Win the Middle Part 1: Winning Under Today’s Rules

Where do American voters (and democracy) stand in 2023?

Before we dive into anything else, it’s important to agree on a set of facts about American democracy and the American electorate as it currently stands in 2023. When we look at these facts in totality, they start to paint a picture of the path forward.

1. Republicans have a structural advantage in American politics.

The structure of the Senate and the partisan redistricting process for drawing new Congressional seats have produced a status quo that advantages small states and rural voters — and Republicans have exploited this advantage.

According to FiveThirtyEight:

“In the last half century, the two parties have gradually undergone a dramatic urban-rural sorting that has made most small states reliably Republican and most big states bastions of blue. So now, the Senate’s small-state bias has become a Republican bias — both more consistent and more severe than the Electoral College’s. [In 2020], despite Biden winning the national popular vote by 4.5 points, Trump won the median Senate seat by 0.5 points. That 5.0-point Republican lean makes the Senate the most biased institution in the federal government.”

The House similarly tilts red, in part due to the urban/rural divide, but also for a different reason: partisan gerrymandering.

Per Daily Kos Elections:

“Biden won the median House seat (Illinois’s 14th District) by 2.4 percentage points, meaning it was still 2.1 points redder than the country as a whole.”

Because these gerrymandered Congressional maps were drawn after the 2020 census, they’re set in stone until the next census is completed in 2030 (legal challenges notwithstanding).

To counteract this imbalance, Democrats must be able to consistently win in both “red” states and lean-red Congressional districts. On the Senate side, that means we need more Jon Testers, Sherrod Browns, and Joe Manchins as statewide candidates — not fewer. In the House, we need more Jared Goldens, Sharice Davidses, and Abigail Spanbergers. Democratic candidates often must show a willingness to break with their national party (especially it’s more liberal flank) on key issues in order to win in lean-red districts.

If Democrats cannot find a way to include more moderate, “ideologically imperfect” candidates in their big-tent, they cannot expect to control the House or Senate for any part of the next decade.

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2. The electoral college doesn’t work, but it’s not changing anytime soon.

There’s no institution more maligned by Democrats than the Electoral College — and for good reason. If not for this “creative” invention of American federalism, Democrats would have won every presidential election of this millennia.

As Data for Progress researcher Simon Bazelon has pointed out, the partisan tilt of the Electoral College has gotten steadily worse over time. These trends have progressed to the point where Democrats must now overperform historical averages — and win the popular vote by millions — to win a national presidential election. It’s the political equivalent of a football team having to cover the betting spread in order to win a game.

Source: Democrats are sleepwalking into a Senate disaster by Simon Bazelon (Slow Boring)

So, yes, a national popular vote would be a better, more equitable, more sensical way of choosing a president. But as long as the Republican party exists — and as long as part of their power lies in the disproportionate power of small states — there will be an Electoral College. Abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, which would mean two-thirds of Congress and 38 states would need to ratify the change. Given the extent of GOP control at both the federal and state level’s, that’s simply not possible in today’s America. 

Reforms to our democratic system like abolishing the Electoral College are much needed and simultaneously unlikely to happen, because to do so would require a bipartisan consensus. Until Democrats organize a robust center-left faction that can win in red states, the Electoral College is here to stay.

That means we must play to win under our current system, as deeply flawed as it is.

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3. The American electorate is mostly white and not college educated.

Both of these trends disadvantage the current Democratic Party.

The American electorate as a whole is becoming both more diverse and more educated with each passing election cycle — but today, the largest voting bloc in the country (44% of all voters in 2020) remains white, non-college educated voters. Unfortunately for Democrats, Donald Trump won 63 percent of them in 2020.

Today, roughly two-thirds of the American electorate is white and more than six in ten voters do not have a bachelor’s degree. In key battleground states across the industrial midwest, those numbers skew even more toward these white, non-college voters.

A more interesting narrative appears when we dig a little deeper into the 2020 crosstabs: a majority of white, college educated voters voted Democratic for the first time in decades while working class voters of color shifted meaningfully towards Republicans (trends that persisted in the 2022 midterms).

Of course, this reality confounded Democratic strategists who thought Donald Trump’s blatant racism would drive voters of color permanently away from the Republican party, but, as Democratic data analyst David Shor has described, education level — not race — was the dominant predictor of a person’s vote in 2020. This dynamic as voters continued to associate the national Democratic brand with white (sometimes socialist) elites. A Democratic party that is increasingly pigeonholed as the party of wealthy, white progressives is a party destined for struggle, even when matched up against a Republican Party that’s gone down the extremist rabbit hole.

As Democrats, we must be prepared to win everywhere. We have to appeal to rural swing voters without a college degree, suburban former Republicans turned off by what’s happened to the party of Reagan, and working class voters of color who want progress on kitchen table issues. A moderate faction within the Democratic Party is needed to appeal to all of these crucial constituencies.

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4. Voters of color are more moderate than white progressives want you to think.

The progressive wing of the Democratic party has spent the last several election cycles executing a nimble two-step. One one hand, they claim equity as a north star, claiming to champion policies designed to best benefit voters of color. On the other, they often ignore what voters of color actually say they want.

As Democrats, we should be champions of equity. Our values and our policies align with the majority of voters of color. But we have to start by listening to what voters of color actually want.

Let’s look at two crucial constituencies in the Democratic voting bloc: Black and Latino voters.

Black Voters

Black voters are the most important base within the Democratic Party and deserve much of the credit for delivering the White House to President Biden. Activists, particularly since 2020, have portrayed Black voters as progressive crusaders. In reality, however, Black voters are the Democratic constituency least likely to self-identify as liberal — and most likely to self identify as moderate. 

While wildly popular among white progressive, slogan-ready policies like “Defund the Police” consistently poll terribly among Black voters. That’s why Rep. James Clyburn (former House Majority Whip and the kingmaker who put Joe Biden on the path to victory in South Carolina during the 2020 primaries) blamed the slogan for Democratic congressional losses in 2020 and told activists to "stop sloganeering” because “sloganeering kills people” and “destroys movements.” President Obama agreed, asking progressives “Do you want to actually get something done? Or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?”

If Democrats truly elevated the concerns of Black voters as their most important base, the national platform would be geared toward the moderate, working class voters who make up the majority of Black voters in this country.

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Latino Voters

Democrats’ problems among Hispanic and Latino voters run even deeper than with Black voters. While Black voters may be frustrated with the leftward swing within the party, Latino voters are actually becoming a competitive demographic for Republicans.

When Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by a 71% to 27% margin among Latinos in 2012, many presumed Latino voters would be a Democratic base for years to come. Instead, Donald Trump meaningfully improved on Romney’s numbers in both 2016 and 2020 (despite running a campaign built largely on racism toward Hispanic immigrants). The shift became impossible to dismiss in 2020, when the Democratic advantage among Latino voters eroded by 16 points over the span of just four years.

A late 2022 poll from the New York Times dug deeper into this worrisome trend: nationally, Latinos support Democrats by a margin of 56% to 32% (which seems like a lot, but Democrats hope to win 70+ percent among this critical demographic) — and in the South, it’s essentially a dead heat.

Why this shift? There’s been a lot of thorough research on the topic (some of it linked below), but the gist of it is that Latino voters don’t identify with the progressive narratives that have taken hold among the national Democratic Party elite.

In many ways, Latino voters resemble the archetype of the white, working class voter Democrats have obsessed over for generations: they work hard, believe in the American Dream of upward mobility, and are often practicing Christians who skew more conservative on social issues. In general, most Latino voters focus on “down to earth concerns” like the economy, health care, effective schools and public safety — not structural racism or, importantly, immigration.

As the political scientist and demographer Ruy Texeira smartly calls out, eroding support among Latino voters is an existential threat to Democrats’ long term plan to win majorities based on the increase in voters of color as a share of the American electorate. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the United States — if they become a truly competitive voting bloc, that could mean decades of relevance and influence for an increasingly radicalized Republican Party.

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