Changing donkeys before the 2024 horse race

Published February 16, 2023

By Tom Campbell

The Democratic Party of North Carolina just voted to replace their current chair and top leadership with a new team. Call it a changing of the donkeys.
We think politics is a contact sport today, filled with mean-spirited ugliness, but it’s nothing “new under the sun.” In 1828, Andrew Jackson, whom we boast was born in the Waxhaws of North Carolina, was running for President. His opponents called him a jackass. Rather than getting mad about it, the hero of the War of 1812 was amused, even including a drawing of the animal in his campaign posters. The political cartoonist of that era, Thomas Nast, popularized the notion and it has been the symbol for Democrats ever since.
Last Saturday, most every statewide elected Democrat had endorsed the re-election of then-current chair, Barbara Richardson, along with the vice-chairs. But the plurality of the 500-member executive committee thought it was time for a change and elected Anderson Clayton, the youngest person ever to lead the party.
We think it a good decision. Democrats in this state were embarrassed last November, losing every statewide office. But the party’s problems go much deeper than just one election. In the 1960s, when I first started covering politics, there were 3 registered Democrats to every 1 Republican. Now just 34 percent are Democrats, 30 percent Republicans and 36 percent are registered Unaffiliated. Democrats face a numbers headwind.
Here are more demographic challenges. Republicans dominate most eastern, far western and many suburban counties, with the exception being the Northeast section. 89 percent of Republican voters are white, while 46 percent of Democrats are Black voters. Further, 45 percent of the 18-34 year-olds and 38 percent of the 35 to 44 registrants don’t care for either party, registering as Unaffiliated.
Still, Democrats could have won more if they had turned out their voters, especially Black voters. Their GOTV (get out the vote) efforts were terribly ineffective.
I’ve never run for public office but have participated and even managed campaigns on a local, district and state level. Permit me to offer some advice to the new Democratic Party leadership. It includes four distinct elements: structure, issues, candidate recruitment, and messaging.
Let’s tackle structure first. The Democratic Party’s 500-member Executive Committee is too bloated and ineffective. I understand wanting to be inclusive and have diversity, but if your goal is to win elections there are far too many cooks in this kitchen. They can’t listen to and respond to all of them. We suggest a streamlined and more clearly defined chain of command – like the old days of a very small executive committee and the 100 country Party Chairs. Each county chair earned their way to the post by loyalty and hard work. They were respected and were a funnel, communicating to and from the state party. They helped raise money for party candidates and provided much-needed support in organizing and actively working for them.
Let’s move to candidate selection. We’re not advocating returning to the smoke-filled rooms with party bosses deciding the candidates, but you have to admit that more often than not their selections were better than today’s free for all. We want to encourage folks to become involved in politics, but also need to have leaders who will discourage those who have little chance of winning. Primaries end up being expensive, divisive and not beneficial. Candidates need to be actively recruited based on character, a grasp on issues and a record of accomplishment. Their recruitment must come along with the pledge that the party will actively help them finance and stage a campaign, along with conducting a get out the vote effort needed to get them elected. Better candidates always yield better election outcomes.
Next comes issues. I always heard that if you can’t tell your story in the time it takes for an elevator to ride from the seventh to the ground floor, you won’t make the sale. It is pretty easy to know what Republicans stand for, more likely what they are against, but Democrats either don’t know or can’t clearly articulate their positions. Granted, Dems have more factions, but in trying to appease them all voters don’t understand what they stand for.
And recent Democratic messaging is ineffective and pretty invisible, to put it bluntly.
Surely there are Democrats who understand and can implement more effective messaging. And messaging isn’t just disparaging your opponent. Tell voters what you want to do if elected.
People think donkeys are stubborn and unwilling to respond to commands. Not so. Experts say donkeys are smart, personable, affectionate and fiercely loyal to those they trust, however it is impossible to get them to do something they don’t see as in their best interest. Stronger than a horse their size, they can carry heavy loads over rough terrain. State Democrats could emulate these traits.
The new state leadership team for Democrats has a big mountain to climb to turnaround last November’s results. Enthusiasm, hard work and more effective management can take them far. But winning will require much more than just changing the lead donkeys.