Recently, the New York Times fanned the flames of an incipient election post-mortem fight between the moderate and progressive wings of the party over how to explain the outcome of the election by printing duelling interviews (and then podcasts) with AOC and Conor Lamb, in which the two Congresspeople-Elect took widely divergent stances on why Democrats had won the Presidency but lost seats in the House (while still retaining control).
If you’re like me, you found these interviews simultaneously enlightening – in terms of how these two politicians from different wings of the party think about campaigning – and frustrating, because an ideological border war tends to exclude a lot of nuance. And you need nuance when talking about an election, because elections tend to have lots of narratives and often times they can be partially, simultaneously true – it may be true that, in some districts, ads about “defund the police” hurt a Democratic incumbent (although it is true that these ads were run regardless of the incumbent’s views on the issue, and that the public’s attitude to the Green New Deal is not the same as their feelings towards “defund the police”), and that in other districts, support for Medicare for All went hand-in-hand with victory.
But while these multiple narratives exist, not all of them are equal in explanatory power and I think this one takes the cake:
Public and private polling data alike suggested congressional Democrats were leading the generic national ballot by 7 percentage points going into Election Day. As of now, they’re leading by 1.3 points in actual election results, according to RealClearPolitics, compared to a 3-point lead for President-elect Joe Biden.
2020 had many differences from previous elections, as Wasserman explained. First, both parties increased their turnout exponentially — this year’s election had the highest voter turnout since 1908. There may have been a blue wave at the top of the ticket for Biden, but there was also a red wave for Trump.
If you can remember back to the Before Times of 2018, Democrats retook the House in a wave election in which Democrats had an 8.6% margin in the Congressional popular vote. This allowed Democrats to win seats in traditionally Republican areas from rural Pennsylvania to California’s Orange County. However, when you’re in one of those marginal seats in 2020 and Republicans turn out in also-historic (although slightly smaller) numbers in an extremely polarized election, it doesn’t really matter what your ideology or campaign strategy is, the other side has more voters than you do.
At the same time, though, there’s complexity underneath those national numbers, which is why I find it so frustrating that, rather than really talking about those complications, we’re talking about Spanberger et al.’s attempt to kneecap the Squad and then turn round and complain that AOC’s being “uncollegial” for returning fire. (For what it’s worth, I do think from a long-term vantage point, AOC’s argument about the national party’s discomfort with building up local, grassroots infrastructure that can do year-round organizing holds more water, but that argument seems like it’s being imported into this one in the same way that her argument about the need to invest in digital does.)
So what do Democrats do to protect and expand their majority in the House in 2022? I’m not arrogant enough to assume I have the answer. There’s a lot of smart people out there sharing their takes, and I’m happy to wait for the political scientists to do their due diligence.
However, given the nature of the Democratic Coalition, I do think one preliminary conclusion is that we have accept that the answers are going to be partial: what should be done in deep blue urban districts where democratic socialism is increasingly popular is going to be different from what should be done in the Rio Grande Valley, or Miami-Dade, or in the Four Corners, or in the suburbs of Orange County or Atlanta.