This should have been so easy.
This should have been a lay-up, a tap-in, a chip-shot, a meat ball, pick whatever sports metaphor you want. This election was here for the taking for the Democrats, and while they managed to reclaim the White House they will spend the next four years ruing missed chances and could-have-beens.
Donald Trump was a historic failure as president. His approval rating never got above 50%, according to Gallup. At no time did a majority of Americans look at President Trump and think, “Sure, he’s doing a good job up there.”
And how could they? His incompetence has been staggering. It has been comedic, like Trump’s appraisal of Hurricane Florence as “one of the wettest we’ve ever seen from the standoint of water” or his lurid obsession with toilets. It has been insidious, like his characterization of African nations as “shithole countries” or his fulminations about a caravan of migrants before the 2018 midterms. At times it has been truly bizarre — think of the time he launched paper towels at impoverished Puerto Ricans like a cheerleader with a T-shirt cannon, or the time he considered buying Greenland, or the time he excitedly announced his idea for stopping hurricanes: “Why don’t we nuke them?“
And then coronavirus hit. He could not bluster and attack and rage-Tweet the virus into submission; it was a problem that required empathy and good governance. He possesses neither. Coronavirus ripped through the country, taking our sense of security and Trump’s big beautiful economy with it. We are living in a psychological nightmare. 242,000 Americans have already lost their lives. Many of them were our loved ones, our friends, our family. The mundane trappings of normal life have been taken from us. The scars of this year will take decades to fade.
All along, the Republican Party enabled him, encouraged him, goaded him on. Tax cuts for Trump’s rich cronies? Sure, why not. Strong-arming Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on a foreign rival? Okay, maybe that wasn’t great, but we can’t be too hasty or too harsh on dear Donald. Economic relief for an American public crumbling under the stresses and anxieties of a raging pandemic? My god, that would require us to spend money! We can’t do that!
It was a landscape perfect for vengeful repudiation; instead, voters tentatively opted for a partial change. Sure, they voted out Donald Trump — while the margin falls well short of a total landslide, it does represent a clear and safe victory for Joe Biden. But Democrats missed a golden opportunity to retake the Senate (pending two special elections in Georgia), and in an environment conducive to expanding their majority in the House, they instead lost ground.
What the hell is it going to take to win?
One easy answer is democratic reform. Democrats want to expand the Voting Rights Act to make voting easier and more accessible for all Americans, particularly voters of color. Doing away with gerrymandered districts to create a group of legislators more representative of voters’ true wishes will also restore balance to American democracy. Eliminating the filibuster will remove obstacles for legislative reform and allow Congress to enact meaningful change for American voters. The pinnacle of Democratic ambition is to reform or abolish the Electoral College, that ugly stepsister of American democracy which gives rural Americans outsized power in electing the president.
All of these reforms are necessary, but none can be made until Democrats actually gain power. They need to beat the system as its currently constructed before reforming it to create a more perfect union. So how do they do that? There are two things I think Democrats need to improve on. These are by no means the only changes to be made, or magical silver bullets that will guarantee a dominant Democratic coalition. But both ideas will expand Democratic voter blocs amongst moderates and progressives, and neither involves fundamental policy or value changes.
Much of the Democrats’ 2020 messaging focused on character and decency, particularly in the presidential election. When they did run on policy, they focused on healthcare and the coronovirus. Those were good choices, but they should have added a third: economic prosperity. The economy was the most important issue among voters, according to exit polls; on that issue, voters tended to prefer Donald Trump. As the progressives’ memo argued, Biden was able to overcome that deficit with strong messaging on combatting Covid-19; Congressional Democrats were less fortunate.
The problem runs deeper than a single election cycle. There is a perception that Republicans are good for the economy, and Democrats are bad for it. Democrats will supposedly raise your taxes, taking money out of your pocket and plugging it into poorly-run and inefficient government programs. Republicans, on the other hand, actually care about reducing the deficit. Their tax cuts for corporations supposedly increase economic prosperity for all Americans.
These perceptions are divorced from reality. In the last year of Obama’s presidency, the budget deficit was $587 billion. This year, the last year of Trump’s presidency, the deficit is $3.13 trillion — an increase of more than $2,500,000,000,000. Sure, the necessity for economic relief due to Covid-19 threw the budget out of alignment, but even in 2019 the budget deficit was $984 billion, $400 billion more than it was under President Obama. Republicans only care about the deficit when they can wield it as a sledgehammer against Democratic reforms.
Additionally, the myth that Republican governance inevitably leads to economic prosperity may have been true under Ronald Reagan, but it has not been true in my lifetime. Every economic recession since 1980 has occurred under Republican leadership, including two of the most damaging economic downturns in US history. Republicans love to attack Obama for somewhat anemic economic recovery under his administration, but it took time to rebuild the house that the Bush Administration charred to a crisp.
Democrats need to recenter their messaging around economic prosperity and reeducate voters held captive by the pernicious simplicity of conservative economic arguments. Don’t focus on the big economic ideas like the deficit; instead, focus on kitchen table issues like wages and unemployment that matter to everyday Americans. Better still, Democrats should tie their economic message to issues of social justice and climate change that resonate with their base.
Right now, it too often feels like voters cast their ballots for Democrats in spite of economics – they like their social policies, and dislike Republican norm-breaking, but they fear that the Democrats will be bad for the economy. Until Democrats can reposition themselves as the party good for Americans’ economic prosperity, they will always be fighting uphill.
Digital and In-Person Voter Contact
Once Democrats have their message, they have to figure out how to reach voters with it. This has been another attack line from progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pointed out on Twitter that many of the moderates attacking progressive ideologies underinvested in TV and digital advertising in their campaigns. They’ve also argued that the lack of in-person campaigning and door-knocking depressed turnout among Democratic voters.
The decision to abandon in-person voter contact is a complicated one. The progressive wing of the party is correct that it did limit turnout — no amount of digital interaction can replicate in-person communication. After months of Zoom happy hours and long-distance friendships, I think we can all agree on that score. Yet in-person contact is also risky during a pandemic that continues unabated throughout the US. One of the Democrats’ main messages was that the Republicans were not taking the pandemic seriously; door-to-door campaigning, no matter how safe, risked undercutting that message. If anything, the 2020 campaign should remind Democrats how important in-person voter contact is for future election cycles.
Yet while Democrats can excel at in-person voter contact in the future, they do need to increase investment in digital outreach — and do so smartly. Pumping money into ads on Facebook and Twitter does not a digital campaign make. Only one in five Americans uses social media as their main form of news; more traditional forms of media are still incredibly effective forms of voter outreach. Additionally, they can double as social media efforts — think of Pete Buttigieg’s appearances on Fox News that quickly went viral on Twitter.
The golden rule here is this: meet voters where they are. Yes, this involves going into communities that might not have high voter turnout and increasing political engagement in order to grow the base. But it also involves engaging in good faith with as many media sources as possible to amplify your message and reach voters that are still persuadable. Democrats need to expand the coalition in both ways in order to overcome a democratic system that increasingly favors white rural American voters.
This won’t be easy. Breaking an unfair system never is. But Democrats have all the tools and policies at their disposal necessary to sweep into power and enact meaningful change for American voters. They missed their chance in 2020. May they learn their lessons and strike hard in 2022.