In the first blush of political defeat the tendency of many partisans – this is true on the right and on the left – is to take the wrong lessons from rejection by the voters. Making sense of what happened is never as simple as some make it out to be and no national party that has existed since the 1850’s is ever as far down as some now claim.
To paraphrase David Axelrod, one of the architects of Barack Obama’s stunning second term victory, in politics you’re never as smart as you seem when things are going well or as stupid as you appear when things are going badly. But all campaigns do have lessons – if you look deeply enough. At the moment I’m interested in whether the long down-and-out Idaho Democrats take any clues from what happened in their party as well as in the GOP last week.
A few modest suggestions for Idaho Democrats:
1) The party should pick out three or four of its best young minds (this would include some elected last week like Representatives-elect Mat Erpelding and Holli High Woodings in Boise), buy them an airplane ticket to Chicago and let them debrief with the technology and GOTV people who helped power Barack Obama to a second term. Once he wakes up from a week of sleep Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who grew up in Boise and has relatives in the state, could put that meeting together in a heartbeat. In short, Idaho Democrats must start to turn over thinking about the future to the party’s next generation of leaders and give them some room to understand and apply the new skills of the digital age to the old game of politics. While they’re at it, Idaho Democrats should seek counsel from the other Idahoan highly placed in the Obama world – Bruce Reed. Among other things, Reed, who is Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff, helped write Bill Clinton’s devastatingly effective convention indictment of Mitt Romney.
2) The party must adopt a new approach that can, over time, broaden its appeal. This new approach should focus like a laser on the demographics that have propelled the first African-American president to two broad-based electoral victories. The future for Idaho Democrats is contained in a few well chosen words: moderates, women, Hispanics and younger voters. As NBC’s Chuck Todd said of the Obama campaign’s targeting and GOTV efforts, they took a novel approach they read the census.
Three quick facts from the 2010 Idaho census: Hispanic citizens (who voted nationally for Obama by more than 70%) now make up 11.5% of the state’s population and Idahoans under 18 years of age (who voted for the president by 60%) comprise 27% of the state’s population. Idahoans 65 and over (a population group that nationally went heavily for Romney) now makes up less than 13% of the Idaho population.
All of which is not to say that turning Idaho Democrats into a truly competitive party will be easy or quick, but those numbers point to the beginning of a long march approach.
3) Education must again become the bread and butter issue of Idaho Democrats. If the recent Idaho election proved anything it is that Idahoans, across the political spectrum, want their students, teachers and schools treated carefully, intelligently and not politically. There is an opening here for new ideas, inclusion and electoral appeal. If future Democratic candidates can’t make an issue of year-after-year real reductions in financial support for education at every level, coupled with education “reform” that Idahoans overwhelmingly rejected, they won’t deserve to be taken seriously as a political party. A simple question should drive the Democratic message – how can Idaho have a 21st Century economy and the jobs that support such an economy without investing more and more wisely in higher education, skills training and better public schools?
4) As I have written here before, Idaho Democrats – at least at the statewide level – need a new organizing principle that focuses on the great unifying issue – education. Trying to build a statewide party around a handful of dependable liberal strongholds – the north end of Boise and Blaine and Latah Counties – will continue to be a losing strategy. A better path is to build from the ground up in Idaho communities – Moscow, Boise, Pocatello, Coeur d’Alene, Lewiston, Nampa and Twin Falls – were education is a significant hometown industry. Democrats should strive to “own” the issues of the local community college and the university. Folks who love the University of Idaho or Boise State, for example, bleed for their schools on the athletic field, for sure, but increasingly they also care the academic classroom. Idaho Democrats should master these many and varied relationships – and, yes, it will take time – and organize, organize, organize with students, alumni, staff and faculty.
Politics is often a game of getting voters to give a candidate or a party a second look and to re-think assumptions. A single minded focus on education, an issue Idahoans have displayed all over again that they care deeply about, is a solid foundation on which to build a political future. This is particularly true now that the GOP has given Idaho D’s a big opening with the failure at the ballot box of controversial education reforms.
5) Finally, Idaho Democrats would do well to remember one of the tactics employed so successfully years ago by the recently departed George McGovern. In the 1950’s the South Dakota Democratic Party hardly existed. McGovern quit his teaching job and became the executive director of a party in name only, but he had ambition. He relentlessly traveled the state, building relationships, identifying supporters, building lists and building a party from the ground up. It’s no accident that McGovern entitled his autobiography Grassroots. What McGovern did in South Dakota in the 1950’s laid the groundwork to get him to the U.S. Senate in the 1960’s and built a long-term sustainable Democratic Party in a very conservative state. One person can make a big, big difference.
Some of my Idaho Democratic friends will take issue with my characterization of the Idaho party as barely alive, but the first rule of climbing back into contention is to see clearly the situation you face and then settle on a strategy, a real plan, that once again can make Idaho more than a one party state. The recent national victories offer some clues of what might be done.