Strategists unpack voting blocs key to presidential election

By Hannah Rank

Political strategists grappled Thursday night with the potential outcomes of this surprising presidential election, yet concluded it may be a more conventional race than believed; hopefuls on both sides of the aisle must ultimately engage a growing core of young voters and, most importantly, must engage people of color.

“When you’re young, there are forces in your life that could possibly lead you more to voting Republican,” GOP strategist Stuart Stevens argued. “One thing that’s not going to change: if you’re 19 years old and white or non-white, odds are you’re going to be 45 and white or non-white.”

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted the event, “On the Campaign Trail: Political Strategy, Millennials, and the 2016 Election,” that featured a panel of strategists, moderated by Dina Smeltz. About 50 people attended the event, organized by the Council’s Young Professionals program.

With the potential candidates looking more and more polarized, the issue of engaging undecided, new voters seems especially critical. Though the event was meant to underscore the importance of voter engagement in the increasingly unpredictable and surprising presidential election, the panelists mostly focused on contextualizing the race within patterns of voting in past races.

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi noted that during his work on the 2004 Howard Dean campaign for President, Dean sought to engage the three “legs on the stool” of critical demographic bases that Democratic candidates need to clinch success: millennials, white progressives and non-white voters.

He credits the unexpected success of Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign to his impressive engagement with two legs, young voters and white progressives.

“Bernie Sanders has had a problem that most Democrats have – that you can get millennials, you can get white progressives, you can put pieces of it together, but if you cannot win non-whites, you cannot win the Democratic party nomination. It has always been so from the beginning,” Trippi said.

Currently, Trippi said, Sanders still has not been able to engage that critical “third leg of the stool,” though he had success with non-white turnout in his recent Michigan primary win. He predicts Sanders won’t be able to clinch with just his millennial devotion, as that voting bloc isn’t strong enough to support a majority.

On the Republican side, however, Trippi warned that the young white population, which is slowly replacing the historically more socially conservative older white population, may undermine the traditional strategy of early Republican candidates appealing to their primary-voting conservative base.

If old whites are dying, where they’re declining two points [in the overall population] every four years, and they’re being replenished with millennial whites who are intolerant of anything that’s intolerant, that’s the only thing they’re intolerant of,” Trippi said. “So you’re losing two points of whites who believe there should be a big wall… and you’re gaining two point of people who don’t understand why there isn’t a path of citizenship.”

Yet the right-polarized rhetoric coming out of the Trump campaign has found success.

Stevens, a longtime conservative strategist who had worked on the media team on both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, said the failings of the promising campaign of GOP favorite Jeb Bush came when he failed to sufficiently attack Trump’s bigoted policies.

“The Bush super-PAC gave Jeb over $100 million and Jeb only spent 5 percent of it attacking Donald Trump,” Stevens said.

Stevens echoed the sentiments of many other mainstream GOP leaders by underscoring the danger of Republican presidential candidate Trump’s unexpected ascent in the polls.

“If you’re a political consultant, you spend most of your professional career trying to avoid moral choices and just focusing on winning,” Stevens said. “But I think Trump really is a serious danger to the country in a way that a candidate hasn’t been.”

Photo at top: Moderator Dina Smeltz, along with political strategists Stuart Stevens and Joe Trippi, discuss the 2016 elections in context. (Hannah Rank/MEDILL)