The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:
The Democrats had a good election on November 7. While there were not a lot of big races this year, Democrats did hold the governorship in the deep red state of Kentucky, flipped the House of Delegates in Virginia, and easily passed a referendum in Ohio enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution. Moreover, this year Democrats have been cleaning up in special elections, consistently doing better than expected given the partisan lean of the areas contested. In the more consequential 2022 elections, Democrats defied expectations keeping down their losses in the House, gaining a seat in the Senate, netting two governorships and making progress in state legislatures. And of course, Democrats did win the biggest election of them all, the presidency, the last time it was held in 2020.
This has led to a certain amount of self-congratulatory behavior among Democratic partisans. The basic take is that in the wake of the Dobbs decisions Democrats have the political equivalent of a nuclear weapon on their side, abortion rights. That adds to a deep arsenal of potential attacks based around voter distaste for Trump/MAGA/election denial/threats to democracy and for a shambolic Republican Party that appears incapable of governing. With these weapons at Democrats’ disposal, they feel they have a decisive advantage moving into the 2024 election. It is simply a matter of pressing that advantage and hitting the Republicans as hard as they can.
In short, as the catechism goes, they’ve got the formula down for defeating the GOP. There is no need to tinker with the formula; stout hearts and merciless execution will win the day. The future for the Democrats and their brand is bright.
And yet…there are so many signs of underlying weakness that undercut this happy story. It was not so long ago after all that Bad Orange Man actually won the presidency in 2016. Have the Democrats really discovered the secret to withstanding further populist surges from the right? Here are three reasons to doubt that and question the Democrats’ current stand-pat complacency.
1. Despite recent results, the actual governing situation is a stalemate. Democrats had their trifecta (presidency, House, Senate) for exactly one term, losing the House in 2022. The last time they had a trifecta was with Obama’s election in 2008. That too vanished after one term, with the 2010 wipeout in the House. But an important difference between then and now is that Obama briefly had a cloture-proof majority in the Senate that included Senators from many states where Democrats have become uncompetitive: Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Despite some gains elsewhere, so many states are now out of competition for the Democrats that their path to 60 seats appears completely closed off. In addition, next election the Senate map is so unfavorable that Democrats are very likely to lose their current razor-thin majority. They are already essentially down one seat, with the retirement of West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.
Elsewhere, notwithstanding good Democratic election results since 2020, Republicans still have more governors, control more state legislatures, and have more state government trifectas (governor, state house, state senate) than the Democrats. Not exactly Democratic dominance.
This raises an important question: if the Trump-ified Republican Party is so awful, so beyond the pale, such a danger to democracy and all that is right and decent—why can’t the Democrats beat this mess of a party decisively? Why are they still playing at the 50-yard line of American politics against this version of the GOP with all its many vulnerabilities and the millstone of Donald Trump around its neck? The simplest explanation is that the Democrats themselves are so unattractive to so many voters in so many places that they cannot break the stalemate. This simple truth is the most difficult thing for Democrats to accept since it implies the need for change rather than more aggressive messaging.
2. The polls are bad—really bad. With the cheerful results from November 7, Democrats are reviving the hoary admonition “the only poll that counts is the one on election day”. True as far as it goes but there’s no gainsaying how poor these polls are for Democratic prospects. They tell us that voters, right now, are uninclined to re-elect Biden. He not only is losing to Trump on the national level but, critically, in the swing states that will determine the next presidential winner he is running behind in enough of them to lose the Electoral College.
- In the New York Times/Siena poll, Trump is ahead in five states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania—of the six covered by the survey.
- In the Morning Consult/Bloomberg poll, Trump is ahead in six states—Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—of the seven covered.
- In the Stack Data Strategy study, which combines survey data with statistical analysis, Trump leads in four states—Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—carried by Biden in 2020 and trails in none of the states he carried in that election.
Not good! The Times/Siena poll releases detailed crosstabs that allow for an examination of just where Biden is falling short. One key area is Biden’s continuing weakness among nonwhite working-class (noncollege) voters. Confirming a pattern I have previously noted, Biden leads Trump by a mere 16 points among this demographic in the six swing states covered by the poll. This compares to his (national) lead over Trump of 48 points in 2020. And even that lead was a big drop-off from Obama’s 67-point advantage in 2012.
We also see a near-perfect inversion of the overall working-class vote and the overall college-educated vote. Confirming the changing-places pattern of Democratic and Republican support, Biden leads by 14 points among all college-educated voters while losing to Trump by 15 points among all working-class voters. Besides the indignity of the historic party of the working class getting trounced among its former base, the simple fact of the matter is that there are far more working-class than college-educated voters nationally and in all the swing states mentioned above. That means that equally-sized advantages and deficits, respectively, among college-educated and working-class voters likely net out to Democratic losses.
Other disturbing findings from the poll include a mere one point lead for Biden among voters under 30 (mostly Gen Z) and a 4 point deficit among 30-44 year olds (mostly Millennials). Biden also has only a modest lead of 8 points among Hispanics (compare 2020: 23 points) and an unusually low 49-point lead among black voters (compare 2020: 81 points) with 22 percent of these voters opting for Trump. In addition, Biden trails by 30 points among white working-class voters, worse than his already yawning 26-point deficit in 2020.
There is a temptation among Democrats to dismiss the Times poll because these internals “can’t possibly be right.” But while the point estimates may not be exactly right, the general pattern of results, including the radically compressed margins among younger voters are, in fact, consistent with lots of other public polls. The challenges suggested by this poll and others are undoubtedly real and must be reckoned with.
It’s well-established that voters are very sour on the economy and rate Biden’s economic performance very poorly. The Times poll is no exception, with those negative perceptions actually stronger among working-class, younger generation, and Hispanic voters than voters overall. In a very interesting accompanying question, voters were asked what types of issues would drive their 2024 vote—”societal issues like abortion, guns and democracy” (the Democrats’ wheelhouse) or “economic issues such as jobs, taxes or the cost of living”. Economic issues overwhelmed social issues by two to one (57 to 28 percent) among voters overall and by 3:1 (66 to 22 percent) among Hispanics. Younger generation and working-class voters were also more likely than voters overall to cite economic issues over social issues as a vote motivator.
Perhaps even more disturbing, voters trust Trump over Biden to handle the economy by 22 points (59 to 37 percent). Younger generation and working-class voters are even more lop-sided in their preference for Trump over Biden on the economy. And somewhat shockingly, younger generation, working-class, and Hispanic voters were all more likely to say Biden’s policies have hurt, rather than helped them personally and to say Trump’s policies helped, rather than hurt them personally.
Again, these results are not outliers and are consistent with other public polls. In the recent CBS poll, voters expect that Biden’s policies in a second term would be more likely to make them financially worse off rather than better off, while they expect that if Trump wins in 2024, his policies would make them better off rather than worse off.
Of course, a lot of this has to do with the cost-of-living issue, whose potency appears to have been drastically underestimated by the Biden administration. The attempt to sell an economic situation that voters don’t like as “Bidenomics” has clearly been a colossal failure. This may be starting to penetrate in Democratic circles. Jonathan Martin reports:
Perhaps the most overwhelming economic messaging advice I picked up from Democrats was for him to heave “Bidenomics” into the dumpster. Attempting to make voters believe something they don’t is folly. Attaching your name to that strategy borders on masochistic.
Just so. A better approach is probably to directly address what voters are most concerned about. A very interesting study by Blueprint, a new Democratic-oriented strategy project, supports this focus, based on recently-collected survey data:
When it comes to the economy, there is significant misalignment between what voters see Biden and the Democratic Party as most focused on (job creation) and what they are most focused on (lowering the prices of goods, services, and gas)…64 percent of voters (and 70 percent of independents) say the prices of goods, services, and gas is the part of the economy they most want to see improved, while only 7 percent identify more jobs as their top priority. However, 43 percent believe that Biden’s top priority is creating more jobs, while only 23 percent think he is most focused on lowering the prices of goods, services, and gas.
Voters also see the Democratic Party as out of step with their economic concerns (though not as much as they do Biden). 35 percent of voters believe the Democratic Party is most focused on creating more jobs, while 24 percent think it is most focused on lowering the prices of goods, services, and gas. Meanwhile, 49 percent of voters believe that Trump’s top economic priority is lowering prices; 54 percent say the same of the Republican Party.
It seems implausible that these problems can be solved or overridden by aggressive messaging on abortion rights and democracy. The Democrats are going to have to be a lot more creative than that to deal with their genuinely difficult situation. Complacency is their enemy.
3. The voters that show up in 2024 are going to be different—really different. As the Democrats’ electoral coalition has evolved, a funny thing has happened: they’ve turned into a low-turnout election specialists. For a long time, low turnout was thought to benefit Republicans. But as the Democrats have accumulated educated, engaged voters, the tables have turned. Now it is frequently their voters who are more likely to engage in off year and special elections and turn out.
…Democrats appear to have an advantage among the most highly engaged voters, who make up the preponderance of the electorate in a special election, a midterm or an off-year general election.
This is partly because Democrats have made steady gains among college-educated, older and white voters, who tend to vote more regularly than young, nonwhite and working-class voters. It’s also partly because Democrats enjoy a turnout advantage beyond demographics, as the party’s activist base has been highly motivated to defend abortion rights, democracy and defeat Mr. Trump, dating all the way to the aftermath of his victory in 2016.
But 2024 will be a very different animal. Then peripheral voters will be drawn back into the voting pool. These voters are more likely to be young, more likely to be nonwhite and more likely to be working class. It is precisely these peripheral voters, who have been skipping off year and special elections, who are relatively unsupportive of Biden and exceptionally negative about his administration’s performance. If they show up and retain their current orientation, it will compress Democratic margins among young and nonwhite voters just as seen in the Timespoll.
As one example, consider that Hispanic voters who did not show up in 2022 but did vote in 2020 are much more Republican leaning than 2022 Hispanic voters. According to a study by Equis Research of the Hispanic electorate, Hispanics who were drawn into the 2020 presidential election but have been skipping congressional elections favor a generic Republican Presidential candidate over Biden by 20 points. Hispanic men under 40 in this group are even more pro-GOP, favoring a generic Republican by well over 30 points.
A surge of peripheral voters is also likely to be concentrated among working class voters. And these voters are not happy campers, which could increase Democrats’ deficit among this massive demographic—again, just as seen in the Times and other polls.
Just to underline the stakes here, let me close by mentioning the levels of working-class eligible voters in the key swing states: Arizona (70 percent), Georgia (67 percent), Michigan (71 percent), Nevada (74 percent), North Carolina (66 percent), Pennsylvania (67 percent), and Wisconsin (69 percent).
The Democrats have some work to do. Their recent playbook, as comforting as it may be to cling to, may not be up to the task.