The Memo: Democrats see warning signs beyond 2020
Some of the smartest minds in Democratic politics see warning signs for their party even as they celebrate President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Trump.
While Biden’s advantage in the popular vote this year is nearing 6 million, some liberal political experts are disconcerted by demographic trends that they say look unexpectedly difficult for their party.
Two in particular come up over and over again: A weaker than expected performance among Latino voters this year, and continued GOP strength among white voters who don’t have a college education.
Biden’s win in the electoral college — 306 votes for him to 232 for Trump — is semi-comfortable but rests on razor-thin margins in states such as Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona, all of which he currently leads by less than 1 percentage point.
The schism in the electorate around education is troublesome to Democrats such as David Shor, a data expert who handled the internal election-forecasting models for the 2012 Obama campaign.
“The fact that we do badly among people without a college degree is very bad — not for any moral reason, but because people without a college degree live outside of cities, and rural areas are strongly overrepresented at every level of government,” Shor told The Hill.
He added: “The reality is, whether you are talking about single-member districts, the Electoral College or the Senate — one way or another, all those things over-weigh rural states. So our current electoral coalition is not consistent with wielding legislative power.”
A shift against Trump among college-educated white people appears to have been one of the main reasons Biden won this year while Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.
Biden won white college-educated voters overall by 3 points, according to exit polls, whereas Clinton lost them by 3 points in 2016.
But Biden only barely moved the needle on the yawning gap that Democrats suffer with white working-class voters. He lost whites without a college degree by 35 points this year, just a fraction better than Clinton’s 37-point deficit in 2016.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist based in southwest Virginia, has been arguing for years that his party has become more and more culturally alienated from rural white voters.
“You hear all the time, ‘Oh, rural people vote against their own economic interests!’ But nobody ever talks about why they do that. There is a powerful interest driving them in that direction, and that’s culture,” said Saunders.
Saunders argued, for example, that an old-style “Blue Dog” Democrat — “pro-gun and pro-God,” as he put it — could have defeated vulnerable GOP Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa. Ernst trailed her challenger Theresa Greenfield in a number of polls earlier in the race before closing the gap and going on to win reelection by 7 points.
The party’s performance with Latino voters was just as troublesome for many in the party.
Trump surprised some analysts back in 2016 by securing 28 percent of the votes cast by Latinos — a figure slightly better than 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney — despite his hard-line rhetoric on immigration. Trump nudged that number up further this year to 32 percent.
Much media attention has focused in Florida, where Biden’s advantage in Miami-Dade County — the heart of the state’s Cuban American population— was less than a third the size of Clinton’s four years before.
But Trump also performed strongly in some of Texas’s heavily Latino border counties. Democrats failed to make a single congressional gain in Texas and were also disappointed by the outcome of elections to the state House.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, one of two south Florida Democratic congresswomen to lose reelection, pushed back on those pinning blame for the party’s performance among Latinos solely on the idea that the party was tarred as “socialist.”
“There were many factors: a targeted disinformation campaign to Latinos; an electorate desperate to re-open, wracked with fear over the economic consequences; a national party that thinks racial identity is how we vote,” Mucarsel-Powell tweeted Wednesday. “It’s not just about socialism.”
Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, had a similar analysis, emphasizing in particular fears in the Latino community over new COVID-19-related restrictions and their economic ramifications.
“It does seem like Hispanic working-class people were much more sensitive to the economy, in a way that didn’t help the Democrats. They were very worried about their jobs, their families, their incomes, their ability to work,” Teixeira said.
More broadly, Teixeira added, “the case [Democrats] were making to Hispanic voters wasn’t nearly as good as they thought.”
Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), argued that the “socialism” charge was overstated. “I think it is relevant in one county in one state in America,” he said, referring to Florida’s Miami-Dade.
Instead, Rocha argued, Democrats were paying the price for an underrepresentation of Latino and Black people among the upper reaches of its party apparatus, and among the strategists who run related super PACs.
“You have no Latinos or Black people at the table making any of the strategic decisions,” he said.
Democrats are hugely relieved right now that Trump’s exit is looming. But the party is likely to have fierce debates in the months ahead about how it can knit together a more effective coalition.
Some progressives have argued that the party needs to do more to energize its grassroots supporters, an idea summed up in the slogan “embrace the base.”
But others, like Shor, are not so convinced.
Democrats, he argued, “have a real tendency to focus on controversial, almost sexy, things, and as a party we need to become more bland and less controversial if we want to get cultural conservatives to vote for us,” he said.
“If you look at who wins the most elections — who outperforms the most — it is usually bland, moderate people who win.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.