Cunningham Third Way

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, right, talks with U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Dan Sena about how Democrats won in the 2018 midterms at a Third Way strategy session in Charleston on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

As President Donald Trump traveled to Florida on Tuesday to kick off his 2020 reelection campaign, hundreds of influential Democratic strategists, pollsters and elected officials gathered in Charleston to plot how to stop him.

The plan: Avoid progressive purity tests and instead focus on broadening the party's appeal to a wider segment of the general electorate.

The strategy session hosted by Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, served in part as an attempt to counterbalance the natural tendency for candidates to cater exclusively to the most vocal elements of the party's base during the primaries. 

In the early months of the Democratic primary, pollsters warned that the types of voters candidates interact with most — attendees at campaign events, hyper-engaged activists and Twitter users — will not fully reflect the broader electorate.

"That creates a risk," said Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at Third Way. "There is a potential that the hyper-hyper-engaged, the extremely online voters that are paying attention right now, might be able to drive the directions of the campaigns."

The group intentionally chose to hold the session in South Carolina, a key early-voting state and the first with a more diverse Democratic electorate.

They turned to Democrats with success winning in historically red states and congressional districts, like U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, for advice on how to engage independent and moderate Republican voters — namely, tap into shared concerns and broadly popular solutions.

While the party's most assertive members may push for single-payer Medicare-for-all or a Green New Deal, a who's who of Democratic officials argued they need to focus first and foremost on laying out a unifying message of economic opportunity.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who has personally met with many of the 2020 candidates, urged them to focus on "kitchen table issues." He also warned not to assume that all black voters — who make up a majority of South Carolina's Democratic primary electorate — are liberal.

"South Carolinians are realists and pragmatists," Benjamin said. "We want a president who will get something done and cares about getting something done, not just furthering an argument."

A recent Post and Courier-Change Research poll of South Carolina Democratic primary voters found that specific policy distinctions did not register in the top three reasons for why voters chose one candidate over the others.

Instead, voters cited qualities like the ability to beat Trump, understanding the issues affecting their communities and knowing how to get things done.

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Furthermore, fewer than half of the respondents said they are already following the race “very closely.” And about two-thirds of all South Carolina voters said they never use Twitter.

"I think you’re walking on very thin ice if you believe that you can gauge what voters are interested in or what’s going to happen in South Carolina based on tweets," said state Rep. Jerry Govan, an Orangeburg Democrat who chairs the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus. 

Jamal Simmons, a political analyst and TV commentator, told the crowd that when he worked as an aide for Democratic politicians, he often noticed a shift in how they would interact with different audiences.

Visiting black churches on Sunday, they would preach about their values and vision. Then on Monday, talking to the rest of the country, they would lay out 10-point economic plans and dive deep into the policy weeds.

"I've often thought that if Democratic politicians talked to white people on Monday the way they talk to black people on Sunday, we might win a lot more elections," Simmons said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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