One of the greatest lines about baseball comes from the movie Bull Durham. A young pitcher, played by Tim Robbins, recounts advice he got from a veteran minor-leaguer, played by Kevin Costner: "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."
The same is true in politics. Campaigns, at their core, are pretty simple. Have a good candidate. Have a compelling message. Talk about stuff that matters to people. In both sports and politics, professionals often make their jobs much more complicated than they need to be.
After every election, the losing party spends a good chunk of the off-year analyzing why they lost and developing solutions on how not to lose in the future. In 2013, Republicans unveiled their Growth and Opportunity report. Most notably, the so-called “GOP autopsy” recommended that Republicans needed to broaden their appeal to women, younger voters and people of color if they were going to win in 2016. This year, Democrats have “A Better Deal” –an economic-centered agenda that focuses on creating jobs, lowering the cost of prescription drugs and “cracking down on the monopolies and big corporate mergers that harm consumers, workers and competition.”
These documents are meant to unite the party around common themes and ideas and show that they have a path out of the political wilderness. In 2013, the fear among Republicans was that the party was in a “demographic death-spiral” that would permanently limit GOP chances at winning a national election and the White House. This year, Democratic officials, consultants and strategists worry that the party lacks a clear, compelling message or narrative of who they are and what they stand for. Hillary Clinton lost, many Democrats contend, because she had no compelling economic vision. The campaign focused too much on how horrible Trump was and too little on what she could do to make people’s lives better. The polling data only helps to reaffirm this fear. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll found that only 37 percent of Americans think the Democratic party “stands for something,” while 52 percent say that the party simply “stands against Trump.”
But, more often than not, these documents are an exercise in fighting the last war instead of an appreciation of the fact that no one really knows what the next war is going to look like. Republicans who were worried about their demographic troubles in 2013 could not possibly imagine that the person who would win the GOP nomination and the White House in 2016 would do so while actively flaunting their advice.
There’s little doubt that the economy will be a factor in 2018 (it always is), but there’s also a chance that other issues will become more salient. At this point in 2005, we knew that Iraq was going to be a major factor in the 2006 election, but we didn't know that we'd add the botched White House response to Hurricane Katrina (August of 2005) and the Mark Foley scandal (September of 2006) to the mix.
These documents also tend to miss the most important factor in any messaging: the messenger. A party or a campaign can have a cogent message, but if the messenger isn’t believable, the message itself is worthless. Hillary Clinton had reams and reams of white papers and policy prescriptions to address many of the issues that “A Better Deal” raises. But, she was a flawed messenger who was seen by many–even in her own party–as inauthentic. My colleague Charlie Cook flagged an important column written by Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC veteran and former deputy national press secretary for Hillary Clinton. In his column, Ferguson writes, “there is no silver-bullet policy prescription or position on an ideological scale. Voters have to believe in the individual candidate–the person themselves – whoever they are.” Democrats' biggest challenge in 2018 isn't to find a unifying message. Instead, it is to find and support candidates who fit their districts–and are viewed as credible messengers.
Most important, midterm elections are, at their most basic, a referendum on the party in power, not the party out of power. The White House and Congress are held by Republicans. Democrats don’t get a chance to set the agenda.
If Republicans go into 2018 with a solid list of accomplishments and people feel pretty good about the job they are doing, it’s going to be tough for Democrats to win, regardless of how smart or clear they’ve made their agenda. If Trump’s approval ratings are mired in the mid-to-upper 30’s, if the GOP Congress has little, if anything to show voters they’ve accomplished after two years in charge of Washington, and if the president is throwing his own party under the bus, it’s going to be hard for the GOP to hold onto power, even if Democrats fail to come up with a compelling vision for their party.
Democratic strategists I spoke with this week recognize that these sorts of messaging documents are rarely remembered by voters and, in and of themselves, aren’t going to win an election that is still 16 months away. But, they do think Democrats need to start thinking about – and messaging–a positive economic agenda that directly challenges the agenda put forth by Trump. However, there is concern among some Democrats that this agenda fails to adequately acknowledge and address the challenges Democrats face in motivating the “Obama coalition"–specifically voters of color and young people–to vote in 2018. Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the founder of Democracy in Color, tells me that
"The specifics of the Better Deal are fine, but the strategic underpinnings are faulty and defective in that they are based on an incorrect analysis of why Democrats lost in 2016. Not only did Clinton win the popular vote by nearly 3,000,000 votes, but in the decisive states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, Trump did not receive a majority of the votes as progressive votes splintered between Clinton, Johnson and Stein. The strategic imperative for progressives should be reassembling the Obama coalition and re-inspiring African Americans to turn out in the ways they did in 2012, and both of those things are more achievable than changing the minds of people seduced by Trump's nationalistic appeals to racial resentment."
We are a million years away from the midterms. A whole lot can–and will–happen between now and then. Most of what will happen is completely out of the control of candidates and the parties–regardless of their best laid plans and messaging strategies. The most important factor in the fate of Democratic candidates in 2018–as well as Republican ones–is the President's approval rating. Popular presidents hold/gain seats (see Clinton 1998 and Bush 2002), while unpopular ones lose them (Bush 2006 and Obama 2010/2014). About the only thing candidates can control is their own campaign and their own message. It really is that simple.
Image: AP Images