7 ways Democrats misread the election results

Here are seven important lessons from the November 7 results that a lot of Democrats seem to have missed.


The base is critical to victory – and it wants to move left. If you’re a Democrat, there’s a name for that unfamiliar emotion you were feeling last Tuesday night. It’s called happiness. But there is a serious risk that the party will draw the wrong lessons from last week’s results.

Here are seven important lessons from the November 7 results that a lot of Democrats seem to have missed.

1. It’s too easy to fall for spin, or for easily digestible but misleading narratives

What do a former Republican doctor, a Goldman Sachs executive turned Bernie-style economic populist, a transgender heavy metal singer, and a Virginia socialist have in common? They all won as Democrats.

You’d think a diverse group like this would make it hard to pigeonhole the election’s results. That didn’t stop some people from trying. On election night, Jennifer Psaki, former communications director for the Obama White House, told CNN viewers that Ralph Northam’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race proved that Democrats must reject any “litmus tests” from the party’s progressive wing.

To Psaki, Northam’s seemingly moderate posture proved that Democrats must run conservative candidates in some portions of the country. (While his bio is “centrist,” Northam took progressive positions on several issues, most notably education.)

And yet, when “centrist” Jon Ossoff lost in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District (despite a massive infusion of outside money, Ossoff failed even to match Hillary Clinton’s numbers in his suburban district), Psaki reassured Democrats that there was no need to worry.

Ossoff was helping to define a winning strategy, she wrote, even in defeat. Our own analysis of that race showed that Ossoff could have closed the gap and won the election if he had appealed more directly to some of the people who have been hit hardest by ongoing weakness in the economy: African Americans, Hispanics and young people.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop injects an appropriate note of caution into coverage of last week’s. As satisfying as it is for some Democrats to read about a “forceful rebuke” or “stinging repudiation” of the president they despise, that’s overly simplistic. The dynamics of voter turnout in an off-year vote like this one differ significantly from congressional and (especially) presidential elections.

2. Hatred of Trump won’t save the Democrats

Last week’s victories offer only a temporary distraction from the Democratic Party’s ongoing troubles. Voter approval of the party is at a 25-year low, down to 37 percent from March of this year. Perhaps even more significantly, approval is down markedly among nonwhites and young voters, two groups the party needs for long-term success.

The fact that Republicans are even more unpopular should offer little comfort, since these numbers point to increasingly low turnout. That will benefit the GOP, which has gerrymandered itself into near-perpetual incumbency over much of the country.

The media always need a narrative, and this time around it chose “Trump repudiation.” But it would be a mistake for Democrats to build their 2018 or 2020 campaigns solely around Trump’s manifold flaws. They did that in 2016, and it didn’t work out too well.

If there was an overarching message to last week’s results, it may well have been that nontraditional candidates – including ex-Republican physician Northam, first-time political candidate Murphy and the newly elected Virginia delegates – were more attractive to voters than “career politicians.”

3. A Berniecrat would also have won in Virginia

Psaki asserted that Northam’s progressive primary challenger, Tom Perriello, would have lost the gubernatorial race. That’s contradicted by both pre-election modeling and an analysis of exit polls. As political scientist John Sides wrote, “Northam beat expectations, but not the fundamentals.”

Here’s what he means: As Nate Silver explains, gubernatorial races can defy expectations. (I’d surmise that these races are often driven by personality, rather than party or policy.) But before the election, Silver modeled the Virginia race, using the political climate and the state itself as predictors, and said that these “fundamentals” showed a 9 percent victory margin in Virginia for the Democrat – any Democrat.

Northam won by 8.6 percent. That undermines the assertion that Perriello would have performed more poorly. So do upset victories for a number of decidedly non-traditional and left Democrats (including one self-described Manassas socialist) who won further down the ticket, both in Virginia and around the country.
Health was, by far, the issue of greatest concern for Virginia voters. Republican attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid almost certainly helped Northam. Anti-Trumpism was also a factor. But opposition to Trump is not unique to “centrists,” and Perriello might have been a stronger standard-bearer for the #Resistance than Northam, who sent decidedly mixed messages about the 45th president. (Trump was a “narcissistic maniac,” said Northam, but he’d work with him if he were “helping Virginia.”)

4. New Jersey was a progressive win

Know who didn’t underperform, even slightly, against “fundamentals”? Phil Murphy, the Democratic candidate who edged out Republican Kim Guadagno in the New Jersey governor’s race. Silver’s model showed the generic Democrat with a 13-percent margin, and Murphy beat Guadagno by 13.3 points.

Murphy was clearly helped by hostility toward Chris Christie, the highly popular outgoing governor. CBS News polling showed that 51 percent of voters thought less of Guadagno because of her association with Christie (she was Christie’s lieutenant governor), while 42 percent said it didn’t matter. Only 4 percent thought better of her because of it.

Murphy’s Goldman Sachs career presented a hurdle, too, but it was not as steep. According to the same poll, 29 percent of voters thought less of him as a result, but 59 percent said they didn’t care.

Despite his Wall Street background, there was no way to mistake Murphy for a centrist. His economic plan included a $15-an-hour minimum wage, guaranteed sick leave, closing the gender pay gap, and higher taxes for millionaires and corporations. He proposed a state bank to promote the public good, an excellent idea with strong support from the left. He rejected the idea of cutting pensions for New Jersey employees, saying, “The state has to stand up for its side of the bargain. Period.”

Murphy proposed a state-run retirement plan for employees of small businesses. And he embraced another left idea to reduce gender and other pay inequities by proposing that employers be banned from asking applicants about their salary history.

And yet, we haven’t heard very many mainstream politicians or pundits point to Murphy’s victory as a sign that Democrats need to move further left on economic issues. Maybe they should, although all signs already pointed to a Democratic victory here, as in Virginia.

5. The left won big in other races, too

Lee Carter, a self-described democratic socialist, scored an upset victory over one of the most powerful Republicans in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Carter received campaign help from the Democratic Socialists of America, and celebrated his victory over House GOP whip Jackson Miller by singing “Solidarity Forever” with a roomful of supporters. Carter, who said he was exposed to democratic socialism by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, will represent Manassas.

“If you’re to the left of Barry Goldwater,” Carter told the New Republic’s Graham Vyse, “Republicans are going to call you a socialist anyway, so you may as well just own the label.”

Carter’s win was one of several victories the left scored last week, as Miles Kampf-Lassin of In These Times notes. Larry Krasner, a leftist attorney who opposes mass incarceration and wants to abolish bail, prevailed in last spring’s Democratic primary and became Philadelphia’s district attorney on Tuesday. Left candidate Seema Singh Perez won a seat on the Knoxville, TN city council. All seven candidates backed by the Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution won seats on Somerville, MA’s Board of Aldermen. Our Revolution also backed Maine’s referendum expanding Medicaid coverage, which won by a large margin.

Two winners in the Somerville election were backed by DSA, which also saw local wins across the country, with members prevailing in Ohio and Minnesota and candidates it supported winning in New York City, upstate New York, Montana, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

“In total,” writes the New Republic’s Sarah Jones, “19 candidates backed by Our Revolution won seats; so did 15 members of Democratic Socialists of America.” Adds Jones; ‘There is no real divide separating progressive populism from identity politics. “

6. The base is critical to victory – and it wants to move left

If anything, Jones is dramatically understating the case. “Identity” groups lean further left, and are more interested in replacing the Democratic Party’s current leadership, than white males.

A recent Harvard-Harris poll shows that each of these groups is more left-leaning than whites and males. Support for “movements … to take (the party) even further to the left and oppose the current Democratic leaders” was 69 percent for voters aged 18-34. It was 65 percent among Hispanics and 55 percent among African Americans, and only 46 percent for whites. 55 percent of women and only 49 percent of men supported these movements.

So much for the white, “Bernie Bro” canard against the left.

The populist-leaning Murphy performed as well among white males (with 50 percent of their vote) as Northam did (with 51 percent) in Virginia. But it would be a mistake to pursue those voters at the expense of the Democratic base. Tuesday’s election results confirm that the electorate is increasingly polarized. Victory depends more on turnout from young people, women, and people of color. It, therefore, becomes incumbent to create a party that appeals to these voters – and the Harvard-Harris poll tells us that what they want is a party of the left, with new leaders at the helm.

7. The left has shown the struggling Democrats a way forward

Establishment Democrats have maintained for years that leftists can’t get elected. Sure, they say, it would be nice to have real change in this country, but it’s just not “pragmatic.” That position is increasingly hard to defend. Bernie Sanders is the nation’s most popular politician, while leftists have won victories from Montana to Maine.

That should not be a surprise. Regardless of how they identify themselves on the conservative/liberal spectrum, many voters embrace left-leaning policies. Peter Dreier listed some of the results of recent polling for the American Prospect. Some examples: Large majorities believe that the wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street have too much political power. Voters want to reduce the influence of money in politics, address economic inequality, improve worker benefits, expand the federal government’s role in health insurance, and make public colleges and universities tuition-free.

How did these left candidates win? By combining an attractive policy agenda with on-the-ground organizing rooted in movement activism. That kind of campaign strategy can liberate the Democratic Party from its dependence on large infusions of campaign cash.

As recent scandals and revelations have shown, the Democratic Party will continue to struggle as long as its dependence on large-donor cash conflicts with its ability to craft progressive policies and campaign around them. These progressive victories have shown the party the way forward.


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