Opinion | Democrats Are in Peril. Can They Talk Themselves Out of It?

By Spencer Bokat-Lindell

Mr. Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor.

This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Last week my colleague Ezra Klein wrote an extended column on the work and political thought of David Shor, a pollster and progressive consultant who, according to Politico, has “an audience in the White House and is one of the most in-demand data analysts in the country.”

A prophet of the Beltway, Shor has news to share, and the news, for Democrats, is bad: The party is on the cusp of falling into a decade of powerlessness, he warns, and its best hope of avoiding such a fate is to tailor its messaging and policies to win over non-college-educated voters, especially white ones, who have defected to Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

Klein’s piece brought to a boil a debate that had been simmering for months on Twitter, a debate that poses uncomfortable questions about what the Democratic Party should stand for and how, in the face of an increasingly authoritarian opposition party, it can best prevent the erosion of U.S. democracy. Here’s what people are saying.

Are Democrats really doomed?

Since 2019, Shor’s been modeling every House, Senate and presidential race between now and 2032. Again and again, his models predict the Senate will almost certainly return to and stay in Republican hands. (You can play around with a version of his model here.)

In 2022, if Senate Democrats manage to win 51 percent of the vote, they are likely to lose a seat — and the chamber. They would have to beat Republicans by an extraordinary four percentage points to have just a 50-50 chance of holding the majority.

In 2024, Shor’s model projects that if Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, they will end up with only 43 seats in the Senate.

The Senate has always been a relatively unrepresentative body, but since the 1970s it has increasingly disadvantaged Democrats, to the extent that Republicans can hold a majority of Senate seats while representing only a minority of Americans. There are a couple of forces, in Shor’s view, that have made the Senate’s electoral math newly punishing for Democrats:

Educational polarization: In recent years, Democrats have started winning more college-educated white voters and fewer non-college white voters. Democrats have also lost ground among Latino voters and, to a smaller extent, Black voters, with the sharpest drops among those who did not attend college. Because college-educated voters cluster around cities and non-college voters are heavily rural, this trend puts Democrats at a disadvantage in the Senate.

The decline in ticket-splitting: As recently as 2008, the correlation between how a state voted for president and how it voted in Senate elections was about 71 percent. In 2020, it was 95.6 percent, which means it’s much harder now for individual Democratic Senate candidates to win in states that lean Republican.

It should be said that not everyone is quite as certain as Shor about the portent of these trends. David A. Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, writes: “There are simply too many moving parts in the parties’ coalitions and too many contingent factors influencing electoral outcomes to gain much confidence in foreseeing future developments, and even smart arguments made by smart people drawing on smart data sources can quickly fall apart when the political world changes.”

Can ‘popularism’ save the Democratic Party?

Shor argues that to avoid being locked out of power, Democrats need to start winning Senate seats in Republican-leaning states. And to do that, as Klein summarizes, “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.”

This theory, often called “popularism,” doesn’t necessarily require Democrats to tack to the right on every issue: As Eric Levitz wrote in New York magazine: “Many substantively radical ideas enjoy broad public support, while many putatively moderate ones do not. Political pragmatism is not synonymous with Beltway centrism.”

For example, letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices is the most popular policy Shor has tested, but it’s so-called moderates who are standing in the way of it becoming law. A similar dynamic has characterized the fights to pass a $15 minimum wage, raise taxes on the rich and legalize marijuana.

Where the popularist imperative ruffles progressive feathers, though, is on racial justice and immigration issues. Shor argues that broadly speaking, swing voters in states that Democrats need to win are not socially liberal and do not share the same worldview as the mostly college-educated, city-dwelling liberals who run and staff the Democratic Party.

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