The Cultural Left (Still) Puts a Ceiling on Democratic Support
The 2022 Election Changed Nothing
In September of last year I wrote:
The cultural left has managed to associate the Democratic party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the cultural left but the hard reality is that it’s an electoral liability for the Democratic party. From time to time Democratic politicians like Biden try to dissociate themselves from super-unpopular ideas like defunding the police but the voices of the cultural left within the party are still more deferred to than opposed. These voices are further amplified by Democratic-leaning media and nonprofits, as well as within the Democratic party infrastructure itself, all of which are thoroughly dominated by the cultural left. In an era when a party’s national brand increasingly defines state and even local electoral contests, Democratic candidates have a very hard time shaking these cultural left associations.
Since then we have had the 2022 election where Democrats did manage to hold off a red wave. They lost only 9 seats in the House, gained a seat in the Senate (at this point) and two governorships plus made progress in state legislatures. Have they broken through that ceiling? As the cultural left of the Democrats always maintains, is an aggressively left stance on these issues actually a feature not a bug of contemporary Democratic party practice?
Not really. That ceiling is still fully intact. Democrats lost the nationwide popular vote by 3 points (48-51), along with control of the House. Working class Democratic support declined…..again (down 9 margin points). Hispanic support declined….again (down 11 points). Black support declined….again (down 14 points). Republicans got 40 percent of the Hispanic working class House vote and 45 percent among Hispanic men. They got 19 percent among black men, According to an AARP/Fabrizio Ward/Impact Research post-election survey, Democrats did not do any better among these demographics in competitive House districts. The did however clean up in these districts among white college graduate women, carrying them by 34 points.
This does not sound like a ceiling being broken. It's more like the sound of stalemate. As several studies have shown, Trump-endorsed, MAGA-ish candidates managed to wipe out a good chunk of the expected swing toward Republicans, paying a penalty of about 5 points in their support levels relative to more conventional Republicans. On the other hand, Democrats went into the election with double digit disadvantages on immigration and the border (-24), reducing crime (-20), focusing enough on the economy (-20), valuing hard work (-15) and being patriotic (-10). Another pre-election survey by Stan Greenberg found that voters’ top worries if Democrats won full control of government were “crime and homelessness out of control in cities and police coming under attack,” followed by “the southern border being open to immigrants.”
As Greenberg noted, many Democrats have been:
[b]linded…from seeing the priorities and needs of working-class African American, Hispanic, and Asian American voters. Those were the voters who pulled back from their historic support for Democrats [in 2020]. To be honest, many assumed that battling long-standing racial inequities would be their top priority. But that assumption becomes indefensibly elitist when it turns out these voters were much more focused on the economy, corporate power, and crime….
From early 2020 onward, Democratic leaders showed no interest as far as voters could tell in addressing crime or making communities safer….. [R]esearch in the African American, Hispanic, and Asian American communities…pointed to the rising worry about crime. And they worried more about the rise in crime than the rise in police abuse. Yet Democrats throughout 2021 focused almost exclusively on the latter.
No wonder Republicans were able to pillory the Democrats on crime in 2022, including using the issue to great advantage in New York where they flipped four Democratic-held House seats. If the Democrats had held those seats they would have come within a whisker of holding the House. But Democrats, under the sway of the cultural left, persist in seeing the crime issue as little more than an excuse for racialized attacks by the right, rather than an actual concern of voters. In New York, Democrats have angrily blamed Eric Adams for their problems, because he has treated crime like a real issue and dared to suggest there might be problems with bail reform, a pet cause of the Democratic left.
Clearly, not much has changed since before the election when we were treated to articles like ”Crime is surging (in Fox News coverage)”. This when firearm homicide deaths among black men have reached highs not seen since the early 1990’s! I have termed this tendency among Democrats to resolutely disregard a real problem if conservatives are talking about it as the Fox News Fallacy. Apparently, it’s alive and well in the aftermath of the 2022 election.
Democrats should think long and hard about why, despite the GOP’s obvious and severe liabilities and its long roster of bonkers politicians and activists, they can’t do any better than the current stalemate. Consider these data from the AP/NORC VoteCast survey:
Too tolerant of extremist groups?
Democratic party, yes: 53 percent; Republican party, yes: 53 percent
Talks about politics in a way that is leading to acts of violence?
Democrats, yes: 54 percent; Republicans, yes: 56 percent
Favorable toward Joe Biden: 41 percent; favorable toward Donald Trump: 44 percent
Favorable toward Democratic party: 42 percent; favorable toward Republican party: 47 percent
How often do what’s right for the country?
Democratic party, all/most of time: 41 percent; Republican party, all/most of the time: 41 percent
These data clearly indicate that the Democratic party brand is still pretty terrible and doesn’t appear to have much of an advantage over its rivals. That ceiling on Democratic support remains.
Can the Democrats break through that ceiling? Another survey by Greenberg, conducted on election day, provides some insight. His survey, besides confirming the Democrats’ dreadful image in the areas enumerated above, had a very interesting finding on the crime issue. The survey found that the Democrats’ most powerful message on this currently damaging issue for them is:
Too many in my party thought it was not okay to talk about the growing violent crime problem in our community. They focused only on the police. From day one, we needed to rush more police, not defund in any way. Get criminals into jail. They weren't listening to you. There are less than 5 members in the House who are for defunding. Five. They are extreme and don't speak for the Democratic Party. The Democrats in the Congress are mainstream, and they voted to fund the Capitol police, ICE, and to increase the number of first responders in your communities.
Notice the forthright willingness to draw lines against those in their own party who espouse extreme, unpopular positions. This approach could easily be applied to other difficult issues where the Democrats’ cultural left is damaging the party’s brand and alienating normie voters: immigration, race essentialism, gender ideology, school curricula, even climate. There’s a world of possibilities here should the Democrats have the guts to try them and dump the Fox News Fallacy once and for all. If not, today’s unpleasant stalemate will likely continue.