The Conventional Wisdom Bubble Burst Last Night
I promise I won’t be too obnoxious to all my reporter and pundit friends about the election results. They had plenty of good reasons to think Republicans would have a big red wave year, even though some of us were warning them to temper their reporting and predicting with some facts that showed things might be a little different outside the DC conventional wisdom bubble. So I will be gentle, but I do have to admit that I have been breaking out into a little I-told-you-so jig at times today.
Having done that little gloat, I will fully admit that Democrats did overcome significant odds to hold our own in this very challenging cycle. Covid variants keep evolving; inflation has not abated; crime has risen nationally; the biggest war in Europe since WWII is raging; we have the narrowest congressional margins of control in modern history; and of course historically the president’s party fares poorly in the midterms.
The negative conventional wisdom was also not helped by a set of Democrats who, for a variety of twisted reasons, were telling reporters for the last month that all hope was lost for Democrats, or even publishing columns or reports pre-election as to why Democrats were going to lose. My personal view is to never give up the fight until the fight is done, to focus every waking moment at the end trying to get some victories, but hey, that’s just me.
So why did Democrats do better than expected? We have little data to look at yet, but here are my guesses:
1. People organizing youth and women voters did a hell of a job. It wasn’t just abortion, although it is always helpful to have a galvanizing, important issue with which to motivate folks. But the people doing strategic organizing and messaging in the women’s and youth turnout space were as savvy and smart a crew of people as I have ever seen, and they punched way above their weight. The turnout efforts in these areas were the game-changing dynamic in this election. The reason the pundits missed it is that they don’t tend to know or think much about this kind of grassroots organizing.
Part of this organizing was old fashioned person-to-person, door-to-door, friend-to-friend organizing work. Part of it was that a team of online organizers kicked ass in driving one narrative after another in the online space: literally billions of impressions of pro-Democratic messaging going into people’s social media feeds over the course of the last couple of months.
2. Populist economics in working-class states and districts paid off. Fetterman is the best example of how a populist outsider won with heavy economic messaging, but he was far from the only one. Michael Bennet centered his winning Senate campaign on populist economics. Katie Porter’s bill to stop oil company price gouging became one of the most talked about legislative bills of the cycle online. House candidates in tough “Trumpy” districts -- including Eric Sorenson in Illinois, Emilia Sykes in Ohio, Dan Kildee in Michigan, Chris Deluzio and Matt Cartwright in Pennsylvania -- won with a populist message, exemplified by what might be my favorite ad of the cycle.
3. Turns out saving democracy actually matters to people. Abortion was the number one turnout motivator, but I’m pretty sure the threat to democracy was second. I could hear and see a rising tide in my social media feed, my conversations with people both political and non-political, in the Q & A sessions in the presentations I gave over the last month: the extremism of the Republican Party around overturning democracy was really freaking people out. I think as we headed down the home stretch, the dire threat we were facing as a country really kicked in, and it was a huge motivator in volunteering and voting.
4. Democrats closed on economic issues. Too many candidates were too slow in making the turn, but it is clear that in the last two to three weeks of the campaign, more and more Democrats from President Biden and Speaker Pelosi on down talked a lot about issues like drug prices, Social Security, price gouging, and jobs. It mattered. Democrats were lifted by this focus as undecided voters made up their minds and base voters decided whether to turn out.
5. President Biden keeps getting underestimated. From the time Joe Biden stumbled in the first debate in the Democratic primary campaign in 2021, through his early losses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, through the entire presidential campaign and the two runoffs in Georgia which everyone thought we would lose, through all the ups and downs of the Congressional session, a lot of people keep underestimating Joe Biden. He won’t be able to win the election; he won’t be able to win big legislative achievements with congressional margins this small; he won’t be able to lead the Democrats effectively in the 2022 elections. All of those assumptions, all of that conventional wisdom has been proven wrong. Joe Biden’s steady hand keeps leading Democrats in the right direction. Whatever happens in terms of House and Senate control, don’t be sleeping on Joe Biden, or he’ll surprise you one more time.
My suggestion to pundits: get out of your conventional wisdom bubble, whatever it becomes next, and look for the contrarians who might just be right. My advice to Democrats is to not buy into the media’s conventional wisdom either. We can do great things only if we keep organizing.