What Keeps Democrats up at Night

Reasons for Republican concern, on both the presidential and downballot levels, have been well documented by this column and others.

But Democrats have their own problems, some very real, some only imagined. Anxiety among Democrats surged last week when a recent CNN poll showed Joe Biden leading nationwide by 5 points, but trailing President Trump in 15 battleground states by 7 points. The battleground numbers—taken from a subsample of the overall respondents—seemed out of sync with both public polls and private surveys from pollsters in those key states. As well-crafted as some of the national surveys are, weighted to reflect the representative segments on gender, race, age, education, and sometimes even population density, they cannot do that for each state, thus these battleground-state subsamples should be viewed with a grain of salt. (For more on the dangers of looking at a subsample of interviews from a group of states plucked out of a national poll, see this piece in the The Crosstab by G. Elliott Morris, a very talented young data journalist.)

In a new analysis of what Biden can and needs to do to reach 270 electoral votes, Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik focuses not only on the traditional battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but also parts of the South and West, which he argues have emerged as a new Democratic base.

On a more emotional level, many Democrats still have not moved beyond their emotional trauma that resulted from their surprise November 2016 loss. But none of this suggests that Democrats don’t have real challenges in this election. For example, one key Democratic campaign consultant this past week expressed concern that the tone of some Democrats’ criticism of President Trump on the economy could be perceived as “rooting against America,” or “rooting for failure,” each time bad economic news comes out.

A greater danger for Democrats is if they begin to be perceived as anti-jobs, favoring policies that make it hard, or even impossible, for the average working-class person or small businessperson to make a living or return to any semblance of a normal life. While Trump and Republicans should fear a second wave of coronavirus cases triggering a W-shaped, or “double-dip,” recession, Democrats should fear being tagged as the party that kept people from going back to work or sending their kids back to school as soon as was practical, especially for people who live and work in lower-risk areas.

Democrats risk a perception of being one-dimensionally pro-lockdown, as if reopening was a simple matter of throwing a giant national on-off switch, an exclusive focus on public health above everything else, suggesting that the abilities of families to get back to work or have a life is of secondary or tertiary interest. While it is certainly true that economic well-being cannot be restored without addressing the more immediate health challenge of the coronavirus, the reality is that all Americans are not similarly situated. A one-size-fits-all policy for parts of the country or even entire states strikes some as arbitrary.

The danger in both small town and rural America, as well as among working-class whites, is that this can play into a form of grievance and identity politics that could tar the Democratic Party as caring only about those who live in or near cities and along the coasts.

The fact is that restrictions make an enormous amount of sense along the Acela corridor, but might not make much a hundred miles or more to the west. For those who live in locales that have seen few cases of COVID-19, many of the restrictions seem arbitrary. Policies that are perfectly reasonable for the city of Detroit and the rest of Wayne County and in Macomb and Oakland counties in Michigan might well be seen as onerous and heavy-handed to those living on the Upper Peninsula. The phrase “common sense” has been rarely heard from the mouths of Democratic elected officials of late.

Why should Democrats worry about voters “out there?” A good case can be made that it was these areas beyond metropolitan areas that effectively cost Democrats the presidency. In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton emerged from Philadelphia and four counties that make up Southeastern Pennsylvania with a lead over Trump of 673,000 votes. Add in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and the margin swelled to 770,000 votes, more than what was expected to be necessary to carry the state. But Trump won 49 of the state’s 67 counties with at least 60 percent of the vote, including 23 counties with 70 percent of the vote or more. That’s how Democrats lost the state after having won it six times in a row.

This is not something that only happened in Pennsylvania. Two years ago, Democrats did well in urban and suburban America, netting 40 seats in the House to win that chamber. But in rural states, identification with the Democratic Party was deadly. Just ask former Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of South Dakota. After losing their Senate seats, the duo founded the One Country Project, whose mission is to try to reestablish a reconnection between the Democratic Party and rural America.

There is research that suggests at least some of the abysmal vote totals in such areas and among older white voters in the 2016 election stemmed from an animosity toward Clinton, and that those voters might be up for grabs in 2020. The Biden camp certainly hopes that’s the case.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on May 19, 2020