WASHINGTON (CN) – With little time left to wallow in existential malaise, the Democratic National Committee has until the end of the month to choose the party’s next chair. Enthusiastic opening shots by the new Republican administration have put the pressure on.
Though protests against President Donald Trump have drawn millions across the country since the inauguration, and congressional Democrats have grown bolder in their opposition of their new commander in chief, there is little guidance about what steps the Democratic Party is taking to attract the voters who are increasingly drawn to third-party candidates.
Louis Elrod, the 28-year-old president of Young Democrats of America, says the failure to cultivate the so-called millennial vote could be fatal in the next election.
“If you’re not gearing your message, or crafting a message that can be easily tailored to our generation, you’re losing the next election,” Elrod said in a phone interview.
As compared with President Barack Obama’s turnout in 2012, meanwhile, millennial turnout for Hillary Clinton dropped by 5 percent. In fact, she performed worse than he did for that demographic in every key swing state.
There are 24 million young voters ages 18 to 29 in the United States. The DNC did not return an interview request to discuss the election.
Circle, whose name is short for the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, found that only 50 percent of eligible young voters cast a ballot in 2016. Of those, only 55 percent voted for Clinton.
These numbers paint a grim outlook for the Democratic Party. Republicans not only nabbed the presidency, but control both chambers of Congress.
On top of that, Republican governors outnumber Democrats 33 to 16, and Republicans dominate both chambers of 32 state legislatures.
The only bright spot for Democrats can be found at the city level – 67 out of 100 major U.S. cities have Democratic mayors.
This group has also put forward one of the dark-horse candidates in the race for DNC chair: Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“The solutions our party needs won’t begin with Washington, they’ll come from communities across our country,” Buttigieg said in a campaign video.
An openly gay Navy veteran, 34-year-old Buttigieg is the youngest of the seven candidates in the race.
Buttigieg’s toughest competition will likely come from Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Thomas Perez, former labor secretary under President Obama.
Ellison’s reputation as an organizer precedes him. He has racked up more endorsements than any other candidate from a large swath of liberals and unions, including the AFL-CIO, and key progressive figures like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
But not all of those who have endorsed Ellison get to vote. He will have to lock up 224 of the 447 DNC member votes to take the reins of the party.
Thomas Perez, largely viewed as a frontrunner alongside Ellison, has garnered endorsements from four Democratic governors, several state Democratic Party chairs and former Vice President Joe Biden. Unions are also starting to line up behind him.
On that front, he should be able to persuade DNC members affiliated with the labor movement to cast votes in his favor. But Perez is also presenting himself as a tough challenger to President Trump’s agenda.
In a Feb. 2 tweet, Perez said he would “take the fight to Donald Trump.” Perez had one word for Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud: “bullshit.” He says the party needs rebuilding “from the school board to the Senate.”
Like Buttigieg, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party is running on a platform of growing party support through grassroots efforts at the state-level. In his fifth term as the party’s chair, Raymond Buckley has earned the support of his governor, a state senator and several state representatives.
Endorsements have also piled up for Sally Boynton, the executive director of Idaho’s Democratic Party; Fox News analyst and Democratic strategist Jehmu Greene; and South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison.
It has been 12 years since the DNC held an open race for a new chair, and this one comes at a critical juncture – the party must reorganize, and quickly. Although pundits and analysts have focused on the ideological direction the party will take since its stunning election loss, the chair of progressive political action committee Democracy for America says the future of the party is not an ideological battle, nor is it about one personality over another.
“I think there’s a tendency of some folks that aren’t inside this to see it that way, but what this is really about is getting new people under this party – getting more people to participate and doing a better job of getting out the vote and understanding that most Americans agree with the values of this party,” said Jim Dean, chair of the group Democracy for America, said in a phone interview.
Jim, 62, is the younger brother of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who ran for president in 2004 but lost the nomination to John Kerry, who in turn lost the election to the incumbent President George W. Bush.
Howard Dean went on to chair the DNC for four years, and his brother’s group Democracy for America has officially endorsed Ellison for the upcoming contest, a move backed by 80 percent of the political action committee’s members.
Democracy for America specializes in training young people a new and diverse generation of leaders, what Jim Dean said the Democratic Party needs.
Ellison is the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, but what is particularly impressive about Ellison to Dean is the way he talks about engaging new people, especially young Americans.
“I do think it’s going to take an organizer’s organizer to expand the base of the party, which it really should be getting done right now,” Dean said. “We don’t have to sell the values of this party, but we’ve got to engage more people.”
From Dean’s perspective, Ellison can bridge divides beyond the Washington beltway.
“I’ve seen him work a room, and I’ve seen him corral a lot of people together – and it wasn’t just a bunch of folks in D.C. who are in the political class,” Dean said. “I mean, he gets out there and does it with a lot of folks.”
“I think the energy in this party is in younger folks, and that takes a lot of different forms,” he said. “You know, the movement for black lives is not necessarily affiliated with the Democratic Party, but they bring an enormous amount of energy to our political culture, nationally speaking,” he added.
“And we need as much of that energy as we can get right now.”
Despite Democratic losses and the challenges facing the party, Dean said he is hopeful of its future. That someone like Ellison could become the new face of the party only adds to that hope, he said.
“I think that new generation of leaders is going to happen sooner.”
Louis Elrod, the president of Young Democrats of America, agrees that training a new generation of young leaders should be a key focus for the party moving forward. He said the new DNC chair will need to oversee a strategy that will both harness the millennial vote and train young leaders who are ready to run for office at the local, state and national levels in the next election cycle.
Young Democrats of America, the nation’s largest youth-led partisan political organization, has three votes in the DNC chair race. Elrod said it has not made an official endorsement, but that youth engagement is a consistent theme among its members.
“We’d like to see the DNC put together a year-round effort to bring young people into the party, to engage millennials – not just as employees or activists but as leaders and candidates for office,” Elrod said in a phone interview.
Elrod wants Young Democrats of America to partner with other progressive groups on creating a pipeline of young candidates who are trained and ready to run for office.
“When you have those young candidates running in local races all across the country, it’s going to make the 2020 national election all the easier to win,” he said.
“We’ll have young people running across the country to carry that message from the precinct level up.”
Dean agreed that there is a dire need for young, capable leadership in the party.
“We need to get some more people not just involved, but actually running things,” Dean said.
On top of the need for new leaders, Elrod calls the lack of a unifying message and failure to appeal to the youth vote an Achilles heel in many Democratic campaigns of late.
“There tends to be a focus on the youth vote fairly late in a campaign, which is unfortunate because we are the largest, most diverse generation in American history,” he said.
Elrod blamed an “information gap” for thwarting activation of the youth vote. Many campaigns focus on staunch party devotees with long voting records, and target them with direct mailings, phone calls and TV ads.
That’s in stark contrast to techniques employed by President Donald Trump’s campaign, which invested $150 million in political ads on Facebook and Instagram in the final weeks of the election. According to reporting from The New York Times, those ads targeted potential Hillary Clinton voters with so-called “dark posts” to suppress her voter turnout.
The absence of a strategy to reach young voters, coupled with social-media campaigns to suppress the Democratic vote, could derail party efforts in the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.
For Elrod, it’s a serious problem. Some Democratic candidates overlook young voters because they tend not to vote as much, he said.
“It creates this vicious cycle where young people don’t vote because nobody talks to them, and then nobody talks to them because they don’t vote,” Elrod said.
Elrod worries that the information gap prevents young voters from turning out on their own.
“That’s just the nature of the youth vote right now,” he said. “You have to put effort into it, and you have to do it early. You have to treat young voters just like any other voter – start talking to them months before an election instead of weeks.”
Without the youth vote, Elrod said the party can expect to lose the next presidential election. And that’s a message the he’s delivered to every DNC chair candidate who has reached out to him so far.
“They have to be focused on it 365 days a year,” Elrod said.
This, Elrod notes, is something Republicans have organized themselves around effectively.
“Republicans know that they’re weak within our generation,” he said. “But they invest, they fight – they fight really hard – to peel off every single young person they can.”
On that point, Elrod thinks Democrats and the entire progressive infrastructure in the country need to line up behind a unified message that will reach every demographic, especially young people.
He hopes the next DNC chair can accomplish that.
“For what it’s worth ‘Make America Great Again’ is an empty but effective message,” he said. Though unsure of its meaning, Elrod said it worked “really, really well.”
“It worked just like ‘hope and change,'” he said.
Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election did more than paint the executive office red. With Republicans at the helm of the federal and most state governments, the Democratic Party is at a crossroads. This three-part series looked at what they are doing to get back on track. Click the following links to return to Part I and Part II.