Since November 2016, I’ve been lost in a political wilderness, unable to discern what the American voter thinks, feels, or stands for. I’m not just talking about one kind of voter – I’m talking about all of them.
Polling told us that Trump’s rise was explained by economic anxiety among his supporters. Other analysis suggested that Trump supporters were more financially affluent than expected. Rather than understanding support for Trump, the only thing I became certain of was the limitation of big data.
The media noise hasn’t helped. The decline in funding for actual reporting and the rise in punditry and personality-based analysis means that a lot of what we read and hear on the news is opinion – making it all the more difficult to really know what’s happening and to make assumptions about the future based on conditions on the ground.
We made assumptions about American culture that misled us, namely that Trump’s bigoted and misogynistic rhetoric would turn Republican voters away from him. But that also didn’t happen.
But last night, the results spoke for themselves. They are by no means conclusive, but they’ve got me thinking about what trends we might anticipate and consider as impactful on the 2020 presidential elections.
We must mind the gap. Given the close results of so many races, the margin of error is clearly a bigger deal than we’ve been paying attention to. Obviously this means that we are a divided electorate, but it also means that a very small number of votes can completely shift the result. If that applies to yesterday’s results, it will apply to 2020. In that context, does the old strategy still apply – that independents shift the margin of error to one side or the other? Or is the deciding factor now how many Republicans or Democrats get out to vote?
The Democrats need to get a hold of hyper-local campaigning. Hyper-local campaigns are working for a variety of candidates, especially Republicans. The victories of Democratic Congresswomen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar can also partially be attributed to intensive grassroots organizing. Democrats will need to ensure their narrative stays localized as they simultaneously ramp up pressure on Republicans and Trump via Congress.
Money doesn’t do all the talking. Democrats outspent Republicans during the several special elections and the midterms – a trend that contributed to the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. But heavily-funded Democrats, like Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams, still lost in spite of massive donations from around the country.
The popularity of candidates like O’Rourke and Abrams is a sign that voter preference in traditionally Republican areas is changing, however, no amount of money from the outside is going to result in any immediate dramatic shifts. Instead, transformative change will more likely be the result of a long game played by the Democrats. Within this context, strong financial support operates in conjunction with organic demographic changes on the ground – which are anticipated in places like Georgia and Texas over time and can be taken advantage of by Democrats.
Is there a new Democratic party? There were a lot of Democratic newcomers elected to Congress last night. Within the party, how will “establishment” voices collaborate with “progressive” ones now that they have a bigger presence in Congress? More importantly, how will those conversations shape the democratic platform in the lead up to the 2020 presidential elections?
Now that the midterm results are in, the future of the presidency is top most on everyone’s minds. Soon the political wilderness we’re all wandering through will be consumed by new polls and opinions, and of course, more noise. I’m not hopeful that we’ll eliminate the noise, but I am less cynical about how the noise controls political outcomes.
Those who want to see checks and balances on the Trump administration should not be dismayed. The Democrats taking the House last night was a victory, changing the nature of the fight and putting them back into play.
Even then, there are greater forces at work on the ground – demographic, cultural, intra-party, and economic shifts – that have yet to see the light of day in their own political reckoning. Maybe that’s not until 2020. Until then, I’ll listen and learn and I hope you will too.