The most-watched election in the world is over, and the United States will have a new president. Democrats succeeded in removing Donald Trump from office — the first one-term president in nearly 30 years and the fourth in the last century — but the Republican Party won this election. Joe Biden will begin his presidency without the mandate many expected. Democrats will retain control of the House of Representatives but saw their majority narrow as the Republican Party picked up eight seats so far. There is a likelihood more seats will flip as some races remain too close to call. There will be run-off elections for two Senate seats in Georgia, but both lean Republican, which will likely leave the Senate under Republican control.
It is clear America is still a very divided nation. The big question is, what did the Democrats do wrong, and how can we do better moving forward?
America Is No Longer One Nation
Voter participation was not the problem, with a record-high 158 million Americans casting ballots. Fundraising was not the issue as election spending also hit record highs, at nearly $14 billion, and Democrats raised close to double what Republicans did. The major story is that record turnout and fundraising failed to propel Democratic candidates in the House, the Senate and state legislatures to victory as expected. The presidential race was a clear referendum on Donald Trump that didn’t translate down the ticket.
President Trump’s overall approval rating generally hovered around 40% over the course of his term in office. That’s already dangerous territory as no president in modern history has won reelection with an approval rating below 48%. Joe Biden was able to cut into Trump’s 2016 base, including seniors and non-college-educated white men. At the same time, Trump was able to win over parts of Hillary Clinton’s coalition, including Hispanic voters. Most surprisingly, an incredible 56% of Americans said they were better off today than four years ago in a September Gallup poll. That’s more than in 2012 before the re-election of President Barack Obama.
In the end, it all came down to two major issues: the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy. As recently as April, Donald Trump was more trusted to manage the economy by 8 points over Joe Biden. But 59% of Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. As that lead diminished and the pandemic continued to claim lives, Trump lost his last remaining advantage. But to win after COVID-19, Democrats need to improve their messaging.
Democrats need to understand that America is still a center-right country with a large, highly motivated evangelical base. They need to cope with the repercussions of embracing democratic socialism at the national level. The Democratic Party also needs to address the fear many Americans have that the new economy may leave them behind as they see jobs move out of the country and the wage gap expands. Flirting with socialism is likely to frighten workers already nervous about the future.
The solution lies in finding smart ways to appeal to the growing base of young and minority voters without frightening rural, white constituencies. The common ground is likely to be in reliable kitchen-table issues like the economy, health care and jobs. The most important issue for the Democrats has always been jobs. They need to mount a full assault to retake this issue by focusing on how to better train America’s workforce to be job-ready for the 21st century. They need to talk about how they will reduce income inequality by providing the specific skills necessary to get tomorrow’s jobs. And, most importantly, they need to talk about how to provide those skills to inner-city and rural voters alike.
The Democrats will enjoy the benefits and power from building a big tent party in an ever-closer majority-minority nation, particularly while the GOP wrestles with internal strife over white nationalism. But they can’t continue to lose over issues and messaging. It all starts with presenting a sensible strategy for preparing more Americans with 21st-century skills. This election is over, but the battle for the next one has already begun. The Democrats don’t have time to waste.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.