Joe Biden
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Democrats celebrated around the nation yesterday at Biden’s landslide victory and Trump’s defeat. And well they should. Biden not only won, but won resoundingly. The Biden-Harris ticket is currently leading Trump-Pence by over 4.25 million votes. By the time all the votes are tallied across the nation, that figure will likely rise to over 5 million–a historic landslide. Biden’s electoral college margin will likely be a comfortable 306-232.

But the picture was not nearly so rosy for Democrats downballot. Millions of voters who cast their votes for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the top of the ticket remained comfortable with supporting Republican senators, representatives and state legislators farther down the ballot.

Democrats are poised to lose between seven and eleven seats in the House, failed to gain needed ground in the Senate and were unable to overturn Repubilican majorities in any state legislatures. Crucial control of the Senate will come down to two run-off elections in Georgia; even if Democrats were to win both, the chamber would hang on a 50-50 precipice. The result is all the more disappointing for Democrats who were hoping, based on both public and internal polling on both sides, to expand House majorities, gain a solid Senate majority and pick up several state legislatures.

Recriminations have predictably begun between the left and centrist factions of the party. On an internal caucus call for House Democrats, moderate members like Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) lashed out at the progressive wing of the party for supposedly costing them seats:

Party leaders had expressed certainty that Trump’s divisiveness and mishandling of the pandemic would help them expand their majority with wins in GOP-held districts — and yet they lost at least a half-dozen seats and failed to retake the Senate. The explanation laid out by centrists, according to multiple people who were on the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity, is that Republicans were easily able to paint them all as socialists and radical leftists who endorse far-left positions such as defunding the police.

On the flip side, progressives noted the successes of multiple progressive candidates in purple districts like Katie Porter, who openly supported Medicare for All while winning by more comfortable margins than many of their more cautious colleagues. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) noted in a wide-ranging interview at the New York Times:

But we also learned that progressive policies do not hurt candidates. Every single candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district kept their seat. We also know that co-sponsoring the Green New Deal was not a sinker. Mike Levin was an original co-sponsor of the legislation, and he kept his seat…

I’ve been begging the party to let me help them for two years. That’s also the damn thing of it. I’ve been trying to help. Before the election, I offered to help every single swing district Democrat with their operation. And every single one of them, but five, refused my help. And all five of the vulnerable or swing district people that I helped secured victory or are on a path to secure victory. And every single one that rejected my help is losing. And now they’re blaming us for their loss.

So I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy. And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy. This isn’t even just about winning an argument. It’s that if they keep going after the wrong thing, I mean, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.

Democrats will spend the next months and years grappling with this debate, and there is evidence for some truth to both sides.

It’s too early to know for certain, but anecdotal and exit poll data suggests that the word “socialism” and “defund the police” rhetoric may well have been detrimental to Democrats downballot. But some early evidence also suggests that Medicare for All and the Green New Deal did no damage, and may well have helped many candidates who supported those policies. There is also ample evidence for Ocasio-Cortez’ tactical points about the value of online and social media organizing over television advertising.

But the fact remains that ideological and strategic differences seemed to make very little difference in outcomes for downballot Democrats. Sara Gideon and Theresa Greenfield didn’t suffer huge and unexpected losses in Maine and Iowa because they were strident leftists (they aren’t), nor does it seem likely that running on a more leftist platform would have helped. Ideology seemed to make little difference in outcomes. Biden won, but Democrats downballot lost. If anything, Biden had negative coattails.

Unfortunately, Biden’s campaign may have a lot to do with that. The central theme of Biden’s campaign and of the Democratic National Convention was that Donald Trump is a uniquely malignant figure, that many Republican legislators would be happy to be rid of him to work with Democrats, that Biden himself is uniquely situated to work across the aisle with the opposition, and that Democrats need to come together with Republicans to compromise to solve problems.

Whether made out of conviction or political convenience, that message is explicitly tailored to give conservative-leaning voters permission to abandon Trump at the top of the ticket, but to keep voting for Republicans down the ballot. Which appears to be exactly what happened.

It’s impossible to know whether a more explicitly partisan campaign would have succeeded in delivering more victories for Democrats below the presidential ticket, or whether it would have cost Democrats the White House in addition to the lower chambers. It’s also hard to know what impact Trump’s not being on the ballot will have in future contests. It could simply be that Trump is uniquely successful in pulling much larger numbers of conservative voters to the polls than would show up for a more normal Republican–or even a less convincing emulator of Trumpism.

And, of course, it’s important to remember that this entire problem is the result of an apartheid electoral system that gives undue strength to overrepresented conservative voters due to Senate and Electoral College representation as well as gerrymandered House and legislative districts. Biden won big, Senate Democrats represent 20 million more voters than Republicans, and House Democrats retain a majority despite district lines being drawn against them. It’s not so much that any strategy failed nationally than that the system is broken, delivering unearned localized victories to conservatives who increasingly lack majoritarian national support.

Either way, though, until that system is fixed, if Democrats want to actually govern they will have to find a way to campaign successfully up and down the ballot. Not just on their fundamental decency and their ability to work with opponents, but on the superiority of their aspirational policy agenda. If not, we are likely to see many more results like this one.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.