The Rainbow Wave Arrived In 2018, And It Will Change Our Politics

I reflect with BuzzFeed on the record number of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people who were elected in the 2018 midterms, despite Republican efforts to turn back the clock.

This year, more openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were elected to office than in any previous election, showing continued progress even as Donald Trump and his administration work to curtail rights for LGBTQ Americans.

In an LGBTQ in America survey that my team at Whitman Insight Strategies conducted in 2018 in partnership with BuzzFeed News, we found LGBTQ Americans were especially energized this year, motivated by animus toward Donald Trump’s anti-equality agenda. A full 79% of LGBTQ Americans said the country was headed in the wrong direction, and 72% said the Trump administration was bad on LGBTQ issues. The survey found respondents were not just energized to vote but were donating to campaigns and political organizations, and even running for office themselves.

An excerpt of the article is below, and you can read the full piece here:  

These results, and the findings from the LGBTQ in America survey, suggest that Republicans continue to ignore LGBTQ voters at their own peril. Republicans are not reaching LGBTQ voters or speaking to issues that are important to them. In fact, their efforts at the state and federal levels to push anti-equality legislation have only further alienated this important (and engaged) community of voters. With growing ranks of LGBTQ leadership across America, Democrats are well-positioned to not only win strongly among LGBTQ voters moving forward but continue to mobilize this already engaged voter segment into action.

Bernie Sanders Met His Match: The Fundamentals

For decades political scientists have tried to predicatively model presidential elections. Until recently, these models have relied on what many refer to as the “fundamentals,” factors like war and economic growth to predict the outcome of elections. As predictive analytics has advanced, those earlier fundamental-based models have largely been debunked for their weak correlation to actual election results (Nate Silver provides a good explanation of the why, here). In their place has grown a new means of election prediction rooted in harnessing publicly available polling data.  

But while polling is indeed critical (as a pollster myself, I say that not for selfish reasons!), fundamentals still hold an important place in understanding why a candidate rises, falls, or, in the case of Bernie Sanders, plateaus. The accepted conventional wisdom of this Democratic primary has been that Sanders started from nothing and built a juggernaut campaign that threatened to take down the establishment’s preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. In fact, it’s an oft touted point in Sanders’ stump speech: that he started off at 3 percent in the polls and was able to close the race to a draw.

So what can explain this supposed meteoric rise, and was there anything that could have predicted it ahead of time? In fact, there is: “the fundamentals.”

A few months ago I built out a model using a set of predictors from past Democratic primaries. It was pretty straight-forward, with state-based predictors including percentages of white men, white women, African Americans, self-identified Democrats, self-identified Liberals, and non-college white voters in the electorate.

My goal at the time was pretty simple. I set out building the model to provide a rough idea of the primary outcome in states like Rhode Island, where polling was sparse. And through the primaries it has effectively done just that: correctly predicting Sanders’ 5-point win in Indiana (where public polling had Clinton up by an average +6.8%), his “surprising” win in Michigan, and his narrow loss in Kentucky.

But as the Democratic primary comes to a close, the model is better viewed as validating a more important point: that Bernie Sanders (or any candidate running with his platform) was always going to pull roughly 40% of the national Democratic primary vote against Hillary Clinton. Or so the demographic fundamentals argued. On the flip side, Sanders was fundamentally capped in his nomination quest by those same demographic-based structural realities. This time, from the disadvantages he faced in the electorate: mainly, his weakness among non-white voters.

What’s most noticeable from the model is that it casts doubt on a core Sanders campaign narrative: that their support has been constantly growing as the electorate gets to know him and his platform. And if you were to look solely at national public polling, you might come away with the same conclusion.

The problem with the argument, though, is that Sanders performed similarly against the demographically-based predictive vote model in both early states (New Hampshire and South Carolina) and the most recent set of primaries. A candidate who was growing their support over time would begin to outpace such a model, and Sanders has failed to do that. What does this mean? Well, put simply, Sanders has maintained his core base of younger, white voters, but has fundamentally failed to remedy his disadvantages among voters of color.

Sanders deserves credit for being able to build a campaign that allowed him to reach his maximum feasible support in the Democratic primary. But fundamentals are that for a reason: you either harness a winning demographic coalition or you find a way to change the demographic makeup of the electorate.

Sanders was not able to do either and that, more than anything to do with the much-hawked “process,” is the reason he is not the presumptive Democratic nominee. 

Democrats, it’s time we reframe the debate: we need to restore our democracy, not fuel a revolution

Let me start off by saying I like Bernie Sanders. I respect his impassioned pleas to strengthen our democracy and I’m glad he’s helping bring the influence of money in politics to the forefront of our national debate. With that said, it’s time for Democrats to escape this trap of instant gratification and recognize that Sanders’ message and the tenor in which it’s delivered is actually counterintuitive to the changes we so desperately seek.

At its core, the Bernie Sanders campaign is framed by the argument that our political system is fundamentally corrupt. So rigged by the wealthy and powerful, in fact, that the only fix is a revolution against the system itself.

Hillary Clinton’s argument is markedly different, as is the tone and tenor with which she delivers it. The Clinton argument is that we need to strengthen our democracy (not upend it) so that the our government works for all of us and so that every voter’s voice is heard. As explained on her website:

Hillary is calling for aggressive campaign finance reform to end the stranglehold that wealthy interests have over our political system and restore a government of, by, and for the people — not just the wealthy and well-connected. Her proposals will curb the outsized influence of big money in American politics, shine a light on secret spending, and institute real reforms to raise the voices of regular voters.

Over the last year, the Democracy Initiative Education Fund undertook an extensive research project with Lake Research Partners to investigate voter attitudes on these very democracy-related issues, including the relative effectiveness of different message frames in motivating and engaging voters.

The research finds that a corruption-framed message, similar to that of Bernie Sanders, does resonate with the electorate but has the potential to demotivate voters who feel resigned about ever fixing the issue of money in politics and can lead to cynicism about any potential solutions. To me, this is a troubling flaw in the framework set by Bernie Sanders: while it effectively harnesses the very real, very deep-seated anger and cynicism voters are feeling, it doesn’t address the reality that cynicism is a losing recipe for winning in November, and more importantly, that it’s unhealthy for the very democracy we’re trying to strengthen.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself the obvious question: if Bernie Sanders’ message is resonating with alienated voters across the ideological spectrum, what’s the problem? If a corruption frame is working, isn’t that an effective message to tap in a campaign?

It’s not. And here’s why: if Democrats utilize messages that garner significant engagement from our opposition, that’s actually a losing strategy for our prospects at winning the White House and securing democracy reforms, which in this case include campaign finance reform, access to voting, and redistricting. It indicates that what we’re saying doesn’t necessarily work in service of the attitude and policy changes we seek.

In large part, Sanders’ corruption frame benefits from familiarity. It’s not a unique message. In fact, it’s one that Donald Trump is effectively using to his advantage in the Republican primary. Here’s Trump speaking to this very same systematic corruption in the September 2015 GOP debate:

You better believe it… I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.

The very fact that Trump is harnessing this similar corruption frame gets us to the second, and more important, problem: a corruption frame doesn’t effectively alienate our opposition (i.e. strong conservative base voters). In fact, as the Democracy Initiative Education Fund research finds, it’s the strongest message in motivating them. Trump’s success in using this corruption argument is the best case study to understanding why it’s detrimental message for Democrats to embrace. Motivating Republicans with our message is the very thing we should be avoiding in an election.

In his State of the Union, President Obama spoke to this very concern, saying in part:

Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

We’re living in an age where voters have evident frustration towards politicians and our political system, there is no doubting that. But harnessing such frustrations for votes only curdles our national conversation with cynicism and demotivates the very voters we as Democrats need to turn out.

Framing the debate with aspirational language is key to countering this deep-seated cynicism many voters hold around government and our democracy today. Voters need hope for the future and the next generation, not a political revolution.

We would be wise to follow the principles set forth in the President’s State of the Union and, to her credit, how Hillary Clinton has come to address the challenge of restoring our democracy.

At its core, it’s about all of us having an equal voice in our democracy. This equal voice frame is powerful in framing both the problem and the solutions we seek. And that’s important, because voters do fundamentally believe that part of the problem in our democracy is that voters’ voices are drowned out by money and special interests, or simply ignored.

An equal voice frame in powerful in its ability to engage base and persuasion voters — exactly what an effective message is supposed to do — and is more motivating among these voters than talking about corruption. In addition, this equal voice frame is significantly less motivating among the opposition than a corruption frame. That’s a good thing, and means this frame is driving a wedge between our opponents and the broader voting public.

In his State of the Union, the President explains this dynamic powerfully:

As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path.

Now, I’m sure there are more than a few reading this thinking it’s an effort to parse an otherwise unified progressive message against the strangling influence of money in our politics. But messaging matters, and the way in which we conduct our national dialogue matters.

To be clear, this is not a problem unique to Democrats this year. In fact, in his Iowa caucus night speech Marco Rubio proclaimed that the anger fueling the anti-establishment candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is a dangerous strategy for the GOP and a losing electoral strategy for November.

But Democrats are in a unique position to recognize and reject this cynically-driven debate. Simply put, no candidate from either party has ever won the presidency on a message rooted in the anger and cynicism of voters. Even the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, so often remembered for their ability to harness the fears of Americans, was grounded with the slogans “Yes, America Can!” and “Moving America Forward.”

For the first many months of this campaign, the Sanders campaign slogan was “A Political Revolution is Coming.” It was replaced this fall with a corruption-based “Not for Sale.” In fact, anyone who has attended a Sanders rally will often hear this chant, as their own press release touts:

Midway through the senator’s remarks, the crowd began to chant “not for sale, not for sale,” a rallying cry for Sanders’ people-powered presidential campaign and a rebuke to politicians bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires.

To their credit, I think the Sanders campaign is slowly coming to recognize the problem in giving voice to this corruption narrative, as evidenced by their recent slogan change to “A Future To Believe In.” But anger and frustration remains the energy fueling his campaign — really the foundation from which it’s been able to grow— and that is a problem. It’s effectively throwing gasoline on a fire we should be trying to instead contain.

As voting gets underway, I hope we as a party find it within ourselves to reject this cynicism and instead embrace a platform of truly reforming our democracy so that every voice is heard and so that government works for all of us. Embracing the short-term anger and distrust explicit in Sanders’ argument will only set our cause back moving forward and demotivate the very voters we need to win up and down the ballot in November.