Oct. 8, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ETCredit...Cristina Daura
President Biden’s agenda is in peril. Democrats hold a bare 50 seats in the Senate, which gives any member of their caucus the power to block anything he or she chooses, at least in the absence of Republican support. And Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are wielding that leverage ruthlessly.
But here’s the truly frightening thought for frustrated Democrats: This might be the high-water mark of power they’ll have for the next decade.
Democrats are on the precipice of an era without any hope of a governing majority. The coming year, while they still control the House, the Senate and the White House, is their last, best chance to alter course. To pass a package of democracy reforms that makes voting fairer and easier. To offer statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. To overhaul how the party talks and acts and thinks to win back the working-class voters — white and nonwhite — who have left them behind the electoral eight ball. If they fail, they will not get another chance. Not anytime soon.
That, at least, is what David Shor thinks. Shor started modeling elections in 2008, when he was a 16-year-old blogger, and he proved good at it. By 2012, he was deep inside President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, putting together the fabled “Golden Report,” which modeled the election daily. The forecast proved spookily accurate: It ultimately predicted every state but Ohio correctly and called the popular vote within one-tenth of a percentage point. Math-geek data analysts became a hot item for Democratic Party campaigns, and Shor was one of the field’s young stars, pioneering ways to survey huge numbers of Americans and experimentally test their reactions to messages and ads.
But it was a tweet that changed his career. During the protests after the killing of George Floyd, Shor, who had few followers at the time, tweeted, “Post-MLK-assassination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2 percent, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon.” Nonviolent protests, he noted, tended to help Democrats electorally. The numbers came from Omar Wasow, a political scientist who now teaches at Pomona College. But online activists responded with fury to Shor’s interjection of electoral strategy into a moment of grief and rage, and he was summarily fired by his employer, Civis Analytics, a progressive data science firm.
For Shor, cancellation, traumatic though it was, turned him into a star. His personal story became proof of his political theory: The Democratic Party was trapped in an echo chamber of Twitter activists and woke staff members. It had lost touch with the working-class voters of all races that it needs to win elections, and even progressive institutions dedicated to data analysis were refusing to face the hard facts of public opinion and electoral geography.A socially distanced arrangement for state delegates at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Freed from a job that didn’t let him speak his mind, Shor was resurrected as the Democratic data guru who refused to soften an analysis the left often didn’t want to hear. He became ubiquitous on podcasts and Twitter, where Obama posts his analyses and pundits half-jokingly refer to themselves as being “Shor-pilled.” Politico reported that Shor has “an audience in the White House and is one of the most in-demand data analysts in the country,” calling his following “the cult of Shor.” Now he is a co-founder of and the head of data science at Blue Rose Research, a progressive data science operation. “Obviously, in retrospect,” he told me, “it was positive for my career.”
At the heart of Shor’s frenzied work is the fear that Democrats are sleepwalking into catastrophe. Since 2019, he’s been building something he calls “the power simulator.” It’s a model that predicts every House and Senate and presidential race between now and 2032 to try to map out the likeliest future for American politics. He’s been obsessively running and refining these simulations over the past two years. And they keep telling him the same thing.
We’re screwed in the Senate, he said. Only he didn’t say “screwed.”
In 2022, if Senate Democrats buck history and beat Republicans by four percentage points in the midterms, which would be a startling performance, they have about a 50-50 chance of holding the majority. If they win only 51 percent of the vote, they’ll likely lose a seat — and the Senate.
But it’s 2024 when Shor’s projected Senate Götterdämmerung really strikes. To see how bad the map is for Democrats, think back to 2018, when anti-Trump fury drove record turnout and handed the House gavel back to Nancy Pelosi. Senate Democrats saw the same huge surge of voters. Nationally, they won about 18 million more votes than Senate Republicans — and they still lost two seats. If 2024 is simply a normal year, in which Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, Shor’s model projects a seven-seat loss, compared with where they are now.
Sit with that. Senate Democrats could win 51 percent of the two-party vote in the next two elections and end up with only 43 seats in the Senate. You can see Shor’s work below. We’ve built a version of his model, in which you can change the assumptions and see how they affect Democrats’ projected Senate chances in 2022 and 2024.
Let’s start by choosing an election year.
1. Will Democrats do better or worse nationwide?
Last year, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, with 52.3 percent of votes cast for the two leading candidates.
2. Will education continue predicting party support?
Republicans used to win most voters with college degrees, while Democrats had an edge among non-college voters. But that’s changed. Here, you can see how the outlook changes if the divide returns to 2012 levels or the change we have seen since then continues to grow.
3. Will race continue predicting party support?
Racial polarization is another fundamental form of polarization and one that has defied analysts’ expectations in recent years, falling slightly in 2020.
4. Will voters still split their ballots?
Voters used to routinely support one party for president and another for senator. But by 2020, ticket splitting was rare, making the Democrats’ Senate woes even worse.
Democrats will most likely capture seats, with a chance they’ll control the Senate.The “Physics” of Elections
Projection is an uncertain exercise, but that doesn’t make it useless. There is, as Shor puts it, a certain “physics” to elections. How a state votes in presidential elections is largely how it votes in midterm elections. Partisanship and demographics are uncomfortably revealing and don’t change much from year to year. None of this is inevitable or unalterable in the face of campaigns or catastrophe. But it’s somewhat predictable, and attempting a prediction can force a confrontation with reality that would otherwise go ignored until it’s too late.
This is the confrontation Shor is trying to force. The Senate’s design has long disadvantaged Democrats. That’s in part because the Senate overweights rural states and Democrats are a disproportionately urban coalition and in part because Republicans, in a bid for political advantage, added a flurry of states in 1889 and 1890 — North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming — many of which largely vote Republican to this day. But that’s been true for decades, and Democrats have held their own in the Senate. What’s changed the equation, Shor believes, are several interlocking forces.
First, educational polarization has risen sharply in recent years, particularly among white voters. Democrats are winning more college-educated white voters and fewer non-college white voters, as pollster shorthand puts it, and Donald Trump supercharged this trend. There was a time when Democrats told themselves that this was a byproduct of becoming a more diverse party, as non-college white voters tend to be more racially reactionary. Then, in 2020, Democrats lost ground among Black and Latino voters, with the sharpest drops coming among non-college voters.
I want to stop here and say I believe, as does Shor, that educational polarization is serving here as a crude measure of class polarization. We tend to think of class as driven by income, but in terms of how it’s formed and practiced in America right now, education tracks facets that paychecks miss. A high school dropout who owns a successful pest extermination company in the Houston exurbs might have an income that looks a lot like a software engineer’s at Google, while an adjunct professor’s will look more like an apprentice plumber’s. But in terms of class experience — who they know, what they believe, where they’ve lived, what they watch, who they marry and how they vote, act and protest — the software engineer is more like the adjunct professor.
Either way, the sorting that educational polarization is picking up, inexact as the term may be, puts Democrats at a particular disadvantage in the Senate, as college-educated voters cluster in and around cities while non-college voters are heavily rural. This is why Shor believes Trump was good for the Republican Party, despite its losing the popular vote in 2016, the House in 2018 and the Senate and the presidency in 2020. “Sure, maybe he underperforms the generic Republican by whatever,” Shor said. “But he’s engineered a real and perhaps persistent bias in the Electoral College, and then when you get to the Senate, it’s so much worse.” As he put it, “Donald Trump enabled Republicans to win with a minority of the vote.”
The second problem Democrats face is the sharp decline in ticket splitting — a byproduct of the nationalization of politics. As recently as 2008, the correlation between how a state voted for president and how it voted in Senate elections was about 71 percent. Close, but plenty of room for candidates to outperform their party. In 2020, it was 95.6 percent.
The days when, say, North Dakota’s Republicans would cheerfully vote for a Democrat for the Senate are long past. Just ask Heidi Heitkamp, the defeated North Dakota Democrat who’s now lobbying her former colleagues to protect the rich from paying higher taxes on inheritances. There remain exceptions to this rule — Joe Manchin being the most prominent — but they loom so large in politics because they are now so rare. From 1960 to 1990, about half of senators represented a state that voted for the other party’s nominee for president, the political scientist Lee Drutman noted. Today, there are six.
Put it all together, and the problem Democrats face is this: Educational polarization has made the Senate even more biased against Democrats than it was, and the decline in ticket splitting has made it harder for individual Democratic candidates to run ahead of their party.
Atop this analysis, Shor has built an increasingly influential theory of what the Democrats must do to avoid congressional calamity. The chain of logic is this: Democrats are on the edge of an electoral abyss. To avoid it, they need to win states that lean Republican. To do that, they need to internalize that they are not like and do not understand the voters they need to win over. Swing voters in these states are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do.
All this comes down to a simple prescription: Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff. “Traditional diversity and inclusion is super important, but polling is one of the only tools we have to step outside of ourselves and see what the median voter actually thinks,” Shor said. This theory is often short-handed as “popularism.” It doesn’t sound as if it would be particularly controversial.
It is.Popularism, Explained and Questioned
Shor’s theory of popularism, at its heart, is a critique of the professional staffers, consultants and organizers who shape the Democratic Party’s message, image and strategic choices.
“I think the core problem with the Democratic Party is that the people who run and staff the Democratic Party are much more educated and ideologically liberal and they live in cities, and ultimately our candidate pool reflects that,” he said.
Nor is Shor’s ire aimed only at the liberal wing of the party. Popularism isn’t mere moderation. One of the highest-polling policies in Shor’s research is letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices, but it’s so-called moderates, like Sinema, who are trying to strike that from the reconciliation bill. To Shor, this is lunacy.
Shor believes the party has become too unrepresentative at its elite levels to continue being representative at the mass level. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people we’ve lost are likely to be low-socioeconomic-status people,” he said. “If you look inside the Democratic Party, there are three times more moderate or conservative nonwhite people than very liberal white people, but very liberal white people are infinitely more represented. That’s morally bad, but it also means eventually they’ll leave.” The only way out of this, he said, is to “care more and cater to the preference of our low-socioeconomic-status supporters.”
The Democratic strategists and analysts who Shor said are causing the party’s problems seethe at his criticisms and the influence he has commandeered over the past few years. Among them, a few counterarguments dominate.
The first is that Shor doesn’t really show his work. There’s no comprehensive paper or experiment in which he has constructed and footnoted a full theory, in which his data can be rerun and his footnotes picked through. He sometimes refers to polling he conducted but doesn’t release the underlying numbers and cross-tabs. To be fair, that’s often because he can’t: He conducts much of his polling on behalf of clients, and they own the results. But it frustrates those trying to assess the arguments he makes publicly.
“In the data world, if you take Shor on, you face intense backlash now,” said Michael Podhorzer, the longtime political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., who’s something of a godfather in Democratic data circles. “You’re seen as less rigorous or pleading a woke case. I’m in an unusual space: I’m an older white man with access to a lot of the data, so I can say it. I feel like he’s found this weird sweet spot with the media where he never actually shows anyone the evidence for his claims. He just does interviews with reporters.”
This is somewhat unfair. Shor’s tweets and even his comments are thick with citations to political science papers and regression tables. Compared to most pundits, he is amply footnoted. But it’s true that compared to other data analysts, he’s not. Speaking mainly through tweets and interviews lets him sidestep some of the standards that others in his profession are held to. In their view, Shor has cloaked himself in the aesthetics of data, but he’s not doing the rigorous, reviewable work demanded of others in the field. Some of his most influential theories are plausible, but he has never fully laid out the evidence needed to prove them.
“In the summer, following the emergence of ‘defund the police’ as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined,” Shor said in a March interview with New York magazine. “So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.”Demonstrators in Minneapolis participating in a “defund the police” march to protest the killing of George Floyd.Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
It’s a striking argument, and it fits Shor’s broader theory of the case: Liberal Democrats were either backing or cowering before a politically toxic slogan that had taken over Twitter but was alienating them from their working-class supporters. And even though Biden publicly and repeatedly repudiated the idea, it hurt him anyway, because voters don’t distinguish between different Democrats anymore.
In the same interview, Shor said he based this theory on “extensive postelection surveys of 2020 voters” he conducted with partner organizations. He told me he couldn’t release the underlying numbers because they belonged to another group, but he sent me a table that showed the relationships between various issue positions and whether Latinos shifted their vote between 2016 and 2020, and it indicated that views on defunding the police were the strongest driver.
Other analysts, however, came to very different conclusions using more visible data sets. Robert Griffin, a research director at Democracy Fund, and Natalie Jackson, the research director of the Public Religion Research Institute, both tweeted that their polling data didn’t show Latino voters moving to Trump as a result of the Floyd protests. But it’s possible, as Shor noted in the same thread, that those polls could have had the same flaws that biased other polls toward Biden.
More work was done after the election to try to sort this out. EquisLabs produced a huge study of Latinos in the 2020 elections, conducting over 40,000 interviews with voters across 12 states. It found that Democratic policies did alienate working-class voters but that it wasn’t “defund the police” that did it. “For many who had jobs, there was a calculation to not rock the boat, a fear Biden would come in and shut down the economy,” Carlos Odio, EquisLabs’ senior vice president, told me. “That’s the baseline shift.”
EquisLabs’ research found support for other theories, too, including that some Latino voters worried that Democrats would be too soft on border security and that others feared socialism. Odio also believes that because neither campaign emphasized immigration in 2020, conservative Latinos who were repelled by Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric in 2016 felt able to vote for him in 2020. “What doesn’t come through is ‘defund the police,’” he said. “That feels like part of the elite discourse criticizing another part of the elite discourse. That was not part of the conversation happening at kitchen tables, when it mattered.”
There are other data points supporting Shor’s views. He pointed to a regression analysis by Alexander Agadjanian, a political science Ph.D. student, that used public data to show that pro-police views were unusually potent in increasing the probability that a voter would switch to Trump, though somewhat less so for Latinos than for white voters. The problem with all of this regression data, though, is that voters who switched to Trump in 2020 might have adopted his views on policing rather than switched because of his views on policing.
Having spent a lot of time trying to untangle this debate, I’d say it left me sympathetic to those who wish Shor would release more of his data and make these arguments in thicker formats. “I agree with David that ‘defund the police’ is an unfortunate slogan in a number of ways,” said Sean McElwee, a co-founder of Data for Progress and a frequent collaborator of Shor’s. “I’m a little skeptical that it was particularly devastating.” Again, the argument isn’t that Shor is wrong that “defund the police” hurt Democrats but that he hasn’t done the work to prove that he’s right. “There was never a comprehensive David Shor putting out a report showing that ‘defund the police’ cost us,” McElwee told me.
The second level of disagreement is more fundamental: Many in the Democratic data world simply disagree that policy communication holds the power Shor believes it does or that the popularity of a message is as important as he thinks it is.
“There’s no argument that saying unpopular things is better than saying popular things. My argument is it’s not close to being an important enough factor to warrant attention,” Podhorzer told me. “If the object is for Democrats to win, that’s a tertiary, at best, factor.”
The suspicion here is that Shor has come up with a class-polarized way of responding to class polarization. He’s a smart, wonky nerd who thinks about politics in terms of polling and policy, and maybe he’s projecting that onto the electorate, too. According to this line of thinking, even as he’s trying to escape his ideological biases about what voters believe, he’s replicating his biases as to how they think and act.
“It’s almost laughable to me the notion that what people think about Democrats is made out of what Democrats think,” said Anat Shenker-Osorio, the founder of the progressive firm ASO Communications and a principal on the Race-Class Narrative Project. “I wish we lived in that world. I’d probably be on vacation. But that’s not our world.”
Our world, Shenker-Osorio argued, is one in which the voters Democrats most need to reach are the ones paying the least attention. What they hear comes at the end of a long game of telephone, and they’re only half-listening even then, as their kids are yelling and the bill collectors keep calling. If you start with that model of the electorate, you end up with different recommendations. “A message is like a baton. It needs to be handed from person to person to person,” she said. “If it gets dropped, it’s not persuasive. Unless you’re testing for what the base — what I think of as the choir — is willing to sing, then you’re going to be hard-pressed to get the middle to hear that song, to get the congregation to hear that song.”
Shor’s critics argue that he’s too focused on the popularity of what Democrats say, rather than the enthusiasm it can unleash. When pressed, Podhorzer called this theory “viralism” and pointed to Trump as an example of what it can see that popularism cannot. “A lot of things Trump did were grossly unpopular but got him enormous turnout and support from the evangelical community,” Podhorzer said. “Polling is blind to that. Politics isn’t just saying a thing at people who’re evaluating it rationally. It’s about creating energy. Policy positions don’t create energy.”
Podhorzer also pointed to Biden: “He’s done much more than I thought he’d be able to do. All the things he’s doing are popular. And yet he’s underwater.”
What does create energy, Podhorzer thinks, is fear of the other side. His view is that Democrats’ best chance, even now, is to mobilize their base against Trump and everything he represents. “The challenge in 2022 is to convince people that they’re again voting on whether or not the country is going in a Trumpist direction,” he said.
This is an argument Shor is happy to have. “I think the conventional wisdom has swung too far toward believing policy isn’t important,” he said. He agrees that enthusiasm matters, but it has to be enthusiasm for a message that doesn’t alienate the undecided. “A lot of politics is about what you talk about,” he told me. You should sort your ideas, he said, by popularity. “Start at the top, and work your way down to find something that excites people. But I think that what actually happens is people sort by excitement first. And the problem is the things that are most exciting to activists and journalists are politically toxic.”
Shor showed me, as an example, a set of environmental talking points he’d tested, in which the ones that mentioned climate change performed worst. “Very liberal white people care way more about climate change than anyone else,” he said. “So when you talk about climate change, you sound like a weird, very liberal white person. This is why policy issues matter more than people realize. It’s not that voters have these very specific policy preferences. It’s that the policies you choose to talk about paints a picture of what kind of person you are.”
I should say that the polling differences here struck me as modest: The best environmental message on Shor’s list increased Biden’s approval rating by 1.7 percentage points, while the worst-performing message cut it by 0.4 points. On the other hand, a percentage point here, a percentage point there can be the difference between winning the White House and losing it.
Shor’s example speaks to the hardest questions raised by popularism. “Talk about your most popular, most energizing ideas” isn’t controversial advice. The real disagreements come on the ideas that don’t poll so well. There are a lot of issues that Democrats want to talk about that Shor thinks they’d be better off not talking about.
Hillary Clinton “lost because she raised the salience of immigration, when lots of voters in the Midwest disagreed with us on immigration,” Shor said. This is where popularism poses its most bitter choices: He and those who agree with him argue that Democrats need to try to avoid talking about race and immigration. He often brandishes a table showing that among voters who supported universal health care but opposed amnesty for unauthorized immigrants, 60 percent voted for Obama in 2012 but 41 percent voted for Clinton in 2016. That difference, he noted, was more than enough to cost her the election.
This can read as an affront to those who want to use politics to change Americans’ positions on those issues. “The job of a good message isn’t to say what’s popular but to make popular what needs to be said,” Shenker-Osorio told me.
Shor’s rejoinder to this is that the best way to make progress on race and immigration policy is for Democrats to win elections. Obama’s twin victories loom large in his thinking here, since he watched Obama’s brain trust carefully decide what to avoid and the result was the election and re-election of the country’s first Black president, to say nothing of all the policies he passed.
Shor is right about how the Obama campaign understood the electorate. David Simas, the director of opinion research on Obama’s 2012 campaign, recalled a focus group of non-college, undecided white women on immigration. It was a 90-minute discussion, and the Obama campaign made all its best arguments. Then they went around the table. Just hearing about the issue pushed the women toward Mitt Romney. The same process then played out in reverse with shipping jobs overseas. Even when all of Romney’s best arguments were made, the issue itself pushed the women toward Obama. The lesson the Obama team took from that was simple: Don’t talk about immigration.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times
“You don’t have the luxury of just sending one mobilization message that isn’t going to be heard by a whole bunch of persuadable voters,” Simas told me. “So if we make immigration the central part of a message in Wisconsin, what’s that going to do to the massive amount of non-college whites who’re much more concerned about bread-and-butter economic issues?”
This is the kind of thinking Shor thinks Democrats have largely lost. “Obama and his messaging team were very calculated and measured about that,” he said. “That’s the piece we dropped. I think it’s great to push the envelope and be ahead of history. But you want to be five years ahead of history, not 15 years.”
But one difference between 2016 and 2012 is that Romney was complicit in making economics the center of the campaign. Like Obama, he preferred to argue over tax policy and spending cuts and was plainly uncomfortable talking about immigration or race. He ran, self-consciously, as a former management consultant who would govern on behalf of America’s makers rather than its takers. Trump descended a golden escalator to call Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. What was Clinton supposed to do?
The implication of popularism is that Clinton shouldn’t have heavily engaged Trump on immigration and race, no matter the provocations. Instead, she should have stuck to a higher-polling economic message. Shor’s critics think that theory is, to put it gently, impractical. The media focuses on the points of controversy between the candidates, and Trump relentlessly weaponized the energy contained in America’s deepest divisions. Clinton talked far more about jobs and the economy than about anything else on the campaign trail, but the comments that generated the most media attention and popular energy were the ones that engaged Trump’s attacks.
But even if Clinton could have sustained Shor-level message discipline, would it have worked, or would the perception that Clinton wasn’t standing up for her voters or their ideals have left large swaths of the Democrats’ base demoralized?
“Look, he’s is right about a class and cultural divide,” Odio said. “He’s right about a liberal establishment that’s out of touch with working-class voters. He’s right that Latino and Black voters used to be insulated from polarization and now aren’t. But where he falls short is in investigating why that is. He’s really missing a race and ethnicity lens. If you fail to incorporate group identity into the analysis, you really miss why Black voters have been voting at astronomically high levels for Democrats. Why have Latinos, who are more moderate and even conservative in his analysis, been voting for Democrats? There’s a group threat that factors into their analysis. If you only talk to Latinos about immigration, you lose voters on the table. If you only talk to them about economics, you’ll arguably leave more votes on the table.”
But if there’s a narrowness to Shor’s focus, there can be a dissonance in the arguments of his critics. On the one hand, they frame this moment in politics as existential, an era in which democracy itself is teetering on the edge of calamity. And in the next breath, they treat message discipline, of any sort, as an impossible and perhaps even useless ask to make of the Democratic Party. At times, their arguments carry an air of resignation.Supporters of Hillary Clinton on election night in 2016.Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times
“I don’t think there’s a short-term solution to the predicament we’re in,” Podhorzer said. “There’s not a set of things Democrats can say that will make them popular to the extent they can start winning the Senate. I don’t think it exists.”
In a way, this is where Shor and his critics converge: They are both deeply pessimistic about the near-term chances for Democrats and thus for democracy.What Democrats Need to Understand
Models can mislead. The demographic triumphalism that Democrats felt a decade ago has vanished, as reality proved more complicated than regressions. The same may be true here, too. McElwee, for one, thinks these disasters are being projected “with more certainty than is warranted.” He noted that the Democrats’ new coalition may put them at a disadvantage in the Senate but college-educated voters are more likely to turn out in 2022. “Educational polarization could be a stabilizing force for Democrats in midterms,” he said. “I think there’s reason to believe, looking at Georgia and Nevada and California, that we now have a coalition that’s much more robust in midterms.”
Trump may also prove unique in his ability to polarize the electorate along class lines. If he doesn’t run again in 2024, will a Ron DeSantis or a Mike Pence really be able to generate the fury and fervor that Trump did in 2016 and 2020? His successors might polarize the electorate somewhat differently, just as Romney and John McCain did before him.
But no matter who Republicans nominate for president, Democrats face a terribly uphill battle in the Senate, and they don’t seem to have a plan for what to do about it. If the stakes are as dire as they appear to be and Republicans are as dangerous as Democrats say, Shor is right that they need one. Now. And any such plan will require compromises and discipline that many Democrats will loathe.
“When I first started working on the Obama campaign in 2012, I hated all the last remnants of the Clinton era,” Shor said. “When I go back now and think about the fights between the analytics team and the consultants, about 80 percent of the time, they were right. There was an old conventional wisdom to politics in the ’90s and 2000s that we all forget. We collectively unlearned those lessons over the past 12 years. We’ve told ourselves very ideologically convenient stories about how those lessons weren’t relevant — that tax phobia isn’t real or we didn’t need to worry about what conservative white people thought. And it turned out that wasn’t true. I see what I’m doing as rediscovering the ancient political wisdom of the past.”
Sometimes, when I report on a debate, I emerge with a strong view on who’s wrong. In this case, I think both sides are right. Democrats are often trapped in an echo chamber of their own making — a problem Twitter has made immeasurably worse — and they are too quick to dismiss evidence that their ideas and messages are alienating voters. The political system is stacked against them, and unless they are going to change it by adding states and reforming election laws, they need to campaign with the constant recognition that the pivotal voter is well to their right and skeptical of everything they say. On all of that, Shor is offering a warning Democrats should heed.
At the same time, I think he overstates the power of policy communication and the control Democrats have over the debates that will dominate politics. There is little Biden can do to stop Sinema from making a hash of his agenda and muddling his message, and Democrats can’t, in reality, avoid talking about race and immigration and climate change, for reasons both practical and moral. Politics is also about changing what’s possible tomorrow.
I think Shor overreads the experience he had on the Obama campaign: It’s precisely because Obama was a thrilling, historic figure that he could tailor his message so carefully. Unless Democrats can conjure up a generational political talent for every election, they’ll often have to mobilize their base in ways that might unnerve the uncertain or fight on ground that the other side has chosen. But that’s precisely when a bit more of a Shor-esque obsession with polls and skeptical voters might help them most.
To a debate full of inelegant coinages — “popularism,” “viralism” — let me, with apologies, add one more: partyism. The core problem Democrats face is that almost all politics is now national. They are one party facing electoral disaster, and they will rise or fall together. Democrats cannot escape one another, no matter how they might try.
This, to me, is the most important of Shor’s argument: He is right to insist that the Democratic Party is an institution that is composed, at the top, of a narrow group of people and that is afflicted by many of their blind spots. Whether he is right about what those blind spots are or his critics are right that he is adding some of his own is a secondary concern. For the Democratic Party to chart any course out of the peril it faces, it must first accept that in the minds of most Americans, it is a party, a singular entity. And before that party can shape what voters think, it must find a way to see itself clearly and act collectively.