With life returning to something resembling normal in the U.S., many people from the center right to the progressive left are still looking at some of the things that went wrong for Democrats in 2020, especially in the lower house of Congress, where the party lost 9 seats. Toward that end, and looking ahead to the 2022 midterms, three centrist groups: the neoliberal Third Way, Collective PAC and Latino Victory Fund recently completed a 73 page “Post-election Analysis” that the New York Times, which made it public, called, “the most thorough act of self criticism carried out by Democrats or Republicans after the last campaign.”
This is actually a pretty low bar when you think about the continuing inability of the Republican Party to extricate itself from the cult of personality built up around the former president.
Two political operatives, Marlon Marshall, who directed electoral strategy for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and Lynda Tran, who just this week was given a Senior Advisor role at the U.S. Department of Transportation, were put in charge of the effort. They are among the founders of an organization called 270 Strategies (a reference to the number of electoral college votes required to win the presidency), a for-profit consulting firm started in 2013.
It says a lot about how much American progressivism has changed in the short time since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign that 270, something of a revolving door made up of former Obama campaign operatives, once billed itself as ‘progressive’ while advertising its work with clients like former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and charter school advocate Cory Booker.
In fairness, the consultancy did work on California Democrat Ro Khanna’s successful 2014 campaign and has provided paid services to groups like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and End Citizens United.
After a forward by Marshall and Tran, the report dives right in, with a section titled Our Findings, listing the six issues that the authors then go on to look into in detail using interviews, polls and other metrics. Their findings include things that are so obvious it’s somewhat embarrassing that the authors would mention them at all, starting with, “Voters of color are persuasion voters who need to be convinced.”
An argument can certainly be made that centrist Democrats take their most loyal blocs of voters for granted; for example, privileging suburban voters who lean Republican in both 2016 and 2020 over outreach to the working poor, who may not see a reason to vote at all. While suburban women seem to have helped Biden toward victory last year, there is evidence many split their votes down ballot.
This vote splitting might be seen as strategic by some, withholding complete control from either party, but the ultimate result is usually gridlock, meaning that ambitious legislation like Biden’s infrastructure bill get watered down or fail to pass altogether (yet tax cuts that appeal to donors from both parties are enacted with bipartisan votes).
It’s also insulting in that a party that’s described itself as representing the interests of working people would begin from the premise that certain voters simply need to trust leaders that have done little of substance for them and their families in years. As the report notes more than once, for the last two cycles it seemed like the party wasn’t really running for anything, it was simply against Trump.
Trying to message to African American, Asian American or Latinx communities as if they are monoliths is another obvious mistake that would never be made by either party with white voters, even in simple urban/rural or regional terms.
As the authors note in discussing the approach to diverse Latinx communities, “National strategy failed to take into account regional and local differences… despite higher support for Democrats among voters from Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic compared to Cuban American voters.”
Older voters of Cuban descent in south Florida tend to take rightwing talking points about ‘socialism’ more seriously than other groups, making many of these citizens ‘unpersuadable’ but, as the Post Election Analysis makes clear, more rural Latinx voters in West Texas, many of whom lived in the region long before it became a state, might have been won over with different messaging than that directed at those in urban areas, especially recent immigrants.
As Branko Marcetic reminded Jacobin readers in a piece about the report this week, Bernie Sanders advisor Chuck Rocha, who was a constant presence on web based media like The Hill’s “Rising” throughout the campaign, tried to get the party to understand these nuances and how knowing these things helped him and his subordinates have remarkable success in reaching some of these communities during the Vermont senator’s 2020 primary run.
It will surprise almost no one that the group taken most for granted by Democratic leadership are African Americans, who are usually treated as a single group rather than a rich tapestry of intersecting identities and communities. Acting as if Black voters have nowhere else to go in terms of party also misses the basic fact that there is a third option in a 2 party system: staying home.
As the report explains, “Campaign messaging to these groups typically did not account for differing perceptions among gender, age groups, educational attainment, geography, or country of origin and there was a dearth of message research on Black voters in particular.”
While the authors’ other ‘findings’, like, “Covid 19 affected everything” and “Our hopes for 2020 were just too high” don’t really tell us anything of substance. Worse, saying that “Republican attempts to brand Democrats as ‘radicals’ worked”, just repeats talking points heard from conservative Democrats like Virginia representative Abigail Spannberger who melted down in a conference call with other members soon after the election.
Although the report spends some time on rightwing accusations of ‘socialism’ that have confronted every Democratic presidential candidate for decades but have admittedly become more strident as more progressives like AOC have come into government, most of their criticism is levelled at activist calls to ‘Defund the Police’.
This slogan, which comes from the streets, may not be elegant but is easily explained. Considering the Black Lives Matter protests that took place around the country last year inspiring others throughout the world, to allow Republican candidates to present it as meaning that law enforcement would cease to exist without pushback, was either political malpractice or the result of cowardice.
Democrats seriously worried about attacks in these terms should have been ready to reshape the message coming from activist groups, as Quentin James of Collective Action, which works on issues impacting African Americans told the New York Times in the article cited above, “We did a poll that showed Black voters, by and large, vastly support reforming the police and reallocating their budgets.”
Or, put another way, taking away some of their funding.
The last two conclusions in the report are somewhat related, the first being that, as in 2016, polling didn’t work for a number of reasons but one conclusion that makes a lot of sense is that, “…2020 laid bare a challenge that the survey research industry has feared for decades: there is a systematic difference between people who take surveys and those who do not.”
What the report’s authors found was that, while polling couldn’t give strategists a clear enough picture, on the ground organizing and door knocking worked, showing that the best way to win over voters is still to meet them where they live. This is something candidates like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib did safely despite the pandemic.
As Omar tweeted just after the results were in showing an 88% turnout in her district, which surely helped candidates up and down the ballot, “You get what you organize for.”
Hopefully in 2022 and beyond, Democratic party leadership will take this one message to heart.