Democrats are in the White House and narrowly in control of both chambers of Congress, but to a group of Democratic Party political action committees, the 2020 election seemed like a barely averted disaster.
“For the past 20-plus years, the Democratic Party’s been running the same playbook every presidential election cycle,” says Quentin James, president of The Collective PAC, which works around the U.S. to get Black candidates elected.
From January to November in an election year, James says, the party treats what it call swing voters — largely white Midwesterners — “as if they’re like the magic unicorn that would deliver elections.”
That strategy is failing, James says in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. Along with the Latino Victory Fund and Third Way, his group commissioned a new report about what went wrong for Democrats up and down the ballot in 2020.
“We can no longer treat Black voters, people of color voters, young voters, as … get-out-the-vote targets — so in October, let’s flood the communities with advertisements and campaign literature,” he says. Instead, Democrats “should be communicating with those communities, for a year or two out from elections.”
The report analyzes, state by state, local and national races where Democrats won and lost.
In Florida, for instance, the report found that Democrats lost because they failed to engage and target their message to the Latino community, James says. But the party won Arizona because it did do better with Latino voters there, he says. In Georgia, Democrats won “primarily due to Black and AAPI voters.”
But in some critical swing states, James says, the coalition that the Democratic Party needs for success “isn’t coming together.”
And that “has ramifications not just for the presidential elections in the future, but for the control of the Senate and the control of the House of Representatives moving forward,” he says.
Below are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
Your report found that the Republican strategy of branding Democrats as radicals worked. Can you talk about those findings?
This is very much a strategy that the Republicans have kind of leaned on the past 50 years in American politics, and that is to very much try to racialize the Democratic Party and racialize any of our issues, which, you know, unfortunately, it worked. It worked this election cycle. It motivated white voters to come out and vote in record numbers, and that was unexpected
At the same time, I think Democrats cannot back away from our policy priorities around racial injustice. We have to stand strong. I think the challenge this time around, though, is we were not able to pivot and defend our stances on issues clearly and aggressively enough. The majority of Americans firmly believe that we should reform policing in this country. That message of defunding policing in this country took on a kind of identity of its own. But we can’t shy away from the kind of America that we want to see just because they’re going to make us seem as though we’re radical or crazy — we’re not. We just have to stand firm on where we are and make clear where we are on these issues to more Americans.
Who do you want to read this report?
We want everyone to read it, but we particularly care about Democratic donors and Democratic Party leaders. It is critical that we are direct and aggressive in responding to these challenges. We have time between now and the midterms to fix these problems. But again, if we wait until next summer or next fall to engage communities of color, to develop a strong pro-economic message, then I unfortunately think we may lose the House. We will probably definitely lose the Senate. And that will put the White House again back in play in 2024.
I’m curious if you think Democratic Party leaders are naive at all about what they’re facing in the 2022 midterms when it comes to voter turnout and whether that’s turnout that supports the Democrats.
Yeah, I mean, I definitely think so. I think a lot of people want to look at last year’s results and say, oh, well, it was COVID or, oh, it was Donald Trump, he’s not on the ballot anymore. And I don’t think we can dismiss what we’re seeing from these communities under those contexts. We’ve been seeing since 2008 to 2020, every year, a two- to three-point drop in Democratic support among Black men, for instance. And so if we want to stop those trends, we have to get our head out of the sand and start to respond to these communities.
We talk about in this report — a strong economic message, a message around reforming in the criminal justice landscape, not being scared and running away from issues of race because the other side’s going to call us radical. We have to do that stuff if we’re going to face success in the future. But again, part of this is people want to dismiss it as just Trump or just COVID. And that’s actually not true in our opinion.