Jeff Weaver: Democrats Can’t Keep Clinging to the Center

Democrats focused more on courting GOP voters than younger voters in the last election, former Bernie Sanders senior staffer Jeff Weaver argues. The strategy was a disaster, damaging downballot Democrats across the country — and it could backfire even more when Trump is gone.

Joe Biden at a campaign event. (Phil Roeder / Flickr)

While the curtain falls on Donald Trump’s desperate and frivolous post-election lawsuits, Democrats are rightly asking how they were able to beat Trump but could not regain control of the Senate and maintain or increase their margin in the House. At a time when Democrats should be dispassionately examining the lessons learned from 2020, some in the conservative wing of the party are instead using this opportunity to attack the party’s growing progressive wing.

Soon after the election, centrists began arguing that Democrats lost House seats and most key Senate races because terms like “defund the police” and “socialism” turned off too many moderate voters — despite Joe Biden getting far more votes for president than any presidential candidate in history. In their telling, Biden was Teflon while promising to raise taxes on the wealthy and make major investments in fighting climate change, but centrists who lost House seats and failed in Senate bids were dragged down by Republican name-calling and red-baiting.

On its face, the story is incongruous. In fact, it is so nonsensical that one of the standard-bearers of the “the Left dragged us all down” crowd, former CIA officer and Blue Dog Coalition representative Abigail Spanberger, actually won a higher percentage of the vote in 2020 than she did in 2018.

So, what’s really going on?

Much of the answer lies in the very strategy chosen to elect Biden and oust Trump.

In 2020, Democrats did not focus on winning back working-class voters in the two-hundred-plus counties that shifted from Barack Obama to Trump four years ago — and they won back only a tiny fraction of those locales. Instead, Democrats adopted a strategy aimed at replacing the blue-collar segment of the Obama coalition with suburban voters and anti-Trump Republicans — which succeeded at the top of the ticket but created the weakest Democratic coattails in six decades.

Democrats’ Strategy Boosted GOP Turnout, Which Hurt Downballot

Tens of millions of dollars were spent by Democratic groups to turn out Republicans who could no longer stomach Trump. Coupled with a surprisingly effective turnout operation by the GOP machine, 15 million more Republicans voted in 2020 than in 2016, while Democratic turnout only increased by 6 million votes.

It is difficult to know how effective Democrats’ focus on swinging GOP voters was, given that Trump consolidated the Republican vote percentage-wise from 2016 to 2020 — going from 90 percent support to 94 percent support among GOP voters. That said, an analysis of 2016 and 2020 exit polls shows Biden did get almost a hundred thousand more Republican votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, because the overall size of the electoral pie was much bigger.

It is an open question whether those Republican votes would have come to Biden without the enormous cost of Republican outreach by pro-Biden groups — Trump may have made himself so toxic that those voters would have gone to Biden anyway, and there is evidence that some of the strategies to court GOP voters were ineffective.

What can be said, however, is that the substantial increase in Republican turnout overall — again driven by both pro-Trump and pro-Biden aligned groups — had what should have been the expected effect down the ballot: a big GOP swing in races beneath the presidential contest.

Some House Democrats who had won by small margins in the 2018 “Blue Wave” did not survive, and Senate candidates went down to defeat in states that Trump won.

In Iowa, according to exit polls, the percentage of the electorate that identified as Democrat fell from 31 percent in 2016 to 26 percent in 2020, while the percentage identifying as Republican rose from 34 percent to 36 percent.

In North Carolina, the percentage of the electorate identifying as Democrat fell from 35 percent to 34 percent, while the Republican share rose from 31 percent to 37 percent. There’s an obvious lesson here: turning out Republicans — even if they hate Trump — benefits Republicans downballot.

Contrast that with the biggest surprise of the night, in Georgia, where Biden was the first Democrat to win the state since 1992 and Democrat Jon Ossoff outperformed Senate candidates in Iowa and North Carolina. In Georgia, the percentage of the electorate who identified as Democrat was stable from 2016 to 2020, at 34 percent, while the Republican total only rose from 36 percent to 38 percent. That is a much smaller shift in the electoral composition to Republicans when compared to Iowa or North Carolina.

Focus on Young Voters, Not Republicans

So why were Democrats successful in Georgia and not in Iowa or North Carolina, even in face of a shift, albeit marginal, in the Republicans’ favor in the Peach State? The numbers are clear: Georgia went blue due to the overwhelming turnout among young voters.

Nationally, young voters were 17 percent of the electorate, and they voted overwhelmingly for Biden. In Georgia, young voters were 20 percent of the electorate, and they supported Biden by 13 points over Trump.

Put another way, Biden won the under-thirty vote in Georgia by more than 129,000 votes. That is more than ten times his winning margin of 12,640 votes across the entire state. If young voters in Georgia were the same percentage of the electorate as they were nationally, Biden would have received 19,500 fewer votes — and lost.

In Iowa and North Carolina, young voters were only 16 percent and 15 percent of the electorate, respectively. One can only imagine the impact if the king’s ransom spent to woo Republicans had instead been focused on progressive youth.

Young voters are not the future of the Democratic Party. They are our present.

A Lesson That Should Have Been Learned After 2008

The critical importance of young voters in turning red states to blue should have already been learned.

In 2008, youth turnout was the highest since 1972, and in that year, President Obama won both Indiana (the first Democrat to do so since 1964) and North Carolina, but he only carried the eighteen-to-twenty-nine age demographic in each. For the record, the only age cohort Biden carried in his Arizona win was also voters under thirty. But it’s a lesson that keeps being forgotten, as party leaders and electeds overreact to Republican name-calling.

Republicans are always going to attack. That’s the nature of politics. The panic over “defund the police” and “socialism” among centrists is really no different than when so many Democrats retreated from a fair estate tax because Republicans yelled “death tax.” Political contests are called campaigns for a reason. Like a military campaign, your enemy gets to shoot back. That’s not cause to cower in your foxhole. It’s cause to deliver more intense and overwhelming fire in response.

In politics, effective return fire is not touting résumés and projecting competence. It’s bold and broadly popular substantive policies that address the systemic inequities of all kinds in our society.

Democrats should be mindful that the referendum to raise the minimum wage got 61 percent of the vote in Florida, while Democrats were going down in defeat.

If turning out anti-Trump Republicans as a short-term strategy was effective in winning the White House — and that is a big if — it was certainly worth it. After all, one would be hard-pressed to find a Democrat who would trade control of the Senate for a Trump-controlled White House.

The point moving forward, however, is simple: as attention focuses on Georgia and inevitably turns to the 2022 midterms, attempting to rely on anti-Trump Republicans with Trump out of office is a loser, especially in downballot races.

Anti-Trump Republicans without Trump are, well, just Republicans. But young voters will still be there, waiting to be inspired with bold policies that will ensure broad-based prosperity, opportunity, and inclusion. So will blue-collar voters, including the black and Latino men that Democrats lost ground with this cycle.

If hand-wringing centrists win the day, Democrats can expect losses in Georgia and a tough cycle in 2022. If Democrats learn the real lessons of 2020, we can build the type of electoral coalition that has shown its unique power in turning red states blue.

In case the point is lost on anyone, if Democrats want to win in Georgia and the midterms, they must appeal to the most progressive part of our party: young people, not Republicans.