11/07/2014 08:31 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

For Democrats to Win Future Mid-Terms: Five Priorities

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In the last two presidential elections, Democrats won solid victories. In the last two mid-terms, Democrats lost.

To some it appears that there are two separate electorates in the United States -- one for the general election that closely resembles the makeup of the actual population, and one for the mid-terms that skews heavily toward older, more Republican voters.

That perception is generally true, but it's not entirely that simple. Remember that Democrats took back the House in the 2006 mid-terms and picked up seats in the second mid-term of the Clinton presidency in 1998.

What are the factors that affect mid-terms -- and how can they be harnessed to allow Democrats to hold the White House and also be successful in mid-term elections?

I would argue that there are five major factors that affect mid-terms -- and, as a result, five priorities for Democrats.

Factor #1: Our top priority: raise the incomes of ordinary Americans. For the last 25 years, with one major exception, mid-terms -- and especially mid-term elections in the second term of incumbent president, have been particularly tough on the party in power at the White House. Why?

For over a quarter century most everyday Americans have not seen increases in their own personal income. That is the chief measure by which normal people measure whether things are -- or are not -- going well in the country. It is the chief variable that helps determine whether voters think a president and his or her party have a good job performance, or are failing to deliver.

If voters think things are not going well, why not try the other party?

Over the course of the last 30 years the American economy has grown. In fact, real gross domestic product per capita went up 80 percent over the last 30 years. But the media income of most Americans has remained stagnant. All of the increase has gone to the top 2 percent.

That trend has made governing very tough in America. If people are unhappy with their own personal economic prospects, they can agree with all of your policy positions, but they won't think you -- or your party -- are delivering the goods. So why not try another alternative?

That, coupled with the failed War in Iraq, is what happened to George Bush's party in 2006. And the same thing happened to Barack Obama's party in 2010 and 2014. The Obama administration's problem of delivering income growth has been massively complicated by the fact that for much of its term it was cleaning up the economic wreckage left by George Bush's Great Recession. That has been compounded by the unwillingness of Congress to change some of the rules of the game that enable the wealthiest to siphon off all of the increased income -- like increasing the minimum wage, changing labor laws, even more tightly regulating Wall Street, and increasing -- rather than constraining -- investment in education and infrastructure.

Many normal people believe that their stagnant incomes result from the fact it has been gobbled up by the top 1 percent -- which is correct. Others also think it has been taken in the form of taxes by the poor -- which is incorrect.

For progressives to address this problem politically, we need to constantly put the disparity between everyday Americans and the top 1 percent center stage -- front of mind. And, of course, we have to actually do something to make the incomes of ordinary Americans grow. Otherwise we will never change the perception that government is not delivering for most Americans.

In the last several decades there are two exceptions to this phenomena. The first was 1998 when incomes were rising for several years at the end of the Clinton Administration. Democrats gained seats in 1998, even though their president was in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And in fact, the overreaction of Republicans and their attempts to impeach Clinton actually fueled the view that the GOP was off on a tangent, while the Democrats were delivering the goods.

It also fueled Democratic turnout.

Factor #2: Year-Round, Inspiring Voter Engagement. In most mid-terms it is true that key demographic groups that are more inclined to vote Democratic turn out at lower levels than in presidential elections.

But this is not inevitable. In the Virginia Governor's race in 2013, the proportion of many key Democratic-leaning demographic groups was proportionately very similar to the 2012 presidential election.

In many respects lower turnouts reflect the fact that many voters who trend Democratic feel generally less empowered than higher-income Republican voters. Where these voters are engaged in inspirational, empowering movement activity participation rates increase. Giving people a sense of empowerment through inspiration must be a key element in our strategy.

We need both great GOTV mechanics -- contacts through personal contact, phones and door to door -- and also an overarching inspiring message. We need inspiring, empowering messaging that focuses on the voters -- not the candidates or even the issues. Though it is also critical to tie these movements to candidates who are their champions.

And this kind of engagement needs to occur year-round -- not just a few weeks before an election. And we have to remember that more than anything else people are motivated -- not by language or rhetoric. They are motivated first and foremost by being put into motion themselves - being directly engaged in activities that make them feel empowered.

Democrats and progressive organizations must find connections to organizations of key mobilizable constituencies and their causes year 'round.

Factor #3: Taking on Citizens United. The massive influx of money from plutocrats of all types tends to make campaigns more vicious and negative. That in turn drives down turnout which generally benefits Republicans because their base is made up of higher-propensity voters.

Advertising bought with big outside money or outside groups always tends to be more negative. That's true, first of all, because there is no downside for outside groups to being negative. Candidates have to worry that their negativity will have blow back effects on the voter's views of candidates themselves. People don't like mean. Not so of anonymous outside groups.

And let's be clear, once Republican outside groups put up huge numbers of negative ads, Democratic outside groups have no choice but to do the same. That's because if you're on the defensive, you're losing.

It will be hard to fundamentally change the regime of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision until we change the Supreme Court. And that was made more difficult by the GOP takeover of the Senate.

But we do need to focus on doing everything in our power -- in the near and long term -- to constrain and ultimately change the outrageous policy that allows a dozen billionaires to shape much of America's political dialogue and simultaneously drive down voter participation through massive negativity that makes voters tune out of the political process entirely.

Factor #4. We cannot allow the GOP to control most state legislatures going into the 2020 redistricting.

In 2012 many more Americans voted for Democratic House candidates but the GOP controlled the House. The reason was simple: GOP controlled legislatures gerrymandered congressional maps in many states.

The GOP has done a much better job than Democrats of focusing on state legislative and Governor's races. We have three more cycles between now and the next redistricting. Democrats must use each to build legislative majorities in as many states as possible.

Factor #5: We have to always remember that the other side will "say you did anyway."

When I was 16 years old, it snowed one February where I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. So the schools shut down and my friend and I headed down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

There I had one of my great lessons in life. As we walked down Bourbon Street a big hawker in front of a strip joint put his hand on my shoulder and said: "Come on in, sonny, they're going to say you did anyway."

You win in politics if you look like you're standing up for your beliefs and values -- and your party -- not if you look like you're apologizing. And we have to remember that the other side will "say we did anyway" -- even if we try to distance or nuance or moderate. So we might as well be champions for the things we believe.

Swing voters are much more prone to support candidates who loudly and strongly stand up for their core beliefs than those who appear to be apologizing for who they are.

The other night on The Daily Show someone said that in the last election some Democratic candidate's message seemed to be "So sorry, don't be mad." That is not entirely fair since many candidates were running in very red turf and needed to establish that they were their own people. But it is always a bad thing to look as though you're walking around in a defensive crouch. In politics, if you're on the defensive, you're losing.

And remember, most progressive positions themselves are very popular -- almost everywhere in America. The proposals to increase the minimum wage passed everywhere it was on the ballot. The proposal for universal background checks on guns passed overwhelmingly in Washington State. Most Americans want to defend Medicare and Social Security, pass legislation to require equal pay for equal work, pass comprehensive immigration reform, and prevent carbon pollution.

Democrats and progressives need a year 'round effort to tout our accomplishments on the economy, to demand passage of progressive initiatives, and to hold Republicans accountable.

And "year 'round" is the key here. Legislative and issue campaign battles cannot by siloed into separate spaces. Everyone -- from the White House to the Democratic Leadership to progressive groups -- need to be part of a full-time campaign for the hearts and minds of swing voters.

Tuesday's election was a set back for progressives, but we can seize the momentum, recapture the House and Senate, and elect another Democratic president in 2016. And then we need to protect those victories in the next mid-term in 2018.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.