Democrats should feel encourage and validated by the election. President Obama’s campaign did a very effective strategic job with their turnout effort, and voters clearly responded to our values and priorities. The fact that Democrats will enter next Congress with a net gain in the Senate (considering the number of seats Democrats were defending and where they were doing so!) is the icing on the cake that should remove any doubts about whether this was a fluke perhaps merely a draw.
But now we need to turn to governing and to building for the future. And we need to make sure we learn the right lessons from this election to ensure we do both. Much has been written on the lessons from this campaign, so I’ll focus this piece on a few that have not gotten quite so much attention but are vitally important:
Values not Identity Politics. There is a temptation (and we can hear it already in some circles) to say the President won because minorities and young people supported him. It’s tempting because in one sense, it’s true. But it is dangerous to stop there, or as some are arguing, to go a step farther and say Democrats need not worry about white men or that we can win by just focusing on certain demographic groups in the future. Setting aside the fact that a plurality of Obama’s votes came from “white” voters, he didn’t win because of the way voters looked. The President won because his values and vision better resonated with the American people.
Democrats especially should understand that people are defined by much more than just the color of their skin or their age. And even more importantly, there is no reason at all (and even less benefit) to framing this win as one racial, age, or demographic group beating another. All Americans won with Obama’s victory, and he was supported by all types of Americans. Framing the victory and path forward for Democrats in terms of shared values and ideas is both more accurate and more politically effective moving forward.
Don’t Forget the Working Poor. For all the lip-service paid to the “middle class,” and the embarrassing definition Democrats have been using of saying that group includes people making $250K a year (or five times the average American income), it was the working poor who played the biggest role in thrusting Obama into a second term. IN fact, they voted for him in even higher numbers than “middle class” voters.
I don’t want to go too far down this road, especially given my last point. Obama received strong support from all income levels and people vote on more than the size of their paycheck. But there is a growing myth in Democratic circles that we can only talk about the “Middle Class” and can’t mention the poor. That is a mistaken assumption. Recent polling has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that (when framed correctly) we are actually MUCH more effective when we talk about the working poor and the middle class together. Politicians who do so are more trusted, and the best arguments to defeat Republican efforts to cut vital government programs are those that focus on the impacts those programs have on the working poor.
Faith Matters. There was much less attention paid to faith in this election than in the past. But that doesn’t mean faith wasn’t important. While the Obama campaign did not have a nation-wide faith field program, it did have a number of faith staff doing outreach in Ohio. Even more significantly, that was where the progressive faith community focused its efforts, and the faith organizing infrastructure that had been set up in a number of states in ’06 & ’08 was still going strong in OH (whereas it had become much less robust in other swing states). These outside progressive groups not only had boots on the ground. The progressive faith community has the capacity for significant communication outreach and was able to engaged directly with lists of hundreds of thousands of evangelical and Catholic voters using lists built over the last few cycles. “Nuns on the Bus” also made a special tour of OH, which helped reframe the debate for both Catholics and evangelicals.
The top line from exit polls is that Obama lost the white faith vote nationally and in OH. But if one compares Obama’s white evangelical performance in OH vs his national performance, there was a +12 point swing of support among white evangelicals in OH. In the other swing states (VA, FL, CO), Obama performed the same or worse than his national number. Had Obama performed the same with white evangelicals in OH as he did nationally (or in other swing states), he would have lost Ohio by 87,000 votes. And that is despite Ralph Reed focusing his efforts on OH with promises to deliver the state for the GOP!
Furthermore, much of the attention on Obama’s performance with white Catholics and evangelicals has focused on absolute numbers and ignored the relative trends in white voters (where we all know he saw some drop-off this election compared to last). If one looks at Obama’s performance with white Catholics in ’08 and ’12 relative to his performance with white voters overall, he saw a +6 swing in the white Catholic vote in OH. Again, when looking at a group that makes up 1-in-5 voters, even relatively small changes can make a very big difference. The lesson from all of this is that values-based communication and outreach to faith voters remains a vital part of any Democratic winning strategy…and it will become even more important as we seek to win back the House and expand majorities in the Senate.
Foreign Policy Matters Too. There is no question that voters were making decisions this election on something other than foreign policy. But for the first time in generations, those who did say it was their top issue broke HEAVILY for the Democrat. And the way voters viewed the President’s leadership on foreign policy and national security shaped their overall view of his character and trust in his ability to guide us into a better future. Bush’s disastrous wars and Obama’s leadership in confronting terrorists (in case you hadn’t heard, GM is Alive and bin Laden’s dead) and effectiveness in weathering multiple international crises (kudos Sec. Clinton too) have put Democrats in a position we have not enjoyed since the FDR years. The top priority is our economy, but we need to make sure we keep highlighting foreign policy successes and building a more secure world for the future. And as Democrats, we also need to be wary of some of the new weapons and tools at our disposal and begin developing rules for the use of drones and for dealing with prinsoners of war in a war without a clear beginning or end.
Keep Communicating. In the first term, we saw a huge switch from candidate Obama who talked about common values to President Obama who spent his time reciting numbers and talking policy. The details matter immensely to fixing our problems. But we need to remember that we were elected based on our values and vision. These are hard times, and some of the solutions to America’s problems will not be easy. The President was elected because America trusted him to get us out of the economic mess Bush created, and he needs to make sure he remains clear about where we are headed and why we are making the decisions we are making.