Democrats Go Hunting For Missing Voters
Some strategists say the party needs a “radical departure” from its longstanding reliance on demographic changes to give Democrats a stable hold on political power.
When Donald J. Trump won the presidency in 2016, he ignited a debate within the Democratic Party over what sort of coalition it needed to assemble to win power. As Trump flirts with another run in 2024, the party’s strategy is very much a live discussion today.
There are those who say Democrats need to do more to appeal to white suburbanites, and those who think it’s more important to focus on growing core constituencies, like African Americans, Hispanics, and younger voters. And there are those, notably the influential data analyst David Shor, who say the party has drifted too far away from the interests of working-class voters of all backgrounds.
It’s a discussion that touches on everything from the policies that Democrats develop — Green New Deal or middle-class tax cuts? — to the messages they deliver to voters: Abolish ICE or secure the border first?
But where the debate gets especially concrete is over voter registration, a subject with a rich tradition closely identified with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The latest entry into the debate comes from Forward Majority, a Democratic-aligned super PAC focused on winning the sorts of state legislative races that are increasingly central in American politics.
In a provocative new “Blueprint for Power,” the group calls for a “radical departure” from the Democratic Party’s existing strategy, which has left Republicans in command of key state legislatures across the country.
“We need to claw our way back to power to prevent election subversion,” Vicky Hausman, founder and co-chief executive of Forward Majority, said in an interview, expressing a common fear on the left that in 2024 Republicans will use those statehouse majorities to steal the next presidential election. Forward Majority has identified nearly 2 million unregistered voters it sees as likely Democratic, largely in suburban areas that the group says are critical to winning those legislatures back.
The new data comes as Republicans have begun to outpace Democrats in voter registration in major swing states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Worse for Democrats, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the usual pathways that the party had used to bring in new voters: sign-ups at the Department of Motor Vehicles and face-to-face field work. And it comes as President Biden faces growing skepticism among African Americans over whether he has a formula to overcome voting restrictions pushed by G.O.P.-led state legislatures — the topic of a high-profile address that he plans to give on Tuesday in Atlanta.
An analysis by Catalist, a Democratic data firm, shows that in 2020, the Democrats’ traditional edge in voter registration shrank to nine percentage points in key states, down from a 19-percentage-point advantage over Republicans in 2009.
The overall picture might not be so grim for Democrats, because newer registrants are still leaning Democratic at typical rates, even if they register as independents. The trend has nonetheless alarmed some party insiders.
“There’s a big deficit building up on the Democratic side, which could start becoming consequential,” said Michael Podhorzer, a strategist and former co-chair of Catalist.
Demographics as destiny
For more than a decade, the Democratic Party has assured itself that “demographics is destiny” — that a younger, more diverse electorate will inevitably propel Democrats to stable national majorities.
But as much as that approach has worked in presidential elections — Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by more than 7 million votes in 2020 — it has been less sound at the local level.
Most voter registration programs on the left aren’t focused on the closely fought suburban and exurban areas that are crucial to winning state legislative majorities, Forward Majority argues.
Democrats made a strategic error, the group says, by leaving too much of the difficult and expensive task of voter registration to nonprofit advocacy organizations. Because those allied groups are also officially nonpartisan, they focus on signing up carefully chosen demographic groups, such as young voters or people of color in cities and on college campuses. Their voter registration drives tend to look a lot like When We All Vote, Michelle Obama’s celebrity-packed nonprofit, which describes its mission as “helping to close the race and age gap.”
Nobody in the Democratic Party is arguing that such efforts are unwelcome; the New Georgia Project, which has registered several hundred thousand voters since 2014, helped Democrats take two Senate seats in Georgia last year. In September, the Democratic National Committee announced a $5 million investment in voter registration, modeled on that success in Georgia. And it’s worth noting that American suburbs are increasingly diverse, so it’s not necessarily the case that more targeted, party-driven efforts would focus on white voters at the expense of voters of color.
Still, it’s harder, not to mention more expensive, for nonprofit groups to identify far-flung potential voters in suburban areas that are less dense than urban cores. Not to mention, setting up a booth outside the wrong Walmart might inadvertently yield more Republicans than Democrats.
But Forward Majority says that if Democrats want to win back power in state capitols, they’re going to need to get comfortable targeting new voters at strip malls and big-box retail stores, and to stop thinking that a blunt-instrument approach on college campuses and in downtowns will save them.
“We need a scalpel instead of a hammer,” said Hausman.
What to read
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One more thing…
Jill Abramson, a former New York Times executive editor, reviews “Chasing History,” by Carl Bernstein, a new book she describes as “a rollicking memoir about the golden age of newspapers.”
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