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An election post-mortem

Summary:
There is no shortage of explanations for Democratic losses in yesterday’s elections.  Here is my quick partial list with a few comments.  Additions welcome. Basic structural explanations: Democratic losses are a standard mid-term loss for the President’s party.  [No doubt.  Without checking, I suspect the losses were larger than normal.] Democratic losses reflect standard retrospective voting – the pandemic recovery is going poorly, the Afghan withdrawal went poorly, people blame the party of the President. [Seems like an important part of the explanation, along with standard mid-term loss.] Democratic losses reflect a standard “thermostatic” reaction to liberal policymaking by Democrats.  [Maybe, but Democrats haven’t actually

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There is no shortage of explanations for Democratic losses in yesterday’s elections.  Here is my quick partial list with a few comments.  Additions welcome.

Basic structural explanations:

Democratic losses are a standard mid-term loss for the President’s party. 

[No doubt.  Without checking, I suspect the losses were larger than normal.]

Democratic losses reflect standard retrospective voting – the pandemic recovery is going poorly, the Afghan withdrawal went poorly, people blame the party of the President.

[Seems like an important part of the explanation, along with standard mid-term loss.]

Democratic losses reflect a standard “thermostatic” reaction to liberal policymaking by Democrats. 

[Maybe, but Democrats haven’t actually done much, policy-wise.  If this is a thermostatic reaction, it’s a reaction to rhetoric/press coverage, not actual policymaking.]

Democratic losses reflect the standard unpopularity of Congress, currently controlled by Democrats, exacerbated by (take your pick) Manchin and Sinema, or the unwillingness of progressives to accept their lack of bargaining power, which led to protracted bickering and reminded people how much they dislike politics and Congress.

[Seems plausible.  Are people reacting to actual conditions/policies, or just to a sense that Congress is dysfunctional and things are out of control?]

There is a debate about whether polled dissatisfaction with “education” reflects unhappiness with pandemic school closures, or culture war concerns (“critical race theory”, trans rights, etc.).

[Both seem plausible.  Unhappiness with pandemic school closures seems like largely a retrospective voting problem, with limited relevance for Democratic strategy going forward.  The more enduring problem for Democrats is on the culture war side.  Republicans and the Republican media seem to think that race-baiting and culture war issues are good for them politically, at least with Trump out of office and revulsion at his overt racism less salient.]

There are various theories about messaging, party positioning, and press coverage:

One theory is that the party has swung too far left, especially on race and social issues (defund the policy, abolish ICE, racializing a large range of issues that do not need to be racialized).

[I think this is plausible, at least in terms of rhetoric, and to some extent in terms of policy.  This is a huge challenge for Democrats going forward, given their coalition and values.  The internecine wars have already started.]

Biden seems to have a penchant for overpromising – the pandemic is over, the Afghan government will survive, bipartisanship is possible.

One point I have not seen made is the effect of relentlessly negative press coverage of supply chain problems, shortages, and inflation.  All this could have been spun in a much more positive way (“Of course there are some problems as the rusty wheels of commerce start turning again, but shortages are signs of things coming back to life, they are green shoots.”). 

Press coverage has also been highly critical of Biden on climate policy, even though resistance to climate policy is coming mostly from Republicans.

The big picture:

In 2008, Barack Obama won a modest victory over John McCain (about 7 pts), who was trying to succeed one of the worst presidents in U.S. history (disastrous and unnecessary Iraq war, Katrina, financial crisis).

In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote, but not by much (2 pts), despite . . . being Donald Trump.

In 2020, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, but not by much (4.5 pts), despite the Covid-19 pandemic and . . . Donald Trump still being Donald Trump.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but this doesn’t look very promising for the blue team.

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