By Max Vogel
Associate Editor, Vol. 26
There is at least one constant in Democrats’ electoral post-mortems: win or lose, party leadership will find a way to either ignore or blame the work of coalition-building left-wing organizers. So when Democrats lost nine House seats this cycle (as of this writing), the ensuing chorus was entirely predictable.[i] House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn warned that if Democrats run on “Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win.”[ii] Representative Abigail Spanberger echoed these concerns, saying, “I’ve heard from colleagues who have said ‘Oh, [defund the police] is the language of the streets. We should respect that.’ We’re in Congress. We are professionals… If we don’t mean we should defund the police, we shouldn’t say that.”[iii]
These sorts of comments target whatever policies the party’s left-wing politicians support, but Rep. Spanberger made explicit what is usually implied: contempt directed specifically at on-the-streets movement builders. Since no Democratic candidates actually ran on defunding the police,[iv] the scorn here is clearly directed at the Movement for Black Lives. So would these Democrats be better off without this movement and all of its rhetoric? Let’s look at where Democrats’ successes and failures came from to parse out any truth in these concerns.
Let’s start with Medicare for All as a proxy for left-wing populist policy. First, Medicare for All typically polls well, garnering support from a majority of Americans this fall[v] with the margins varying depending on framing; for instance, 72% of respondents to a Fox News poll would prefer a government-run health care plan.[vi] More notably, every single Democrat that supported Medicare for All won reelection this cycle,[vii] even in an electoral environment where several Democrat incumbents lost. Some swing-district incumbents that ran on Medicare for All won commanding victories, like Katie Porter’s six-point win in a formerly red district[viii] or Jared Golden’s eight-point win in a district that Trump carried handily,[ix] while every incumbent that lost had rejected Medicare for All. This tracks well with other electoral data, since even voters in deep red states have approved Medicaid expansions.[x] While it is nearly impossible to know specifically what causes an electoral victory, these results at the very least suggest that Democrats should stop fearing association with left-wing policy.
Nationally, President-elect Joe Biden got more votes than any presidential candidate in history, so we should examine where all these extra votes came from to see if the party’s rebuke of the national Movement for Black Lives holds water. Biden focused his platform on a message of bipartisan unity, frequently touting his confidence in his ability to work with Republicans. Moderates may want to paint his success at the ballot box as an affirmation of this message and of efforts from #NeverTrump Republicans, like the Lincoln Project, to whip centrist Republican votes. But the numbers do not bear out those claims. Trump actually solidified his support among Republicans, winning six percentage points more Republican votes than he did against Hillary Clinton, who had notoriously been a chief target of the right’s vitriol for decades.[xi]
Rather than winning over Republican voters, Biden’s gains largely came from expanding his electorate. Democratic voter registration surged, especially during the Black Lives Matter protests in June of this year. While Republican registration in June 2020 matched June 2016 totals, Democratic registration doubled them.[xii] Biden’s surprise win in Georgia highlights this point; he received almost 600,000 more votes than Ms. Clinton did in the state in 2016.[xiii] Biden accomplished this by winning 90% of the Black vote and larger vote totals in urban areas than ever before; as usual, Republican voters were overwhelmingly white. In 2016, 22% of Georgia’s eligible voters were unregistered; this year, that number was only 2%, propelling the state to a historic 67% voter turnout. Biden also won back Michigan, driven by his winning a massive 94% of the vote in Detroit, the Blackest city in the nation.[xiv] And Biden flipped the reliably-red Arizona, which some analysts attribute to high turnout from Navajo voters, who make up 6% of the state population and voted overwhelmingly for Biden.[xv]
Democrat leadership remains skeptical of movements like the Movement for Black Lives, largely fearing that they provide ammunition for Republicans to paint their candidates as radical or extreme. This cycle, Democrats went all out on appealing to the moderate Republican, nominating the candidate most focused on bipartisan appeal in Joe Biden and mobilizing a cabal of #NeverTrump Republicans. Yet Republicans proved that they will run attack ads linking any Democrat to socialism or Defund the Police (which, again, no Democrats in competitive races made a part of their platform)[xvi] regardless of their actual policies. The result was Republicans actually consolidated support from within their party, despite the efforts Democrats made to reach across the aisle.
It would be unwise to settle on a conclusory theory on what motivated Biden’s voters, as the data simply is not robust enough for certainty. But the data do paint a plausible picture that the Movement for Black Lives protests helped propel new Black voters to the polls, who ultimately provided the backbone for Biden’s unprecedented vote total. It is time for Democrats to abandon their pipe dreams of appearing moderate enough to win over Republicans, when their electoral success consistently comes from animating their multiracial base. To keep winning, Democrats should be wholeheartedly embracing, supporting, and inspiring the movements that speak most to people of color.
[i] Election 2020 Results and Live Updates, ABC News (last visited Nov. 23, 2020 3:25 PM) https://abcnews.go.com/Elections/2020-us-house-election-results-live-map.
[ii] Clyburn: “If Democrats Run On Medicare For All, Defund The Police, Socialized Medicine, We Won’t Win,” Essence (Nov. 6, 2020), https://www.essence.com/news/politics/clyburn-democrats-defund-police-election-2020/.
[iii] Tom Roussey, Spanberger to House Dems: Never “use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ again,” WJLA News(Nov. 6, 2020), https://wjla.com/news/local/house-democrats-blame-losses-on-polls-message-even-trump-11-06-2020.
[iv] Aidan Smith, No, Defund The Police And Medicare For All Didn’t Lead To Democratic Losses In The House, The Appeal (Nov. 9, 2020), https://theappeal.org/defund-the-police-medicare-for-all/#.X6m_ofVhifs.twitter.
[v] Public Opinion on Single-Payer, National Health Plans, and Expanding Access to Medicare Coverage, Kaiser Family Foundation (Oct. 16, 2020),https://www.kff.org/slideshow/public-opinion-on-single-payer-national-health-plans-and-expanding-access-to-medicare-coverage/.
[vi] Jon Queally, ‘Every. Single. One.’: Ocasio-Cortez Notes Every Democrat Who Backed Medicare for All Won Reelection in 2020, Common Dreams (Nov. 7, 2020), https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/07/every-single-one-ocasio-cortez-notes-every-democrat-who-backed-medicare-all-won.
[viii] Election 2020 Results, supra.
[ix] Maine, Wash. Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/elections/election-results/maine-2020/ (last visited Nov. 23, 2020 at 3:15 PM).
[x] Rachel Rubein, Oklahoma voters approve Medicaid expansion as coronavirus cases climb, Politico (July 1, 2020 at 6:35 AM), https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/01/oklahoma-expand-medicaid-pandemic-346681.
[xi] Chris Alcantara, Leslie Shapiro, Emily Guskin, Scott Clement and Brittany Renee Mayes, How independents, Latino voters and Catholics shifted from 2016 and swung states for Biden and Trump, Wash. Post (last updated Nov. 12, 2020 at 7:40 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/elections/exit-polls-changes-2016-2020/.
[xii] Jane C. Timm, Voter registration surged during BLM protests, study finds, NBC News (Aug. 11, 2020 at 5:01 AM), https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/elections/voter-registration-surged-during-blm-protests-study-finds-n1236331.
[xiii] Kevin Schaul, Harry Stevens, and Dan Keating, How Georgia became a swing state for the first time in decades, Wash. Post (Nov. 8, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/elections/2020/11/08/georgia-swing-state-democrats/?arc404=true.
[xiv] Astead W. Herndon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Biden’s Win, House Losses, and What’s Next for the Left, N.Y. Times, Nov. 7, 2020 at P4.
[xv] Rachael Ramirez, How the Navajo Nation helped Democrats win Arizona, Vox (Nov. 12, 2020 at 11:01 AM), https://www.vox.com/21559183/navajo-nation-arizona-biden-indigenous-voters.
[xvi] Manu Raju and Ali Zaslav, Top congressional Democrats steer clear of ‘defund the police’ rhetoric, CNN Politics (June 8, 2020 at 7:11 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/08/politics/democrats-congress-defund-police-movement/index.html.