This discussion is one segment of a multi-part series centered around the 2020 Presidential Election.
Interviews have been transcribed from a digital roundtable that took place on 11/19 that included panelists, Democratic pollsters, and WINS team members Bernard Whitman and Matt McDermott. The roundtable was moderated by Scott Kotchko.
SCOTT: Pretty much the entirety of the Democrats’ political calculus over the past 4 years has been about defeating Donald Trump. It became the singular focus of the party.
Everything else was pushed off to the side, things like a national vision for the party, a lot of policy, state and local issues. So in a weird way, the Democrats this year got exactly what they asked for and not a single thing more. I think there’s probably a lesson for the future of the party in there somewhere.
BERNARD: Yeah, the Democratic Party sought to nationalize all the races, including House, Senate and state legislature races to be a referendum on Donald Trump, his handling of COVID, and therefore (according to them) his handling of the economy.
And guess what? It didn’t work. Democrats didn’t knock off a single Republican incumbent in the House, and they failed to win the Senate.
One reason for this is a trend that we’ve seen in our polling both in and outside of politics and that is a cultural trend towards localization that has been greatly accelerated as a result of COVID.
Nationalization instead of state and local issues, even in the Senate races, doesn’t work. We’ve got to get much more community based. Democrats have to understand that we’ve got to bring things back down to the local level and build candidacies and messages and campaigns that take account of what’s happening much more locally and not just rest on a nationalized strategy.
MATT: The Democratic Party needs to accept the reality that while ticket-splitting doesn’t exist at the level it used to in American politics. Years ago there were plenty of voters who voted Ronald Reagan at the top of the ticket, and voted Democrat down ballot. Ticket-splitting doesn’t exist in great numbers anymore. And to the extent it does, it is because a certain type of voter likes divided government.
Ticket-splitters make their decision based on who they expect to win the election. Democrats were actually advantaged pretty significantly, for most of this election cycle, in the fact that most voters thought Donald Trump was going to win reelection. And that underdog status for Democrats, actually works well.
It means that Joe Biden can run the race he’s going to run nationally, and down ballot Democrats can say to swing voters, vote for me as a check on Donald Trump.
Well, the problem is, two weeks before the election, voters started seeing the same polling that we all saw, showing Joe Biden up nationally, pretty substantially.
Before that you had 60% of voters thinking Donald Trump was going to win reelection. In the final week of the race, 60% of voters thought Joe Biden was going to win the election.
And so, those voters that are ticket splitters, go into the voting booth thinking, Joe Biden’s probably going to win this election, I should vote for Republicans down ballot as a check on him.
In 2016, the opposite happened. Literally, every one of us thought Hillary Clinton was going to win that election. And so, Republicans did well down ballot, because a number of swing voters said, we need a Republican check in Congress on Hillary Clinton.
The lesson is that in a polarized environment like this, getting a major, landslide win for either party is just incredibly challenging.
SCOTT: OK, but ticket-splitting is another word for Swing voters. Joe Biden won the election, but Democrats didn’t win the Senate because a bunch of people, many of them Republicans, voted for Biden but not Democratic Senate candidates. And this is important because one of the narratives of the last few years has been that winning is all about getting out your base.
Well, this year there was massive turnout on both sides, and Joe Biden is President Elect because a bunch of people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted for Joe Biden this time round. Swing voters, ticket-splitters, may not represent a giant swath of the electorate – but they’re literally the ones who decide the election!
MATT: Yes, absolutely. The question though is who are these voters that voted for Joe Biden and voted for Republicans down ballot? And there’s been some research that’s been put out, trying to better understand those voters. They are voters who are affluent, who are white, who are largely religious voters, who live in the suburbs who pulled the lever for Joe Biden, not because they’re in love with the Democratic Party. They voted for Joe Biden because Donald Trump is the antithesis to everything they believe about the Republican Party. And so, you’re in this environment where there’s a referendum on such a polarizing President. We see the outcome.
Look, it is hard to get a voter who’s never supported an opposition party before to not only support that presidential candidate, as an opposition candidate, but support the entire ticket down the ballot!
SCOTT: Obama in 2008 had massive coattails. Hope and change, anyone with a D-next to their name whether they were running for President, Congress, or local dog catcher seemed to win their election that year.
Looking at Biden in that same way, he had no coattails.
If you believe that Presidential candidate matters most (and there’s a lot of research that shows this is the top predictor of down ballot voting), you could argue that having Joe Biden at the top of the ticket hurt the party down ballot. How should we think about this?
BERNARD: Not to disparage Joe Biden, but he was barely on the ballot.
This was an up or down vote on Trump. And the question was, is Joe Biden acceptable enough? Do I trust Joe Biden? Do I like Joe Biden? Can I identify with Joe Biden? Could I imagine sort of sitting down and having a beer with Joe Biden? And enough swing voters who had voted for Donald Trump before or sat it out, said “You know what? OK. I will.”
But there were no coattails at all. And the problem is, without coattails, the Democrats who are running facing Republican incumbents or open seats had really nothing to run on, because it was either Trump or no Trump.
And people expressed their displeasure with Trump in voting for Joe Biden. And then they were like, I know my incumbent representative or Senator, I’m just going to go ahead and vote to reelect her or him.
There was nothing else there. There was no real message. I’m not saying that we cannot have a coordinated Democratic Party message. But it has to be localized and it has to be manifested, it hast to be contextualized. And it has to be expressed in ways that make sense at a local level. And we just sort of failed to do that.