If Democrats want to keep winning presidential elections, they’ll ignore the pressure campaigns and unsolicited advice they are getting from their progressive base, social media, or most cable news outlets, and appeal to the center. At least, that’s what the data suggests. A New York Times analysis of a new Pew Research Center report concludes that “Mr. Biden prevailed by making significant inroads among moderate or conservative constituencies,” including married men and veteran households.
The headlines spawned by the Pew report (some of which focus on Trump’s surprising and counterintuitive support from Hispanic voters) largely fail to capture what may be its most important findings. Times correspondent Nate Cohn reports that “Biden failed to improve his margins among virtually every voting group that backed Mrs. Clinton in 2016, whether it was young voters, women, Black voters, unmarried voters or voters in urban areas.” What is more, “Higher turnout did not reshape the electorate to the favor of Democrats, either.” Even stranger, “Biden gained among men, even while making no ground or, according to Pew, losing ground, among women.” Lastly, “Biden lost ground among nearly every Democratic base constituency. Only his gains among moderate to conservative voting groups allowed him to prevail.”
To be clear, Biden did not win the married white male vote or “veteran households.” But the data suggests that Biden won the election by making inroads with these traditionally center-right constituencies by broadening his base of support—as opposed to winning by juicing traditionally Democratic constituencies. In other words, Biden won the presidency by losing groups of Americans like non-college whites by a smaller percentage than Hillary Clinton—and that made all the difference in the world.
It’s possible a different Democratic candidate might have turned out higher numbers of voters traditionally assumed to represent progressive constituencies. However, Cohn (whose expertise is covering polling and demographics) is appropriately skeptical of this alternative electorate. And I agree with him. Trump drove progressive turnout. And even if minority turnout were higher in, say, California, it wouldn’t matter because of the electoral college. And any turnout gains made by a different Democrat (like Bernie Sanders—who won the New Hampshire primary) may have been offset by votes that were only gettable by Biden.
Why does this matter? People in the Democratic Party (especially progressives) don’t fully appreciate or understand the coalition that got Biden elected in the first place. Indeed, I'm not sure Biden even fully appreciates this (if he did, he would more forcefully stand up to the left in his party), though he certainly has a better sense of it than most of his fellow Democrats. A few months ago, Biden was asked if America was a racist country. “I don’t think the American people are racist,” he said, “but I think after 400 years, African Americans have been left in a position where they are so far behind the eight ball in terms of education and health, in terms of opportunity.” It was the perfect political answer, and one that few other Democrats would think to deliver.
Every member of a political coalition is important, but Biden’s presidency was made possible by older African Americans who rescued him in the primary and turned out for him in November, as well as the aforementioned traditionally moderate or conservative constituencies that, according to Pew, helped propel him to the White House. The interesting thing is that both of these groups presumably have something in common: an aversion to the radical progressive rhetoric meant to pander to the so-called “coalition of the ascendant'” (the use of the term Latinx—used by just 3 percent of Hispanic people—is a prime example).
Being uber-woke isn’t just a bad way to appeal to right-leaning whites—it’s also a poor way to maximize support with people of color. But too many Democrats are pushed leftward by a progressive echo chamber, driven by Twitter and cable news, with talk of wanting to “abolish ICE,” “defund the police,” and support “Medicare for All.” By now, you would think they would realize that this doesn’t equate to votes, but they are still clearly persuaded by progressive arguments and assumptions, including the notion that Biden should “go big” on things like nuking the filibuster and packing the courts, while ignoring the desire for comity or bipartisanship.
A proper understanding of the electorate would force Democrats to make sure the winning 2020 formula, which I will now dub “the Biden coalition,” doesn’t hinge solely on Joe Biden’s perpetual presence on the ballot. But who else do the Democrats have who can win the votes of conservative constituencies and survive a Democratic primary? I’ll hang up and take my answer off air.