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January 27, 2020
The Wilderness
Chapter 5: The Midwest

In This Episode

How can Democrats beat Trump’s divisive politics? We spend time with Obama-Trump voters in Milwaukee, and sit down with political leaders and strategists who know how to win in the Midwest.

Jon Favreau conducts a focus group in Milwaukee with Obama-Trump voters.

 

Transcript

 

JaNae’ Bates: All right, so first we’re going to talk about race, a thing that all Minnesotans love to talk about, right? So that’s, right, and that’s the issue, that’s what happened.

 

Jon Favreau: JaNae’ Bates is a strategist with the group Faith in Minnesota. She’s speaking to a group of Democratic politicians and organizers, leading them in a training session for a messaging campaign called Greater Than Fear, which we’re going to spend a good deal of time talking about later in this episode. The training is taking place in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a city with a high population of Somali refugees, which is one of the reasons JaNae’ starts off her session talking about something called ‘dog whistle politics’, the use of coded racial appeals to stoke present.

 

JaNae’ Bates: Now, has anybody seen any or heard any of their own little version of dog whistle politics, either in your work or at school? Or just, anyone want to give an example?

 

man: I think a lot of times when, you know, like when people complain about all those lazy people on welfare, you know, welfare queens and stuff like that is, you know, there’s a stereotype. There is dog whistle through that. And it’s, it’s to decrease support for collective action and government and programs that help people and lift people up.

 

JaNae’ Bates: That’s absolutely right. Absolutely right. Anybody else? Yes.

 

woman: Just term ‘those people.’

 

JaNae’ Bates: So we know when we hear it. We know when we hear it. Unfortunately, everybody doesn’t, or at least they viscerally react to it, but they don’t recognize that this is the point of it. It is to get us to distrust one another. It is to get us to think: oh, it’s that person is against me and there’s only so much and we have to fight over it, I need to be the winner. Right? And the whole purpose is so that we don’t have a collective ‘we’.

 

Jon Favreau: Dog whistle politics: us versus them. This is the moment we live in. A moment we’ve arrived at due in large part to the fear and division that Donald Trump and the Republican Party have been stoking for decades. Thankfully, Jenae’ and Minnesota’s Greater Than Fear campaign have been fighting this cynical strategy through a message of multiracial economic populism. We’ll get into exactly what that means later, but for now, you should know that in 2018, Greater Than Fear was a wildly successful effort, that bridged racial and economic divides to help Democrats win all over Minnesota. We’re lucky that this work is still being done here because Trump only lost Minnesota by 1.5 Points in 2016, and it’s one of the few blue states he’ll be trying hard to flip in 2020. He also knows that if he can replicate his narrow wins in Wisconsin and Michigan, he’ll be difficult to beat.

 

[clips of President Trump] Merry Christmas, Michigan. Thank you . . . Unbelievable. Thank you. Hello, Green Bay. Thank you. . . Thank you very much. Thank you, Minnesota. This is a great state. We are going to win this state in a very short period. Thank you. . .  There’s no place I’d rather be than right here in America’s heartland. [echoes]

 

Jon Favreau: It’s tough to come up with a path to 270 that doesn’t run through the Midwest. For a long time, this region was a Democratic stronghold, but its voters have been moving away from the party in recent years for a variety of reasons, some of which we’ve talked about in previous episodes. A lack of good job opportunities have led a lot of young people to move out, leaving these states even older, whiter and less educated than they already were. And unlike some other states, their metro areas aren’t big enough to offset the crushing Republican margins in small towns and rural communities, especially when turnout among young people and people of color is down, like it was in 2016. But just because the Midwest has become tougher for Democrats doesn’t mean it’s out of reach. Just look what happened here in 2018.

 

[news clip] Wisconsin voters. You’ve elected a Democrat as governor.

 

[news clip] The race was almost too close to call. But overnight, Democrat Tony Evers narrowly beat out GOP incumbent Scott Walker . . .

 

[news clip] The Democratic candidate for governor, Gretchen Whitmer is Michigan’s next governor.

 

[news clip] The Democrat, Rashida Tlaib, is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. The other is Ilhan Omar.

 

[news clip] We’re gobsmacked by everything that happened last night. Minnesota House Democrats picked up 18 seats.

 

Jon Favreau: Democrats still lost a few important races in this region. But overall, the party came roaring back from its 2016 performance. And that includes a few candidates who ran on pretty progressive platforms and still won back a significant number of those elusive Obama-Trump voters we hear so much about. So how they do it, and how can Democrats replicate these strategies to take back the Midwest when Trump is on the ballot in 2020? We’ll find out on this episode of The Wilderness.

 

Jon Favreau: You argue that the road to national power does not run through the TV studios of MSNBC—which I love that phrase, and I couldn’t agree more. Where where does it run through?

 

Theda Skocpol: It runs through Wisconsin.

 

Jon Favreau: Yeah, right. [laughs]

 

Theda Skocpol: I mean, really, that’s only a slight exaggeration.

 

Amy Walter: I do still think, though, that if you were able to call up God or a higher person-order in the world, who knew the answer to 2020, and if I could only ask them one question, I would say: well, who won Wisconsin? Because that still to me is going to be, the person who wins Wisconsin is the person that wins.

 

Jon Favreau: Just about all of the political scientists, analysts and strategists I spoke to, including Theda Skocpol and Amy Walter, who you just heard from, said something like this about the importance of Wisconsin in 2020. It makes sense, of the three blue states that Trump flipped in 2016, Wisconsin looks like the toughest for Democrats to win back, mainly because it’s a bit more rural than Michigan or Pennsylvania. In the end, Hillary lost Wisconsin by just under 23,000 votes. But that’s a big difference from the 200,000 votes Obama won by in 2012. So what happened? Well, the explanation you’ve probably heard is that Hillary didn’t even visit the state, which is true. But Russ Feingold, the Democratic Senate candidate in 2016, spent the entire campaign in Wisconsin, a state he had won three times, and he did even worse than Hillary. The truth is Democrats up and down the ballot lost in several Midwestern states for similar reasons: lower turnout in urban communities, increased turnout in rural communities, and lots of Obama voters who cast their ballot for Donald Trump. That’s who I want to talk about here. If you’re rolling your eyes right now, I get it. The pundit class is overly obsessed with Obama-Trump voters and doesn’t focus nearly enough on the millions of Obama voters who stayed home in 2016, voters who are disproportionately young, Black and brown. Basically, the people we talked about in the last episode. But you don’t have to believe the pundits to understand the importance of Obama-Trump voters, you just have to believe in math. In a close election in states like Wisconsin or Michigan or Ohio, winning back just some portion of these voters could decide the entire election. In fact, that’s exactly what Democrats did in 2018. And I wanted to find out how.

 

Jon Favreau: Hello, everyone. I’m John. Thank you all for doing this so much. Thank you for  taking the time.

 

Jon Favreau: For our Midwestern focus group, I took a trip to Milwaukee to talk to a very specific and gettable group of swing voters. People who voted for Obama, voted for Trump, and then voted for Democrats in 2018. I started off by asking the participants how politics makes them feel right now.

 

man: Sad and disenchanted. You know, I looked at the last election and I’m not putting anybody down, but I voted for Trump because he was the lesser of two evils. Neither candidate was a good candidate to me. I think some of them, all of them had good ideas and but just none of them stood for enough of what I believed in, that I was comfortable voting that way. I think that’s about all I’m going to say at this point.

 

woman: I frequently feel like when it comes to the presidential election, I’m never like really gung ho about either one. I don’t know. I can’t tell you I’ve ever felt super confident in my decision that I’ve made and or been super impressed by anyone.

 

Ben Wikler: One of the things that we keep finding is this intense cynicism about politicians.

 

Jon Favreau: That’s Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

 

Ben Wikler: You know, they-will-say-and-do-anything-to-get-elected-and-then-they-forget-all-about-it narrative. And you hear that in a lot of places in Wisconsin. And I think a lot of times folks who swing back and forth, you know, they want to believe but if they start out in a place of profound disbelief.

 

man: I watched a couple of these Democrat nomination debates and I came away knowing less than when I started. You know, I don’t know how that’s possible, but—

 

different man: That’s frustrating. So I’d say frustrated and confused.

 

woman: I think that they just are bashing too much. Start focusing on getting the country in a better situation. Don’t always spend so much time on the TV or whatever you, and the news programs and everything, just bashing, bashing, bashing.

 

Jon Favreau: Who do you think the Democratic Party fights for?

 

woman: The Democratic—Yeah, the Democratic Party.

 

Jon Favreau: The Democratic Party. Let me ask it this way. A lot of you have said that at some point you voted for Democrats. When you have voted for Democratic candidates, what are the reasons that you voted Democratic?

 

man: Change.

 

different man: Openness to different groups of people, openness to everybody, being able to coexist.

 

Jon Favreau: OK.

 

woman: Give them a chance and see what he can do.

 

Jon Favreau: OK. What are the reasons you voted in the midterms, if you voted in the midterms, and what are the reasons you voted for the candidates you did in those races?

 

woman: I wanted a change with our governor.

 

Jon Favreau: You wanted to change?

 

same woman: Yeah, he just, Walker he just didn’t seem like he was doing anything for us.

 

Clare Malone: So those Obama-Trump voters, a lot of them voted for Obama in 2008 because he was new and he was, he was not John McCain.

 

Jon Favreau: Clare Malone, senior political writer at FiveThirtyEight.

 

Clare Malone: He was inspiring. People wanted to vote for the first black president. And then they voted for Trump in 2016 because he was certainly a change maker. Right? I think that there is always a sliver of the vote, or a segment of the vote, that just likes to vote for change.

 

man: I coached Little League in the inner city of Milwaukee, and everybody down there had an Obama shirt or Obama hat. And it’s like, OK, let’s go, let’s go for it. You know.

 

different man: I voted for him because he was not old and white.

 

man: Anything to try to change something, you know.

 

Jon Favreau: I asked these voters which issues they care about, and that’s when I heard some real opportunities for Democrats.

 

man: Well, you know, our health care is just . . .

 

woman: Everything is so expensive, not just health insurance, but the hospitals just charge ridiculous arm and leg—that’s who should get monitored too.

 

man: I got rushed to the hospital about like two months ago, so they thought I was having a stroke. And literally the hospital, it was one mile away from my house. My bill is $1180, for one mile, a one mile trip. Yeah, that’s, that’s just the ambulance charge. And that’s not all the CAT scans and MRIs and all that stuff. But I mean, I’m really with the legalization of marijuana for medical use because I’m on a lot of medications and that one substance can replace all these other substances that—I just, I don’t realize what a state government is like so against it.

 

woman: My main concern, like, really concerned about is gun control and that needs to get under control. Like, I’m scared about sending my kids to school and not seeing them again. Like I don’t want that feeling. That feeling should not be happening.

 

different woman: I don’t know if it’s at the forefront, but the student loan situation is certainly concerning. I’ve been out of school over 20 years and I still have tens of thousands of dollars that I owe, and I’ve been paying it the entire time.

 

Jon Favreau: OK. Other people issues?

 

woman: I’m concern about the retirement, because like with Trump, I’m honest, I voted for Trump too, because of some stuff that he said I agreed on, and it turned out to be all lies. And while he’s focusing more on this money situation about building the wall by Mexico, that he’s taking the money from somewhere, and like I have like 30 some years before retirement, but where is it? What’s going to happen then? Like do I have to work until I’m, like 90 years old. So that’s basically what I’m worried about, is that situation.

 

Jon Favreau: These voters didn’t just sound like Democrats on certain policy issues, most of them were critical of Trump, too. They said they voted for change. But as that last respondent just said, it turned out to be all lies. She wasn’t the only one who was disappointed with the president. We conducted this focus group several weeks before Trump led us to the brink of war with Iran, but already these voters were worried about Trump’s steadiness on the world stage.

 

man: I mean, I voted for him. I’ll be honest, but I’m really concerned about where we’re headed in the next couple of years if he’s still around. I think he’s a laughing stock, around the world. I don’t think he can be held accountable. I think he’s a liar. He backtracks on a lot of things he says, and I just think that he’s, I think he’s burning bridges like with North Korea and things like that. And I don’t even know what’s going on in Ukraine. And you never know when you’re going to need your allies and if he burns those bridges and we don’t have them, then what happens?

 

Jon Favreau: Other opinions of Trump.

 

woman: This is a joke, I just, I can’t believe they let him tweet all the time.

 

Jon Favreau: What about other folks? Has he been a better or worse president than you thought?

 

woman: Worse.

 

other: Worse.

 

Jon Favreau: Does anyone think better? Was anyone pleasantly surprised?

 

man: I’m, I’m in the middle on that one.

 

Jon Favreau: In the middle. OK, Kevin—

 

man: I think, I think he—excuse me, I think he kept a lot of people working. So I think that part is good. I just think his self representation—he’s an ass clown.

 

Jon Favreau: OK.

 

man: Seriously.

 

Jon Favreau: Other opinions of Donald Trump?

 

woman: A joke.

 

Jon Favreau: Joke. Carol.

 

woman: Well, there’s when, when a president says, I’m going to do this or do this, it’s not, you know, there’s so much that’s involved in trying to make something work. And if it doesn’t work in his four years or whatever, doesn’t always just mean that he is all at fault.

 

man: Yeah, but if I’m going to push a rock up a hill, and I say I’m going to push this rock up the hill—

 

woman: And I’m not saying—

 

same man: —and I’m standing at the bottom of the hill four years later and the rock is still sitting next to me,  and I never tried to push it up the hill, when there’s no indication that the rock was ever going to go up the hill to this point? They lied. They’re not pushing the rock up the hill.

 

Senator Tammy Baldwin: One of the things we learned about the Obama Trump voters was just huge frustration with Washington.

 

Jon Favreau: Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin.

 

Senator Tammy Baldwin: A lot of them were looking for change, looking for someone in Trump who was viewed as separate from that mess that they see when they look at Washington, D.C.. So change and certainly in his rhetoric, I think that some folks felt that he got them. Now, it hasn’t proven true. You know, whether that’s people seeing in their pocketbook the cost of life-saving prescription drugs going up and up and they don’t see Congress taking them on; or they watch the tax legislation more recently and say this is a big giveaway to the wealthiest and the most powerful corporations.

 

Jon Favreau: What do you think about the president’s trade policy, the trade war we’re in with China right now?

 

woman: So the company that I work for, we have a lot of international suppliers and everybody is really nervous right now. To the extent of the 60,000 employees that we have, we had to make a global 8% head count reduction because nobody wants to buy, sell, then we don’t have anything to build. So it’s been, you know, and like, if I didn’t work for that organization or in that industry, it might be like: whatever, you know. But now this is, this is a big thing.

 

Jon Favreau: What did you all think about the tax cut that President Trump and the Republicans passed, I guess, two years ago now?

 

man: I don’t feel like I got anything more off my taxes.

 

woman: I don’t think it was noticeable.

 

Jon Favreau: Does anyone feel like they benefited from that tax cut?

 

man: What was the benefit that we were to get?

 

Jon Favreau: I believe it lowered some income tax rates, for some people.

 

man: Like six to eight-figure incomes?

 

Jon Favreau: That, yeah, I think, I think people, people with larger incomes got a bigger tax cut. Yeah.

 

man; You always hear about the rich aren’t paying the taxes that the medium-income or the lower-income are paying.

 

man: Those people are lobbyists.

 

Ben Wikler: There’s one woman I talked to who voted for Trump in ’16, for a green candidate in 2018, and she is voting against Trump this time for sure.

 

Jon Favreau: Again, Ben Wikler.

 

Ben Wikler: And it was a reminder of how complicated people are. They have all these different experiences and you just, if you come with assumptions, you miss the complexity and the richness of it. I think that what we can do through grassroots activism right now, through our organizing, is to make sure that folks are thinking top of mind about the things that they were counting on Trump to do that he has failed to do—the promises that he’s broken. So that they can decide ultimately that a Democrat would be more likely to do this thing that they’re looking for, for someone to change that affects their own lives.

 

Jon Favreau: Ben was a long-time activist with MoveOn.org and moved back home to run for Chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, an election he won in June of 2019. Ben’s a progressive who understands the people and politics of the state where he grew up, and there’s no one I’d rather have overseeing the party’s 2020 strategy in Wisconsin.

 

Ben Wikler: After 2016, we did the deepest possible audit into what had gone wrong. And one of the things that we did wrong was something that we could correct through the Democratic Party. And that thing was organizing. We’ve been organizing on the ground here since the spring of 2017 and we haven’t stopped. Our ground game in 2018—we knocked on something like twice as many doors in 2018 as we did in the presidential year of 2016. And we did it at half the cost because volunteer energy was so intense and we built neighborhood teams, which is the Obama model. Our calculation, there are a lot of things that went right, but one core thing was that people spent time talking to people in their communities about the election. And our estimation is that that was well over the margin of victory that put Governor Evars into the governor’s mansion.

 

Jon Favreau: Governor Tony Evars is the Democrat who finally defeated Scott Walker in 2018. He won by just 29,000 votes. Today, Ben and the Wisconsin Democratic Party are trying to repeat their winning strategy for 2020.

 

Ben Wikler: In the neighborhood team model, the job of an organizer is not to just get volunteers out on the streets, it’s to build local leaders, volunteer leaders. It’s to find people in their communities who want to step up and become organizers themselves, and teach and coach and support them to build their own canvasing operations. Those neighborhood teams then run the canvases, often out of people’s homes, sometimes out of coffee shops. A really strong neighborhood team can do the entire operation. It’s basically running its own field campaign in its own neighborhood. And the messengers that they deploy are people who become very familiar with their their own neighborhoods. So neighborhood teams are organizing in the sense of building power, whether you win or lose that election, you build capacity. And that’s what we’ve lost in 2016. But we’ve been building it back intensively every day ever since.

 

Jon Favreau: Tony Evers wasn’t the only Democrat elected to statewide office in 2018, Senator Tammy Baldwin, who you heard from earlier, was reelected. And she received some help in doing so from a familiar resource: women-led resistance groups.

 

Senator Tammy Baldwin: You know, it was organic. It was bringing up from the grassroots and it was quite remarkable and impressive. And I said: we’ve got to find these folks. My first field organizer, her mission was to go, you know “take me to your leader” for each of the new groups that have popped up. And we didn’t come and say, you know: I’m here from Tammy Baldwin’s campaign, we want you to all join, you know, sign up as volunteers. We said: what are you working on, what motivated you to organize, what issues are you focused on? Let’s team up, because our fight is your fight. And I think that was incredibly effective and brought new people into the organizing fold. And, you know, when you look at the results in ’18 and the counties that I won, counties that Trump won in ’16, that neighbor-to-neighbor engagement made a huge, huge difference.

 

Jon Favreau: Now, as you listen to Senator Baldwin talk about the 17 Trump counties that she won on the way to a massive 11 point victory, you should know that she’s not some moderate centrist Democrat.

 

Sean McElwee: Tammy Baldwin won Wisconsin—

 

Jon Favreau: Shawn McElwee of Data for Progress.

 

Sean McElwee: It’s important to just discuss how definitively she won Wisconsin at a time when we won a governor’s race by less than a point. She won Wisconsin so definitively that you can cut out the entire sort of Madison, Wisconsin County, the entire sort of urban base, and she still wins that state. And she’s been a longtime supporter of single payer. She’s a lesbian. She supports putting workers on the boards of companies, you know, full-on worker ownership of the means of production. But she’s, she’s not, as best I can tell, seen by the people of Wisconsin to be extremely radical.

 

Jon Favreau: Ben Wikler has been taking note of all this, and he offers some strategic wisdom considering the composition of the Wisconsin electorate.

 

Ben Wikler: In 2016, 57% of the Wisconsin electorate was white voters who hadn’t gone to college. And there are hundreds of thousands more who could easily vote in 2020. The key thing for Democrats is not to assume anything about anybody. It’s to talk to everybody. I think we have to have a plan to be able to communicate with every part of the electorate, especially in states where it’s going to come down to potentially tens of thousands or even just a few thousand votes. And I think Democrats forget that at our peril. We can’t choose between mobilization and persuasion. We have to do both and we have to do both in every geography, in every language, in every community if we’re going to have a shot at winning.

 

Jon Favreau: Mobilization and persuasion. We have to do both, everywhere. OK, so what’s the message that excites and inspires all those different demographic groups? We’ll find out what’s actually worked in the Midwest after the break.

 

[ad break]

 

Jon Favreau: As we heard from our Wisconsin focus group, Obama-Trump voters aren’t the one dimensional characters that all those old white guy in a diner pieces make them out to be. It’s true that a lot of them may be a lost cause for Democrats, but the people I sat down with outside of Milwaukee are clearly gettable. They’re disappointed with Trump and tend to agree with Democrats on a host of important issues, even if they don’t have a lot of love for the party itself. The question is, how do we persuade these voters to vote Democrat in 2020, without sacrificing our principles or changing our policies? One candidate who successfully answered this question is Senator Sherrod Brown. He won reelection in Ohio in 2018 by 300,000 votes. In the same year, Ohio’s Democratic candidate for governor, Richard Cordray, lost by 164,000 thousand votes. So what was the difference?

 

Clare Malone: I mean, I always say this, like, politics is kind of pheromonal.

 

Jon Favreau: Claire Malone, senior political writer at FiveThirtyEight.

 

Clare Malone: People just, they like what they like. It’s like dating and love. And Cordray versus Brown—I do think you get different vibes from those guys. And Sherrod Brown has, you know, he has a shtick that works for him. Sherrod Brown speaks Ohio. Right? He speaks trade protectionism and he speaks the language of like the Chevy Cruze. And he you know, he incorporates all that stuff into it.

 

Sherrod Brown: We knew going into 2018, Trump won Ohio by eight points.

 

Jon Favreau: The man himself, Sherrod Brown.

 

Sherrod Brown: We had to get something like one out of six, or one out of seven Trump voters to switch. And you do that understanding—I mean, I’ve had a lifetime F from the NRA, I voted against the Iraq war, I’ve been for marriage equality for 20 years, I’m 100% pro-choice always—and I understand that that means 35 or 40% of Ohioans probably won’t vote for me because of those issues. But I’m okay with that because that’s who I am, and that’s what I want to be, and I always advocate for. But there is a group of voters that that might be more conservative than I am, one on guns or on choice or on marriage equality and gay rights generally, but they’ll listen to a strong economic message. If they think you respect their work, if they think you honor who they are, if they see their kids working in a minimum-wage job and you talk about minimum wage, you talk about the overtime rule, you talk about trade agreements being on their side, they will respond to a strong message about making their lives better. And that’s really what an economic message is. I think you have to be credible. You have to be believable. You have to be authentic. They do think the system works against them. Showing you understand their frustrations and you don’t look down on them. And they think progressives too often, especially East/West Coast progressives, look down on them and, you know, actually talk to them and listen to them and that word gets out that you actually care about human beings.

 

Jon Favreau: Economic populism can be a potent political message, one that clearly worked for Sherrod Brown and a host of other candidates who made it the focus of their campaigns. Clare Malone says that some Democrats think economic populism should pretty much be the only message.

 

Clare Malone: When you talk to Ohio Democratic Party officials, they talk about, you know, people in Ohio just want to live a nice middle-class life and send their kids to Kent State and go to vacation on Hilton Head once a year, and that’s what they want. Right? And they see the national Democrats as talking about the dreaded identity politics. Right? We don’t want to talk about race politics, we want to talk about union jobs and tax cuts and health care. That’s what you hear over and over again, is that Ohio Democrats basically don’t want to alienate white voters by talking too much about what they would call racial grievance. And again, you can disagree with that and you can disagree with the terminology, but that’s what you hear from people—is kind of stick to the kitchen table issues, we don’t really want to talk about, you know, that kind of host of other issues, which make for really interesting fodder on the debate stage.

 

Jon Favreau: Are these party officials right? That avoiding all talk of racial and cultural issues is the way to win the Midwest? Some Democrats aren’t so sure.

 

trainer: All right. So what we’re going to do is break up into groups of two. And I am going to give you a scenario and I want you to respond in a tweet.

 

Jon Favreau: This is the training you heard at the top of the episode. We tagged along on a freezing night in November as Democratic candidates and volunteers in St. Cloud, Minnesota learned how to respond to racially divisive rhetoric from Republicans.

 

trainer: All right. So the scenario is this: A St. Cloud City Council member says “these refugees coming to St. Cloud aren’t willing to work hard like the rest of us.”

 

man: I thought this was hypothetical.

 

[laughter].

 

woman: We didn’t name any names. We didn’t name any names.

 

trainer: Hypothetical, so write a response tweet.

 

Jon Favreau: There’s a strategy behind the framing of these tweets. It’s the strategy laid out by the campaign I mentioned at the top of the episode: Greater Than Fear. And it’s being used all over Minnesota to help organizers frame their conversations with voters, and candidates create their ads. I first heard about Greater Than Fear on another podcast called Brave New Words, hosted by Anat Shenker-Osorio. It’s fantastic. Give it a listen. Anat’s a long communication strategist and one of the people who helped develop Greater Than Fear for the 2018 midterms in Minnesota, where it succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. The campaign was based on research that shows the most effective messaging doesn’t focus only on racial justice or only on economic populism. It combines both. I talked to Anat to learn more.

 

Jon Favreau: So how did you identify a need for a campaign like this in Minnesota specifically? Could you give us the context of the campaign?

 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. So, you know, Minnesota, if you just take a sort of cold, calculated look at Minnesota demographically, there’s really no reason why Minnesota should politically not be Wisconsin or Iowa or North Dakota. Demographically, it’s really not that dissimilar. So you have Minnesota recognizing that in the very, very narrow victory of Hillary Clinton in 2016, that the GOP is gaining ground. And what the GOP is doing to gain ground is what they do in most spots. As we know and as Nixon outlined in his Southern strategy, they are finding some other to blame. And in Minnesota, this is quite easy to do because you have a pretty white state historically, with what feels to the local population to be a new emerging, significantly large—although in numbers it really isn’t—Black Muslim immigrant population of folks who have come over from Somalia. So you have sort of the trifecta of hatred in a community, right? Anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim all-in-one. So what the organizers at the doors were seeing in 2016, is that when they were going to the door and they were trying to break through with kind of your standard democratic economic populist message—you know: better health care, lowering education costs, wages and working conditions—people at the doors were saying: yeah, yeah, that all sounds nice, I definitely want more accessible health care and the rest of what you’re saying, but if my Somali neighbor is going to get it, I’m not that interested. Or: the reason we can’t have health care is because of these immigrants that are coming. And, you know, the magical immigrant who is both taking your job and not working. And so in essence, the reason that we needed to do this campaign in Minnesota is because business-as-usual, colorblind economic populism wasn’t going to cut it.

 

Jon Favreau: Right. So this comes from some studies that have been done, and a study that you’ve done with Demos, and it shows that a ‘race-class’ narrative is more powerful than a ‘class-only’ narrative or an ‘economic-only’ narrative. Can you speak to sort of the key findings of that study?

 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. So that study came about because Ian Haney Lopez, who’s a law professor at Berkeley and wrote Dog Whistle Politics, he was convinced that there was a way to talk about race and class together, and at the same time solve for this kind of conundrum that has befuddled Democrats on the left, which is, you know, are we supposed to be out here trying to persuade and capturing that mythical, all coveted Obama-to-Trump voter? Or are we really supposed to be concentrating on mobilization and a recognition that a progressive base is largely Black and brown folks, and our problem is really turnout? And the answer it turns out to be I’m happy to say, that actually doing one is doing the other. You do not have to pick. And so what the race-class narrative findings really showed us is, number one of all of the messages that we tested on the left, messages that explicitly named race outperformed colorblind messages. When I say outperform, I want to be clear, I don’t just mean with the base, I mean with the moderates, with the middle, with the swing, with 65% of U.S. voters in 2018. Every time we tested a colorblind message that was just purely economic benefits, a message that explicitly named race outperformed it. We also then subsequently tested a racial justice message with a bunch of subsamples of communities of color. The race-class narrative outperformed a pure racial justice message in terms of what we actually needed to do. And what I mean by that is not merely garner agreement. What we actually need more than agreement, is to make the message want people to engage in the behavior.

 

Jon Favreau: So I think everyone, or a lot of people, could understand what a racial justice-only message is people understand what an economic-only message is. Could you give an example of what a race-class narrative sounds like?

 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: Yeah, of course. So it has a ordering, it has an architecture. It begins first and foremost with a shared value that explicitly names race. So that can sound, for example, like: no matter what we look like or where we come from, most of us believe that if you work for a living, you ought to earn a living. Or whether we’re white or Black, LatinX or Asian, most of us try to treat each other the way we want to be treated. So it opens naming race, shared value.

 

[speaker 1 in ad] Our faith teaches us that we must see ourselves in each other.

 

[speaker 2 in ad] And to strive to treat our neighbors as we wish to be treated. This is the Minnesota we believe in.

 

[speaker 1 in ad] A place where people of all shades and of all faiths—

 

[speaker 2 in ad] —aim to build a better future for those two come.

 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: Second step: it names the problem as one of deliberate division in order to aid and abet plutocracy. And this is really where it differs from kind of a standard progressive or democratic message. Instead of just talking about the wealthy few controlling everything, hording resources, it explains the dog whistle. It narrates how they’re doing that. So what that sounds like in language is: but today, a handful of corporations and the politicians they pay for, divide us from each other based on what we look like or where we come from, so we’ll look the other way while they rig the rules in their favor and hoard the spoils.

 

[speaker 1 in ad] Yet there are powerful few who seek to maintain and increase their power by turning us against each other—

 

[speaker 2 in ad] —based on what we look like, where we come from, or how we worship.

 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: And then thirdly, it turns to the theme of unity across race—again, in explicit terms—and as the means by which we overcome this deliberate division, and this sort of complete and total concentration of wealth, control, power and the abrogation of freedom that is attendant in all of that. So in language that sounds: like by coming together across racial differences, we can make this a place where freedom is for everyone, white, Black or brown, no exceptions.

 

[speaker 1 in ad] We will not fall for their distractions. We are greater than the fear they seek to instill in us.

 

[speaker 2 in ad] When we stand up for each other, we can create a Minnesota that works for everyone.

 

[speakers together] Will you vote with us?

 

Jon Favreau: We’re back inside that training, where organizers in St. Cloud are coming up with responses to that hypothetical city councilman who said refugees aren’t willing to work hard like the rest of us.

 

man: I had: we are better than fear, whether Black, brown or white, we all should be provided the opportunity to work for our success. And then #oneminnesota.

 

voice: Nice.

 

trainer: Alright!

 

woman: All right. So we said: sad to see councilman X Somali refugees for the low wages, lack of health care, and underfunded schools we are experiencing as a result of policies enacted by the wealthy few who break the rules. We are Greater Than Fear.

 

voices: Oooooh. Alright. [applause]

 

Jon Favreau: This kind of message was delivered all over Minnesota in 2018 and it worked.

 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: We won five House races. We won both Senate seats because there was a special election. We flipped the Minnesota House, which was a huge achievement. We won the entire executive suite, right? Governor, lieutenant governor, AG. And we had the highest voter turnout in any state of a very high-turnout election.

 

Jon Favreau: Pretty impressive results. And what’s more, it turns out 80% of Minnesotans had heard of Greater Than Fear, thanks largely to the fact that so many different organizations and candidates agreed to be part of the campaign.

 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: For a signal to break through the noise, and this is part of our success in Minnesota, we had the candidates adopt it. Tim Walz, Peggy Flanagan, governor, lieutenant governor, many of the people running for Congress who were successful, many of the House, the Minnesota House, they took up our message. So all God’s critters got a place in the choir, but we have to be singing in harmony.

 

[news clip] Opponents took to the streets of Rochester, and rallied against the president’s policies. They call it the Greater Than Fear rally.

 

[clip of Anat Shenker-Osorio] My friends on the other side of the aisle will tell you there are two Minnesotans. We reject that notion. We believe that there is one Minnesota and our ticket reflects that.

 

[ad] In Minnesota, we’re better off together. Vote Greater Than Fear between now and November 6th.

 

Jon Favreau: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who won Minnesota’s majority-white 5th Congressional District by over 193,000 votes, was part of that choir.

 

Rep. Ilhan Omar: We had Trump and the Republicans coming into Minnesota talking about their politics of hate. And it was really important for us to make sure that we were leading fearlessly, that we were leading with love and compassion, to come together to say, when you say right “refugees aren’t welcome in Minnesota” when you say, you know “we can’t take care of our most vulnerable ones” we’re going to say the opposite. We’re going to say: here in Minnesota, all refugees are welcome, and will be elevated to represent us in Congress; that we are going to lead with the politics of joy; that we’re going to make sure that we are being led by our faith, and of compassion; and that we are going to make sure that we are never allowing fear to deter us because we’re stronger than that.

 

Jon Favreau: Anat and her colleagues are now working to promote the race-class narrative all across the Midwest for 2020. In states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They’re also exploring how to most effectively frame certain issues, like climate change and women’s rights and criminal justice reform. And by the way, this work doesn’t need to be limited to the Midwest. As Anat explains, the 2018 election wins, helped along by messaging using the race-class narrative went beyond Minnesota, demonstrating that a message of multiracial economic populism resonates everywhere.

 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: I mean, so first of all, empirically, yes, it works across places. Even in the South—I get that question a lot, so that’s why I’m answering it that way. And we also know in the last cycle that even though our sort of most creative and concerted campaign was in Minnesota, we use the race-class narrative to incredible wins in Nevada and Colorado and Florida. We did a lot of great things last cycle, in many cases using the race-class narrative to really incredible effect, both mobilization and persuasion.

 

Jon Favreau: The mobilization piece is important. Like we’ve heard throughout this season, any winning strategy must inspire, excite and turn out the Democratic base, especially young people and people of color. And that’s very true in the Midwest.

 

Clare Malone: I think the Democratic Party discounts the numbers of minority voters that live in the Midwest.

 

Jon Favreau: Again, Claire Malone.

 

Clare Malone: I think the shorthand for the Midwest has become like white working class people, and there are certainly many of those. And they are certainly an important electoral bloc to win over. But, you know, there’s a huge minority populations, not just in Cleveland and Detroit, but there are also these mid-sized cities like—Youngstown has a lot of Black people in it. And anecdotally, you hear people say: I don’t really feel spoken to. People come to Youngstown and they want to talk to like the white working class, but also there are other people who live here, right?

 

Jon Favreau: Yes, plenty. It’s an important point that Sherrod Brown spoke about to.

 

Sherrod Brown: Ohio, like much of the industrial Midwest, maybe everywhere in the country, has a bunch of cities that are 30 to 60,000 people. And in each of those communities has a Black community. Each of those, almost all of them, and a fairly sizable one. Each of them has some labor union members—those numbers are declining. But all of them are struggling. And the Republicans take them for granted, and Democrats write them off. They really do get forgotten. And again, they’re just not all old white people. There’s a lot of younger struggling people. There’s a lot of working class people. There’s a lot of people of color. And we’ve got to talk to him.

 

Jon Favreau: These are the challenges, and the opportunities of being a big-tent party. Back at the training, Alexa Horwart, the lead organizer for Faith in Minnesota, takes the time to hammer home this point.

 

Alexa Horwart: It’s almost like our future is a party, and everybody wants an invitation to it. But if you feel like “I’m not going to get an invitation and someone else is” then you’re mad about it. But if we’re like “you all are invited, like all of you, whether white, Black or brown” then Minnesotans are like: yeah, cool, that’s great. So it’s, it is scary how much racial fear and division works. It’s also really exciting how much this other message works.

 

Jon Favreau: A message that invites everyone in, centered on a set of collective solutions to our biggest challenges. That plus the power of multiracial populism as a way to stitch together the Democratic Party’s very diverse and unwieldy coalition. It’s certainly a start. In our next and final episode, we’ll talk about all the other pieces of a winning message, and focus on the most effective ways to actually deliver that message to a distracted, divided electorate in 2020.

 

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 editer. Austin Fisher is our assistant editor and associate producer. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Daniel Ramirez. 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 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.

 

 

The Wilderness