A lot of really hard questions, with few answers, to ponder. For us Democrats, some painful electoral reckoning.
The data is still early and incomplete, yet significant enough to catalyze the questions below. At this point, I can only draw three definitive conclusions. First, Trump was right all along: Joe Biden was the candidate to fear and the only Democrat who could have won. Second, the depths of how disastrous this election cycle was for Democrats at the local, state, and national levels won’t be fully appreciated until the Republicans — fresh off another once-in-a-decade opportunity to win the redistricting wars — redraw maps again and double down on state level voter suppression laws. And third, the Democratic Party has a significant Latino problem and it’s getting worse.
So, as a Democrat, here are the ten questions that keep me awake at night:
1) Does the Democratic Party have the same “loudest voice in the room” problem that the Republicans have? There is a reason why Biden slaughtered his primary rivals, as noted here, as the Democratic Party has its own “silent majority” of center-left moderates. Yet in this era of information silos, bubbles and social media, the loudest voices of the far left often cut through. I’m not sure that many of my fellow Democrats appreciate that there are many voters in this country who think that far left progressives are as batshit crazy as we may think far right conspiracy nuts are. I’m not engaging in an exercise of moral equivalency or intellectual equivalency here. I’m just noting that, in the crudest of terms, extremists on the Left piss off just as many Americans as extremists on the Right. And it’s not necessarily over details of policy. Defund the police? Cancel Culture? On and on. Naive to think that messaging like this didn’t create a headwind (and not just with white voters!). With a straight face, is there anyone who believes that a Warren or Sanders nomination would have resulted in anything but another Trump Electoral College landslide?
2) What Karl Rove and Bush 43 understood and the Left better awaken to: Why are Democrats assuming that all Latinos are culturally at home in the Democratic Party? This WSJ article was among the most eye-opening that I have read. It is titled “How Democrats Lost So Many South Texas Latinos — the Economy”. Subtitled: “Party messaging didn’t resonate in socially conservative border communities fearful of Covid-19 shutdowns and the loss of well-paid oil-industry jobs.” This caught my eye the most: “There’s a lot of parallels between a community that’s 96% Hispanic and a community that’s 96% white,” said Freddy Guerra, a former mayor of nearby Roma. “Racism is not something that people deal with in Starr County because everybody’s brown. Climate change isn’t something they feel. They prefer bread on the table.”
Are Democrats speaking to pro-Life, pro-gun, pro-entrepreneurial, “less than pro-gender equality” 2nd and 3rd generation Latino-Americans? The data unequivocally says “no” and these are core Latino voters. To state the obvious: since 1968’s Law and Order campaign of Richard Nixon, our parties have increasingly fractured along cultural lines, not just economic ones. The stereotyping of all Latinos, as people of color, falling in-line with the Democratic Party represents not just a short-term strategic blunder, but the biggest risk to the party over the next several decades. In 2020, for the first time ever, Latinos cast more votes than Blacks and are the fastest growing demographic. George W Bush won reelection as TX governor in 1998 with close to 50% of the Hispanic vote and won re-election to the presidency in 2004 with 40% nationally. Rove and Bush saw the demographic tidal wave emerging and also saw a streak of cultural and economic conservatism in many Latino voters in TX. That is why they offered up the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform plan that included a pathway to citizenship. They viewed the Republican Party’s future tied to its ability to become synonymous with creating economic opportunity for Latinos (with a dose of machismo added for good measure). The Democrats may have received a demographic reprieve when Republican Senators shot down the plan in ’07, but Trump’s success in meaningfully increasing his share of the Latino vote versus 2016 better serve as a wake-up call that this demographic represents the greatest RISK — not just the greatest opportunity in years to come.
3) In a related question, Are Democrats too lazy to understand the work that is required to reach such a diverse demographic as Latino voters? Flashback to 2018. I was reading about then-Governor Rick Scott’s Senate campaign in Florida against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. By now, the stereotypical trope about “those crazy anti-Castro Cubans in Miami” is just that, an outdated trope. After two successful gubernatorial campaigns in the state, Scott’s team understood three things about the Latino electorate in Florida: 1) it’s diverse: his campaign micro-targeted and held specific events for Cuban Americans, Panamanian Americans, Columbian Americans, Venezuelan Americans, etc. and crafted distinct messages tailored to these diverse voting blocks; 2) “socialism” is not just a dirty word to 80-year old Cuban exiles. Much of Central and South America has a history at one time or another of far left economic collapses. While liberals didn’t see it in their social media bubbles, the Trump campaign brilliantly succeeded in increasing its share of the Latino vote in Dade County through this messaging; and 3) figure out how to suppress the Puerto Rican-American vote in greater Orlando regions. Just as the Democrats have a cultural problem with many Latino voters, they are also being branded, truthfully or otherwise, as proponents of economic policies that led many Central and South Americans to flee in the first place. But are Democrats willing to put in the work to micro-target, micro-message, and ultimately do the heavy lifting required to address a diverse population? Or do liberals continue to delusionally cling to the “demographics is destiny” trope, naively believing that more “brown voters” is automatically better for the party? The political preferences of Latino voters move from left to right as we move from left (CA, NV) to right (TX, FL) on the map. Florida wasn’t even close.
4) Is there a risk of declaring a South and Southwest victory lap when Biden was the only Democrat who could’ve won GA & AZ (barely), and Trump repelled so many? Would a less polarizing Republican than Trump or a Warren candidacy have resulted in the same outcome? The “glass is half empty” take on Georgia is that the most middle-of-the-road Democrat, running against a sociopath, amid a public health catastrophe and economic uncertainty, and bolstered by an unprecedented Black voter registration push…barely squeaked by. GA is clearly the most compelling swing state opportunity in the South given that greater Atlanta is culturally a melting pot of transplants. But before the premature victory laps are taken, let’s remember that Obama carried Indiana in 2008…
5) Will the GA Senate run-offs be the real litmus test of whether some are misreading the GA results? We may have our answer shortly. As in: What drove the moderate Biden to a less than 1% victory — was it Stacey Abrams or white Republican ticket splitters repelled by Trump? Some precinct level data compiled by both the New York Times and New York Magazine, if accurate, blows apart the trendy Stacey Abrams mythology. As Nate Cohen noted here, “Instead, the Black share of the electorate declined once again in Georgia, according to authoritative vote history data from the secretary of state. Black voters represented just over 27 percent of the electorate, down from 27.7 percent in 2016 and down from nearly 30 percent when Barack Obama was on the ballot in 2012. Georgia is one of a handful of states where voters are asked their race when they register to vote, yielding an unusually precise account of the racial composition of the electorate.” The data is suggesting that white Atlantan suburbanites turned on Trump, and that the Abrams effect is a myth that actually didn’t materialize. We’ll know soon enough.
6) Why was Black turnout in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and other key markets underwhelming relative to expectations given the unprecedented outreach, commercial messaging, and star power aimed at voter education, engagement, and registration? First, a qualifier. Perhaps the answer to this question is pandemic related, but I’m hesitant to embrace that explanation given the broader record turnout of over 150 million Americans. Therefore, why did Black turnout disappoint? This was monumentally disastrous since we are unlikely to ever again see this kind of concerted effort (the Obamas, LeBron, televised concerts aimed at voter registration, NBA arenas as polling locations, etc.) and on balance, it was a flop. For the past four years, amid the endless blather about “white working class voters”, I have maintained that the key to the Electoral College would be Black turnout in Miami, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Charlotte. Fortunately, we encountered a unique election cycle in 2020 where there were enough white suburbanites repelled by Trump to flip back key swing states, but I still believe that raising Black turnout remains critical to Democratic prospects going forward. Would Tillis have survived in NC with 2008 levels of Black turnout? No. The massive Latino swings to Republicans this cycle is a five alarm fire. The under-performance of Black turnout is 4 ½ alarms.
7) Why did Democrats fail so monumentally in the once-in-a-decade opportunity of a redistricting year after throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at state legislature races? While the White House and Senate are grabbing headlines, the state houses determine what the House will look like through their combination of gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics. The 2010 midterm wipeout for Democrats was unprecedented on too many levels to list. This year brought us a once-in-a-decade opportunity to redraw fair maps and limit Black voter suppression efforts. And it wasn’t lost on strategists who spent four years fundraising and targeting local races. With what was expected to be record levels of Democratic enthusiasm and Republican revulsion to Trumpism, Democrats salivated at their good fortune: this election cycle coincided with a census and redistricting year! And what happened? A fucking disaster. No other way to spin it. See here. Ads claiming you want to defund the police when you’re running for State Senate? Good-fucking-luck with that.
8) To everyone — including myself — who scoffed at the Trump campaign’s assertion that they were going to dig up more of those uneducated and disengaged white voters who didn’t show up in 2016 to support him: Damn, just how many are out there? Was every Democrat who claimed for four years that Trump wasn’t “expanding his base” completely wrong? Well, defensive liberals may want to argue in the weeds about the definition of “base”, but the numbers don’t lie. We need to figure out how Trump — after all that went down over the past four years — got almost 74 million votes, increased it by 17% from 2016, brought out Republicans to destroy Democrats in state legislative races, and dragged so many vulnerable Senators comfortably across the finish line to victory. If we don’t know the answers to these questions, then we also will never know how to appeal to half of the country.
9) How do Democrats succeed in countering the successful branding by Republicans as being better stewards of the economy? Let’s set aside that over the past 40 years since 1980, recessions (1991, 2008, 2020) seem to occur on the watch of Republican administrations, as does the greatest degree of deficit spending and fiscal irresponsibility (despite stereotypes to the contrary). I’m always skeptical of exit polls, although I am more likely to embrace their findings if there is an incredible degree of consistency among them. It’s noteworthy that 2020 exit polling has “the economy” as the consistent top issue among voters. Not the virus. Not racial justice. Not the environment. Not health care. And amid a severe recession that is partly self-inflicted by inept leadership, Trump still crushed Biden and the Democrats in this area. How could this be? Once again, if you reside in your media bubble, you probably weren’t being bombarded with constant messaging about lockdowns and bankruptcies. Not debating here the wisdom of not acknowledging that there is no healthy economy until we crush Covid. Only noting that Democrats need to understand i) how Trump and Republicans were so successful in getting many of his 74 million voters to place more value on the pre-pandemic economy vs the current recession, and ii) why did they under-estimate how compelling the fear of lockdown messaging was to so many voters (especially among Hispanics)?
10) Can small dollar donations (via ActBlue or directly) possibly be any less efficient and disastrous from a capital allocation and return on investment perspective? Wasn’t dark money supposed to be the root of all evil? Wasn’t Citizens United the greatest threat to our democracy? Well, there’s dark money and there’s transparent money. There’s also big corporate PACs and small dollar grassroots. But most of all: there’s smart money and there’s dumb money. Seriously? Over $100 million was given to Jaime Harrison? For a Senate race in a state often referred to as Trumpistan? Just because another cycle of awful polling data offered gullible Democratic donors the Dumb and Dumber opportunity…So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance…? The list goes on and on. All of those articles about ActBlue as an unstoppable grassroots fundraising mechanism — $1.5 billion in the third quarter — failed to actually address how much precious capital was being flushed down the toilets of “feel good” races that never had a shot. I admit that understanding how individual campaign and party fundraising money get allocated is above my pay grade. But I also know that most Americans don’t let the weekly investment club that meets every Tuesday night at the Smith’s house down the street manage their 401(k) portfolio. They’re a little more comfortable with a professional financial advisor. I wonder if scarce capital is being misdirected and misallocated to too many very low ROI outcomes. That $1.5 billion raised last quarter? It’s all gone, it yielded crap, and it needs to be replaced by burned donors.