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Politics & Government

Democrats Take A Hard Look At Disappointing Losses Down Ballot

NOEL KING, HOST:

After every presidential election, the losing party generally asks itself what it did wrong, what it could have done better. Now, this year is a little different because the winning party is also reflecting. The Democrats won the White House, but they saw disappointing losses down ballot. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Democrats are trying to figure out what the voters were trying to tell them. Joe Biden won by 4 1/2 points, a 7-million vote margin and got 302 electoral votes, what Donald Trump once called a landslide. But Biden had no coattails, and that's unusual, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

CELINDA LAKE: It's pretty unique that you don't pick up down ballot when you have such a resounding success at the top of the ticket.

LIASSON: That's the big mystery of this election - why the disparity between Biden's decisive win and Democrats' disappointing down ballot performance? The simplest explanation is that many voters split their tickets. They rejected Trump but didn't embrace the Democrats. Despite years of gridlock in Washington, voters still like the checks and balance of divided government, says Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: I've talked to a number of people who said they want to send a message to Donald Trump, but they also want to send a message about what they felt like was working for them locally. They knew how to separate the national from the local in this election cycle. It did not work out as well for us.

LIASSON: A lot of the congressional districts the Democrats lost this year were districts Trump won, but that's not the whole story. Democrats also lost eight congressional districts where Biden won.

CHUCK ROCHA: So let me tell your listeners this - this is crazy.

LIASSON: That's Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, who advised Bernie Sanders during the primaries.

ROCHA: Six of those districts that we lost are majority people of color districts. These are all majority Latino, Black and Asian seats that we lost, when that used to be the backbone of what the Democratic Party was.

LIASSON: But as Rocha points out, there was one big exception - Arizona. In Arizona, Biden won the state with a big majority of Latino voters. Democrats picked up a Senate seat. They had no congressional losses, and they even picked up one seat in the state Legislature. Rocha says that's because in Arizona, Democrats did things they neglected to do in Florida or Texas.

ROCHA: I can explain that because I was out there. You need a candidate who makes a commitment to talk to our community early and often. So Joe Biden goes up there in the end of June and spends millions of dollars on Spanish-language communications and never comes off the air.

LIASSON: And, says Rocha, there were a bunch of Hispanic organizations in Arizona telling Latinos why they should be voting for Joe Biden - in Spanish.

ROCHA: TV, radio, digital, mail - robust infrastructure on the ground, with people talking to people from the community to the community, like LUCHA, like Mi Familia Vota. Arizona is one of the only states that had all three components all year long.

LIASSON: Clearly, Democrats will have to invest more time, effort and money to do better with Hispanic voters in places like Florida and Texas. But there are also other lessons. The 2020 election belied some core Democratic beliefs, like as the electorate gets more diverse, Democrats automatically do better. Not so fast, says Celinda Lake.

LAKE: They're - a lot of Democrats believe demography is destiny. And that's true and nice if you've got 50 years. But if you've got six months or 18 months, demography is not destiny yet. This is not a sea change; this is a glacial change.

LIASSON: Another bit of Democratic conventional wisdom punctured by the 2020 election - high turnout helps Democrats.

LAKE: Universally, high turnout does not help the Democrats. It depends on who's turning out.

LIASSON: Republicans, at least when Donald Trump is on the ballot, were a lot better at getting their voters out than Democrats expected. Democrats say they also need a way to fight back when Republicans brand them as dangerous socialists that want to defund the police. Only a small handful of progressive candidates were actually for defunding the police. A majority of House Democrats, along with Joe Biden, rejected that slogan. But they couldn't stop it from being weaponized against all of them, and that failure, says Chuck Rocha, is on the Democrats.

ROCHA: There's no way that that helps you. There's just such a better way to get in front of that. Like, Black men are being killed in the street by cops, and we are filming it, and we can't think of the right way to say that that has to change? It's just - it's disgusting that we would let that happen.

LIASSON: Another takeaway for Democrats - the cities and suburbs are not enough. Suburbs are the new battleground, and Democrats did do very well there. But for Democrats to achieve a true governing majority, they need a broader geographic reach. Mark Riddle is a Democratic strategist who runs the Future Majority PAC.

MARK RIDDLE: We should take a lot of lessons from how Joe Biden put together a winning coalition. And we have to expand that, particularly in more exurban and rural areas. There are parts of our country that see things differently, and we have to have a larger conversation with them in order to get more seats. And if you're looking at 2022, we're going to have to win in Wisconsin. We're going to have to win in Pennsylvania again. We're going to have to win in Michigan (laughter). It's the same battleground.

LIASSON: Although next time, Democrats will have to win those places without Donald Trump to run against. To do that, Democrats admit they need a simpler, more populist message on the economy, starting with policies that have broad bipartisan support, like infrastructure, debt-free college and a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which 61% of Florida voters just approved while Trump was winning their state by three points.

Chuck Rocha.

ROCHA: Donald Trump, he put his policy on the front of a red hat. That's how he did it. Like, we've got to get a lot more simplistic about our messaging and bring it way back down to where working-class people can understand who's with them and who's against them.

LIASSON: The key for Democrats, Rocha says, is an economic message that speaks to both noncollege white voters and to people of color. That's who Democrats say they need if they're going to build the kind of majority in Washington big enough to actually govern.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story we stated President-elect Joe Biden received 302 electoral votes in the 2020 election. He received 306 electoral votes.]

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA'S "CROSSINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 23, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story stated President-elect Joe Biden received 302 electoral votes in the 2020 election. He received 306 electoral votes.