With two weeks’ distance, we can see that voters delivered a pretty depressing message overall. Yes, they said, we’re exhausted by Donald Trump, and we want rid of him. But we don’t want to give the Democrats the run of the place.
This was the unmistakable verdict of the swing voters who decided the election. They want divided government. They just don’t trust either party enough to give them full control. So there was a lot of ticket-splitting in Maine, where people voted for Joe Biden and Susan Collins, while in other states that don’t have Maine’s history of persnickety independence, a lot of people voted for Biden and then skipped the Senate altogether (Cal Cunningham in North Carolina got around 110,000 fewer votes than Biden).
Democrats are reckoning with this dynamic nationally, and too publicly for my taste, in the aftermath of Joe Biden’s win and the party’s underwhelming performance down-ballot. But all of that is something I’ll save for another column and something that the party should reckon with after we get through the high-stakes special elections in Georgia.
The odds, as we know, are pretty long that the Democrats are going to sweep those two Senate seats. But everything depends on it. To me, there’s only one way to win. They need to go against conventional wisdom and tell Georgia voters that divided government will produce nothing, whereas if Georgians elect both Democrats, Georgia and America will get a pandemic relief bill, a minimum wage bill, an infrastructure bill, and more.
This is a pretty partisan argument, and these Georgia special elections, in other words, can be a real test case of whether this strongly partisan an argument will turn out the Democratic base. Because historically, Democrats have been hesitant to put forward this kind of message, and Republicans of course have not. We need to understand why.
Let’s start with this simple and undeniable fact, which I remind my readers of a few times a year. There are a lot more conservatives in this country than liberals. Gallup asks people this question every couple of years. In 2018, the most recent year for which there are figures, 35 percent of respondents said they’re conservative, 35 moderate, and 26 percent liberal. Liberal is catching up. Back in the 1990s, conservative was in the high 30s and liberal in the high teens. So things are generally moving in a good direction (if Gallup sticks to schedule, the 2020 numbers should be out early next year).
Still, that’s plenty more cons than libs. So Republicans can craft a message that’s aimed more squarely at conservatives, while Democrats have to reach both liberals and moderates.
This is especially true in presidential elections. And it helps explain why you saw Joe Biden talk about unity, cooperating with Mitch McConnell, and working just as hard for the people who voted against him as the people who voted for him. Like it or not, that’s what most moderates want to hear from a person running for president. And, as a lot of these post-election studies have shown, it worked. Biden won 61 percent of moderate voters.
Personally, I would have loved to see Biden run a more aggressive parliamentary-style campaign. In a traditional parliamentary system, all federal candidates from prime minister to legislative candidates run on the same basic platform. You elect us, and we’ll pass these things. You saw that most notably in recent times in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour platform. That platform of course lost massively, and there was dissension in Labour ranks over it, but my point is that the party placed an agenda before voters such that nobody could be confused about what Labour wanted to do.
It doesn’t work that way here, where Biden has his agenda, Cal Cunningham his, Abigail Spanberger hers, AOC hers, and so on and so on, and they’re all kind of different. So even though there is officially a Democratic platform, nobody runs on it or even pays any attention to it unless something controversial happens in its drafting stage.
Well, now is the time for that to change. Democrats from Biden and Barack Obama to Stacey Abrams to the candidates themselves to everyone else involved in these races ought to be saying the same partisan thing here. You elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and we’ll get some stuff done for you. You elect the Republicans, and you’ve effectively made Mitch McConnell the co-president.
A special election is also the perfect time to make a more partisan argument. In a presidential election, voters want a leader who isn’t divisive (well, most of the time). But a special election is a base turnout election. And the way to turn out the base is to be partisan. For my money, the Ossoff and Warnock campaigns, working with the Biden transition team, ought to be coordinating a message in which they both emphasize the things they’ll vote for if they get to Washington that David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler will vote against. That’s the message. Over and over and over and over.
There are signs that the public in general is less enthralled with divided government than it used to be. This is another question that Gallup asks people every couple years—whether the presidency and Congress should be controlled by different parties or the same party. Historically, it has fluctuated, sometimes one in the lead, sometimes the other. But in 2020, same party has its all-time biggest lead, 41 percent to 23 percent (32 percent say it makes no difference to them).
Of course, that 23 percent is probably swing voters, so Democratic presidential candidates are going to have to run as Biden did for the foreseeable future. But those voters matter less in a special election. It’s time to put the pedal to the ideological metal. Otherwise, the Biden presidency is a bunch of empty Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions and executive orders overturned by right-wing judges.