Ditching personality politics for bold policies is how to win working class, rural Maine

Ditching personality politics for bold policies is how to win working class, rural Maine

Is it smarter to avoid taking bold policy positions, or embrace a populist, progressive agenda? Is it smarter to run on one’s personal story and biography, or outline a substantive vision for our future? Many political insiders worry that backing policies like raising the minimum wage and taxing the wealthy to fund public education endanger candidates running in more rural, working class parts of Maine. Thanks to the recent referenda in Maine, however, we can definitively put that idea to the test. By comparing these two bold, populist referenda to Hilary Clinton’s performance, county by county and town by town, we can judge support for economically populist issues relative to Clinton, who—although backing a progressive platform—ran mostly on her temperament and personal qualifications for office.

Through this comparison, we find that not only did Clinton’s strategy fail to win the second congressional district, she did worse than these economic fairness issues in nearly every part of the state—except for some of Maine’s wealthiest towns, mostly in Cumberland County.

In other words, the Democratic Party’s dilemma is not just about appealing to large numbers of working class voters; it’s about whether or not the party is willing to stop its preoccupation with courting an extremely small base of wealthy voters who have less attachment to some of its core policy positions in some of Maine’s bluest communities. Below, I outline the data, county by county, town by town, that makes this clear—and the straightforward strategic lessons that there are no excuse for ignoring in 2018. I also outline the history of why Democrats have such a hard time running on their policy vision, and why it ends up making them far more susceptible to the dangers of racism and sexism that Trump illuminated.
Shifting to a politics of substantive vision, exactly what some Democrats inexplicably fear, is the best way to win rural, working class voters.

Two methodological notes before diving in: First, I’ll leave it to others to examine Clinton’s performance relative to the background checks, marijuana, and ranked choice voting referenda—which I’m sure will have fascinating results. They aren’t included in this analysis simply because they don’t address the question of economic populism the way the Stand Up for Students (SUFS) and minimum wage referenda do. Second, SUFS and minimum wage represent an interesting upper and lower bound of the strength of progressive economic populism, and I think give a realistic guide to the opportunities and challenges of a more populist, issue-based approach.

In many ways, raising the minimum wage showcases the greatest opportunities of this strategy: a near universally-understood issue (where essentially the entire text of the law was in the ballot question), the background of a strong national narrative (the Fight for Fifteen) and lighter opposition. SUFS, also successful, represents what happens when economic populism faces tougher sledding: a more challenging policy to understand, far less of a national narrative to which to attach and significant opposition on television (perhaps because these other features made it more open to attack). Both faced the same electorate, animated in the same way by the Republican presidential candidate’s politics of racial and gender division.

For most of the two years these ballot measures were in play, they tracked similarly in the polls, until an opposition hit SUFS with significant television buys in the fall. Thus, as we’ll see more below, we have good reason to assume that there was broad overlap in terms of the kind of voters these measures attracted. Even if the minimum wage won with a larger margin, people seemed to be thinking about them similarly, despite the stiffer headwinds that SUFS faced. In other words, looking at these referenda in combination is a useful way to compare Clinton’s campaign with issue-based, economic populism, at differing levels of challenge, county by county, town by town.

Finally, the stakes are high. Not only must Democratic candidates decide which coalition to build in 2018, but in this legislative session they must protect the economically populist referenda passed by the voters. Governor LePage and his Republican allies are way off their typical anti-immigrant scapegoating message, are fighting on good turf for progressives, and have become obsessed with attacking a vision that has garnered far more votes than any of them ever received. The Governor’s proposed budget essentially repeals SUFS by granting enormous tax breaks to the rich and more than a dozen Republicans put in bills to cut the minimum wage.

The election results show, however, that defying the will of the people, ignoring the priorities of potentially progressive-leaning voters in rural areas, and catering more instead to the priorities of wealthier suburbs in southern and coastal Maine, would be the first indication that some in the Democratic Party learned exactly the wrong lessons from November.

The election results clearly show that Democrats must unapologetically stand with working class people, even if it upsets a few of their wealthier, business-owning friends in blue Cumberland County or in wealthy communities along the coast, if the party has any hope of future power.

Populist policy: Much more popular

As has been explored in detail elsewhere, more people voted on these referenda than the presidential election, and more people voted “yes” on the referenda than voted for Clinton. About 748,000 Mainers cast ballots in the presidential contest, with nine thousand more voting on the ballot measures.

This simple fact is shocking. Practitioners of ballot measure campaigns study how to minimize the number of people who do the opposite: vote the top of the ticket and not the bottom. There’s even a name for it, “roll off.” I’m not aware of any other state this year (or, I suppose, ever) where opposite occurred: “roll on.” About 1-2% more people across the state voted for the ballot measures than voted in the presidential. In no county did people do the opposite (cast more ballots for president than the referenda). That a historically large number of people were more excited by issues than candidates fielded for president this year certainly argues for progressives to run on policies like these.
Furthermore, these referenda not only had more voters overall, they earned more “yes” votes than the Democratic nominee for president. Clinton earned about 357,735 votes, while 383,428 voted “yes” for SUFS and 420,892 voted for increasing the minimum wage.
Had more people thought about Clinton the way they thought about progressive economic issues, it’s reasonable to believe there were tens of thousands more votes Clinton could have received. Most of the post-election coverage hinted at this possibility, but looking more closely at the local level indicates exactly where those votes might have come from—and that doing so may have cost her (a smaller amount of) support elsewhere.

The table to the right which shows the campaigns’ margins of victory (or defeat) begins to provide some answers. As one can see, the minimum wage referendum won all but three counties in Maine, far better than Clinton, particularly in the second congressional district. Clinton won seven counties in Maine, the same as SUFS, but the tax and education referendum did far better in places where Clinton lost—flipping Aroostook and Oxford County and fighting Androscoggin to a draw. Most notably, Aroostook had a seven thousand-vote swing between Clinton and SUFS (and eight thousand for minimum wage). Remember, Clinton’s margin of victory for the whole state was just twenty thousand votes.

There was only place that Clinton out-performed both referenda: Cumberland County. She won Cumberland by a margin of victory of 45,000 votes, 7,000 more than minimum wage and 27,000 more than SUFS. It also provided her margin in the statewide election, as she lost the rest of Maine by 25,000 votes.

The split between the two Maine’s isn’t just first CD versus second, it’s Cumberland County versus everywhere else.

The scatter plot below illustrates this well. The red square at the upper-right hand corner represents Clinton’s margin of victory in Cumberland County. All her other dots represent bumping along, winning a little here, losing sometimes quite a bit there. For minimum wage, York county also jumps out, accounting for a little more than a quarter of the overall margin for victory, in line with York County’s large population overall, but notably better than Clinton. It’s another reason why Clinton’s success is not just a story about “southern Maine.” Whatever her appeal in Cumberland County, it did not drive similarly large margins of victory in York. SUFS found a way to do just as well in York without having to trade off the rest of the state.

Looking at these margins of victory in percentage terms makes that even more clear. The chart below shows how vastly the referenda out-performed Clinton in the rim counties and in other more northern, inland and conservative parts of the state. It subtracts Clinton’s margin of victory from each referenda’s margin of victory, in percentage terms. For example, Clinton won Cumberland County by 26%, while minimum wage won it by 22%, meaning minimum wage underperformed Clinton by 2%. The overall shape of the chart is clear: the referenda tended to did better than Clinton in more rural counties like Washington and more working-class counties like Androscoggin.

The chart also shows how SUFS performance and minimum wage performance correlate: for the most part, where minimum wage over-performed so did SUFS, and vice versa. The correlation is weaker on the coast: Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, and Sagadahoc counties.

To get a better handle on how different Cumberland County is from the rest of the state (and to a lesser extent, York), the chart below shows  the discrepancy between how Cumberland County (and to a lesser extent, York) behaved for minimum wage versus SUFS. The horizontal axis is how many more votes minimum wage got than Clinton, by county. The vertical axis is how many more votes SUFS got than Clinton, by county. As you can see, for all but Cumberland and York counties, where minimum wage got more votes than Clinton, SUFS got more as well, in almost the exact same proportion. The dots form a remarkably straight line. The only two counties that break this strong pattern are Cumberland and York. In York County, SUFS still does better than Clinton, just like minimum wage, but a little bit less than one would expect, given the very high degree to which minimum wage outperformed Clinton. That’s why York is the dot on the far right, just a little bit lower than the trajectory of the other dots.

Cumberland County, however, stands out the most. It’s the dot on the very bottom left. As it’s home to some of Maine’s bluest communities, like Portland, one might think that both referenda would have dramatically outperformed Clinton, but that wasn’t the case. The minimum wage increase won slightly more votes than Clinton, and SUFS fewer. To understand why, we need to look at Cumberland County by town.


Clinton’s trade: Wealthy communities vs. statewide support

You don’t need to be a statistician to quickly see the answer, just apply some basic Maine geography and demography to the chart below. It sorts towns in Cumberland County in descending order by where SUFS most underperformed relative to Clinton. Maine’s wealthiest (and, interestingly, bluest) communities are right at the top. In working-class communities like Westbrook, the gap is basically gone. In smaller, more rural communities, like Naples and Casco, the trend reverses completely, with those towns performing much like the rest of the state.

Below you can also see those towns in the same order for minimum wage. The overall shape is basically the same: in wealthy communities, the minimum wage referendum underperformed Clinton; in less wealthy places it outpaced the Democratic candidate.

While both minimum wage and SUFS underperformed Clinton in these wealthy communities, however, these defections hurt SUFS far more, explaining why Cumberland County is the most significant outlier in the chart above.

One can see a similar patter in York County, where Clinton overperformed SUFS in a far smaller number of wealthy communities like Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, but the minimum wage still outperformed Clinton in every York County town. Looking at the list of York County towns quickly reveals why: York County, though southern and coastal, has many working class communities, giving it a fundamentally different flavor that Cumberland County. There’s a grit to Biddeford and Sanford that much more closely resembles places like Bucksport. By contrast, there’s a sheen to Kennebunkport that makes it a lot more similar to Bar Harbor and similar Hancock County towns.

The center of gravity, even for York County, is clearly on the working class side. Thus, Clinton’s strategy targeted not southern Maine as a whole, but rather resulted in running up large margins in wealthier, Cumberland County (mostly suburban) towns, with voters who sometimes don’t agree with core policies of the Democratic agenda (that Clinton herself supported), like raising the minimum wage and increasing taxes on the wealthy.

The data leads us to a series of questions: Why would people vote for Clinton when she supports policies they oppose? Why pursue a strategy that rests on driving up such large margins in a few wealthy communities? How do race and gender fit into this comparison, especially in an election year that featured such extraordinarily explicit white supremacy and misogyny? What do the differences between the performance of minimum wage and SUFS mean for progressive policy and elections moving forward? What are the implications of legislators encouraged by the Governor to interfere with the victorious ballot measures?

One might read this data and think it’s great that economically populist referenda won, but that candidates, particularly Clinton, who ran against an openly racist opponent, must deal with a much more complex environment. I would argue, however, that the choice to run on temperament, biography, and personality originates in the Democratic Party’s history of accommodating racism and sexism throughout the eighties and nineties. Returning to a strategy of focusing campaigns around policy, not personality, is the only way to reach the voters that Democrats must reach and address the root causes of sexism and racism that make elections and policy-making difficult.

A brief history of Democratic fears of taking bold public policy stances

We are so used Democrats not running on issues and vision, that it is perhaps useful to remember a time when they did—especially if it helps explain why they have such a hard time doing it today. During the apex of the Democratic New Deal coalition’s power, the 1964 presidential election, where Lyndon Johnson trounced extremist Barry Goldwater, the most famous political ad, perhaps of all time, tackled the most substantive issue of the day: nuclear war.  Although it played on concerns about Goldwater’s temperament (similar to Clinton’s lines about not trusting Trump with the nuclear codes), it made a serious argument against nuclear war. A little girl counts the petals she picks from a flower; suddenly an adult male voice cuts in, counting down to a rocket launch; a nuclear mushroom cloud fills the screen; then comes Johnson’s voice, not with a hawkish appeal to cold war swing voters, but a passionate, moral argument in terms most politicians would be embarrassed to utter: “We must either love each other, or we must die.” It never even mentions Goldwater by name.

To combat this, to begin to push white voters away from the Democrats, Republicans began to employ strategic, coded racism. If there’s a smoking gun that demonstrates the clear intent of Republicans in using coded racism to win elections, it comes during the interview conservative operative Lee Atwater gave in 1981 explaining the strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying “nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites…. “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than, “nigger, nigger.”

Importantly, Atwater recommended attacks on Democrats using coded racism by elevating and racializing certain policy issues, like states rights and taxes. While Ian Haney Lopez in Dog Whistle Politics does a good job unpacking how Democrats eventually responded to this coded racism by embracing it themselves (particularly in the Clinton years), perhaps the more common, though equally problematic strategy, came as Democrats de-centered policy from their campaigns altogether. Thus, after Clinton embraced strategic racism through things like welfare “reform” and the crime bill, we get candidates like John Kerry. No one remembers the policies Kerry ran on; he was simply the alternative to Bush. When Rove famously wanted to attack the strongest part of his campaign, they attacked the claim he was a war hero (his resume), not any of his policy positions. Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination as someone who could tell his racial story in an inspiring way. He beat Clinton, who ran on her resume (not any memorable policies), and Edwards, a southern, white Democrat, whose biography is what made party elites think he had a shot. Bernie Sanders is really the first major candidate since Jesse Jackson who will be remembered for having a bold policy vision.

Meanwhile, Democrats lost more and more working class voters. The New Deal coalition made up of people of color and the white working class was not based on symbolism. Although far from perfect, it was at least based on actual policy gains that amounted to a coherent vision—from the National Labor Relations Act to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That’s why it’s so important for Democrats to re-learn how to run on issues like the minimum wage and taxing the wealthy, especially for reasons of racial and gender justice. When Democrats are forced to talk about policy, they are forced to show their true colors, whether they are committed to making material advances for the working class, for women, for people of color—or just interested in symbolic politics that never amounts to real change.

Candidate trainings today routinely teach Democrats to keep policy away from the center of their campaigns, advising them to focus on their life story and qualifications instead. Issues are “too divisive,” they are advised. That thinking, even though race and gender are not specifically evoked, refers directly to the ways in which Democrats embraced strategic racism and sexism in the eighties and nineties, out of fears of losing southern, white voters. It’s time to end this cowardly, immoral legacy. We need to demand a coherent, substantive vision from Democrats when they run and when they are in office.

It may take more than clear statements that Democrats will not roll back wage increases, or support tax breaks for the rich, but it cannot be less.

Protecting the referenda: Maine Democrats’ first test

The first major test Maine’s Democratic Party will face on that front concerns the Governor’s budget and the dozen Republican bills meant to undermine the minimum wage increase. If Democrats roll over on tax cuts for the wealthy, or cut the subminimum wage for tipped workers, they are choosing voters in Cape Elizabeth over voters in Aroostook County, banking their 2018 prospects on winning people over in wealthy, already-blue communities who do not agree with some of their core policy positions. They are choosing to run on the their personality, not their convictions. Not only is that a losing strategy, it was invented for the sole purpose of throwing exactly the voters they most need (women, the white working class, people of color) under the bus.

There are only two options going forward: lose the soul of the party and elections with it; or assert a substantive policy vision, and win a lot more. There’s no guarantee that we’ll always win; but it’s clear the first strategy just doesn’t get the right voters in the right places.

Progressives have been explaining the need for a clear, strong policy vision for a long time. We have been patient. Time is up. Given these kinds of obvious results, we must begin to assume those who cling to a politics of personality are simply working in bad faith. We should relentlessly hold accountable anyone too intimidated by wealthy, coastal faux-Democrats to abandon this theory of change.

Again, there are no guarantees of success. Plenty of candidates who run on bold policy visions may lose. But they will be losing for the right reasons, and contributing to the long term success of those that follow, by shifting public opinion one door and one race at a time. Arguments for public policy build from cycle to cycle. Personalities build nothing.

We have a real opportunity at this moment. People used to complain that candidates all sounded the same, and that no one wanted to talk about important issues. That is no longer true. All the big ideas are on the table now, left, right, and center. Democrats and progressives need to seize this moment to run people for office, and hold accountable those in office. We must support those who decide to put their name on the ballot in order to talk about others, not themselves, and who see this principle as the essence of democracy.

If you aren’t running for office, support someone who is. Hold our legislators accountable for protecting the economic vision enacted by the people of Maine. The Democratic Party simply can’t negotiate away major wage increases or tax breaks for the rich if it is to have any kind of principled future. If they’re not willing to lead, they need to, at the very least, get out of the way of the voters who have already led. It’s time to make politics about real change, a substantive conversation about the future, and policies that matter to Maine people.

Photo of Rumford (where the minimum wage passed by 17 percentage points and Clinton lost by 10) via Flickr/The B’s.

About author

Ben Chin
Ben Chin 8 posts

Ben Chin is the political engagement director for the Maine People's Alliance.


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