Joe Biden won the electoral college, leads the popular vote by millions, and will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Taking down an incumbent president is no easy feat and Biden deserves credit for his disciplined and effective campaign.
But there is no question Biden underperformed vis-à-vis the consensus of pollsters and pundits. In Congress the underperformance was even more stark. Democrats expected to make gains in the House of Representatives. Instead, they are poised to return to Washington with an unexpectedly pared-down majority. In the Senate, Democrats were considered favorites to retake the chamber and deliver their party unified control of the federal government. Instead, they made only modest gains. This isn’t where the party wanted to be.
I run a Democratic political consulting firm and wanted to immediately get to work to understand why this underperformance happened. While there are certainly multiple answers to that question and various dynamics at play, we decided to start our inquiry with voters who leaned towards voting for Joe Biden in the last weeks of the election, but ultimately voted to re-elect Donald Trump. We put together a focus group to discuss the election with these voters and explore what changed their minds.
It will be easy for some to dismiss these participants as Trump voters (and they are!) but 70% of them told us they have a negative view of Donald Trump and at some point they supported Joe Biden before ultimately casting their vote for Trump. These aren’t Maga hat-wearing folks.
One of the major takeaways from my discussion with these voters was their distaste for the slogan “defund the police”. While 80% agreed racism exists in the criminal justice system and 60% had a favorable view of Black Lives Matter, only one participant agreed we should “defund the police”. Another participant was exasperated, “That is crazier than anything Trump has ever said.”
We tried to explain the actual policies behind the slogan “defund the police”. We noted that many activists who use this phrase simply want to reduce police funding and reallocate some of it to social services. One woman interrupted us to say “that is not what defund the police means, I’m sorry. It means they want to defund the police.” “I didn’t like being lied to about this over and over again,” added another woman. “Don’t try and tell me words don’t mean what they say,” she continued. The rest of the group nodded their heads in agreement.
Ultimately 50% of people in our focus group said they thought Biden was privately sympathetic to defunding the police. While Biden and many Democrats rejected this framing, it is clear the calls from some on the left were louder than those denials.
We followed up by asking if participants supported reducing police funding and reallocating it to social services and other agencies to reduce police presence in community conflict. Seventy per cent said they would support that proposal.
It is almost beyond parody that progressive activists would build popular consensus on police reform only to slap on a slogan that is deeply unpopular with voters and doesn’t accurately communicate our policy goals. We don’t want to abolish the police. We don’t want to zero out funding for law enforcement. So we should forcefully reject slogans that imply we do. We should instead run on the broadly popular policies behind the slogan. It’s policy that changes lives. Unpopular framing that makes reform harder does favors to no one but those who want to protect the status quo.
Representative James Clyburn, the Democratic whip and an activist in the civil rights movement, was blunt regarding his opinion of “defund the police” saying he believes it cost Democrats seats. “Stop sloganeering. Sloganeering kills people. Sloganeering destroys movements,” said Clyburn.
My party won this election. We’ve now won the most votes in seven of the last eight presidential elections. But we live in a political system that would allow Republicans to block all reform and rule through the courts if we merely repeat this year’s performance in perpetuity. Some people’s response to that is to argue we need to abolish the electoral college or some other version of structural reform. I agree. But we need unified power to even begin that discussion.
So the conversations happening about the direction of the Democratic party aren’t about “how do we win a majority every election” (we have mostly figured that out!) they have to be “how do we win by enough to make real change in a system that is rigged against us”.
Some have noted that Republicans would never have this debate after they won an election. That’s probably correct. But Republicans can govern through minority rule. A majority is icing on the cake for them. They don’t need to have this debate to get what they want. Democrats do.
The first thing we should do is forcefully reject slogans, branding and messaging that is deeply unpopular with voters.