It’s not nearly enough for Democrats to win — they must win big to govern effectively. Joe Biden won but Democratic failures in congressional elections will make it tough for him to govern effectively. Democrats had tons of money and plenty of vulnerable GOP targets in Senate races but failed to take control of the upper chamber. Democrats retained control of the lower chamber of Congress but with a reduced majority.
Unless Democrats win both Senate races in Georgia on Jan. 5, the 46th president will need to accommodate Republican Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNAACP president presses senators on voting rights: 'You will decide who defines America' Sununu says he skipped Senate bid to avoid being 'roadblock' to Biden for two years 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (R-Ky.) to enact his pressing legislative agenda. This will limit the new president’s ability to govern effectively, progressively and to aggressively tackle the serious problems facing a nation threatened by the raging pandemic and a struggling economy.
Democrats won the title bout, but the party undercard got knocked out. Establishment Democrats were quick to blame party progressives for congressional defeats even though moderate Democrats like President-elect BidenJoe BidenEuropean EV sales outpace diesel for first time Rising costs of climate crisis must compel Congress to act Madame Tussauds unveils new Biden and Harris figures MORE and House Speaker Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTwo-thirds of Americans support banning lawmakers from trading stocks: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Voting rights week for Democrats (again) Watch: Lawmakers, activists, family members call for voting rights legislation on MLK day MORE (D-Calif.) set the tone for the party message and platform. It’s clear that Biden shaped perceptions of the party’s image since virtually everybody who voted for a Democratic House candidate voted for him. Blaming progressives for the party’s failure in congressional races is a lot like the captain of the Titanic blaming the passengers for the ship hitting the iceberg.
The national exit poll conducted for a media consortium is an effective way of identifying what went wrong for congressional Democrats. Issues and images are the foundation of an effective party message. Voters listen to candidates discuss the issues so they can make a judgement about the kind of person he or she is to draw a portrait of the candidate’s image.
The biggest voter issue priority was the economy and the biggest image angle was a strong leadership. Republican House candidates scored big on both items and won four times as much support than Democrats did among voters who picked those two factors as their main considerations. To thrive in the future, Democrats must improve their standing in both areas that are such big concerns for so many voters.
Back in 1992, James Carville, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonCould the coming 'red wave' election become a 'red tsunami'? Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE’s top strategist in his successful presidential campaign famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Carville is still right. Even in a chaotic political climate, there are some things that never change in American politics. We’re in the middle of a pandemic that had wreaked havoc on millions of people and killed more than 250,000 Americans by Election Day. But economic concerns still reigned supreme in the minds of Americans who voted in 2020 and Democrats failed to adequately address those worries.
In a down economy with so many Americans suffering financially, Democrats must do much better job of addressing the concerns of poor white voters. Democrats should address these financial concerns forcefully because strength is what voters look for in political leaders. Half solutions don't cut it. Republican House candidates won a convincing majority of white voters in households where the total income is less than $50,000. In contrast, nine in 10 African Americans at the low end of the income scale voted for Democratic House candidates. Winning the support of poor white voters will be tough but we must figure out a way of doing it to build an effective biracial political movement.
The solid GOP performance among poor whites came even after Trump shafted them with tax cuts for wealthy Americans and decreases in spending for social and economic programs that are vital to the working families. If Democrats can’t take advantage of the misfortunes of poor and working-class whites, the party is doomed to winning small victories instead of major triumphs. Democrats need bigger and bolder economic proposals to win this key block of voters. The only way for the party to win big is to win over low-income whites who are struggling financially but still loyal to the GOP.
Despite the massive advantage Republicans enjoyed with voters who prized strong leadership and the economy, Democratic House candidates did enjoy an advantage on secondary factors but these were not the priorities that mattered most to voters.
The party had a big edge with voters who wanted a candidate with good judgment and who could unite Americans. These are the areas that Biden emphasized in his campaign. The second and third largest issue priorities were racial justice and the pandemic. Democrats won an overwhelming amount of support among the voters who picked those two issues as their biggest concerns. The Democratic performance on issues secondary in voter concerns was good but not good enough to win a Senate majority and to avoid losses in the House.
To win big enough to govern effectively, the Democratic Party needs to do much better on the issue and image dimensions that are most important to voters. Democrats heed the advice of Admiral David Farragut who said “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” The GOP will brand Democrats as socialists whatever they propose. So, the party must go bold so that it reaps the benefits of a populist economic agenda and not just the slings and arrows that come with it.
Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is the host of the podcast Deadline D.C. with @BradBannon and the Progressive Voices network.