WASHINGTON — Democrats failed to appeal to voters of color and need to do a better job defining themselves and explaining what they support, according to a critical analysis of the 2020 election released Monday by several prominent Democratic groups.
Democrats won the White House and Senate last year, but those wins were narrower than expected and obscured major losses further down the ballot, leading many in the party to warn of a needed course correction before the 2022 midterms.
“While we may have saved our democracy in 2020, we didn’t do as well as we should have,” said Quentin James, the founder and president of Collective PAC, a Democratic group that focuses on black voters and co-sponsored the new analysis. “Democrats must seriously address this problem while we still have time.”
The report found that Republican attempts to tie moderate Democrats to the left's most extreme and unpopular elements, such as calls to defund the police, worked. The problem was partly their own making because Democrats failed to explain where they actually stood on police funding and many other issues, other than opposing former President Donald Trump.
“Win or lose, self-described progressive or moderate, Democrats consistently raised a lack of a strong Democratic Party brand as a significant concern in 2020,” the report’s authors wrote. “In the absence of strong party branding, the opposition latched on to G.O.P. talking points, suggesting our candidates would ‘burn down your house and take away the police.’”
Up until the eve of the election last year, Democrats expected to expand their House majority, but instead lost nearly all of the most competitive congressional races in the country and held on to control of the chamber by razor-thin margins. Democrats took control of the Senate, thanks to two January run off elections in Georgia.
Democrats failed to gain any new governorships or flip a single state legislative chamber, the impacts of which will be felt for a decade as states take up redistricting this year.
Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, Collective PAC and Latino Victory teamed up to conduct a review of the election, frequently referred to as a postmortem, commissioning veteran Democratic strategists Marlon Marshall and Lynda Tran to conduct over 150 interviews with operatives, analysts and candidates and to dive into the data.
In addition to faulting polling that fueled Democrats’ overly rosy expectations and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, their 73-page report found that a drop off in support from some minorities likely cost the party some key races in places like California, Texas and Florida.
“Our approach to voters of color significantly hurt our outcome,” the report concluded. “The Party treated voters of color as a monolith — especially Latino voters.”
Campaigns typically separate potential voters in two buckets, with different strategies for each: swing voters and base voters. Swing voters are targeted early with messages designed to persuade them. And base voters who are thought to already agree with the campaign are usually targeted later in an effort to simply motivated them to show up.
But the report argues that minority voters need to be persuaded, too, both to vote for Democrats and to vote at all, since many often feel their vote won’t matter. Activists like Stacey Abrams have been pushing Democrats to stop viewing Black voters as simply needing to be motivated to show up.
“We need to stop telling Latinos to vote. We need to give them a reason to vote — something to vote for — in order to earn their votes,” said Nathalie Rayes, the head of Latino Victory.
Much of the drop-off in support from Latino and Asian-American voters can be attributed to specific subgroups, but Democrats too often used one-size-fits-all messages that define those voters by their ethnicity while ignoring factors like education, gender and geography that are almost always considered with white voters, the report found.
For instance, working-class and noncollege educated Hispanics saw a drop in support for Democrats, mirroring the trend among whites. Voters of Filipino and Vietnamese descent in Southern California trended Republican at higher rates than other Asian-Americans.
“Latinos are not a monolithic community — we are multifaceted and approach different issues in different ways,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ PAC. “Campaigns need to treat Latino voters with the same nuance and thoughtfulness they give to other communities.”
In the weeks following the November election, a long-simmering feud spilled into the public when moderate Democrats blamed progressive for the party’s disappointments, while progressives shot back by saying they were being scapegoated for others' losses. Third Way, one of the reports’ sponsors, is firmly in the moderate camp.
The report argues the "defund the police" attacks were toxic because Republicans was able convince some voters that Democrats cared more about kowtowing to a narrow band of activists or going after Trump than helping average voters solve kitchen-table issues.
“Some campaign teams we spoke with felt that the Party didn’t have a message beyond ‘Donald Trump sucks,’ and this void led to split-ticket voting for Biden at the top of the ticket and Republicans down ballot,” the report found.
Party’s typically conduct after-action analyses, often dubbed autopsies or postmortems, after losses, not wins. This year, Democrats have conducted several postmortems, while Republicans have largely refrained from reflecting on their 2020 loss, at least publicly, since Trump has refused to acknowledge that he was defeated.
Democrats face a tough midterm next year when they will have to defend razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress in an election year that history says should break against them, since the president's party nearly always loses midterm seats in Congress.
Several vulnerable Democratic members of Congress have already announced plans to retire or leave to run for other office, which will make the party's task of holding the House even more difficult and suggests a lack of confidence from some rank-and-file members that Democrats will be in the majority again.