Guest op-ed from Porter McNeil, a longtime Democratic consultant in Illinois and Iowa.
In 2016, roughly 80,000 votes across the upper Midwest proved to be the margin of despair for Democrats as they watched a Hillary Clinton popular-vote win ‘trumped’ by the Electoral College.
David Axelrod and David Plouffe, in a May 4 piece for the New York Times (“What Joe Biden Needs to Do to Beat Trump”), stressed the need to “embrace a suite of virtual, data-driven tools and creative tactics …”
The infamous 1992 Clinton-Gore Bus Tour that traveled through the heartland may be a creative tactic worth emulating in 2020. Team Biden, as it ramps up its digital campaign, might consider a virtual bus tour that combines the old and new to visit the precincts of social media in the heartland.
We know Team Trump is saturating the rural social media precincts on Facebook and Twitter — a tactic even more important as community newspapers fold their tents.
Campaigns, good ones, work hard to create free media and grassroots momentum. That bus tour also says something about the changes in the national Democratic Party – away from a focus on the small towns in the heartland in favor of big cities.
Choosing the bus tour was the result of an internal Clinton campaign debate. Nearly 30 years later, that debate still rages within the Democratic Party.
On one side were those who pushed a traditional bus tour that would have taken the candidates to only large cities for big crowds in their urban political base. On the other side were advocates for taking the bus into more purple turf – the smaller towns and town squares in the swing states. The latter, led by campaign manager David Wilhelm, won the argument.
Cathleen Decker, then a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, covered the six-day, eight-state bus tour that generated an avalanche of free media. She called it a “…remarkable journey that delivered the Democratic presidential ticket into the town squares and front yards of an America usually forgotten in the hustle of modern political campaigning,” (“Clinton closes his bus tour on high note,” LA Times, July 23, 1992).
The bus should add Iowa to its list of states, since Democrats have won three out of five presidential contests there. Including the Obama-Trump counties that border the Mississippi River would be a smart place to start. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack knows the value of showing up in Rural America; during his 1998 gubernatorial campaign he rode a bus to winning 48 of 99 counties, smashing the Republican Party’s 30-year hold on the governor’s office.
In a recent Pod Save America podcast episode, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown talks about winning in small and medium-sized cities with a message of diversity, inclusion and economic opportunity. Democrats know that this is a campaign of energizing the base, battling in the suburbs and competing in the margins of the small-and-medium cities. This isn’t an either – or question; 2016 painfully taught Democrats you have to do all.
Joe Biden, who led the Obama-Biden Middle Class Task Force, is a natural ambassador to blue-collar voters. And the keys to a real — or virtual – Midwestern Biden Bus Tour may be the keys to the White House.
by Porter McNeil
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