In the early days of 2018, two leading Democratic groups commissioned a study on how best to engage and mobilize African-American voters. The impetus was the special Senate election in Alabama in which a groundswell of black voter turnout led to the shock election of Democrat Doug Jones.
The groups, Color of Change and Priorities USA, wanted to understand how that outcome had come to be and whether it was duplicatable nationally. What they discovered was that conventional wisdom about how Democrats should go about discussing Donald Trump was all wrong. Rather than galvanizing African-American voters, the president was depressing them. More respondents (39 percent) said they felt less motivated to vote since Trump’s election than those who said they felt motivated by the 2016 results (37 percent).
Those findings, including similar ones found in other surveys, had a profound impact on strategist and operatives, convincing them that the party needed to restructure its campaign messaging. Over the next nine months, the Democratic Party’s campaign committees and individual candidates began paying less attention to the president, even as he continued to demand the media spotlight and dominate the national political conversation. And when they did talk about Trump, those candidates were advised to actively try and de-emphasize him. The president was not a uniquely dangerous figure, the new framing went. Instead, he was something duller but equally fearsome: a Republican incumbent.
“We treat him so differently but that doesn’t lead to success,” said Matt Canter, a pollster for Global Strategy Group, the firm that conducted the survey on African-American millennials. “It does what he wants. When you treat him differently, it makes him different.”
The policy of conscious avoidance of Trump proved successful for Democrats in the 2018 elections, with the party winning 40 seats in the House and stemming its losses in a historically bad Senate landscape. Now, as Democrats are gearing up for the 2020 elections, some of its party’s potential presidential candidates are trying it again.
In announcing the creation of an exploratory committee to grease the wheels for a White House run, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) put out a four-and-a-half minute video that never mentioned Trump’s name. Her counterpart in the Senate, Kamala Harris (D-CA), released a book this week that spends little time actually going after Trump. Instead, it recounts her attendance at his inauguration, her feelings when he was elected and even refers to the president as “that man,” while describing how she learned of the presidential results in 2016. And in an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this Friday, Harris was explicit in how she would approach the president should she choose to formally launch a White House bid.
“My focus, if I were going to run, it would not be Donald Trump,” she said.
There are a variety of reasons why Harris, Warren and—in all likelihood—many others who jump into the 2020 campaign would choose not to focus their attention on Trump. As a purely practical matter, strategists note, these candidates are entering a Democratic primary, in which their primary goals will be to introduce themselves to voters, showcase their progressive bonafides and distinguish their resumes from the rest of the field. Trump is largely irrelevant to all of those tasks.
“People assume all Dems are against Trump. So I don’t think there was much utility in going after him.”
— Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic Party pollster
But pollsters and strategists in the party say that a larger strategic reasoning is also at play. Put simply, no prospective candidate actually has to show that they are against Trump because voters already assume so.
“We studied it,” said Celinda Lake, a longtime party pollster. “People assume all