The fight over who and what’s to blame for Democratic underperformance down ballot in the 2020 election is proceeding, for the most part, as though the election never really happened. The arguments ought to sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the party’s internal debates over the last four years; the names and faces involved mostly haven’t changed. Moderates, naturally, are insisting the party has veered too far to the left and that it’s time for the House’s left-leaning stars to shut up. One of the more prominent voices in their camp has been Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, a member of 2018’s freshman class from Virginia, who took House leadership to the woodshed in a now-infamous caucus call last week. “Don’t say ‘socialism,’” she yelled. “Don’t say ‘defund the police’ when that’s not what we mean.” Those comments have been broadly seconded. “We’ve got to be clear that we’re not for defunding the police and [allowing] that lie to continue to be out there,” New York Congressman Greg Meeks recently told Politico. “We’re not for defunding the police, and we’re not socialists. The language has to be clear.”
It goes without saying that the losing Democratic incumbents and the challengers that moderates are upset about didn’t actually run on defunding the police and socialism. It would be hard to oppose both in clearer language than, say, the language New York City Congressman Max Rose used. In a brief but fully characteristic September statement, Rose implied, given DeBlasio’s proposed cuts at the NYPD and Trump’s order to review federal funding in Democratic cities, that the two were functionally in cahoots as police abolitionists. “With this order, President Trump is joining Mayor de Blasio in defunding the police,” it read. “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I will not sit back if you’re putting my constituents at risk by playing politics.” Last week, his constituents voted him out.
Rose, like Spanberger, was one of the freshman House Democrats elected in 2018’s blue wave. The idea seemingly underpinning the week’s internecine squabbling is that the party faced more flak from the right this year than it did back then. But this plainly isn’t so. In the months before the midterms, President Trump and Republican candidates aggressively pushed messaging on a variety of subjects they hoped would rally the base and alarm suburban moderates: socialism, antifa demonstrations, restaurant confrontations, the Kavanaugh confirmation, confederate monuments, trans rights, and the migrant caravans. The last of these was tethered to another controversial, headline-grabbing policy proposal pundits have already forgotten: abolishing ICE. Polling that summer showed only 25 percent of Americans supported the idea; unlike defunding the police, a number of mainstream and nationally prominent Democrats either backed it or signaled a willingness to take it seriously anyway. And in the House, progressives, including current Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, actually introduced a bill to dismantle the agency. It was said by many that all this would be a death sentence for the party’s fortunes that year. In the end, Democrats gained 41 seats.
So what happened this time around? The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman and others have turned to split-ticket dynamics for answers. Voters who’d soured on Trump since 2016 and wanted to register their disapproval, the thinking goes, had to resign themselves to supporting Democrats down ballot in 2018. Democratic challengers in swing districts benefited from those protest votes. But this year, many anti-Trump moderates could register their opposition to Trump directly at the top of the ticket while continuing to support other Republican candidates. If so, this pattern would effectively be an instantiation of Biden’s messaging—much of the campaign was spent insisting that Trump is an aberration severable from the Republican Party as a whole and that Biden would be able to work with the GOP once elected. Perhaps a nontrivial proportion of his supporters agreed, voted for Republicans, and helped deny him the Senate majority he needed to pass his legislative agenda.
But progressive data analyst David Shor isn’t sold on the ticket-splitting hypothesis. In an interview with New York’s Eric Levitz this week, Shor noted that presidential and Senate vote shares were more highly correlated this year than in 2016, a data point in keeping with the electorate’s deepening polarization. “There’s a systematic decline in ticket-splitting going on,” he said. “Twenty years ago, heavily white, non-college-educated states like Montana were already wildly overrepresented in the Senate. But we could recruit a charming liberal and win. And that doesn’t seem to be true anymore.”
Either way, the possibility that socialism and defunding the police might have kept some voters in some places in the Republican camp down ballot should not be discounted. But there is as yet no hard evidence that those issues were more significant to the electorate than the coronavirus and the state of the economy. It was widely expected that both would contribute to Democratic gains. But there were warning signs many months ago that Trump and Republicans wouldn’t be as damaged by the pandemic as Democrats assumed. And according to an NPR analysis, Trump improved on his 2016 numbers in 68 of the 100 counties with the highest Covid death rates per capita. Obviously, voters indifferent to Trump’s handling of the crisis wouldn’t have had much trouble giving their Republican members of Congress a pass on the issue.
The electorate’s outlook on the economy has been rosy for some time—despite our fall into a serious recession, Trump consistently led Biden on the issue in polls. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Trump and the GOP crusaded against preventative lockdowns on shortsighted economic grounds. And as paltry as many journalists and policy analysts rightly believe the government’s stimulus efforts have been thus far, they’ve meaningfully improved the finances of many voters. “Disposable personal income (that is, income minus taxes) was 13 percent above normal in April and still about 5 percent above the pre-pandemic trend in July, when the full $600-weekly enhancement to unemployment benefits was still being paid,” New York’s Josh Barro noted in September. “Americans normally save about 7 to 8 percent of their disposable personal income, but that rate rose to 34 percent in April and was still 18 percent by July. As a result, American households set aside more than $1 trillion in additional savings from February through July, compared to what you would expect in a normal six months.”
That lift to incomes rested atop pre-pandemic growth trends for which voters had already been giving Trump credit. In September, Gallup found that 56 percent of Americans believed themselves to be better off than they were four years ago. In 2012, during the last incumbent reelection campaign, that number was 45 percent. That positivity didn’t make up for Trump’s vulnerability on other issues, but it might have helped Republicans down ballot, especially given Democrats’ inability or unwillingness to focus on a real economic counternarrative or counter-agenda. These are the matters analysts have tended to call “fundamentals.” Thanks to Trump’s awfulness on other fronts, they’ve been given short shrift throughout his term. “It’s the economy, stupid,” is practically contrarianism now.
Establishment critics are also pointing to problems deeper than Democratic stances on the issues and approach to messaging. In a widely discussed interview with The New York Times’ Astead Herndon last week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez focused largely on Democratic underinvestment in organizing.* “There’s a reason Barack Obama built an entire national campaign apparatus outside of the Democratic National Committee,” she said. “And there’s a reason that when he didn’t activate or continue that, we lost House majorities. Because the party—in and of itself—does not have the core competencies, and no amount of money is going to fix that.”
Ocasio-Cortez went on to argue that Democrats should be working on more than just building out conventional campaign infrastructure. “We need to do a lot of anti-racist, deep canvassing in this country,” she said. “Because if we keep losing white shares and just allowing Facebook to radicalize more and more elements of white voters and the white electorate, there’s no amount of people of color and young people that you can turn out to offset that.” The scoffing this portion of the interview initially provoked among her critics has been followed in the days since by statements from Democrats to her right who seemingly agree, including Alabama Senator Doug Jones, another incumbent who lost last week despite hewing to the center. “The [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] and [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] spend too much time investing in candidates and not the electorate,” he recently told Politico. “They don’t invest in House districts, they don’t invest in states.”
All this can be understood on one level as a critique of the current generation of Democratic leadership, which is mostly staying put despite last week’s losses. While the DCCC’s Cheri Bustos is on her way out, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn, all in their eighties now, aren’t going anywhere. But in a Wednesday piece for The Washington Post, political scientists Daniel Galvin, Daniel Scholzman, and Sam Rosenfeld argued that the Democratic Party’s organizational weaknesses have deep roots and reflect a long-standing strategic asymmetry between our two parties. “Republican presidents going back to Eisenhower have systematically invested in their party’s organizational capacities at the national, state and local levels: funding local party-building initiatives, assiduously recruiting activists, volunteers, and candidates, teaching campaign techniques, and launching fundraising systems,” they wrote. “Democratic presidents, in contrast, have repeatedly emphasized enacting policies over party-building.”
As Biden’s offered no real indication that party-building is on his agenda, that vacuum will have to be filled by the progressive groups that have cropped up and expanded over the course of the Trump era. In a memo on Tuesday, four of them—New Deal Strategies, Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, and Data for Progress—heaped praise on a collection of other groups active in swing states that may have played a significant role in bringing Biden to victory. “In Arizona it was Latino organizers over the past decade, led by groups like Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), who delivered record Latino turnout and won statewide for the first time in over 20 years with over 70% of voting Latinos choosing Biden,” it reads. “In Georgia, after being told it could never become a swing state, it was progressive Black-led organizations like Black Voters Matter, New Georgia Project and Fair Fight Action who registered over 800,000 new voters, almost 50% of them under 30 and people of color since 2018 to prepare for this moment.”
It should be said, too, that the demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd and police violence earlier this year, for all the controversial imagery and slogans they might have produced, also led to a spike in Democratic voter registrations in parts of the country, including Michigan, where over 30,000 Democrats registered in June alone. In an interview this week, Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib castigated the party for condescending to them. “If [voters] can walk past blighted homes and school closures and pollution to vote for Biden-Harris, when they feel like they don’t have anything else, they deserve to be heard,” she told Politico. “I can’t believe that people are asking them to be quiet.”
Fortunately, the loudest policing activists in her community and others won’t be shushed so easily—and certainly not as they’re beginning to extract concessions from local governments in keeping with the idea that the roles and resources conferred upon police departments should be dialed back. While they’re a very long way from seriously defunding them, cities around the country have, in fact, been cutting department budgets and looking into shifting responsibilities currently designated to officers. When the next set of high-profile police killings arrives, and they will, it’s likely that this will come to be seen as a fully pragmatic and sensible approach to the problem; mainstream Democrats will clamor to take credit for it. Really, this is already happening. “We need to prevent 911 calls in scenarios where police should not be our first responders,” Biden wrote in a June op-ed. “This requires making serious investments in mental health services, drug treatment and prevention programs, and services for people experiencing homelessness.” This is the product of a discourse that forced debate on whether we should take policing as we know it for granted.
Here and elsewhere, controversial rhetoric has yielded returns for activists. They will continue to use it whether cross-pressured politicians in other locales like it or not. The challenge for the Democratic Party, as always, is making all the jumbled pieces of the coalition fit together. Translation should be part of that effort—framing progressive ideas for success in less liberal parts of the country and building organizations and institutions that might acclimate less liberal voters to them. It’s not work that the party’s leaders and moderates are interested in doing, and it’s not work that can be squeezed for convenience into a campaign season. But it’s work that ought to be done.
* This article originally misidentified Astead Herndon.