A Lot Went Wrong for Democrats on Election Night

There’s still much we don’t know, but we can take some key lessons from the elections last night: Democrats’ weak economic message helped Trump, the Lincoln Project embarrassed itself, a ton of grassroots money was set on fire, Americans don’t love Obamacare, and the Democratic courts’ strategy failed.

Election workers adjudicate scans of challenged ballots at the Lansing city clerk's office on election night on November 3, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. (John Moore / Getty Images)

As the country awaits the final results of the presidential election, there are already several key lessons to be gleaned from election, campaign finance, and public opinion data.

1. Democrats’ weak economic message hugely helped Trump.

The Democratic ticket pretty much ran away from economic issues — sure, it had decent position papers, but economic transformation was not a huge part of its public messaging, and that failure buoyed Donald Trump, according to exit polls from Edison Research.

Trump won 81 percent of the vote among the one-third of the electorate that listed the economy as its top priority. Even more amazing — Trump and Joe Biden equally split the vote among those whose priority is a president who “cares about people like me.”

2. The Lincoln Project and Rahm Emanuel embarrassed themselves.

The Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump cash cow for veteran Republican consultants, has raised $40 million from MSNBC-watching Brunch Liberals in just the last few months, and it’s now set to launch a media brand off the idea that its GOP operatives are political geniuses.

Their ads focused on trying to court disaffected Republican voters and attack Trump’s character, as Biden loaded up the Democratic convention with GOP speakers. When polls during the summer showed that the strategy wasn’t working, galaxy brain Rahm Emanuel defended it to a national televised audience, insisting that 2020 would be “the year of the Biden Republican.”

Now survey data show the strategy epically failed, as Trump actually garnered even more support from GOP voters than in 2016. Indeed, Edison Research exit polls on Tuesday found that 93 percent of Republican voters supported Trump — 3 percentage points higher than in 2016, according to numbers from the same firm.

The takeaway: there may be a lot of so-called “Never Trump” Republicans promoted in the media and in politics, but “Never Trump” Republicans are not a statistically significant group of voters anywhere in America. They basically do not exist anywhere outside of the Washington Beltway or cable news green rooms — and after tonight’s results, we shouldn’t have to see them on TV or even see their tweets ever again.

As for the Lincoln Project’s focus on trying to scandalize Trump’s character, the exit polls found that voters are far more concerned about policy issues than personality. In fact, 73 percent of voters said their candidate’s positions on the issues were more important in their vote for president than their candidate’s personal qualities.

3. People don’t love the Affordable Care Act.

While it may have made short-term sense for Democrats to focus on the GOP’s efforts to repeal protections for patients with preexisting conditions, Americans actually aren’t particularly pleased with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), at a moment when millions have lost health insurance and insurers’ profits are skyrocketing because people can’t or don’t want to go to the doctor.

Edison Research exit polls found that 52 percent of voters think the Supreme Court should keep Obamacare, while 43 percent said the court should overturn it.

A Fox News Voter Analysis survey, which went to more than 29,000 people in all fifty states between October 26 and November 3, found similar numbers but suggests the ACA’s support is fairly thin: 14 percent of people want to leave the law as is, while 40 percent of people would like to improve it.

The same poll asked voters if they would support changing the health care system so that any American can buy into a government-run health care plan if they want to — also known as a public health insurance option — and found that 71 percent of people support the idea and only 29 percent oppose it.

Although Biden and Senate Democrats both supported a public health insurance option plan, their campaigns and outside spending groups spent more time messaging around protecting the ACA. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s tracking poll has shown consistently middling support for the ACA — and showed that, during the summer COVID-19 burst, the law was underwater among Americans aged 50–64.

The ACA’s protections for patients with preexisting conditions was a key topic in recent weeks in the lead-up to new Trump Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, with the court set to hear a challenge to the law soon.

In a speech that Biden gave from Wilmington, Delaware, on October 28, focused on COVID-19 and his health care plan, he spoke about the importance of trusting science and mask wearing, and he highlighted Trump’s attacks on the ACA, but he only mentioned a public option once.

4. A lot of grassroots money was set on fire.

Democrats raised roughly a quarter billion dollars for Senate races in Kentucky, South Carolina, Texas, and Alabama — and their candidates all appear to have gone down to defeat by 10 points or more.

These are tough states for Democrats, but there’s a cautionary tale about resource allocation among Democrats’ donor base. While grassroots-funded advocacy and media organizations are starved for resources, a handful of candidates can snap their fingers and be awash in cash at election time — and still get crushed.

Democratic Senate candidates saw a massive surge in donations after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September — before the party barely put up a fight and Justice Amy Coney Barrett was quickly confirmed to the Supreme Court.

5. Democrats’ court calculation was wrong.

When Trump nominated right-wing extremist Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the conventional wisdom was that Democrats shouldn’t seriously combat the nomination, because a court fight would primarily motivate conservative voters. Exit polls prove that false: 60 percent of voters said the court was a significant factor in their vote, and a majority of those voters supported Biden — who barely spoke up against the nomination. Had there been a more intense fight, it might have helped the Democrats.

All but one of the top-tier Democratic Senate candidates shied away from talk of adding new Supreme Court seats if their party won control of the Senate — which doesn’t matter now, since many of them lost anyway.

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David Sirota is editor-at-large at Jacobin. He edits the Daily Poster newsletter and previously served as a senior adviser and speechwriter on Bernie Sanders's 2020 presidential campaign.

Andrew Perez is a writer and researcher living in Maine.

Julia Rock is a contributing writer for the Daily Poster.

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