The Base Mobilization Fallacy
Just mobilizing the base won’t do the trick. Persuasion of moderates and Independents in swing districts will be critical in 2022.
As President Biden’s agenda on infrastructure and family investments slowly moves forward, it’s time for Democrats to consolidate their electoral strategy ahead of the crucial 2022 midterms. Although the prognosis looks grim more than a year out—given historical midterm patterns and Democrats’ ultra slim margins in the House (and Senate)—it is not impossible for the party to hold the line against Republican incursions.
But this requires clear-eyed thinking and practical steps to advance what is needed to hold on.
It is not the time to entertain a series of politically illogical steps such as moving sharply to the left on policy or ignoring the need to appeal to working- and middle-class voters across the country—both base and persuasion voters—with an agenda focused on pandemic control, economic recovery, and culturally moderate positions closer to the values of median voters in these swing districts.
The political reality facing Democrats is stark. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) “Frontline” districts for protecting the majority include 6 seats that Donald Trump won in 2020, and 13 seats that Joe Biden won by less than 5 points. Data presented to Roll Call from the DCCC also shows that 18 frontline Democrats won their own elections by less than 5 points. And the results of reapportionment and redistricting will likely make things even worse for Democrats.
As election gurus Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik showed in May, Republicans are currently defending only 2 real toss-up seats compared to 19 for Democrats — prior to any redistricting chaos.
For Democrats to have any chance at succeeding in 2022 then, they must recognize the headwinds facing the party—plus the limited opportunities for their own gains—and adopt a coherent strategy that both appeals to core Democratic voters and potential converts in moderate-to-conservative districts.
They cannot afford to indulge the base mobilization fallacy featured in Josh Kraushaar’s latest Against the Grain column:
Democratic strategists believe the main reason why Biden, Schumer, and other rank-and-file leaders are acquiescing to the Squad is because they’re worried their own base won’t show up otherwise for next year’s midterm elections. They’re tracking the noise on social media as much as the data from their own internal polling. That concern is already cropping up in California, where low Democratic enthusiasm is making next month’s effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom uncomfortably close. It’s a factor in Virginia, where Republican engagement is a notch higher than Democrats’ intensity in a major bellwether contest in the post-Trump era, according to Democratic officials involved in the race.
Broadly speaking, it underscores a depressing dynamic in our modern politics: Narrow extremes are winning out against mainstream majorities. Just as Republicans are still held hostage to Trump’s destructive whims, Democrats are increasingly getting sucked into supporting out-of-the-mainstream policies embraced by the Squad—even when their own voters insist they want the party to move to the middle.
As politics, this makes no sense. What might mobilize support for an AOC-type Democrat on social media has absolutely nothing to do with what can actually generate support for general election Democratic candidates, particularly in competitive districts. Nor will it do to say that the tsunami of base turnout that will be unleashed by truly progressive policy positions will overcome all obstacles.
Indeed, the general result of polarizing election contests to achieve higher base turnout is more likely to hurt than help Democrats. Advocates of a base mobilization/high turnout strategy generally assume that only “their” nonvoters will show up at the polls, but none of the nonvoters from the other side will. That view is contradicted by many political science studies. Stanford political scientists Andrew Hall and Daniel Thompson, for example, studied House races between 2006 and 2014 and found that highly ideological candidates who beat moderates for a party nomination indeed increased turnout in their own party in the general election — but they increased the opposition turnout even more. (The difference was between three and eight percentage points.)
Apparently, their extreme political stances did more to turn out the other side to vote against them than to turn out their own side to vote for them. That is a sobering reminder that turnout of the base is no guarantee of electoral success.
The base mobilization fallacy and how to avoid it
To summarize, the base mobilization fallacy includes two key errors in political analysis:
1. The Democratic base is not a left-wing faction. Contrary to pundits and strategists who equate “the base” with “the left”, the Democratic base is primarily made up of normal voters who propelled Joe Biden to the nomination and led him to victory in 2020: working- and middle-class black, white, and Hispanic voters. These voters care most about tangible improvements on jobs, wages, health care, safety, and schools — and not about online culture wars or out-of-the-mainstream policy positions.
2. Base Democratic voters alone cannot win elections in moderate-to-conservative leaning districts. Persuasion of non-party members and Independents will be vital to hold, or pick-up seats given political geography and partisan trends. There simply aren’t enough Democrats in “Frontline” districts to hold the line. Democrats will need good base turnout + persuasion targets to come out ahead.
Fortunately, there is a clear and common sense alternative to the base mobilization fallacy:
3. Alternative: Democrats need a strategy, agenda, and national message that both mobilizes the actual working-class base of the party and appeals to persuadable Independents and Biden Republicans. The best way to do this is through a “pro-worker, pro-family, pro-America” agenda heavy on domestic economic policies and consensus values of individual freedom, equality, and tolerance.
The stakes are high for 2022 for President Biden and Democrats. The party can ill-afford to entertain strategies and policy moves built on misperceptions about who votes, how they think, and what they support.
The party needs to target the real base of Democrats and reach out to others if they want to buck historical trends and maintain their slim majority.