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Diagnosing the 2020 election malady

[Ed note: The author is a veteran of five decades of electoral work. His goal for 2020 was to take the Senate for Democrats. He agreed to work in Montana, a Trump state, but where the popular Democratic Governor was challenging a first-term Republican. He spent the last three weeks before the election leaning into cold winds from the mountains, talking with the dispersed voters of Montana. It turned out the headwinds from the Biden ticket were so powerful that they crushed the life out of the workers’ hopes for the down-ballot race. 2020 ended in Montana with a Red sweep. Here is Jeff’s diagnosis of how to cure the illness before the next cycle.]

 The November election outcome was tragic. The Democrats had their once-in-a-generation opportunity for a “wave” election. Voters were done with Cheeto Mussolini. COVID-19  exposed both the incompetence of the Republicans and the structural inability of the UnitedStatesian medical businesses to deliver First World- (or even Third World) health outcomes. What should have been a blue wave was a fiasco because of losses in down-ballot races.

Republicans held onto or expanded their ability to gerrymander and suppress votes in every state where they practice these dark arts. And because of the victories the Democrats did achieve, we are facing another red wave election in 2022, wiping out what gains the Dems did make—unless Never-Bold Biden reboots the norms with FDR-like boldness.

How did this happen?

The key defects came from Democratic party leaders who elevate personal control of the party apparatus over winning elections; a lukewarm presidential candidate whose strategy was to recruit (thereby activate) Republican-leaning voters to vote for him (throwing down-ballot Dems under the bus) and from the Party’s choice of issues to campaign on.

Defect 1 – The wrong mission

The mission of the National Dems is not to win victories at the polls, but to raise money and maintain control of the party apparatus. The National Democrats’ (DNC, DSCC, DCCC) pool of mediocre, unaccountable functionaries and consultants relentlessly impose their self-centered, low-quality strategies on state parties and candidates. They innovate only in fund-raising.

As in corporate boardrooms, no amount of dismal results leads to actual executive or process change. After November’s bloodbath, the DNC replaced their failed chair—a nice, good-looking, intelligent and completely feckless leader with his deputy—the nice, good-looking, intelligent and completely feckless Jamie Harrison. Harrison is a proven loser, having just dropped $120 million on his Senate campaign that failed by double digits.

Defect 2 – The wrong focus

The National Dems chronically hyper-focus on the top of the ticket and undervalue elections below that. Unlike the Repugs, the Dems top player no longer asks voters for their down-ballot support at every opportunity. Yet this is the way all historical Dem and Rep waves happen.

Defect 3A – The wrong voters

The National Dems (since 1992, when this worked well-enough to win) take their base for granted and choose to chase “undecided” voters. Reds enlist their victims for life. Blues recruit temps, selling a single personality or a single election, thereby requiring the same level of effort every cycle.

Did you see Biden TV ads this year? In the dozens I saw across the country, there were zero endorsements of local candidates. Not even a mention of the word Democrat or Democratic Party outside of the fine print at the bottom of the screen. Unlike the Reds’ recruitment ads, Dems ads sacrifice every principle and outcome lower down on the ballot in trying to preserve a centrist vote at the top.

The Red narrative was, “Blue is Evil, eradicate it.” Blues’ center-pandering approach reduced them to asserting, “We’re not evil” and ignoring the much more dangerous evil posed by the Red program. This worked exactly as the Biden campaign designed it to: they snared the 1.5% of the electorate that is truly-Red-leaning-truly-independent to switch to Biden.

The Biden campaign turned out “just enough” Red and Red fellow-traveler voters dissatisfied with Trump but did not enlist their votes for other Democrats. He snared the presidency and guaranteed Republican dominance in all their other races.

Defect 3B – The wrong issues

The National Dems annointed a presidential candidate whose strengths and weaknesses meant that the campaign would not take on the issues the voters cared most about. Blue’s sole issue was the pandemic. Nothing addressed the scary economy, the struggle to attain or maintain a middle-class life, the need to balance security against the too-often homicidal racism of unaccountable, armed enforcement organizations, reform of a health care system that could be capable of overcoming an epidemic.

There was no long-term platform pointing out the willful incompetence of the Repug ideology of governance. Biden campaigned on a George Bush Junior nice-guy-to-have-a-beer-with persona and anti-Covid plank, both obvious, unrisky and to too many voters uncompelling.

Jettisoning working peoples’ economic issues was extremely costly this year in too many states. In Florida, for example, Biden’s collapse relative to Hillary Clinton’s numbers in 2016 took down Blue members of the US House. Crucially, it prevented the Dems from getting enough state legislative seats to blunt an upcoming gerrymander that will disenfranchise our voters for a decade.

Worse, Biden did not take advantage of the opportunity to champion the state’s ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour, a classic Democrat thrust. The minimum wage won by over two million votes, outpolling Biden in 64 of Florida’s 67 counties. At least 19% of Trump’s voters statewide also voted for the $15 minimum. The Democrats’ party leaders ceded our economic issues to the Reds not just in Florida, but nationally, when embracing them would have harvested incremental votes.

Where to look for a cure?

For a lot of structural reasons, including additional Republican House districts in heavily gerrymandered Texas and Florida, 2022 is going to be a challenging election year. Still, there is a possible remedy in grassroots organizing that ignores the national party and its incessant demands for cash. Hitch up your energy and dollars to grassroots talent engines like Stacey Abrams’ constellation of activist powerhouses (New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter, Fair Fight, and more).

If you’re a Democrat, focus on the more skilled state Dem parties (Wisconsin or Texas’ or Arizona) or on any of the county parties trying to innovate in the absence of the National party’s ability to).

Finally, don’t give up hope that as president, Joe Biden might do some useful things. His track record is listless at best, destructive more often than not. But remember that FDR’s track record wasn’t much better when he became President in a crisis time, and HE rose to the occasion. Biden might surprise us by breaking from his past as FDR did.

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