November 7, 2018

CHANG | Platform Complacency Will Prove Fatal For Democrats In 2020

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The 2018 Midterm was serious business. Cornell has been a roaring fire of political intensity for the last two weeks. Opinion columnists (I’m sure you can guess the specific ones) have been yelling all night. More of my friends voted than I thought possible, although some Cornellians — either disillusioned with the political process (fine, but a weak excuse) or simply disinterested (c’mon) — never filled out a ballot. Although we probably won’t get a true break from electioneering until after the 2020 race, I’ll be content with clearing my inbox of daily asks for campaign donations and “shockingly new analysis” from pollsters and Nate Silver himself.

Let’s be clear: Democrats did what they needed to do to win back the house. Early in the night, the results weren’t looking so good for our left-leaning friends: at one point, 538 projected only a 5 in 9 chance of a Democratic takeover in the house (the final pre-election forecast was 6 in 7 for a blue House).

But the professionals prevailed. According to early exit polls (certainly not infallible, but telling nonetheless), two-thirds of voters centered their ballot on President Trump. More voters showed up to oppose rather than support the President. Independents, never-Trumper Republicans and moderates turned out for candidates who promised to effectively constrain the president, as predicted. In line with most projections, Obama-Trump and Romney-Clinton districts turned blue again. And while polling errors in specific districts unsurprisingly occurred (for example Democrat Max Rose winning an election rated R+7.5 by 538 in N.Y.-11), pollsters predicted national trends well within the margin of error.

Of course, it isn’t like the Democrats did everything right. And the Senate? Democrats shouldn’t be excited. There was no wave, and the GOP-dominated Senate will prove to be a thorn for leftists who aren’t willing to compromise. Seriously restricting the president on foreign policy or stopping Trump’s nominees will be next to impossible. I seriously doubt any mind-blowingly partisan legislation will be passed.

Mike Braun’s victory over Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) was called by ABC before 9 p.m., a symptom of Democratic difficulties in deep-red Trump country. Campaign arms of both parties sank money into this race, with President Trump visiting twice in the last four days, former President Barack Obama visiting once and other notables like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) showing up to stump for the moderate Democrat. But it wasn’t even close. In this case, Donnelly’s framing of Braun as a Trump rubber stamp backfired, indicating Trump’s incredible staying power even amid tariffs that have decked Indiana’s soybean farmers.

Overall, though, it seems that there are critical shifts helping the Democrats. It’s a little early to be hopeful for 2020, but Dems correctly identified and capitalized around staying issues like healthcare and opposing Trump while Republicans generally faltered. Issues where Republicans are traditionally strong are becoming less important — only 2 of 10 respondents in exit polls chose immigration or the economy as their most important issue. Many of the GOP’s “October surprise” pivots backfired, including the White House’s attempt to fire up the base on immigration by emphasizing the caravan and an executive order to ban birthright citizenship.

Where does this leave the Democrats? More minorities are making it into office, with Jared Polis set to become Colorado’s first openly gay governor, Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) the first Muslim women in Congress and Ayanna Pressley the first black women elected by Massachusetts for Congress. State legislatures that are flipping blue will gerrymander House districts after the 2020 census. Early voting patterns indicated high enthusiasm, especially among young and first-time voters.

All in all, Democrats could capitalize on a whole host of factors in the 2020 elections and wrestle back control of the political narrative. But they must tread carefully, because even one misstep could ensure that President Trump wins again, in line with a historical narrative that heavily favors incumbent presidents. I’m not willing to take a stab at the nominee or even a list of Democratic nominees — in fact, I think the national brand for the Democrats should be decided far before any conversation about 2020.

This midterm indicated that we haven’t seen a fundamental shift in how American politics operates. The two-party system is still important, polling is still accurate enough and vote-switching still occurs. Sticking to the narrative of opposing Trump and moderate-ish policies should work well enough in the short-term. Courting the Obama-Trump and Romney-Clinton voters and characterizing a second Trump term as terrifying will probably motivate just enough voters to prevent eight straight years of mercurial policy making and Twitter rants.

But these are stopgap solutions. Media spin and association with the national branch of the Democrats have invariably hurt blue candidates, because the hate for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer permeates a large portion of the country. Beto O’Rourke and Bill Nelson’s losses in their respective Senate races in Texas and Florida demonstrate the strength of GOP bastions across the United States. Only increasing Democratic enthusiasm can outweigh the very red Senate and historical trends that favor the Republicans.

A long-term strategy must be focused on expanding the electorate to more unreached and previously disinterested voters in addition to finding new left of center issues to consistently excite voters. Assembling the pieces of a scattered blue puzzle will require serious thought if the Democrats are committed to a true blue wave and a replacement for Trump in 2020.

Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com.