The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why did Democrats bleed House seats? A top analyst offers surprising answers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the Capitol on Nov. 6. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

President-elect Joe Biden garnered an unprecedented 80 million votes, will win the popular vote by as much as seven million, and won fairly comfortably in the electoral college. Even if the vote spreads in swing states were pretty tight, that’s a robust victory.

Yet despite all that, Democrats lost a dozen House seats, shrinking their majority and putting it at grave risk in 2022, lost key Senate races that would have secured control of the upper chamber, and failed to capture any state legislatures, diluting their influence over redistricting for the next decade.

Many House losses came in districts that were already heavily Republican-leaning (such as Minnesota’s 7th and Oklahoma’s 5th), but some were in Democratic-leaning districts where GOP gains among Latinos have alarmed Democrats (as in Florida).

This has given rise to a lot of infighting and a thousand explanations: Democrats suffered the taint of “the Squad” of leftists in Congress and the “defund the police” movement; they lost because squishy centrists talked only to suburban Whites; they faltered as their standing with non-college Whites grew more dire.

Elected Democrats have given various explanations for why President-elect Joe Biden often outperformed other Democratic candidates during the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

But what if there’s also another, more structural explanation, one rooted in realities about high turnout on both sides and already-built-in incentives for many GOP-leaning swing voters?

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

This idea emerged from my conversation about what happened with David Wasserman, the analyst of House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. An edited and condensed transcript follows.

Greg Sargent: Why did these losses happen?

David Wasserman: Republicans did a complete 180 on recruitment. This year all 12 Republicans who picked up Democratic seats so far were women or minorities. Republicans nominated candidates who looked like their districts, and didn’t necessarily sound like [President] Trump.

Sargent: Wasn’t it in some respects inevitable that turnout would be higher on the Republican side, relative to 2018? In 2018 Democratic turnout was lopsidedly high. And in 2020 it wasn’t, because Republicans also turned out. Right?

Wasserman: That’s true. Trump helped Republicans down-ballot in two ways. He drove out millions of low-propensity conservatives who would never vote for their average Republican Joe in a midterm. But he also allowed Republican candidates to pick up voters who could not stomach Trump.

In 2018, when he wasn’t on the ballot, the only opportunity for independent voters, especially suburban women, to vent their anger at Trump was by voting against a Republican congressional candidate. This time around, those voters could do so directly, but vote for a more conventional Republican down-ballot.

Sargent: The big story that everybody missed was the amount of low-propensity Trump base turnout that Trump would inspire, and how that would impact House races?

Wasserman: Right — even in highly college-educated suburbs.

Sargent: The whole explanation then becomes a lot more structural. The big story is that incredibly juiced-up Trump-base turnout allowed down-ballot Republicans to get lifted by that tide, and pocket all those votes, and then just add Republican-leaning swing voters who voted against Trump but for their Republican congressional candidate.

Wasserman: I couldn’t have said it better.

Post Senior Producer Kate Woodsome talks to Americans who voted for Trump, or simply don't feel like denouncing him, about why they feel wrongly scorned. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sargent: Another narrative is that Democratic down-ballot losses reflect the idea that the non-college White vote spread got even worse for Democrats, as David Shor said to Eric Levitz.

I have trouble squaring that with some data we’re seeing. The New York Times county-by-county analysis showed that Biden added 11 percent to 2016 totals in counties with a lot of non-college Whites, while Trump added 15 percent in those counties relative to 2016. The story I take from that is Biden added blue-collar Whites to the Democratic column, but Trump added some more.

It’s not simply Democrats losing more ground with them; it’s Democrats gaining ground but not as much Trump did. Your thoughts?

Wasserman: I’m in the camp that it’s amazing Biden held the line in those places and didn’t lose vote share relative to Hillary Clinton. Democrats’ trajectory has been downward in these places for quite a while now. The fact that Biden held on to what remains of support for Democrats is a testament to his biography, and the comfort level those voters have with him.

Sargent: It’s not just bio, right? Biden tried to articulate a somewhat more populist line than one would have expected from someone with his centrist past, talking about reshoring jobs and industrial policy, and even moving toward Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren populism in some respects. That had to have played some role.

Wasserman: Definitely. Instead of running a campaign entirely about Trump and his temperament, Biden ran a campaign focused on populist themes. That is marginally more effective in blue-collar America.

Sargent: How does this translate back to the down-ballot losses? The voters we’re talking about that cost Democrats House seats — slightly Republican-leaning, couldn’t stomach Trump, wanted to vote for a conventional Republican down-ballot — those are likely not in the main blue-collar Whites, are they?

Wasserman: I think they’re predominantly suburban. Remember when Trump settled on the message that Biden is a Trojan Horse for the radical left? In retrospect, the message those voters might have taken away was that Biden doesn’t sound that bad, but congressional Democrats are about to drive the country off a socialist cliff.

It’s possible that voters priced that into their choice for Congress.

It could have been that they weren’t hearing enough from Democratic candidates on why they weren’t radical leftists.

A lot of voters have no idea where Democratic candidates stand on police funding. Because Democrats never mentioned it in their ads.

Both Biden and Democratic congressional candidates failed to highlight support from law enforcement.

Sargent: It sounds like the key distinction here is between blaming the losses on the existence of the left and “defund the police” on the one hand, and not rebutting Republican attacks on the other. The first is less of an explanation, and the second is more of one.

Wasserman: This is not a situation where “the Squad” bears responsibility. It’s that Democrats in swing districts didn’t do enough to communicate where they actually stood. And I would put Biden in that category.

I had a conversation with a Biden pollster in September, and he sympathized with the view that Biden should feature at least some law enforcement in his ads. But he told me that the process of scripting these ads was akin to a sausage factory, and that he didn’t believe that could ever make it through, given the need to not offend the left.

It was more a failure to rebut Republican attacks than a reflection of where “the Squad” actually stands.

Sargent: If the voters who voted against Trump but for down-ballot Republican congressional candidates aren’t really blue-collar Whites, then is there any sense in which the Democrats’ blue-collar White problem explains these losses?

Wasserman: Democrats clearly lost districts with large blue-collar populations — MN-07, IA-01 — and came close to losing WI-03, IL-17. So clearly there was movement against Democrats since 2018 in several blue-collar districts, in part because the electorates in those districts got more blue-collar.

Sargent: Where does that leave us on the question of whether the Democrats’ blue-collar White problem is responsible for the losses?

Wasserman: I would say it’s not the driving factor, but it’s a factor.

Sargent: What does this all tell us about what’s next for Democrats in the 2022 midterms?

Wasserman: The traditional rules might not apply to 2022. Midterm electorates tend to draw out a more college-educated electorate. This current alignment may offset the expected advantage for the out-party in a first-term midterm.

Sargent: If I understand you correctly, the college-educated White shift to Democrats could play to their advantage in the midterms, creating a situation not like 2010.

Back in 2010, the tea party wave, there were probably a lot of college-educated Whites who were more Republican. Whereas in 2018, Trump had alienated them, and now we saw in 2020 the advantage for Democrats among educated Whites had solidified, that could end up helping Democrats in 2022.

Wasserman: That could mitigate the typical backlash to first-term presidents. It’s also not clear the backlash will be as large, because Democrats do not have unified control.

Sargent: In 2018 and 2010, there was unified control.

Wasserman: And in 1994.

Sargent: So what’s the upshot?

Wasserman: It’s going to be a very unique midterm. And we’re probably going to be in the dark for quite a while about what it will look like.

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