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Imperative that Democrats figure out what went wrong in 2020

Imperative that Democrats figure out what went wrong in 2020
© Greg Nash

This past election, the Democrats won the big one — the presidency — and unexpectedly swept two Senate seats in Georgia. Overall, however, it was a bad year. Some Democrats realize if they don't figure out why — and what to do about it — deeper troubles lie ahead.

While a 50-50 Senate gives Democrats control, they lost several races they were supposed to win. Instead of picking up House seats, they lost more than a dozen to barely retain a majority. Devastatingly, they made few gains in contests for state legislatures, which Republicans have dominated for a decade. The biggest disappointments were failing to win the North Carolina Senate and Texas House to neutralize Republican gerrymandering plans.

Thus, the Democrats are at a decided disadvantage in the post-2020 redistricting — on top of the reality that the party holding the White House usually fares poorly in the midterm elections.

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These problems occur at a time, ironically, when the politics should be moving the Democrats’ way. On big national issues — the economy, jobs, health care, voting rights — the Democrats have a clear advantage. It has long been conventional wisdom that America is a center-right country politically; it looks more center, tilting left, today.

But that isn't translating electorally, and there are numerous efforts to figure out why.

An interesting one is five leading Democratic pollsters joining to analyze what they got wrong about the election last year. (The polls generally got it right in Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, but underestimated the Republican vote in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas and Florida.) These pollsters found their election models consistently underestimated Republican turnout among low propensity voters. In most places Democrats had a robust turnout; it's that the Republican vote topped expectations.

The pollsters speculate this could reflect that these voters are less responsive to pollsters. Even more, they theorize these voters aren't very motivated except by Trump.

“He is uniquely capable of turning out these types of voters,” Jim Gerstein, one of those top Democratic pollsters, told me. It cuts both ways, as Trump also energized some Republican-minded independents to turn out against him; though, it appears, some of them then voted for Republicans down-ballot.

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Yet some of those voters clearly identify more with the Democrats’ policy positions. Polls show Biden's economic and infrastructure initiatives command support even among some self-identified Republicans.

Referendums increasing the minimum wage, over the past eight years, have been approved in more than a dozen states, including conservative ones like Arkansas and Alaska.

Most Republicans have opposed expanding Medicaid benefits, though when put on a state ballot it is approved in red states like Oklahoma and Missouri. There still are a dozen states that reject this expansion — which most hurts lower income voters in rural areas, many of whom voted for Trump.

Why doesn't this policy sympathy count in more elections? The answer is culture — not so much the old issues like abortion or guns, but in the broader sense of what Democratic strategist Paul Begala labels, “identity.” Many of these voters, he told me, feel Democrats “scorn them, look down on them.” To them, this condescension contrasts with Trump, who identifies with them culturally, despite policies favoring tax cuts for the wealthy and fighting an increase in the minimum wage and Medicaid expansion.

This is aggravated when leftists rant about matters like defunding the police. Even worse, last week Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibHouse Republicans introduce resolution to censure the 'squad' Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias Omar: I wasn't equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries MORE called for eliminating the police. Very few Democrats believe in this, but Republicans were able to pin this new rap on them, reflecting the party's identity problem.

If the Democrats can meet this challenge, they have pluses next year. With a buoyant economy, the unemployment rate may drop below 3.5 percent. The Senate lineup is favorable with more Republican-held seats in play than Democratic ones. Without the former president on the ballot, those low propensity Trump voters may stay home.

This is critical in House and state legislative races where Democrats face uphill struggles. Voter suppression efforts are pervasive in Republican-dominated states. But even if these are minimized, the 2020 elections were a bonanza for Republicans; they will dominate redistricting not only in Georgia but in big states like Texas, Florida and North Carolina — all of which will gain congressional seats after the 2020 census reapportionment.

Few doubt that they will push excessively partisan gerrymandering. “They will do everything to hold on to power,” Kelly Ward Burton, a leading strategist for Democrats on redistricting, told me. “This is an existential threat to Democracy. There's not much point in talking about 2022 House races until this is resolved.”

Democrats will have to rely on the courts to strike down Republican overreach. That succeeded before in North Carolina, with a Democratic majority state supreme court. Elsewhere they will likely have to rely on federal courts and hope it won’t get to the Republican U.S. Supreme Court.

Republicans believe they could add a dozen U.S. House seats and control major state legislatures for the rest of the decade. For Democrats, this makes it an imperative to devise a counterstrategy to address their 2020 shortcomings.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.