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Democrats have a secret plan to win red states without moving to the center

It looks like a strategy to turn red states like Georgia blue in 2016. It’s really an argument about what kind of party to be in 2017 and beyond.

Rep. Stacey Abrams, minority leader of the Georgia General Assembly, addresses an EMILY’s List function.
Rep. Stacey Abrams, minority leader of the Georgia General Assembly, addresses an EMILY’s List function.
Paul Zimmerman/Getty

With 10 or so weeks to go until Election Day, the most common measure of just how far ahead Hillary Clinton is in the presidential race is where her campaign is spending less money.

Clinton’s campaign has (at least for the moment) stopped spending money to put ads on the air in Colorado and Virginia. (In both states, according to RealClearPolitics polling averages, Clinton is ahead of Trump by an average of 11 points.) The pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA is "going dark" for a month in those two states and in Pennsylvania (where Clinton is polling about 9 points ahead of Trump).

On the surface, this looks like an act of confidence — if not outright complacency. But that’s not the whole story.

The Hillary Clinton campaign might be pulling its ad buys out of conventional swing states like Colorado and Virginia, but that’s because it’s putting effort into unexpected places. Since the conventions, the Hillary Clinton campaign has expanded its operations in Arizona and put full-time staff into Georgia, a state that few could have imagined Democrats would compete in come 2016.

It’s a strategy that Democrats refer to as "expanding the map": taking the opportunity presented by a flailing Trump campaign to turn swing states blue, and to compete in parts of the country where Democrats haven’t been able to compete before.

It seems obvious enough: Donald Trump appears to be steering Republicans toward an unusually bad year, so Democrats should capitalize on his failure.

They have an opportunity in North Carolina, where Clinton is up on Trump by 2 points, according to RealClearPolitics.Trump and Clinton are effectively tied in Arizona and Georgia. Even South Carolina could be in play: The only poll conducted there in 2016 has Trump winning by only 2 points.

But which of those states do Democrats aim to turn blue, and how? That actually opens up huge questions about the nature of the party itself — for 2016 and beyond.

Do they take the opportunity to consolidate progressive power and move America to the left, or try to siphon off all the disaffected Republicans out there turned off by Trump’s bombast?

Hillary Clinton at an organizing event in North Carolina in 2016.
Hillary Clinton at an organizing event in North Carolina in 2016.
Justin Sullivan/Getty

Some voices within the party have long argued they already have a majority; they just need to mobilize it. In 2016, they’re finally getting the resources to put that theory into practice. If Clinton can win the state of Georgia — or even come close — it will vindicate a theory that some progressives of color have long championed: that progressives already have a majority and they just need to get the people who make it up to the polls.

Ultimately, though, whether the Democratic Party wants to appeal to low-propensity voters of color in Georgia or anti-Trump moderates in Iowa is going to depend on who the Democratic Party wants to be.

Thinking outside of traditional ways campaigns spend money

Campaign strategy is just a fancy word for arithmetic. Whether you’re talking about winning a state’s electoral votes in a presidential election, or winning a Senate or congressional seat, the goal of a campaign is the same: Make sure the majority (or plurality) of votes that get cast in November are cast for your party’s candidate.

The traditional way to go about this — and, in a lot of ways, the easiest — is to assume that the number of people who will probably vote in the election is already set and the question is who they’ll vote for.

It’s so traditional, in fact, that it’s easy to think about it as the only way to go about winning an election. But it’s not. It actually carries very particular implications: that political parties should be big tents, extremely solicitous of moderate voters.

Tim Kaine addresses the DNC
Vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s speech at the DNC was an example of the traditional "persuasion" strategy.
Getty Images

So the traditional strategy is a persuasion strategy. It involves targeting people who vote on a regular basis — even if they don’t always vote for your party.

It involves choosing candidates and platforms that come as close to the median of the electorate — including the undecided middle — as possible. This is especially true for Senate and congressional campaigns, where a lot of the work is simply recruiting a candidate who, in the words of National Press Secretary Meredith Kelly of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, "fits the district."

And it involves spending money on ads, trying to get voters to see the other party as bad, and your party as good.

This is the basic swing state playbook. It’s an easy one for congressional committees and PACs to follow: It’s easy to raise money centrally and disperse it, and equally easy to pull ads from parts of the country that aren’t looking competitive and push them into parts that are.

In 2016, that means that some traditional swing states — like Virginia, where Clinton is already up by an average of 10 points — don’t look like good investments. And some relatively unexpected states and districts are.

The mobilization opportunity: Democrats could turn Arizona and Georgia blue by mobilizing voters of color

But what if Democrats stopped thinking about winning as many of the available, likely voters as possible, and started thinking about changing the pool of who was a likely voter? What if they focused less on persuasion and more on voter mobilization?

This is an argument that progressives of color within the Democratic Party, led by strategist Steve Phillips — whose book Brown Is the New White is something of a manifesto — have been making for several years.

"We spend a lot of money, and a lot of time, trying to persuade atheists to become Catholics," says Stacey Abrams, the minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. "What we have to do is get Baptists to go to church."

The way they see it, there’s a natural progressive majority in the US, driven by nonwhite citizens. It’s just that many of those citizens don’t vote in midterm elections, or don’t vote at all.

If Democrats stop pivoting to the center and spending money on ads, and start focusing on getting their natural allies to the polls, they can win more durable victories; America, after all, is only getting more diverse. "We’ve already won," says Abrams — "we just forgot to pick up our prize."

lily parada for obama 2012
This is what America looks like! (A young Latina Democrat. Okay, very young.)
Lia Parada

The strategy that Phillips, Abrams, and company call the "new American majority" strategy represents a totally different version of "expanding the map." It expands it to places where rapid demographic change creates opportunities for Democrats: states like Arizona, Texas, and Georgia.

Instead of spending money on ads, it encourages Democrats to spend it on turnout. Phillips estimates that for the amount of money spent on attack ads in the 2014 North Carolina Senate race, for example, Democrats could have paid for "400 full-time staff members to go door to door in communities of color for an entire year, talking to and mobilizing the voters who had turned out for [Democratic Sen. Kay] Hagan when she won in 2008."

Democrats haven’t traditionally invested in turning out nonvoters in states like Georgia

Stacey Abrams sees Georgia as "emblematic of a number of states, particularly Southern states," where Democratic voters have simply never gotten the attention that their peers in swing states get every two to four years. For 130 years, the state was deep blue (thanks to a coalition of Dixiecrats and progressives) and there was no need to get out the vote; then, "when that all fell apart in the 2000s and we lost power," there was no interest in spending money to turn out Democrats in a deep red state.

As a result, Abrams points out, there are hundreds of thousands of Georgia residents who are simply assumed not to be voters. "It becomes this vicious self-fulfilling prophecy: They don’t vote because no one asks, and because no one asks, they don’t vote."

NAACP voting volunteers in Selma, Alabama in 2008.
A 2008 NAACP bus tour got volunteers to help register voters in states like Alabama.
Mario Tama/Getty

Georgia’s demographics are changing: It’s on track to be majority minority by 2030, if not before. If those nonwhite voters can be mobilized, and if they’re as consistently progressive as their voting peers — as Abrams argues they are — they could turn the state blue for good.

But demographics aren’t destiny — a lesson that Democrats have learned painfully. There’s a cohort of nonwhite voters, Abrams says, who have "traditionally not engaged at all — when they vote, it’s because they have traditionally self-organized." As Democrats have seen, that isn’t enough.

In 2014, for example, Democrats lost a painful Senate race in Colorado, in part due to low turnout among Latino voters. Polling conducted by the firm Latino Decisions showed that more than 40 percent of Latinos who voted in the election had never been contacted by any party or organization about voting or registering.

Only a third of Latino voters in Colorado had been contacted by Democrats — despite the Colorado Senate race being one of Democrats’ highest priorities that year, and despite Latinos having been a key constituency in Democratic victories in the state over the past three cycles.

In 2016, Democrats may finally be investing in expanding the map by expanding the electorate

In 2014, Abrams tried to prove her theory by launching a pilot voter mobilization effort. In six months, her 501(c)3 organization got 64,000 people of color on the voter rolls — a solid chunk of the 800,000 unregistered citizens of color in the state.

Then there was the effort (coordinated through a separate, 501(c)4 organization) to mobilize those voters — as well as people who were already registered, but didn’t even turn out to vote in every presidential election, much less in midterms.

She found that a simple phone call or mailer could boost turnout by 9 percentage points. A mailer plus a phone call (or a visit) boosted it 12 points. And "if they received a full cohort and complement, the way you treat swing voters in any other state, their turnout jumped to 71 percent."

Univision Salinas GOTV PSA
Look at all that turnout! (No, this does not mean that person voted five times!)

Initially, Abrams struggled to persuade Democrats outside of Georgia that her state was a worthwhile investment. But all of a sudden, in 2016, the state is beginning to look eminently winnable. FiveThirtyEight’s "polls-only" model projects Clinton could win the state — and that’s based on a polling model that assumes the electorate will look similar to 2008 and 2012, which doesn’t factor in the work Abrams and her team have been doing.

And the Democratic establishment is taking notice. Clinton’s decision to open an office in Georgia is a strong vote of confidence.

More broadly, organizations that have typically put their money toward a "persuasion" strategy are starting to put resources toward mobilization. Priorities USA, for example, is redirecting its money toward voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, including helping Hispanic voter mobilization groups in Colorado, Nevada, and Florida. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already putting effort into voter turnout, something it doesn’t traditionally focus on until closer to Election Day.

The persuasion opportunity: Trump could help Democrats compete in suburban Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana

That isn’t to say that Democrats aren’t taking opportunities to persuade voters where they can — or that they aren’t, in their own way, expanding the map by doing so.

Meredith Kelly of the DCCC talks about some districts where Trump is "toxic." She points to Florida’s 7th District, in the suburbs of Orlando. "It’s very diverse — it’s urban and suburban, it’s very affluent and well-educated compared to the rest of the state — so that is exactly the type of district that we are looking to compete in this year."

The DCCC would have competed there anyway, she hastens to point out, but Trump "has accelerated that." These are districts where people might be tempted to vote Republican in other cycles — and, indeed, probably voted for the incumbent in 2010 or 2014 — but where the Trump brand might make them take another look at the Democratic Party.

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN)
Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN) might be one of the incumbents under threat because voters in his affluent suburban district consider Trump "toxic."
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty

"I think you’ll see," predicts Lauren Passalacqua of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, "a lot of people who have been a part of the Republican Party wondering if it’s still the right place for them."

As much as anything, though, the opportunities that Trump has provided on the House level haven’t been with voters but with Democratic candidates — people who "fit their districts" but are only now willing to run.

Minnesota’s Third District, located in suburban Minneapolis, is the kind of example Democrats are targeting: Candidate Terri Bonoff is what Kelly describes as "our ideal recruit for that district." The district is "socially moderate and economically conservative," and Bonoff is too. (Kelly describes her as "independent-minded" — which is to say she may win the seat for Democrats but she may not always vote with party leadership.) But in previous years, Bonoff resisted running against incumbent Rep. Erik Paulsen; this year, she’s in.

Then there are the races in Iowa and Indiana, and "emerging" races in Michigan. The most optimistic Hillary Clinton campaign staffers I’ve talked to have floated the possibility of competing even in Kansas.

These definitely aren’t swing states in the way you traditionally think of them. But they’re based on a similar logic to the logic of swing states: that Democrats need to persuade as many voters as possible to vote for them this year.

Putting money toward expanding the map isn’t the same as investing in new areas of the country

After all, investing in voter turnout instead of ads is not a foolproof strategy. If it were, Texas would have turned blue several years ago.

Texas is the elephant in the room for the "expanding the map" strategy. It demographically more fertile ground for Democrats than Georgia, and Democratic groups have put millions of dollars over the past several years into voter registration efforts to turn Texas blue. Not only has it not worked in the past, but it certainly appears that Texas is going to stay red in 2016, even as Georgia — and maybe even South Carolina — turn purple.

A Democratic delegate from Texas at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
This Texan woman may be a Democrat, but the state, like her hat, is still red.
Brett Carlsen/Getty

"I think it’s a cautionary tale," Stacey Abrams says of Texas. She’s learned a few specific lessons for Georgia: that you can’t parachute staffers from one part of the state into another part and expect them to connect with voters, for example.

(Florida represents a similar cautionary tale in this regard: Democrats I’ve talked to are often frustrated that candidates in Florida don’t understand that they have to do different things to reach out to Puerto Rican voters in central Florida and Venezuelan voters in Miami.)

But the other lesson of Texas is that voter mobilization is a long-term process. Arguably, Texas wouldn’t have looked like as much of a failure in 2014 for Democrats if they hadn’t gotten excited about Wendy Davis’s gubernatorial candidacy, turning what was originally supposed to be a long-term voter mobilization effort into a short-term one with inflated expectations.

Organizations will need to stick around after Election Day to maintain infrastructure in states and districts — something that national PACs and congressional committees aren’t interested in or well-equipped to do.

Furthermore, despite the argument of the "new American majority" theory that it might be easier to elect progressive Democrats than moderate ones, the electorate doesn’t always change enough in a single cycle to allow a red district to suddenly turn deep blue.

In Arizona, for example, Democrats got a new congressional district in 2010 thanks to the growth of the Latino vote in the state — but it’s currently represented by Kyrsten Sinema, one of the most moderate Democrats in Congress. She fits her district, and her district is not yet blue.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) with then-Rep. Aaron Schock (R-iL) in 2014.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) with then-Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) in 2014.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty

Democrats will need to keep voters engaged beyond 2016 — which means they’ll have to decide what kind of party they’ll want to be

The biggest problem with using a "new American majority" strategy in down-ballot races is redistricting: Republican state legislatures work hard to draw districts that won’t get diverse enough to elect Democrats instead of Republicans. Democrats are aware of how crucial it is to reverse their slide in state legislative races by 2020, so they have control of the redistricting process in key states.

National groups are already holding informal discussions to figure out how they’ll build infrastructure over the next four years; outside groups are trying to mount a campaign similar to the one Republicans used to take over state houses in 2010.

But in 2020, Donald Trump is unlikely to be the Republican nominee for president again. That’s not a natural advantage Democrats will have. Sure, Democrats can make an effort to govern from the center and give moderates fewer reasons to leave — but ultimately, the choice facing moderates in 2020 is going to depend on what the Republican Party wants to be.

"Looking ahead, what are the impacts of what this campaign season has been about?" asks Passalacqua of the DSCC. "I’m not sure we know the answer to that yet, or will, even on or after Election Day."

And while Democrats generally have a demographic advantage in presidential election years, the danger of a strategy that relies on low-propensity voters instead of affluent moderates is that, well, low-propensity voters are less likely to turn out to vote.

VoteGIF reminding voters of registration deadline in Georgia.
You should vote! In Georgia or wherever you live!
Erica Gorochow

The point of the "expanding the map" strategy is to build political power for Democrats in ways the status quo hasn’t necessarily succeeded at doing. Thanks in part to the voter registration and mobilization efforts of Abrams’s groups, Georgia Democrats won four state legislative races in 2014, in a year that was bad for Democrats across the board. Long-term map expansion is going to require that kind of victory, not just a series of wave elections in which Democrats win at all levels in years divisible by four and Republicans win at all levels in every midterm.

For Abrams, this isn’t a hard problem to solve. It goes back to her analogy about atheists and Baptists. "As the daughter of ministers, I will tell you that if you only get people to come to church on Christmas, you’re not converting them. What you’re doing is guilting them, you’re shaming them into action," she says. "What you have to be able to do is build the evangelism that says this is a constant thing. You need to be in church, in the pews, every Sunday."

Abrams boasts that Georgia Democrats have become a "year-round party" by focusing on progressive issues — the issues that people of color in her state care about. "It’s a dangerous thing for a politician to say, but you shouldn’t vote for me," she says. "I’m asking you to vote for the issues that you believe in, I just happen to be your conduit."

Whether Democrats can make that work in Georgia in the long run — or in Arizona and North Carolina, or in Iowa and Indiana — depends on which voters they’re saying that to, and which issues they want to be a conduit for. If Democrats spend four years of a Clinton presidency trying to reach out equally to the "new American majority" and to the moderates who think Trump is "toxic" but might not think other Republicans are, will either of them really be part of the congregation?

The bad map we see every presidential election