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Progressive Democrats have a clear path to victory in 2016 if they commit to sharply reducing their ties to the traditional Confederate and Big Coal states. A progressive realignment also is possible in California where progressive Democrats are hobbled by corporate and fossil fuel lobbies trying to block the vital climate change agenda.

It's necessary to keep 2016 in mind as an era of Republican control of Congress and the courts is underway.

Democrats have been trounced in off-year elections not because they are too "liberal" but because of low voter turnout, aggressive voter suppression and reapportionment efforts by Republicans, and because of the party's historic attachment to the Old South and Wild West. The conservative realignment predicted by President Lyndon Johnson after he signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act is now complete, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet the party that produced Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter still clings to a "new South" nostalgia. And a party long built on industrial unionism still retains a fossil fuel romanticism.

A new realignment of the Democratic Party is possible along these progressive lines:

  • an embrace of a clean energy economy based on the imperative to deal with climate change,
  • greater income equity and social equality symbolized by a wave of living-wage and women's rights victories,
  • a national security policy based on diplomacy and maximum avoidance of the costly Long War that began after 9/11.

The following chart shows that Democrats should be able to win a minimum 318 Electoral College vote seven while losing Florida to a potential Jeb Bush candidacy, and a strong 347 electoral votes if they continue to keep Florida Democratic in 2016. 270 Electoral College votes are needed.

Democrats 2016 Victory

A possible electoral map for 2016, with the Democratic Presidential nomination winning 271, the bare minimum needed votes to win. (Map by the Democracy Project on

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Naturally, it will be a fight to hold this majority bloc. But hypothetically, if the Democrats lose Florida, North Carolina (15 electoral votes), Wisconsin (10), Michigan (16), and Iowa (6), they still will have a bare electoral majority of 271.

In the absence of Barack Obama, turnout among African Americans, Latinos, Asians and younger voters may be less than optimum, making clarity of message and the machinery of mobilization more important than ever.

For example, if the Keystone pipeline remains a major issue through 2016, Democrats' clarity of message and capacity to mobilize will be diminished by the party's internal contradictions. The same will be true if Democrats are indecisive on immigration reform, where Latino turnout was diminished in states like Colorado this November. A continued deadlock between the Wall Street and Main Street wings of the party will weaken labor and progressive support. A posture of being all things to all people is not the starting point for reaching an electoral majority. Battles over voter suppression and Citizens United should be rallying cries, not secondary issues.

Unfortunately, many Democrats ran away from Obamacare and Obama's stimulus initiatives in the first term, and from the president himself last year, most shamefully in the case of Kentucky senate candidate Allison Lundergan Grimes who wouldn't say whether she had voted for him. That was a moral and political default that wasted millions of dollars and liberal hopes, and should have resulted in the purging of many of the party's well-paid consultants.

Democrats will have an advantage in Senate races in 2016 when defending 24 incumbents up for re-election may stretch the Republican Party thin. The Democrats need a net gain of five seats to take back the Senate, and should do well in Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida (if Marco Rubio leaves), Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa. Senate campaigns reflect the extraordinary diversity of the country, but that doesn't justify the Democrats diluting their character by running with multiple messages.


Instead of looking south or to coal states, Democrats might look to California's Jerry Brown, not as a 2016 presidential candidate but for a platform that has manage these contradictions successfully. The time for snide dismissals of Brown should be long over. At age 76 he was re-elected for a final term while running a campaign without spending significant money. On taxes, he has fought off the Democrats' "big spending" label by recognizing the growth of government as a problem, while at the same time winning a 2012 referendum to impose higher taxes on the wealthy. He fights the prestigious University of California to spare students from escalating debt. He has gained an increased budget for K-12 schools while redirecting funds to the youth most in need.

He is presiding over a $120 billion state budget for clean energy initiatives that include an important role for private markets. He is not a progressive champion on every issue, but he has carved out a 60 percent majority among California's voters. Democrats around the country should consider his example as they prepare for 2016.

tom hayden

Tom Hayden
The Peace Exchange