6 Ways Democrats Failed in 2020 and 6 Ways to Fix It

Originally published at conorbronsdon.com

“Dems in Disarray” read the headlines. Elected officials from AOC to moderates like Conner Lamb are sniping at each other over the loss of seats, the US Senate is coming down to a runoff in Georgia, and Republicans have won local elections across the country and picked up seats in the US house. Sure, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump — but where is the Democratic wave that was supposed to materialize?

2020 was supposed to be the golden opportunity for Democrats, their version of Ronald Reagan crushing Jimmy Carter in 1980 and sweeping Republicans into power. Instead, Biden achieved a comfortable victory, and the rest of the Democratic party is left arguing over how they managed to lose US House seats. The Trump administration’s tragic and horrific failure to combat COVID-19 should have been the nail in the coffin for Republican hopes, so what went wrong for Democrats?

The Problem for Democrats:

1. COVID was a double-edged sword and gave the GOP a distinct field advantage.

Yes, Trump failed to address the COVID crisis. However, the situation also served to drown out the myriad other issues of the Trump presidency for many voters. Plus, Trump could use his so-called “unfair treatment” in the media around COVID to enrage his base. If there is one thing Trump is good at, it is whipping his base into a frothing rage, and they came out to vote in droves.
Not only that, in some ways, COVID gave the Trump campaign a distinct advantage. Trump chose to ignore the pandemic and pretend it was not happening, continuing with in-person events and door knocking, much more effective organizing tools than phone calls and virtual events. Conversely, most Democrats shut down their field campaigns due to the potential public health risks to both workers and voters, giving Republicans a significant advantage in doors knocked and events held in 2020, which proved crucial in many down-ballot races.

Trump also claimed credit for the COVID stimulus that did go out — by including his name and a letter with every $1200 check sent to citizens, he could take credit for direct cash payments to citizens. That certainly doesn’t hurt.

2. Republicans targeted their messaging better than Democrats.

How could this be — when Trump made consistently crude and derogatory remarks about so many voters, about Mexicans, how could a party led by that asshole be better at targeting their messaging?
Many folks on the Left tend to forget that not everyone lives in the hyper-online spaces; they do not see every hypocrisy unless ads tell them about it. With Democrats at a distinct information dissemination disadvantage (more on that later), it is hard to make hay with many voters off Trump’s flip-flops and divisive rhetoric. Sure, it is great for fundraising, but we have just shown that all the money in the world won’t buy you a majority in the US Senate — not without smarter campaigns and better messaging.

Trump and his campaign put out many messages that often conflicted, but that also meant they had a message for nearly every community. While media figures on the Left laughed about the conflicting messages, the Trump campaign ruthlessly targeted each community with their chosen messages. The Trump campaign saw different communities as persuadable voters, treated them differently based on their unique conditions, and offered targeted messaging to match. In crucial Florida, fear of socialism in Miami-Dade’s Venezuelan and Cuban immigrant communities was, of course, much more effective than the empathy message about kids in cages that Democrats blasted at most Latino communities. While this kind of empathy-first messaging works with folks on the Left, the truth is that most, while finding the policies terrible, don’t vote off of that one issue. Plus, Trump and the MAGA social media machine successfully propagated the message that “Obama/Biden built those cages” and more.
Democrats need to stop treating people as census categories and micro-target their messaging at the community level. One of the reasons that Barack Obama’s campaign apparatus, much-lauded for its successful microtargeting efforts in 2008 and 2012, was built outside of the Democratic National Committee’s purview: the DNC is terrible at targeting, particularly online.

3. The GOP had a consistent economic message: Democrats did not.

Democrats lack strong, consistent economic messaging across the board. The Left-wing of the Democratic party has a progressive, populist economic message that works. However, this election became a referendum on Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden’s national political brand. While that was a winning combination for President-elect Biden, it didn’t consistently present a compelling message to encourage support for down-ballot races. Voters want results, and Democrats, as the ‘big tent’ party, present a diverse array of messages. This lack of a clear message, combined with micro-targeting failures, makes it very hard for down-ballot Democrats to win, especially without strong field programs due to COVID.

Trump’s presence on the ticket undermined the overall Democratic message in general. This was also true in 2016, but many folks did not want to admit it’s due to their revulsion at Trump’s words and actions. Since Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 up through 2012, Democrats largely won elections by portraying themselves as the party fighting against the GOP’s business/corporate interest and fighting for women against the religious right. While abortion may radicalize and turn out many religious right voters, the number of people who are pro-choice and find the idea of government interfering with a woman’s right to choose abhorrent is far larger. Republicans playing to their base by attempting to defund Planned Parenthood was, in fact, a messaging godsend for many Democrats, as was the naked corporatism of the Republican brand.

This did not work against Trump. A core part of his early messaging was essentially ‘I’m rich; those corporate fat cats can’t buy me,’ undermining the anti-corporate Democratic message that is already regularly deflated by corporate Democrats and actions such as the 2008 bank bailout. With a demagogue’s furor, Trump railed against outsourcing, particularly with China, and he mostly ignored social security while messaging about immigration as a way to keep folks from taking blue-collar jobs. This message was undeniably racist yet unquestionably a compelling economic message for many blue-collar workers, particularly whites. Sure, the GOP still cut taxes for the rich, but Trump could not be branded with the same pro-outsourcing brush that folks like Mitt Romney were.

Democrats ended up attacking Trump more on his horrific personal conduct and abhorrent statements. Yet, that is not as important for many voters as seeing him as their asshole who will fight for them against China and other perceived external threats. Without a consistent message that appeals to voters, such as the left’s economic populism, Democrats will be at a major disadvantage if the GOP continues with this Trump-like economic message.

4. The Left doesn’t have the media machine; the right does.

Much of the Republican Party is no longer a party led by politicians — the Right Wing media apparatus leads it. That media machine is often the tail that wags the dog of the Republican party, beaming information into the homes and minds of GOP voters online, in their vehicles, and at home. This comes in the form of a massive social media disinformation machine, the longstanding conservative bastion Fox News and the massive conservative talk media apparatus.

While the horror of COVID-19 and Trump’s absolute lack of decency encouraged some Ancestral Rs — folks who have voted Republican for years and whose families are Republican — to vote for Joe Biden in 2020, most of them are engaged and educated suburban voters who still vote R down-ballot for many reasons, while Ancestral Ds voting Republican are stuck in the right-wing media apparatus of Fox News/Facebook and are abandoning down-ballot Democrats. Democrats are losing on social media, and they are failing in media in general as the broader mainstream media tries to hold to “both sides” principles. At the same time, Republicans run farther to the right and tune out.
Democrats in general, and the Left in particular, need their own media machine.

“The left constantly seeks to build bridges to people who delight in tormenting them. The right delights in tormenting people who want to build bridges to them. This is actually one of the true cleavages in political outlook. It’s an asymmetry that has dogged Democrats forever, but it has humiliated Democratic politics since the advent of right-wing talk radio in the early 90s.”

- T. Andrew Poehlman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Marketing at Clemson University

5. Democratic leadership dropped the ball.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other Democratic leaders failed. They failed to embrace progressives and learn the organizing and messages they could teach. They cast blame instead, failing to take responsibility. They have failed to invest in digital infrastructure and ensure that competent consultants get work; instead, they blacklist operatives who work with non-incumbents. They prioritize fundraising, regardless of how the money gets spent.

One example is Amy McGrath. For every vote she got in Kentucky, McGrath spent at least $90. She was the national party’s anointed candidate and an incredible fundraiser — yet she got less than 40% of the vote against Mitch McConnell. Yes, McConnell had to spend some money of his own to achieve that result, but the imbalance is substantial. Most elections cost tens of millions of dollars less, $90 per vote received is an absurd number, and a massive waste of resources for a campaign that by and large, did not receive local Democratic endorsements — her primary opponent Charles Booker did. But McGrath could raise money, so she was the one national Democrats backed.

The reason behind the emphasis on fundraising is that they need to ensure that candidates have the resources to compete. Still, it has become a barrier to entry for many good candidates and far too often has eclipsed strategic and messaging considerations. Across the country, Democratic leadership let this election become a referendum on Trump, hoping to tie GOP members to his sinking poll numbers while ignoring other potential attack messages — they failed.

6. Democrats didn’t get Digital: Republicans did

Worse, much of those vast sums raised by Democrats were invested poorly. Not only did Democrats not invest in robust field campaigns due to the risks of COVID-19, but many of the losing Democratic campaigns also failed to adequately invest in digital, crucial to any modern campaign, particularly one without a strong ground game. Democrats need their party operation — both on the ground and in digital space — to become stronger and more resilient to Republican attacks. Meanwhile, Republicans poured money into digital and did so in an effective way. It is a strength for both Trump and the GOP, and a critical reason that down-ballot Republicans performed so well in 2020.

Instead of embracing digital, Democratic leadership at the DCCC banned Democratic members of Congress from working with many of the Left’s best digital firms because of their work with progressive challengers.

What’s at risk:

The GOP is hard at work attempting to entrench minority rule: millions of more votes were cast for Democrats in the US Senate and for the presidency, yet with the electoral college and the composition of the US Senate, plus gerrymandering in the US House of Representatives, Republicans still hold significantly more power than their vote share should enable. With the work of Mitch McConnell to entrench conservative judges throughout the judiciary and the record number of Republican judges appointed during the Trump presidency, the courts are going to make progressive legislation difficult. There is a reason Democrats need to talk about court reform, adding seats to the Supreme Court, making DC/Puerto Rico states, abolishing the electoral college, and more — Republicans have rigged the system in their favor and are ruthlessly using the levers of power.

The scariest part of this is who that Republican minority will be composed of; in the Trump era, young people who are conservative and actively involved in Republican politics are not driven by tax policy or beliefs in smaller government. Instead, they are driven by racism, QAnon, and white supremacy. Racial resentment has led College Republican recruitment for years, and the alt-right has only increased that. With less than a third of Generation Z identifying as conservative, the new leaders of the Republican party will be members of the alt-right, across the board.

Even so, Democrats can fight back.

Reasons to be encouraged:

Democrats need to recognize that while their sky-high expectations of a blue wave didn’t materialize, they still unseated an incumbent president, a rare and challenging feat. For the last four years, Trump dominated American life, commanding an incredible amount of media attention and crowding out so much other discourse. Incumbency is a powerful tool, and Trump leveraged it to his advantage, breaking rules and norms to hold the Republican National Convention at the White House, plus setting the national agenda and defining the discussion in a way that you can only truly do when you’re in power. Trump used the powers of the executive branch for his benefit, and yet he lost. The 2020 election became a referendum on Trump.
Could Democrats have done better down-ballot? Certainly, the fact that the election was such a referendum on Trump might have harmed Democrats down-ballot as so much of their case became about unseating the President while Republicans were messaging about how Democrats across the board were the problem. This imbalance led many people to vote for Joe Biden and then vote down-ballot for Republicans. They also had to fend off the millions of people who Trump-inspired and brought to the polls — few other Republicans have shown they can tap into those voters. It is possible that many of them won’t be as inspired in 2022 or 2024 without Trump on the ballot (though he could very well run again in 2024).

Democrats will need to adjust their pitch (Trump bad!) is no longer going to work, but without Trump standing in their way, they can act and take credit. If Democrats win the Georgia Senate special elections and institute economic stimulus, Biden should have his name on every check sent out. Should President Biden follow through on forgiving student loans, every person with a loan forgiven should get a letter signed by the President. Democrats can act legislatively and executively to make positive changes and gain support through their actions.

There are also encouraging signs for Democrats in how engaged the Left was in this election; progressives and younger voters were highly involved and turned out in record numbers. Combined with critical reforms to fix the party, Democrats have an opportunity for unparalleled success. We can nitpick Joe Biden’s campaign (and believe me, many strategists already are), but in the end, he won. He beat an incumbent president, he will win 300+ electoral votes when all is said and done, and his team closed with a message in Build Back Better that was intersectional with climate change and racial justice.

House Democrats and Senate Democrats have no such defense. To take the US Senate, Democrats will need to win a dual January 5th runoff in Georgia for two US Senate Seats. Instead of picking up seats, Democrats have lost them in the US House. Yes, gerrymandering plays a role, but it isn’t the whole story. Many democrats made messaging mistakes across the board, underspent on digital, ignored field, and far too often failed to understand the Latino vote and other BIPOC.

To win up and down the ballot, Democrats must fix those issues going into the 2022 mid-terms.

How to fix it:

1. Stop thinking of Latinos (or Blacks, or anyone else) as a monolith.

Far too many folks on the Left think of Latinos as a single voting bloc. They ignore the vast array of cultural differences in these communities, thinking that the white supremacy and anti-immigration stances on the right mean these communities are guaranteed Democratic votes. This is a vast misunderstanding — Latinos is a broad term; it bundles up Cubans in Miami-Dade Florida with Tejanos in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and other communities across the country. It ignores the distinctly different policy desires and needs of these communities, which Republicans did not, targeting distinct Latino communities differently. In Texas, Trump targeted Texas Tejanos, a traditionally Democratic group but with a specific set of concerns such as the oil and gas industry, gun rights, and more. They tailored their message — meanwhile, national Democrats largely ignored this distinct community.

The same thing happened in Miami-Dade County, where Cubans and Venezuelans in Florida helped Trump to win the state after his campaign invested in Spanish language radio ads, organized in these communities, and spoke to them about issues — and stoked fears — that resonated with them. Trump also spent less time rallying against and insulting immigrants in 2020 than in 2016 or 2018 — yet Democrats didn’t see their losses in these areas coming. If there is one major thing Democrats take away from 2020, it should be to stop treating these crucial communities as monoliths and to talk to not just Latino communities but other Black and brown communities about their issues, not only their identities. Know your audience and quit assuming that you can spend all of your efforts expanding your coalition rightwards (or white wards) without losing votes — Black people, Hispanic people, women, LGBTQ — they are not locked down.

Want to improve on this? Invest in organizations led by Black and brown organizers. Listen to folks like Chuck Rocha. Instead of creating a Latino department, and siloing them off, give them power and influence, hire people of color throughout your campaign infrastructure at every level.

2. Stop overprioritizing white people!

Look, I am not saying the Democratic party should abandon appealing to white people, but my goodness, do Democrats need to stop prioritizing white voters who are less likely to vote for them than people of color. Trump won over 73 million votes in 2020, the vast majority of them from white voters, and liberally used white supremacy and racism to rile his base into a furor. Most of these voters knew what they were voting for — they have gotten four years of Trump in office to see what’s on offer. Socialism as a dog whistle is often about “the wrong people” getting handouts — this is code for people of color. White people have enjoyed a longstanding advantage in American life. Whether they fully articulate and accept it, many voters support Republicans out of fear of losing their privileged position in American life. Often, cultural Republican voters — mostly white and often suburban, may have voted against Trump and then voted down-ballot for Republicans due to ideological reasons, seeing their job as done.
White voters should certainly not be ignored entirely, but Democrats are clearly at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining the population's votes that broadly supports white supremacy. Efforts to defuse misinformation and be more precise on the economic benefits provided by Democratic policies should be used to make a difference, but choosing to ignore people of color in favor of fighting losing battles for white voters is a drastic misuse of resources. Instead, Democrats should consider regional outreach that could bring in rural voters of all stripes. The weatherization program that Biden included in his clean energy plan is an excellent example of this kind of policy outreach, as are investments in rural hospitals, programs that benefit farmers including adjusting subsidies to better help family farms instead of large corporations, expansion of broadband internet, developing the mass timber industry, and more.

3. Embrace popular progressive policies.

Republicans have spread propaganda about socialism and used it as a dog whistle for white supremacy for decades. They paint any progressive policy as socialist. Yet when you dig into the numbers, progressive policies are popular. Democrats need to stop letting Republicans and centrists scare them away from winning messages with deep popularity and instead embrace populist progressive messaging.

Even “Defund the Police,” the slogan that many in Democratic leadership have blamed as toxic to down-ballot Democrats in 2020, shows little evidence of having been a disastrous as folks contend. Suppose activists saying “Defund the Police” (something most Democrats didn’t even embrace) was somehow the problem. Why did Minnesota, where George Floyd was killed igniting Black Lives Matter protests across the country, go from Dem +1 in 2016 to Dem +7 in 2020? Images of the burning Minneapolis police precinct blanketed news coverage for a time. Yet, the Democratic vote share went up, and the organizing of Rep. Ilhan Omar and others in and around Minneapolis helped deliver Minnesota firmly to Joe Biden.

I said it in my previous piece on why democrats need to embrace popular progressive policies. Still, far too many Democrats choose running as ‘Republican-lite’ instead of standing for issues and working people. In 2020, every swing seat Democratic incumbent who cosponsored the Green New Deal or Medicare for All won re-election. There are other factors than just support of popular progressive policy; however, such policies demonstrate a positive vision for the country, are effective organizing tools and show voters that you stand for something.

Voters prefer someone who stands for ideas, even something they may disagree with, over politicians who seek to poll test every message and move with the times like a weathervane. We want leaders, not just representatives.

Regardless of support for progressive policies, Democrats can expect socialism accusations — they are dog-whistle racial resentment attacks. You are not going to make them go away. However, you can make them less effective. It is not progressive policies that lose; it’s letting Republicans frame the narrative.

4. Build Leftwing media

Republicans are framing the narrative through their massive media arm, from Fox News to conservative talk shows, to social media. Democrats need not only to work to fix modern media, but they also need to develop their own left-wing media to espouse progressive politics. Republicans are more effective than Democrats at pushing out a consistent, across the board message. They reach much more significant social media numbers with regularity; Democrats need to develop their own media apparatus to level the playing field. Efforts such as Crooked Media are a good start, but much more needs to be done.

One of the alt-right tools has been misinformation and sowing distrust, often through conspiracy theories that morph into movements such as QAnon. For Democrats to beat back the radical right, efforts to combat misinformation must be encouraged, and the Left needs a much more effective messaging and communications operation.

5. Go Digital

Part of that effective communication must be a massive investment in digital media and digital infrastructure. Long gone are the heady days of 2008 where Barack Obama’s insurgent campaign seemed to herald a rising progressive digital infrastructure. Democrats have struggled to adopt those concepts, let alone keep up with today’s digital trends. With a major media disadvantage, this can be disastrous to many democratic campaigns and policies.

At every level, the national and local parties need to invest heavily in developing digital infrastructure and ensuring that candidates are using digital advertising. Any consultant that believes direct mail and mass-market television are inherently more effective than digital ads is either out for themselves or an idiot. Stop listening to them and start building digital infrastructure. Look to the work done by AOC, Ed Markey, the Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats, and others for examples of successful digital operations. Even better, bring in digitally native organizers from Gen Z, give them resources, and let them work. Embrace people with digital competency and develop digital competencies within organizations.

6. Invest in year-round deep organizing.

Organizing is how you make Republican attacks less effective. Investment in year-round deep canvassing makes a substantial impact, and there is data that shows this type of organizing work blunts the force of racial resentment attacks at the polls. The Democratic party traditionally gets grassroots organizers excited to get folks elected, then doesn’t stay in touch and continue outreach — abandoning these communities is a waste of resources. Additional investment in year-round canvassing can build long-term infrastructure that is easier and cheaper to activate electorally.

This is one of the areas that Democrats will have to evaluate in the 2020 election data as they consider why House Democrats lost so many seats and underperformed in many places that President-elect Joe Biden won. The decision to stop knocking on doors (the most effective form of organizing outreach) may have cost many members their seats, even though it was done with public health in mind.

In 2021 as a vaccine is distributed and during the Georgia runoff elections, we will have to continue to consider how to organize in a COVID-19 safe way effectively. Democrats clearly could have and should have done better on this. The Trump campaign was knocking on a million doors per week as the election closed, and that was a decisive advantage for them in key states and kept this election as close as it was. Typically, Democrats have Black, Brown, and youth organizers who are doing incredible work on the ground to ensure Democratic victories: this year was an exception for much of the country, with the pandemic in full swing. Hopefully, this will lead Democrats to recognize their impact and give them the resources, trust, and attention they deserve.

By embracing the future and moving away from the past, Democrats can enact positive, progressive change — and win up and down the ballot. Failing to do so and failing to do the deep anti-racist canvassing needed in this country will mean Democrats continue to lose their white vote shares and allow Facebook to radicalize more people across the country.

The opportunity to change the paradigm is there, but Democrats need to act fast and make the changes necessary.

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