Electoral Strategy for Progressives

I want to lay out a 5-year plan for those who care about progressive policy making yet realize it will be difficult before the next census. Any electoral plan for the left though, also calls for an economic platform to raise turnout.

Before beginning, there are four facts that should shape anyone’s thinking of the 2016 election. First, the most likely, although not guaranteed, outcome for the presidential race is a Democratic victory. Second, it is all but impossible for Democrats to net the 30 seats needed to take control of the House and will remain true until redistricting reform occurs in roughly 5 key states. Third, Republicans have greater control of state level governments than any time since Reconstruction. Fourth, there is a pressing opportunity for Democrats to wrest back legislative control in many of these states.

With that baseline established, those who care about enacting progressive policies (e.g. promoting universal health care, protecting reproductive rights, supporting workers, ending over incarceration, slowing global warming and everything else that can’t happen without winning elections) are equipped to answer how to engage with the strategically  2016 general election and to build a left of center electorate . In short, progressives should stop thinking of winning elections and start thinking about winning states. For 2016, they should concentrate on 15 states where the balance of power can shift. In the longer term (2017 through 2020), they should push to reform the redistricting process and to close the values gap between voters and non-voters especially in the Mid-West and South.

The 2016 Election:

First, a picture of where control of state government lies today:

Now, highlighted in blue are 11 states where it is possible for Democrats to obtain legislative control from states that were previously divided or Republican controlled. Highlighted in red are 6 states where it is possible to divide control of a currently Republican controlled state.

Some of these states like New York and Washington will be easy lifts, requiring only small shifts in election results, while others like Missouri and Indiana will require winning difficult gubernatorial races. While four of these states (Montana, Missouri, Indiana and West Virginia) have no chance of voting Democratic at the presidential level, they are still competitive at the state level. It is incumbent for progressives to actually compete to shift the balance of power in these 15 states. Keep in mind that this list contains the handful of states that will determine which party controls both the White House and the Senate.

These leaves 4 states with potentially competitive senate races outside these 15 states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Illinois. Thinking about the Senate more fully, the benefit of winning Iowa or Illinois is building a buffer for Democrats in 2018 as neither are likely to influence who will control the federal government come 2017. Regardless of the national environment, it will be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to defeat Senator Grassley of Iowa who has served since 1981. Additionally, Duckworth, the Democratic challenger can likely win without outside help. For these reasons, Iowa and Illinois should not be considered battleground states for the time being.

Ohio and Pennsylvania offer a challenge as they are states that will be pivotal in determining the balance of power at the federal level, but offer no immediate opportunities at the state level. As much as possible though, it’s incumbent to keep the focus on the states where it’s possible to open new paths for policy come 2017.

Long term (2017 to 2020):

The long term problems that progressive and even Democrats face are myriad. Despite Democratic control of the White House, it has become nearly impossible to enact meaningful federal legislation since the 2010 wave that allowed Republicans to gerrymander the House at historical levels. In many states, especially after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was maimed, it has become harder to vote. Both these issues acerbate a much deeper problem: the values gap between voters and non-voters is one of the most daunting problems for those who care about effecting progressive policy. Those who vote  in mid-term years are more conservative than those who vote in Presidential year who are in turn still more conservative than the public at large. Lastly, even if those elected to power were more representative of the general population, the lack of meaningful campaign finance laws in the country, with little doubt, substantively shifts policy towards the interests of the wealthy and elite. However, do not give into defeatism as there are meaningful steps that can and must occur if those even marginally on the left want a chance to effect policy before 2025 (i.e. the first presidential election after the 2020 census). Outlined below are a few of the key areas where voting can be made easier and help close the voting gap for progressives.

Redistricting Reform(FL, PA, MI, NC, OH and VA):

The “good” news is the impact of gerrymandering is concentrated currently in just six states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, North  Carolina, Michigan, Virginia and Florida. Florida has even recently settled a lengthy court battle  resulting in more neutral districts until 2021. Moreover, since originally drafting this post, it’s come to my attention that I overlooked two minor court victories for Virginia and North Carolina. In total,  redistricting reform likely only needs to concentrate on five states.

* By Ballot (OH and MI):

Ohio and Michigan both allow for initiatives to be put on the ballot. There should be real and sustained efforts to pass redistricting reform via ballot initiative in 2017/2018. Six years after the fact, it is an absurd and unforced error that reform hasn’t passed already. However, now is better than waiting until 2020.

* By Legislation (VA):

It is very possible for Pennsylvania  and Virginia to be controlled by Democrats in 2017. If in power, redistricting reform has to be a priority.

This leaves Pennsylvania and North Carolina who offer no path via ballot initiatives or legislation for the foreseeable future.

Voter Registration(GA and AZ):

First, it is important to note that demographic change is very unlikely to make states like Georgia, Arizona and Texas competitive any time soon. Nonetheless, Georgia and Arizona are the two states that are most likely to become competitive for Democrats over the next several years. This transition can be sped up by targeting unlisted potential voters. Specifically, there are large pool of potential voters (disproportionately minority, poor or young) that campaigns have no record of because they are not on a voter file. Thus, for future campaigns (or even non-partisan groups) to be able to contact these voters, it is important that they exist on a voter file beforehand. This mostly means registering the large numbers of unregistered people in Georgia and Arizona before the 2018 gubernatorial elections. Additionally, by contesting elections that are not yet competitive, there is the potential to strengthen state candidates and state parties and to generate down stream turnout as voting is a habit-forming activity. Naturally, I cannot place a “cost per vote” figure on such programs. However, all this serves to quicken the transition to being able to compete realistically in the states dominated by conservatives currently.

* Georgia

Republicans won Georgia by  8% margins in 2012 and 2014. Currently voting and demographics trends indicate that it should be possible to push Georgia to be as competitive as North Carolina. For example, we can estimate that the election margin would drop to 4% using 2012 voting preferences and 2016 predicated demographics.

* Arizona

Republicans  won Arizona by a 9% and  12% margin in 2012 and 2014. This will be a heavier lift, especially because a good proportion of those who don’t vote in Arizona can’t because they are either too young or haven’t gone through all the legal hurdles to naturalize as citizens. Even so, it might still be worthwhile to do the hard work now while Donald Trump is on top of the ticket. However, at the end of the day, a more granular analysis is needed to make that calculation.

Statehood (D.C. and PR):

Neither Washington DC nor Puerto Rico can become states without acts of Congress. However, waiting to start the process until unified Democratic control of the federal government will be far too late (see D.C. circa 2009). It is important to state that this isn’t a Congressional level version of court packing. D.C. has a population greater than 2 states. Additionally, everything from the metro system to public health is impaired by D.C. lack of statehood. For Puerto Rico, the current debt crisis in addition to whole host of economic problems are worsened by the fact this island of 3.5 million does not have the powers of  a state. Moreover, both areas are majority non-white areas that would not face anywhere near the current level of Republican opposition to having federal representation if they were mostly white instead. Finally and pragmatically, if either of these statehood movements actually get a vote before a divided Congress, it is very possible that a handful of Republicans cross the aisle to vote for statehood.

* Washington D.C.

There is likely to be a 2016 vote calling for D.C. to become a state. This is an effort that shouldn’t fail to lack of resources like so many other good yet unfunded ballot initiatives.

* Puerto Rico.

PR voted on the second round of a two-part vote in 2012 to become a state. Congress has yet to act. It is possible for this effort to gain renewed attention given the debt crisis and will win less ambiguous votes in the future.

Voter Modernization (most everywhere):

First a map. Highlighted in:
blue: states where it is possible use ballot initiatives and that might be under Democratic control in 2017

red: states that allow ballot initiatives or state amendments, but have no chance of being under Democratic control in 2017.

 yellow: states that could be under Democratic control after the election, but do not allow for citizen initiatives. Note: PA should actually be coded grey.

grey:  states where, with divided government, it is possible to block legislation like new voting restrictions.


Obviously, this map applies to policy in general. However, I want to empathize the strategic need for reforms to make voting easier and even campaign finance — both efforts that should be bipartisan but increasingly are not. While what constitutes popular policy in Idaho and Mississippi will be different from California and Maine, it is at least possible to for some direct democracy in these states regardless of who is in power.


I have outlined a strategy that aims to maximize the chances to pass progressive policy over the next few years while preparing for the 2020 redistricting process. This is necessary because the most likely outcome at the federal level is two to four more years of divided government while at the state level there are several opportunities to shift the balance of power. Not everything can be equally important. Depending on how the 2016 environment unfolds, some states will be higher priority than others. Over the longer term, some reforms (e.g. redistricting fights) will be more pressing than others (e.g. campaign finance reform). However, progressives should stop thinking of winning elections and start thinking about winning states. For 2016, they should concentrate on 15 states in particular. In the longer term (2017 to 2020), they should push to reform the redistricting process and to close the values gap between voters and non-voters. Finally, strategy and demography cannot replace platform and policy. Many people do not vote because they do not see a substantive difference between either party. Without credible policies that working people believe improve their lives, no amount of election strategy will bring the unrepresented to the ballot box. However, that is the subject of another post.

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One Response to Electoral Strategy for Progressives

  1. Pingback: A Workable Economic Strategy | gauchnomica

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