Entering the race for the Democratic presidential nomination at this point in the process leaves you with a tall mountain to scale. The current 23 member field boasts candidates with executive and legislative experience and proven electability, a host of outstanding women, accomplished African-American and Latino candidates, our party’s first openly gay candidate for the presidency, plus a bevy of senators, governors, congressmen, and mayors from the four corners of America who bring noteworthy accomplishments.
When I ran for president in 2008, the Democratic campaign was essentially a three-person race at the onset, a contest between Senators Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton. The voters wanted glamor and charisma, not resumes and credentials. But this year seems different: Voters will either go for the most electable candidate against President Donald Trump or generational change, and a relatively young new face.
As someone whose campaign fizzled in two presidential primary contests, I’m aware my advice should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. Still, here’s my counsel to the recently (or about to be) announced aspirants.
Carve out an issues niche. Foreign policy, maybe. Few candidates are talking about America’s role in the world. Hardly anyone is rebutting the president on his trade war with China and the broader idea of an American trade policy for the 21st century.
Develop a hopeful, coherent economic message that focuses on growth, future job opportunities, and raising wages. Don’t just be an angry anti-Trumper. Address justifiable American grievances in a way that is optimistic and points to a better future. And forget the class warfare and the “soak the rich” rhetoric.
Pick a polite issues fight with a rival with higher poll numbers. For instance, do not be afraid to defend Obama’s Affordable Care Act and propose improvements to it, as opposed to climbing aboard the Medicare-for-all train. Or talk about fiscal responsibility and ask: How do we pay for a free college education for all?
Unabashedly defend a woman’s right to choose in light of the assault on choice by Republicans in Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri,Georgia, and other states.
Find issues that appeal to rural voters, whom Democrats have lost in droves. Directly address our beleaguered farming communities, which are being so badly hurt by the Trump trade wars.
Show that you care about faith and patriotism.
Go on Fox News. It’s silly to dismiss their large viewership. Yes, the appearances will likely result in a barrage of angry tweets. (I speak from experience here.) But you cannot change the minds of people you do not speak to.
On the electoral front, don’t put all your eggs in one or two baskets, like I did in Iowa and New Hampshire, which favor more established candidates. Concentrate on a state that is not too crowded with other candidates and that’s early and manageable, like Nevada. And look around the corner and pick a few states where you can score on Super Tuesday.
As you allocate your time and resources, remember that Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida are going to be the most important states in the primaries, too, not just the general election.
Pay attention to the concerns of African-American voters, as they are the largest voting bloc in many primaries. Talk jobs and educational opportunity, not just civil rights. Don’t forget Latino voters, who keep growing in number. Get beyond immigration; they care deeply about health care and education, too.
Put more of your resources into social media rather than TV ads.
Find a debate moment early on that reverberates without making a fool of yourself.
Your spouse or partner should be highlighted for the authentic partner and friend that he or she is, and not used as a prop.
Don’t be afraid to take some risks. Voters like mavericks. Talk positively about the Clinton and Obama presidential legacies — and don’t trash Hillary’s presidential campaign. She is still a powerful and positive symbol, especially to women.
Handle the “new” generation message carefully, since most of the Democratic primary electorate is still comprised of older voters.
A little humor will go a long way in this stressed-out country.
Most importantly, stay positive. Don’t attack your fellow Democrat except to highlight legitimate policy differences.
And remember, even if you don’t win, running for president will teach you a lot about people’s aspirations, your country, and yourself.
Unless you fall flat on your face, it will be a blast.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson served as governor of New Mexico from 2003 to 2011.