The progressive mobilization myth is alive and well

Bad data and shoddy analysis is not the way to win

As I wrote in “Progressives’ mobilization delusion,” progressive politics took a wrong turn roughly a decade ago by convincing itself in the wake of Barack Obama’s reelection that all Democrats had to do to win was boost turnout among young people, Black people, and Latino people, likely by emphasizing left-wing stances on cultural issues.

That delusion was based on a number of errors and misconceptions, perhaps most notably literally undercounting the number of white people, old people, and people with no college degree in the electorate.

Unfortunately, what I learned from Ron Brownstein’s October 7 article “What Democrats Need to Understand About the Changing Electorate” is that Mobilization Myth thinking is alive and well in the movement, even in the wake of a 2020 election that should have put the nail in the coffin of key aspects of that narrative.

The article is based around what he characterizes as “an exhaustive analysis of electoral landscape” by a group called Way to Win. The report argues, to quote Brownstein, that “the key to contesting Sun Belt states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona is to sustain engagement among the largely nonwhite infrequent voters who turned out in huge numbers in 2018 and 2020.” He also writes that in these conclusions, Way to Win “echoes the findings of other Democratic strategists such as Mike Podhorzer, the longtime political director of the AFL-CIO.”

I think Brownstein’s article is an important document. The report it’s based on is the result of collaboration with a ton of organizing-centric partner institutions, echoes the views of the AFL-CIO’s political director, and in other respects represents the dominant thinking of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

It’s also, unfortunately, based on data and analysis that are clearly incorrect — in some ways egregiously so.

Did Florida Hispanics swing left in 2020?

A huge red flag around this whole report is that in their discussion of the Hispanic (or “Latinx”) vote in 2020, the authors say this swathe of the electorate swung toward Democrats relative to 2016 — including in Florida.

In the original version of the report, this data was attributed to TargetSmart, but these are not conclusions that TargetSmart themselves reached. Way to Win has now updated to clarify that this is merely their analysis of the TargetSmart voter file data, which is helpful, but they are not addressing the underlying problem that the analysis is mistaken.

Instead, the beginning of the report now has this disclaimer:

The visualizations throughout this report rely on a relatively crude method for counting any individual voter with a score from 50-100 as a “likely Democrat” and coloring them with blue shades in the accompanying graphs, and any individual with a score from 0-49 as a “likely Republican” and coloring them with red shares in the accompanying graphs. These visualizations are not meant to serve as a proxy or precise predictor of actual vote choice. But they do provide a stable, cross-state tool for evaluating key trends in voter participation.

That helps explain the inaccurate numbers, but again, it doesn’t really address the underlying issue, which is that when you base your analysis on inaccurate numbers, you get bad answers.

It’s very clear that Florida Hispanics shifted right in 2020. We saw it in pre-election and post-election surveys. And in Florida especially, the places with the largest Hispanic populations had the biggest swings against Biden.

This data from Catalist is a much better look at what happened with the Latino vote than what Way to Win is selling.

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