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.