Democrats beat Trump in 2020. Now they’re asking: what went wrong?

The New York Times
Washington, DC, United States of AmericaWritten By: Alexander Burns © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Feb 20, 2021, 11:12 PM IST

US President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2021. Photograph:(Reuters)

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With that puzzle in mind, a cluster of Democratic advocacy groups has quietly launched a review of the party’s performance in the 2020 election with an eye toward shaping Democrats’ approach to next year’s midterm campaign, seven people familiar with the effort said.

Democrats emerged from the 2020 election with full control of the federal government and a pile of lingering questions. In private, party leaders and strategists have been wrestling with a quandary: Why was President Joe Biden’s convincing victory over Donald Trump not accompanied by broad Democratic gains down ballot?

With that puzzle in mind, a cluster of Democratic advocacy groups has quietly launched a review of the party’s performance in the 2020 election with an eye toward shaping Democrats’ approach to next year’s midterm campaign, seven people familiar with the effort said.

There is particular concern among the Democratic sponsors of the initiative about the party’s losses in House districts with large minority populations, including in Florida, Texas and California, people briefed on the initiative said. The review is probing tactical and strategic choices across the map, including Democratic messaging on the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as organizational decisions like eschewing in-person canvassing.

Democrats had anticipated they would be able to expand their majority in the House, pushing into historically red areas of the Sun Belt where Trump’s unpopularity had destabilized the GOP coalition. Instead, Republicans took 14 Democratic-held House seats, including a dozen that Democrats had captured in an anti-Trump wave election just two years earlier.

The results stunned strategists in both parties, raising questions about the reliability of campaign polling and seemingly underscoring Democratic vulnerabilities in rural areas and right-of-center suburbs. Democrats also lost several contested Senate races by unexpectedly wide margins, even as they narrowly took control of the chamber.

Strategists involved in the Democratic self-review have begun interviewing elected officials and campaign consultants and reaching out to lawmakers and former candidates in major House and Senate races where the party either won or lost narrowly.

Four major groups are backing the effort, spanning a range of Democratic-leaning interests: Third Way, a centrist think tank; End Citizens United, a clean-government group; the Latino Victory Fund; and Collective PAC, an organization that supports Black Democratic candidates.

They are said to be working with at least three influential bodies within the House Democratic caucus: the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition, a group of centrist lawmakers. The groups have retained a Democratic consulting firm, 270 Strategies, to conduct interviews and analyze electoral data.

Democrats are feeling considerable pressure to refine their political playbook before the 2022 congressional elections, when the party will be defending minuscule House and Senate majorities without a presidential race to drive turnout on either side.

Dan Sena, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said there was a recognition in the party that, despite Biden’s victory, the 2020 cycle had not been an unalloyed Democratic success story.

“I think people know that there was good and bad coming out of ’20, and there is a desire to look under the hood,” Sena said.

Among the party’s goals, Sena said, should be studying their gains in Georgia and looking for other areas where population growth and demographic change might furnish the party with strong electoral targets in 2022.

“There were a series of factors that really made Georgia work this cycle,” he said. “How do you begin to find places like Georgia?”

Matt Bennett, senior vice president of Third Way, confirmed in a statement that the four-way project was aimed at positioning Democrats for the midterm elections.

“With narrow Democratic majorities in Congress and the Republican Party in the thrall of Trump-supporting seditionists, the stakes have never been higher,” he said. “Our organizations will provide Democrats with a detailed picture of what happened in 2020 — with a wide range of input from voices across the party — so they are fully prepared to take on the GOP in 2022.”

In addition to the outside review, some of the traditional party committees are said to be taking narrower steps to scrutinize the 2020 results. Concerned about a drop in support with Latino men, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee conducted focus groups in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas earlier this year, one person familiar with the study said. It is not clear precisely what conclusions emerged from the exercise.

So far there is no equivalent process underway on the Republican side, party officials said, citing the general lack of appetite among GOP leaders for grappling openly with Trump’s impact on the party and the wreckage he inflicted in key regions of the country.

As a candidate for reelection, Trump slumped in the Democratic-leaning Upper Midwest — giving up his most important breakthroughs of 2016 — and lost to Biden in Georgia and Arizona, two traditionally red states where the GOP has suffered an abrupt decline in recent years. The party lost all four Senate seats from those states during Trump’s presidency, three of them in the 2020 cycle.

But Trump and his political retainers have so far responded with fury to critics of his stewardship of the party, and there is no apparent desire to tempt his wrath with a comprehensive analysis that would be likely to yield unflattering results. One unofficial review, conducted by Trump’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, concluded that Trump had shed significant support because of his handling of the pandemic, with particularly damaging losses among white voters.

In the past, Democratic attempts at self-scrutiny have tended to yield somewhat mushy conclusions aimed at avoiding controversy across the party’s multifarious coalition.

The Democratic Party briefly appeared headed for a public reckoning in November as the party absorbed its setbacks in the House and its failure to unseat several Republican senators whom Democrats had seen as ripe for defeat.

A group of centrist House members blamed left-wing rhetoric about democratic socialism and defunding the police for their losses in a number of conservative-leaning suburbs and rural districts. Days after the election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia said the party should renounce the word “socialism,” drawing pushback from progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

That airing of differences did not last long: Democrats quickly closed ranks in response to Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election, and party unity hardened after the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. But there are still significant internal disagreements about campaign strategy.

It has been eight years since either political party conducted a wide-ranging self-assessment that recommended thorough changes in structure and strategy. After the 2012 election, when Republicans lost the presidential race and gave up seats in both chambers of Congress, the Republican National Committee empaneled a task force that called for major changes to the party organization.

The so-called 2012 autopsy also recommended that the GOP embrace the cause of immigration reform, warning that the party faced a bleak demographic future if it did not improve its position with communities of color. That recommendation was effectively discarded after House Republicans blocked a bipartisan immigration deal passed by the Senate, and then fully obliterated by Trump’s presidential candidacy.

Henry Barbour, a member of the RNC who co-authored the committee’s post-2012 analysis, said it would be wise for both parties to consider their political positioning after the 2020 election. He said that Democrats had succeeded in the election by running against Trump but that the party’s leftward shift had alienated otherwise winnable voters, including some Black, Hispanic and Asian American communities that shifted incrementally toward Trump.

“They’re running off a lot of middle-class Americans who work hard for a living out in the heartland or in big cities or suburbs,” Barbour said. “Part of that is because Democrats have run too far to the left.”

Barbour said Republicans, too, should take a clear-eyed look at their 2020 performance. Trump, he said, had not done enough to expand his appeal beyond a large and loyal minority of voters.

“The Republican Party has got to do better than that,” he said. “We’re not just a party of one president.”

In addition to the four-way review on the Democratic side, there are several narrower projects underway focused on addressing deficiencies in polling.

Democratic and Republican officials alike found serious shortcomings in their survey research, especially polling in House races that failed to anticipate how close Republicans would come to retaking the majority. Both parties emerged from the campaign feeling that they had significantly misjudged the landscape of competitive House races, with Democrats losing seats unexpectedly and Republicans perhaps having missed a chance to capture the chamber as a result.

The chief Republican and Democratic super political action committees focused on House races — the Congressional Leadership Fund and House Majority PAC — are both in the process of studying their 2020 polling and debating changes for the 2022 campaign, people familiar with their efforts said.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican group, is said to be undertaking a somewhat more extensive review of its spending and messaging, although it is not expected to issue any kind of larger diagnosis for the party.

“We would be foolish not to take a serious look at what worked, what didn’t work and how you can evolve and advance,” said Dan Conston, the group’s president.

Several of the largest Democratic polling companies are also conferring regularly with each other in an effort to address gaps in the 2020 research. Two people involved in the conversations said there was general agreement that the industry had to update its practices before 2022 to assure Democratic leaders that they would not be caught by surprise again.

Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster involved in reviewing research from the last cycle, said that the party was only now digging more deeply into the results of the 2020 election because the past few months had been dominated by other crises.

Several Democratic and Republican strategists cautioned that both parties faced a challenge in formulating a plan for 2022; it had been more than a decade, she said, since a midterm campaign had not been dominated by a larger-than-life presidential personality. Based on the experience of the 2020 campaign, it is not clear that Biden is destined to become such a polarizing figure.

“It’s hard to know what an election’s like without an Obama or a Trump,” Greenberg said, “just normal, regular, ordinary people running.”