On the third day of the Endless Election of 2020, Washington Post congressional reporter Erica Warner reported Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s conversation on an internal Democratic Caucus call:
Spanberger on the Dem caucus call: We lost races we shouldn’t have lost.— Erica Werner (@ericawerner) November 5, 2020
Defund police almost cost me my race bc of an attack ad.
Don’t say socialism ever again.
Need to get back to basics.
The entire conversation is worth a look, but more this central idea reflects both a narrow concern with 2020 congressional results and a broader concern with messaging and branding for the Democratic Party.
In 2018, Democrats rode a wave election to a net gain of 41 house seats, winning the popular vote by 8.6 percentage points. With this in mind, the prevailing wisdom entering 2020 anticipated even more pickups for Democrats. The national environment was dominated by a deeply unpopular president; more specifically the 2020 election would occur in the midst of a life-changing and massively mismanaged pandemic, a much worse economy, and significant margins of support for racially progressive messaging.
Instead (as of now), the Democrats are poised for a much narrower popular vote margin, a loss of -at least- 6 seats in the house, and an uphill battle to take control of the Senate through the Georgia runoff elections. This is not to say that the 2020 elections were a failure — Joe Biden won the presidency, and unseating incumbent presidents is really hard! However, there is a strong sentiment that continuing with business as usual and relying on The (dubious) Emerging Democratic Majority will forestall significant problems for the party’s future, especially downballot in congressional and state elections.
In this (undoubtedly premature) retrospective, I would contend that the Democratic party’s problem is not policy. Progressive ballot measures such as minimum wage hikes, legalization of marijuana, and progressive tax legislation passed in states that remained solidly red throughout the ticket 1 Including in my home state of Montana! . This mirrors a more broad trend in the electorate that has been borne out time and again in the past decade: Democrats hold overwhelming public support for at the very least mainstream Democratic policies, from gun control to Medicare expansion 2 With the notable caveat of the inaccuracy of polls and the demographic skew of voters. .
Instead, one significant source of these electoral challenging is the abysmal messaging of progressives operating both within and without the Democratic Party. The American Left’s penchant for sloganeering and simplicity in messaging is and will be catastrophic to electoral prospects of the Democratic Party.
For example, consider “defund the police.” For many progressives, this phrase represents redirecting funding from police departments to support community development and mental health programs. To most others, it is a very distasteful idea that instantly shuts down any progress towards police reform. Even in a national environment willing to accept the reality of systemic bias in policing and support Black Lives Matter, reductive phrases like “defund the police” increases the challenge of articulating a positive message around police reform. Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight remarked on polling to this effect in June (emphasis added):
Four polls conducted in the past two weeks found that Americans opposed the “defund the police” movement or “defunding police departments” 58 percent to 31 percent, on average.
For instance, when Reuters/Ipsos queried people about “proposals to move some money currently going to police budgets into better officer training, local programs for homelessness, mental health assistance, and domestic violence,” a whopping 76 percent of people who were familiar with those proposals supported them, with only 22 percent opposed. Democrats and independents supported these proposals in huge numbers while Republicans were split, 51 percent in favor to 47 percent opposed.
Meanwhile, Morning Consult/Politico asked respondents whether they supported “redirecting funding for the police department in [their] local community to support community development programs,” and just 43 percent of register voters said they supported it, while 42 percent opposed it. Still, this was a significant increase in support from the pollster’s question about support for the “movement to ‘defund the police’” (which, to reiterate, was 28 percent support vs. 58 percent opposition).
In no way am I trying to discount the very real and visceral anger in communities about truly horrific policing practices over decades. The scenes across the country of brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests following George Floyd will absolutely result in phrases emerging that are not designed to win elections in rural Nebraska— nor should they moderate their tone! The work that activists do to move the Overton window is undoubtedly responsible for social progress.
However, there does need to be a recognition that amplifying these messages in the context of politics is so very counterproductive.
Consider the first presidential debate, presidential debates being of course where subtlety goes to die. In the segment on racial injustice, Biden had to starkly reject defunding the police because he realized the deep unpopularity of the idea. If an easily demonized phrase didn’t exist, there is potential that he could have made a more positive message about police reform and racial bias. Instead, the conversation around police reform is purely framed as a yes-or-no on an electorally toxic slogan. In this, we see that this simplicity and sloganeering isn’t good for the left either! A signature policy of progressives had to be explicitly derided in front of one of the largest audiences of the presidential campaign. The constant need for vulnerable Democrats to run away from left-wing ideas that are easily turned into attack ads by the Republicans makes meaningful reform harder.
“Defund the police” is a representative example of a more broad problem with progressive policy messaging and articulation. Races are increasingly nationalized, and campaign emphases are less important in that nationalized partisan environment. Therefore, swing candidates have a harder time articulating a winning message — even a progressive policy vision— when they can be mercilessly hounded by the most off-putting version of those progressive policies. This concept is why Rep. Spanberger was so concerned with the future of her seat and more broadly the viability of a big-tent party like the Democrats.
Pragmatic messaging, often based around meat-and-potatoes issues like expanding Obamacare, protecting public lands, and enacting common-sense gun control is a staple in the sort of red-purple states and districts critical to winning majorities in a gerrymandered House and wildly unrepresentative senate. Despite this, these ideas are often dismissed by the Left as boring forms of neoliberal or centrist ideology. While I will be the first one to argue for transformative change in American government, there is real value in changing minds through seeing policy shift for the better through, yes, incrementalism. Furthermore, there is an inability and startling unwillingness to meet voters where they are that does incredible damage to how the left is perceived.
Why weren’t these challenges unsurmountable in the presidential race? To begin with, there are a variety of conditions specific to the candidates. Donald Trump was uniquely unpopular for, you know, *the everything*. Joe Biden, in addition to being in a demographic group considered more moderate, had an incredible amount of message discipline to a unifying, values-based campaign. While this can be true of candidates down-ballot, there is much more opportunity for a presidential challenger to define themselves through massive media attention, debates, and speeches that garner free media. Another theory is that moderate or conservative voters disgusted by the Trump presidency could take out their anger on Trump directly in 2020 while voting for their conservative interests downballot. This would be in contrast to the 2018 midterms, where the unpopularity of Trump was borne by Republicans in the House and Senate.
Of course, this is not the only reason that the 2020 election was less successful than hoped. Voters are unwaveringly more weird than anyone’s conception of them. Despite this, we must consider that it is pretty clearly established that the incumbent presidential party loses seats in the midterms afterward. Without examining how the messaging of the party is affected by a growing leftist component, the party could be in for an extremely challenging cycle.
- 1Including in my home state of Montana!
- 2With the notable caveat of the inaccuracy of polls and the demographic skew of voters.