The 2020 Deep Dive: Big City Turnout

It's critical Democrats figure out why turnout was flat in urban areas.

The toughest loss of my political career happened sixteen years ago. I was working on the reelection bid of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. We lost a close race in a tough state in an even tougher year. It wasn’t my first losing campaign, but it was the first one where I was in a position to feel real responsibility for the outcome. To make matters worse, Daschle was a great and loyal boss who had put real faith in me. He deserved better than becoming the first Senate Leader in a half century to lose re-election.

A day or so after the election, a long time Daschle aide, several decades my senior wandered into my office as I was cleaning out my desk. After some small talk and mutual lamentations, he said:

I know this was tough, but you have a lot of campaigns in your future. Take it from me, you learn more from the ones you lose than ones you win.

My reaction in the moment was to visualize punching this political veteran in the mouth, but over the years I have come to realize that he was correct. When you win a race, it’s easy — and natural — to think everything you did was correct. Losing forces a level of painful self-examination. Political parties usually conduct autopsies after losing Presidential campaigns to learn what went wrong and what needs to be fixed by the next one. Winning campaigns rarely dig deep into their messaging, spending, or tactics to learn what truly made a difference.

By any measure, 2020 was a hugely successful election — Democrats defeated Trump and have a shot to take control of the Senate. But further down ballot the results were much more mixed. Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives, which will make President Biden’s governing task more difficult even if we take the Senate. The expectation was that Democrats would flip a number of state legislative chambers in battleground states like North Carolina, Florida and Texas — reversing the losses of the last decade and putting the party in a strong position for the coming redistricting fight. Instead, Democrats lost ground. The down ballot losses as well as the larger than expected losses in North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere in the Presidential race raise some questions that merit further examination for future elections.

I don’t know whether the Democratic National Committee will do an after action report of this election. That decision will most likely be made in the White House after Team Biden has settled in and the selection of the next DNC chair occurs. But I hope they do a deep dive into what worked and what didn’t so that the party is prepared for the elections to come.

Over the next several weeks, Message Box is going to explore some of the questions raised by the electoral results with deep dives into what went right and what went wrong in 2020.

Today, I am going to start with Democratic performance in urban areas.

What Happened in the Cities?

Close Election Night watchers — the folks who marvel at Kornacki and King and their magic boards — are deeply familiar with Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, Fulton and Wayne counties. These are the counties that encompass the large urban areas that typically deliver huge tranches of Democratic votes. Democrats anxiously await these results on Election Night, because they are the counties that either put our candidates over the top (Milwaukee) or break our hearts (Miami/Dade).

Many factors have been attributed to Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss four years ago, but diminished turnout in urban areas like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee is unquestionably near the top of the list . The expectation, headed into this election was that turnout would be up everywhere including in those cities. That assumption turned out to be incorrect. While turnout was up across the board in 2020, it was flat in the big cities in battleground states. As Politico put it:

In Philadelphia, Trump picked up more total votes this year than he won in 2016. In Milwaukee, the number of total ballots cast was essentially flat, and somewhat down in majority-Black wards. In Detroit, Trump found more votes in 2020 than four years ago, while Biden drew about 1,000 fewer than Clinton, according to unofficial results. And in Miami, where the shift was among the starkest, Biden carried the city by 19 percentage points — less than half of Clinton’s 40-point win.

Biden was able to succeed despite flat turnout in these Blue strongholds, because he ran up huge margins in suburban areas and performed a little better than Clinton in some rural and exurban areas. The coalition that delivered the narrow victories in the battleground states may not be something that the party can depend on in a race without Trump and Biden on the ballot. Therefore, we need to figure what happened in the cities and fix it by the next election.

Was it the Pandemic or Something Bigger?

It’s possible the flat turnout in urban areas was pandemic-related. The cities were some of the hardest hit areas. Due to the pandemic, Democrats mostly abandoned the door knocking efforts that have always been central to our get out the vote efforts. It’s also likely that we left some votes on the table because our usual efforts to register new voters were constrained by the pandemic. According to the Morning Call newspaper in Pennsylvania:

A year ago the Democrats held about 9.5% registration lead with more than 4 million registrants compared to 3.2 million Republicans. The Democratic lead as of October 19 is down to 7.8%, with over 4.2 million Democrats and about 3.5 million Republicans among the state’s 9 million registered voters.

In more normal times, Democrats usually net the most new voters out of the cities. That clearly didn’t happen this year.

The pandemic-related shift to vote by mail could also be a culprit. Cities are disproportionately filled with the voting groups that have historically been most skeptical of voting by mail. In Philadelphia and other cities with a number of universities, turnout could have been affected by college campuses being closed due to the pandemic.

While the pandemic certainly played a role, it’s also possible the flat turnout represents a concerning trend. Pre-election polling showed some warning signs with younger Black and Latino voters. A Change Research poll found a 22 percent gap in enthusiasm between white voters 18-40 and Latino of the same age. Among young Black voters, the gap was 38 points. As the Democratic Party and it’s agenda becomes more dominated by college-educated suburbanites, it is possible we might be losing our connection with some of the voters who live in America’s cities.

Disinformation could be another culprit. Black and Latino voters were targeted with unprecedented levels of disinformation designed to keep them from voting. The efforts were particularly prominent in big cities because these cities are disproportionately populated by voters of color. The disinformation efforts took the form of memes, Facebook posts, robocalls, and digital ads that pushed the idea that voting had no impact, Democrats and Republicans are the same, and false information about Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. Andre Banks, the co-founder of Win Black, an organization combatting misinformation targeted at people of color told NPR:

We are now talking about this misinformation as a part of the same trajectory as a poll tax, as a literacy test. A sustained campaign targeted at Black Americans — and often brown Americans as well — to limit our political power, to limit our ability to shape the decisions that are made in this country.

Disinformation as a Republican political strategy will almost certainly grow in the years to come, how we respond to those efforts and mitigate the impact will be crucial to future success.

Lessons from the Frontlines

While we need more data and more analysis to answer the questions raised above, there are some examples of phenomenally successful organizing to learn from as well. Joe Biden winning Georgia was a tremendous achievement, but it wouldn’t have been possible without years of organizing from Stacey Abrams, Latosha Brown, Nse Ufot and others. While turnout in Atlanta was not up significantly over 2016, the way they built sustainable political power over years through community organizing and vote registration in the face of some of the most aggressive voter suppression in the country is a model for the entire Democratic Party. I talked with Abrams about her work on a recent episode of Pod Save America and as always her comments are inspiring and brilliant.

While turnout in Philadelphia was below expectations, that was not universally true throughout the city. In the city’s 21st Ward, turnout increased by 3000 votes over 2016 and Biden received 23 percent more votes than Clinton. This was the product of a coordinated and concerted organizing strategy that involved door knocking, data, letters, and voter education. Rebecca Poyourow, one of the leaders of that effort, laid out the secret to their success in an op ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

We knew that in a pandemic, we needed to educate people on how to use Pennsylvania’s new vote-by-mail option. We started with a bunch of committee people and our friends and relatives. A fellow committee person designed a great postcard about voting by mail, and we all chipped in to print copies. In late August/early September, we hand-wrote and hand-delivered or mailed 7,000 of them to our neighbors who were registered Democrats and had not voted in the primary. Our primary source of data was VoterWeb, a voter database system similar to VAN/VoteBuilder, but tailored for Pennsylvania and geared for local committee people.

There are similar stories from around the country and there are lessons to be learned from all of them. Understanding what went wrong and what can be done about it is absolutely critical. Even though Joe Biden won the popular vote by six million votes, the margins in the battleground states were sufficiently narrow to be concerned about Democratic performance in our biggest strongholds. Just to add some urgency to the task of learning about what happened in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Miami, the three most vulnerable Republican Senate seats up in 2022 are in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida. In other words, we need to figure this out to have a chance to beat Marco Rubio and beating Marco Rubio is one hell of a motivator.