Democratic Inaction Is Seriously Eroding the Party’s Activist Base

A depression in volunteer energy in four swing states is a direct result of Democratic inaction on Biden's campaign promises, organizers say.

TOPSHOT - US President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris stand with spouses Jill Biden and Doug Emhoff after delivering remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7, 2020, after being declared the winners of the presidential election. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are declared the winners of the presidential election in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7, 2020. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Prominent progressives are raising the alarm on the party’s chances in November as a GOP wave becomes more and more likely in the face of legislative inaction by Democrats. “If we decide to just kind of sit back for the rest of the year and not change people’s lives — yeah, I do think we’re in trouble,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told New York magazine in March. That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in April, who warned in a CNN interview that the party’s actions so far were “not enough” and that the party was headed to a loss.

That federal inaction — on issues like climate, student debt, and abortion rights — is leading to disengagement from voters and from organizers that could be disastrous in the midterms. To Tomas Robles, co-executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, the issue with Democrats isn’t just West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. There’s enough blame to go around, including for Arizona’s junior Sen. Mark Kelly, who is up for reelection this year.

“After talking to voters for so long about the importance of participating and getting Mark Kelly elected and getting Sinema elected, of the issues that mattered most, we received zero support, policy-wise,” Robles said. “And so why would any sane person put up a Senate candidate as their top priority for the elections?”

Kelly won his seat in a special election in 2020 by a narrow 51.2 percent to Republican Martha McSally’s 48.8 percent. So far this cycle he’s taken in nearly $39 million — $11.3 million in the first quarter of 2022 — with $23.2 million cash on hand. The senator is well on his way to a $100 million haul in what’s expected to be one of the most competitive and expensive races of the year.

But for all that money, enthusiasm for his candidacy remains low in Arizona, the traditionally red state that flipped blue in 2020 and helped deliver Joe Biden the White House. In 2020, liberals and leftists alike came out in two elections and were highly motivated to protest and hold leaders accountable. Now, Robles is seeing a depression in volunteer energy, even as people are willing to continue donating; LUCHA plans to call 250,000 voters this year, down 90 percent from 2020’s 2.5 million calls.

The president’s party traditionally loses seats in the midterms; the party faithful are less motivated without an enemy, while the opposition party is even more driven to win. But the losses this year may be historically bad: Democrats are expected to lose both chambers of Congress, and the party is being advised to try to limit the damage rather than pick up swing seats. According to organizers, voters, and elected officials who spoke with The Intercept, that’s because of the party’s inaction in Washington and Biden’s failure to deliver on his campaign promises, which are already making getting out the vote more difficult.

Sean McElwee, founder and executive director of polling firm Data for Progress, told The Intercept Democrats are leaving votes on the table.

“The Democratic Party is just barely above the Republican Party with a lot of young voters,” McElwee said.

Young voters can swing an election and their energy is essential for filling out the ranks of volunteers, but the lack of urgency on issues they care about is turning them off. To illustrate his point, McElwee recalls the 2020 primary. Biden was underwater with young voters during the contest as the Democratic Party’s youth gravitated more toward candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But Biden rebounded once he became the nominee, in direct contrast to former President Donald Trump’s numbers.

Since assuming office, however, Biden has seen those numbers decline. Data for Progress polling in select swing states suggests that Democratic excitement from November 2021 to January 2022 and the present is stagnating — while Republicans are becoming more motivated. According to a series of the firm’s surveys, high enthusiasm among Democratic voters 18 to 36 equaled or outstripped their counterparts in the GOP in swing states Pennsylvania and North Carolina in November — 33 percent for both to 33 percent and 26 percent, respectively — but by January, those numbers had flipped in similar states. Twenty-seven percent of young Arizonan Democrats were highly enthusiastic about going to the polls, as opposed to a nearly doubled 49 percent of young Republicans. In New Hampshire, it was 23 percent to 46 percent.

It’s likely not a coincidence that the split came at the same time that Build Back Better died, McElwee said. The collapse of the massive social spending bill contributed to voter malaise on the part of Democrats and enthusiasm from Republicans.

Data for Progress also found that the expiration of the child tax credit is likely to hurt Democrats in November; the end of the program was universally unpopular, leading to massive financial ramifications for American families. The analysis by Data for Progress on how the program affected Biden’s popularity indicates that it was a positive and that Democratic inaction leading to the program shutting down reduced trust. And a Morning Consult poll found that child tax credit recipients support the GOP by a slight margin after Democrats let the benefit expire this January.

Child Tax Credit Bears

Teddy bears, meant to represent West Virginia children, sit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2, 2022, to urge Congress to expand the child tax credit.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

“We’re hearing that a lot more: ‘My vote doesn’t matter, my vote doesn’t count,’” Aimy Steele, the founder and executive director of New North Carolina Project, said. “And we knew we would hear that, but we are hearing it more and more.”

Apathy aside, New North Carolina Project plans to make 1 million calls to voters of color in North Carolina this election season. The group’s fundraising numbers are steady, for an off-year election, but there are other concerns: chief among them, how to keep volunteers engaged in a midterm contest and a system of voter roll purges. Over half a million people were taken off the rolls in advance of 2020, and the state is trying to disenfranchise tens or hundreds of thousands more. All of that “damages the confidence people have in the flawed system of voting,” New North Carolina Project’s Michael Ceraso told The Intercept.

“There are people who no longer want to get involved in politics, nor vote, volunteer, or help educate current voters,” Ceraso said. “We have to do a better job of telling the entire story of those in our local community and how we can best address any negative or pessimistic views of the political systems that built this country.”

Voters have a number of issues that they’re unhappy about, Steele said — certain politicians in Washington, student loans, expiring eviction moratoriums, and the like. There’s a host of problems that aren’t being addressed, or when they are, like Biden’s current thinking on student debt relief, it’s not likely to be enough.

But more worrying to Steele is the people who don’t name policies or politicians as the reason they’re not voting — instead, taking aim at the entire political system. “They just generally believe that the political structure doesn’t work for them,” Steele said. “They voted in the past, and nothing has gotten better.”

Voter dissatisfaction in North Carolina, where an open Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Richard Burr is up for grabs, could combine with bad messaging from Democrats to lead to a lack of follow-through in November, Steele said. That could make the difference in a state where Republican Thom Tillis hung on for reelection over challenger Cal Cunningham by just 48.7 percent to 46.9 percent.

While Biden has lived up to some campaign promises — North Carolina state Sen. Natalie Murdock affirmatively cited his follow-through on nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court in Ketanji Brown Jackson — he’s fallen short on other issues that have a more material impact on voters, like public safety, climate, and Covid-19 relief.

Ben Monterroso, integrated voter engagement director for the economic justice group Poder Latinx, believes that Republicans should shoulder a lot of the blame for the failure to get legislation passed through Congress. But he acknowledges that because the Democrats control the government, voters rightfully are upset that the party isn’t making that work for the people, and that creates an issue for Democratic messaging.

“It’s really hard to explain why if the Democrats have the political power, they didn’t make the changes,” Monterroso said.

SELMA, ALABAMA - MARCH 06: People march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with placards bearing the image of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, for whom the most recent voting rights bill is named, during commemorations for the 57th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" on March 06, 2022 in Selma, Alabama. The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of the brutal beatings of civil rights marchers, including Lewis, at the hands of police during the first march for voting rights on March 7, 1965. The televised attacks prompted public support for the civil rights activists in Selma and for the voting rights campaign. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

People march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in support of voting rights during commemorations for the 57th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” on March 6, 2022. in Selma, Ala.

Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The party is actively losing ground with core supporter groups such as Black and Latino voters, a problem that’s been going on for years; Trump increased his numbers with traditional Democratic supporters in 2020. It’s gotten worse during the new administration, with only 40 percent of millennials and Generation Zers approving of the president’s job performance, according to CNN. Without a future worth looking forward to, younger voters are getting disillusioned with politics. That’s leading to more than a drain on votes, warned Mariah Parker, a county commissioner in Athens, Georgia.

“A lot of the folks out here doing a lot of organizing, working on campaigns, knocking on the doors, bringing the energy are folks that are being crushed by student debt,” Parker said. “They can’t afford to pay rent, let alone buy houses.”

One of those millennials, Aaron Thorpe, is a former Democratic Party canvasser and fundraiser based in Atlanta. The party’s message “was never about telling people like, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do for you, this is what the Democrats are going to do for you,’” Thorpe said.

A more proactive message may run into its own set of problems, however. In the lead-up to the runoff election on January 5 that sent two Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, to the Senate, Democrats flooded the airwaves in Georgia and sent thousands of canvassers to knock on doors. The agenda they had promised voters was bold: another round of $2,000 checks, social spending, voting rights.

Both won, but barely: Ossoff with 50.6 percent to incumbent David Perdue’s 49.6 percent and Warnock with 51 percent to incumbent Kelly Loeffler’s 49 percent. But within months it was clear that the promises on the campaign trail weren’t going to be met. The $2,000 checks were pared down to $1,400 on the reasoning that the Trump administration had already provided $600 of the $2,000. It was a deceptive move by Democrats that didn’t earn them much trust from voters.

“Some people told me that they didn’t even get checks,” Thorpe said. “So I know that that’s one thing, one of those broken promises that people were upset about.”

It’s part of a broader problem in how Democrats approach elections. Georgia flipped blue in 2020, and the state seems on the verge of a major change. But rather than doubling down on the politics that led to that victory, the Democrats have dithered away their advantage.

The American Rescue Plan brought some hope, Pennsylvania Stands Up’s Director of Narrative and Communications Ashleigh Strange told The Intercept. But that hope was quickly dashed when the funds didn’t come because of the fight to get the money appropriated at the state, county, and local level.

“It’s been this real whiplash of people getting very excited about promises that are kept and then realizing that it’ll take a lot of work to make sure that those promises actually follow through to the folks at the bottom,” Strange said.

PA Stands Up needs to raise $7 per door knocked in order to pay canvassers a fair wage with benefits and ensure safety, Strange said. That cost comes at a time when the right wing in the state is resurgent and riding a high of grassroots energy — and election funding from donors tends to come right at the end, meaning that the investment needed earlier to ensure turnout is often just not there. It’s a problem for groups around the country, many of whom, like PA Stands Up, won’t know if they’re really in good shape or not until it’s too late.

Poder Latinx has a fundraising goal of $3.7 million, and the group is on track to hit that number, the group’s communications manager Jackie Smith told The Intercept.

Funding aside, voters are getting turned off from politics. Parker, the Athens county commissioner, said that people are “really struggling” to make ends meet. That hasn’t made them feel positively about the prospects for positive change, especially in the 15 months since Biden’s inauguration.

“People are just exasperated that things have not gotten any better,” Parker said. “If anything, it feels like it’s gotten worse since last January.”

Join The Conversation