Posted on November 17, 2020

How 2020 Killed Off Democrats’ Demographic Hopes

Zack Stanton, Politico, November 12, 2020

For years, the Democratic Party has operated under one immutable assumption: Long-term demographic trends would give the party something like a permanent majority as the country as a whole grows less white and more urban. President Donald Trump’s reliance on the politics of racial resentment would only quicken the process, solidifying support for Democrats among people of color.

Then came November 3, 2020. And all those assumptions now seem like total nonsense.

“The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” says David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert who developed the Obama 2012 campaign’s internal election-forecasting system.

Trump, whose approval rating was historically low throughout his tenure as president, increased his support among Black men and Hispanic voters in key swing states, while maintaining his hold on white non-college educated voters. Democrats’ House majority shrank, thanks in part to losses in the suburbs, and split-ticket voting all but disappeared, dooming Democratic Senate candidates in rural, Trump-friendly states. And even while President-Elect Joe Biden is on track to win a higher share of the national popular vote than anyone challenging an incumbent president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the future for Democrats now looks, well, bleak.

“We have an election system that makes it basically impossible for Democrats’ current coalition to ever wield legislative power,” says Shor. “We are legitimately in a position from here on out where we would need to get 54 percent of the popular vote — which we did not even accomplish this time — for multiple cycles in a row, for us to be in a position to really pass laws.”

Since election results began rolling in, Democrats across the ideological spectrum have engaged in a fierce and surprisingly public debate over what went wrong this year and how to reorient the party for the long term. Much of that debate has been informed by ideological preferences. But what would it look like if you approached it from a data-centric perspective?

To get an answer to that question, sort through what a new Democratic coalition could look like and evaluate the most effective strategy to get there, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Shor this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

The election is over. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by a substantial margin, but not as large a margin as many polls suggested. Democrats didn’t retake the Senate, and they held onto the House but lost seats. What happened? What are what are your big takeaways?

Yeah, I think there are two separate questions: What actually happened, and why were the polls wrong? We’ll have to see what the final popular vote margin is, but it looks like Biden is going to end up something like 1.5-2 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton in kind of a uniform swing. College-educated white people, in relative terms, swung toward Democrats by a lot, and non-college-educated white people swung, in relative terms, against us. Education polarization ended up being larger than it was in 2016. Hispanic voters swung against us by large margins — though how large and the exact geographic and demographic distribution is going to be unclear until we get more precinct results. That’s the big picture for what happened.


On that split between voters who went to college and didn’t: Are we at a high-water mark for the “diploma divide”? And will college suburbanites stay with Democrats, or do you expect them to go back to the GOP after Trump?

There’s a pretty consistent trend: In almost every country in the Western world, the gap between college-educated voters and non-college-educated voters has been steadily increasing for basically the last 60-70 years. There are very strong social currents pushing this change — that as the college-educated share of the population increases, this should naturally incentivize politicians to create cleavages by education.

Politics is fundamentally about splitting the country in half. And if college-educated white people are 4 percent of the electorate, like they were in the immediate post-World War II era, you can’t do that. But if they are 38 or 40 percent, suddenly you can. So, it’s unsurprising that as the education share has gone up, we’ve seen this happen.

If you think mechanically about the reinforcing currents that caused this, as college-educated white people enter the Democratic Party and become an increasingly large share of the Democratic Party while the reverse happens to Republicans, that naturally is going to influence who wins party primaries and what kind of people win internal party fights. In practice — given the fact that college-educated whites donate at disproportionate rates and volunteer at disproportionate rates — I think it’s going to be very hard for Democrats to resist the pull of catering to their preferences, which is naturally going to lead to losing votes among people who aren’t them: not just non-college educated whites, but, as we as we saw this cycle, also non-white voters.


In Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s interview with the New York Times, much of her critique was about strategy and tactics — spending money online in the closing weeks of the election, or suggesting that Democrats should respond to high levels of white support for Trump by investing in “anti-racist deep canvassing” throughout the country. How should Democrats deal with flagging support among white voters? What does the data say about whether something like “anti-racist deep canvassing” would actually be productive?


In 2016, we didn’t lose because our get-out-the-vote lists were not sorted well enough. And it wasn’t that we had the wrong kind of digital targeting. We lost because, big picture, we ran a campaign that increased the salience of immigration at a time when marginal voters in swing states in the Midwest disagreed with us on immigration. That’s why we lost. Obviously, it was a close election, and maybe you could have done something different and gotten 0.4 points more in Wisconsin. But big picture, that is what happened. And I think it’s important to not miss the forest for the trees. There are reasonable debates people have about the cost-effectiveness of canvassing or how much we should be spending on digital ads, but ultimately, that’s not what determines elections.

One of my old bosses said that politics is like you’re in a hot-air balloon. A lot of the stuff that you deal with day-to-day — microtargeting models or digital ads or whatever — that’s just throwing sandbags on and off; the thing that really determines where you go is the weather. In politics, the important thing is to do what you can to change the weather, which is very hard. Most of what determines the “weather,” the national media environment, are these big structural forces — the economy, anti-incumbency, cultural forces, whether it’s what’s in the media or the country getting more educated or secular over time. But campaigns and activists do have the ability to shape media narratives about what gets talked about and what doesn’t. From an electoral perspective, those are the most important decisions campaigns and activists make, and that creates a real responsibility on the part of everyone involved.

When you look at “defund the police” specifically, there was a real movement among educated, liberal people in the media and among activists across a broad swath of the left to elevate this issue and get folks to talk about it. {snip}

Ultimately, in this hyperpolarized world, what national media outlets choose to talk about is going to be much more important in determining whether [Democratic Congressman] Collin Peterson survives in Minnesota’s 7th district than anything he does. That’s just the reality. [This month, Peterson lost his bid for reelection.]


{snip}  What happened in Texas’ border counties, where we saw this Hispanic surge for Trump?


There is a broader trend, though, that as college-educated white people become a larger share of the Democratic coalition and a larger share of the Democratic voice, they do pull the party on cultural issues. Non-college educated white people have more culturally in common with working-class Black and working-class Hispanic voters. So, it should be unsurprising that as the cultural power of college-educated white people increases in the Democratic Party, non-white voters will move against us.

Among Black men and Hispanic voters overall, there was an increase in support for Donald Trump in 2020. Do you see those voters coming back to the Democrats, or does the GOP become sort of a pan-racial, anti-cosmopolitan party?

The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of. But I think it’s worth remembering that both Black and Hispanic voters are still an overwhelmingly Democratic group, though Hispanic voters by a lot less than they were four or eight years ago.

In terms of whether these trends will continue or not, I think that when it comes to African Americans, there is this very real question: How sustainable is it to get 95 percent of the vote within a racial or ethnic group for long periods of time? And I think the answer is that it probably isn’t. If you look at these long-term structural factors, the reason why there are all of these culturally conservative African Americans who vote for Democrats is that, in the same way that there are a lot of economically liberal, non-college educated white people who vote for Republicans, there are these social institutions that kind of transmute identity with party politics. And if you look at what the big predictors are, what those institutions are among Black voters and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic voters, you’re looking at churches. You’re looking at a lot of community organizations that are declining in power. And you also have this broader trend of racial integration and intermarriage.


Given that, is it time to admit that this longstanding prediction of an “emerging Democratic majority” — with this inevitable demographic and geographic destiny for the left — is incorrect?

I’ll say that there are some positive things the Democratic Party has going for it. Age polarization is really working in our favor; I think it’s clear that the gap between young voters and older voters is substantially larger than it has been. And it seems like Zoomers even more liberal than Millennials, though there might be some interesting gender gaps between men and women there; Zoomer men might actually be more conservative. But these age gaps are very large.


The other part of the good news, I think, is that now that highly educated people are so Democratic, this is going to influence how the media covers Democrats, since journalists are generally very educated, and the world is run by highly educated people. So, at multiple levels, whether it’s the boardroom or whatever, there are probably some long-term benefits. And that’s reflected in terms of Democrats raising more money now.

The flipside is that we have an election system that makes it basically impossible for Democrats’ current coalition to ever wield legislative power. Non-college educated whites are highly represented at every single level of government, and we are currently fighting elections on state legislative maps, congressional maps, an Electoral College map and a Senate map that are ludicrously unfavorable for us. We are legitimately in a position from here on out where we would need to get 54 percent of the popular vote — which we did not even accomplish this time — for multiple cycles in a row, for us to be in a position to really pass laws. That’s pretty bad.


Broadly speaking, the choices Trump made in 2016 — embracing nationalism, chasing voters with high levels of racial resentment, having a very class-loaded language and speaking in ways that really educated people hate and uneducated people don’t hate as much — it’s kind of clear that was a good trade. It’s something a lot of people in the Republican Party didn’t like, but they know it was a good trade. They can see that they have these near-permanent structural advantages in the Senate and in all of these state legislatures. So, I’m skeptical that they will change course.