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.