Update: Several of the readers of this diary have questioned my choice of the chart used in the intro. I have spent some time trying to find it, but I cannot. I usually look for a picture or chart from the DK gallery. I am not able to remember what I used as a search term since I began this over the weekend. I apologize for sloppy citing and have removed and replaced it with a chart that can be found at PEW. I hope that this does not distract from the intent of the diary. Thanks to readers and commenters who called me on this. Again, sorry.
A Numbers game
The truth is hidden in the numbers. Since 2012 the Gallup polling of relative party strength indicates that the Republican Party is shrinking fast. Both parties linger below the 50% mark in terms of voter affiliation with Dems opening a lead among potential voters of about 9%:
Increased independent identification has mostly come at the expense of the Republican Party, with the 25% of U.S. adults currently identifying as Republicans down from 29% in the fourth quarter. Republican Party identification has not been lower since early 2018 and is just a few points above the low of 22% in the Gallup telephone polling era, registered in the fourth quarter of 2013… Democratic Party identification is also down, by one point from the fourth quarter, to 30%. It has hovered around that level for most of the past eight years.
–Jeffrey M. Jones, April, 2021
The feeling in the nation, however, is just the opposite. Both views can be true. Dems may be looking at a window of opportunity that may determine national elections for the next decade. The double-edged sword wielded by Donald Trump, holding hostage a party he has no allegiance to, helps distort the trending party sympathies. The further the former guy steps toward the ledge, the fewer the followers who join him. Those who remain, however, are the most hard-core. MAGA crowds are large, dangerous, and loud but represent dwindling pockets of hate and ignorance. America stands at a tipping point. The dismantling of the Republican party apparatus by Trump has given the party over to groups with competing agendas. United by hate and anger, their alliance is an accommodation to their mutual need to wield power. White nationalists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and disaffected white racists form the base—each of which has natural enemies among the saner population of Democrats, independents, and, yes, Republicans with a conscience.
the battle of the mid-term
The battleline being drawn across the nation by a distrustful Republican Party is an indication of their weakness. Their disdain for government naturally ends in anarchy. Fooling with the election process and overt gaslighting of voters is for losers. Trump has proven that it can work for him—once. The elections that followed 2016 have shown that maintaining a strategy based on stoking fear and anger is tiring even to those voters inclined to support a conservative agenda. The snag in this argument, of course, concerns the relative strength of down-ballot Republicans in 2020. Democratic losses in House races seem to argue against the trend. In an article written right after the November election on the FiveThirtyEight website, the apparent anomaly is explained:
In seeking to explain why Biden racked up a gaudy electoral-vote total but Democrats performed poorly in the Senate and House, there have been all sorts of theories — one common one being that voters, anticipating a Biden win, preemptively voted Republican for Congress to give Biden some checks and balances…
A better take is that Democrats “performed poorly” in the Senate and House simply compared with pre-election expectations. But they still won more House seats than Republicans did, and arguably, the main reason they didn’t do better in the Senate is because of the chamber’s Republican bias. In reality, Democrats performed about the same in all three races, but the structures through which those results were filtered — the Electoral College, the Senate seats that happened to be up and a House map biased toward Republicans — produced different results.
—FiveThirtyEight, by Nathaniel Rakich and Best
That is not to suggest that Democrats don’t have a fight ahead of them in the mid-term and 2024 elections. The key demographic, as always, is how independent voters behave. Gallup polling of party affiliation as late as September 2021 shows Democrats and Republicans each have a 29% share who state they are party affiliated. The independent voter represents 41% of those who responded to the poll. This is “good news-bad news” for Democrats.
Enter David Shor
A fly in the ointment can be found in an analysis coming from Shor, the data scientist and former Obama campaign advisor whose warnings about Democratic messaging have recently sent shock waves among Biden advisors. In Ezra Klein’s NYTimes opinion piece “David Shor Is Telling Democrats What They Don’t Want to Hear” the polling maven has a message for Democratic strategists. According to Shor, whose data on previous elections has proved to be both accurate and a bit controversial, Democrats are facing a crisis because there is a natural impediment in the Senate due to the voting patterns of rural and Southern states. What underlies Shor’s dire prediction of Democratic vulnerability is that the party has lost touch with lower-class and middle-class voters and has formed a more northern and coastal coalition:
Shor believes the party has become too unrepresentative at its elite levels to continue being representative at the mass level. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people we’ve lost are likely to be low-socioeconomic-status people,” he said. “If you look inside the Democratic Party, there are three times more moderate or conservative nonwhite people than very liberal white people, but very liberal white people are infinitely more represented. That’s morally bad, but it also means eventually they’ll leave.” The only way out of this, he said, is to “care more and cater to the preference of our low-socioeconomic-status supporters.”
–Ezra Klein NYTimes, October 8, 2021
Shor’s critique is based upon his theory of messaging he calls Popularism. In brief, Shor’s theory is that the Democratic messaging on issues trend too far to left and are ideologically distant from their long-loyal coalition formed years ago by party stalwarts like FDR and LBJ. The problem isn’t that the liberal issues themselves do not appeal to these voters, rather Democrats have chosen to order these issues in their messaging in ways that appeal to wealthier liberal voters. He gives as an example Kristin Sinema’s opposition to Medicare negotiation of drug prices:
Nor is Shor’s ire aimed only at the liberal wing of the party. Popularism isn’t mere moderation. One of the highest-polling policies in Shor’s research is letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices, but it’s so-called moderates, like Sinema, who are trying to strike that from the reconciliation bill. To Shor, this is lunacy.
Polling data, including models drawn by Shor, suggest issues are trending Democratic. One of the tasks for “party message” is to choose which issues to lead in the mid-terms:
For the record prescription drug price negotiation is the most popular of the 194 policies we’ve tested so far this year, with variants of the basic idea (IE, generic insulin, patent breaking, etc) making up four of the top five.
You don’t have to agree with Shor to understand the wisdom of making your appeal broad enough to attract independent voters and voters in red states that had been a part of the Democratic coalition in the past. Some would argue that race is a core issue in these states, but to write off a natural constituency for Democrats would be foolish. Longstanding liberal policies of the party have long included their issues. Poverty, education, health care, and job creation are Democratic strong suits. Republicans have countered with culture war issues such as guns, race, and abortion that lead them to vote against their interests.
This April 2021 PEW poll and the April polling figures cited above are supported by the Gallup polling of Important Trends (July, August, and September 2021) which shows that trends are fairly stable over this period and are moving in the direction of Democrats. Despite the inability of Biden and his Administration to pass significant legislation, the data suggests that the non-economic problems are of more concern than the economy– led by the lingering coronavirus and leadership concerns. A closer look at the poll suggests that Republicans are underwater on a number of issues that define the so-called culture wars that Republicans have used to supplant the real interests of Americans. Democratic positions on race, gun violence, health care, vaccines, infrastructure, etc. strongly trend blue, as do women’s issues.
a strategy for winning: pass something
Democrats must find a way to capitalize on these advantages. A start would be to pass their major legislative packages on voting rights and infrastructure—even if it means modifying or delaying some aspects until they are able to gain seats in the House and Senate.
I admire the party progressives and legislative leaders like Jim Clyburn and Pramila Jayapal in the House and Bernie Sanders in the Senate for their judicious management of the policy debate raging within their own party. They understand that the entire Biden agenda is both necessary and popular among independent voters and the majority of democrats. Independents need to see movement in terms of legislation. Pass something! They are, however, not a monolith. There are constituencies among both Democrats and Dem-leaning voters that have preferences among the proposals in the 4 major bills (voting rights, infrastructure/reconciliation, police reform, and tax reform.) If the Manchin-Sinema wing prevails and stops all legislation, Democrats will surely lose.
For those who fault Biden for his patience in not forcing the issue, their own impatience is not a strategy. Progressives are aware of their power within the party—they are ascendant because many of the issues they support are popular. Their understanding of their limitations at the moment is similarly impressive. They know that they cannot control a 50/50 Senate without filibuster reform and assent from the two unwilling (and maybe a few more) Democratic holdouts. There is a further consideration that may be at play. While Manchisema is a proximate obstacle, the next election cycle, if the trends hold, makes them less consequential. If the Democrats can squeeze out enough victories in the House and Senate, Manchin and Sinema become irrelevant. Beware, however, the obverse is also true. Losing majorities in the House, Senate, or both dooms the party and its agenda. There is a fierce urgency among Democratic leadership and Biden advisors to pass as much of their package as they can and begin to assert deliverables to campaign on.
our tolerance of crazy
As Republicans turn on one another and forcibly attack the democratic process, Democrats have got to trust the voters. Voters see the turmoil, and polling suggests that they are repulsed by it. The attack on Roe v. Wade was spurred on by the draconian Texas bill that creates opportunities for abortion bounty hunters. The pandemic that has been reduced to one among the unvaccinated places those who refuse to support reasonable treatments and countermeasures to the spreading virus in needless danger. January 6 was for most Americans the final straw.
Democrats simply need to demonstrate reasonableness and effective leadership in response to the political insanity that motivates their opposition. If it takes a bit more negotiation to pass the reforms embedded in Build Back Better and Voting Rights legislation, and if the more progressive among us have to practice a bit of delayed gratification before achieving all of our goals, then so be it. We have to be in this game for the long haul. What is needed most is progress and the promise of more once the dam of obstruction is broken.
There is as always a time frame in play. I believe we should be prepared to pass our bills strategically–when they will impact the coming election. That would be late November through January. While Republicans are scrambling looking for candidates made in Trump’s image, Democrats are freed up to simply look for normal candidates who will play off well against doctrinaire MAGA halfwits. In fact, in this cycle, the opportunity for progressive candidates is heightened by the promise of social progress once the Biden legislation is enacted. The truth is that implementation of the legislation’s various programs is important, but the mere promise of the deliverables is as likely to energize a large portion of the electorate.
Our goal is less than a year away. I believe this is what Biden is working towards and explains why progressives are keeping their powder dry at the moment. The alternatives are unthinkable. If Dems lose the House and Senate in Biden’s second year, he will be in danger of being “Obamaed” and “Clintoned”—presidents whose agendas were curtailed by Republican majorities.
Things may seem dire now, they become much worse if we lose our slim majorities and fail to build on our recent gains. It is not time to form the circular firing squad and act like the Trump-Party-in-Exile. They are doing their best to help us overcome our differences—we needn’t assist them through impatience and political wrangling. Our faith in the voters must in the end be more pronounced than the Republican mistrust and suspicion of them. Stacy Abrams and her Fair Fight coalition is really the paradigm for our future. In the words of Larry Sabato, a UVA political scientist:
Every election is determined by the people who show up.
If I were the Republicans, I would fear the wrath of sanity to come. The time limit on the amount of crazy the American people will tolerate is quickly running out. There are more of us than them.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.