The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats see grim prospects in final election results despite Biden’s win

A billboards in Warren, Ohio, reads: “American steel = American Jobs. Thank you, President Trump” on Nov. 28, 2018. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Voters in the once Democratic Ohio county that surrounds the shuttered Lordstown General Motors plant delivered a decisive victory last month to the sitting president who had promised and failed to save their jobs.

In the heavily Hispanic South Bronx, the liberal sanctum of San Francisco and the immigrant-rich neighborhoods of Miami, President Trump also shrank Democratic margins by drawing thousands more to his side. He even swept the 31 Iowa counties that voted twice for Barack Obama before choosing Trump in 2016.

Ultimately, President-elect Joe Biden won the contests that mattered most, besting Trump by 7.1 million votes nationally and scoring pathbreaking wins in Georgia and Arizona. But beneath the surface, despite low approval ratings, high unemployment and a raging pandemic whose handling he had fumbled, Trump’s strength grew among key parts of the electorate.

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)

Those warning signs have dampened the celebratory mood among Democrats enthusiastic about dispatching Trump. Party strategists now speak privately with a sense of gloom and publicly with a tone of concern as the election results become clearer.

They worry about the potential emergence of a mostly male and increasingly interracial working-class coalition for Republicans that will cut into the demographic advantages Democrats had long counted on. They speculate that the tremendous Democratic gains in the suburbs during the Trump years might fade when he leaves office. And they fret that their inability to make inroads in more rural areas could forestall anything but the most narrow Senate majority in the future.

“We just need to acknowledge that Trump’s poison was deeper in the bloodstream of the American electorate than we thought,” said Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge, which ran a $62 million ad campaign to hurt Trump among White working-class voters in three northern states that Biden won.

Upping the stakes further is the grim math of the midterm elections in 2022, when historical trends favor a Republican takeover of the House and continued Senate control, especially if they can hold the two Georgia seats in a runoff Jan. 5 that will again test the party’s reach among college-educated White and working-class Black voters. Democratic losses in the House combined with post-election retirements could reduce the party’s majority to a razor-thin seven-seat margin if the two outstanding contests are called for Republicans.

“We won back the House and the White House in the suburbs, but my sense is we are leasing that support — we don’t own it,” said Robby Mook, the manager of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign who led the House Majority PAC this cycle. “With Trump gone, that lease is up for renewal. If we don’t hold on to our gains in the suburbs or replace it by winning back working-class White voters, we will have a problem.”

The nation’s political boundaries are in flux, making any future contest impossible to predict. Biden, who has appointed a small town mayor from Indiana to run his Transportation Department and an Iowa governor to run Agriculture, is certain to attempt a rebranding of Democratic politics in rural areas. His advisers are also hopeful that a successful vaccination campaign and economic boom in the second half of 2021 could reset the midterm playing field.

What is clear at the moment is that Biden’s coalition still ended up losing ground among working-class voters of all sorts, a fact that continues to shape the focus of his team. Biden has signaled that improving the lives of working people is the overriding goal of his administration.

“When the American people see that this is an administration that wants to work with members of Congress from both parties to the extent they can in order to help improve their lives, we believe that will help Democrats across the board,” said Anita Dunn, a senior campaign adviser who has been co-chairing the transition. “It’s a challenge for the Democratic Party to communicate with voters who don’t want to listen to us right now.”

The rejection of Trump by college-educated and coastal voters did not extend across a broad swath of Americans, who had an opposite allergic reaction to what Democrats were selling. An analysis of county election result data by the American Communities Project at George Washington University laid the shifts bare by sorting actual ballot counts into categories based upon demographic characteristics of the counties where they were cast.

Compared with 2016, Democrats performed much better in places dominated by college-educated voters, increasing their margins by 4.8 percentage points in college towns, 5.9 points in exurban communities and more than two points is suburban areas. But Trump performed better in big cities by two points, in Hispanic centers by 3.5 points and in working class-dominant parts of the country by nearly a point.

In some places, the pro-Trump shift was even more striking. Ohio’s Trumbull County had become a talking point for Democrats heading into the election, featured in ads and highlighted at Biden’s summer convention as an example of the president’s empty promises to workers. Trump won the county by 6.2 percentage points in 2016. Months later, he traveled back to the area, bemoaned the shuttered factories and declared, “They are all coming back . . . Don’t sell your house.”

The nearby General Motors Lordstown plant, which had once employed thousands, stopped operation a year later. But Trump’s support only grew. He won the county by 10.6 percentage points in November.

“You move Biden aside for half a second and you have a Democratic brand that is completely disconnected from workers,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who represents part of the county, when asked what went wrong. “It’s working class, White, Black and Brown.”

He argues for a far more targeted economic message, promising a tax cut for the middle class, infrastructure spending and a new manufacturing agenda. David Pepper, the Ohio Democratic chairman, agrees that the party has failed to communicate directly with the more rural parts of America, and he has written a memo to the Biden transition urging the president-elect to make a shift in strategy central to his presidency.

“We need to go right into these small towns and tell them what the Democratic agenda is for them and why it will lift them,” Pepper said. “Until we do that, we will be on defense.”

Democrats also worry about the culture war aspects of the Republican message, the idea that elites are trying to manipulate and control regular Americans to fit ideological ends. In pre-election focus groups, this showed up in a rejection by voters of identity politics. “Don’t slice me and dice me. I want a job,” was how one Democrat who has been briefed on the results summed up the message from voters.

“It is a box-checking party and one group of people never get their box checked, which is the almost half of Americans who are male,” explained a Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more frankly.

Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler, who fought county by county to deliver a win for Biden of 20,682 votes in a state Trump won in 2016, put the challenge more in terms of the media consumption on the other side of the cultural divide.

“Drive through rural Wisconsin and it is hard not to listen to conservative talk radio,” he said. “One long-term lesson is the necessity of building communications channels that go beyond buying ads on someone else’s communications channel.”

There was clear evidence that advertising targeting rural White Americans could have an effect, though it often required delivering the messages with people from the other side of the cultural divide.

Multiple Democratic advertising efforts, including the Biden campaign’s, produced testimonial ads using dairy farmers who talked about the impact of Trump’s tariffs, nurses to talk about the pandemic and small-business owners to explain economic struggles. The Biden campaign decided to put an Arizona spot featuring Republican Cindy McCain on a national rotation, for instance, after seeing its impact with voters.

“At the end of the day, it’s about using the right language and the right messengers — and that goes beyond just advertising,” said Dan Wagner, the chief analytics officer for Obama’s 2012 campaign, who tested thousands of Democratic ads this cycle for campaigns and outside groups through his firm, Civis Analytics. “This is about how we frame the issues we care about for people that look nothing like us.”

Behind these decisions was the novel use of online advertising testing panels, with scientifically sound randomized control groups, which has since 2018 revolutionized the way Democrats produce their messages, effectively overriding the instincts of the party’s top ad creators or even the dependence on polling and focus groups.

“The ads that were really snazzy with graphics didn’t move voters as much as the ones that were speaking to voters directly and obviously,” Patrick Bonsignore, the director of paid media for Biden’s campaign, said. “Voters are looking for authenticity and looking for a party that recognizes the struggles they are facing.”

Another trend that has become clear is that Biden and many Democratic policy ideas were more popular than the party itself, which has been defined for many voters by Republican attacks which wounded down-ballot candidates. Biden was able to win in suburban areas like Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, even as more liberal politicians like Democrat Kara Eastman lost.

“A brand problem means people like your product more than they like you,” Wagner said, pointing to wins for higher minimum wage in Florida and legalization of marijuana in South Dakota. “What Democrats do to solve the brand problem is you have to narrow the gap between you and your product.”

Democratic pollster Pete Brodnitz has been arguing that even the way Democrats speak about economic issues can be off-putting to the voters they are targeting, who don’t really have a problem with big box retailers moving into their neighborhoods or questions of corporate power — issues that can dominate the party’s ideological disputes.

“We have to get over our allergy of talking about economics in a way normal people can relate to,” he said, citing research he has done with these communities. “You are not going to hear about inequities and inequality. You are going to hear about jobs and making money.”

Strategists believe these economic worries, about tangible daily struggles, helped Trump succeed among non-White blue-collar voters. Trump, whose career has been built on the promise of economic success, consistently scored well on economic questions.

The exact impact of these arguments on Black voters remains unclear, as the two national exit polls reached contradictory findings. One media-sponsored survey found 12 percent of Black men supported Trump, while the other found 19 percent supported him. In 2016, the exit polls found 13 percent support for Trump among Black men.

Just how far the working-class dismay with Democrats extended in the Latino community also remains an open question, as data is still being collected. Trump did well among segments of the population, including the South Florida immigrant communities opposed to the tilt by some in the party toward socialism and parts of South Texas, where rural communities tend to be socially conservative.

But Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster at Latino Decisions, said the overall shift nationwide still gave Democrats two-thirds of the vote, which is a huge advantage to have among the fastest growing segment of the electorate. He estimates a 30 percent increase in the number of Latinos who voted in 2020 compared to four years earlier, about twice the overall turnout growth.

Even if the margins between Democratic and Republican candidates narrowed nationwide, as the data suggests, Democrats won Arizona and Nevada with this increase in voters and saw their loss in Texas cut to less than six points, from nine points in 2016 and 16 points in 2012. That doesn’t mean, Barreto argues, there is not more work for Democrats to do, especially around economic issues and the concerns about socialism from Latin American immigrants.

“Somebody — and I do think it is White liberals — has invented this idea that Hispanics have to hate Donald Trump because he said racist things about Mexicans, and they blame us when we don’t turn out 100 percent against him,” Barreto said. “And it’s messed up.”

A recent Pew Research Center poll in April found just 3 percent of Latino adults use the term “Latinx,” a preferred term in Democratic campaign circles. Nearly half of the population prefer using the country of origin of their family — Mexican, Spanish, Dominican — to the broader terms like Hispanic or Latino. That meant some Democrats were literally talking past their targeted voters by failing to see them as they wished to be seen.

“People think the only thing Latino voters want to talk about is immigration,” said Liz Jaff, the president of Be A Hero PAC, a health care-focused group that has been supporting Latino outreach in Georgia for the Senate runoffs. “You could not be more racist if you tried.”

Biden’s advisers say they are well aware of the challenge.

“We have to make the case. There is no question that Democrats have to work for those votes,” Dunn said.