In This Episode
How can grassroots organizers flip a red state? We talk to women who are trying to turn Pennsylvania blue and defeat Susan Collins, and sit down with a focus group of disaffected Democrats outside of Philadelphia.
Jon Favreau conducts a focus group in Philadelphia with disaffected Democratic voters
Angela Aldous: There are Trump signs everywhere. Trump banners, like huge banners, flying my neighbor’s house across the street. So many times during that election, I thought: well, the banner will come down now. Like, you know, they had four girls. I was like—after he brags about grabbing women by the pussy—I was like: well, now the banner will come down, obviously. And it never did. None of them ever did. We just have more and more Trump signs come up.
Jon Favreau: Angela Aldous lives outside Pittsburgh in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, a place that Donald Trump won by 31 points in an election where he carried the state by a little more than 44,000 votes. He was the first Republican to do so in nearly three decades.
Angela Aldous: The day of the inauguration was really rough, um. [Laughs]
[clip of Trump inauguration] I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear . . .
Angela Aldous: And the next days, seeing, the women’s march—
[chant] We choose love.
Angela Aldous: —I didn’t go. I had a newborn at the time.
[singing] I can’t keep . . .
Angela Aldous: It was inspiring to see that, but there, also like immediately I just had this cynicism of like, what if none of that matters? What if these people aren’t going to do any work afterwards to actually make a difference, to get him out of office?
Jon Favreau: Lucky for us, Angela didn’t give in to that cynicism, a few months later, she and some other women in her community started a group called Voice of Westmoreland. We’ll hear more about their organizing and activism in a bit. What’s important to know for now is that our journey out of the wilderness begins in places like Westmoreland County with people like Angela Aldus. Over the next few episodes, we’ll spend time all over the country, with swing voters and occasional voters and tirst-time voters, all of whom could get Democrats over the finish line in November. But I wanted to start here with the organizers and volunteers whose energy and enthusiasm will put that victory within reach, the people who’ve responded to 2016 by throwing themselves into the hard work of citizenship. And most of them are women.
[news clip] It is the year of the woman. Women across this nation smashed barriers in this year’s historic midterm election . . .
[news clip] In the crucial Philly suburbs, female voters driving the agenda heading into 2020.
[voice clip] Lots and lots of women are acting one step further than what they did before.
Jon Favreau: Here in the Northeast, like other midterm battlegrounds, women organizers, activists and voters swept women candidates into power, up and down the ticket.
[clip] None of us ran to make history. We ran to make change. However, the historical significance of this evening is not lost on me.
Jon Favreau: In Pennsylvania alone, a state that had an all-male congressional delegation since 2014, a record eight women ran for the house and half of them won.
[voice clip] For the first time ever, not one, but four women were elected to Congress from Pennsylvania.
Jon Favreau: Today, the road to 270 electoral votes and 51 Senate seats starts in this traditionally Democratic region of the United States. Pennsylvania is the most likely Trump state to turn blue. Maine is where a number of Democratic women are running to defeat Susan Collins, whose seat we need to flip the Senate. And in New Hampshire, Democrats will have to defend the state’s four electoral votes and Jeanne Shaheen’s Senate seat from an onslaught of Republican spending. Women are on the front lines of all these fights. And in this episode, we’ll find out why, and learn more about their battle plan for 2020. Then, to get a better sense of what these organizers are hearing when they talk to potential Democratic voters, I sat down with some of myself. What issues do these voters care about? What pisses them off about politics and what will motivate them to cast their ballot for a Democrat in 2020? I’m Jon Favreau. Welcome to The Wilderness.
Theda Skocpol: The interval between 2016 and 2018 created what we political scientists call a political opportunity structure that sort of hit the Democrats over the head like a two by four.
Jon Favreau: That’s Theda Skocpol, a familiar voice from last season, and a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University.
Theda Skocpol: It told them that instead of contacting Washington or worrying about national politics, they had to organize in districts and states and for congressional elections. After the November 2016 outcome, it was a matter of less than a week, and citizens started organizing all over the United States.
Jon Favreau: Theda’s research found similarities between this organizing and the kind that happened after the 2008 election.
Theda Skocpol: Ultimately, our research shows that voluntary groups of citizens determined to fight back against the Trump presidency and the Republican agenda that it was going to further. Formed in just as many places across the United States as Tea Parties formed eight years earlier to oppose Barack Obama’s presidency and the Democrats.
Jon Favreau: Today in Pennsylvania, resistance groups can be found in 52 of the state’s 67 counties.
Theda Skocpol: They activated citizens in many districts and states where Democrats had not really been very energetic in 2016. By 2018, they were generating an unprecedented number of people willing to run for office at the state and local as well as national level for Congress. And they helped to fuel a huge turnout in 2018 that I think was responsible for the blue wave we saw. And those groups were mostly led by older white women.
Jon Favreau: This isn’t the first time that women have led a progressive movement, as we’re reminded by another familiar voice.
Rebecca Traister: I’m Rebecca Traister. I am a writer at large at New York magazine, and I’m the author of Good and Mad, which is a book about the political potency of women’s anger. In the contemporary Democratic Party, sort of since the mid 60s, the party’s foot soldiers, the people who’ve always done the work of voter registration and turnout, get out the vote, who’ve done the organizing and the volunteering, have always been women. It’s been women of color. White women have been split as a demographic. A majority of white women have voted for conservative politicians, for Republican candidates going back as long as they’ve been keeping track. But after Donald Trump is elected over Hillary Clinton, something sort of breaks in a lot of them.
Jon Favreau: Rebecca, explains how a lot of white women experienced a kind of political awakening and transformation because of 2016.
Rebecca Traister: The stories we like to tell ourselves in this country about inequity is that inequity is in our past, right? Yes, the country’s systems were built around slavery but, you know, slavery was abolished. And yes, there was segregation, but that was fixed in the civil rights movement. And yes, it’s true that women were not allowed to vote and denied, you know, civic and sexual rights and opportunities, but, you know, that was fixed by the women’s movement. And so if you are comfortable enough to believe the flattering version of the story of America, then there’s not a sense of urgency and emergency to your involvement. It’s exactly those attitudes that permitted so many people to think that Donald Trump would never be elected: this couldn’t happen in the United States. And then it happened. And what it did was shock a population awake. And part of that population is the white, suburban middle class women. And a lot of what I have seen over the past couple of years has been this transformation in so many of these women. Lots of them use language like: I came out of the closet as a Democrat. They’re suddenly finding their real identity, finding real friends because they got awakened and engaged in political activism. And that organizing stems from dissatisfaction, fury, a desire to change the way our political system works.
Heather McGhee: What we’ve seen is the sleeping giant of women’s electoral power simply come to life and come roaring for a Republican Party that has had a war on women for apparently just exactly too long.
Jon Favreau: Heather McGhee, past President and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the liberal think tank Demos, and Demos Action.
Heather McGhee: 81% of women who voted in the 2018 midterms said that it was important to elect more women to public office. There is a vision, a thwarted vision of women’s leadership and a sort of gross display of what toxic masculinity in the halls of power can do. Right? We have a serial sexual assaulter in the White House. We have men writing laws that would take away women’s reproductive freedom at the state level. And we have a man who was deposited onto the Supreme Court after having been credibly accused of sexual assault and then in the biggest job interview of his life, you know, yelling and screaming and acting like a victim and then still getting hired for a job that he can ostensibly never be fired from. This is the kind of white male privilege that I think women of all races and backgrounds have had enough of, and certainly want to see some balance in the halls of power.
Jon Favreau: One woman who surely wanted more balance was Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, entrepreneur and former teacher from Pennsylvania.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan: 2016, the election results really struck me as being something unique to my time on this planet, which is now 52 years. It was honestly quite an eye-opener to see what, who I considered to be the most qualified person ever to run for the office of the presidency in Hillary Clinton, be defeated by a person who I consider to be arguably the least qualified person ever to run for the office of presidency. And one happened to be male and one happened to be female. But I felt as though there was no harm in raising my hand and volunteering to at least serve by running as a candidate. Because what’s the worst that could happen? You know, I would lose, so.
Jon Favreau: Representative Houlahan didn’t lose. She won. By 17 points. Before 2018, Pennsylvania had sent only seven women to Congress, total. To this day, the state has never had a woman governor or senator. When Chrissy won, she not only flipped a Republican seat in Philadelphia’s outer suburbs, she became the first woman ever to be elected to represent her county. And she didn’t get there on her own.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan: My own team was comprised of a lot of women as well, and I was working at collaborating with people who were running for the 2017 local elections at the same time that I was running for the 2018 national elections. And very many of them, the vast majority of them were women and their teams as well were women, and were driven by volunteers who are largely women.
Jon Favreau: Here’s Heather McGhee again.
Heather McGhee: I have been on the boards of organizations, grassroots organizations like Color of Change and Indivisible, and Move On—and each and every one of those organizations have seen just tremendous growth among women, suburban women, black women in the suburbs, rural women, young women, Latino women, Asian-American women in California and Washington state, being the driving force behind getting their friends not just to vote, but to run for office, to volunteer, to phone bank..
Jon Favreau: Again, Theda Skocpol, who’s done extensive research on women-led resistance groups.
Theda Skocpol: The resisters tend to be about 75 to 90% women. The men that are involved are often the partners of the women or the friends of the women. They are librarians, teachers, retired teachers, adjunct professors, health care professionals, nonprofit leaders, sometimes small businesswomen in creative-type businesses, and they’re concerned that America is closing in on itself and becoming intolerant and cruel. They see Trump as an exemplar of selfishness and of violating all that they see as the public good.
Rebecca Traister: Every free afternoon, every weekend, every morning, knocking doors, canvasing, going to meetings, educating themselves about not just federal level politics, but state politics, their own legislatures. You also saw the spike in numbers of women who ran for office for the first time on all levels. That was a massive and unprecedented wave. And then, of course, you saw a historic number of them winning. Now, why were they winning? In part, it’s because they had women organizing for them, knocking doors for them, pamphlet’ing for them, registering voters, trying to expand the electorate. And we’ve seen that all over the country in a million different ways.
Jon Favreau: Which brings us back to Angela Aldous, who you heard from at the top. On the day of the women’s march, Angela watched the protests on television with a newborn in her lap. She was angry. She was scared. And worse, she was worried that all the protesting and activism wouldn’t matter. But then about a week later, she saw something in her own neighborhood that changed her.
Angela Aldous: One day I was driving back home, and I live right near the county courthouse, and it was snowing and it was right during the height of the Muslim ban. And I saw six people standing out at the corner of the courthouse with signs like supporting immigrants and supporting Muslims. And I pulled over and I started to cry. I couldn’t—like, I got teary, I couldn’t believe that there was anybody out here who was upset about this and sick about it. And so I ran, I grabbed my kids and I ran out and I was like: who are you people, like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe you’re here. And I think I blurted out, like: can I buy you a coffee? It’s funny. Like, millions of people at the women’s march didn’t give me any hope, but seeing six people in the middle of Trump land, standing out there with signs, was like one of the most hopeful things. And so that was how I met one of our leaders who ended up starting all of this with me, Clare Dooley, was just because she was out there on a cold day with a sign.
Jon Favreau: It turns out that Angela has held a few signs in the cold herself. Before moving to Pennsylvania, she and her husband lived in Wisconsin, where former Governor Scott Walker tried to destroy her nurses union.
Angela Aldous: I had never been political. I voted all the time. I paid attention. I watched PBS News Hour, but I didn’t really pay attention to like the local problems. But then when Governor Scott Walker got elected, it became very personal for me. I knew that if he was successful in gutting the unions in Wisconsin, my union, my nurses union was SEIU, that they would go my protections for my job. I had been diagnosed with MS the year before, in 2010. I was a newlywed and suddenly found myself needing to go to physical therapy to learn to walk with a cane. I was losing my eyesight and it was pretty terrifying. My husband was in school, so I had the only paycheck and I had health insurance. But my union, I think I talked to them the day I got diagnosed and they were like: we’ve got this, don’t worry. And so when I thought about my union being cut, I thought: oh, my gosh, they’re going to, they’re going to want to get rid of me first. And so I found myself speaking up because I was scared.
[news clip] The Capitol here is now ground zero.
Angela Aldous: We rallied at the Capitol like every day before my shift would start.
Angela Aldous: We’d go out and rally out in the streets and it felt like we’re building something. It was exciting.
[news clip] Today, they were nearly 40,000 strong: state workers and their supporters upset by what they see as a frontal assault on their benefits and their union rights.
Angela Aldous: We had our signs and some of them were hilarious. And that felt like power, right? People are taking pictures. We thought: well, this proves the point, the rallies prove the point. MSNBC would come out. That seemed like, wow, this is, this is it.
Jon Favreau: Except it wasn’t. Despite all the protests, despite all the other actions they took, it wasn’t enough to stop Scott Walker back then.
Angela Aldous: I gave up, I thought: well, never mind, none of, none of what we did mattered anyway. It felt like, it just felt like average citizens couldn’t make a difference, like the game was rigged. The Koch brothers put millions and millions of dollars into it. You know, like they demonize teachers and nurses. They made us the enemy. And it felt impossible to dispel that. We lost friends and it was hard. It was really hard and demoralizing. And I kind of just got detached from it then.
Jon Favreau: But the ordeal in Wisconsin taught Angela an incredibly important lesson about politics and organizing, a lesson that all of us should carry into 2020 and beyond.
Angela Aldous: We thought that everybody was upset because we only were talking to ourselves. Like we only were in a protest talking with people who already agreed with us and we weren’t having conversations with anybody else.
Jon Favreau: We were only talking to ourselves. Well, fast forward a couple of years, where Angela, her husband and their two kids are living in a Pennsylvania county that Trump won by 31 points. She hadn’t come across too many people who already agreed with her there until she saw those six women on a street corner protesting the Muslim ban. And that’s when she got to work.
Angela Aldous: We knew that, like, this wasn’t going to be easy and we knew that for, like this wasn’t our training, our background, how to organize something, how to do this. And so every week we would listen to these lectures from Harvard—on like the history of organizing and movement building and people-built power and independent political power—and so we would listen to these lectures every week.
[old news clip] During the early weeks of February 1960, the demonstrations that came to be called the Sit-in Movement exploded across the south.
Angela Aldous: You could see the history of movement building. The history books you just hear: oh, Rosa Parks decided one day to sit down and then look at what happened and then there were sit-ins—no, like there was, there was like a year of planning and strategy and work that went on before that, and building and organizing your community. And if we really want to be serious, we know that this is hard work. These are not communities where you are just gonna buy a TV ad and win an election, like these are long sustained conversations, long sustained relationships.
Jon Favreau: Angela thought about the lessons she learned in Wisconsin, and knew that effective organizing isn’t just about showing up and being heard, it requires a strategy and a message that’s tailored to the audience you’re trying to persuade.
Angela Aldous: Like even something as simple as our name, like every other group that was springing up was like Resistance and, you know, Revolt and Indivisible and whatever, and we’re like—I could just imagine if we were to go door-to-door and knock and talk to our neighbors and you say: hi, I’m Angela and I’m with Resistance whatever—like that immediately shuts off a conversation. What if they voted for him? It also just seemed like: what are you for? And so we were like very purposefully thought, like: OK, let’s do Voice of Westmoreland for people who are tired of their voice not making a difference, of their voice, not being heard. Most of our actions at the beginning were centered around health care. I mean, it was an issue that you could talk about with anybody, and almost everybody was upset. You’re told that there’s this political divide and you know, there’s red and there’s blue and it nobody can ever agree. But when you were able to talk about something like health care, you can have a real conversation about that. I’ll never forget one, the first canvass we did, the second door I knocked—it was just, it was like a listening canvass to talk to people about health care—and the woman immediately said, like: I don’t want to talk to you, I voted for Trump and I don’t want to be talked out of it. And instead of just walking away, we started talking and I said: well, I’m just out here today because, like, I’m scared, I have a MS, my medicine costs $8,000 a month and I don’t know what I do without insurance. And so we slowly started talking, we ended up talking for fifteen minutes. And turns out she’s terrified about the cost of drugs, too, and she thinks it’s corrupt. And she feels like, you know, politicians care more about the drug companies than they do about us. And by the end of it, she like thanked me for going out there. She’s like: well, thank you for the work you’re doing. We just talked as humans and we got to see that like, it’s not us and them, Democrat or Republican. It’s us and them, like the people versus the very powerful few.
Jon Favreau: All of this work helped prepare Angela and Voice of Westmoreland for a huge opportunity they weren’t expecting. In 2017, the Republican congressman who had represented their district for more than a decade, resigned in scandal. And a young Marine and former prosecutor named Conor Lamb stepped up to run. It’s a district that Trump won by 20 points, but the kind that Democrats needed to flip in order to win back a state like Pennsylvania. Needless to say, we all had a lot of hope riding on this one.
[news clip] Now, a congressional race that could be a harbinger of elections to come.
[news clip] This, the race between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Sarcone has been neck and neck.
[voice clip] Lamb looks like he has an actual chance. This could be a blueprint to fight every single contested seat everywhere in the country.
[news clip] Lamb supporters hope a win will put Washington on notice.
Angela Aldous: And they said: you know, that if you can flip this district, this could be the beginning of the blue wave. Like all this anger and this, you know, people being upset about Trump, what does it actually mean? What happens if we really channel just how angry we are at the Republican control and the way that the country is going? What happens if we do real work and flip this? And that was amazing to me. It was so cool to see how many people were willing to do the scary thing. And then we did a lot of work. We’d knocked a lot of doors. We had canvasses every weekend and phone banks. My daughter was with me, she was three at the time, and she had canvased a lot with me wearing a little lamb costume. She had canvased so much that she started with her dollhouses to like act out canvasing. Most girls play like dress up or princesses or something, and we would play canvasing. So she was there election night wearing her lamb outfit. We were ultimately able to help be a part of what won, Congressman Lamb the Democrat was able to win that seat in the special election.
[news clip] We have an apparent winner in the Pennsylvania special election: Conor Lamb, the Democrat NBC News is declaring—
Angela Aldous: And it was really cool because what the campaign had projected that they could do in Westmoreland, we over performed, we did 4% better than they thought we could. It showed the power of knocking doors and having conversations, not just sitting it out because your area seemed hopeless. And if nothing else, we knew that you’d worked as hard as we could.
Jon Favreau: Doesn’t get more inspiring than that, does it? In 2018, Angela and Voice of Westmoreland and millions of others just like them, showed Democrats how to organize and win, even in the heart of Trump country. It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of time and effort. It took a lot of strategy and discipline, and it took plenty of conversations with people who didn’t necessarily agree with all of their politics. So they didn’t talk about resisting, and they didn’t always talk about Trump. They talked about their lives and their families and their worries and their hopes. And it worked, it worked. Now the question is, will it work in 2020? Will Angela and her fellow organizers be able to flip their state when Donald Trump himself is on the ballot. What kind of hard conversations with Pennsylvania voters will that require? We’ll find out after the break.
Jon Favreau: The tireless work of people like Angela Aldous helped elect a record number of Democratic candidates in 2018, especially women. But 2020 is a very different election. And here’s why. On one hand, more young voters and voters of color turnout in a presidential election than they do in a midterm election. That’s good for Democrats, who do really well with these voters. On the other hand, more white voters without a college degree turn out in presidential elections as well. That’s good for Republicans who do really well with these voters. Unfortunately, there are three more pieces of good news for Republicans. First, these white voters without a college degree are a much bigger share of the electorate in most of the 2020 swing states like the northeastern battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Maine. Second, Donald Trump’s name at the top of the ballot will drive turnout among his base even higher. And third, there’s a significant chunk of voters who supported Democrats in 2018 as a way to provide a check on Trump and the Republicans in Congress, but who are now telling pollsters that they’re open to supporting the president again in 2020. I know. Not great.
Jon Favreau: So what does this all mean for Democrats? It means that the party’s nominee can’t afford to ignore any group of voters: whether it’s young voters, voters of color, new voters, white voters with a college degree, or white voters without a college degree—there’s very little margin for error. Congresswoman Houlahan knows this and helps us get to the core of what voters in Pennsylvania want.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan: Pennsylvania is critical. It is absolutely on the critical path to success for Democrats in 2020. People really care about what we are for, and not who we are against. People in the Collar Counties of Pennsylvania, and I believe, frankly, at the nation at large, are just tired of the vitriol and the partisanship.
Jon Favreau: I wanted to find out more, so I sat down with some voters a few miles outside of Philadelphia, not far from Chrissy Houlahan’s suburban district, the first of four focus groups we conducted for the season of The Wilderness. And in case you’re wondering, no, this isn’t like one of those New York Times pieces where a bunch of white Trump voters at a diner in Pennsylvania talk about how much they love Trump. Plenty of those available, if you’re interested. I wanted to talk to voters who are gettable, people who’ve shown a willingness to vote, and a willingness to vote Democrat. They all voted for Democratic candidates in either 2016 or 2018. They’re all planning to vote in 2020. And they only follow news about politics a few times a week. Basically, these are the kind of voters who any Democratic candidate will absolutely need to win. The kind of Democratic voters who might have been approached by an organizer like Angela, or someone from Chrissy Houlahan’s campaign.
Jon Favreau: Hello, everyone.
Focus group member: Hi.
Different focus group member: What’s up Jon?
Jon Favreau: Thank you all so much for doing this. I really appreciate it. So I am conducting research for a show that I’m producing about voting and politics and issues that really matter to people. So I’m going to ask you all a bunch of questions, and I would love for everyone to be just as open and honest as possible. There are no right or wrong answers and I want to hear all of your opinions, so if you agree or disagree with someone else, feel free to speak up. But this is like, it’s not a debate or anything. Everyone should feel very comfortable. So is everyone all good with that. Everyone comfortable. OK, good. So thinking about the last election you participated in, what are the reasons you voted in that election.
woman’s voice: To not get Trump elected.
woman’s voice: That’s exactly why I voted.
Jon Favreau: And what, what drove you to vote in ’18 for those who voted in 2018?
man’s voice: It was how everybody got swept into 2016 and was supposed to be a Democratic landslide. And it completely was the opposite.
Jon Favreau: So you did it to vote Democrats into office?
same man: Yes. Yes.
woman: Yeah, me too.
Jon Favreau: I was going to ask, how does politics make you feel right now and why, but I feel like we have uh—how does politics—
man: I hate it.
woman: I’m embarrassed.
Jon Favreau: You’re embarrassed.
same woman: I’m embarrassed in front of the world—
man’s voice: absolutely.
same woman: —because of our politics. And I will say this, you know, a lot of people don’t agree with Trump—I’m not a Trumper—and I find that, you know, other countries are looking at us and we’re losing our integrity. You know, if we can’t, we can’t solidify somehow—
different woman: It’s really, it’s more what he says.
man’s voice: He’s just dumb as a box of rocks. Say’s he represents the government? I don’t have respect for him so I can’t have much respect for the government.
woman: Because he has lost respect for the electorate.
different woman: I was just going to say I’m embarrassed—I guess for how the leadership is conducting themselves, because for so long we teach children or youth, growing up: oh, you behave this way, you do this, you go to work. And it’s just like a formula to how are you supposed to behave. So to see the president having like Twitter wars, or to be bullying on social media when he doesn’t agree, how he attacks people, how he make people feel—just, I don’t think it is right. And I’m embarrassed for that, you know, as the people that it has come to that.
Jon Favreau: So, yeah, not a lot of love for Donald Trump in this group, with one exception.
Jon Favreau: So show of hands, how many people believe they’ll vote in the 2020 election? Everyone here, OK? Is anyone considering voting for Donald Trump?
woman’s voice: I am.
Jon Favreau: You are a definite or—?
woman: No, I am not. So I like I said earlier—
man’s voice: What if the stock market crashes?
same woman: I know I am probably the complete opposite of everyone in this room.
Jon Favreau: OK. That’s fine.
same woman: I did vote for Donald Trump.
woman 2: That’s OK, that’s your choice.
same woman: I will at this point say, I’m not sure it was the right decision, but I’m going to say it.
woman 2: You don’t have to justify your decision.
same woman: No, I know, but I think a lot of it was, a lot of people felt that way, because the truth of the matter is, I’m embarrassed for the Democratic Party. I’m a Democrat. So I want everyone to know that. I affiliate with Democrats. I vote in the Democratic primaries for women. Women’s rights and gay rights is a huge thing right now. I’m not having kids and I’m not trying to have an abortion or something, but that’s a woman’s right to do that. And that’s how I’ve always felt. But, you know, as we’ve seen this past year in general, you know, one of the, I guess I’ll say, better things that Trump has done is the economy. The economy’s been great. If anyone has investments in the stock market, you’re probably seeing a huge uptick in how much money you have, versus years past because, you know, when other presidents were in office, I was losing money in the stock market, now making 15%.
Jon Favreau: No one else had anything good to say about Trump, but they also didn’t think too highly of Democrats, the media or politics in general.
woman: The thing with politics and government that bothers me is when these people are making laws and decisions that affect so many people, I don’t think they, they think about the gravity of how it’s going to affect people’s lives. I think they make decisions callously and recklessly. And don’t think about the effect that it’s going to have on the general population.
man: Well, it’s, it’s, it’s politics is all about, you know, like they do things to appeal to other people in politics so that they can get things—all about waging leverage. It’s not really about what you want, what you need.
woman: And it’s all about getting votes. It’s not about, it’s never been about, the people—
man: They could care less what happens to the people.
woman: —the people that are affected.
different woman: We can’t unify and get things together—everybody’s quarreling. They’re in quarreling at the top, all the people—people end friendships: oh you like Trump, you’re not my friend anymore. You know, right?
man: I mean, I’m to the point now where I feel like politics just annoys the hell out of me, where I kind of have to detach from it in order to live a normal life because there’s so much, it’s so diluted, it’s masked, it’s so—ultimately I’m only getting half the story. And I’m, yes, I, my one vote counts, but it’s like, how much does it count?
Jon Favreau: What sources do you trust the most in the media?
woman: I mean, the reason why the news and the media exist is because it was supposed to form a well-informed electorate, and that was for people to learn about the issues, learn about the people that you are going to vote into the office of whatever your local, your national, races, and make that decision based on the information that you’re provided. I don’t believe we are always provided with the best information. I don’t believe that we are always provided with nonbiased information.
man: I feel like we get the information they want us to have.
same woman: Right. I, and I’m a huge fan of overseas news. I would rather get my news from other countries then about our politics and what is going on—in the world, not just here, in the world—then CNN or FOX or MSNBC or NBC or . . . right.
Jon Favreau: Do you think you think Facebook is reliable?
man: To some extent.
different man: I don’t know anymore.
Jon Favreau: No one knows anymore. [laughter] What is your opinion of the Democratic Party?
man: It’s too many.
different man: Yeah, you can’t focus yet.
woman: Yeah, there’s no focus on that at all because they’re just throwing everybody in the ring.
Jon Favreau: Well, aside from the candidates, which we can talk about, what about the party as a whole, the Democratic Party as a whole?
woman: They’re fragmented.
different woman: they’re disjointed.
Jon Favreau: Fragmented, disjointed. Interesting.
woman: I think they stand for the important issues, what I consider the important issues.
Jon Favreau: And what and what issues are they—what do you see yourself most in line with the Democratic Party now?
woman: Uh, health care. I really think universal health care is important. I would like to see some form of education reform. I would love to see lobbying just completely done away with.
Jon Favreau: Anyone else. When you vote for Democrats, what makes you vote for them?
woman: I tend to think that they are more, they’re more for the people than—I’ll put it, the common people, the people that are working people, that aren’t rich. The people that don’t own businesses. Whereas the Republican Party just seems to always be concerned about the wealthy. You know, that—.
man: and big business.
Jon Favreau: So, and then who here is definitely going to vote for the Democratic candidate, whoever the Democratic candidate is?
woman: Oh, I couldn’t say.
Jon Favreau: Got one, two . . .
man: I have to my research first.
Jon Favreau: Even though only one person said she was considering voting for Trump, no one would commit to voting for the Democratic candidate no matter who wins the nomination.
Jon Favreau: Who here would vote for Barack Obama again if he was running again?
woman: I probably would.
Jon Favreau: So that almost everyone except—
woman: No I would not.
Jon Favreau: OK, that’s good. Just trying to get all these down.
woman; Is there a chance of that?
Jon Favreau: No. [laughter] There’s not a chance for that.
Jon Favreau: What’s most important to you? Like, if you could build a dream Democratic candidate, what kind of qualities would you be looking for?
man: I can’t question them being racist or not.
different man: Yeah, I was just going to say that. Yeah, just—
Jon Favreau: Integrity is important.
woman: I would like a focused campaign.
Jon Favreau: Focused campaign.
same woman: Not a empty promise campaign, not a I have 150 things on my list I want to do for you. How about you focus on five important issues and you tell me how you’re going to achieve them? Because to me that’s, I think, something that every single one of our presidential candidates has done wrong in the past.
woman: So I would vote for whoever ran a decent campaign. I am so tired of listening to people badmouth each other and it just really seems like that’s all they do. And I’m not just talking about Democrats. I’m talking about politicians across the board.
different woman: I don’t understand politics as a whole, my 30 years of being out of high school, my focus was on raising my son, who’s autistic. But I know, I have no understanding. What they need to do is have an understanding class with those who don’t understand what they can get a better election going on, because I would love to be into politics just to see what’s [unclear]. But seeing it now, I want no parts of it. I don’t understand it. I just turn it off and do something else.
Jon Favreau: That last comment stayed with me after the conversation was over. It’s not that she doesn’t care about politics or government, she just doesn’t understand the issues, or the debate around the issues. And that’s pretty common with a lot of voters who are too busy working and raising kids to follow politics, or figure out what news source they can trust. There was plenty of frustration and disappointment with Trump in that Pennsylvania focus group. But in order to win their support, Democrats need to somehow break through all the noise and nastiness and corruption that these voters see coming out of Washington. It’s also true that the more Democrats can tie Trump and Republican politicians to the mess in D.C., the better chance they’ll have to present an alternative vision of politics. According to David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, Democrats have such an opportunity in the Maine Senate race, where longtime Republican incumbent Susan Collins is up in 2020.
David Plouffe: You know, I think Collins obviously is someone who’s been immensely popular, people didn’t see her as a politician. She’s lost all that. And so I think there’s a decent chance to beat her. I think it will require, you know, the Democratic candidate for Senate holding on to basically all the vote our Democratic presidential candidate gets in Portland and the suburbs in the southern part of the state. You know, I think she’s a super tempting target.
Lisa Roberts: There is no path to a Democratic majority in the Senate that doesn’t run through Maine. Full stop.
Jon Favreau: That’s Lisa Roberts, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party. And she’s got a lot to say about this.
Lisa Roberts: Susan Collins was first elected in 1996. In 2014, she won with nearly 70% of the statewide vote, and that means that a large number of Democrats voted for her. In fact, if you went out and polled Democrats, you’d probably find a large number of them who voted for her, not just once, but twice or multiple times. But who she was then is not who she is now. And that is why it matters so much. You know, she has a track record, especially since 2016, of saying one thing and doing another. She has told us for decades that she is pro-choice, yet she voted for Brett Kavanaugh, and she’s helped Donald Trump appoint 32 anti-abortion judges. Roughly half of Mainers have a preexisting condition, and that means that she would have left all of us out on the street when she voted to gut the ACA, which she has voted to do almost a dozen times.
Jon Favreau: Mainers won’t select a Democratic candidate to face Collins until their primary in June. But Lisa and the Maine Democrats are already building off their 2018 successes, like electing Maine’s first woman governor, Janet Mills, electing Jared Golden in Maine’s historically red 2nd Congressional District, and taking control of the state legislature.
Lisa Roberts: We’d not only need to replicate what we did well in 2018, but we have to do it on steroids in 2020. And so what we’ve done coming out of 2018 is we’ve recognized that we need to—like I said earlier, meet people where they’re at—not only with the issues that we care about, but with our actual organizing program. And so we’ve actually invested quite heavily in our digital infrastructure and developing a distributed organizing model. And so what this really does is it allows us to bring our trainings directly into the living rooms and the homes of Democrats across the state, especially in our rural areas where we can’t realistically plan to put organizers on the ground. And this is going to allow us to prepare people to go neighbor-to-neighbor, block-by-block, throughout their community and talk to the people that they already know and have existing relationships with about these issues. And so we are not only deploying a traditional field strategy, we’re using new tactics and new tools. And we’re trying to bridge the geographic divide because it’s so important that we be on the ground early and we are talking to voters to determine what’s going to be the most effective messaging strategy.
Jon Favreau: Organize early, organize everywhere and talk to everyone. Not just a few weeks before an election about a specific candidate, but all year round about the issues people care about. That’s the way to break through all the distrust and disappointment we heard in that Pennsylvania focus group. That’s what Lisa Roberts and the Maine Democrats are doing, and that’s what Angela Aldus and Voice of Westmoreland are doing too.
Angela Aldous: Our strategy is about, you know, building long-term, sustainable political power. And that is hard work. It’s not sexy. You don’t just swoop in and swoop out. You don’t build long term sustainable political power with expensive TV ad buy. You do it by being there month in and month out. And so it is November, middle of November in an odd year, and this weekend we are going out and canvasing in Latrobe.
man: OK, what’s your next number?
woman: Alright, so 205 and 209.
Angela Aldous: Latrobe is home to the Latrobe Militia, which they sent a militia to Charlottesville, proudly. And Latrobe is home to the Trump house. Some people call it the Trump shrine. It’s a two-story house painted in red, white and blue with a cut out of Trump is, I think it’s like as tall as the house. And people, like thousands and thousands of people have gone to take pictures by it. But just because those things are present there doesn’t mean that there aren’t conversations to be had.
Amanda: Hi, my name is Amanda. I’m with, I’m a volunteer. I’m with Voice of Westmoreland. It’s just a grassroots group that’s trying to get people in Harrisburg and Washington to listen to people in this area. Basically, we want to know if you had like 30 seconds today to hear about a petition we’re trying to get signed.
Angela Aldous: It’s amazing how much people will open up if you don’t lead with, you know: hi, I’m a Democrat, you need to vote for Democrats, Democrats are always going to be great for you, and this is a Democrat, and why aren’t you a Democrat? Like, if you don’t do any of that, if you just say, like, who you are and you’re a volunteer and you’re out there because you’re scared and it really matters to you, it matters to your family and you’re little bit vulnerable, it’s really interesting that people will talk to you in a different way. Like we really mean it when we say, like, surprise them with your humanity. Like show them that you’re not the scary person that Fox News tells them that you are.
Jon Favreau: It’s funny, Barack Obama used to say that meeting people in person at town halls and campaign events was the most effective way of proving that he wasn’t the caricature they saw on Fox News. As Angela has also discovered, these in-person conversations are what helped voters understand that a lot of us want the same things in a leader, even if we don’t agree on everything.
Angela Aldous: I think in Westmoreland, I think people want to know that their politicians aren’t being bought out. I think it would be nice to have a president who was working for the people. You know, they pretend to give us tax cuts and really we’re only doing worse. We’re all like one accident away from medical bankruptcy. Like, I think people want a president who actually is their champion. They want a president who actually knows that the system is not working for them, and that the powerful few are getting so powerful. I think that’s what everybody wants. And if we can just talk about it in the right way and message it in the right way, hopefully that’s what we can get.
Jon Favreau: Like all of us, Angela has her concerns about 2020, but instead of letting those concerns consume her, she’s using them as fuel.
Angela Aldous: I think everybody should be scared. And then everybody should realize you need to be tapped into that fear and you need to let yourself think about what could happen if we don’t prevent Trump winning again and the Republicans having control again. But then you can’t just stay in that fear. You have to find a way to do something. Especially those of us who, like, have privilege, like, yeah, I have MS and that’s really hard, but I have so many things that, like, I’m still able to walk right now. Like any privilege that you have, you have to, like, work up the courage to fight for people who don’t have as much as you. Trump didn’t happen overnight. This happened over time and I think it’s because white people let it happen. They were comfortable enough that they didn’t stop anything. And now the one good thing about Trump is people are paying attention a little more, and I really hope that they’re not just paying attention by hearing memes and once a year going to a women’s march and, you know, watching Stephen Colbert be brilliantly funny and witty and snarky. Like, I hope they’re not just paying attention to that, but they’re paying attention to the fact of how much opportunity they have to do something.
Jon Favreau: We found people with Angela’s grit all over the country. Like a public school teacher in suburban Phoenix who’s running for state Senate in a district that Democrats lost by under 300 votes in 2018. So we’re headed to the Southwest to look at how the suburbs are changing, and find out whether those shifts will be enough for Democrats to win in the Sun Belt. That’s next time on The Wilderness.
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, Sidney 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 Shayna 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.