In the leadup to election day, everyone from veteran political analysts to Siberian bears forecasted that a ‘Democratic blue wave’ would sweep across the American political landscape. Not only did they predict that Joe Biden would annihilate Donald Trump in the presidential contest, but they also projected that the Democratic Party would resoundingly win control over the US Senate and expand their majority in the US house. Even Republican strategists like Bredon Buck lamented over an almost inevitable Democratic trifecta.
As polls closed and vote counts began trickling in, however, one thing became increasingly apparent. This was no blue wave. Within hours of polls closing, Donald Trump was projected the winner in the battleground state of Florida; Republican senators expected to lose garnered huge leads over their challengers; and Republican nominees for the US House had already defeated numerous incumbent Democrats.
As of writing, Joe Biden has been projected the winner of the Presidential contest, albeit with razor-thin margins. Republicans have, however, significantly eroded the Democratic Party’s majority in the US House, and they are poised to maintain their control of the US Senate.
But what went so wrong? Why wasn’t the election a blue wave? And what lessons do Democrats need to learn from this election?
The most astonishing statistic was that Donald Trump — the most overtly racist president in the 21st century — had received, according to the exit polls, the highest percentage of non-white voters for a Republican presidential candidate in 60 years. Not only did he increase his support among African Americans by over 5 percent, but more importantly, he had also captured nearly 35 percent of the Latino vote.
In Florida, higher Latino support for Trump translated into Joe Biden failing to ‘run up the numbers’ in the majority Latino Miami-Dade County. This cost him Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Parallelly, the Republicans gains among Latinos led to the loss of two-house Democrats.
Many establishment Democrats blamed these monumental losses on progressives Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Illhan Omar, arguing that their rhetoric, which dabbled in ‘radical’ ideas like defunding the police, portrayed the Democratic Party as being ‘too far to the left’ in the eyes of ‘moderate’ minority voters.
This is simply not true.
Some Cubans in South Florida may have succumbed to the exaggerated fear that Democrats were planning to impose a ruthless socialist rule over the United States. They were, however, a relatively small contingent who were already consistent Republican voters. In 2008, for example, in spite of John McCain winning over 64 percent of the Cuban vote in Florida, Barack Obama won the state.
The real problem was this: Republicans appealed to the real issues that minorities care about, and managed to secure a huge chunk of the undecided minority vote. Like all Americans, minorities are motivated by their material welfare. They care more about the economy, jobs, and trade over ‘token’ issues like immigration and affirmative action.
Nevertheless, the Democratic Party’s minority outreach strategy revolved around token issues, as well as smearing Trump as a racist. In contrast, the Republican Party’s messaging fixated on the economy, and also on how the Democrats’ stringent social distancing policies would hurt service sector workers. This resonated more with undecided minorities, resulting in substantial gains for Republicans in California, Texas, and South Carolina.
If Democrats want to fair better in the upcoming 2022 election, they must first focus on clinching minority support. Instead of using platitudes, they must adopt an unflinching economic populist message that would appeal to working class minorities. This worked for Bernie Sanders by driving up turnout in minority areas, and will work for Democrats in congressional races.
Democrats must also invest in a robust ground game in order to win-over minorities in key areas. Spanish language TV Ads focusing on the economy in South Florida, canvassing in rural South Carolina to turnout Blacks, and phone banking, are just some of the crucial investments that Democrats need to make to win big.
But, most importantly, Democrats must not take minorities for granted.
In recent years, rural voters have, during elections, consistently skewed to the right. Republicans have consistently managed to secure huge margins over Democrats in rural counties and townships. This election was no different. Donald Trump and the Republican Party, dominated in rural areas in spite of COVID-19 ravaging through its communities.
Democratic candidates who needed to ‘narrow the gap’ in rural areas to win, had their hopes shattered when initial results indicated that the Republican party was on track to win the rural vote by a larger margin than in 2016. Joe Biden, who anticipated that he would win over 45 percent of the rural vote, barely garnered 40 percent. ‘Competitive’ congressional candidates like Theresa Greenfield of Iowa, and Collin Peterson of Minnesota, for whom rural support was vital, lost with relatively huge margins against their Republican opponents.
This dynamic, however, did not always characterize the American electoral landscape. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Democrats secured almost half the rural vote and held the majority of congressional seats in largely rural states like Oklahoma and Mississippi. This was because, although most Democrats supported a corporatist agenda inside Congress, their public campaigns centered on rural, working-class issues like healthcare and agriculture.
This, however, changed when Democrats began to brazenly embrace a neo-liberal economic agenda to appeal to the ‘white-suburbanite’. Consequently, Democratic candidates have struggled to appeal to rural voters whose material welfare will deteriorate in an economy controlled by market created monopolies. Democratic candidates, in response, have shifted the political debate away from economic concerns to socio-cultural issues such gay marriage and abortion. Not only has it alienated rural voters who are typically conservative on social issues, but it has also enabled Republicans to paint Democrats as ‘out-of-touch’ coastal elites who don’t care about any substantive issues.
If Democrats want to win, they must metamorphosize.
Clarity and consistency in messaging is imperative. Coupled with a few local-level economic issues, Democrats can become competitive in rural areas. Furthermore, Democrats must pursue rural-centric progressive policies like farming subsidies and increased funding for primary care facilities in both Congress and in the White House if they are to win decisively among rural voters.
The silver-lining on an otherwise grim election night for Democrats was the youth. Exit polls indicated that there was a 10 percent surge in youth turnout, and 60 percent of them had cast their ballots for Biden and the Democratic Party. In Georgia, youth voters accounted for 20 percent of the total vote, which was what ultimately nudged Biden over the finish line. Regardless, the overall youth turnout remained low at 55 percent barring possibilities of a blue wave. If youth turnout had increased by a mere 10 percent, Biden would have had won battleground states like North Carolina, and Democrats would have gained control of the US senate and expanded their House majority.
American youth, historically, have always been politically inactive. This is largely due to a simple truth: politics has never ‘worked’ for the youth. One the one hand, Republicans have implemented regressive policies that have adversely affected the material welfare of youth; Democrats, on the other hand, have advocated for incrementalistic policies that have never addressed the root causes of the youth discontent. According to a Poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018, only 48 percent of youth voters believed that who wins elections “really matters”.
Many in the establishment wing of the Democratic Party seek to energize the youth through vague sentiments like “education is the single most important investment a nation can make”, or use pathetic outreach in the form of ‘animal crossing yard signs’. There are some in the establishment who even write-off the youth as apathetic.
Bernie Sanders proved that a dynamic engagement with youth is possible. When comprehensive policies that directly address youth are proposed by Democrats, there was overwhelming support. Simply put, if Democrats want to tap into a huge voting block that skews to the left, they must address their real issues and deliver real change. They can eliminate tuition from all public universities and expunge all student loan debt — policies supported by 58 percent of the American electorate and an overwhelming majority of young voters.
The formula is simple: minorities, rural voters, and youth. It is time for Democrats to rethink their priorities. It is time to discard the opaque and the lackluster that plagues their campaign strategy, and deliver real change to people who will ultimately decide future elections.