The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
November 2, 2019

Boosting turnout offers the best chance of regime change in an extremely polarised US

To beat Donald Trump, it’s looking increasingly likely that the Democrats will have to go for all-out mobilisation – focusing on voter turnout in key states instead of trying to win back Trump supporters who previously voted for Barack Obama.

When you look at the candidates on offer, analyse previous voter behaviour and break down the numbers, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

Starting impeachment proceedings, then, can be seen as smart politics. There is logic in Democrats now turning to a candidate like Elizabeth Warren. The communication strategy required to successfully navigate this path, however, is one that will likely lead to an acceleration of the polarisation already tearing US life apart.

The US public is more divided than ever. Twenty years ago, the top priorities for Democrats and Republicans were almost the exact same. In the late 1990s, education was the top priority for both, and four of the five priority issues for Republicans mirrored those of Democrats.

Ten years ago, the most pressing three issues for Republicans and Democrats were identical: jobs, terrorism and the economy. The order differed, but not the issues.

Today, none of the top five match. Democrats care about healthcare, education and the environment; Republicans care about terrorism, social security and immigration. They can’t even agree on what the issues to fight over are, never mind find agreement on the issues themselves.

A campaign based on mobilisation is almost guaranteed to increase this polarisation – but it’s still the most viable path towards success.

Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election by losing the electoral college votes of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida (by a combined 77,000 votes) and by failing to convert in-play states such as North Carolina.

Much of the change here came from non-college educated, white voters who voted for Obama in 2012, but Trump in 2016. Voters in these swing states will decide the 2020 election. Winning back those white voters will be almost impossible, but the Democrats could be able to counter this by increasing the turnout of other groups in these states.

Elections are about converting floating voters. But two types of floating voters exist: the ones floating between the Democrats and the Republicans; and the ones floating between supporting one party or not voting at all. Given the American public’s division on policy priorities, advancements in targeted ads on social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s difficult for a 2020 Democrat to target both types of voters in one campaign. It’s now a binary choice between converting those in the middle or boosting turnout among “your side”.

Convincing any 2016 Trump voters to change their minds would be a Trojan task. All research says that once a voter makes a decision, they won’t be convinced they were wrong.

It’s also easier for Republicans to undermine a candidate who is picked to be palatable to a centrist voter, thus inhibiting their ability to motivate their own base.

Trump’s 2016 operation put a lot of resources into suppressing Clinton’s vote with key groups. They wanted specific voters (three categories that Clinton needed: idealistic liberals, young women and African Americans) to think “they are all as bad as each other”. Clinton’s long career in politics made this possible.

They used Clinton’s 1996 suggestion that some African American males are “super predators” to discourage infrequent black voters from voting. One ad, using Clinton’s quote and the text “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators”, was targeted at African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”. And African American turnout decreased by 12pc – the first time this vote fell in 20 years.

It’s not hard to imagine the Trump camp doing the same to Joe Biden – using his support of busing in the 1970s or his involvement with the Clinton Crime Bill of the 1990s.

Mobilisation, as used by several recent progressive campaigns, has a higher chance of success. During the 2018 election for governor of Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams (the first female African American to run for any governor position) looked at increasing turnout and reaching out to new voters. She increased turnout by 12pc from 2014. Abrams eventually lost the election but only by 54,000 votes – or 1.4pc – in a state that voted for Trump by 5pc and voted Republican in every presidential election since 1996.

This isn’t new. Turnout is the modern marker of Democratic success. Since 2000, the Republican candidate has always received about 60m votes – Bush, Romney and Trump. When the Democratic candidate boosts their turnout, like Obama did twice, they win. When they don’t – see John Kerry and Hillary Clinton – they lose.

The same approach has worked to great effect for conservative causes. Before the Brexit referendum, Vote Leave found two million eligible voters who were deemed unlikely to vote but supportive of their cause. Exit polling showed 43pc of those with “no interest in politics” voted, versus 30pc in the 2015 general election.

Much of Trump’s success came from a similar strategy. They utilised a massive voter targeting system to identify and motivate what they termed “disenfranchised new Republicans” in the states that ultimately swung from Obama to Trump.

For the 2020 election, there are several voter cohorts a progressive Democratic candidate, such as Elizabeth Warren, could seek to mobilise.

Let’s just focus on one: the African American vote.

Research by a Democratic think tank The American Centre for Progress found that if the African American vote had stayed at 2012 levels, Clinton would have won an electoral college victory in the election.

She lost Wisconsin by 22,748 or 0.77pc where the black voter turnout fell 19pc. She lost Michigan by 11,000 votes or 0.27pc where the black voter turnout went down by 4pc. She lost North Carolina by 3.6pc where the black turnout decreased by 9pc.

All-out mobilisation is a viable strategy, but it’s one that necessitates a deepening of divisions. To motivate their base, Democrats will need to double down on their stance on already tricky issues. Forget nuance and compromise. Forget traditional conversion.

A candidate who needs to motivate a base can openly and unapologetically go after Trump, without the fear of alienating his previous voters. The process of impeachment can provide prime, high-profile opportunities for the Democratic leadership to motivate their base. The more of these opportunities they can create, the better.

One example among many is the gift Trump handed the Democrats with his racist comments aimed at four congresswomen. But it’s a gift only a mobilising candidate can take full advantage of. They can utilise it, consistently, to motivate key voters – “He wants you to go ‘home’, so you need to go vote.”

A candidate who needs to win back white voters in the Rust Belt would need to be more guarded with their criticism. This freedom is an advantage in a campaign, even if it will lead to a more divided electorate in future.

Beating Trump isn’t the panacea it’s made out to be. It won’t reset the clock. The path to 2020 victory leads towards increased division and polarisation. But a pragmatic Democratic candidate will see it as the price worth paying.