As the Election Smoke Clears, What Are We Learning?
Whenever you start doing post-election analysis, you should do it with a huge dose of humility, especially this close after the election. Hard for those of us in politics to do for sure, but it is so important to understand how much we don’t know about why voters made certain decisions, why the polls were so off again, why so many voters would vote for an obviously terrible person, or even whether what data we do have is accurate. Exit polls, for one thing, are notoriously inaccurate even in a normal election year, and the kind of not-normal we are living in right now would have made them more unreliable than ever.
It’s also important to keep history in mind. While the uncertainty and slowness caused by the huge numbers of mail-in ballots made this election seem nail-bitingly close, and the big polling lead in the public polls made the final margin a disappointment, the final popular vote margin looks pretty solid compared to recent history. Since the last real landslide in 1984, only twice has one party’s nominee won by more than 6 points: Clinton won in 1996 by a little over 8 points, and Obama won by a little over 7. Twice the margin has been about 6, 1988 and 1992. In 2000, 2004, 2012, and 2016 -- four of the last five elections -- the margin has been less than 4 points. In that context, Biden being projected to win by about 5 looks pretty damn good.
All that said, I know that we all hoped -- hopes reinforced by all the pre-election public polling -- that because Trump was so obviously terrible, incompetent, corrupt, venal, offensive, overtly racist and sexist that this year would be different and we would break the recent historical pattern and win by a landslide. And since that didn’t happen, we want to know why the hell it didn’t.
I have lots of theories, but most of them are not yet backed by much data: we just don’t have accurate numbers yet. I don’t think there is much doubt that the polling industry is deeply flawed. It seems obvious that our Latino strategy needs continued work and attention. I feel confident in saying that we could have and should have figured out how to safely door knock far earlier so that, among other things, we could have done more in-person persuasion at the doors, and so that the Republicans would not have beaten us badly in some battleground states on voter registration. But more research is needed on those and many other subjects.
However, there are two very big areas where I feel like I have enough information to make a very informed case.
The Republicans and right-wing infrastructure are cleaning our clocks on social media, and it is hurting us badly.
Democrats were outspending Republicans on both the presidential race and in key Senate races by huge amounts on TV down the stretch, which was one reason so many people thought the public polling was right and that we would win going away. Clearly, it didn’t work out that way. Nothing else was going on in terms of the atmospherics of the race -- no October surprise scenario from the Trump White House, no last minute gaffe by Biden, no bizarre Comey-style news that changed any fundamentals of the race despite how hard Rudy Giuliani and Ron Johnson might have tried to push the Hunter Biden non-story. In the meantime, the COVID crisis was getting steadily worse, and Trump and much of the White House staff were getting sick.
Based on looking at all the data available and conversations with dozens of really smart political strategists, I am convinced that two main things explain this strange phenomena.
First, Republicans and the high-powered, right-wing media infrastructure are beating us badly on social media. This is a long-term problem, which most Democratic Party strategists only became aware of after the Trump campaign killed us on Facebook in 2016. There were some improvements over the last four years, one key one which I’ll talk about below, but mostly they are still overwhelming us here.
Just to be clear, because too many Dem campaign people don’t get this at all: I am not talking primarily about digital advertising. Digital advertising is important in campaigns, and thankfully Democrats are finally beginning to do more of it. But where the Republicans are beating us badly is organic social media: the content that moves from one Facebook page to the next without an ad being bought. This is where the disinformation campaigns, the crazy conspiracies, the ugly racist memes live. Research has shown that content that moves organically from friend to friend is far more credible than ads or mail or calls from strangers or any of the other ways campaigns communicate.
The Republicans don’t just have the meme factories and the bot farms that everybody’s heard about, although they certainly traffic in such things. Their real power is that they have millions of grassroots true believers who spread the crap they are getting from those right-wing pages to all their friends, and few people believe that their friend or family member would send them something untrue. Those grassroots Republicans move out so much more content on social media than our side does, and that imbalance gives the Republicans enthusiasm and determination, especially in the closing days of a campaign. Their surge at the end of this election and in 2016 was fundamentally tied to their dominance in social media.
We need a long-term solution to this, a solution that includes creating more pages and content that appeals to working-class folks, including people living in rural areas and small/medium sized towns; and organizing a widely distributed network of credible activists willing to share social media content with their friends.
But in the short term, including the runoff election in Georgia, we as a party can still do far better.
Fortunately, the Biden campaign figured out that organic social media really mattered, and partnered with Occupy Democrats, the biggest political Facebook page in the country, to create a consortium of most of the biggest progressive pages in the country. That partnership succeeded at expanding the organic reach and engagement of the Biden campaign exponentially over what the Clinton campaign had done in 2016. It was exactly the kind of breakthrough the campaign needed to survive the surge of right-wing social media working to beat them. I am convinced that one of the big reasons Biden held off the late Trump charge and Clinton didn’t was because we actually competed with the right in the social media trenches. Their network is still far too deep and expansive to compete evenly with, but our side was at least competitive this time around.
Now we need to go all out with an aggressive social media strategy in Georgia. Fortunately, Occupy Democrats is leading the same kind of consortium to help flip those crucial two Senate seats blue.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Even in a pandemic, even with a sociopathic president, at the end of day, a whole lot of voters prefer whichever candidate they trust more with the economy. Poll after poll showed that the economy was our one big issue weakness in this race. We were winning on just about everything else, but swing voters still thought Trump was more trustworthy on the overall economy.
Donald Trump’s one consistent message in this campaign was that because of him, we had a strong economy before the pandemic hit, and we would have a strong one again once it was over. We never really made the counter-argument, at least not in a consistent or compelling way. We blamed Trump for mismanaging the COVID crisis, and thus hurting the economy, and we were generally believed on that score, but we never managed to convey that he didn’t know what the hell he was actually doing to the economy long-term, i.e. screwing over workers Without an answer to his basic argument, too many people, especially working-class swing voters, believed him. The idea that Trump was better on the economy is one of the core reasons we lost so much ground compared to Hillary with the Latino community. It is one of the core reasons we lost ground with young Black men. It is the core reason that we weren’t able to make up much ground among working-class voters in mid-sized Rust Belt towns in states like Iowa and Ohio.
The Biden closing argument was number one, he is a more decent guy than Trump, which was easy to believe; two, he would fix COVID and Trump wouldn’t -- again, very believable; three, he would protect health care coverage and pre-existing conditions, again easy to believe; and four, Biden would build the economy back better. But because Biden’s economic message was the least discussed; because it was talked about more in general than in specifics; and most importantly because people still believed Trump’s framing; too many swing voters didn’t find our economic message credible. We never established a lead on Trump on the overall economy.
What I believe we should have done was more ads like this one from Americans for Tax Fairness, which unfortunately was done late and didn’t have much money behind it. This message gets to the core argument we needed to be making: you say the economy is the best in history, and it is great for billionaires, but working families are still struggling.
Once that argument was engaged, I think voters would have been far more open to hearing Biden’s economic message about buying American, reviving manufacturing, solving the climate crisis by creating green jobs, controlling drug prices, lowering student debt, and raising taxes on the super-rich. These are electorally compelling ideas which should have gotten more play in campaign ads.
Since those of us on the Clinton campaign in 1992 won that election by focusing on the economy, Democrats haven’t talked nearly as much as they should about economic issues as they should, and that has created a much bigger opening for the Republicans than they should have given that most of their specific policy ideas are wildly unpopular.
Winning in Georgia, and winning the next midterms.
Both of those things will be challenging for sure, but I am convinced that Democrats can win those two Georgia Senate seats and win the 2022 midterms. In Georgia, I have full confidence in the Stacey Abrams strategy of winning by inspiring, mobilizing, registering, and turning out people of color and young voters. But I also think that tactically, we have to invest the resources we need to compete with the right-wing infrastructure on social media, because if we are not going toe-to-toe with them, they will swamp us in the end. And message-wise, we need to show voters we are fighting for working families on the economic issues that matter the most to them. We have to showcase Mitch McConnell as the barrier to all the good things we want to do, the same way our Clinton team successfully showcased Gingrich in the 1990s. Remember: in most midterms the president’s party loses seats. But in 1998, we picked up seats by building our campaign around Gingrich blocking everything good on the issues people cared about in their lives.
Republicans have been running ads with spooky music saying Democrats want to change things. We should say: damn right we do. We want to give you a $15-an-hour minimum wage. We want to create millions of new infrastructure and green energy jobs. We want to tax people worth more than $50 million dollars and use the money for jobs and child care. We want to rein in drug prices and student debt. We want to make government work for the people again -- not Wall Street billionaires -- and that’s not socialism, it’s just good governance.
We can win in Georgia, and win the midterms. We just have to show the people which party is fighting for them and which isn’t.