On July 8-9, the Platform Committee of the Democratic Party met in Orlando. The purpose of the meeting was to agree upon and approve the document laying out the official positions of the party and its presumptive nominee — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — prior to the Democratic National Convention, which will take place July 25-28 in Philadelphia.
Serving on the 199-member committee was Tony Parker of Calera. A longtime political and survey research consultant, Parker, 63, was appointed to the committee by the campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (he also ran as a Sanders delegate in the Alabama Democratic primary in March). Parker was one of two Alabamians on the committee, along with Clinton campaign appointee Carolyn Culpepper of Adger.
Though as contentious as might be expected after a spirited — and increasingly bitter — campaign between Clinton and Sanders (the two all-day sessions ran past 2 a.m. that Saturday, and past 1:30 on Sunday morning), the meeting produced a platform that Sanders himself hailed as “the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.” Parker allows that the process “wasn’t always pretty…but at the end of the day, I don’t think anybody that’s reasonable had much to be upset about.”
In the aftermath of the Platform Committee meeting, Sanders on Tuesday, July 12, officially withdrew from the Democratic race and endorsed Clinton. Two days later, Weld publisher Mark Kelly sat down with Parker to talk about his work on the committee, his thoughts on the presidential race, and his view of the current state of national politics in general. The following is excerpted from their conversation.
Kelly: How is one chosen to serve on the Democratic Platform Committee?
Parker: [Prior to the March 1 Alabama primary], I got a phone call from the Sanders campaign, asking me to go to Montgomery and file the qualifying documents for Bernie. While I was there, I decided to go ahead and run as a delegate. I didn’t win, but I think it was because I had done that, in addition to taking the paperwork to Montgomery, that they asked me to be on the Platform Committee.
Without thinking it through, I said, “Sure.” [Laughs]
Kelly: And? How was it?
Parker: It’s a thankless job. You spend a couple of thousand dollars [on travel and lodging], and you sit in a hotel conference room for two days and argue with each other. It’s not exactly the most fun thing to do, but it’s important.
Kelly: Talk a bit more about the process. How does the committee go about constructing the platform? How does the sausage get made?
Parker: There was a small committee that met in St. Louis to put the draft together. That was 15 members, seven representatives for Bernie and eight for Hillary. Then the full committee met in Orlando last week to consider amendments and finalize the draft that will be put forward at the convention.
In terms of the process, it’s just like any legislative body. You have a chair, you have debate, you have speakers. There was a lot of negotiating going on. There were a good many delays, because both sides really were working hard to come together on a bunch of it. At least half of the [well over 200 proposed] amendments were disposed of — either adopted or rejected — by consensus.
Kelly: How was the makeup of the committee distributed between the two candidates?
Parker: A small percentage was appointed directly by the DNC. The rest were divided pretty much according to the proportion of votes Hillary and Bernie received in the primaries.
Kelly: Ultimately, the committee endorsed a platform that Sen. Sanders, among others, has said is the most progressive platform the Democrats have ever had. But some Bernie supporters see his endorsement of Hillary as a betrayal. And, consensus on the platform aside, there are substantive differences in policy and philosophy between the two. How do you reconcile that?
Parker: Look, there’s definitely a fringe of supporters on both sides that have an all-or-nothing kind of attitude. And there are some honest differences. But I am 100 percent in agreement on the progressiveness of the platform. I was talking to one of Bernie’s attorneys about it afterward. There wasn’t any gloating over it, but in the end, the Bernie camp was very happy that we got what we did.
Kelly: So Sanders was able to leverage his success in the primaries to influence the platform that Clinton will run on — and, presumably, if elected, make the basis of her presidency. How much of what is in the platform do you attribute to Bernie?
Parker: On issues where there was real compromise, I’d say about 80 percent [of the eventual outcomes] favored Bernie’s positions. There was a huge shift on Saturday, when Hillary announced that she was going to be a proponent of lowering eligibility for Medicare to age 55.
MK: From an ‘inside politics’ perspective, how did you interpret that?
Parker: Clearly, there was a lot of play going on, a lot of back-and-forth about how things roll out leading up to the convention. The Medicare thing was classic dealmaking, done in anticipation of how nice Bernie was going to be on Tuesday [July 12, in his official endorsement of Clinton].
MK: Isn’t the platform really just a way of getting Bernie under the tent and rallying the troops for November? It doesn’t actually obligate a President Clinton to take certain actions or follow certain policies. Does the platform mean anything?
Parker: Well, it gives your opponent something to use against you. [Laughs] But does it mean anything? If you go back and look at Obama’s platform in 2008, it really was the roadmap for his presidency. Of course, he didn’t get everything he wanted — probably only about 50 percent of it — but by and large he has followed the roadmap that was laid out in that platform. The hope is that Hillary will do the same. That’s why it was worth fighting over.
Kelly: Looking toward how the fall campaign plays out, what’s the biggest concern? I think it’s fair to say that Hillary is not a good campaigner…
Parker: She’s a terrible campaigner. She’s a policy wonk, and that doesn’t usually translate to being effective on the campaign trail.
Kelly: How big a concern is that? There’s a New York Times story this morning, saying that the latest polls show Trump has moved ahead in Florida and Pennsylvania, and that it’s tied in Ohio. What are polls worth at this point?
Parker: I do survey research for a living, and the external polls you’re seeing are meaningless. The internal polls that actually use real voter models — that take into consideration what the population of voters is really going to look like on Election Day — tell a different story. For those external media polls, they pay about 30 percent of what they should be paying for a reliable sample, and they get about 30 percent of the amount of useful data you need to have an accurate sense of the race. They’re fluff.
Kelly: So what are the real numbers? What’s going to happen in November?
Parker: I’d hate to make a firm prediction this far out. In terms of the popular vote, I think Trump is going to do worse than Jimmy Carter did 1980, but better than George McGovern did in ’72. [Note: Running for a second term as president in 1980, Carter received 41 percent of the popular vote against Republican nominee Ronald Reagan (Reagan received 50.5 percent, while independent candidate John Anderson got nearly seven percent of the vote). In 1972, Democratic Sen. George McGovern won only 37.5 percent of the popular vote in his unsuccessful race against President Richard Nixon, who was seeking re-election.]
I just don’t think Trump is going to do well. He’s going to carry the South, including Alabama, of course. He’s going to carry most of the Midwest, and probably a few others. But the number of states that the Democratic Party is viewing as battleground states has tripled this year. Hillary’s campaign is defining any state where she’s within six points [of the lead] as winnable. They’re spending money in Arizona, which says a lot about where the expectations are. [Note: In the past 15 presidential elections, dating to 1952, only one Democrat has won Arizona: incumbent President Bill Clinton in 1996.]
The number of competitive states affects how you use money and resources — and how much you need to reach voters and turn them out. If you go from having six or eight states in play to 12 or more, you’ve got to spread it out. Trump’s already behind Hillary in fundraising, and unlike recent campaigns, the dark money is not behind him. The Koch brothers are spending their money in Congress, and on state legislatures. Meanwhile, the RNC is now worried about losing control of the Senate. They’ve already given up on Trump.
Kelly: But as you point out, the media tends to focus on the “horse race” numbers, regardless of their actual relevance. If those numbers stay close enough, does that become a problem for Hillary?
Parker: Actually, I think that the polls showing a tight race are helpful to her. That perception is going to motivate people to go out and vote. It makes the ground game important, and Hillary’s ground game is much better than Trump’s is going to be.
Kelly: Both parties have seen the insurgence this year of constituencies disaffected with traditional party structures and rules. Beyond the obvious differences between Bernie and Trump, philosophical and otherwise, there are some similarities in the motivations of their respective bases. What does the success of Bernie’s campaign say about the Democrats? And what does the success of Trump’s candidacy say about the Republican Party?
Parker: The public perception is that the system is broken. A lot of people are looking for alternatives, for different kinds of approaches to some of these big issues. On both the left and right sides of the spectrum, there are people who don’t trust the system to get it done anymore, which means that they’re less inclined to trust elected officials. I think that might hurt Hillary a little bit.
Kelly: Doesn’t it factor into the negative perceptions of Hillary that have been out there for a long time? If a given voter already thinks that Hillary is a bad person, or even that she might be, doesn’t the general distrust you’re talking about reinforce that perception?
Parker: My personal feeling about Hillary is that she’s not a bad person. The right wing has been beating on her for 30 years, and we all know that if you tell a lie long enough and loud enough, some people are going to believe it. It started back in the early ‘90s with Rush Limbaugh, and this whole right-wing media machine came out of that effort to smear the Clintons.
What we have now in national politics is that people just pick the media outlet that matches their political leanings. Then you look at the rise of social media, where people just put their opinions out there. I do that as much as anybody. You spout off about politics, and you might get a few hundred people who agree with you. But you’re talking in an echo chamber — or else you’re in some bitter argument with somebody whose mind you’re not going to change. There’s not a lot of coming together online.
Kelly: But what are Hillary’s liabilities as a candidate? And I’m assuming that you’ll be voting for her in November.
Parker: Yes, absolutely, I am voting for her. Personally, I think she’s a little too conservative, too establishment, and I know that’s what is causing some hesitance with some people. She’s obviously very smart, very knowledgeable about government and public affairs, and she has real accomplishments. But she’s a bad campaigner, as we’ve said.
Kelly: Certainly she’s not Barack Obama — or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders — in terms of her ability to connect with voters on a personal level. She’s going to need those two on the campaign trail, right?
Parker: Yes, and she’s going to have that. In the conference call with supporters before the endorsement, Bernie made it clear that he’s dedicated to defeating Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean he stops fighting for issues, even on the convention floor if necessary — but he’s clear on why he’s supporting Hillary, and why the outcome is so important.
Kelly: Here’s a hypothetical: How would all of that play out if the Republicans had a better candidate?
Parker: I think we’d have a harder time winning. Hillary would still win, but against a credible person, it would be harder.
Note: This a corrected version of the interview that ran in this week’s print edition, and was originally posted here. The original version indicated that Tony Parker attended a smaller meeting of Democratic Platform Committee members held in St. Louis prior to the July 8-9 meeting of the full committee in Orlando. Parker attended only the Orlando meeting.