When all the votes are counted, Joe Biden may wind up winning the White House by as many as five or six million votes. But everywhere else, the performance of Democrats was abysmal. Republicans will control at least 50 Senate seats (pending a pair of runoffs in Georgia) and have made gains in the House of Representatives. And as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found out quickly, Democratic leaders have already found the culprit: It was the left, they argue, that scared voters with talk of socialism.
There are a few ways to take a deep look at that argument. One is to look at each race, look at what each specific candidate ran on, look at what attacks they faced, and how they fared. We’ll do a little of that, but it’s more important to zoom way out if you want to see what’s going on. Too much election analysis suffers from a focus on tactics and the most immediate news cycle, so that analysts miss the big sweeping realignments underway until it’s way too late. For this week’s Deconstructed podcast, we talk to Pennsylvania organizer Jonathan Smucker and Chuck Rocha, the head of Solidarity Strategies, to get a sense of that.
We arrived at this populist moment thanks to 30 or 40 years of wage stagnation, a period in which the assets of the American middle class were essentially stripped and sold overseas, with the rewards flowing to the very top. This was a bipartisan project, and both voters and nonvoters have punished political leaders either by disengaging from the political process or backing people who challenged the status quo.
In this cycle, one party fully tapped into the fear, anger, and resentment of the public. The other argued for a return to normalcy — which we could achieve by rejecting Trump. The result was a Trump loss up top and Republican wins down below.
Democrats ran on basically two themes. One, Trump is bad and must go. Two, we’ll protect your health care by keeping down drug prices and protecting people with preexisting conditions. Now, voters were indeed fed up with Trump. They did indeed prefer lower drug prices to higher drug prices. And they agreed that people shouldn’t be condemned to die for having a preexisting medical condition. So far, so good. But those issues resonated most with strong Democrats and people who leaned Democratic. The problem was that they offered nothing to really inspire an independent voter, or a soft Republican, or somebody who hadn’t voted before. (Mike Siegel explained this in an interview on Deconstructed last week.)
What’s interesting is that Republican strategists I spoke to this week mostly agreed with Siegel, even if they might think that he’s a raging commie. The problem was that Democrats didn’t have anything convincing to offer people when it came to the issue so many cared about most: jobs and the economy.
When you think about the Republican message on the economy, whether you agree with it or not, you know what it is: Cut taxes, get rid of regulations, get the government out of the way, and the economy will grow. That’s their message, and so when the economy is growing under a Republican, voters are quick to give Republicans credit for it, even if that laissez-faire approach really just makes the economy unstable while producing frequent crashes and mass inequality. That’s all beside the point; their message is clear.
What’s the Democratic message on the economy? The first thing that comes to mind is that Democrats believe the economy is unfair: The rich get richer and everybody else falls behind. That happens to be true, and under Trump, the rich have gotten quite a bit richer. But wages have also gone up. Retirement accounts have gone up. And so Trump won handily among voters whose top concern was the economy, and that was the top issue for many voters.
What you always have to remember about politics is that it’s happening on different levels for different people.
Republicans I spoke with said the most effective argument they landed on was that Democrats will raise your taxes and Republicans will keep you safe — which is more or less the message they’ve been running on without fail since the 1960s. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are convinced that the slogan “Defund the Police” did them in.
What you always have to remember about politics is that it’s happening on different levels for different people. In Washington and among political junkies, and for most of the people listening to this podcast, we experience politics as a contest of factions and ideas. Candidates and voters, meanwhile, experience it as an unrelenting flood of negative TV advertising, and it’s important to remember that when hearing somebody like House Majority Whip James Clyburn lash out. This is the kind of thing they’ve been marinating in for the last year.
In the days before the election, the House GOP flooded key races w/ads about how Dems would defund the police. Here are a few though there are many many more. https://t.co/Z2nRyuqlCx https://t.co/dvmWsdNu8u https://t.co/3VyoVMwwea https://t.co/b9C2WtF9qa https://t.co/ghzJZY2Nc5— Lee Fang (@lhfang) November 10, 2020
And while AOC and Rep. Ilhan Omar showed up in ads, so did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:
The last stretch of Republican attack ads against swing district Democrats like Spanberger had a lot more to do with Nancy Pelosi than @AOC, @IlhanMN, and progressives. pic.twitter.com/D3zNm8eN0D— Waleed Shahid (@_waleedshahid) November 9, 2020
The Democratic message was squarely about health care. Here’s a good example from Hillary Scholten, an impressive Democratic challenger who was trying to unseat incumbent Republican Peter Meijer in Michigan:
Republicans told me that while the phrase “Defund the Police” was helpful, and deployed it in a lot of different ads, they were more broadly running against protests generally, using unrest to stoke fear of riots, chaos, and crime.
Here’s how they used that theme to hit Scholten:
In some races, Democrats argued that Trump had broken with all that was good about the Republican Party, and that therefore good Republicans in the suburbs ought to vote Democratic this time. Here’s how Scholten messaged that:
The problem with ads this bland is that there’s nothing stopping Republicans from matching them note for note, arguing that the Democrats’ alleged radicalism makes them unacceptable in much the same way. Republicans claimed that Democrats would do away with your private insurance, hike your taxes, and tank your 401k. If you’re trying to win over voters in well-to-do suburbs, that punch can land. Here’s how Kara Eastman got hit in Omaha:
Eastman lost by nearly 5 percentage points in a district that Biden carried.
Don Bacon, the incumbent Republican, is well liked locally, and he had the support of the area’s former Democratic congressman, Brad Ashford, who Eastman beat in a 2018 primary. If the Democratic theory of the case was that Trump is bad while some Republicans are good, voters in Omaha made the rational choice: Throw out Trump but keep the good Republican. I mean, hey, even the Democratic congressman liked him, and he’s not gonna raise your taxes like that socialist.
What ties together the Republican messaging together isn’t just its consistency, it’s the emotional wallop it packs. You can hate the substance of those ads, but they do what they set out to do. The Democratic ads, meanwhile, just leave you kind of — meh.
For somebody like Eastman to be able to beat a popular Republican, Democrats would have to persuade voters that the Republican, however nice he might be, is part of a corrupt, out-of-touch party in the pocket of special interests that needs to be repudiated top to bottom. And they’d have to convince them that not only is Eastman the opposite, but so is the entire Democratic Party.
We know what Republicans are capable of: They can drive out their base and juice turnout, and they can smear even the most moderate Democrat in the suburbs as a wild-eyed radical. There’s not much Democrats can do to change that. All they can do is counter it — both with better messaging, but, importantly, by actually governing and delivering for people.
Subscribe to Deconstructed to hear a discussion with Chuck Rocha, the head of Solidarity Strategies, and Jonathan Smucker, founder of Pennsylvania Stands Up.