Time for new Democratic strategies to win back state legislatures

December 14, 2018

The post mid-term election message from Democrats nationwide who failed to take back state legislatures was consistent with that coming out of my home state of Wisconsin - if it weren't for unfair redistricting maps drawn to benefit Republicans in 2011, Democrats would have won back the state legislature. I propose that not only does the data not bear that out, but adhering to this flawed supposition is avoiding the more pressing question for Democrats - how can they win back the state legislature? If they think they can rely on "fairer maps" drawn by a court in 2021, they might be deluding themselves, and failing to address an enormous strategic problem that has been emerging for decades. Further, the weak responses by Democratic leaders to radical, selfish power grabs by a GOP that lost statewide races in Wisconsin and Michigan fail to address WHY these power grabs are immoral acts against government of, by, and for the people. Wisconsin has always been a national progressive leader - it's possible it could be once again, and provide a model for other states. 


It's been eight years since Wisconsin Republicans won all three branches of government (with much fairer maps than exist today), and initiated an unprecedented assault on the values of caring for our fellow Wisconsinites through our democracy and government. Instead, the Badger State has endured a legislature more concerned with consolidating political power and promoting their own self-interest (and the self-interest of a few of their wealthy donors) than serving all the people of the state through our government. It's been seven years since the GOP-friendly redistricting maps were enacted. Since that time, state party Democrats have made little progress in terms of a strategy to effectively counter GOP gains statewide. In fact, it seems like the DPW strategy is more of a "wait until the demographics shift to our favor" instead of a realistic, hard look at their strategic shortcomings. 


The voting trends by county statewide are good evidence of how little headway Democrats are making outside of their existing strongholds in Milwaukee and Dane County. Extraordinary turnout situations as happened in November, in Milwaukee and Dane Counties, show how Democrats can win statewide seats. But counter that big Dem turnout in a GOP-enthusiastic Presidential year, and that 1.1% margin disappears. Further, basing a statewide election strategy on winning the two big, urban counties only serves to reinforce the GOP "Democrats only care about Madison and Milwaukee" message. It continues to alienate the rest of the state. And you can't win back the State Legislature by only winning in those two counties. Thanks to Charles Franklin for putting these figures together. 


Looking at the overall Midterm shift from county-to-county, at face value, would seemingly provide Democrats with hope. Looking at Southeastern Wisconsin, one would think that Democrats could have won back the legislature, if only there were "fairer" districts:

 Sure, that looks like a lot of blue in the Southeast part of the state. In the context of the legislature, consider that many of the counties showing a relatively small (2-4%) shift are reliably Republican-voting counties, often by 20 points or more. Even Waukesha County, which showed a big shift (10-14%) shift to Democratic, still went to Walker by over 30 points (instead of the usual 40+). Some of the Northern and Western Wisconsin Counties that voted for Evers even showed GOP gains (like LaCrosse and Ashland/Bayfield). What really went on had more to do with Republican voters not being thrilled about Scott Walker, than people flipping from Republican to Democrat. Democrats turned out in huge numbers in the urban strongholds, and some of Walker's strongholds were less enthusiastic. While this worked for winning statewide, it won't work as a strategy to win a statewide legislature. The following figures are good evidence.


Showing the vote density in Milwaukee and Dane provides perspective as to the ability to win a statewide election, while losing the legislature. Especially when enthusiasm is relatively low for your opponent:

Particularly interesting is the enthusiasm by county, or percentage of registered vote by county:


 Notice that there was still relatively high turnout in many of the typically Republican strongholds that still voted for Walker: 


2018 Midterm Results by County (Red = Walker, Blue = Evers) Darker shade = Higher % of Vote


The reliability of many "outstate" Wisconsin counties to vote for Republicans (particularly for their local legislator) can be seen in this very informative plot. This plot really shows how small of a shift to Democratic votes actually took place, and in a very small number of counties. Remember, many of these counties that have larger blue circles indicating a greater shift to Democratic still fall far to the lower left quadrant of the plot - strongly Republican (like Waukesha). Many more are still in the "Republican" lower left quadrant, and below the blue trendline - showing little to no shift from 2014:

Let's be brutally honest - there aren't a lot of counties in the upper right "Democratic" quadrant. And you can't win back the majority of a state legislature without shifting some of those rural, "red" counties. What are state Dems missing? Why haven't they come up with an effective strategy to make inroads in these areas? I'm not the only one again sounding alarms after an election that fell short of expectations, leaving more questions than answers. You don't need to look far to see and hear a lot of people asking, "just what do Democrats stand for?" Why is this so often the case? I propose that it's because they are relying on a strategy that is based on a fundamentally flawed premise.


Flawed premise:

"We can give people a list of issue-based policies based on what we believe to be fair (based on our polling and focus groups), and facts to show them they are sound policy, and all rational people will reason to the right course of action - ours."


This premise is perhaps the most damaging and flawed for Democrats and progressives. It completely ignores the emerging cognitive science and political psychology research on how people think, process thought, and make decisions. We are in the 21st Century, and the "rational actor" model of thought dates back to the 16th Century, when Descartes posited the concept that "I think, therefore I am." This was a great and necessary philosophy at the time, and gave rise to the Enlightenment, and the concepts of self-governance and democracy. People are driven, inspired, and make decisions based on largely unconscious thought, emotion, and biases. If you don't take that into account when you're trying to communicate about things that are important to people's lives, you are probably not really being heard the way you think you are.


The same is true of relying on issues to bring people together - this is outmoded and outdated thinking. All too often, it is a fact that Republicans have gotten very good at dividing people on issues. This works because they bring people together around a very simple set of values that is more powerful than the Democrats' list of issues - personal liberty and small government. And each Democratic issue can be seen (and often vilified) through that powerful frame. As I've written about many times, Democrats need a new, core, cognitive strategy to have a chance of forwarding progressive ideas and policies.


Strategically speaking, Democrats need a major overhaul of their statewide strategies, in three key areas. Each of these three areas work in concert - no single one can work without the other:


1. People - There is a need for locally-based, year round efforts centered around core groups of people willing to engage in empathy-based, community efforts to connect with people beyond partisanship. From these groups we would find authentic, passionate, local candidates who already embody the progressive values based on empathy necessary to bring people together in an election year.


2. Data/Social Media - There is a need for new, revised strategies in the use of data and social media to engage and connect with people. Most importantly, this aspect of campaigns cannot be successful on its own - it requires coordinated efforts with the other two areas discussed here - people and cognitive strategy.


3. Cognitive Strategy - The science is there, and well documented. All we need to do is use it in combination with the "people" and "data/social media" strategies. Again, I and others have spent years developing the necessary concepts and strategy.


If Democrats and progressives are to start winning back state legislatures, there is a critical need to have people instinctively know and believe in what values we represent. And "issues" are not values. Values are largely unconscious, and define why we believe what we do on every issue. At it's very basic level, we need to start making our unconscious need and desire for empathy and connection with others conscious. Then connect that moral empathy effectively to other, more tangible strategies, as the foundation to win statewide legislatures.  


This is the path forward for progressives in Wisconsin and beyond.