(This is the third and final part of a series exploring why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 Presidential Election and the lessons the Joe Biden campaign can learn from that. Part 1, Why Hillary Clinton Lost, and Part 2, How Data Derailed the Clinton Campaign, can be read at www.thepoliticaldish.com.
By Larry Levine –
I was nine years old in the fall of 1948. My father and I had been handing out Truman for President leaflets at subway stops in Brooklyn, N.Y. As we headed home, I asked, “Why are we Democrats?” Kind of like why are we Dodger fans, or why are we Jewish?
He answered, “Because Democrats are for the working people and Republicans are for the rich.”
I knew in an instant where I stood. We weren’t poor, but we certainly were far from rich. Years later, I built a successful 50-year career as a Democratic political consultant on the foundation of my father’s simple sentence and the notion that if the Democrat wins the economic argument the Democrat probably will win the election.
Fast forward to 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected President on the wings of James Carville’s, “It’s the economy stupid” and his own “I feel your pain.”
Next leap to 2016, when the Hillary Clinton campaign apparently forgot the lesson of her husband’s message, misread the economic indicators, paid scant attention to “the working people” and let Donald Trump snatch the presidency from within her grasp.
Now let’s look at 2020 and the Joe Biden campaign for president. The first thing the Biden campaign must do is smile politely and adapt but not adopt the messaging being urged upon them by the Democratic Party’s far left fringe. The messaging for this campaign is not that complicated.
1. It’s always the economy.
2. The other guy is Donald Trump.
3. I will protect the Affordable Care Act, and the other guy is Donald Trump, who is in court trying to get the whole thing thrown out.
4. It’s the economy and the other guy is Donald Trump, who started a trade war with China that put hundreds of American farmers out of business and thousands of Americans out of work, and that was before he blew up the economy with his mismanagement of the response to the coronavirus.
5. I will restore America’s stature among our allies and the nations of the world, and the other guy is Donald Trump.
Beyond this, there are a dozen or more sub-messages, but they all need to be tied back to these five. Let’s take these in order.
Even before the devastation of the coronavirus, the economy that Trump touted was no better, maybe worse, than it was in 2016. The Clinton campaign looked at the data and saw the progress of the Obama years. The auto industry had been saved. Employment was up, unemployment was down, the housing market had rebounded, consumer confidence was up, and the stock market was setting records. All the traditional indicators were strong. What they didn’t see was that people were hurting, millions of people were left behind.
Trump either saw that or he just stumbled into the message. At every debate and most of his rallies, Trump clicked off the states by name: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, etc. He described the plight of the working people who lived there and laid the blame on the Democrats’ trade policies. He was helped by the fact that Senator Bernie Sanders made the same message in the Primary Elections. Both Trump and Sanders said the economy was rigged.
My astute son, former California Assemblymember Lloyd Levine, believes, “The economy has become detached from the people who make up the economy. Median income is a bad indicator. What’s important to the individual is how far he or she is away from the median.”
Lloyd points to two headlines that appeared on CNN at the same time on June 1, 2018. One touted: “Record Low Unemployment Rate – 3.8%.” The headline directly below: “40% can’t afford a $400 emergency bill”.
To an academic or a newscaster the economy means the Dow Jones Average, GDP, unemployment statistics, interest rates. Lloyd calls these “feel good indicators, easy to encapsulate in a headline. But how many people actually own stocks? What does the GDP mean when it takes fewer workers to produce the same amount of product?”
To a family anywhere in America the economy means I have to pay the bills. “The economy may be working, but who is it working for?” Lloyd asks. That’s the question that escaped the Clinton campaign.
The message for the Biden campaign: above all else, it’s the economy. You can be the third consecutive Democrat to be elected President on the heels of a Republican economic disaster. People like and trust your calming persona. They would love to vote for someone other than Donald Trump. Economic security is the most important factor in the lives of the working people who are the base of the Democratic Party, the independents who are no more economically secure, and the so-called swing voters who bounce back and forth in a quest for someone who will understand and address the concerns of their every day lives.
Number 2 on our list is “The other guy is Donald Trump.” The Trump campaign people know this and they know the only way he can win is to make Biden less acceptable than Trump. He is going to hit you with every fabrication imaginable to the human mind and some that are beyond that. We’ve already seen a suitcase full of them. Donald Trump is very unpopular with the majority of those who will vote in this election. Don’t let them forget it. But every negative has to touch what people already know and present Biden as the positive alternative. Don’t get defensive. Stay on the attack and counterpoint every attack with the positive change you represent.
Number 3 – The 2018 elections proved voters support certain facets of the Affordable Care Act and will vote for candidates committed to protecting those benefits. Trump is trying to repeal the whole thing. You are committed to defending insurance for pre-existing conditions, allowing parents to keep their children on their insurance policies to age 26, and to building on the success of the ACA. Offer people a choice of health care options and never, ever say “health care for all.”
Number 4 – See number one. You and Obama led the recovery from the 2008 recession and that recovery created hundreds of thousands of jobs and the economic boom that came crashing down under the weight of Trump’s incompetence and mismanagement. You’ll do it again by assembling a team that will have the American worker and the American family as its first priority, rather driving wealth into their own pockets.
Number 5 – This is an issue John Kennedy used effectively against Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960 and it can work again now. Americans pride themselves as world leaders. Trump has sacrificed that position to China and Russia. We have to rejoin the world community and play a leadership role in the issues that unite us.
One more thing: don’t overlook the need for the largest, most well-financed get-out-the-vote effort in history.