Where Should We Fight in 2020

Post by Jennifer Tompkins

The narrow victory in this week’s North Carolina’s special election by Dan Bishop, Republican, made me think back to a recent article by Dan Balz, chief correspondent covering national politics, congress and the presidency for the Washington Post. His piece was entitled  “The 2020 electoral map could be the smallest in years. Here’s why.” 

Balz’s closely argued analysis pointed to how few states will be in play in 2020 for the presidency as political positions harden. At the time, his piece provoked quite a bit of dissent and quibbling from progressive funders and pundits who challenged Balz’s picks of the states that will ultimately hold the key to the presidency. 

I think that what principally provoked disagreement with the article was Balz’s opening statement that the 2020 election could boil down to four states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. 

Matt Singer (one of Airlift’s key advisers) was quick to debunk the idea that it is possible to predict which of a diminishing number of states in play would turn out to be the key ones for winning – or losing – the presidency in 2020. He cautioned that only about 50% of predictions for tipping point states turn out to be correct. And then it’s possible they may tip in an unforeseen way. A prime example he gives is Michigan in 2016:  it was supposed to be a sure thing for Hillary and by ignoring it, she lost it. The same thing, arguably, happened with Wisconsin. 

And now he has North Carolina to add to his “unpredictable” roster, since Bishop’s two percent margin of victory in the 9th District special election was so small. Remember,  this is a district that had voted for Trump by 12 points and that it had not voted Democratic since the 1960s. As a counter trend to the often cited hard divisions between left and right, this race also showed that demographics and opinions are in flux.  The formerly solidly Republican suburbs voted for McCready, Bishop’s Democratic opponent. 

Pod Save America’s hosts John Favreau, John Lovett and Tommy Vietor, all veteran Obama staffers, disagreed with Balz’s “top four” picks as well. Why not include North Carolina? (Why not indeed after this week?)  Or Arizona? Listen to their podcast about 24 minutes in to catch their analysis. 

Tory Gavito, the dynamic Texas-born president of Way to Win, the donor group that funds movement groups in key states, was concerned that progressive donors might be encouraged to narrow their focus, not just in terms of states but also in terms of the importance of down state races.  Way to Win’s strategy – one that Airlift shares – looks beyond the goal of winning the presidency and recognizes the importance of building the base in order to win statehouses and the senate.  It also entails being mindful of the importance of supporting new young candidates who are representative of their communities and of the ultimate purpose of the democratic enterprise, a government of and by the people.

To be fair, Balz also draws attention to eight more states that will be important in 2020: four that the Democratic candidate – whomever she turns out to be (and, no, I simply won’t think about the possibility of it being another white man!) – might win: North Carolina is among them but also, Arizona, Georgia and Arizona; and four that Democrats must defend: New Hampshire, Minnesota, Nevada and New Mexico. There is widespread agreement that these states hold the key to the presidency, if not about their relative importance.

The one state that Balz ignores because it is such a long-shot from the presidential point of view, but that both Way to Win and Airlift are funding, is Texas.  Balz argues that “Democrats will play there only if everything else is moving in their direction.”

That may be true of the parties, but that’s because they spend 75% of their funds -- tens of millions of dollars—on media buys. The reverse is true of progressive funders such as Airlift that focus on the ground game, funding community organizations like MOVE Texas that fights for progressive issues and also defends against voter suppression.      

Nobody predicted that Texas could come as close as it did to electing a Democrat to statewide office in 2018.  By focussing more broadly and investing smartly and asymmetrically, Airlift and its fellow progressive funders are working both to support groups in the key states Balz enumerates as well as working to ensure that Texas joins that group of states sooner rather than later.

Rachel Klein