Democratic elections expert David Shor is a data scientist who consults with progressive groups around the country. He is one of the most trusted and widely respected voices in the Democratic Party. And he has a stark warning: if Democrats think they’re sitting pretty, they’re deluding themselves.
“We actually aren’t winning the war of ideas as much as we think,” Shor says. “And the Republican Party is more popular relative to the Democratic Party than people think.” In fact, he adds “The Democratic Party brand and agenda has shifted a lot in the last four to five years, and it’s gone in a direction that a lot of voters aren’t comfortable with.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited from Shor’s interview with former Congressman Paul Hodes and political analyst Matt Robison on the Beyond Politics radio show and podcast.
Listen to the full conversation here:
What’s the lesson of 2020 in a nutshell?
Shor: Non-college white voters swung about 1% toward Democrats after swinging 10 points against Democrats in 2016. But this was counterbalanced by the fact that Black voters swung about 2% against Democrats and Hispanic voters swung about 9% against Democrats. So the real standout story, the difference-maker, is that college-educated white voters swung 7.5% toward Democrats.
The bottom line: Democrats lost ground with nonwhite voters, and they treaded water with working-class white voters. So the only bright spot for Democrats was this college-educated white swing. Democrats shouldn’t be too cheery about 2020. Joe Biden got 52.3% of the vote. Had he gotten 52%, he would have lost.
Why did down-ballot Democrats do even worse than Biden did?
Shor: There are certainly structural issues, partly from gerrymandering, partly from the fact that Democrats increasingly are concentrated in certain places. But I think that there’s another problem. The 2020 election was a situation where Democrats picked literally the most popular person in our party whose last name is not Obama. Republicans decided to run literally the most unpopular person to run for president in decades. And we were barely able to scrape up a 0.3% majority.
It’s very scary. There’s going to be someone after Trump who’s probably going to be more popular. These results are a warning sign. We actually aren’t winning the war of ideas as much as we think. The Republican Party is more popular relative to the Democratic Party than people think. The Democratic Party brand and agenda has shifted a lot in the last four to five years, and it’s gone in a direction that a lot of voters aren’t necessarily comfortable with.
Why did Democrats lose so much ground among Hispanic voters?
Shor: A lot of people, when they saw this, wanted to tell stories like “oh, this is just about Cubans or the Rio Grande border.” But really every place in the country with a substantial Hispanic population saw a substantial decline for Democrats. Others say this is because there wasn’t canvassing. But there were very large swings in places that have never seen canvasing, so that’s not it either.
Why is this actually happening? For a long time, Democrats have won nonwhite conservatives by very large margin. For example, in 2016, Hispanic conservatives voted for Clinton by 20 points. But in 2020, they voted for Trump by something like 30 points.
Non-white conservatives are starting to vote like white conservatives. Working class, non-white voters and working class white voters have more in common with each other than they do with college-educated white voters. As college-educated white voters have taken control of the party — and are increasingly able to set the agenda and the tone in the media — it’s causing a reaction among working class, more conservative voters, both white and non-white.
Remember, swing voters don’t share our values. If they did, they would be liberals. [Progressives’] values are weird and strange and alien to them. and this has been true for a long time. The only reason these people have ever been swing voters who would consider voting for Democrats is either fear of what the Republicans are going to do or tangible things that we could offer them. We really used to emphasize a policy agenda that was relevant to them.
Politics is about running on popular things that people care about using language they can understand. We’re failing to do that.
So it’s the way Democrats talk and who they’re appealing to, largely driven by fundraising?
Shor: In the past 10 years, with the rise of online donations and national media, the way that you get ahead as a Democratic politician is to excite donors who are wildly disproportionately educated, and by getting activists and cosmopolitan journalists to be excited about you. That’s really warped the language of how we talk about things, what issues we care about, and what our priorities are. And I think that working class voters are smart enough to realize that’s happening.
How do you advise the Democratic party to change course?
Shor: Only 50% of democratic primary voters identify as liberal at all. Working class white voters and working class people of color are not socially proximate to journalists. They don’t donate money. They’re much less likely to actually work in politics. 18 to 34 year-old white people with a college degree are only about 5% of the electorate, but they’re probably literally a majority of people who work in Democratic politics. So they have this disproportionate power. And I think we’re in denial about this. From both a democratic perspective and a Democratic Party perspective, we really should try to reflect the broader views of the coalition. Because if we don’t, these people are going to leave the coalition.
Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.