The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Democrats’ 2020 election autopsy: Bad polling hurt and GOP attacks worked

Rep. Sean Maloney (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, led the review of why House Democrats lost seats in the 2020 election.
Rep. Sean Maloney (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, led the review of why House Democrats lost seats in the 2020 election. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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For the second time in four years, Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) drew one of the toughest assignments: investigating what went wrong in a disappointing election.

The 2017 after-action review followed even more devastating results: a clean GOP sweep of holding the House while Donald Trump won the presidency and Republicans retained the Senate.

This time around, President Biden won by 7.1 million votes and Democrats gained three seats to claim the Senate majority — while Democrats lost 11 seats in the House on Election Day 2020 and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) barely clings to the majority.

Maloney, the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, worked with senior staff to analyze 600 polls in House races last year, matched up against voter files from the November elections, and other state and local data.

The 52-page PowerPoint report, which Maloney presented to the caucus during a Tuesday evening call, splits the difference on the key question of whether Democrats just had bad polling or a bad agenda that turned away voters.

Maloney laid out how Democrats simply underestimated the number of hardcore Trump voters and, with more Trump voters in the voting booths, the Republican attacks against the “defund the police” movement proved more potent than Democrats ever anticipated.

“The lies and distortions about defund and socialism carried a punch, but the Republicans think it got them over a 10-foot wall, when Trump’s turnout gave them a seven-foot ladder,” Maloney said in 45-minute interview, exclusively outlining what he calls the “Deep Dive” into the election.

The Trailer: The House Democrats’ campaign chief thinks his party can defy history

Before November, the party that had won the popular vote in the presidential contest had also gained seats in the House in 13 of the last 14 elections, which fueled expectations of Democratic gains.

Instead, after those losses, Democrats started a fierce internal debate about whether some of the liberal stars inside the caucus, who have embraced labels such as “democratic socialism,” tagged other incumbents in swing districts with an unpopular brand.

Threading that needle, Maloney’s “Deep Dive” had to both review past mistakes while helping prepare for the fast-approaching midterm elections, when the majority could very easily slip away.

Polling missed the Trump surge at the very end.

In one of three very competitive Iowa races, a final poll predicted that Democrats who were not frequent voters would make up 5 percent of the total electorate, while similarly low-turnout Republicans would account for just 4 percent of voters.

In reality, 5.9 percent of voters were low-propensity Republicans and just 4.7 percent were infrequent Democratic voters, providing the narrow margin of victory for the GOP candidate.

Before a narrow loss in South Florida, the final Democratic poll predicted a six-point victory based on a voter makeup that included 38 percent who were registered Democrats and 33 percent Republicans, when in reality it was just 34 percent Democrats and 36 percent Republicans.

Maloney said his side has to get better at understanding how Trump’s voters do not respond to pollsters at the same rate as other voters.

“That creates what we call a systemic nonresponse bias, which is a mouthful. That’s a fancy way of saying the real Trump supporters don’t like talking to pollsters,” he said.

Maloney says the biggest strategic mistake was devoting so much money to trying to win GOP-held seats, believing their first-term incumbents who delivered the majority in 2018 were safe.

“If you had a crystal ball, you would have surged resources around incumbents that we now know were in more danger than the polling suggested, and you would have felt less enthusiastic about some red-to-blue opportunities,” he said.

Democrats face growing list of swing-district retirements, dimming midterm prospects

Six Democrats from the class of 2018 lost in November by less than 1.5 percentage points.

Still, that redirection of resources only would have mitigated their losses rather than expanding their majority, as most Democrats had expected.

In House races, Democrats won 4.7 million more votes than GOP candidates, a 3.1-percentage-point margin — and because of the way districts are drawn, the result is the narrowest majority in 20 years.

Biden won by 7.1 million votes, the second-largest popular-vote margin of this century, receiving 4.4 points more votes than Trump.

With so many freshmen running as still relative newcomers, they often lagged behind Biden in their races. And the socialist attacks landed heavier on House Democrats than on Biden, a household name for more than 40 years with a moderate brand.

“We spent a bunch of time understanding how to respond more effectively, knowing that they’re going to do it again,” Maloney said, looking ahead to 2022. “So we take that very seriously and I really want to be clear. I am not saying that those false attacks about defunding the police or socialism did not carry a punch.”

Reps. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) served as co-chairs of Maloney’s report, providing an ideological, racial and generational cross-section of the caucus to review what went wrong.

“This is about acknowledging Democrats have work to do when it comes to communicating with communities of color, especially as we learn to better differentiate between the needs and concerns of the diversity that exists within our communities,” said Williams, who won the seat of the late Rep. John Lewis (D) in November.

One critical area that needs an overhaul: how to spend money.

Throughout the summer and fall, Democrats up and down the ballot posted enormous fundraising numbers that blew away their GOP opponents, helping to send expectations through the roof.

Should House Democrats write off rural congressional districts?

The “Deep Dive” found that most of that funding edge went into traditional television advertisements that ran late in the campaign, providing little benefit.

That played out in Texas, Florida and California, where Democrats flamed out as their campaigns did not connect with key voter constituencies such as Latino and Asian American voters.

“We are still overweighted on old media, and we need to invest more in organizing and in digital. I would rather invest in the next Stacey Abrams or a real organizing strategy for the Rio Grande Valley,” Maloney said, referring to the Georgia political figure.

He said the biggest advantage for Democrats next year might just be Trump not being on the ballot, as the House GOP has so far remained fully in Trump’s corner.

“The Republican Party is betting the ranch that they can do Trump’s toxicity without Trump’s turnout. And I think that may end up being a terrible mistake,” he said. “There’s that old saying that when the tide goes out, you find out who’s skinny-dipping. And if this tide of Trump turnout goes out in 2022, the Republicans may end up skinny-dipping.”

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