Well, it is a done deal. Republicans have chosen Donald Trump as their nominee, and already, my social media timeline is full of Democrats and Republicans saying this election is over. And I am here to tell you that you are wrong.
Yes, I get it. We all cheered his getting into the race. I even told a national news outlet that his running was proof of a God that loved me. And down deep, we all thought it would flame out. But it didn’t. And now he is one person away from the nuclear codes.
Trust me, I understand all of the reasons why he should lose. His misogyny is disgusting, his anti-immigration rhetoric is offensive, and his focus on Muslims is xenophobic pandering at its worst. His oppo file could fill the Library of Congress, and his business record is spectacularly awful. His numbers with Hispanics are almost statistically impossible, and his ratings among women aren’t much better. If this was a traditional election, this would be over. Book the plane ticket for the inauguration, rent the tux, buy the gown and reserve the hotel room, because we are headed to a landslide of Johnson or Reagan proportions.
In the end, maybe it will be. But I doubt it. This isn’t a normal election, and these are not normal times. And in recent times, my state — one that elected Barack Obama with more than 50 percent of the vote twice — has proven it.
Two words: Rick Scott.
Rick Scott burst onto television screens across Florida in April 2010, announcing his decision to run. His delivery on camera was awkward and stilted, but his message was pretty simple: Tallahassee is broken, the economy is bad and “let’s get to work” to fix it.
He was so new to Florida that he almost failed the basic residency requirements to qualify for the ballot. And after a quick Google search, you would have been justified in thinking the man had a screw loose. Scott had been the CEO of a hospital chain which had paid the largest single fine for Medicare fraud in the nation’s history, and while he was never charged with a crime, he was forced to leave his job. That guy can’t win, can he? But Scott rolled the dice, betting GOP voter anger with the establishment would mean voters would approach his business record with blinders.
His campaign played in a new ideological space for Florida. He openly embraced the Arizona immigration law, and stressed his outsider, self-funding status. He also ran ads arguing that Bill McCollum was soft on immigration, called him an insider engaged in crony capitalism, and even ran an ad lecturing President Obama about Muslim extremism and the plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero. Like Trump, his message was laser focused on uniting a coalition of nativist xenophobic voters with people legitimately disaffected by the modern economy.
In less than two months, Scott went from nowhere to leading the GOP field by a dozen or more points. Late in the game, in an effort similar to #NeverTrump, the GOP establishment swung back hard, going right at Scott’s character and preparedness to serve. And like this one — #NeverScott had its moments, but in the end, Scott narrowly won.
Any of this sound familiar?
On primary night, plenty of Democrats were congratulating themselves. I had Republicans texting to congratulate me on our win — 10 weeks out. But just a few days later, as the dust settled and Republicans came together, we found ourselves trailing him in our internal polls. The campaign against Scott was direct. But in the end, a united GOP and the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment of 2010 carried him to a narrow victory. Four years later, the story was similar.
So Democrats, why do I tell you this story?
Simple. In 2010, I heard from donors, activists and voters alike one simple message: “Oh don’t worry, there is no way Rick Scott can win.” In fact, whenever I would publicly warn Democrats to not underestimate Scott, I’d get a text or email saying something like this: He can’t win Steve, right?
And I hear the same things now.
In fact, the parallels are eerie. Like Scott, Trump has dominated the airwaves, albeit with free instead of paid media. His opponents can’t get a word in edgewise, except in debates which — like in 2010 — proved to matter very little. And in 2010 and 2014, whenever one of Scott’s opponents would get traction, he’d write a check for more TV to drown them out, just like when Trump feels pressure, he says something outrageous to regain the media cycle.
In both of Scott’s wins, his personal favorable numbers were often Trumpesque — and it wasn’t that voters didn’t know about his issues — they chose to support him notwithstanding. Similarly, like Scott, Trump has gone to places with the GOP base that were previously off-limits, tapping into fears and angers at their most core, while also branding himself as an outsider who is not corruptible by the political system. He’s embraced the tea party fringe, giving them the voice they want.
Rick Scott ran an exceptionally smart campaign. He understood how to brand himself. Scott has surrounded himself with very good people — many of whom I call friends today, who knew what they were doing. He chose running mates that tried to reassure key constituencies that he wasn’t that extreme. He learned how to appeal to his base at the right time, and when to pivot to the middle. He rightly gambled that #NeverScott would go away after the primary, and the establishment would quickly come together. He believed that economic and security concerns would matter more than his personal failings — and he expended the resources necessary to control the message dialogue. And sure, he got some good breaks.
Any of this sound familiar?
But more importantly, Scott, just like Trump — notwithstanding all the outrageous comments — tapped into the real economic anxiety that exists today. The reality is for many Americans, the modern economy that provided the quintessential American compact — work hard, and you two can live the American Dream — has really changed. Towns like the one I grew up in, Kankakee, Illinois, are fundamentally different from they were 30 years ago.
In many ways, America is better positioned today to lead the world economically than any time in the post-World War II era. But if you are a 40-something-year-old guy in large swaths of America — as one of my childhood schoolmates who never got out of Kankakee, many who thought they would grow up and work in a factory for life just like their dad, and his dad — you wouldn’t know it. And just like Scott did, Trump has spoken to that economic reality in a way that has allowed voters to forget all other candidate qualities that traditionally would have disqualified them. It is also why you see Sanders winning in some of the same kinds of places as Trump.
It isn’t the first time that America has gone through an economic transformation like this, and just like every time in the past, we are going to come out of it stronger. Like the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy between Reconstruction and World War I, this era will economically bumpy — and because of that bumpiness, there is a real, and understandable, fear among many voters. We as Democrats like to win logical arguments, but as the 2016 election proved — and with all due respect, Scott showed in 2010 and 2014 — it is hard to have a logical argument with a worried, angry electorate.
Let’s be clear; Trump is a charlatan of the highest order. If you took away the party labels and the Trump brand, I suspect 75 percent of general election voters would reject him. But Donald Trump isn’t going to beat himself. Everyone is going to have to work like never before to keep it from happening. We need to come together, donate our time and treasure, organize ourselves, register voters, talk to our friends and neighbors, and make sure everyone gets out to vote.
How does Trump win? The same way as Scott won: An overwhelming microphone, tapping into the fears of the electorate — combined with a complacent Democratic base.
Can we beat Trump? Absolutely.
How do we beat Trump? Well, take his candidacy seriously, organize, register voters, talk to our neighbors and friends. We win it one conversation at a time — one voter at a time.
Will we beat him? Well, that is up to us.
So let’s get to work.