Chapter 1: The Stakes | Crooked Media
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January 13, 2020
The Wilderness
Chapter 1: The Stakes

In This Episode

What’s the path to victory in 2020? A deep dive into how 2018’s Blue Wave shapes the race against Donald Trump and the road to 270.




[sponsor notes]


Jon Favreau: 5:59 Eastern Time on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020.


[news clip]  Election Day turns into election night. Stay with us for a live election results real time . . .


Jon Favreau: Where will you be? What will you be doing?


[clip of Wolf Blitzer] We’re watching the final dash to vote across the United States right now. Millions of Americans, they are casting ballots in what could be the most important election of their lives.


Jon Favreau: What will you be thinking? Will you have done enough, registered enough voters, knocked on enough doors, talked to enough people you know, about why this is the most important election in America’s lifetime.


[news clip] So let’s get right to it. The polls have now closed in six states with 60 electoral votes and ABC News can project, can project . . . [echoes off to fade]


[clip of David Plouffe] Donald Trump getting a second term isn’t merely doubling the damage, I think it’s compounding, it might even be exponential. Think about it. A Supreme Court that may be 7-2 with two more Kavanaghs. A hundred more district and appeals court justices, the end of the Affordable Care Act, millions of people without health care, many of them bankrupt or dead.


[clip of Rebecca Traister] The world is burning, seas are rising, temperatures are rising, this is a global crisis.


[clip of David Plouffe] Our ability to solve climate change, to save the planet is over.


[clip of Rebecca Traister] And then there’s the question of the franchise itself, you know, dealing with voter suppression that is designed to block the vote of millions of Americans, the vast majority of them Black and brown.


[clipl of Dan Pfeiffer] Not just that we’re not going to get to do Medicare for all or gun control. It’s that Republicans will put in place measures that will make it impossible to ever do those things. And we will be locked in to a generation of conservative policies that are not supported by the majority of Americans.


[clip of David Plouffe] The power of the presidency is incredibly awesome. I don’t think Donald Trump has fully maximized it. But if he has four years and he doesn’t have to face the voters, I think there is no bottom. I think he will pull any lever, push any button to benefit himself, benefit his family, weaken institutions, you know, weaken our allies. And so that’s what’s really scary. So this isn’t simply another election. This could really destroy our republic. I think the damage there will echo through not just another decade or two, it could echo through generations. We may never recover from this.


Jon Favreau: Happy New Year? I know I have a pit in my stomach, too, and we should. We’re about to live through a 10-month campaign against a wounded, vengeful, warmongering incumbent president who will do quite literally anything to win a second term, a second term, that for all the reasons that Dan Pfeiffer and Rebecca Traister and David Plouffe just laid out, would be even more dangerous and devastating than the first. In this election, Donald Trump will probably raise more money than he can spend. Already he’s paying to get his message out on cable, Facebook and pretty soon every other channel and platform in America. Already, he’s using the country’s largest news network as his 24 hour propaganda machine, along with dozens of other Trump media outlets, YouTube channels, even fake local news sites, all designed to keep his base angry and afraid and willing to crawl through glass to vote for him. We should expect turnout among Trump’s base to shatter records, and we should understand that a central part of his strategy is to suppress turnout for the Democratic candidate, where he’ll benefit from Republican efforts to purge voter rolls, closed polling places, reject ballots and generally keep people who look like Democrats from casting their vote. But Trump will also try to depress turnout by doing everything he possibly can to disqualify the Democratic nominee in the minds of voters. He’ll scandalize and criminalize and other-ise the candidate and he’ll try to get help doing it: from the media, from third party candidates, from foreign governments, and from our own. He’ll bust through every guardrail, laugh off every referee, and as we’ve seen from the impeachment process, command near total and undying loyalty from Republican politicians. And so while Donald Trump may not be a very popular opponent, he’s still a powerful one. But here’s the thing: we can beat him. We can win. That’s right, go ahead and say it out loud wherever you’re listening to this: we can win. Now, I don’t say this is any sort of prediction. I think by now you all know my stance on that. The reason I believe the Democrats can win a majority in the Trump era is because we just did.


[voice clip] Stage one of the resistance to Trumpism was a success, winning the House of Representatives.


[voice clip] Crushing Donald Trump with this blue wave.


[voice clip] Hitting all over the country, including in some really unexpected spots.


[voice clip] The largest gain for Democrats in four decades.


Jon Favreau: We did that. You did that. And it can happen again. This November, democrats can take back the White House, flip the Senate, hold the House, and elect progressive majorities in statehouses across the country. But we’re going to have to kick our own asses harder than ever, harder than in2016, 2018, or basically any election in history. Welcome back to The Wilderness. I’m your host, Jon Favreau. And for the next six episodes, we’ll try to find the path that gives Democrats the best chance to finally get out of the woods in 2020, the path that leads to at least 270 electoral votes, 50 Senate seats and a House majority. In this season, we’re focusing on four regions of the country that will decide the election, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Southwest and the Midwest. I’ll be talking with groups of voters in each region and we’ll also check in with people in politics and media who know these states best, including some organizers and activists who’ve already put together a battle plan for this campaign. But first, we’ll take a look at what the 2018 election can teach us about 2020. Why did Democrats do so well? Did the party turn out new voters, or persuade Republican voters to switch sides? Who were the voters that made up each party’s coalition? And how much can all of this really tell us about what to expect when Trump himself is on the ballot? We’ll try to answer these questions and more on this episode of The Wilderness.


Jon Favreau: As the results started coming in on November 6th, 2018, I was a complete mess.


[news clip] —a new result coming in from the House, and this is a disappointment to Democrats, it comes from the state of Kentucky: Amy McGrath, the former Marine combat pilot defeated by the four term incumbent—


[news clip] Ron DeSantis still in the lead at this point over Andrew Gillum in this—


[news clip] Clearly a big disappointment for Donnelly and his supporters tonight, as . . .


[news clip] Democrats are having so far—a lot of vote to come—in a disappointing night.


Jon Favreau: How is this happening again? Was there really some backlash from the Kavanaugh hearings? Did Trump actually scare people into believing that we’re being invaded by a caravan of immigrants? Where all the polls just completely wrong? God damn, you need Silver. But around 7p.m. on the West Coast, while I was refreshing five different election sites like a complete lunatic, the tide started to turn.


[clip of Wolf Blitzer] Our first House projection right now: CNN projects that Jennifer Wexton will become the next U.S. representative from Virginia . . .


[news clip] That’s the chime, that means there is another switch is coming from the state of Colorado, where Jason Crow, former Army Ranger has . . .


[news clip] Another pickup for the Democrats: Donna Shalala will be the next representative from Florida in the House 27th District.


Jon Favreau: It wasn’t until days later when the votes were finally counted in places like Arizona and California, that the sheer magnitude of the Democratic victory became clear.


[news clip] Meanwhile, the Democrats blue wave grew again today with another flip in a contested House race. Democrat Jared Gordon, the apparent winner in Maine’s 2nd . . .


[new clip] This is the most diverse Congress in U.S. history.


[news clip] A generational and demographic shift.


[new clip] There will now be at least 100 women in the house next year.


[new clip] By any measure, that’s a huge blue wave.


Jon Favreau: 2018 marked the highest midterm turnout in over a century. Democrats flipped seven governors’ seats, five statehouses and picked up 40 seats in the House of Representatives, the largest gain since 1974. And they won by more than 8.7 million votes, the largest margin of victory in any midterm ever. But the size of the win wasn’t the only thing that made history.


[news clip] Omar will be the first Somali-American—


[news clip] Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American—


[news clip] Polis became the first openly gay man to be elected—


Jon Favreau: 2018 saw the election of the first two Muslim congresswomen, the first two Native American congresswomen, the first openly gay man to be elected governor, the youngest congresswoman in history—


[news clip] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her race, becoming the youngest . . .


Jon Favreau: —and countless other firsts in states across the country. Today’s Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history. 126 are women and more than a third are people of color.


[clip of Rep Pelosi] Today is more than about Democrats and Republicans, it’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration.


[clip of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez] All our actions, no matter how small or how large, are powerful, worthwhile and capable of lasting change.


Jon Favreau: So how did it all happen? What’s the real story of the midterm elections?


Lynn Vavreck: I think that I would start with the idea that 2016 was a surprise outcome.


Jon Favreau: Lynn Vavreck is a political science professor at UCLA and a contributor to The Upshot at The New York Times.


Lynn Vavreck: And so just that element of surprise is motivating for people who are on the losing side in the next iteration. So if you were someone who was shocked by the outcome in 2016, you want to make sure in 2018, you don’t get shocked again. And so that might mean making sure you turn out, making sure you get your friends to turn out, maybe you volunteer, maybe you canvass, but you have extra amped up effort.


Amy Walter: Democrats were motivated, the Democratic base was motivated, which had everything to do with Donald Trump.


Jon Favreau: Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report and host of the podcast, Politics with Amy Walter.


Amy Walter: They didn’t need to—Democrats, that is—didn’t need to, you know, find some magic elixir or magic message to get their folks engaged and involved. They already were.


Jon Favreau: Almost everyone I interviewed agreed that anti-Trump sentiment was a major factor, perhaps the major factor in 2018. And the data supports that. 90% of all voters who disapproved of Donald Trump cast their ballot for a Democratic House member. In fact, a plurality of all voters said that they cast their ballot specifically to oppose Donald Trump. It’s also true that opposition to Trump wasn’t just driven by who he is, but what he’s done.


Sean McElwee: I think that the Democratic Party was able to make this an election that was decided by what people felt about health care, and what people felt about the Trump tax cuts, and who they felt the Republican Party was serving.


Jon Favreau: That’s Sean McElwee, Executive Director of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank that released a detailed analysis of the midterm results called, What the Hell Happened?


Sean McElwee: The message of these tax cuts for the wealthy, and the disastrous attempt to repeal health care, and the sort of constant lying about preexisting conditions, drove a lot of voters to want to have accountability.


[voice clip] This tax bill was done in the dead of night, handwritten notes scribbled in the margin. It didn’t go through regular order. And we see the results of that here in New Jersey.


[voice clip] Everywhere in this district, folks tell us we’ve got to fix health care.


[voice clip] We need to invest in solutions that provide a pathway to high quality, affordable health care coverage for all Americans.


Heather McGhee: It’s basically three words: women, women and women.


Jon Favreau: Heather McGhee, past president and distinguished senior fellow at the liberal think tank, Demos and Demos Action.


Heather McGhee: Right? It’s the largest margin for Democrats among women in exit polling history, not only in terms of who cast a vote for whom, but also who was driving the electoral energy.


Jon Favreau: The midterms were dominated by women, a record number of whom voted, organized and ran for office. In the primaries, 589 women ran for House, Senate, or governor, and a record 125 were elected to office. Not to mention all the women who won in so many other state and local races. As Amy Walter reminds us, the candidates of 2018 were just different.


Amy Walter: These were really organically grown candidates in that they were moved by the moment, they hadn’t been planning this in their lives, and they they didn’t have to pretend to be authentic because that’s actually who they were. They were very much people who woke up the day after the 2016 election and said: I have to do something, and I never thought that I could run for office before, but you know what? I’m going to go for it.


[voice clip] We seem to be in a time where our so-called elected leaders are more interested in keeping us divided and listening to special interests and big money. So I decided that if I want to see a change, then I will be the change.


[voice clip] November 9th, 2016 changed everything for me. I marched and marched and things weren’t getting any better.


[voice clip] We have our own voices. We have our own power and we’re going to start exercising that.


Amy Walter: And want somebody to solve problems and get things done. And I think that’s a characteristic you hear about women running.


Jon Favreau: I heard the same story from nearly everyone I spoke to: the terrifying reality of a Trump presidency and the failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, inspired a grassroots awakening that became a movement. Led by women, the youngest, most diverse generation in history stepped up to run for office, many in deep red places where Democrats hadn’t even fielded a candidate before. Overall turnout in the 2018 midterms was historically high, the highest midterm turnout since 1914. But who were those voters? How many were new voters or people who hadn’t voted in a while? And how many were Republicans or Trump voters who’d finally had enough and were persuaded to switch sides? In other words, did Democrats win 2018 because of better turnout or better persuasion? There’s been a bit of a debate over this question.


Amy Walter: If you look at some of the work that Catalyst has done in going through the voter file and assessing sort of, you know—especially in these battleground districts and states—where the votes move between 2016 and 2018, it really was people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and then voted for a Democrat in 2018. That was the biggest percent of movement.


Jon Favreau: Catalyst, by the way, is a progressive company that operates a voter database with information on more than 240 million Americans. Dan Wagner, who was Obama’s chief data guru in 2012, agrees with Amy’s take. And through his company, Civis Analytics, he has the data to back it up.


Dan Wagner: Because we have so many IDs of essentially people that we’ve surveyed across many elections, we can look to see who are the specific people that change their ballots from one election to the other. For example, in a given state, we polled, let’s say, 50,000 people in 2016. We polled 50,000 in 2018. We could see among those people what percent actually change their ballots. And then we can look at it the people who voted for the first time or voted sporadically for that time, and then see what percentage of them were Democrats versus Republicans. And that lets us do a very simple calculation of what percent was from new voters, versus what percent was from people changing their votes. A lot of the conventional wisdom in 2018 is that the big change in share was driven by new voters coming out, or people coming out that were different in 2016. That was true in some states. If you look at Montana, you look at Texas, but in the majority of places where you had a large change, the majority of people had switched their vote from Trump to a new Democratic candidate.


Jon Favreau: Dan and Amy are saying the Democrats flipped Republican districts largely because they persuaded people who previously voted Republican to switch parties in 2018, which ended up being a significant factor in the midterms. But was that the only factor? According to Cornell Belcher, a pollster who’s worked for Obama and other Democrats, the answer is decidedly no.


Cornell Belcher: Look, if we have the 2010 or the 2014 electorate, I don’t care how crazy Donald Trump is, we’re not going to do well in that electorate. And when you segment out the electorate by those who had been traditional midterm voters, versus those who were not traditional midterm voters, something interesting happens, and particularly among around white voters. Republicans still won the traditional white midterm voter. When you look at the white voter who is not a traditional midterm voter, what you see is that Democrats actually have a plurality of those white voters. Did switching happen? Yes. Was this an election about switching? No, this was an election that we won because we had a different electorate.


Jon Favreau: In other words, increased turnout. So who’s right? Did Democrats win in 2018 because of turnout or persuasion? Lynn Vavreck thinks that this debate, like most debates that start on Twitter, doesn’t actually reflect reality.


Lynn Vavreck: Anybody who’s ever thought about running, run, worked in a campaign or looked at data understands, both those things are happening. And so really to know the answer to that, you have to go race by race. And this is why it’s hard to come up with a summary statement about what happened in 2018, because what happened in one district in California may be a very different story than what happened in another district in Detroit, Michigan. So both of those things are really important. I think that surely it’s safe to say composition is a part of the story and persuasion and switching as is also a part of the story.


Jon Favreau: A more useful question to ask about the midterms might be: what did the electorate actually look like in 2018? What kind of voters made up the Democratic coalition that beat Republicans by the biggest margin of all time? To answer these questions, I sat down with political analyst Ron Brownstein, who spent the last few decades writing about electoral and demographic trends.


Jon Favreau: So you’ve characterized the current political alignment as a contest between the coalition of restoration, the coalition of transformation. Can you define those two groups of voters?


Ron Brownstein: Yeah, I believe the central fault line in American politics over the last 25 years has become attitudes toward the fundamental demographic, cultural and economic changes reshaping the society. And the Republican coalition now draws primarily on the voters and the regions that are least touched by, and most skeptical of, all of these changes. And the Democratic coalition relies primarily on the regions and the voters who are most welcoming of these changes. Demographically, what this translates into is you have a Democratic coalition that is strongest with young people, minorities, college-educated and secular whites, especially women, and a Republican coalition at this point that is stronger with blue collar, older, non-urban and evangelical whites.


Jon Favreau: What’s your take on why Democrats did so well in 2018?


Ron Brownstein: Because the New America came out to defend itself, above all. I mean, it was it was a triumph of the coalition of transformation. You had increased turnout among millennials and minorities and you had significant movement among college whites, not only the women, but also the men where Democrats got roughly even after winning, what, about 35% of them in each of the past two midterms? You look at it geographically, Republicans were annihilated in what—the last red pockets in every blue metro. But what made it so big, as you know, was that it wasn’t only the already blue metros, it wasn’t only Philadelphia and Minneapolis and Denver and Chicago where they lost suburban seats. It was also Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Charleston, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Orange County—


Jon Favreau: Phoenix.


Ron Brownstein: Phoenix. And so you saw the price, the full price of Trump’s vision.


Jon Favreau: As Ron points out, 2018 was a continuation of political trends that have been reshaping both parties for years, a trend where non college-educated white voters who live in rural and urban areas are moving away from the Democratic Party. And one where college-educated white voters who live in urban and suburban areas are moving towards a Democratic Party that’s grown even stronger with women, people of color and younger Americans. In 2016, this coalition wasn’t quite big enough to win an electoral majority. In 2018 it was. So what does that tell us for 2020, when Donald Trump himself is on the ballot running against a single Democratic opponent? How would another record turnout change the shape of the electorate? And how many of those Trump voters who cast a ballot for Democrats in 2018 will stick with the party in 2020?


Lynn Vavreck: This is such an interesting moment. Again, I can’t believe that this is the moment where in. The last time we talked, 2020 seemed really far in the future. And the question was, how do we get out of the wilderness? Has the party get out of the wilderness? And here we are. And I feel like the election is tomorrow. You know, all I see is trees everywhere, like we are still in the wilderness a little bit. Not that there aren’t pathways out. It’s just that there’s no obvious pathway out.


Jon Favreau: Not an obvious pathway, but it’s there. Let’s start looking after the break.




Jon Favreau: Welcome back to The Wilderness. We just talked about why the Democrats did so well in the 2018 midterms, but now and I apologize in advance for this, I need you to hear some voices who keep you from feeling cocky and overconfident about what it all means for 2020. Here’s Dave Wasserman from the Cook Political Report to kick it off:


Dave Wasserman: Now, we don’t know how 2020 is going to go, but we have to be careful not to draw too many extrapolations or lessons from 2018. So far, based on the special elections that have been held since 2018, it looks like Democrats enthusiasm may be down a hair from, from what it was prior to Democrats taking back the House. But it’s still awfully high. And you know, we look at 2020 as potentially, you know, a very, very high turnout election. The upside though for President Trump is that there were an awful lot of working class whites who did sit out 2018 and whom Trump could activate to reemerge, especially with his name on the ballot.


Jon Favreau: In fact, Dave calculates that there were roughly 52 million eligible, non-college-educated people who didn’t vote. And here’s Amy Walter.


Amy Walter: Remember that Trump turns out people that are not traditionally active voters, right? So many of the people who showed up on Election Day in 2016 were people who would never have voted or probably never did vote in a congressional election. They don’t know who their member of Congress is, or their senator is, or state rep. These are folks who got engaged in the process really because of Donald Trump, and it’s going to take Donald Trump to get them out.


Jon Favreau: Again, this is what I was saying earlier about Trump’s potential turnout. And it’s not just the people who voted for him in 2016. His campaign is already targeting and talking to people who didn’t vote for him in 2016, but fit the demographic profile of a Trump supporter. President Obama’s former campaign manager, David Plouffe and I have been losing sleep over this.


David Plouffe: I think will drive huge turnout in battleground states. So that’s number one. Number two, he’s got a hard base of support. He’s got the ability to dominate the discussion. And I don’t think anybody’s really figured out how to deal with that yet. He will have all the money he needs. He will have built his organization up to, I think, really fighting status. I think the MAGA hat crews are coming out, they’re coming in force. They don’t want to lose their racist, misogynist, retrograde president. So they’re coming.


Jon Favreau: Yeah. Nothing I’ve seen from the results in 2016 or 2018 would lead me to bet any amount of money on the MAGA crew staying home. Besides, it’s not really something we can control. Neither are the political and economic fundamentals that will shape 2020. As Dan Wagner annoyingly reminds us:


Dan Wagner: The best predictor that we’ve had about presidential performance is looking at a cross section between macroeconomic performance and presidential approval. Macroeconomic performance at this point is very good. Unemployment is very low. Job creation is very high. The country is relatively prosperous. The second is his approval rating, which, despite his level of insanity, is quite high. So if you cross these two things together and say, you know, unemployment rate is quite low, and then you cross that against job approval, which is somewhere between 42 and 45%, historically, that would lead to reelection.


Jon Favreau: So Democrats have some real challenges. In 2020, Trump will have a rabid base of supporters, some of whom just didn’t turn out to vote in 2018. He has an approval rating that’s low nationally but higher in the battleground states. He’s currently presiding over a period of economic growth and low unemployment that, while not great for a lot of struggling Americans, are good enough by historic standards to help an incumbent president win reelection. And no one has any idea what the fallout will be from the war he almost started with Iran. But again, these are the factors we can’t really control. Dan reminds us to focus on what we can.


Dan Wagner: Political organizations have three key decisions that they make. One is where to spend money, two is what to say, and then three is how to say it.


Jon Favreau: We’ll get to what to say and how to say it in future episodes. But let’s start with where to compete. In a world with unlimited resources, where the candidate with the most votes wins the presidency, democrats would compete everywhere. But we’re stuck with the Electoral College, limited time and limited money, so the nominee will have to make some smart, tough decisions about where to campaign, where to run ads and where to organize. So how does a presidential campaign make those decisions? Well, first, they’ll look at a map of the 2016 results. States that Trump or Clinton won by large margins, let’s say more than 10 points, aren’t very likely to flip in just four years, especially in an extremely polarized environment like ours. And again, the campaign can’t spend time and money everywhere. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report points to where they might start.


Dave Wasserman: I believe that there will be a very narrow battleground of states in 2020 that decide the presidency. And the six that I would really single out are the six states that Trump won by the narrowest margins in 2016 and those would be northern trio of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and the Sunbelt trio of North Carolina, Arizona and Florida.


Jon Favreau: There was a widespread consensus among the experts I talked to that these states are the six most important battlegrounds for 2020. But which of these states will be the easiest for Democrats to flip?


Clare Malone: I’ll be boring here and say that it’s probably the Midwest because it’s a well-trod path.


Jon Favreau: That’s Ohio native, Claire Malone, senior political writer at FiveThirtyEight.


Clare Malone: 2018 midterm results do show a little wiggle room potentially with some of those Obama-Trump voters.


[speaker] Any Democrat has to win back Michigan and Pennsylvania, and I think almost any Democrat will.


[speaker] I think that Michigan and Pennsylvania form the first two Trump states that Democrats need to convert if they want to get to 270.


Jon Favreau: Everyone I spoke to about this agrees that Pennsylvania and Michigan, while by no means guaranteed wins, are the two easiest states for Democrats to flip in 2020. After that, it’s a different story.


[speaker] But that only gets you, you know, to the edge. And the next one is a lot harder. I mean, they’re all harder. I mean, Wisconsin and Arizona, I would say, are the, the two pivotal states.


Clare Malone: Wisconsin was what we at FiveThirtyEight call the tipping point state. It was the state which mattered the most and Democrats lost it.


[speaker] The tipping point, you know, could be Wisconsin. It could be Arizona. Democrats are on a downward trajectory in Wisconsin over the long term. And part of the, the reason for that is that it’s a fairly rural no- metro state, and Arizona Democrats are on an upward trajectory. Arizona is one of the most urban states in the country that Republicans still win.


Jon Favreau: But on the great Arizona versus Wisconsin debate, Dan Wagner begs to differ.


Dan Wagner: Wisconsin. And that’s not that’s not like fancy like, strategic knowledge or me giving away trade secrets. That’s more or less just common sense.


Jon Favreau: So, yeah, not everyone agrees on the exact path to 270. But as David Plouffe reminds us, we shouldn’t plan for that path to be narrow. We’ve got to go big.


David Plouffe: I do think winning back Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin is the best path, but that gets us to 272. You know, there are scenarios where you might win Michigan and Pennsylvania and come short in Wisconsin. Well, Arizona has the same number of electoral votes as Wisconsin, and it’s going to be hard to win but Kyrsten Sinema just won it. Demographically changing. North Carolina, I think, will be close. Florida will be close. So even if you lose those states, you force Trump to compete there, fight hard there. That means he’s not just camped out in those three states in the upper part of the country. So I think the toughest decision for our nominee will be Georgia and Texas. Maybe Florida, it would be really malpractice to me if we don’t target Florida because we saw again with Gillum and Nelson, they came super close. We won it twice, super close. Trump won it super close. It’s going to be close. I think Trump’s a good Florida candidate, but we know there’s enough voters down there, if we can register them, inspire them and win. Arizona clearly is trending in the right way. And you have the ability in all three of those states through registration and turnout to improve the electorate, actually much more so than you do in the upper Midwest or in Pennsylvania, where I think persuasion is more of the lever, but certainly not all of it.


Jon Favreau: Here Plouffe is referencing the turnout versus persuasion debate we talked about earlier.


David Plouffe: In every battleground state, it is going to be a blend of persuasion, turnout, registration. It will be every state, particularly states like Florida, North Carolina and Arizona. Registration is huge. Before you even get the turnout. In all of them turnout’s big. And I think persuasion is going to be incredibly important. You know, in those, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, but also, you know, in parts of Florida and in Maricopa County, Arizona, it’s going to be a massive job to win the persuasion war. So, you know, a campaign has to be, I think, set up to do both well. And I think a lot of our candidates in ’18 did that well.


Jon Favreau: The important point is that in every swing state, Democrats will need a plan to turn out new voters and persuade other voters to switch parties. The math requires that campaigns do both, and that’s going to give us many more pathways to 270. Cornell Belcher agrees:


Cornell Belcher: I’m going to go with David Plouffe, circa 2008. We’re not going to be sitting around on election night waiting for the result from one state to come in to determine who wins. I think that’s got to be the mentality of of Democrats. We always have to be expanding the electorate. Always. You know, don’t put all our eggs in the basket of Ohio. In Florida. That’s problematic. No. How about Arizona? How about Nevada? How about Georgia? How about—this is crazy—how about let’s make Republicans compete in Texas? I think the path forward is changing as, as America changes.


Jon Favreau: Whichever path a Democratic nominee ultimately chooses, the decisions that the campaign makes in each state will be centered around one important factor, the vote win number.


David Plouffe: How many votes—not percentage—do we need? You know, is it 400,000 in a state, is 800,000. In Florida, it’s a lot more than that, it’s in the millions. That is the campaign. That is the campaign.


Jon Favreau: Literally, vote win numbers may not sound exciting, but to a campaign they’re everything. In every state, you estimate the projected turnout and multiply it by the percentage of the vote you need to win. And that’s the actual number of votes you need to win that state.


David Plouffe: For like our Democratic nominee against Trump, they are going to have to have in each battleground state a crystal clear sense of how many votes will it take to win, and because I think Trump is likely to get really strong turnout, it needs to be a big number. I’d want to add, you know, 6, 8, 10% to Trump’s number. How do they get there? And then they have to apportion both human and financial resources and mindshare and time on the ground based on their view of how they get to that 100% window. Of course, a lot goes into that. Do you have the volunteers for the kind of organization you need? Are you raising the kind of money? You know, are you running the kind of ads? Is the candidate going to the right places?


Jon Favreau: And maybe the most important questions of all: who are the voters we’re speaking to? What kind of candidate do they want? What kind of country do they want? And how do we communicate in a way that persuades them to turn out and vote Democrat? Those are the questions we’ll try to answer in this season of The Wilderness.


Jon Favreau: Over the last few months, we’ve been talking to activists, organizers, strategists, candidates, and voters in the four regions of the country that will decide the 2020 election. I conducted focus groups with voters of all different backgrounds and beliefs in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Miami.


Jon Favreau: How would you say that politics makes you feel right now?


[clip of female speaker] It’s comedy for me.


[clip of male speaker] From both sides.


Jon Favreau: And we followed around some of the people on the ground who are trying to make sure that these voters help the Democratic nominee’s campaign reach its win number this November.


[voice clip] Our strategy is about, you know, building long term, sustainable political power, and that is hard work.


[voice clip] In each of the next four episodes, we’ll talk 20 20 in the Northeast:


[voice clip] What we’ve seen is the sleeping giant of women’s electoral power simply come to life.


Jon Favreau: The Southwest:


[voice clip] Liberals in America have this enormous density problem, and it is migration from these dense urban cores that might begin to solve it.


Jon Favreau: The southeast:


[voice clip] Georgia has the youngest population of a battleground state. We have the highest percentage of African-Americans of a battleground state, and we’ve proven that both communities will turn out.


Jon Favreau: And the Midwest:


[voice clip] There is a group of voters that might be more conservative than I am, on guns or on choice or on marriage equality and gay rights generally, but they’ll listen to a strong economic message.


Jon Favreau: We won’t just be talking about the presidential race either. If the next Democratic president wants to pass any legislation at all, Democrats will need to flip three to four Senate seats so that Mitch McConnell loses his job. Which is why I will be talking to people in states like Maine too:


[voice clip] There is no path to a Democratic majority in the Senate that doesn’t run through Maine. Full stop.


Jon Favreau: As Ron Brownstein reminds us, the path out of the wilderness for Democrats can lead to a pretty promising future for the party, and more importantly, the country. But nothing about getting there will be easy.


Ron Brownstein: I think the odds are high Democrats, whatever happened in the Electoral College, are going to win the popular vote in 2020. And what’s more, they will have won the popular vote behind the support of groups that are themselves growing in society. Right? It’s millennials and Gen Z. It’s nonwhites and it’s secular and college-educated whites, especially women. So if you are a majority today, and the groups that provide that majority are growing, what does that mean? That means you are a majority that’s expanding over time. Trump has locked the Republican Party into this position where it is stuck trying to squeeze bigger margins out of shrinking groups. And while that may work for a while, the long term trajectory is pretty clear that Democrats are playing on the bigger side of the field. The problem is, there are a whole series of obstacles that prevent this majority from necessarily exercising power. And some of them start in the Constitution. The Electoral College kind of reflects that advantage. And then we have more modern factors: the voter suppression efforts in Republican controlled states, the fact that parts of this coalition—young people and minorities and especially young minorities—don’t turn out nearly as much as older whites. So 2020 feels to me like the battle of the Bulge between what America has been and what it is becoming. And I think it is pretty safe to assume that Trump will get every last ounce of blood out of his coalition of restoration. It’s a less decided question whether the coalition of transformation turns out in equal force.


Jon Favreau: Heather McGhee believes that we will.


Heather McGhee: America is a young nation. We have been tested time and time again and we have always overcome. And we’ve done so by coming together across lines of race and origin and language. And we can do that again. Today, the fight is not about a foreign enemy. It’s about whether we’re going to let a corrupt few steal the American dream from our families and from our children. We’re not going to let that happen. I know that we’re not. I know that we’re stronger than this and we’re better than this. There’s nothing we can’t do. But if we’re divided, we will stand alone. And that’s not who we are at our best. And if this dark period in American history has shown us anything, it’s that we are actually willing to stand up for one another when we’re attacked. And that’s what we’re going to do in 2020. And that’s we’re going to do to reignite the American dream.


Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein and Andrea B. Scott. Andrea B. Scott is also our editor. Austin Fisher is our assistant editor and associate producer. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Charlotte Landes and Alex Sugiura. Production support from Alison Falzetta, Sydney Rapp and Brian Semel. Kyle Seglin was our recording engineer. Austin Fast, Virginia Lora, Nancy Rosenbaum and Max Wasserman were our field producers. Fact checking by Justin Klozco and Soraya Shockley. Archival production by Shana Deloria and Soraya Shockley. Archival Legal Review by Chad Russo. Special thanks to Sara Geismer, Mukta Mohan and Tanya Somanader and to Mike Kulisheck from Benenson Strategy Group. Thanks for listening.