Not Your Father's Electorate: What Progressives Must Do Today to Win a Majority
Changes in the electorate are creating new opportunities for Progressives. But, we need to understand the urgency and benefits of adopting a completely different approach to messaging.
The Urgency of Now
Progressives were yanked out of the presidential driver's seat in 2016. Now, we're on a white-knuckled ride to destinations perilous or unknown, even to those in power.
We lost big in 2016, beginning with the presidency. We lost majorities in both congressional chambers. By 2016, we had also ceded control of 32 state legislatures.
This was part of pattern began four decades ago.
Progressives have been losing influence in state houses since at least 1978 according to Pew Research. Other than the brief reversal during Obama's first term, democrats went from controlling both chambers of 31 state legislatures in 1978 down to twenty states in 1998 and plummeting to just eleven states today.
One possible contributing factor is fewer voters in the US. identify themselves as members of any party.
Today, the plurality of voters, just over 40%, identify as independents. Democrats and Republicans each hover around 30%.
All else being equal, including voter turnout, Progressives are facing steeper climbs to winning elections than fifteen years ago.
We need to learn how to create messages that influence more voters unlike ourselves.
Of course, things like voter turnout aren't always equal.
In his first presidential contest in 2008, Barack Obama won 18 million more votes than Al Gore had won in 2000.
In 2016, 10 million fewer voters voted for the Democrat. (Washington Post data).
This failure to sufficiently inspire Democrats to go the polls in 2016 contributed to losing the election.
Was this the result of acrimony between Progressives and the Democratic "establishment" that spilled over into the campaign? Perhaps.
If we put aside our family squabble for a moment and take a step back, it should become clear that we can't afford the friendly fire we experienced in 2016.
So, what are the implications for messaging?
Just looking at the math, it's clear that Progressive candidates need to mobilize progressive voters. We'd also do well to speak in languages that resonate with Democrats, independents and even Republicans.
We need to learn the languages of these constituencies. We need to learn how to speak with them in ways that are authentic, empathetic and influential.
How do we learn how to influence these constituents? Hint: Not in focus groups. Lots more on that in upcoming posts.
For now, Progressives need to acknowledge that attempts at creating a one-size-fits-all "unifying message" will likely not resonate authentically with these diverse constituencies.
Rather, we need to earn trust, and possibly influence, by developing the capacity to listen and respond meaningfully to these people in their language, where they live.