Biden Wins, but Now the Hard Part Begins

In Detroit, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, organizing by progressives gave Biden a boost.

LANDSDOWNE, PA - NOVEMBER 01:  Caleb Malchik, 27, holds pamphlets stating "ELECTION DAY IS TUESDAY NOV. 3 VOTE" while canvassing for labor union Unite Here! in support of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on the penultimate day before the general election on November 1, 2020 in Landsdowne, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who is originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania, remains ahead of President Donald Trump by about six points, according to a recent mean of polls. With the election only two days away, Trump held four rallies across Pennsylvania yesterday, as he vies to recapture the Keystone State's vital 20 electoral votes. In 2016, he carried Pennsylvania by only 44,292 votes out of more than 6 million cast, less than a 1 percent differential, becoming the first Republican to claim victory here since 1988. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Caleb Malchik, 27, holds pamphlets stating “Election Day is Tuesday Nov. 3” while canvassing for labor union Unite Here in support of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Nov. 1, 2020 in Landsdowne, Pa. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

With Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan now squarely in Joe Biden’s corner, the former vice president has secured the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win the presidential election. Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, President Donald Trump held leads in all three states, but as votes from Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other urban areas were counted, Biden climbed ahead. On Friday morning, after Biden overtook Trump in the Pennsylvania vote count, Decision Desk HQ called the race for Biden.

At the same moment that those votes from heavily progressive cities beset by protests were putting Biden over the top, House Democrats were locked in a tortured, three-hour conference call on Thursday. Centrist after centrist lambasted the party’s left for costing it seats in the lower chamber and threatening its ability to win the Senate. It created a surreal juxtaposition: Had progressive organizing on the ground around left-leaning issues driven registration and turnout for Biden where he needed it, or had it hurt the party more broadly? Or was it both?

The fiercest criticism was leveled by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA official who won an upset victory in rural and suburban Virginia in 2018. Her victory was symbolic, in that she toppled Dave Brat, the tea party upstart who had himself toppled Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, presaging Trump’s rise a year later. In 2018, Brat accused Spanberger of endorsing and being in league with, by dint of her party identification, Medicare for All, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and would-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi — even though she theatrically distanced herself from all three, as well as former President Barack Obama. Her rousing defense — “Abigail Spanberger is my name!” — earned her a viral clip at a debate with Brat:

Spanberger won a narrow victory and spent 2019 and 2020 further distancing herself from the party’s progressive wing. She is once again locked in a close count, but appears to again have the upper hand, poised for reelection.

It has not diminished her rage toward the left. On the call Thursday, Spanberger vented not at “abolish ICE” but at “defund the police,” the slogan that gained mainstream currency following the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Rep. Conor Lamb, whose special election victory in 2018 was a bellwether of the coming blue wave, backed Spanberger up. “Spanberger was talking about something many of us are feeling today: We pay the price for these unprofessional and unrealistic comments about a number of issues, whether it is about the police or shale gas,” Lamb said. “These issues are too serious for the people we represent to tolerate them being talked about so casually.”

But Lamb’s criticism of his party colleagues goes to the heart of the flaw in the argument. Lamb wasn’t forced to defend defunding the police because of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or other members of the Squad. Rather, it was Lamb who went to a Black Lives Matter protest and took a maskless photo with a (white) woman holding a “defund the police” sign. His GOP opponent hammered Lamb for it. Most centrist politicians think of politics as top-down — a strategy that’s decided upon and then implemented. But “defund the police” — whatever one thinks of the slogan — came from the protest movement that grew out of Minneapolis, not from the messaging department of the Squad Central Committee.

Democrats actually benefited from a surge in voter registrations amid the protests, as noted by Tom Bonier, head of the major Democratic data firm TargetSmart.

Party leader James Clyburn, the Democrat from South Carolina whose endorsement of Biden launched him to the nomination, warned on the call that if Democrats ran on Medicare for All and other progressive issues, they would lose the upcoming Georgia Senate special elections that will determine control of the upper chamber and dictate whether Biden and the Democrats have the possibility of implementing a legislative agenda. (Alaska’s Senate seat, a contest between Republican Sen. Al Sullivan and independent challenger Al Gross, is still up for grabs. While Sullivan is currently ahead, the count of the remaining 44 percent of votes — absentee ballots — won’t begin until Monday.)

Even so, progressives defended a number of Republican-leaning seats. Democratic Rep. Katie Porter won reelection by 8 points in California’s 45th District, covering Orange County and Irvine, which she flipped in 2018. Further south, Rep. Mike Levin, who flipped the 49th District two years ago, won reelection, beating his Republican opponent by 12 points. Both are co-sponsors of the Medicare for All bill in the House, as are Jared Golden in Maine, Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona, Josh Harder in California, and Susan Wild and Matt Cartwright in Pennsylvania, who all won reelection in swing districts. And Rep. Tom Malinowski also defended his northern New Jersey district with an 8-point win, again holding onto a district he flipped in 2018. Cook Political Report had rated both Porter and Malinowski’s districts as R+3, and Levin’s as R+1.

Democrats insisting that progressive issues are losing policies have yet to articulate what their winning agenda would be, now that getting Trump out of the White House is no longer the mission. As attention will shift to the Georgia special elections, can Democrats rally the troops simply to help Biden confirm slightly more progressive cabinet nominees? What is the Democratic agenda that the party can pledge to voters to inspire them to vote in that January special election?

From the progressive perspective, it’s an easy question to answer, and Ocasio-Cortez has made the argument herself repeatedly: It’s better to have Democrats in control so that the left can push them to be better, whereas Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown himself immune to protest from the left. But that’s not a message from the party itself.

And if Democrats don’t find a message — or insist on spending the next few weeks attacking its left flank — then they have little chance of winning the Senate. Mike Siegel, a Democrat who ran and lost as a populist progressive in suburban Texas, said on this week’s Deconstructed podcast that without a persuasive message coming from the top of the ticket, he was unable to convince disaffected voters that he was serious about fundamental change. Without the Senate, Biden will be a badly hobbled president, the kind that is routinely dealt a blow in the first midterm. While Spanberger and Lamb may be angry, it appears that both will still win, as will dozens of their colleagues who first won in 2018. In 2022, they may look back on this election fondly if they don’t deliver something for the people who elected them.

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib encourages a resident to vote in the upcoming presidential elections in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., October 18, 2020.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook - RC29LJ91STVW

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib encourages a resident to vote in the upcoming presidential elections in Detroit, on Oct. 18, 2020.

Photo: Rebecca Cook/Reuters

The fears put forward by centrist Democrats are the flip side of the same political vision that Trump used to fuel his base. In nearly every one of his rallies this fall, he singled out Rep. Ilhan Omar for attack, arguing that she was so toxic in Minnesota that she would deliver the state’s suburbs to him. He made the same claim about Rep. Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and about the rising strength of the left in Philadelphia, which he singled out during the first presidential debate, claiming that “bad things happen in Philadelphia.”

Yet Trump’s hopes were dashed. “He effed around and found out,” said Omar on Deconstructed when asked about Trump’s strategy of demonizing her to win suburban votes. Indeed, not only did margins for Democrats expand in the suburbs in Minnesota, but Omar’s strength in Minneapolis also helped power Biden to the win.


What Happened?

The same is true of the suburbs of Detroit and Philadelphia, where strong left organizing catapulted Biden past Trump in two of the three states that were crucial to the incumbent’s 2016 victory, and a third (Minnesota) that the Trump campaign hoped desperately to flip.

In the late summer, as the GOP was knocking on a million doors per week in August, the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee resisted a return to in-person canvassing — even though it had become apparent that there was a safe way to do so — and advised their surrogates to do the same.

In Minneapolis and Detroit, Omar and Tlaib both rejected the advice of the Biden campaign and instead sent volunteers to persuade people not just to come out to vote for their member of Congress — after all, they had effectively no GOP competition in their general elections — but to do their part in ousting Trump by voting for Biden. In Philadelphia, where leftist candidates have romped over the past four years, thanks in part to a robust organizing community that saw two of their leaders elected to the state House on Tuesday, unions and organizers spent the final stretch of the campaign knocking doors in areas where voters felt ignored by the Democratic Party.

It’s too early to know precisely what effect the progressive canvassing operations and organizing had on the vote, as that will require a deeper dive into the data to determine how many irregular or first-time voters were pushed to the polls. Turnout surged everywhere — Biden garnered more votes than any presidential candidate in history — but it’s clear, at minimum, that Trump’s high-profile attacks against Omar and Tlaib did not deliver him those states, and there is preliminary evidence that their operations were disproportionately beneficial to Biden.

In Detroit, voter turnout reached its highest point in decades, election officials reported, even as the city’s population has declined by 10,000 since 2016, and 3,000 people in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, died from Covid-19. Overall in the county, Biden won 587,000 to 264,000, a net of 323,000 votes, though more are still left to be counted. Biden underperformed Hillary Clinton in the city of Detroit by about 1,000 votes, but outperformed her by 67,630 votes throughout the entire county; that bump helped put him over the top in a state that Clinton lost by some 10,700 votes.

With about 90 percent of the votes in her district counted, Tlaib already has more than 220,000 votes, having beaten her Republican opponent by some 170,000 votes and counting. That’s a significant jump from 2016, when John Conyers Jr., who previously held the seat, won it with fewer than 200,000 votes.

Oakland County, the suburbs outside Detroit, also went strongly to Biden. Clinton netted roughly 54,000 votes there in 2016, but Biden won it by 110,000 votes.

In Minnesota, Omar’s district saw explosive growth in turnout, with more than 400,000 people casting votes. The district netted Biden more than 250,000 votes in a state he won by just 232,000. And despite Trump’s hopes, the suburbs did not recoil at Omar, giving Biden a bigger margin than Clinton won there.

In Pennsylvania, where ballots are still being counted, Biden outperformed Clinton in Philadelphia’s suburbs, including Montgomery, Chester, Bucks, and Delaware counties — giving him a crucial boost even as voter turnout in the city of Philadelphia dropped. In other parts of the state, he flipped back to blue the counties of Eerie and Northampton, which both voted twice for Obama before flipping for Trump.

Across The U.S. Voters Flock To The Polls On Election Day
Across The U.S. Voters Flock To The Polls On Election Day

Congressional candidate Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, joined by Democratic Senate candidate Tina Smith, D-Minn., speaks during a get-out-the-vote event on the University of Minnesota campus on Nov. 3, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Both Omar and Tlaib faced competitive primaries, which they won comfortably, and they never really stopped campaigning into the general election. Their teams worked together, swapping notes on how to safely canvas in a pandemic, and also worked closely with Rep. Mark Pocan, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who represents Madison, Wisconsin. Omar’s team made 1.4 million attempts to reach out to voters through phone, text, or in person. They knocked on more than 150,000 doors, hitting everyone in the district more than twice on average, according to Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s communications director. A record 400,000 people voted in the district, netting Biden 253,000 votes. Biden visited St. Paul, but not Minneapolis, where his wife Jill Biden visited early last month.

Omar’s campaign hired dozens of organizers to turn out voters when Minnesota started early voting in September, the Washington Post reported. They knocked throughout October and up to Election Day, especially targeting voters who sat out in 2016. Omar was also one of the only Democratic Farmer-Labor Party candidates to continue canvassing, the Star Tribune reported.

Tlaib’s campaign focused on voters who turned out in 2012 and stayed home in 2016, and knocked 16,000 doors in the six weeks leading up to Election Day. They made close to 150,000 calls and sent 100,000 text messages and 100,000 pieces of mail. “Our message was more about Democrats up and down the ballot,” said Tlaib’s Communications Director Denzel McCampbell.

In Philadelphia, Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive group focused on working-class issues founded in 2016 by local organizers, has helped grow a squad of their own in state and local office. Two Reclaim Philadelphia alums, Nikil Saval, who helped found the group, and Rick Krajewski, previously a staff organizer, won their elections to the state House on Tuesday. A coalition of local and national groups in the city — including Saval and Krajewski’s campaigns, other local elected officials, and unions — knocked 370,000 doors in the weeks leading up to Election Day. That included West/Southwest Philly Votes, the unions Unite Here and Service Employees International Union, campaigns for State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, and City Council Members Kendra Brooks, a WFP council member, and Jamie Gauthier. The 215 People’s Alliance, another local grassroots group, made a total of 35,000 calls and texts to Philadelphia voters, and provided 5,650 meals to voters and poll workers with help from the People’s Kitchen, a local food security project. National groups like For Our Future and Changing the Conversation knocked doors in Philly as well.

Renee Wilson, a member of service industry union Unite Here, canvases for Joe Biden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. November 2, 2020. Wilson was let go from her service industry job due to COVID-19 and has been canvassing eight hours a day, six days a week since October 1. REUTERS/Rachel Wisniewski - RC26VJ9FMFOE

Renee Wilson, a member of service industry union Unite Here, canvases for Joe Biden in Philadelphia on Nov. 2, 2020.

Photo: Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters

There were a number of virtual organizing operations as well. The Working Families Party’s $1.5 million Vote Today Program netted 93,400 conversations about early voting, 76,900 commitments, and more than 2,000 newly registered voters in Philadelphia. They recruited just under 500 volunteers for the effort, which extended to protests and dance parties at “count every vote” protests on Wednesday and Thursday. Nuestro PAC, a group that worked to turn out the Latino vote, run by former Bernie Sanders adviser Chuck Rocha, spent $2.1 million on bilingual outreach over the last four months.

Organizers with West/Southwest Philly Votes, a partnership between Krajewski and Gauthier’s campaigns, knocked 20,000 doors between October 3 and Election Day, an effort that took about 345 three-hour volunteer shifts. Members from SEIU’s Local 32BJ joined that effort, said Rachie Weisberg, field director for West/Southwest Philly Votes. 

Reclaim partnered with the campaigns for Krajewski and Fiedler to knock doors, said Amanda McIllmurray, Reclaim Philadelphia political director and Saval’s campaign manager. Together with PA Stands Up, a coalition of grassroots organizing groups that grew out of a response to the 2016 election, 8,000 volunteers across local groups made just under 7 million calls, sent just under 2 million texts, and reached 400,000 voters statewide. 

SEIU members also held their own canvass, knocking 70,000 doors statewide, 30,000 in Philadelphia, and 20,000 in surrounding suburbs. They also knocked doors in Allegheny, in the Western part of the state, and other areas and made 2 million calls statewide.   


Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party Isn’t Ready For This Fight, but Its People Might Be

The most significant push came from Unite Here, a hospitality workers union that deployed hundreds of members to knock on 300,000 doors in Philadelphia between October 1 and Election Day, the largest such operation targeting Black and Latino workers in the city. Statewide, the union knocked 575,000 doors. They got 60,000 people in Philadelphia to pledge to vote for Biden, 30,000 of whom did not vote in 2016. (Trump won the state by 44,000 votes that cycle.) 

“We saw the effects of everything that’s happened since 2016, with police brutality, right — with Covid-19 and with the pandemic in general,” said Brahim Douglas, vice president of Unite Here Philadelphia’s Local 274. “We wanted to engage our neighbors in places where typically, folks don’t go to,” he said, like his neighborhood in North Philadelphia and where hopelessness as a result of the pandemic is prevalent.

“This stuff affects our communities,” said Douglas, referring to Covid-19. Last month, he lost his 21-year-old niece to the coronavirus; her 1-year-old daughter had also contracted the disease. “In the Black and brown communities, Covid has affected — here in Pennsylvania — a lot of us. And we have a president that took that stuff for granted, and I think that’s the hurtful part.”

Update: November 7, 2020
The article and headline have been updated to reflect Biden’s official Electoral College win.

Join The Conversation