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Democrats Reflect On 2020 Presidential Election


Spend enough time around political figures and you will eventually hear someone say that in a democracy, nothing is ever over. Any fight that you win, you may have to fight again. Any issue that you debate, you may have to debate again. And I mention all this because it is clear that the tumult and the disruption of the past four years of Donald Trump's presidency is not over, but we have passed a significant milestone in American political history here.

Joe Biden has been elected president of the United States. The call was made earlier today when the Associated Press announced the states of Pennsylvania and Nevada went for the former vice president, which makes him president-elect with some electoral votes to spare. The calls came after days of vote counting in a number of key states. And it does mark the end of one chapter in a record-breaking election.


Well, we've been talking about the deep divisions that may not have been caused by this year's hard-fought election but were certainly exposed by it. And we're talking about the Democrats here, by which I mean, as we are speaking, Democratic presidential - excuse me - nominee Joe Biden has been called the winner of the presidential contest. But the 2020 election was not the blue wave many in his party had hoped would materialize. After hoping to grow their majority in the House of Representatives, House Democrats actually lost more than half a dozen seats to Republicans. And in the Senate, two seats are headed for a runoff. It's possible, but it doesn't seem likely that Senate Democrats are going to be able to gain a majority despite record-breaking fundraising numbers for this year's slate of candidates. So a mixed result.

So we wanted to take a closer look at how Democratic candidates fared in this election, what went wrong, what went right, and what the party needs to do not just to win elections but to deliver on its promises to the American people. So to help us with that, we've called on a few key Democratic organizers and strategists from different wings of the party. Karen Finney is a Democratic strategist and former campaign spokesperson for Hillary Clinton. Karen Finney, welcome.

KAREN FINNEY: Thank you. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: A'shanti Gholar is the president of Emerge America. That's an organization that works to recruit and elect Democratic women to all levels of public office. A'shanti Gholar, welcome back to you as well. Thanks for joining us.

A'SHANTI GHOLAR: Thank you for having me again.

MARTIN: And David Sirota is a former campaign speechwriter for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But he's gone back to his roots as an investigative reporter and he's publishing hard-hitting reporting on all things elections now. David Sirota, welcome back to you as well.

DAVID SIROTA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Karen, I'm going to start with you. How do you feel the campaign did, overall?

FINNEY: I thought they did an excellent job. And I am not going to buy into the narrative that we didn't have - I mean, Joe Biden has I think a real mandate in terms of - if you look at the states he was able to flip, it was going to always be a tough battle in the Senate. And I feel very good about where we ended up. Obviously, we had some tough House races. But, particularly, when you look at the multigenerational, multiracial coalition of voters that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were able to put together across this country and the determination that the American people showed to come out and vote in a pandemic, I think it is an extraordinary success. And I feel very good and really proud of the Biden-Harris campaign.

MARTIN: And, Karen, exit polling has shown that President Trump actually gained some support among minority communities, including Black and Latino voters, two groups that have been very important for the Democrats. What's your take on what happened there?

FINNEY: My take on that - I mean, you know, there was a lot of conversation of what was happening with Black men in particular. He - that is where he really increased this margin to 18%. And I think that's something we'll need to look at as a party and as a country. I think there were - I will also say - and I - you know, we will find out more about this as things unfold. They are a group that was once again, as we saw in 2016, heavily targeted with misinformation and disinformation. I heard many on the radio saying things like you're going to, you know, legislate feminism, having no idea what something like that would come from. So I think we have to look at that.

But we also have to look at what their concerns were and whether or not we do a good enough job reaching people where they are and having a conversation about the issues they care about. Obviously, in this campaign, I did a bunch of work for the Congressional Black Caucus and the DCCC. And combating racism, criminal justice reform and policing reforms were two of the top issues. And in some instances, voters weren't aware, frankly, of the work that was already being done. And so I think we have to ask ourselves - we have a structural problem as well as, you know, making sure that people know the work that is being done.

MARTIN: A'shanti, your organization is specifically focused on getting more women elected, specifically more progressive women elected. How did things go for you?

GHOLAR: We had a really good night despite everything. The first thing I have to say is kudos to all of these candidates who ran and won in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, where you had to learn how to shift your campaign. We had almost 700 Emerge alums on the ballot. Over 300 of them have won their races. We're still waiting for many of them to be called. But we are still celebrating the fact that we saw first Indigenous women elected, first Latina women elected, first Muslim women elected. And it's exciting to see the energy after.

Even though we know we just saw the presidential election call today, we saw an increase in women reaching out to us, saying that they want to run for office because they are seeing more women like them who are being elected. But, also, they're seeing what Senator Harris - now Vice President-elect Harris - was able to accomplish and that there is a path for women to higher office, with Vice President-elect Harris starting off as DA, then attorney general and now senator. It was a good night for women across the country as well.

MARTIN: And I want to point out that your organization focuses not just on kind of the high-profile races but also sort of on the down-ballot races. And I think that's important to point out. I mean, states attorneys, state representatives, things of that sort. But I have to point out - House Republicans managed to double the number of women in the House. Six of the eight candidates who flipped seats from Democrat to Republican were women, and many of them tied themselves very closely to President Trump. So, A'shanti, I'm going to ask you - what do you think about that?

GHOLAR: This was to be expected. We know that Republican women did not have a good night election night in 2018, and many of them were going to want to run for these seats again because they knew they could win with Donald Trump being on the ballot. Not all women are a monolith. There are women who are fine with what Donald Trump does, what he stands for, what he says. So I'm not surprised to see the increase at all. But was it a blowout for Republican women? No, it wasn't. You still saw lots of Democratic women elected.

And even when we're looking at the Democratic Party as a whole, when you ask voters of the Democratic Party who do you really think shares your values, who are the leaders of the Democratic Party at the state and local level, they will tell you it's Democratic women. They are the ones who are taking care of everyone. We always say that women lead on women's issues. True but I also disagree with that because women's issues are community issues. Those are family issues. And throughout the pandemic - the pandemics with COVID and racial injustice, it's been women who have been at the forefront of leading and passing good policy over the past few months. So Democratic women - we're the MVPs.

MARTIN: Right. All right. So we were talking about - I was talking a minute ago about flipping seats. David Sirota, I'm going to go to you because I know that one of the criticisms you had throughout the fall campaign - and you are not shy about this - is that the Democrats put a lot of focus on flipping Republican voters, trying to attract Republican voters along with independents and certainly their traditional voters. You wrote that there were more Republican speakers at the Democratic convention than there were people from some other, you know, coveted groups.

The exit polls suggest that there were no real Republican defections other than some very famous Republican defectors, like with The Lincoln Project, who aired some really tough attention-getting ads aimed at President Trump. And you just said, look, this was - you called this whole thing a failure. You said that they, quote, "set liberals' money on fire." As briefly as you can 'cause I know you have a lot to say about this, tell me more about what you think the Democrats did wrong.

SIROTA: Well, there's two things, there's, one, the focus on trying to moderate a message in order to attract so-called Biden Republicans. That was a failure. The data shows that the better strategy is to try to pull out your own voters and voters who haven't been voting. And I do think the Democrats did a decent job of that. But the amount of money - and we're talking about tens of millions of dollars - that went into focusing on trying to appeal to a mythical Republican swing voter - the data shows that that was not a good strategy.

And I would argue is - why the election was as close as it was. I think an inanimate object should have been able to win a landslide against Donald Trump in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis. And I think the other thing that comes out in the polling data is that the Democrats paid a price for not having a very strong economic message. I mean, I do think the Biden campaign was shrewd in some of what it did, focusing on the pandemic and the like. But without having a strong economic message repeated over and over and over again, you saw an exit poll that showed Donald Trump won 82% of voters who said that the economy was their top issue.

That is a huge problem. It was a huge problem in the election. I'm certainly glad that Joe Biden won. But moving forward, if the Democrats do not have a strong populist, progressive economic message heading into 2022 and 2024, we could get something worse than Donald Trump.

MARTIN: So that's - so the question then becomes what should happen now? So, Karen Finney, I'm going to go back to you on this. What do you think should happen now?

FINNEY: Well, I don't completely agree with that diagnosis, having spent a lot of time actually talking to suburban voters as well as Black voters. We have to remember that there is a part of this country that - they believed in Donald Trump. And they believed that he was doing a good job on the economy were it not for the COVID pandemic. And, interestingly enough, they didn't separate out the two. So I think part of what we have to do going forward is certainly to make the economic argument. I mean, Joe Biden campaigned on a very progressive agenda in many ways. And I think it is incumbent on him to move as quickly as possible to make good on those promises.

I hope we pick up those two Senate seats in Georgia. I think - and, you know, I want to also give huge thanks to Black women in this election because Stacey Abrams had a - I've worked for her gubernatorial campaign. She had a 10-year plan that she put in place to help change the state of Georgia to where it is today to be so competitive, you know? And the election of Kamala Harris is a historic moment. I don't want us to lose sight of the positive that we - and the things that we gained in this election. And I think having her voice at the decision-making table is going to mean a huge difference in the way policy gets made.

I think the most important thing we have to do as a party, frankly, is I'd like to see us rebuild the 50-state strategy that Governor Dean put in place. I was there with him at the DNC to make sure that we are strong in the state parties and we are able to communicate with voters and talk about who we are as Democrats, our values, our policies. And, hopefully, you know, look, I think it is for Trump voters to decide - do you want to join and be part of the way this country is changing? It is up to you.


FINNEY: You don't have to, but we'd sure love that.

MARTIN: All right. So let's go back to David Sirota on this. You've written that - in your newsletter, recently, about the Affordable Care Act becoming a losing issue for Democrats, even though they relied heavily on it as an issue in both 2018 and 2020. So what do you think the Democrats needed to do to change their strategy on health care given that a lot of progressives really still believe, like Bernie Sanders, in the core question of single-payer and a lot of others really don't?

SIROTA: Well, I mean, the polling is pretty clear. The ACA is at best mildly, weakly supported. In Georgia, for instance, it is underwater in the latest exit polls. Much stronger in the polls that came out of the election is an expansion of allowing people to buy into government-run health care. Now you can disagree with that or agree with that on the policy merits, but that's the data.

And so I think the short-term politics of the election, of saying that the Republicans were trying to get rid of preexisting conditions - not a bad short-term strategy because the Republicans have such an extremist position. It worked in that election to a certain extent. But moving forward, this health care crisis is going to get worse. The situation on health care, where millions of people have lost their health insurance, health care premiums for those who have it has skyrocketed and health insurance profits have skyrocketed, has been a referendum on the ACA. And I think a lot of voters are saying the ACA is simply not enough. Joe Biden has campaigned on a public option. He didn't mention it all that much. And in some of the debates, he tried to limit it a little bit and sort of say it's not going to be available necessarily to everyone.

MARTIN: OK. Got to go.

SIROTA: But that's got to be - they've got to go big on that.

MARTIN: OK. Very - OK. A'shanti Gholar, what should Stacey Abrams have now given - you've got to shout out very quickly, what does Stacey Abrams do now? DNC chair, what does she do?

GHOLAR: Stacey deserves all her flowers. And Stacey should do whatever Stacey wants to do.

MARTIN: OK. That's A'shanti Gholar. She's the political director for Emerge America, a group that works to recruit and elect Democratic women to office. We also heard from Karen Finney and David Sirota, founder and editor of The Daily Poster. Thank you all so much for being with us.

SIROTA: Thank you.

FINNEY: Thanks.

GHOLAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.