It’s been just about two weeks since the 2020 Election, or just about long enough for some good and bad takes to start simmering to the surface. I did an initial post-mortem on the election, and I pretty much stand by that. I’ve thought a bit more though, and I have new things to add. Let’s dive into it.
The closest comparative to Joe Biden’s 2020 victory is Barack Obama’s 2012 win. Obama won 51.1% of that vote, compared to Mitt Romney’s 47.2%, but Obama won the electoral college 332-206. Biden has 50.9% of this year’s vote, to Trump’s 47.3%, which netted him a 306-232 win. Democrats should be concerned that in the last twelve years (time since Obama’s first win), we’ve essentially traded Florida, Ohio, and Iowa into the red column to move Georgia and Arizona to swing status, and Virginia and Colorado to blue. I suppose if we can hold the “blue wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Hampshire, it’s not so bad. However if those 60 electoral votes truly fall into undecided or red hands, even Texas and North Carolina moving blue wouldn’t equal out (and I think both are purple at best). Demographics will only be destiny if in fact conservative forces use them to create permanent minority rule through the electoral college, the Senate, and the courts. The “new electorate” is simply not equally distributed out across the country enough, nor do this year’s results suggest that it is durable enough.
It’s pretty fair to say a Democrat needs to hit 50% nationally to pull out the electoral college. There may be somewhat of an open question at 49%, but there’s not much chance below that. It’s also fair to say that hitting 50% as a post-LBJ Democrat (to be read post Civil Rights, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, etc.) is hard. Jimmy Carter hit 50.1% in his 1976 win. In addition to his 2012 victory (mentioned above), Barack Obama did it in 2008, hitting 52.9% and 365 electoral votes. Bill Clinton got super close in his 1996 re-election win, getting 49.2% and 379 electoral votes in a three way race, but his 1992 was a low-water mark in victory, with 43% and 370 electoral votes in a three way victory. Only with Biden, Obama both times, Clinton in 1996, and Carter in 1976, the Democrats have topped 49% in the last 14 elections after LBJ. Al Gore hit 48.4% in 2000, John Kerry 48.3% in 2004, and Hillary Clinton with 48.2% in 2016, but all lost the electoral college. By comparison, some low water marks of the post-LBJ era include Michael Dukakis in 1988 (45.6% and 111 electoral votes), Walter Mondale in 1984 (40.6% and 13 electoral votes), President Carter in 1980 (41% and 49 electoral votes), and Senator McGovern (37.5% and 17 electoral votes). For reference, Vice-President Humphrey received 42.7% of the vote and 191 electoral votes in 1968. In 52 years, Democrats have won six elections, and topped 49% in five of the fourteen elections. They’ve finished with 46% or less in six of those elections.
This century, elections have been remarkably stable. Every Democratic nominee from 1996 through 2020 has secured at least 48.2% of the vote. Every Republican nominee since 2000 has secured at least 46.1% of the vote. The extent to which either party exceeds those numbers is often the decisive factor. The only Republican to significantly exceed 47% has been George W. Bush (both times), while both Barack Obama wins and Joe Biden’s were close to 3% above the Democratic floor, or more. For this reason, Republicans tend to run negative Presidential races and concentrate on lowering Democratic turnout. That’s probably not going to change anytime soon. Let’s not pretend it will.
So let’s talk about how we did it, and how it didn’t spread down ballot. The story is the same in state after state. In Georgia, the suburbs. In Pennsylvania, the suburbs. In Michigan, suburbs. In Arizona? You guessed it. By no means should one suggest that Biden *only* won because of the suburbs, but one should not dismiss it because it doesn’t fit their narrative. There seems to be a lot of consternation over how Biden won, and I don’t get why. As we saw four years ago, Democrats needed to improve their margins in the cities AND persuade the suburbanites to vote for them. They appear to have done both. Turnout hit record highs in Philadelphia, improved in Detroit, and yet Biden still ran up huge margins in suburban Atlanta and Phoenix. LatinX organizers in Arizona were huge in the victory, and so was a disciplined message to the middle. Perhaps the rest of the party should have taken a hint. Poorly run campaigns and bad left-wing messaging converged together to leave down ballot Democrats consistently coming up short of Joe Biden, and victory. With a similar national margin in 2012, Senate Democrats reached 53 seats. In 2008, they reached 60 seats. In 2008 and 2012, Democratic Governors were winning Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina (once). Joe Biden was out performing the whole party at the state level in New Hampshire, and Senate candidates in Maine, North Carolina, and Georgia. Meanwhile your Mark Kellys, Roy Coopers, Connor Lambs, Lauren Underwoods, Sharice Davids, and other strong, independent brand Democrats won. Why?
Let’s start by addressing the tired debate about “far-left” messaging. No, “defund the police” was not helpful for Tom Malinowski or Conor Lamb. While the left has talked a lot about Medicare for All supporting candidates, nearly all of them won in safe “blue” districts and states. Obviously having the loudest voices in the party supporting policies that aren’t popular in swing districts isn’t helpful. This isn’t news or anything new. It’s always been a tension in the Democratic Party. People thought Truman would lose in 1948 over tensions on the issue of segregation. He did not. Of course I wish we didn’t have members talking about defunding the Pentagon. I also wish our leaders were pushing forward other voices too. No, I’m not an AOC fan, but the folks on the left have managed to push her and close to another dozen people out to the forefront with their message. Who is the “mainstream” party’s Ilhan Omar? The answer would be no one, which goes a long way to answering why our party has no one under 60 besides Kamala Harris currently occupying a leadership post in the party. The messaging did suck. If you don’t like that, do something about it.
Which leads me to my problems with the campaigns themselves. Let’s be serious, what was the message in some of these Senate races? Give us the majority? More importantly than that, they were both begging for small dollar donations (with a more progressive message), while saying “we’re not AOC!” Who believes that? Why would anyone buy that? How hard would it have been for everyone to run with Biden’s message on Covid, on health care, on climate, etc.? To be fair, some did. Others ran on their bios, demographics, general pandering, and “Mitch is bad.” The result? Republicans were effective in their attacks- the Democrats are AOC. Not that I think policy really moves voters, but what exactly was a Democratic controlled Congress going to do? Pack the courts? Raise taxes? End the filibuster? Swing states and swing districts don’t love that. What else did we give them though? Did we promise them a coherent agenda down ballot? I’d argue not.
I also would argue that the campaign consultant class needs to stop pretending it’s 2006. Spending all of your money in the final two weeks of the election only makes sense if that’s when you’re getting all of your votes. “Election Day” is a dead concept. “Election Day” now needs to be viewed by Democrats as the entire time that ballots are out. This is true both on paid communications AND ground operations. An ever growing percentage of Democrats are voting before Election Day. Democratic consultants and operatives need to adapt to that, and realize that any growth in the electorate is ALSO likely to come early. Any undervotes in this year’s election can largely be traced to candidates being unknown when our voters vote. Time to get with the times.
That’s all for now. My next post will link from convention to now.
It took me nearly a week to finally be emotionally and intellectually able to write this piece, but write it I will. Joe Biden is our President-Elect. Donald Trump has been defeated. Kamala Harris has made history. People danced in the street, they cried tears of joy, they prayed, they rejoiced. For me, Saturday was one of the most moving days I have ever had. The sting of Hillary Clinton’s loss obviously hit me personally, I worked for both of Hillary’s Presidential campaigns, but it hit me even more personally than that. Rarely in the Trump era did I feel targeted by his vitriol, because I’m a white, straight, Catholic, suburban raised man, and he wasn’t trying to scapegoat me. I watched his policies and his rhetoric aimed directly at the heart of family, friends, and acquaintances alike, and felt helpless. It made me angry. The feelings I had this past weekend were so much different, so much better. I watched millions of people genuinely rejoice, dance in the string, and dance. For the first time in my political career, none of the bureaucratic BS of the campaign mattered at all to me. I was just proud of what I had been a part of. Nothing mattered to me but how this made people feel. It’s a new day.
Now, some notes…
An ode to Joe Biden.
We don’t give Joe Biden enough credit for what a master politician he is. Just the black and white ink of his resume should have been proof enough- Senate Judiciary Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Chair, seven times elected Senator, two-term Vice-President of the United States, and yes, now the President-Elect. We tend to view Joe Biden through his losses, and lose site of what he’s achieved, be it personal or political. This man is one of the great American statesmen and politicians of post-World War II America. Don’t mistake him for a saint, but don’t dismiss him as Barack Obama’s “crazy uncle #2” either.
Joe Biden was in my top tier in this race from day one (along with Harris, Booker, and Klobuchar), so obviously I’m thrilled with this outcome. Obviously being a part of his team, this is personally fulfilling as well. A lot of people ask me why I felt he was right though, and I’ll give you this anecdote- on Super Tuesday in headquarters, I declared very early in the day that Biden would win Massachusetts, and I was basically laughed at (one super senior staff member simply replied “that won’t happen.”). A buddy on the campaign asked me if I was serious, to which I replied kinda yes, and he asked me why. I asked him what other candidate could possibly win Rep. Pressley (The Squad) and Rep. Lynch’s (Irish Catholic moderate) Boston districts. My point played out pretty well. Biden could build the broadest coalition in the race, because he could speak to and empathize with the most people. He’s got Bill Clinton abilities, combined with the experience of the Obama White House, and the wisdom of years. All of that played huge against Trump.
The Broken Democratic Brand…
After 2016, one of the criticisms of the Democratic Party was that “the brand” was broken. The party had lost power in all three branches of the federal government at that time, and our 2016 nominee had ended the race deeply unpopular. The argument was basically that Barack Obama had won twice largely on personal popularity. The party itself didn’t poll very well, and seemed to hemorrhage voters they used to get.
Joe Biden won Tuesday’s election, the Democratic Party did not. Let’s be honest beyond Biden about what kind of candidates were winning. Mark Kelly and John Hickenlooper were remarkably strong Senate candidates. Roy Cooper and Josh Stein in North Carolina are very powerful Governor and Attorney General candidates. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro was the only Democratic row office candidate to win. House superstars like Lauren Underwood and Conor Lamb survived. Many of their freshman colleagues met a much harsher fate. Even at the Presidential level, Joe Biden joined Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama as the only Democrats of the post-LBJ/late 1960’s cultural revolution to win a national election. All were very gifted politicians and came to power on the back of a national crisis. We never win on generic ideology.
How bad are things though? In Pennsylvania, Democrats lost the popular vote for the US House by nearly 130k votes, at last glance. Democrats lost the entire New Hampshire state government, including both houses. Pennsylvania’s House and Senate Democrats sit at the exact same numbers they were at after the 2010 midterms. North Carolina’s legislature, just two years after Democrats broke the supermajorities, lost Democratic seats. Pennsylvania Republicans won their first row office victories in over a decade. New York State legislative Democrats lost seats. Minnesota and New Mexico Democrats lost Congressional races in good Presidential years.
I would not say 2020 was a terrible year for Democrats, but it was a correction of 2018’s majority. Like in 2016, late breaking voters seemed to decide giving us strong majorities was not in their interests. The reality is that Republicans have proven very capable of convincing voters to deny Democrats power, even in elections where they are rejecting the GOP. In 2018, Democrats were winning down ballot races in GOP strongholds. In 2020, Democrats lost some of those same seats back, limiting their ability to govern moving forward.
The Blame Game
Let’s dive into this week’s best political battle- the Conor Lamb’s of the world vs. the AOC’s of the world. I’ll start by stating the somewhat obvious- my politics aren’t a match with “the Squad,” and more so are with Lamb. With that said, I think that both sides have brought forward some interesting thoughts, both about Biden’s wins and the down ballot losses Democrats have suffered this cycle. For me, there’s lots of blame and credit to go around.
First off, I’ll state three obvious truths about Biden’s victory. First, there is no doubt that people of color, and more specifically their organizers, played a gigantic role in flipping Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and holding Nevada. Second, there is no doubt that Biden’s being more acceptable to suburban moderates in those same states got him those last few percentages of the vote that he critically needed. Third, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the unity encouraged by Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, and “The Squad” played a critical part in avoiding the lack of enthusiasm we fought in 2016. If you remove any piece of this puzzle, Joe Biden probably becomes the third Democratic nominee this century to win the popular vote but lose the crucial states needed to win. With all this in mind, I have to say that I’m not denying anybody the credit they are being given for this victory. When someone says Stacey Abrams deserves credit for flipping Georgia, all I’m doing is nodding in agreement, because you ain’t wrong.
… but let’s talk about the losing we did too. This is a tough love portion that goes in two parts, with the first being the impact of further-left messaging on the difficult races, particularly swing states and districts. The use of the term “socialism,” which is somewhat misleading anyway by “new left” Democrats, is a non-starter with many immigrant populations (especially Latinos) and suburban voters (swing districts). It played a huge role in losing Florida and Texas, and more specifically swing Congressional districts. Pointing out that candidates who supported Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal all won, while not pointing out that they represent safe blue districts, is dishonest at best. Talking about defunding the police, abolishing private health care, ending commercial flights, and phasing meat out of our diets, while quite popular in our liberal enclaves, is a straight ticket to defeat in the kinds of districts that you have to win to get a majority. For their popularity in blue districts, “the Squad” is a perfect boogeyman for Republicans to put front and center in their efforts to call moderate Democrats extremists. You can’t build a majority under the American government system for further-left politics. Fortunately, I don’t think the “socialist” messaging stuck to Biden in most places, particularly after he won a primary against that. It absolutely worked is scaring late-breaking voters in Florida, Maine, North Carolina, Texas, and Congressional districts in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Ohio, and even New York. It’s not about forcing everyone to be moderate, it’s about forcing them to be disciplined. If your policy isn’t to actually *defund* the police, don’t use words with that meaning to gin up voters who are already with us. If you’re not actually going to *seize the means of production,* don’t call yourself a socialist. Since anything you say will be used against you anyway, only give them words you mean to give them. I will give a rare rebuke to our leadership though on the Hill for this- if you don’t want AOC to be the face of the party in Iowa and Florida, start pushing some other voices out front and on TV more. If you don’t, don’t get mad later.
Let’s not limit the blame to just the progressives though. Not all of AOC’s critique of the party is wrong. The Democratic Party is not interested in party building at a precinct level, across the nation. Most state legislative caucuses are fully owned by their expensive television consultants, and their money flows there. AOC’s point about investing heavier into the online presence, which those of us in the industry call digital organizing, was proven right this cycle by those of us on the Biden campaign, who both organized Super Tuesday almost fully online, then spent literally months organizing digitally during the pandemic. Elections are literally won where the people are, not Washington, and that is online in communities, and at the most localized level, which is the precinct. Want some truth? Hillary lost Pennsylvania by 5 votes per precinct in 2016. Our organizing model does not view campaigns through that sort of lense (more later on this.).
The Waste of the Grassroots Donor
I don’t have to remind you that well-funded Democrats lost Senate races in Kentucky and South Carolina. I don’t have to remind you of the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on these races, which you may have contributed to. I doubt I need to dive too far into the relative disappointment for Democrats, particularly on the House and Senate level, with how we performed relative to how well funded we were.
This is not something that would have even been a thought before Howard Dean’s 2004 Presidential campaign, and it wasn’t even conceivable until after 2008. The old big donors would ask the party leadership essentially where to donate. With the shift away from PACs and institutional donors, there’s no way to focus donations into the most flippable seats. Let’s be honest about some of the well funded Senate seats we lost- Kentucky, Montana, South Carolina, Kansas, and even Texas- were not supposed to be competitive for President. The money still flowed there. Small dollar donors as our primary life blood in donations means a lot of money will go to waste. They will donate with their hearts, not their heads, and that’s their right to. That doesn’t help though.
Back in the primaries, I ripped the DNC for using the number of donors as a criteria to make the stage. I said it forced candidates to chase the whims of Democratic activists, not the average, median voter back home. I maintain that criticism after this general election.
The Failed Democratic Organizing Model.
I’m just going to cut straight to the chase here- The Democratic Organizing Model being used nationally basically exists to make it’s managers look good. That’s it. It’s there to produce large scale numbers that look good to your potential next employer. It’s not there to do much else.
I told you earlier that Hillary lost PA by 5 votes per precinct, which she did. Did we react to that by partnering with down ballot candidates to increase our vote share, precinct by precinct? No. We instead focused on macro change, with the focus on statewide autodialers and big shifting numbers. This is not a Pennsylvania specific problem, and even in a victory it showed up in our losses down ballot. Democrats will lose roughly a dozen Congressional races nationwide, and lost close state legislative races in swing states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. This is specifically why we can’t govern and have nice things.
The average organizer was managing 25 to 40 precincts total. The organizing model in an area that size should emphasize quality, not quantity and efficiency. We should be building a precinct captain structure, and running each district as it’s own mini race. Recruitment call goals should take a back seat to one on one’s and meeting with clubs, party committees, and active citizens. We should be less reliant on predictive analytics to tell us who to talk to, because we should have volunteers engaging their neighbors. We should organize, not phone bank. Our turfs are small enough to do so.
Don’t limit this to just organizing. Our constituency outreach is one-size fits all, and often times turns off more people than it should. Our political outreach often times has no idea who the local electeds are. Our press teams spend way too much time on statewide and national press. In short, I think Democratic campaigns are too big and bloated in their structure, and broken in their execution. We got through that this time, because people worked hard and our candidate was made for this race. That won’t happen automatically again.
What I Got Wrong
In the beginning of this race, I said we needed to nominate Biden or someone like him, who could beat Trump in the close states- because I said then that Trump would get every vote of his 46% from 2016, if not more. I was right then, more so than I was right at the end. To this point, Trump has received nine million more votes than he did last time, and sits around 47.5%, a 1.5% upward shift. While his campaign and White House seemed inept, and he was polling around 41-42%, the fact is that this race played out very similarly- most of the undecided voters were actually for Trump. Trumpism was about more than a campaign or policies, but was inherently cultural. He proved much of the Democratic professional class wrong- you don’t need to quantify everything and be precise in every calculation to succeed politically. You can do it through blunt force and speaking directly to an audience motivated by things without a policy objective. Political incorrectness is what motivates their base, and we learned in this election that trying to match that turns off some of the folks we need to build a majority.
As I suspected, the demographic divides in our politics began to crumble. Biden made gains among white voters, seniors, suburbanites, and independents. Trump made gains among black men and certain Latino groups. Demographics were not destiny. I over-estimated the impact that would have in a few swing-states though- namely Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina. The truth is that the era of monolithic demographic movements is coming to an end. With that end, our politics will almost certainly re-align some more. This is probably good for Democrats, if they embrace it, as the GOP did not pay a price for their embrace of Donald Trump really.
There is another silver lining- I do not see another Donald Trump. He is their turnout machine, and he will not be on the ballot in 2022. while others will try to embrace Trumpism, I sincerely doubt their ability to do it. While he is morally troubling and intellectually lazy, Donald Trump is the greatest marketing mind on the planet and he managed to sell himself- an inexperienced, personally flawed, policy lightweight- as the symbol of political masculinity, the anecdote to political correctness, and the pushback to Obamaism is America. He knew there was no market for Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand crap, Cheney’s neocon wars, or even the moral smugness of much of the old school “Christian Conservatism” crowd. You may think a Tom Cotton, a Mike Pence, or Don Jr. can easily pick up his cause now, but you’ll likely find that is wrong. Much like Bill Clinton’s successors (Gore and Hillary) could not ride his popularity to the White House, and Barack Obama’s personal popularity didn’t push Hillary over in 2016, you’re likely to find its hard to find another Trump.
That’s all for now. I’ll gather this whole series up in one, later on.
Well, there’s my final predictions. Just over ten months after I joined the campaign, I have it at 369-169. I changed my mind on Iowa, but nothing else really. I’m also predicting Democrats win 51-52 Senate seats and pick up 15 House seats. Now we wait…
Well, this is it. Four years after the strangest, most shocking election of our time, we’re back. While the blue checks are arguing about exit polls on Twitter, the last surge of voters are heading to vote after work on the east coast. The only way this race is a surprise tonight is if the polls were massively off. That’s always been the case, as far back as February 29th, when Joe won South Carolina. Donald Trump has been screwed since.
The question tonight is not literally is Joe 75k votes better in three states than Hillary was. This is a different race. Remember this as we watch.
Polls are closing as we speak. You will get the “0 post” from me later tonight. I’m feeling good though. This long, strange journey is ending finally, and life can move on to honesty. I have lots of thoughts about this campaign, and how it was waged, some good and some not. Judgment has arrived. I believe this campaign is far better than what we did in 2008. More to come…
In another universe it was a sleepy, damp Sunday morning. In Bethlehem, in our universe, Andrew Yang was on his soap box to tell us that even math was telling us to elect the Biden-Harris ticket, and Tara Zrinski for the State House. Welcome to the Lehigh Valley two days before a Presidential election. I say this with confidence- whoever wins here, they’re probably President. Public polling says Lehigh County will drive a Biden victory, but in 2016 Trump flipped Northampton County from Obama to himself. Nobody has forgotten in four years.
By definition, campaigns are a mess. Democratic Presidential campaigns are the worst of them all. So properly named “coordinated” campaigns, they are by definition not so. As I write this section, it is 7am on Election Day and the “first canvass shift” is about to start. Is there a point to this shift? Of course not. Did people get paid to plan this? Yup. Yet many basic, important campaign functions got left to God. What a mess.
Ok, the final averages as the polls open. 538 ends with Biden +8.4%. They also give Biden an 89% chance to win. RCP puts Biden up 6.7% in their final average, and gives him a lead in every swing state but North Carolina. His lead is 3.4% larger than Hillary’s was today. The Economist gives Biden a 97% chance of victory.
There’s something really inspiring about GOTV weekend in an election. It doesn’t matter if it’s John Legend and Chrissy Teigen on a staff call, or a call full of friends driving in from New York. Maybe it’s a visit from Kamala Harris, or walking your neighborhood in the cool of night dropping lit. Sure, there’s fire drills like running wires for the speakers for an Andrew Yang event across the Valley, but what fun is the easy stuff? The fun in this part of campaigns is just how hard they are. Playoff games aren’t regular season games. You do a lot of crazy stuff, but they actually matter more now. It’s exhausting, but it’s nice. That’s really true in Easton, the county seat of maybe the most swing county in the most swing state. It’s close enough geographically to draw people from New York, New Jersey, and even New England. It’s important enough to get their interest in the first place.
The state of the race? 538 says Biden by 8.5%, and gives him 89% odds to win. The Economist gives Biden 95% odds to win. RCP says Biden is up 7.2%. They put him up in all six major swing states. 538 does the same, plus predicts a Biden win in Georgia. The RCP average, when compared to 2016, shows Biden doing 5% better. In short, there’s a clear favorite.
This poll says this, this “anonymous source” says that. Hint: all lies this close. What writer is going to write “this is a blowout” if they want you to read their stuff? What campaign will tell you that if they want you to keep donating and volunteering? I guess what I’m saying is don’t treat this as anything less than industry. If you’re passionate, you’re the consumer, and the consumer must stay engaged. Let’s leave it there for now…
I took a lot of pride in watching my Northampton and Lehigh County Executives on the global stage this weekend. I worked hard to elect these guys. One was on MSNBC assuring the world we could count votes fairly here. The other was on BBC telling the world about who we are here. It’s kind of wild watching this. I’ve turned down a lot of interviews this year, then watched the world I played a part in building tell the story I wanted told, while I worked on this. I started here 18 years ago. Maybe I’ve come full circle now.