SOUTH BEND – They call it “flyover country.” It’s where the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee needs a safe landing if he or she is to stave off the reelection of President Donald Trump for four additional years.

“Flyover country” is where Trump won key electoral votes for victory in 2016 and where he could win again. It includes states in the Midwest that were crucial. Trump pulled upsets in Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa and won battleground Ohio, obtaining needed electoral votes to win the presidency, even as he trailed nationally by 2.8 million in the popular vote.

The “flyover” description comes from the way presidential candidates, especially Democratic nominees, so often fly over Middle America as they travel from one coast to the other for major campaign and fundraising events and national media attention.

The name also refers to the perceived attitude of some nominees, especially Hillary Clinton, who was viewed in key Midwest states where she lost as flying above the concerns of voters in the middle of the country, the concerns of those in the middle of the political spectrum, the concerns of the middle class.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg came to national political attention after the 2016 Democratic election disaster when he wrote “A Letter from Flyover Country,” in which he warned that those concerns had better be addressed by Democrats if they want to win in the future.

Buttigieg continues that warning now in seeking the Democratic presidential nomination: Pay attention to middle class folks so dissatisfied with governmental disfunction, inequities in the economy and employment and obstacles to health and happiness that they “voted to burn the house down.”

Many of them are not thrilled now with Trump (although his base is) but they won’t automatically turn to a Democratic alternative if that nominee appears again to be flying above their concerns and talking the language of avid Democrats on the coasts. Amassing again big wins in New York and California and in the popular vote nationally won’t guarantee a presidential victory if the Democratic nominee doesn’t fly in with a compelling message in Middle America, winning back key states lost in 2016.

Rhetoric as much as actual policies will be important. Democrats will be offering proposals to do more about the environment, economic inequality, affordability and availability of health care and basic freedoms. Their proposals could be popular. Or not. Not if they go too far, not talking realistically about what is possible and affordable. Not if promising impossibilities, like Trump’s claim that Mexico would pay for his wall. That worked for Trump in appeals to angry voters ready to burn the house down. It won’t work for a Democratic nominee needing to assure voters that Democrats now are competent to put out the disastrous fire.

If they fall into the trap already set by Trump of using rhetoric that will sound to Middle America like wild-eyed socialist stuff, Trump could win four more years. This doesn’t mean they have to pretend like Trump to be conservative or decline to propose anything that fits a liberal agenda. They need, however, an approach with reasoned rhetoric that is understood in “flyover country.”

Buttigieg still has little chance of winning the nomination. As he gains more and more national attention, however, he has a strong chance to guide the party in the campaign and in the debates, for which he has qualified, along a more reasoned path, a path to victory in Middle America.

Liberal views can be presented in an appealing rather than frightening way to a skeptical middle class in the middle of the country.

What does it profit a party to gain landslide wins on the coasts and lose the presidency by failing to make a safe landing in “flyover country,” where the chance to win was lost last time? 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.