By Mike Lux and Celinda Lake, Mike Lux Media, May 12, 2023
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Mike Lux + Celinda Lake
RE: Democrats Could Win a Trifecta in 2024
If we do the basic blocking and tackling of great field and GOTV work, and focus on executing an effective strategy for working-class voters, all the elements are in place for a big Democratic victory in 2024.
That statement will likely come as a surprise to some Democrats, as there seems to be a culture of worry in our party not borne out by the underlying political dynamics in play. We don’t intend to minimize the challenges. Every election cycle has some tough things to deal with, and obviously, the negative consequences have never been so high if we do lose. But as two strategists who were more confident than most that 2022 would be a decent election cycle for Democrats, we believe that if we focus on winning instead of worrying, we will win the 2024 election in solid fashion.
The Challenges That We Can Overcome
Let’s start with the challenges we know exist, and focus on how to overcome them:
1. The approval rating. Yes, Joe Biden’s approval rating has been in the low 40s for a long time now. But let’s note the following things:
His approval rating was in the low 40s in November of 2022, and Democrats did far better than expected and is typical for a president’s party in the midterms.
Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s approval ratings were very low early in the re-election cycle too, and they both won decisive re-election victories. Clinton’s approval rating fell as low as 42% in 1995, while Obama’s approval rating was 44% at this time in 2011.
Republicans ran hundreds of millions of dollars last year attacking Biden on inflation and crime and a host of other issues, trying to tie local Democratic candidates to him. It didn’t work particularly well as an electoral strategy, but when you are being attacked night and day, and no one is running ads on your behalf, your approval ratings tend to go down.
No national politician in America has had especially good approval ratings for a while now. Americans are in a pretty cynical mood about everyone, and every institution as well.
So how do we improve Biden’s approval ratings? By holding events all over the country telling people about the very popular policies that have been successfully put in place, and by pushing out a compelling message based on improving people’s lives.
2. The age thing. Yes, voters have some concerns about the president’s age. However, when they see the president getting things done, when they see him traveling the country, when they see him engaging the debate in the way he did in the SOTU, those fears recede. At the end of the day, voters care more about results and the agenda than about anything else.
3. The Senate map. Yes, it is a challenging map. The Democratic Party has a brand problem in rural America and with working-class voters outside of big metro areas, the “Factory Town” voters that we have done a lot of research and writing about in recent years. This makes winning states like West Virginia, Ohio, and Montana that much tougher, although those states have never been easy. But Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has a +9 approval rating (44% approve/35 disapprove), and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) currently has a 58% approval rating, and is leading in the 2024 polls, according to recent Morning Consult polling. Polls show Democratic Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-03) with a decisive lead over independent Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and a Republican challenger. All polls show these three key Democrats ahead. The Republicans have serious problems with Trump candidates and aggressive primaries shaping up. The Democrats who are up in most states for re-election have all beat the presidential numbers by 8 to 12 points.
While these challenges are real, they can be overcome, and the problems are overstated. Remember that this same tough Senate map produced a net of five Democratic pick-ups in the 2000 election, which Gore narrowly lost to Bush; six Democratic pick-ups in 2006, allowing Democrats to retake the Senate; and two more in 2012. If we have a good election year overall, we have a very good chance at Democrats holding the Senate.
There’s been a lot of hay made over all the seats Democrats have to defend in battleground states, but we had strong years in Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania last year, and strong Senate candidates running in all three states. In Arizona, we also had a strong year, winning all the big statewide races. While the Sinema dynamic complicates things, she is solidly unpopular among both Democrats and independents. Gallego is currently ahead in either a two-way or three-way race in every public poll.
In the three reddest states where there is a Democratic incumbent in the Senate, Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia, all of the incumbents have a strong and well-liked brand and have proven their ability to win over and over again in challenging circumstances.
Finally, while all the Republican held Senate seats are red in nature, there are some interesting possibilities out there. Ted Cruz (TX), Rick Scott (FL), and Josh Hawley (MO) are all pretty unpopular candidates. Cruz is facing a particularly compelling challenger in Colin Allred, a congressman and former pro football player who brought in an impressive $2 million in fundraising in the first 36 hours after announcing his candidacy. The Cruz-Allred race will undoubtedly be expensive, and will force Republicans to expend money to defend home turf that they would prefer to spend elsewhere.
4. The House map. Yes, Republicans currently hold the House, but unless Democrats do something very wrong, we are poised to take it back. There are 18 seats held by Republicans that Biden won, and in a presidential election year with higher Democratic turnout, we have a very good chance at a lot of those seats. We only need five seats to take the lead; there are more than three times that many up for grabs in crossover districts. And there are several districts that Biden didn’t win, like the Boebert seat in Colorado, where we have strong candidates and a very good chance to win.
5. Voter suppression. This, too, is a serious problem. Republicans have made it clear that they want to curb the youth vote in particular. The good news is that in big, close races where the Democrats and allied progressive groups have the resources to turn people out, we have shown the ability to still get high Democratic voter turnout and win elections. We need to prioritize GOTV and protect the vote in a big way, but as long as the resources are there, we can make it happen.
6. Worries about the economy. We don’t know where the economy is going to be heading into election season 15 months from now. There are always things to worry about in the kind of period in which we are living. The economy is complicated and worrisome, with a hundred different factors pulling in different directions.
But the fact is that the economy, despite all the hurdles, remains in solid shape. The unemployment rate is at record lows, jobs continue to be created at a steady pace (building on a record number of jobs created in the first two years of a presidency), inflation is easing. And the reason that things are good despite all these countervailing pressures is that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress chose to pass a series of bills that made a $4 trillion dollar investment in the American people, with the vast majority of the money targeted to low and middle-income working families.
Democrats have delivered on important kitchen table economics issues important to working families. That unprecedented investment is going to keep the economy moving forward. We need at every level to highlight these investments and relentlessly say that this is not good enough until the economy is thriving for everyone.
Even if there is a slowdown before the next election, Democrats can point to all they have done and all that they want to do to continue to make things better in the future; drawing a populist contrast with the terrible things the Republicans want to do in order to further enrich wealthy corporations and their billionaire owners. Just as a populist message about corporate price gouging helped stave off Republican attacks on inflation in 2022, a populist message will help us win the 2024 election despite the latest economic twists and turns.
Why the Fundamentals Favor the Democrats Again This Year
American presidential elections in this historical period tend to be competitive and hard fought. 2024 will be no different. We can take nothing for granted: we will need an all-out effort to turn out every Democratic vote and convince every swing voter in the battleground states and districts.
Having said that, despite the challenges listed above, the underlying dynamics in this race tend to favor the Democrats. Here’s why:
1. There are more Democratic voters and leaners than there are Republican voters and leaners. By every significant measure we know of, there are simply more of us than there are of them. Democrats have won the popular vote in every presidential election but one since 1992. Democrats control the Senate despite the huge advantages toward small rural states. We are in a minority in the House by a historically narrow margin, and had control the last four years, in spite of the massive edge the Republicans have had in gerrymandering. Less frequent voters, especially young people, also strongly favor Democrats. And we have done better than Republicans three election cycles in a row; even when we lost in 2016, Clinton won the popular vote by over 2 million votes. Democrats are out-performing their usual margins, and are turning out in higher numbers than usual in most of the 2023 elections so far, resulting in big wins in elections like the Wisconsin Supreme Court race.
2. The abortion issue is very powerful and Republicans are stuck on the wrong side of it. The Wisconsin Supreme Court race made it clear that the issue of whether women get to decide when to have their children is not going away, and it’s not lessening as a priority for women voters. The fight over abortion pills and draconian state measures is only going to focus more attention and energy around the issue. And for all the efforts of some Republicans to take modest steps to move to the middle rhetorically, their party is stuck on the wrong side of history and voters: their far right base is going to force them to continue embracing the anti-abortion cause. This will help with turnout and young women and unmarried women who vote very Democratically, and persuasion of swing suburban women for whom this is a decisive issue.
3. What Biden and the Democrats have accomplished with their policy successes over the last two years is going to be reinforced over and over again. Democrats will still have to keep getting their message out in a variety of ways about their accomplishments – they will not get the credit they deserve automatically – but their policy accomplishments are going to be seen by people all over the country every day for the next 17 months. Every new bridge that is built, every road that is repaired, every airport that is improved, every new silicon chip or solar factory that opens, every time people purchase lower priced insulin: every time is a chance for Democrats to remind people of what we are accomplishing for them.
4. People who vote tend to like freedom and voting. Okay, this shouldn’t be that shocking, but maybe it is to Republicans: people who vote tend to value voting and the rest of the democratic process. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the saving democracy issue helped Democrats in a big way in 2022, possibly second only to abortion rights. It should be noted that Democrats won seven out of seven secretary of state races in battleground states last year. The speech on democracy President Biden gave in Philadelphia right before Election Day was a big factor in turning the tide. And freedom — reproductive freedom, the freedom to vote, the freedom to read whatever you want to read, the freedom to build a good life for you and your family — is one of the core values of American voters.
5. Populist economics trumps culture wars. Among the key group of working-class “Factory Town” voters that Republicans and Democrats are fiercely competing for, the Democrats’ economic message blows the Republicans’ culture war message out of the water (by a margin of +10 points in our latest research). There are many winnable voters in these small to midsize former industrial counties that went to Trump because of his populist economic rhetoric – they couldn’t care less about the LGBT attacks the Republican Party is so focused on pushing today. Keep in mind as well that the working-class voters Republicans are targeting with culture war messages are actually pro-choice, pro-outlawing AR-15s, and anti-book burning. If Republicans continue to campaign mainly on culture war issues, Democrats can and should beat them with populist economics.
6. We are winning a lot more than we are losing in the most competitive battleground states. Across the eight key battleground states in next year’s presidential race, we won most of the important statewide races in 2022. The most red outlier was Georgia, where we won the crucial Senate race everyone was targeting, but lost all the other statewide races. We narrowly lost two Senate seats in North Carolina and Wisconsin. We lost two governor races in Nevada and in New Hampshire, which was never competitive with Sununu running. Every other key statewide race in the battleground states we won, including some of the most hotly contested races in the country: Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania Senate; Michigan and Wisconsin governor; Minnesota attorney general (where the successful prosecutor of George Floyd’s killers, Keith Ellison, was being savaged by police unions); and Arizona governor, Senate, attorney general, and Secretary of State, which were crucial to win because of the extreme, election denying candidates Republicans put forward.
Bringing Home a Decisive Victory in 2024
Nothing about the 2024 election will be easy. There will be challenges in abundance, some we already know about and some that will come up in the months ahead. But if we stay focused on two major tasks, we will win races up and down the ballot; we will successfully defend the Senate in spite of that tough map; we will retake the House with a solid majority; and we will win the presidency once again.
The first task is to turn out our voters in record fashion, just like we did in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Democratic voters tend to be harder to turn out than Republican voters. People of color, young people, and unmarried women have all historically been less likely to vote, and we need to make a very big investment to get their votes out. The Democratic Party and campaigns will make a big effort toward GOTV, but the entire progressive movement and progressive donor world needs to support those efforts as well.
The second task is to make a major investment in winning the hearts and minds of working-class voters. Based on the work we have done in the Factory Towns project, as well as other data we have seen, we are convinced that there is a strong, effective strategy for gaining ground with working-class voters that Democrats have been struggling to win in recent elections. A strategy based on economic populism, community building, and person-to-person organizing starting early in the election cycle will pay real dividends, and help us make significant progress with these voters, which will make victory in 2024 far more likely.
Democrats need to understand that we can win big in 2024. It will take a lot of hard work, significant financial investment, and the right strategy, but we go into this election with a lot of confidence that we have a strong chance at a Democratic trifecta.
Image Credits: Mike Lux