There’s a debate raging on social media this weekend about the direction of the Democratic Party. It started with an article written by Ezra Klein about a young data analyst name David Shor. Shor has been arguing that Democrats are heading for a long-term disaster if they don’t refocus their message onto more bread-and-butter issues and talk less about social justice issues. The activist wing of the party disagrees vehemently, but I think Shor is largely right.
My focus is mainly North Carolina when it comes to electoral politics, and here, the national message has clearly not worked. While the state narrowly elected and re-elected a moderate governor, Democrats have lost three straight U.S. Senate races and presidential contests. They lost a majority of council of state seats and haven’t had control of the legislature since 2010.
In 2020, Democrats counted on a motivated electorate and a high turnout. It didn’t work. While turnout was the highest it’s been in decades, it cut both ways. The Democratic base showed up, but the Republican base grew by even larger margins. The Democrats showed up to oppose Trump, but the Republicans showed up to oppose Democrats, not to defend Trump.
Overall turnout in North Carolina in 2020 was 75%, higher than at any time in recent memory and possibly ever. Among Democrats, it was also 75%, but among Republicans, turnout was 82%. Republicans overperformed, making up 33% of the overall electorate but only 30% of the registered voters. Unaffiliated voters, the fastest growing registration category, underperformed by about the same amount, while Democrats’ turnout was on par with their registration.
The Democratic coalition is not strong enough to win statewide on any consistent basis. It’s made up of mainly younger, educated, urban voters and African Americans from across the state. In 2020, turnout among voters 40 and under was less than 65% while turnout for voters over 40 was more than 82%, an almost 20 point spread.
In addition, African American voters underperformed, making up about 19% of the 2020 electorate while making up 21% of the registered voters. Their turnout rate was 68%, higher than 2016, but still below the electorate as a whole. Those Black voters who didn’t vote still made a choice—not to show up at all. I believe they are voters alienated by both parties.
Democrats have long taken Black voters for granted, assuming that they embrace the Democratic agenda. In fact, many African Americans, especially those who are working class and living in rural areas, are more socially conservative than the Democrats as a whole. Many are evangelical Christians and gun owners. They may be disturbed and angry by police shootings, but they don’t reject the institution of policing as a whole.
Many blue collar and older African Americans live in higher crime areas and depend on police and deputies for protection. And many also see law enforcement as a career that provides job security and a middle class lifestyle without a four-year college degree. They might want police and criminal justice reform, but they don’t want to defund the police.
Finally, working class African Americans are concerned about immigration. I’m reminded of my conversation in the months leading up to the 2016 election with a Black man in his 60s who had a lawn business. He didn’t like Donald Trump, but he liked his “one good idea.” He mentioned it several times. Finally, I asked “What good idea?” He looked at me incredulously and said, “The wall.” I realized that Hispanic immigrants were now caring for a lot of yards that he probably once tended.
A lot of those more conservative African Americans might not trust Republicans to provide them a better life, but they aren’t embracing the Democratic message that focuses more on social concerns than economic security and public safety.
I would argue that 2020 was the high water mark for voting, driven primarily by revulsion of Trump by progressives and rejection of Democratic activists by conservatives and moderates. I suspect GOP turnout was more fear of what they perceived as the Democratic agenda than support for Trump. They saw the protests over George Floyd rage all summer and they believe Democrats accommodated violence and property destruction while activists called for defunding the police with few other concrete demands. They heard calls for gun control but not riot control.
On the border, they might not have liked Trump’s kids in cages, but at least he was doing something. Democrats, they believed, would take us back to a status quo with immigrants spilling over our borders, leaving us less safe and giving needed jobs to non-citizens. Republicans’ warnings of open borders rang true.
To a lot of working class voters of all colors and nationalities, Democrats were wrong on the issues most important to them. Voters tend to be self-interested. Like it or not, they pay less attention to the rights of others than they do the well-being of their families. They may have thought the shooting of George Floyd was a horrific injustice, but they saw stores vandalized in cities they frequented. They were more concerned about their own safety and convenience than the broader issues about policing that animated much of the Democratic base. It wasn’t defund the police per se that turned them off, it was the lack of a Democratic response to what they believed was lawlessness.
Democrats have a branding problem with too many moderate voters. Trump had a favorability rating of less than 40% for much of his presidency and yet he ran competitively with Biden, especially in swing states. That tells us that a significant part of the electorate was more fearful of Democrats governing than Trump’s corruption and bluster. And a lot of those people voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012.
We still see the Democrats’ problem today. While people overwhelmingly support many of the components of Biden’s Build Back Better plan, most don’t know what is in the bill. Democrats have failed to sell the country on the meat-and-potatoes legislation that might start to rebrand them in the minds of swing voters.
And there are swing voters. While they may make up a small portion of the modern electorate, they still matter in states where elections are regularly decided by less than one percent. They tend to be more moderate in that they pay less attention to the issues in the election than they do about their own circumstances. They are also lower information voters who may be more easily influenced by their neighbors than by advertising. Democrats need to win a majority of those voters to be successful in North Carolina.
Democrats should certainly continue to register and motivate voters, but the greatest driver of turnout is the national political environment, not GOTV. They cannot win in a state like North Carolina if the perception among less engaged voters is that Democrats are more of a protest movement than political party. That’s a branding problem.
Democrats need to focus on the economic problems facing too many people. They can provide better health care, higher wages, and better jobs. They can make colleges and universities more affordable and improve K-12 education. If they can convince voters that’s who they are, then they might win enough elections to push through a more progressive social justice agenda. Otherwise, they should probably learn to be satisfied with large protests on the Mall.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >
The problem with democrats is that they want to run your life in every aspect. And their policies drive YOU to eventually live how THEY want you to. Not only don’t they care about what you want. They HATE you for having the temerity of not agreeing with them. HOW DARE YOU what are you some Trumpist freedom loving nutbag?
Ah no. I’m just a regular dude who ya know wants to run his own life….
Essentially they are the Anti-freedom party. They also condescending and assume that The American people are far to stupid to know this..(They aren’t. Show some respect)
How you live ( What car you drive, How hot or cold your house should be, or if you can own a house at all right down to the freaking LIGHTBULBS you can use…) Regardless of what YOU WANT (you’ll just have to pay more (financial punishment) If you don’t agree. (The illusion of choice)
Where you live (Suburbs bad mmmkay) Cities… denser the better Good.
What you eat (no meat, plant based diets….) Because its what THEY WANT.
What you say (Pretty obvious these days) Just try to interject the mosy MINOR opinion that runs against the COVID narrative. Even if you are right….lol
Basic sovereignty (Take the jab, despite what YOU WANT or else)
And now with Biden American essentially has Obama third term (pretty much the same people he had working with Biden)
Obama gave us Trump. Obama was pretty much a mess. So bad that the people basically gave a collective finger to both parties and chose Trump.
Biden is even worse.
I hope the Democrats in the political wilderness for 200 years. Because who needs any of it. We all have enough bosses.
Well said. Dems are hurt by the bait and switch Biden ran on. He ran as as moderate, but has governed like Bernie. He talks about his mandate, but does not have a mandate. Johnson and FDR had mandates for the big social changes, Biden does not.
I agree with you except about the border. You imply that we need to close the border to make people feel more safe. I thought immigrants committed less crime than natives so how is closing the border making folks safe? We should welcome asylum seekers; it is the Christian thing to do. Our treatment of folks fleeing crime and poverty is flawed. We can do better.
Good article. While I dont know that I would disagree with your message exactly, it should be mentioned that the Democratic party messaging problem is in large part due to well-funded right-wing propaganda networks which get to control the national message to a greater scale than Dems themselves.
I mean, when you have Tucker Carlson and the like, showing and replaying the same images of social unrest over and over again every night as if they are unique incidents, that drives narrative (unfairly) to paint Dems a certain way. Dems really have nothing to match to propaganda infrastructure on their side. Even the mainstream news networks help to work against Dems with their tendency to “both sides” everything so that no matter what Republicans do, there is always some way to deflect it and equivocate.
We literally had a coup attempt by Trump and his GOP allies in January, followed up continuing attacks on voting, elections, and democracy itself by Republican state legislators and it’s the Democrats who have to struggle to get voters?!
I think this piece is spot on.
Hello, and great insights. I dropped $100 in the donation as I was so impressed with your work. I am in Taiwan, and a Florida resident, so not a regular. I went to ECU and worked on campaigns of Helms and Broyhill. I also for some weird reason was liked by Walter Jones Jr (the original Jr). Had more to do with when I drove him around a couple of times, odd story, I had gone to to trouble of stocking booze in the car.
Anyway, I was in NC recently and ur spot on here. It’s as if everyone in Chapel Hill hates anyone who drives a pick up truck. Only one point, I do think that Trump is still such a huge problem it does give the Dems hope.
By the way, one disagreement on Va, (my real state)…The GOP will soon take back the House and Senate, and when they do they will move away from the “unverified signatures”, N.Va will continue to get more lefty, and while I think Youngkin will lose as just can’t overcome the mail ins, what Shor predicted there will happen once we are sans trump.
thanks for some great work