The Democrats' Small-Ball Debate Is a Recipe for Failure Against Trump

The Democrats' Small-Ball Debate Is a Recipe for Failure Against Trump

Democratic presidential candidates (from left) New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan (D.-Ohio), former housing secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Maryland congressman John Delaney look on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019, in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County and hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo.

SourceJoe Raedle/Getty

Why you should care

Because the president is playing a different game.

Lauren Claffey is a managing director at Hamilton Place Strategies. She previously served in the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration and as an adviser to Republican members of Congress.

Night One of the Democratic debate is done, with one night to go … followed by 11 more clashes. And Lord help us if this is going to be the whole primary.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke looked a little unsure. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was very concerned about Beto’s Spanish. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was just OK. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar looked like she was going to throw her hands up at any point and ask why she was there. And Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan was scared Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was going to kill him.

But aside from the ample theater, what was most striking was the candidates’ blatant appeals to specific segments of the population, a doubling down of identity politics and microtargeting voters.

You can see the political calculus behind each comment — the lumping and re-lumping of voters into neat groups that are served a specific message.

O’Rourke kicked it off with his response in Spanish, a linguistic pander to Latino voters later echoed by former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Booker. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee threw a nod to union members as the solution to corporate greed: “We’ve got to realize the people who brought us the weekend — unions — are going to bring us a long overdue raise in America.”

Booker repeatedly referenced policies meant to appeal to African American communities, as well as his own experience as a member of their community. “I hope I’m the only one on this panel here that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week,” Booker said of his home in Newark. Klobuchar referenced beer and deer stands as part of her appeal to Midwesterners (hello, Iowa), and Castro made sure to include transgender people when talking about abortion, earning a hearty round of applause from the room full of Democrats.

You can see the political calculus behind each comment — the lumping and re-lumping of voters into neat groups that are served a specific message, tailored for their interests, name-checked in a way that can be repackaged into fundraising digital blasts later. It is the foundation of digital media advertising and of the massive data operations created by campaigns to canvass neighborhoods and turn out voters.

It’s not a horrible strategy. But for a Democratic Party going through its most wide-open primary in decades, the unconcealed appeals lacked a unifying element to bring all of these groups together for one purpose — defeating President Donald Trump.

It’s a striking contrast to the message the Republican Party and Trump will be deploying in 2020. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence unveiled “Latinos for Trump” at an event in Miami. “Latinos for Trump” might sound like microtargeting, another version of the debating Democrats, but it actually was all about the big picture: a thriving economy.

The key message? “Under President Trump’s leadership the Latino community has thrived. The Latino American unemployment rate has reached a record low of 4.2 percent thanks to President Trump’s pro-growth policies.” What about the GOP strategy for women? “Women’s unemployment at 3.4 percent — the lowest rate in 66 years.” African Americans? “African American unemployment is at historic lows.”

The president knows his strength for reelection lies in the economy and is betting the argument that economic security for all appeals across lines of race, gender and rural versus urban communities. His biggest threat to that tonight was Warren, who was the only candidate on the stage with a coherent economic message.

But who likes socialism anyway?

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