprecedented anti-Republican wave is forming.
To win OH-12 in 2018, a Democrat must be positioned to ride that wave. To be positioned to ride that wave, he or she must understand the manner in which that wave is breaking. Economically speaking it’s breaking left, not right. The wave favors someone willing to take a strong stance in opposition to the current Republican agenda and a strong stance in favor of liberal economic policies which remain massively popular. It takes someone willing to buck the old conventional wisdom about left-center-right politics and to eschew decades of punditry which suggests that a Democrat must track toward the center or espouse economically conservative sentiments in order to appeal to the broader electorate.
To win in OH-12, a Democrat must seek to polarize the electorate around issues of economics in the same way Trump polarized the electorate on social issues in 2016. Rather than employ bigotry to frighten them with the specter of immigrants taking their jobs, a Democrat must merely note, in plain terms, that Republicans are hellbent on taking their prosperity and handing it over to wealthy donors and corporate interests. Such a message, by the way, has the benefit of being true and is something voters already overwhelmingly understand.
Then, a Democrat who wishes to win OH-12 must argue, forcefully, that he or she will not allow that to happen and must articulate a better way to approach things.
In the coming installments, I’ll talk about how best to articulate this message.