NDN Blog

Obama’s Expansion Is Finally Paying Off

There’s no debate that the tough economic times of the last decade have helped frame the 2016 elections. In fact, many Americans are so accustomed to seeing the world through their experience of tough times, that it’s hard to recognize when conditions have changed.

Yet, here’s one sign that times are different: American businesses have created almost 9.2 million net new jobs since January 2013, recalling the job creation rates of the 1980s and 1990s. More important, our analysis of the latest Census Bureau data shows that over the three year period from 2013 through 2015, the incomes of most American households grew again, and at rates that matched or exceeded the average for the 1980s and 1990s.

Last month, the Census Bureau reported that the aggregate median income for all U.S. households grew 5.2 percent in 2015, the first such increase since 2007. But as regular readers of this blog know, we apply a statistical approach that digs much deeper into the data. This approach allows us to capture the income experience of typical households of various kinds, by tracking their incomes as they age.

To see if and when economic conditions did truly change, we started by tracking the income path of millennial households, headed by people ages 25 to 29 in 2009, from 2009 to 2015. Over those same years, we also tracked the income path of Generation X households, headed by those ages 35 to 39 in 2009; and the income path of late boomer households headed by those ages 45 to 49 in 2009.

This analysis found, as expected, that times were tough for most Americans from 2009 through 2012. For example, the median income of the Gen X households was flat over those years, and the late boomer households absorbed income losses averaging 1.1 percent per year. The only households with rising incomes from 2009 to 2012 were the millennials, and their gains were a fraction of those achieved by households of comparable ages in the 1980s and 1990s. (Table 1, below)

Our analysis also showed that most people’s income paths shifted starting in 2013. Compared to the preceding three years, the income gains by the Gen X households went from zero to 2.9 percent per year; and the late boomer households, whose median income fell 1.1 percent per year from 2009 to 2012, saw gains of 1.4 percent per year from 2013 through 2015. Finally, the median income of the millennial households jumped from 2.7 percent per year to 4.6 percent per year. Also, it’s worth noting that the largest income gains for all three age cohorts came in 2015.

Table 1. Average Annual Household Income Gains by Age Cohort,
As They Aged from 2009 to 2015

This analysis also shows that most Americans, finally, are better off than when President Obama took office. The median income of millennial households, in 2015 dollars, rose from $50,875 in 2009 to $63,010 in 2015, as they aged from 25 to 29 years-old, to 30 to 35. Similarly, the median income of Generation X household who were 35 to 39 in 2009 grew from $66,287 in 2009 to $72,028 in 2015. Even the late boomers who were 45 to 49 in 2009 managed small gains, edging up from $70,706 in 2009 to $71,300 in 2015.

We can also compare this record with other recent presidents, using my analysis published by the Brookings Institution last year. In that report, I tracked the income progress by comparable age cohorts during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — that is, gains in median income by households headed by people ages 25 to 29, 35 to 39, and 45 to 49 in the first year of each of those president’s terms. Since no president should be held responsible for the economy’s performance in his first year in office, we tracked the income gains of each age cohort from year two of each presidency through year one of his successor’s term.

Using this framework, it’s clear that most American households made more income progress under Obama than households of comparable ages under George W. Bush or his father, George H.W. Bush. (See Table 2, below.) Moreover, the income gains of 2013 through 2015, like the job growth of the same years, suggest that the U.S. economy is still capable of producing a robust expansion, at least for a few years. The data show, in Table 2 below, that incomes grew at a faster annual rate over the last three years than they did on average over the eight years of Reagan’s presidency for all three age cohorts, and faster than they did on average over the eight years of Clinton’s presidency for two of the three age cohorts.

Table 2. Average Annual Median Income Gains by Households Headed by People Ages 25 to 29, 35 to 39 and 45 to 49 as They Age through Each Presidency

Of course, it’s not truly a fair comparison politically, since Clinton and Reagan delivered strong income gains over their entire terms, while Obama has done so for only three years. But especially after the meager income progress of the 2002–2007 expansion, the data show that the U.S. economy can still deliver robust income growth for almost everyone.

So, the challenge facing the next president is to sustain this recent income progress, in large part by reversing our recent record of faltering productivity.

This post was originally published on Dr. Shapiro's blog. 

Column: How America Prospers In A Global Age

Friends, the middle class has not been in decline for 40 years, nor have incomes been flat in America for the past 15. Over the past several months we’ve released a series of reports that show that things are far better today than much of what we’ve heard on the campaign trail this year, and that Americans themselves can feel it. In my new Op-Ed in US News (read here, excerpts below), I argue that since a new age of globalization began in 1989, America has seen periods of growth, lower annual deficits, booming stock markets and real income gains for workers – but only when the right policies have been put into place. There is a need for all of us to get closer to this data, find a better way to talk about the US economy and help reframe the economic conversation in the months and years ahead. The profound economic pessimism we’ve heard from many candidates these past two years neither accurately reflects the true experience of the American economy, nor the perception of American workers themselves. This is particularly true for Democrats, 78% of whom said economic conditions were good (in this same poll the # was 28% for Republicans – a 50 point difference). 

For more on this discussion review the Op-Ed below, a series of recent pieces from NDN, and this excellent set of analyses and essays from Dr. Rob Shapiro. 

Key Paragraphs:

"One of the more important questions in this long presidential election asks whether this new age of globalization has worked and is working for everyday Americans. We've heard many charges – decades of middle class decline, years of no income growth and lots and lots of anger at elites. Given how central this discussion has been to 2016, it deserves a closer look."

"Here at home the data suggests a more complicated picture than what we've heard on the campaign trail. While median income is only $3,000 higher today than in 1989, it has not moved on a straight line. As the graph below shows, it fell under President George H.W. Bush, rose steadily under President Bill Clinton, flatlined and then dropped under the second Bush, then declined as a result of the Great Recession and is now steadily rising again under President Barack Obama. By the end of this year incomes are likely to be 10 percent higher than they were at their recent nadir in 2012, and grew more in 2015 than in any single year of the modern era."

"Other economic data from this period follow similar trend lines – the annual deficit grew under both Bushes, and dramatically improved under Clinton and Obama. The unemployment rate rose under both Bushes, and fell during Clinton and Obama. The stock market had a modest rise under the first Bush, fell under the second and had explosive growth under Clinton and Obama. Three million net new jobs were created in the two Bush presidencies. Thirty million were created under Clinton and Obama."

"So a fairer characterization of this new global economic age isn't one of relentless decline; it is one that acknowledges workers have been able to prosper and make gains, but that two recessions – one the second worst in the past century – wiped out many of those gains. Or to put it another way, when the right policies and team were in place, Americans have been able to prosper in this new age. And the opposite has been true as well. So perhaps it isn't globalization or bad trade deals that have caused the struggle of far too many of late, but policies and leaders not capable of navigating a vastly changed economic, demographic, technological and geopolitical landscape."

"Which is why the choice Americans are about to make for their president matters. The last two presidents who argued for aggressive military action abroad and regressive economic policies at home brought us recession, income losses and larger annual deficits. Those who argued for investment at home, an embrace of this new global age and its opportunities and a restrained multilateralism abroad saw long, sustained periods of growth, lower annual deficits and rising incomes. We've tried this four times now since the wall fell, and we have real data to guide us going forward. Americans have prospered and succeeded in this new age, and can do so again – but only if we follow policies that look far more like Hillary Clinton's than Donald Trump's."

More Time, More Answers Please on the Middle East Please in Final Two Debates

The next President faces consequential choices about what to do in the Middle East. Simple solutions have defied American leaders for generations now, and the American people deserve a full and robust discussion of the choices ahead in the final two Presidential debates.

It is particularly important given that it is reasonable to conclude from the remarks of the Donald Trump and Mike Pence in recent weeks that if elected they plan to go to war in both Iraq and Syria without much delay. “Safe zones,” “no fly zones,” striking Russian allied Syrian regime targets, wiping out ISIS can only be done with a dramatic escalation of military involvement in the region requiring ground troops, substantial air power and the holding of territory in foreign countries potentially against the will of regional governments. Whatever words they may be use what they are describing is America going to war not just in Iraq, again, but in Syria too.

Like George W. Bush before them, Trump and Pence offer no plans for the political settlements that will have to achieved to cement in place any military gains that may be made. It is all about war, and nothing about how we achieve a lasting and sustained peace in the region. It is this kind of tactical approach to the region that failed the United States so utterly in the Bush era. The hard fought gains in Iraq Mike Pence described last night weren’t lost due to America not continuing to wage war in Iraq, but due to the Bush Administration’s failure to craft a workable post-war approach to keep the peace. ISIS grew in Iraq from the failure of peace making, not war making. We cannot afford to make these elemental mistakes all over again but this time in two countries, not one.

Given how central these matters have become for America, those managing the final two debates must do a better job at allowing a sustained and intelligent conversation about how we got here, and where we need to go. I am no foreign policy expert, but what I am hearing from Trump and Pence is alarming, and deserves far more in-depth discussion in the days ahead.

A Potentially Decisive Week in the Presidential Election

2016 Overview – Trump’s poor performance in the 1st debate, Clinton’s relatively strong showing, and his terrible week that has followed appear to created what may have become a decisive moment in the 2016 election. It will probably take another week or two to fully understand the impact this week has had, but early polling suggests dramatic movement in the race. Fresh out this morning is a Politico/Morning Consult track that now has Clinton up 6. It was plus one for Trump a week ago. 7 of the 8 polls that included the debate night in their polling have Clinton up 4 points or more, and in the new Huffington Post Pollster track she is now up 5 points, outside the margin of error. Even the Friday Fox News poll had it 49/44, with Clinton winning the debate by 61/21 (mon eve update - 10 of 11 polls have it 4 or more). 

Other data points to a Democratic structural advantage emerging now. Dems lead the Congressional Generic, 45-41. Party favs/unfavs are 44/48 for the Ds, 31/58 for the Rs. Dems lead Party ID by 6, 37/31. Obama’s approval is holding near 2nd term highs, in the low to mid 50s depending on the poll. In the Huff Po data, he is now in positive territory on the economy, and we know from other data, there has been a sharp improvement in how the public sees the economy over the past few months in particular. Trump’s unsteadiness makes it unlikely for him to make gains if there is violent act of some kind before the election, and given how well the economy is doing, there just isn’t going to be a lot he can do to gain meaningful advantage here. If the new tax story starts to eat into his over performing numbers on economic stewardship, you could begin to see movement in the race towards the Democrats that could start to really impact down ballot races.

It is important to remember that Obama won by 7 and 4 points in his two campaigns. The electorate was going to be perhaps 2% points more Democratic this time, given the increase of minorities and Millennials since 2012. So a 4-6 point victory by Clinton was always the a possible outcome of this election assuming the GOP nominee could not break the demographic advantage Democrats have had of late. And we know that hasn’t happened in 2016 – in fact, the Democratic Presidential advantage may have actually increased this year. Trump is campaigning today in Arizona, a state Mitt Romney won by 9, that appears to be a true toss up today (see my recent piece on Dems expanding the map).

If the structure of the race is settling into a 4-6 point Democratic advantage, it will take a few weeks for us to see how/if this impacting the down ballot races, particularly Senate and House. Real Clear Politics has its Senate “no toss ups” map moving from 51/49 R to 50/50 this week – a sign that things have moved there a bit. Clinton’s new intense focus on Millennials and Hispanics, two groups with a lot of newer and thus more episodic voters, could have its biggest impact on close down ballot races who just don’t have the bandwith or expertise to reach these voters.

The Millennial opportunity for Democrats this cycle cannot be overstated. 20m new Millennials have entered the electorate since 2012. If even just half of them vote, and vote 2:1 Democratic (may be conservative), this is an additional 3.5m votes for Democrats. Obama’s margin of victory in 2012 was 5m votes. So this Millennial thing ain’t beanbag, and the Clinton campaign is right to be pouring energy and resources into this opportunity this cycle.

So, yes, lots of caveats - but early indications are this has been a potentially decisive week in the Presidential election. 

Update 10/3 7pm - CBS's new poll has the race going from 42/42 to 45/41 for Clinton; new CNN/ORC has the race going from 45/43 Trump to 47/42 Clinton.  Along with Morning Consult, these are swings of 7, 7 and 4 points.  Game change!

Report: America Is Better Off and Safer Today

You can find the full report in a PDF at the very end of this post.  Below is an excerpt.

The questions of whether we are better off, and safer, are always central to our Presidential elections every four years, and this one is no exception. This report does a deep dive on publicly available data to see if we can answer those questions for this election in 2016.

As you will see from the following summary of the data and the many graphs that follow, our findings suggest Americans are indeed better off today, and safer, than they were when Barack Obama took office in 2009.

We also include portions of very recent polls that confirm that Americans are relatively content with the economic progress that has been made in recent years, and feel that things are getting better. These results are consistent with other recent polls showing President Obama hitting his highest job approval ratings of his second term; and they raise the question of whether this is really a “change election” after all.

This report builds on other recent work by NDN, including our recent economic report, "In A Global Age, Democrats Have Been Far Better for the US Economy, Deficits and Income," Simon's recent column, "On 2016: We Are Better Off Today" and an in-depth analysis, "America Is Better Off and Safer Today". 

The US Is Better Off Today

Unemployment Rate – When President Obama came to office the unemployment rate 7.8%. Today it is 4.9%.

Jobs – During George W. Bush's Presidency, the American economy gained 135,000 jobs a year. Under President Obama it has been more than 1.3m a year.

Incomes – After dramatic increases during the Clinton Presidency, incomes fell under President Bush. Incomes have once again risen under President Obama, and preliminary 2016 data suggest that median income for American families will be the highest in recorded history at the close of 2016.

Uninsured Rate – The rate of those without health insurance has dramatically declined in the Obama years and now stands at the lowest level ever recorded, 8.6%. At least 20 million Americans have gained insurance in recent years.

Annual Deficit – When President Obama came to office the annual deficit was $1.4 trillion. Today it is $616 billion.

Stock Market – When President Obama came to office the Dow was at 7,494. Today it is around 18,000 and is repeatedly reaching record highs.

Americans Are Safer Today

The question of “are we safer” is a bit harder to get at than the question of “are we better off.” We choose to look measures that have been raised by Donald Trump himself this year (often erroneously). We fully acknowledge that there may be other legitimate data sets that could be added to this section to help paint a fuller picture.

Two things stood out in the section: by most measures, the Obama Presidency has experienced the lowest levels of crime and violence ever recorded; the large flows of undocumented immigrants into the US we witnessed during the Bush Presidency has not been replicated in the Obama years, and there are now fewer undocumented/unauthorized immigrants in the US than there were in 2008.

Crime Rate – During the Bush Presidency, the violent crime rate was 476 violent crimes per 100,000 people (average of each year). During Obama's Presidency the violent crime rate has been 387 incidents per 100,000 people.

Americans Killed By Terrorists – During the Bush Presidency, 3006 Americans were killed by terrorists, an average of 376 deaths per year. During the Obama Presidency, 91 Americans have been killed by terrorists, an average of 12 per year.

Police Killed In the Line of Duty – During the Bush Presidency, 437 police officers were killed in the line of duty, an average of 55 per year. During the Obama Presidency, 344 police officers have been killed in the line of duty, an average of 49 per year. The Obama Presidency has seen the fewest police officers killed on duty during any Presidency since records began to be kept in the early 1960s.

Flow of Unauthorized Immigrants into US – During the Bush Presidency, the US gained an average 400,000 net new unauthorized immigrants each year. During the Obama Presidency, the average yearly rate is below zero, as there are fewer unauthorized immigrants in the country today than when President Obama took office.

 

Trump Is Wrong: America Is Better Off and Safer Today

Knowing that Donald Trump will assert that the US is both less safe and less well off after 7 plus years of President Obama, we send along a quick report showing, of course, the opposite.

In the report attached, we found that:

American Is Better Off – the unemployment rate and annual deficits are lower, the stock market is at a record high, and incomes for American are higher today than when Obama came to office.

Americans See Things Getting Better – polling shows that Americans on the whole believe the economy is good and improving, and that trade benefits the nation.

America Is Safer – rates of violent crime, Americans killed by terrorists and the flow of undocumented immigrants into the US are far lower today than they were during the Bush Presidency.

 

On Economic Growth, Hillary Delivers and Trump Pretends

To prepare for tonight’s debate, I decided to think through Donald Trump’s promise to deliver 4% annual economic growth. First off, if this is Trump’s goal, then his program is as much a fraud as his foundation or university. If anything, his proposals would slow our already modest growth. To be sure, no one has a silver bullet to raise the economy’s underlying growth rate. But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless, and Hillary Clinton’s program will almost certainly raise that growth rate.

Four percent growth is not unprecedented. Under JFK and LBJ, the economy grew an average of 5.2% per year; and Bill Clinton produced 3.8 % average growth over eight years, including five years of 4% growth or more. But they were exceptions: Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter each managed 3.4% average annual growth; George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama each achieved 2% annual growth, and George W. Bush eked out just 1.6% annual growth. Moreover, the Federal Reserve forecasts that the U.S. economy will continue to grow an average of 2% annually for the next decade. This forecast and the record under Obama and Bush II all suggest that strong headwinds are hampering America’s economic growth.

By the arithmetic, economic growth measures how much more goods and services the economy has produced in one year, compared to the preceding year. That tells us that two key factors for higher growth are how many more people have jobs producing goods and services, and how productive, on average, everyone is producing those goods and services. By the arithmetic, strong growth rests substantially on increasing the number of people with jobs and the productivity of the entire workforce.

One reason for the disappointing growth of the last 15 years is that the number of net new workers each year slowed sharply. For that, blame the decline in U.S. fertility rates that began 20 years ago, rising rates of retirement by aging baby boomers, the slowdown in immigration sparked by the Great Recession, and steady erosion in the labor participation rate (LPR). All told, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the U.S. workforce is now growing .5% per year, down from 1.25% per year under Bill Clinton.

So, which candidate has proposed anything that would expand the number of Americans working? Both agree on spending more on infrastructure, but that will have modest effects on long-term growth. Beyond that, one striking feature of Trump’s immigration, healthcare and other proposals is their secondary effect of shrinking the number of people working in the U.S. economy.

To begin, Trump’s signature pledge to deport 8 to 11 million immigrants would reduce the workforce directly, for those caught and deported; and indirectly, by forcing millions to take cover outside the mainstream economy. Similarly, his promise to repeal Obamacare would increase the time that millions of Americans have to spend out of work for health reasons.

Nor should anyone believe that his $4.4 trillion to $5.7 trillion in tax cuts will somehow induce more people to work — that particular supply-side hokum is refuted by the rising labor participation rate (LPR) after Bill Clinton raised taxes, and the falling LPR after Bush II cut taxes.

By happy contrast, much of Hillary Clinton’s program would have secondary effects that increase the number of people in the labor force and working. Her path to legalization for immigrants will allow an additional eight million adult immigrants to participate fully and openly across the economy. Her plans to broadly expand access to child care and provide universal pre-K education would enable millions of parents to reenter the workforce or move from part-time to full-time jobs.

Moving along, her pledge to achieve universal healthcare coverage, once fulfilled, will lessen the number of people forced to stay home or even give up their jobs for health reasons. Her commitment to pay equity, once met, will encourage more women to enter the workforce or to increase their hours at work, as should her pledge to expand employment for 53 million American adults with disabilities. Finally, Hillary’s plans for expanding access to higher education will raise the labor participation rate, because that rate tends to rise with education.

The arithmetic of growth also depends on how fast productivity increases – and progress in productivity, which grew 2.8% per year in the later 1990s, has collapsed: From 2011 to 2015, productivity increased just 6% per year; and over the first half of this year, productivity actually fell at a rate of .6% per-year.

Three factors are mainly responsible. First, business investment in equipment and other technologies has slumped. In addition, the gap between the skills many workers have and the skills they need has widened. Finally, it appears that the development and use of new technologies, processes, and ways of organizing and running businesses — in a word, innovation — has slowed.

Here, too, Trump offers nothing. His huge tax cuts would balloon federal deficits, and so raise the cost for business borrowing to invest in new equipment and technologies. Trump also offers nothing to help workers improve their skills, and nothing to stimulate innovation and the broad use of new technologies.

By contrast again, Hillary’s agenda would actively promote progress in productivity. Her plans for tuition-free access to higher education will expand the skills of millions of young people, and her blueprint to reduce budget deficits will ensure that federal borrowing does not raise the cost for business borrowing to invest. Hillary also supports innovation by calling for expanded federal investments in basic R&D and promoting more public-private collaborations to commercialize that R&D. And since innovations often come from young enterprises, her program to expand bank lending for such companies is also well suited to promote innovation.

On economic growth, as on many other issues that will shape America over the next decade, Hillary delivers while Trump blusters.

This post was originally published on Dr. Shapiro's blog. 

Three Questions Donald Trump and Every Republican Should Have to Answer

Debate season starts tonight, and many are writing about the questions they would like to see answered by the candidates. Here are the three I hope to see Donald Trump asked tonight, and put to other Republicans and their surrogates in the days ahead:

1. The Economy. You say things are worse today because of President Obama. Yet the employment rate and annual deficits are way down, the stock market is at record highs, the number of American without health insurance is at the lowest level ever recorded, and even median income is higher today than when Obama took office. Are Americans really worse off today?

2. Safety. You say Americans are less safe today. But compared to President Bush’s Presidency, only hundreds have been killed by terrorists not thousands; only thousands of Americans have been killed and wounded in war compared to tens of thousands; crime rates and the number of police killed in action are far below what we saw in the Bush years; and the net number of unauthorized immigrants coming into the country annually has plummeted from 400,000 a year to zero. What statistics can back up your claim that America isn’t safer today than during the Bush years?

3. Syria. Candidate Trump has blamed President Obama and Secretary for the Syrian civil war. Can you tell us how the war started, and what your plan is to end it? Feel free to discuss the role of Russia and Iran, and the regional sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shi’a, in your response.

So, yes, inferring from these questions I believe America is both better off and safer today.  I am also anxious to hear GOPers continue to blame America for a war started and waged by Assad and his Russian allies, and for how they plan on bringing it to an end.  No more secret plans please. 

Simon on "How to Debate Trump"

Our friends at Democracy Journal asked 18 of their contributors and allies to share their thoughts on the best way for Hillary Clinton to approach Donald Trump in their first debate. It is a thoughful feature, and well worth your time. Here is Simon's submission: 

"Primary job in this first debate is to focus on telling your story. Make your case. Folks have their doubts about Trump, but they need to feel better about you. Smile, have fun, be optimistic and upbeat, talk about how great and good the country is, and how much better it can be.

Some time spent on political reform, how Washington itself will change during your tenure, would be welcome. And when he goes low, you go high. Do everything you can to ignore him, staying relentlessly focused on the people watching at home. He craves attention. Don’t give it to him."

Column: Thoughts on the New Democratic Coalition (esp Hispanics/Millennials)

“Monday Musings” is a new column looking at the 2016 elections published most Mondays. You can find previous editions here.

2016 Overview – Using our regular polling aggregator, Clinton leads this week 46/42. The race is clearly tightening, both across the country and in the 13 battleground states. This of course was to be suspected. Trump had been struggling for months to consolidate the Republican electorate, and is slowly, slowly doing so now. One should expect him to continue to do so until he is regularly polling at 45%. The question begs – can Clinton answer, regain some of the standing she’s lost in recent weeks, and put the race away?

To do so Clinton is now functionally running against three candidates – Trump, Johnson and Stein. Simply, if Clinton performs well at the debates, spends her time, particularly in the 1st debate, making her case, laying out her plans, conveying her optimism and can do spirit, she should be able to pull voters who’ve wandered over to Johnson and Stein. But the campaign would be wise now to start kicking around ways to create more excitement about this race for Democratic voters – inspirational videos, more Michelle Obama and Cory Booker, things that provide a lift and resist the deeply negative environment that I worry is indirectly suppressing our voters. We need more “for” to complement the very well articulated with hundreds of millions of dollars of the “against.” And count me in on the idea of having aging politicians lecturing voters why the vote for a Clinton alternative is “youthful” or a “waste” is itself a waste of time. Time now to focus on making our case. And as I wrote last week, we have a compelling case to make indeed.

On the new Democratic Coalition and turnout – In the last week we’ve seen a stream of stories about how Democratic voters are less enthusiastic about voting than Republicans, and emerging weaknesses with two of the pillars of the muscular new Democratic coalition, Hispanics and Millennials. Whether this is true or not is a bit hard to tell, but that is in some ways the point. Given how important this new electorate is to 2016 and the future of the Democratic Party, there shouldn’t be any confusion about what is going on with these voters at this point in the election cycle.

A decade ago NDN was among a handful of organizations and researchers who pointed out that American politics was in the process of going through a huge demographic transformation, one driven by the explosion of two emergent groups, Hispanics and Millennials. Perhaps more than any other organization in American politics NDN focused on these two groups in particular, capped by the major magazine piece Pete Leyden and I penned for Mother Jones in 2007 (yes prior to Obama winning in 2008). In our piece, and in the hundreds of presentations we’ve done on the subject, we argued that these demographic changes represented a big “opportunity” for Democrats if their politics could adapt to the sensibilities and the far different media consumption habits of these new potential voters. We do not and have never believed demography was destiny. It was an opportunity to be seized, and never guaranteed (Bush showed us this in 2000 and 2004).

In the last few elections we’ve seen the opportunity this emerging electorate offers, and the perils for Democrats in not getting it right. In part by surfing this demographic wave, Barack Obama received 53 and 51 percent of the vote in his two elections, the best showing for Democrats in back to back elections since 1940 and 1944. But at the same time, during this same period of historic success, we had two disastrous midterm elections. In a series of essays (here and here) and a major poll we did in the spring of 2010, NDN warned that these new voters were far less committed to voting in mid-terms and that left unaddressed we could see a very bad election ahead. My own view since 2010 has been simple: as Tip O’Neill said, we cannot expect someone’s vote unless we ask for it, and we just weren’t asking for the votes of this new electorate with the money and strategic intent we were with the rest of the electorate. This was a bit of an “old dogs new tricks problem,” and as Harry Reid says in today’s Washington Post, it is also expensive (and I would add hard, complicated and requiring the reinvention of the traditional 20th century campaign model).

So heading into 2016 it was conventional wisdom that a great deal of the Democratic Party’s success would ride on the ability to get this new Democratic Coalition (it is not Obama’s coalition, and I will leave that for another day) to be actively engaged in the election. This was particularly important, for given the growth of both Hispanics and Millennials, the electorate this year was projected to be about 2 percentage points more favorable to the Democratic nominee. Getting this part right, holding all other things equal, would make success far more likely.

Which was why I became loudly opposed to the Democratic debate schedule when it was first announced last summer. It was in many ways it was the exact opposite of what was required by the Party to address this strategic opportunity/challenge. Nothing was built in to appeal to Millennials, the Hispanic/Spanish part was TBD, and the choice of old school broadcast networks on the weekends was seemingly designed to create as few impressions with all voters as possible. Given the success of the Party and its 26 debates and highly competitive primary in 2008, it was hard to justify a big change in the debate strategy; it was impossible to justify the schedule the DNC committed to last summer. Look at the results: the GOP’s debates were seen by over 100m more people than the Democrats, an impression gap worth literally hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. And we did nothing to address this core strategic challenge that we need to design and learn new ways to reach new audiences that are far more open to hearing from us than them.

The burden of re-inventing the 20th century broadcast model of American politics falls far more heavily on the Democrats, as our coalition is younger and has far more rapidly left the reach of a traditional 30 second spot. The DNC should have used these debates to have experimented with the model, bringing in new partners and models, showcased younger more diverse leaders, etc. Lots of things could have been tried, but instead we relied on media partners from the predigital age (incl PBS!!!!!!!!!!!) of media and few people watched. No Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Snapchat, Twitch, Vice. Our clear message to this emerging electorate who remain episodic voters – our party is not speaking to you. It was one of the greatest mistakes by a major American political party in my lifetime.

Given the fear Democrats should have had about this new coalition not adequately showing up in 2016 literally everything the Party should have done these past two years should have been designed to engage these new audiences in new ways. And that’s why reading these articles – Spanish language ads starting 10 days ago (In May in 2012, March in 2004), the Millennial effort beginning today, no clear evidence of major Hispanic strategy at the DSCC – you just have to sit back and say WTF guys. Given both the promise and very real challenges of engaging the new electorate the only justifiable strategy would have been to spend more money and to have created more impressions (asking for their vote) than ever before.There is no strategic logic for less, particularly when there are as many as 20 million more Millennials and 4m more Hispanics in the electorate than in 2012.

In my mind, the Democratic Party had one truly significant strategic challenge this cycle – to have ensured that we had a tested, true and funded national strategy to ensure this emerging electorate did not underperform again. Sitting where I sit today, it is clear that we are not there yet. Democrats are still likely to win this year but man is it long past time for there to be a big national conversation about how are going to finally once and for all become the party of the digital age and this new electorate that offers us so much promise and opportunity. 

P.S. Simon wrote about these matters extensively in his 2014 post-election memo, "A Wake Up Call For Democrats".

Syndicate content