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A Supreme Reminder of What Follows Losing
In a week that showed what winners win, the New York Times ran a data-free opinion piece on how Democrats can win — with the wrong advice.
It’s been a hell of a week — and it reflects what happens when a highly organized, coherent faction plays aggressively in every aspect of the game to win. The Supreme Court leak was a stinging reminder to Democrats how much winning ultimately matters in politics.
Speaking of winning, you may have seen the recent New York Times op-ed by a Maine state Senator making the case for how Democrats can win rural voters — even with a candidate who is an “activist with unabashedly progressive politics”. The candidate’s bio seems to back up that claim: “in one of the most rural districts in the state, voters chose the young, first-term Democrat who sponsored one of the first Green New Deal policies to pass a state legislature.”
The argument has merit, especially the authors’ insistence that Democrats return to authentically engaging voters in rural America and an enthusiasm for engaging independent and even Republican voters.
Unfortunately, the op-ed is conspicuously lacking in one critical area: data.
If you read the piece, you likely assumed that the candidate won over some of these swing voters and outperformed other Democrats. But the piece lacks any hard data on the district or the Senator’s performance compared to other Democrats on the ballot. Such data is important because there is mountains of evidence that moderate candidates perform better (and because the piece calls out moderates like Joe Manchin and excoriates the strategy and tactics of the Maine Democratic Party).
It turns out there’s a reason for the lack of data: the author and her “unabashedly progressive politics” actually did worse than Joe Biden on the same ballots in the same district. We’ll dive into that in detail below.
But first, check out a few things our team was reading and talking about this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Matt Yglesias in Slow Boring on what the DLC got wrong — and right:
“More than anything else, this is the big thing the DLC has been right about all along — there’s no cheat code that lets you do politics in a way that is detached from the contours of public opinion, including the reality that self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a large margin, so to win, Democrats need to secure large margins among self-identified moderates.”
2. Re-read (from 2021): Theda Skocpol and Caroline Tervo in The American Prospect on the jarring disconnect between national advocates and grassroots volunteers in the Democratic Party:
“Indeed, in the November 2018 ‘blue wave’ elections, most of the Democrats who won congressional seats—with or without Indivisible endorsements—were moderate liberals, not left progressives. Many women and persons of color joined the ranks of congressional Democrats, but most of them, as well as most of the white male Democrats who prevailed, were mainstream liberals. Grassroots resistance efforts not only boosted many moderates to flip suburban congressional districts to the Democrats; those efforts also increased turnout and Democratic vote shares for prominent moderate Democratic statewide victors, such as Pennsylvanians Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and Gov. Tom Wolf. Our research on resistance efforts in Pennsylvania and other states shows that, more often than not, realistically minded local volunteers worked very hard to boost Democrats they understood held more moderate views than theirs.”
3. Jack Crosbie in Discourse Blog with a dose of reality — you can’t beat Trump in a primary:
“The easiest and most obvious takeaway from my time there is that there is absolutely no route for the Republican Party in the next at least two to four years that does not go through Donald Trump. None. The people who vote in Republican primaries still love him, believe in him, and above all trust the platform and movement that he created. If Trump wants to run for president again in 2024 he will be the GOP candidate, and everyone who votes for the party, works in the party, or covers the party knows this on some level.”
The Far-Right Played to Win — And Won
Those who rejoiced at the news of Monday’s leaked memo have been working toward this moment for decades. Year after year, they put their heads down and plotted out their agenda. On college and law school campuses, the Federalist Society cultivated cohorts of fresh talent who it helped nurture and guarantee were situated throughout the judiciary. On Capitol Hill, Mitch McConnell and his allies exploited the rules of the game to their maximum advantage, ensuring, for example, that Merrick Garland would never get a hearing before the Senate. And across the country, ideological activists and voters acquiesced to the illiberalism of Donald Trump in exchange for three Supreme Court Justices.
Democrats have historically been bad at making these kinds of concerted, long-term plays — and our over-reliance on spastic, short-term thinking has led to poor allocation of resources. As Steve Teles and Robert Saldin note in The Future is Faction, this has been especially true of center-left Democrats and is a root cause of recent challenges.
Beware Far-Left Fabrications
Let’s return to our discussion of Maine State Sen. Chloe Maxmin and her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, whose NYT op-ed on what it takes to win in rural America garnered a lot of attention this week.
Self-serving political narratives are a dime a dozen, especially given the dynamism of the far-left marketplace. And, despite the volume, anecdotal (or numbers-twisting) calls for “unabashed progressivism” winning over swing voters are far outweighed by the actual political science and electoral data proving otherwise. Without decrying their motives, pieces such as Maxmin and Woodward’s should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism — and a reminder that cold, hard data can tell us what carefully spun words often do not.
What do publicly available election results say about Maxmin’s race that her op-ed doesn’t?
It turns out she actually slightly underperformed other Democrats running on the same ballot.
According to election results from Ballotpedia, Dave’s Redistricting, and the Maine Secretary of State, Maxmin won fewer votes than both Joe Biden and US Rep. Chellie Pingree in her own state senate district (SD 13).
Note: Data on Pingree’s performance in SD 13 excludes the relatively small share of UOCAVA (uniformed and overseas) votes. Given that Pingree overwhelmingly won the UOCAVA vote in her congressional district (85.3% to 14.7%), she likely received more votes than we can confirm in SD 13.
Based on this publicly available data, Joe Biden won 123 fewer votes than Pingree among voters in Maine SD 13 — and then Maxmin won 366 fewer still.
Maxmin also underperformed other Democrats in terms of vote share percentage, trailing Biden by roughly one point and Pingree by 2.5 points on the same ballots in SD 13. And Maxmin’s Republican opponent, Dana Row, outperformed Donald Trump by 4 points and Pingree’s Republican opponent, Jay Allen, by 2.5 points.
Data from the Maine Secretary of State demonstrates that Pingree outperformed Maxmin in all but two of the 20 towns that comprise the district.
For example, the largest voting electorate in SD 13 is Waldoboro. There, Maxmin received 1,189 votes and Pingree 1,382. And that gulf in performance cannot simply be accounted for as dropoff: Maxmin’s GOP opponent received 1,725 votes in Waldoboro compared to just 1,501 for Pingree’s. In other words, there were split ticket voters in this district — but they voted Democrat for congress and then voted Republican down-ballot against the “unabashedly progressive” state legislative candidate.
Maxmin should be commended for her energy and enthusiasm for meeting independent voters where they live — and for ultimately winning her race. But her and Woodward’s op-ed boils down to another case of anti-data thinking from the far-left designed to leave readers with the misleading impression that progressives have broad appeal in swing and rural districts.
Bottom line: in Maxmin’s case as in others, the data shows clearly that mainstream Democrats outperform far-left candidates in these critical races. There is a significant appetite on the far-left for arguments that candidates can run maximalist progressive campaigns in swing districts without paying a price. But such arguments are usually either missing objective data or obfuscating it.
Moderates Outperform the Far-Left in Swing Districts
The data-proof reality is that Democrats must also meet voters where they are ideologically in order to win reliably in swing districts — and that means running compelling mainstream candidates in those races.
These are candidates like Maxmin and Woodward’s fellow Mainer Jared Golden, who won as a Democrat in a rural district that Donald Trump won handily on the same 2020 ticket. Golden’s success didn't come from emulating the far-left and merely engaging with voters on the ground. In fact, quite the opposite: it came from cultivating a palatable, independent brand that stood apart from the party’s far-left cable news caricature. As we’ve described before, Golden’s independent brand touted his mainstream, moderate tendencies and made him authentic and relatable to the voters of his district.
In a week fraught with reminders about the primacy of victory and gamesmanship, it’s time for Democrats to get serious about winning by whatever means necessary.
If there’s one principle we should be following right now, it’s this from Catalist’s Jonathan Robinson:
Let’s be the kinds of Democrats who win.