How can such popular policies create an unpopular party?
American politics, to most of us, feels stuck in a sort of endless stasis. For as long as most of us been alive, the two parties have fought each other, moving in and out of power countless times. Now, in the last few years, this competition has gotten more heated and divisive (which is a very worrying trend, one worthy of much discussion), but, for most of us, the same cycle seems to continue. The Republicans will win a chamber of Congress one cycle, then the Democrats take it back, then the Republicans return, and on it goes.
But the two political parties have undergone some pretty dramatic changes in the last few years. The Republicans have lost their Tea Party-libertarianism and turned to a mix of populism, deregulatory market economics, and dangerous pseudo-authoritarian principles. On the other side, their main rivals, the Democrats, have seen the rise of an energized progressive wing led by the likes of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, which has created several left-wing policies ranging from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal.
But today’s Democratic Party is odd in a sense. Now, it is not odd because of its divisions between the progressive left and the establishment (such a difference exists on the right, too — between establishment types like Nikki Haley and more populist members like Josh Hawley, although their divide is less pronounced). It is not odd, either, because the party seems to be becoming more suburban, professional, and diverse, resulting in a pseudo-realignment in American politics. No, the Democratic Party is odd because it is the party whose policies are more popular than the party itself.
You might be asking: “What? I thought the point of the party was to advocate for certain policies. How can those policies be popular when the party is not?”
Well, for starters, numbers don’t lie. Democratic policies are ironically far more popular than the Democratic Party itself. Take the Affordable Care Act (ACA), for example: At the time that this article was written, more than 55% of voters said they supported the ACA, whereas, according to Nate Silver’s 538, support for generic Democratic candidates remains around 48 to 49% percent. Support for Joe Biden, the former vice president who helped pass the ACA, is only marginally better, as according to the RealClearPolitics national average, his support hovers slightly above 49%.
This result implies there is a roughly 6% gap between the popularity of the ACA and Democratic candidates — the equivalent of 8–9 million registered voters. If ideally distributed across the country, that’s enough voters to flip nearly every single swing state or propel many Democrats to Congress. This same pattern even holds on other issues like maternity leave, childcare, the minimum wage, and more, where center-left or left-wing policies are more popular than the Democrats themselves. This irony gets even worse when we look at the popularity of conservative policies, such as cutting taxes or driving up border security, which even internal Republican memos admit are unpopular.
Now, I’m not here to tell you what to believe. I’m not going to tell you which policies and parties are right and wrong — that’s for you to decide. But on the other hand, I also want to use a blunt, honest and truthful lens when analyzing our politics, because I am truly interested in how this “policy paradox” in the Democratic Party is shaping our national political environment today.
Now, right off the bat, some reasons for this discrepancy seem obvious. Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, and more have spent 20 years demonizing Democratic leadership from Nancy Pelosi to Barack Obama, painting them as unpopular coastal elites, corrupt career politicians, and more. They have not spent nearly as much time or been as successful going after Democratic policies (although they have tried) — allowing the policies to remain popular while the people advocating for them are not.
There are probably other factors too. Democratic policies like the ACA have personally benefited many people, as even Republican voters have used it for insurance coverage, giving the law a positive connotation in the public consciousness. But to be frank, this gap is more likely the cause of an issue with the entire way Democrats run campaigns, a deficit that I think has cost them in terms of voter enthusiasm and support. It is a campaign strategy that, at first seems logical, but in reality makes Democrats far more vulnerable than they should be. That flaw is this: they run on character, not policies.
Now, you maybe asking, what do I mean by "running on character?" It refers to the idea that Democrats make the individual and personal strengths of their candidates the centerpieces of their campaigns. For example, take the entire 2020 DNC. The entire show was four nights dedicated to proving why Joe Biden was a decent, kind man. It showed him as a caring and empathetic leader who can personally lead America out of crisis. We saw the train conductor with whom Biden personally spoke every day on the way to work. Dr. Jill Biden gave an incredible speech about Joe Biden as a father and husband. The four nights of the DNC, without a doubt, showcased Joe Biden to be the better person in terms of character and morals (a feat which, to be fair, can be difficult for many candidates).
But the issue with character-based campaigning in 2020 is that it fails to assume a central tenet of Trump’s campaign. Most Trump voters openly acknowledge he’s not the nicest or most moral person, but he’s a vessel for his base’s policies. Many right-leaning independents didn't vote for Trump because they think he's an angel — I've certainly met enough Trump voters who admit they dislike some of the things he says. They vote for him because they are really voting for the policies and platforms he supposedly has. After all, for all of the annoying temper tantrums on Twitter or all the daily gaffes, he claims to have the policies that conservatives love: immigration restrictions, tax cuts, a supposed "law and order" agenda, and more.
Now, I should note — much of this policymaking is a façade. These items are things Republicans have promised to do but largely failed to get done. For example, Republicans promised for eight years to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Not only did that plan fail once, but now, as they’re trying to strike down Obamacare in the courts, the Trump administration openly gave up on the “replace” part. But the facts don’t matter to them. Thanks to the power of conservative media (aka Fox News, OANN, and more), Trump can still get away claiming critical policy successes to win voter support.
This conclusion is apparent if you look at the conventions. For all its many flaws, the 2020 RNC did showcase some semblance of his policies. From Opportunity Zones to the Right to Try Act, the Trump team did try to put on a policy-focused show to highlight his achievements. After all, they were so eager to be policy-focused that they even claimed credit for passing the Veterans’ Choice Act — something Obama did! But that show, for all its falsehoods, allows them to maintain the votes of ambivalent right-leaning independents by basically saying, “hold your nose about his tweets, and we’ll pass policies you support.”
The DNC, by contrast, did not focus so much on policy. We heard a lot about what Donald Trump did wrong (on COVID, the economy, and more), which is all true, but where is the vision of Joe Biden? His policies are objectively more popular than Trump’s — he will expand the ACA, reform American childcare services, improve support for community colleges, and more. So why doesn’t he talk about these positions? Why not give a speech highlighting your policy agenda and how it will better Americans’ lives? After all, no matter how many times the Democrats say “Build Back Better,” unless Biden can conversationally explain what that means to the voters, we will all still be uncertain about what he wants for the country.
This lack of a policy focus in favor of a character-based approach is not only non-responsive to the mentality of a Trump voter, but it's a real electoral deficiency. For starters, it's far easier to assassinate character — just ask Fox News about its ridiculous claims about Biden's mental state or the stories on the Hunter Biden "scandals" they run daily. Second of all, the character-based approach means that voters who like Democratic policies literally never hear about them, which takes what could be a block of solid Democratic supporters, and at best, makes them uncertain swing voters, and at worse, lets them fall victims to Trump's bluster.
Take the issue of the economy as an example. Voters still trust Trump more than Biden on the economy — even after the incredible crisis and mass unemployment we’ve seen in the past few months. Why? Because Donald Trump campaigns heavily on a economic message, such as "bringing coal jobs back" or "fighting unfair trade deals." Even if the policies behind this message are incoherent, these economic details turn into the supposed "idea" of a policy that swing voters can remember. Joe Biden, by contrast, will tell you he is a better person — but without an explanation of an economic platform, so you don't know what he will actually do for your life. In the end, the current Democratic strategy becomes a battle of: "Do I vote for who I think is nicer? Or who will help me have more money in my pocket?" Sadly, I think we all know who would win that.
But the tragic irony of that choice is that Donald Trump definitely does not have the policies to help on the economy. Sure the stock market used to be growing, but inequalities were deepening and the risk of a recession was significant before COVID-19 struck. African-American and Latinx communities were still facing huge structural disparities in terms of socioeconomic mobility and more. Only Joe Biden realistically can make life better for the middle class, from supporting community colleges and improving social mobility to providing healthcare coverage for millions of people. He just won't tell you this. Perhaps if Joe Biden even explained his economic vision a little bit, he might be able to win over many swing voters, or at least make some right-leaning independents take a closer look at him. With polls tightening in key battleground states, any advantage Biden can get will be necessary, and perhaps a more policy-oriented campaign is a pretty useful place to start.
Even for many independents, a clear idea of the America Joe Biden is running to build would be helpful. Focusing on his popular, expansive agenda would certainly help sway many undecided voters, which could be critical in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and more. In fact, we know that this idea works because it did in the past — Democrats picked up the House running policy-focused campaigns featuring kitchen-table issues like healthcare. Plus, a positive vision gives people optimism for the future; something has fueled presidential victories since the days of FDR and Reagan.
Ironically, the best place for the Democrats to look to see a more policy-centric campaign strategy is to look within their own party — on the left. The left-wing of the Democratic Party has primarily been running a policy-focused strategy for several years, with big-ticket items like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. While the progressives have focused on the character of their key leaders, from highlighting AOC’s humble origins to Bernie’s persistence in his political beliefs, the movement has a much more policy focused-bent to it. Key progressive players, like the Sunrise Movement and the Working Families Party, are policy-focused organizations who back candidates who agree to support a very specific series of legislative priorities. Policies like the Green New Deal or a wealth tax feature very heavily in progressive candidates’ speeches, such as in Elizabeth Warren’s at her 2019 rally in New York City. In fact, many candidates only become “progressive” upon embracing these key left-wing policies, which is very different from the establishment’s willingness to embrace candidates with large political differences from the national party, such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WY).
And what has this policy focus campaigning achieved? It has rallied the progressive base to flip House seats from long-time incumbents like Elliot Engel and Dan Lipinski. It has catalyzed advocacy groups to support a once little-known Senate incumbent, helping him end the Kennedy dynasty in Massachusetts. In fact, it almost helped drive progressive support so much that it nearly gave Biden himself a run for his money in the primary. By focusing on policy, making a clear case about how they will improve Americans’ lives, they generated energy and enthusiasm that many could never have predicted.
Whether or not you agree with progressive policies themselves, it is clear that their policy-focused approach is encouraging turnout and enthusiasm in their supporters. Joe Biden could theoretically take the same idea and apply it to his own policies — swapping out “Medicare For All” with “Build Back Better,” while putting the same focus on his policies and plans to get America out of our current mess. He should provide a clear, affirmative vision for what he will do for the country, which will provide clarity for many voters. In doing so, he will give people something to vote for — a motivator of a better future that will help him drive his base to the polls and ensure victory in November.
Now, I recognize a lot of this work is easier said than done. It is certainly not easy to run a national campaign, and I am not an expert on how to do it. But for Joe Biden and the Democrats to overcome their weakness and gain a decisive victory against Trump, he should take some tips from his past and current adversaries. A policy-focused campaign might be able to rebuild popular confidence in Biden on economic issues, help him swing independents, and energize his supporters. At worst, a policy-focused campaign will at least help clarify where Biden stands on many issues, countering the Trump campaign's claims that he's a "radical socialist."
When most people vote, I believe they ask themselves one question: “Which candidate will materially improve my life?” Joe Biden has the policies to do just that. But the real question is: “Will he ever talk about them?”