Democrats should try harder to win elections
If Republicans are a threat to democracy, try moving to the center on culture to beat them
Zack Beauchamp has written what I think is the best and most empirically rigorous article in the genre of “the Republican Party has become a menace to democracy.”
As readers of “Republicans’ unhinged moderation” and “Is asymmetrical polarization real?” know, I fundamentally agree with this diagnosis. In part for deep reasons rooted in demographic and sociocultural change, and in part for the shallow reason that happenstance has led Republicans to benefit from counter-majoritarian aspects of U.S. political institutions, normative support for democratic self-government has collapsed among Republican elites and the GOP base. That’s a large challenge to America going forward.
I think that most people who believe that tend to be fairly hardcore liberals with some leftist tendencies — they have a lot of ideological distance from the conservative movement, and thus are willing to be very harshly critical of it — and what I want to argue today is that tendency creates a bit of a trap. The same people who are most nominally worried about GOP descent into non-democracy are the least willing to do something about it by urging mainstream Democrats to adopt a few more conservative policy positions, while urging the party as a whole to become more welcoming to Manchin-type figures in the spirit of big tentism.
Biden won 51% of the vote, and if you’re talking about a Senate candidate in a state that Biden got at least 51% in, then you should be comfortable with your candidate adopting Biden-style positioning. But there are only 19 states like that! Democrats need to be aiming to crush Republicans by winning seats in states like Ohio and Iowa (both 45% Biden) while looking to at least occasionally pull off a flukey victory of some kind in places like Kansas and Mississippi (both 41% Biden). And that means a lot more ideological flexibility. Not because Republicans are nice guys or because the conservative movement is a benign influence on American life. But for the opposite reason — those things are really bad and need to be beaten.
More Joe Manchins can solve the Joe Manchin problem
Right now, progressives are fairly annoyed with Joe Manchin because Manchin does not agree with all of their priorities, and everything is being held hostage to his particular views.
But note that this is so troubling largely because there is only one Joe Manchin. If there were a dozen more senators who had Manchin-esque rates of agreeing with Bernie Sanders about stuff, then a ton more bills could pass as long as there was some variation among the 13 of them as to when they broke with the party. Some ideas would just be total non-starters with anyone repping a right-of-center state. But while Manchin seems to have serious doubts about a $15/hour minimum wage, it’s easy to imagine someone who represents Florida or Texas or Ohio solidly supporting it, even while having conservative views on some other topic. But you need more wins to get that variation.
Also, West Virginia is a very conservative state. What we are really talking about here is trying to elect more Democratic senators in states that are bluer than West Virginia.
Famously, the geography of the U.S. Senate is not friendly to progressives. Biden only hit his 51% average in 19 states. Fortunately, he did manage to carry 25 states overall based on very narrow victories in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia, but again, that’s only because he won the national popular vote by a large margin.
If you don’t want your governing agenda perpetually held hostage to Joe Manchin (or for a majority to be out of reach if Manchin retires in 2024), then you need to win Senate races in right-of-center states like Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida that just aren’t as right-wing as West Virginia. How exactly you do that is complicated, depending on on-the-ground knowledge and local nuances, etc. But in a big picture sense, it pretty clearly involves dropping the fantasy that everything is about mobilization and turnout and acknowledging that to win in right-of-center states, you need to annoy progressives some with noteworthy moderate positions on at least some high-profile policy issues.
And by “moderate,” I don’t mean Red Rose Twitter screaming at Pete Buttigieg. I mean “somewhere between Joe Biden and Lisa Murkowski,” i.e. the Manchin Zone.
Why this matters for democracy
Just as an illustrative example, on Monday I suggested on Twitter that rather than backing a Democratic nominee whose issue positions we like, liberals should consider getting behind a John Kasich independent bid. Kasich, to be clear, is pretty rotten! But he is aware of the Trumpian threat to democracy, and unlike a lot of conventional Republican politicians, he is willing to actually do something about it — like step out and endorse Joe Biden’s election.
He also has a record of moderation on a couple of issues, such as Medicaid expansion and climate change.
He also, in his prior life as a partisan Republican, was actually very bad on voting rights and ballot access issues.
What I would like to see him (or anyone else similarly situated in a red state) do is change positions on that, say he can see that efforts to curb democracy are encouraging the GOP’s worst instincts and get behind good voting rights measures and (perhaps even more importantly) tough anti-gerrymandering rules. Beyond that, would I love Kasich to become more progressive? Raise the minimum wage? Sure. But mostly I’d be thrilled to win a Senate seat in Ohio that’s otherwise almost certainly going to go to someone much crazier and more dangerous than Rob Portman.
The pushback I got was “well, brain-genius, maybe we’d like to support someone who espouses our values.”
And fair enough. But the critical thing for anyone worried about the future of American democracy to remember is that people on the other side also like to support politicians who share their values. Say 90% of Republican voters are all-in on Trump. That still leaves 10% who are not all-in on Trump. It also probably leaves a larger-than-that share of GOP-leaning independents who vote Republican the vast majority of the time, but still have enough qualms about something that they don’t identify with the party. A lot of those people might look at this Josh Mandel announcement tweet and cringe, thinking to themselves, “yikes, do we really need to replace Portman with this loser?”
But come November 2022, even though people who find Trump deplorable will see Mandel remake himself as a Trumpist foot-soldier, they are going to discover that they still think abortion should be illegal, still think businesses are often overregulated, and still think liberals underrate the case for widespread gun ownership.
The current state of America is:
The median electoral vote is right-of-center thanks to dumb luck
The median House seat is right-of-center thanks to gerrymandering
The median state legislature seat is in the same boat
The median Senate seat is even further right of center thanks to the Senate’s skew in favor of rural whites
To save democracy under these circumstances, you need to win the votes of some people with considerably right-of-center sensibilities. That doesn’t have to mean “John Kasich as an independent in Ohio.” But it has to mean something more ambitious than “Beto O’Rourke becomes a political star for losing by three points in Texas in a blue wave year.”
The politicians who are good at winning
So who is good at winning elections? You obviously can’t reduce election-winning skills to a simple equation. But you can try to roughly approximate it. So here’s what we did:
First, we assigned each state a partisanship +/- based on the average of the presidential election results in 2016 and 2020.
Second, we assigned each year a national political climate +/- based on the average of the House national popular vote in 2016, then again in 2018, then again in 2020.
Third, we compared each Senate candidate’s share of the two-party vote to what you would “expect” based on state partisanship and national political climate. The full formula is:
Democratic Candidate's Share of Two-Party Vote in His/Her Election - Democratic Share of National Two-Party House Vote that Year - (Average Dem Share of Two-Party Presidential Vote in His/Her State in 2016 and 2020 - Average Dem Share of National Two-Party Presidential Vote in 2016 and 2020)
Fourth, we had to throw out a few races, because in California you sometimes don’t have a Republican on the ballot and Lisa Murkowski managed to win in Alaska as a write-in. We also dropped the 2020 Arkansas race because there was no Democrat and the 2020 Louisiana race because the Republican incumbent won outright in a blanket primary.
If you do all this math, you get the conclusion that Manchin is by far the top overperformer among Democratic Senate candidates over the past three cycles.
Now at number two, you get the solid progressive Brian Schatz, who I like a lot. There’s probably something to the fact that he ran stronger in Hawaii in 2016 than Mazie Hirono did in the better Democratic national environment of 2018. But in either case, winning in Hawaii is not difficult, and both Schatz and Hirono do well.
At the other end of the spectrum, the four worst Democrats are basically nobodies in hopeless races (Eliot Glassheim, Chris Janicek, Jenny Wilson, and Misty Snow), followed by Sara Gideon, who had to run against Susan Collins — who is basically the GOP’s Manchin. Just a tad stronger than Gideon was Elizabeth Warren. Warren is a fantastic intellectual force and I’m glad to have her in the Senate. It’s fine for Massachusetts Democrats to nominate someone who is a sub-par electoral performer. But people should be aware that she’s quite weak.
Something that I think is striking about the overperformance list, by contrast, is that it includes a fair number of noteworthy losers like Heitkamp, Kander, Gray, Bayh, Bullock, Bredesen, and McGrath. A lot of people like to dunk on this crowd because they sometimes annoyed liberals, and then they went on to lose.
But here’s the key thing to note. If the Democratic candidates had put up Bullock/Bredesen level overperformances, they would have won North Carolina in 2020, Florida and Texas in 2018, and PA/OH/WI in 2016. Kander/Heitkamp numbers could have added North Carolina and Iowa in 2016 and Texas and Iowa in 2020.
Manchin’s numbers are such an outlier that I don’t really think it’s fair to compare anyone else to him. But the fact is that he was always more conservative than Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, or Claire McCaskill, and with his numbers, Democrats could have held those Senate seats.
Democrats have been too aggressive with their nominees
At the end of the day, Democrats have done pretty well for themselves in Senate elections. Faced with skewed maps that give the median seat something like an R+6 bias, they have managed to secure a narrow majority. Note that one of the non-moderates with the top performance on our rankings is Chuck Schumer, who is also the Democrats’ caucus leader, suggesting that his decision-making is pretty shrewd.
But I think the basic story you see here is Democrats getting a bit greedy with their selections.
Faced with races that are clearly hopeless for conventional liberals to win, Democrats nominate very strong picks like Heitkamp, Bullock, Bredesen, Kander, and Bayh. Those are strong picks who would win if they secured the nomination in the pivotal states. But the pivotal states are North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. And in those states, Democrats are chasing the fact that Texas is trending blue (which is true, but it’s not there yet) or that Obama won these states.
It is good to pay attention to the fact that Obama won twice in Ohio, Iowa, and Florida.
But recall that through his two campaigns, Obama kept the gun control issue off the table, talked tough on illegal immigration, and acted to affirm the Hyde Amendment that bars taxpayer funding of abortions. In his first race, he ran as an opponent of marriage equality, only flipping once the polling had changed. He also indulged in a fair amount of respectability politics, telling MTV that “brothers should pull up their pants.” Michelle Obama visited Bowie State and scolded young African Americans for “fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper” instead of “dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader.”
Barack Obama went to Morehouse and essentially told the graduating class to stop complaining about racism:
We've got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame.
Of course I can’t peer into Barack and Michelle’s hearts and know what they truly believe versus what’s opportunistic politics, though I would recommend Hakeem Jefferson’s paper on respectability politics for a sense of how large the minority is of African Americans who hold these kinds of views. But they really did a fair amount of this stuff, certainly enough to annoy Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I’m with Coates — that Morehouse speech, in particular, is kind of absurd.
But that’s all I’m saying. Rather than inferring from Obama’s narrow wins in IA/OH/FL that a standard-issue Democrat can win those states, one should recall that Obama was more conservative than a contemporary Democrat, and you need to go back to more of an Obama-like sensibility to win those states. If that means making sure to select Black and Hispanic candidates so they get a little more leeway, then in all the key states except Iowa, that shouldn’t actually be that hard to arrange.
What does moderation even mean?
I was just kind of eyeballing with the Senate races. But in the House, you have enough data points that you can do a more systematic analysis. Andrew Hall looks at contribution patterns to distinguish moderate from extreme candidates (the idea here is to address DW-NOMINATE’s habit of classifying AOC as a moderate because she breaks with leadership).
Comparing races where an extremist narrowly wins a primary versus ones where they narrowly lose, Hall finds that when the extremist wins, “the party’s general-election vote share decreases on average by approximately 9–13 percentage points, and the probability that the party wins the seat decreases by 35–54 percentage points.”
In a follow-up paper with Daniel Thompson, he finds that the notion of extremists firing up the base is backward. What happens is that extremists fire up their opponents’ base.
“Moderates do better” used to be the conventional wisdom, both because it fits abstract spatial models of politics and also because it’s empirically true. I think a David Broockman paper that Ezra Klein wrote up with the title “No one’s less moderate than moderates” generated some confusion here. What Broockman shows is that specific policy positions that are coded in elite circles as extreme — like “deport all undocumented immigrants” or “legalize commercial use of marijuana” — are often more popular than centrist positions. And moderate voters are often people who are cross-pressured by holding a hodge-podge of extreme views rather than a consistent set of centrist ones.
Those are both true and important insights about American politics.
But none of it implies that it makes sense to run on a conventional liberal platform in a statewide election in Texas. From a tactical standpoint, what you should do in Texas is take one or two standard liberal positions that are unpopular and clearly and unequivocally distance yourself from them, while picking some popular, left-wing cause (I would strongly suggest marijuana legalization at this point) and loudly advocate for it. You also really want to position yourself as a person who is not dogmatic, who likes to try to find ways to collaborate across lines of disagreement, and who is not expecting the voters to agree with you about absolutely everything.
In other words, you want to position yourself as a moderate!
Even non-policy concessions can work
Chris Hayes hosts the best show in cable news, and back on February 8 he wrote a great piece for The Atlantic with the same thesis as the Beauchamp piece I launched with: “The Republican Party is Radicalizing Against Democracy: The GOP is moderating on policy questions, even as it grows more dangerous on core questions of democracy and the rule of law.”
I wholeheartedly recommend it.
He also observed on Twitter after watching CPAC that an enormous amount of what motivates conservatives these days isn’t even policy issues at all.
In response to that, I asked Chris: Shouldn’t Democrats try harder to pander to these kinds of non-policy grievances on the right — especially candidates running in right-of-center jurisdictions?
He said that he thinks Joe Biden is an example of someone who does that.
I agree that Biden is definitely good in that I think he mostly tries not to exacerbate these kinds of grievances. But I would also note that Biden had a bit of an odd trajectory. He actually seemed most moderate during the primaries when he was left for dead by the Democratic Party donor class and most of the flashy operatives in the party. Then he won in South Carolina; there was a huge bandwagon of party elites in his favor; and he wrapped up the nomination surprisingly quickly.
He then took the surely unprecedented step of demoting the campaign manager who’d just won the nomination and hiring a new one fresh off the Beto O’Rourke 2020 effort. And while normally a successful nominee will pivot to the center, Biden, if anything, pivoted slightly to the left as he started attracting money that had formerly flowed to Beto, Buttigieg, and Harris, and then selected Harris as his running mate.
One thing Democrats and Republicans have in common is that both parties’ operative class consists of non-senior citizens who have college degrees and live in big cities. One difference between Democrats and Republicans is that on the GOP side, that means the operatives naturally pull their candidates toward the center on cultural sensibilities, while on the Democratic side, it’s the opposite. As the Biden operation got bigger, it started reflecting more of the sensibilities of the operative class rather than Biden’s own old-guy sensibilities. All that said, Biden himself is doing okay. It’s everyone else that I worry about.
Some concrete suggestions
To take this out of the realm of vagueness, here are some ideas that I think could help candidates who are in tough races and/or whose current national profile is not that good.
Say you are pro-choice. But you want to go back to safe, legal, and rare. We shouldn’t have taxpayer funding for abortion. We should be working with our pro-life colleagues to expand access to contraceptives and improve adoption services, and we should be talking about how things like a child allowance and Medicaid expansion will reduce the abortion rate.
Say that you think gun control is dumb, crime is way lower than it was in the 1990s, most crime guns are obtained illegally, most gun control proposals wouldn’t stop spree killers, and you just think it’s nuts to be hassling law-abiding people about their hobbies and self-defense choices when we should be talking about raising the minimum wage.
Say you think it’s dumb that they are putting warning labels on old TV shows like the muppets. Just let people watch stuff.
Say you don’t think it’s fair to call people racist when they worry about crime or illegal immigration — these are things lots of folks worry about, and the government owes them solutions.
Especially if you are Vice President Kamala Harris, a former elected official from San Francisco, say that canceling Abraham Lincoln while keeping the city’s schools closed is the kind of dumb shit that makes people think Democrats can’t govern, and you’re mad about it.
Say you absolutely want to invest in the next generation of energy technology, but you think fossil fuels have been, on net, a boom for humanity, and you sometimes think environmentalists wish we were living in caves or something.
Say you think that patriotism is good and important, especially in a diverse society, and you don’t like it when people dwell obsessively on the negative.
You could come up with some more stuff. Just keep in mind that when Obama was running for president, he wrote stuff like “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”
Frankly, I don’t find it frustrating at all that some people don’t speak English. But Obama was really good at winning elections. And that’s the core point — it’s okay sometimes to just pander to people and try to win their votes.
That’s especially true when the topic doesn’t involve a policy concession, and it’s quadruply true when the stakes are “we get to wield power to improve people’s lives in concrete ways while unrigging the rules of a rigged political system in order to preserve democracy.”
To be sure!
I will not call you crazy if you disagree with this take.
Democrats have moved left on policy since Obama’s runs not because they’ve all lost their minds, but because public opinion changed. Republicans have, in practice, mostly also moved left on policy. And while I firmly believe that both policy positions and rhetorical positioning matter to election outcomes, lots of other stuff matters too. If you’d rather stick to your guns (or your desire to take other people’s guns away) and hope for the best, then fair enough.
But what I really do feel strongly about is that if you agree with the diagnoses put forward by Beauchamp and Hayes, it follows that Democrats ought to care much more about winning races in R+5 states and much less about whether their nominees adhere to the cultural values of urban college graduates. A tactical retreat to the kind of cultural politics that existed in Obama’s first term would be a small price to pay to rescue the country from a collapse into authoritarianism.
This is great advice but I think at their core, progressives (as opposed to liberals) are dispositionally opposed to implementing it.
The borderline religious nature of modern progressivism—you don’t have to look hard to find analogous shibboleths, taboos, sacred texts, chosen tribes, etc—makes it unwilling to compromise in the name of pragmatism. I grew up in an evangelical church and similar arguments would occasionally break out among the congregation about how to “grow” the church, either in furtherance of the gospel or just to help ensure sufficient future tithing revenue. One might reasonably suggest toning down the constant mentions of eternal damnation for unbelievers (doesn’t poll well), propitiation by the blood of Christ (kind of icky), regarding premarital sex as a deeply greivous thing (turns out young people enjoy it), and insistence on literal interpretation of scripture even where that seems pretty strange (God created the world in seven literal days? Jonah was literally swallowed by a whale?) but these arguments failed to grasp the crucial point that for the devoted, orthodoxy is more important than growth.
It seems to me that for a critical mass of progressives, this same sentiment prevails, indeed for the most zealous progressives I know personally, so much of their identity is tied up with oppression and victimhood narratives that I think they would find durable majorities utterly intolerable. What would suit them best is a system in which they could continue credibly claiming to be an oppressed minority (and reaping the energy that comes from this stance) while in actuality operating the levers of power that are only available to cameral majorities.
The modern Republican Party has managed to achieve precisely this (a base that feels stricken and discriminated against, even as they rule!) due to the quirks of population distribution vis-a-vis the Senate. Progressives rightly recognize this as a tail-wagging-the-dog dynamic, but I don’t think they are opposed to that dynamic per se, I think they just feel that in a just world they would have control of the tail instead, without ever having to soil their hands with that damned spot, compromise.
As an Old (old Gen Xer), I am stupefied that this argument has to be made, but Matt makes it very effectively and I'm glad he's doing it. I am a center-left rustbelt native, and while I now live in NYC I've been locking down in my home state of Michigan during the pandemic for family reasons.
I used to work in policy in DC when normal people didn't know what things like "cloture" were, and I've been hearing my whole adult life that Democratic domination was just around the corner; demographics and revulsion over Republicans' meanness and stupidity would deliver us. Most of the Youngs I worked with in New York dismissed my fears that Trump would win in 2016, then they took the position that if Bernie had got the nomination, the Dems would have won. I didn't believe it then, and having spent a fair amount of time back in the rustbelt, I sure don't believe it now.
I'm staying in a small blue area in a wider red region. Every time I venture out, I see Trump flags still flying. The closest town with a real grocery store has both a strong civic/philanthropic/genuinely Christian culture and the most overt displays of racist symbology I have ever seen. I am sickened by these things, but I am also exasperated that the left spends so much time in circular firing squads, renaming schools and cancelling Dr. Seuss.
Do the work, people! Run for local office, then state or national if you have those aspirations! But try actually governing and/or implementing any kind of policy before you denigrate compromise.