Why Democrats may be facing a generation in the wilderness

By Peter Grier

This fall, Democrats have struggled to push their legislative agenda through Congress. They’ve argued among themselves, put off votes, and radically trimmed bills to try to get past the fact that their margin in the House is tissue-thin and in the Senate barely exists.

But what if, in terms of political power, this is as good as it gets for the party for years to come? 

Democrats face serious electoral challenges in 2022 and beyond, which raises the stakes for what they’re doing now. But does that mean they should aim high or tread lightly?

That’s a discussion that’s exploded among activists as they take a hard look at upcoming elections. Democrats could easily lose both the House and Senate in 2022, given the map of seats up for grabs and the truism that the party that holds the White House typically loses ground in midterm votes.

Beyond that, things actually look worse. The concentration of Democratic voters in cities, and the dispersion of Republican voters throughout rural areas, gives the GOP a built-in advantage in the Senate and the Electoral College. Educational polarization may be accelerating this trend.

Given this, some members want to use their current majority to enact as many big, meaningful changes as they can. Others argue if the party is seen as overreaching, it will only further alienate the very voters it must win back if it has any hope of holding onto power.

This fall, Democrats have struggled to push their legislative agenda through Congress. They’ve argued among themselves, put off votes, and radically trimmed bills to try to get past the fact that their margin in the House is tissue-thin and in the Senate barely exists.

But what if, in terms of political power, this is as good as it gets for the Democratic Party for years to come? What if, electorally-speaking, they are doomed? 

That’s a discussion that’s exploded among party activists and officials in recent days as they take a hard look at their prospects in upcoming elections. Democrats could easily lose both the House and Senate in 2022, given the map of seats up for grabs and the truism that the party that holds the White House typically loses ground in midterm votes.

Democrats face serious electoral challenges in 2022 and beyond, which raises the stakes for what they’re doing now. But does that mean they should aim high or tread lightly?

Beyond that, things actually look worse, according to some Democratic strategists and political experts. The concentration of Democratic voters in cities, and the dispersion of Republican voters throughout rural and exurban areas, gives the GOP a built-in advantage in the Senate and the Electoral College. Educational polarization – voters with college degrees moving to Democrats, and non-college voters shifting to the GOP – may be accelerating this geographic trend.

Democrats’ underlying fear is that an era of minority rule may lie ahead. Given the partisan bias of the Electoral College, due to the number of thinly-populated safe red states, Democrats have to win 52% of the popular vote just to have a 50-50 chance of winning the White House, according to one estimate. The Senate has even more of a partisan lean – it may be effectively 6 to 7 points redder than the country as a whole.

Given this situation, and a Republican Party in thrall to former President Donald Trump’s false election conspiracies, what should Democrats do? Some members want to use their current majority to enact as many big, meaningful changes as they can – believing this may be their last chance for a while. Others argue if the party is seen as overreaching, it will only further alienate the very voters it must win back if it has any hope of holding onto power.

At the heart of this debate among Democrats is a key issue: is it possible, or desirable, to win back some of the white working-class voters who have moved en masse to Mr. Trump in recent years?

“In an era when so much of this is no longer worked out behind closed doors, we are seeing the Democratic Party negotiating among its members in public. That’s really instructive,” says Daniel Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Whose voices do they want to elevate?” 

Democratic congressional candidate Rochelle Garza, second from right, holds a conversation over issues at a backyard house party in Brownsville, Texas on Sept. 24, 2021. A push to combat climate change could create political liabilities in energy rich areas, including South Texas, where winning Hispanic voters back could prove critical to the party's hopes of retaining control of Congress during next year's midterms.

Is ‘popularism’ the way forward?

The discussion about the Democratic Party’s future has been simmering for some time, but hit a boil last week when New York Times writer Ezra Klein published a lengthy interview with David Shor, a Democratic data expert whose electoral outlook for the party is particularly gloomy.

The bad news for Democrats is rooted in structural imbalance, in Mr. Shor’s view. The Senate privileges rural states – Wyoming has as much power in the chamber as California. The GOP created some Western states in the late 1800s, such as North and South Dakota and Montana, in part to provide reliable party votes, which they still do.

Overlaid on that today is a Democratic coalition that’s increasingly diverse and urban. In recent years, college-educated voters have moved toward Democrats, and non-college-educated voters – both white as well as some Black and Hispanic – have become increasingly Republican. The Trump era accelerated that movement, locking in the GOP’s ability to win national power with a minority of votes.

To break this cycle, Democrats need to win back states that lean Republican, according to Mr. Shor. But at its top levels, the party is dominated by a cosmopolitan, progressive elite that doesn’t understand rural and working-class voters.

Mr. Shor’s answer to this is something that, for lack of a better word, pundits call “popularism”: Find out what residents of GOP-leaning states want, and then talk mostly about those things. More “Add dental coverage to Medicare,” Less “Defund the police.”

A closely divided country

One rejoinder to the assertion that Democrats are about to step over a political abyss is that the history of recent partisan division shows the U.S. to be a closely divided country in which neither party is completely out of power for long – but neither controls the White House and both chambers of Congress for very long, either. 

Since 1980, America has held 11 presidential elections. Republicans have won six, and Democrats five. 

Add in midterm congressional elections, and since 1980 Democrats have won a majority in the House 11 times, and Republicans 10. In the Senate those numbers are reversed: Republicans have won control 11 times, and Democrats 10.

Past results don’t ensure future ones, and most experts agree that Democrats face an uphill climb in the Senate. But they are a reminder that contingencies matter. Four years ago, who predicted Georgia would vote for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, and elect two Democratic senators?

“I don’t think they are facing a generation in the wilderness,” says Professor Hopkins.

That said, Democrats pursue political power for a different reason than Republicans, Dr. Hopkins adds. Democrats have policy agendas they pursue, and legislative items to enact, in part due to demands from the diverse factions of their party coalition. Movement requires the trifecta – control of the presidency, House, and Senate. That’s something they’ve achieved after only three elections since 1980.

Thus the current push for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and $2 trillion social spending legislation, despite narrow margins of congressional control. Party leaders worry this may be their last window to make big changes on pressing issues such as climate change and help for working parents for some time.

As to “popularism,” some experts think it overstates the power of political communication, and the power of political parties to brand themselves. In an age of instant social media Democratic activists will do their best to push forward their own issues even if they contravene leaders’ intentions. The thriving conservative news universe will do its best to stamp Democrats as the party of “critical race theory” and the cancellation of Dr. Seuss.

And calling for renewed attention to low-education voters in red states may implicitly mean, “play down issues important to Black and Hispanic communities in an effort to regain white working-class votes.”

“The meta data point that I think Shor misunderstands is the country’s changing racial composition,” says Steve Phillips, founder of the political media organization Democracy in Color and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

A changing electorate

The U.S. is rapidly approaching a population in which people of color will represent a majority, says Mr. Phillips. Close to 90% of Black voters support the Democratic Party, he says. Since 1986, an average of 79% of people of color have voted Democratic.

In the 2020 election, President Joe Biden won 7 million more votes from people of color than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, Mr. Phillips notes. 

Donald Trump had a larger increase in voters of color, causing some Democrats to worry about their party’s erosion among Hispanic and Black conservative men, in particular. But Democrats still win large majorities of non-white voters, Mr. Phillips notes.

“If the lion’s share of one sector of the population supports Democrats, and that sector is getting bigger, than that does not translate into decades in the wilderness,” he says.

Instead of funding communication strategies for red-leaning states, the party hierarchy should spend money on replicating what former state representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams accomplished in Georgia, says Mr. Phillips. She organized at the grassroots level and flipped her state blue.

“You need to move many millions of dollars into civic engagement groups who work in communities of color to increase the voter turnout of those communities,” he says. “That’s what happened in Georgia, Virginia, and Arizona, and that’s why all those states have gone Democratic.”