How the Democratic Party Is Failing America
Inside the voting booths, in polling places across America, the ground has shifted. From the earliest days of the popular vote, American elections have been decided by one voter. This voter’s beliefs, angers, ideals and prejudices have been mimicked in campaign speeches and political advertising of all kinds. This voter is the ticket splitter.
But the ticket splitter has almost disappeared.
The decline of the ticket splitter has been rapid and almost complete. Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican polling firm, has been tracking ticket splitters and straight party voting for twenty years. In the election of 2000, 36% of the electorate voted for candidates of different parties. In 2020, that number had fallen to 11%.
That percentage may be surprising given that the largest percentage of voters identify as independents. The Gallup Poll, which tracks party affiliation on a regular basis, summarized their findings for the first quarter of 2021. Only 30% of voters identified as Democrats. 25% identified as Republicans and 45% identified as Independents. But when asked to which party the voter leaned the vast majority of voters chose a party. The percentage of true independents? Eleven percent.
Most independents are not independents at all. They are Democrats or Republicans who vote straight tickets but are embarrassed by the party they nevertheless support. Most of them have more antipathy for the opposing party than the love for the party that gets their vote.
These attitudes reflect the deepening divisions in politics today. The Public Opinion Strategies surveys show a large growth in the negative opinions about the opposite party. In 2000, 55% of Democratic voters held a negative opinion of Republicans. In 2020, that figure was 83%. Likewise, in 2000 65% of Republicans held a negative opinion of Democrats. That number is 86% today.
So what does this polarization mean? If nine out of ten voters are voting a straight party ticket, then the outcomes of most elections are decided not by voter opinions of the candidates but by voter opinions about the parties. This rise of straight party voting is a dramatic shift that should transforming how campaigns are conducted and how campaign war chests are spent.
But this change in voting behavior may be the most unnoticed earthquake in history.
Today, political parties, PAC’s and other players conduct their business as if there has been no change at all. How many ads have you seen that make the case for becoming a Democrat or a Republican? These committees are doing what they have done for decades. They raise money, save it for the 2022 campaign and run ads in the two months before the election that provide information about individual candidates, information that is, apparently, hardly relevant to 90% of the voters.
It remains true that elections can be decided by 11% of the voters. The ticket splitter still decides elections. But by spending all of the money on candidate choice, campaigners are ignoring the new and larger force driving our democracy. And for the Democratic Party, the refusal to retool our strategy forfeits what is one of the largest opportunities ever granted to any political party in the history of American politics.
The Republican Trap
The first rule of politics is to take care of your base. The base provides not just votes but money, volunteers and, of increasing importance, social media as well. A political party that does not cultivate its base will evaporate like a sprinkle of rain in the hot desert sand. But for the Republican Party of 2021 serving its base comes at a price. Because the Republican base holds positions far from the mainstream views of the larger American electorate.
Let’s compare the Republican electorate with the American voters as a whole.
Donald Trump remains the beloved leader of the Republican Party. It is difficult to assess his popularity at the moment. Recent polls show Trump’s approval rating at between 29% and 39%. Yet, despite these low numbers, Trump continues to garner solid approval ratings among Republican voters. But no matter where the actual number stands, it is hard to see how having Donald Trump as its poster child helps the GOP forge majorities in elections to come.
But Trump’s hold on his party seems unbreakable. Politicians with the gumption to criticize Trump have been censored by state and local Republican parties. Those officeholders with the temerity to criticize the former president face the prospect of a primary challenge. In a primary, Trump loyalists possess easy majorities that would remove them from office. In the words of GOP congressman Adam Kinzinger, “only about 10 House Republicans are dumb enough to genuinely believe that Trump won the election. The rest simply fear primary challenges.”
If you believe Kinzinger, Republicans are trapped. Trapped into an unwavering allegiance to a disgraced, unpopular and erratic former President.
The Election Was Stolen
According to a Reuter’s poll in March, six in ten Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. On the other hand, 70% of the American electorate believes otherwise. But a stunning 80% of House Republicans voted to overturn the 2020 election results leaving them vulnerable to the alternate judgment of a large electoral majority.
A January 2021 American Perspectives Survey study found that a majority (56 percent) of Republicans support the “use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life.” Nearly 40% of Republicans agree with the statement, “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.” If half of Republican voters would tolerate violence to achieve political goals, what happens to Republican candidates who suggest more peaceful solutions?
Is it any wonder that Republicans blocked the establishment of a bi-partisan commission to investigate the January 6th insurrection? Again, the Republican Party is trapped by an increasingly extreme electoral base.
QAnon is an internet cult that believes the levers of American power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. They state the “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to depose the pedophiles and restore the country’s rightful order. The further predict that “a biblical-scale storm will soon sweep away these evil elites” and “restore the rightful leaders.”
In a May poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core, one in four Republicans were categorized as QAnon believers. Another 55% of Republicans fell into the category of “QAnon doubters,” voters who said they “mostly disagreed” with the outlandish statements but didn’t reject them outright.
Donald Trump refused to criticize QAnon. In fact, he claimed he never heard of them. But his refusal was not based upon ignorance. He had retweeted hundreds of QAnon posts. He refused to criticize them because they were one fourth of his vote.
The Republican electorate has been contaminated by false beliefs, exotic conspiracies theories and intolerance of mainstream opinions. For Republican candidates, holding their base while reaching out to mainstream voters sounds like the game of Twister conducted at the grand master level.
The Democratic Opportunity
Democrats have the Republican Party exactly where they want it to be.
Loyal to a disgraced, unpopular and erratic ex-president.
Trapped into supporting lies that the 2020 election was stolen. A lie 70% of Americans reject.
Supported by a base that includes large numbers of voters who believe violence is justified to reach their political ends and the exotic conspiracy theories of QAnon and other extremist groups.
Will these dilemmas cost Republicans support? They already have.
The Gallup Poll measures party affiliation on a regular basis. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the Gallup Poll showed that, with leaners, Americans supported Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers, 45 percent each. By the end of the first quarter of 2021, Democratic affiliation led Republican affiliation by nine percentage points 49 – 40.
This Democratic lead was the highest in nine years.
This large movement in party affiliation was created not by Democrats but by the bizarre and often reckless behavior of the Republicans themselves. But in the midst of these events, Democrats have been largely passive observers. But to capitalize on these opportunities Democrats must fundamentally change their approach to campaigning and largely abandon the tactics that have guided American campaigns for the last seventy years.
First, Democrats need to understand that voting decisions are no longer driven by candidate information. Voting decisions are driven by party. In 2017, two political scientists at UC Berkeley, David Broockman and Josh Kalla, published a remarkable study. They collected the results of 46 control group experiments that measured the effects of advertising in various election contests. In each of these experiments, voters were contacted, primarily by mail, and given reasons to support a candidate or take a position on a ballot measure. A randomly selected control group of the same voters was not contacted at all. After the contacts, voters in both groups were polled to measure the effects of the advertising they received.
In party primaries the advertising had measurable and statistically significant effects in increasing support for the candidate the ads favored. In ballot measures, the advertising had similar positive effects. But in general elections where candidates were identified by party, the advertising had no effect at all. To quote the article “We argue that the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero.”
By all honest assessment, political advertising is a broken medium. Once driven by television, most voters can no longer be effectively reached with 30 second ads. Internet ads have produced surprisingly meager results. It is now difficult and expensive to get a voter on the phone. Larger portions of the campaign budgets have moved to mail, which provides great targeting but none of the dramatic effects of a television ad.
Can advertising affect party affiliation? No one knows. It has never been tested. But if changing party affiliation is possible, its benefits loom much larger than affecting the vote total of one candidate. Changing a voter’s party affiliation is likely to affect the choice not just of one candidate but of every candidate on the ballot. Voter registration data shows that registering as a member of one party is a decision that lasts in excess of twenty years. There can be no comparison of benefits. Candidate information may help elect one candidate. Party persuasion helps all party candidates and may well do so for a decade or more.
But to move party affiliation, the message must be about the parties.
The second change that needs to be implemented is the timing of our messages. The current model of raising money and holding it until September and October of the election year is not working. Let’s face it, there are few less credible messages than those contained in political ads. This situation is unsurprising. Political ads twist the truth, exaggerate differences and employ all sorts of tactics that have made voters wary or even disdainful of the information they deliver.
A better approach is to use our advertising to connect with the news cycle so as to amplify news that is positive to our party. For example, almost every Republican in Congress voted against President Biden’s stimulus package that included a $1400 for most Americans. Which is the better strategy? To save the money and tell voters, more than a year from now that a congressperson voted against their stimulus check? Or mail the voters as the checks are arriving and tell them that Republicans in congress voted 265 – 3 against the stimulus package and against their $1400 check? Amplifying current news in a factual way has far more power than candidate advertisements that speak to an event almost two years old and generally in a way that reveals the agenda and position of the advertiser. The news supports the credibility of the message. And the message without the news is seldom credible at all.
But instead of striking the Republicans when they are most vulnerable, the Democrats are forfeiting a huge opportunity to capitalize on Republican miscalculation and disarray.
Expanding the Democratic Lead
American democracy is threatened as never before. When has a major political party been willing to lie, without the slightest evidence, about claims of election fraud that were discredited by 60 courts of law? When have major portions of the electorate been willing to believe such charges? When have large percentage of the followers of one political party been willing to endorse violence to attain their political ends? The internet has promoted bizarre conspiracy theories and large number of Americans actually believe that our nation is run by pedophiles but that a biblical storm will sweep them away and restore our “rightful leaders.”
It is hard to miss how these facts threaten our democracy. But as shocking and all these events happen to be, they can actually good news in shaping the outcomes of elections to come. The yawning gap between the beliefs of the Republican base and mainstream opinion and the political inability of many Republican candidates to support those mainstream opinions, provide the Democratic Party with all the ammunition it needs to diminish Republican support and reduce that party to its core of extremists and purveyors of untruth.
But to damage the Republican Party, Democrats can’t wait until September of 2022. The Democratic Party has to begin its campaign now. We have a treasure trove of information, damaging information, which many voters do not know. We have a powerful message. The Republican Party has become a party of Trump loyalists who believe his lies and are acting to undermine our democracy. Here are the message statements that we can use to prove it.
- 80% of all House Republicans voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election
- The Republicans in Congress voted 265 to three to block your stimulus check
- Republicans are passing legislation to make it harder to vote, reduce mail balloting and make it unlawful to offer water to a voter waiting in line.
- Republicans helped incite the January 6th invasion of the US Capitol and worked to cover up their role by opposing a bipartisan investigation
- The Republicans are blocking any increase in the $7.25 minimum wage which has not been increased in 12 years
- 87% of American voters want Republicans in Congress to do more to work for bipartisan solutions. How about a video of Mitch McConnell stating, without shame or embarrassment, that the one and only goal of Republicans in Congress is to stop every Initiative advanced by Joe Biden?
In addition, we should come up with proposals that exploit the Republican trap, by putting their leaders in the position of choosing between supporting a politically popular measure or supporting their base.
Why not introduce legislation that increases penalties for violence in support of political activities or unlawfully entering the Capitol building? Would Republicans support such a measure? Maybe. But there would be plenty of Republican members tarred with their opposition.
Why not introduce resolutions in Congress condemning QAnon and its outlandish conspiracy theories. Would they give the Bronx cheer to a quarter of their base? Don’t forget Proud Boys and other right wing groups that advocate violence.
And how about student debt relief or tuition subsidies? How will younger voters react to what will probably be almost unanimous Republican opposition?
Mitch McConnell’s pledge to oppose all that Biden presents is a cornucopia of opportunity. Biden should present one proposal after another designed to be popular in concept and rejected by an almost unanimous Republican opposition.
Our strategy is so simple. We need to walk up to the Republican trap and rattle the cage. Again. And again. And again. Republicans are trapped by a base of Trump worshipers and extremists. Let’s craft legislative strategies to make them choose their base.
Why not make a list of the most egregious tax loopholes benefiting the very wealthy and make the Republicans vote to continue them, one at a time. After all, they have almost all signed pledges not to raise taxes.
The fact is that campaigns have never been waged with the goal is increasing party affiliation. Candidate persuasion, if you believe 46 experiments measuring its effects, is not working at all. And when has any party been handed a message advantage that the Democrats possess today.
The Republican Party has been living in the echo chamber of its own base. Today, it stands in support of a long list of policies and beliefs that are anathema to most American voters.
You may observe, correctly, that even though the rewards of moving party affiliation are massive compared to changing votes for one candidate, that moving party affiliation is a heavy lift. But the idea that you convince voters to become Democrats becomes more promising when you consider that there has already been a nine-point shift in our direction without any coordinated messaging or advertising on our part.
Voters do change parties. This behavior is highlighted in a 2017 report by the Democracy Fund showing changes in party registration and which demographics were moving in a Democratic direction. Much of the movement was produced by Trump’s 2016 victory. Two groups moved more than any others.
The first group is voters under 30. The chart below shows their movement compared with other age groups.
Among Republicans under 30 years of age 16% changed their registrations to unaffiliated between 2011 and 2017. Another 3% changed to Democrats. A better view of movement might have come from looking at how unaffiliated young people changed their registration over this same time period but the study did not show this data.
Younger voters are an excellent target for party change. First of all, they moved away from the Republican party in larger percentages than any other age group. Second, younger voters tend to have less political information and more malleable viewpoints about politics. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the issue contrasts that we could make around education, college affordability and student loan relief provide a contrast close to home for many young people.The second target is Asian Americans. The chart below shows their movement toward the Democratic Party, a movement more dramatic than we saw with younger voters.
Among Asian American Republicans, 15% changed their party registration to Democratic. Another 10% moved from Republican to unaffiliated, more than doubling the movement of any other group. These changes occurred before the recent surge of violence against Asian Americans, events unlikely to endear this group to the Republican brand.
These targets are only a starting point for thinking about how to grow the Democratic base. The obvious targets would be unaffiliated voters within these two groups. It may be that within those voters not registered with any party there will be opportunities within additional age or ethnic groups. And, frankly, the best approach would be to look at voters who have changed parties in the last few months and build a model that could predict the likelihood that any voter might move.
In considering the possibility of success in changing party affiliation, it is not correct to ask whether advertising can move party affiliation. The more appropriate question is can highly targeted advertising accelerate the movement that is already taking place.
So Democrats have messages that are extraordinary and powerful. We have an audience susceptible to easy targeting. And we have the ability to confront Republicans with popular initiatives that they are almost completely unable to support. And we have an opponent in terrible disarray.
Excuse me, but what are we waiting for?
But unless and until we change how we think about campaigns, unless we focus on party differences and make our arguments when those arguments are current and in the news, Democrats will squander the largest opportunity for party realignment since the Great Depression. We can portray Republicans for what they are and further reduce their already declining share of the electorate. But if Democrats continue to cling to old ideas about campaigning for candidates and the Republican Party returns to power, their victory poses a fundamental threat to American democracy as we have known it for the last 250 years.
Today, Democrats are the generals who are fighting the last war. And this war is a contest we cannot afford to lose.