Seth Masket: The Democratic Party & Learning from Loss
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. His academic and research interests include political polarization, state and local politics, and campaigns and elections. Professor Masket is a regular contributor to FiveThirtyEight and the Mischiefs of Faction Blog. His latest book is Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020, which explores how the Democratic Party recovered from its 2016 defeat and how the party’s emphasis on electability resulted in former Vice President Joe Biden winning the 2020 nomination.
1. What are some unexpected developments or findings you encountered about the Democratic Party while conducting research for this book?
I was impressed with how disoriented many experienced Democratic activists were coming out of 2016. They felt that all their instincts and all the tools they’d developed to tell them what was possible in American politics failed them that year.
I was also surprised how “pre-Moneyball” a lot of the discussions were. That is, the people I spoke to generally didn’t rely on a lot of hard data to tell them what would succeed or fail in a campaign. It was more like they had impressions about electability that relied on gut instinct.
2. How do you think political operatives, consultants, and the media can change the culture around assuming the winning candidate did everything right and the loser did at least one thing wrong?
In some ways, we’re moving more in that direction by embedding experiments within real campaigns to see what kinds of advertisements, canvassing efforts, etc., actually move votes. This is a great innovation and I would love to see more of it. Academics are interested in this but don’t always have the funds to be able to test these things and can’t do it in real time. Partnerships between academics, journalists, and campaign managers could be extremely helpful in giving all the relevant groups ideas about just what made an election come out as it did.
3. How should media coverage of primaries evolve after 2020?
Part of the problem is that the real story of a nomination can be kind of boring. That is, Biden was the best known candidate who had the bulk of endorsements and party money and was leading in polls all through 2019 – it wasn’t too much of a surprise that he actually won the nomination. That’s not nearly as interesting a story as all the ups and downs of the debates, the occasional gaffes and Twitter wars, and so forth.
Some of the more interesting coverage I saw was about out-group endorsements. That is, why were activists and officeholders with a long history of backing Black presidential candidates backing Biden? Why were those who tend to back women candidates backing Biden? That told an important story about where the party was heading this year.
While I think it’s great to follow conversations about the nomination on Twitter, that can also be misleading if journalists follow it too much. It’s not necessarily representative of primary voters. Even in the Democratic Party, the typical primary voter tends to be a lot older, a lot more moderate, and a lot less on-line than the typical Twitter user.
One thing I’d really caution the media about is the use of the “electability” concept. It’s a really fraught term, and it’s filled with a lot of biased and false perceptions about who other people will vote for. It also tends to assume that straight white men are more electable than other candidates, when the evidence doesn’t necessarily support that. This may be what a lot of voters believe, but that doesn’t mean the media have to augment that message.
4. In your book, you note that the Democratic party has been fractured. Has the Democratic Party “fixed” itself yet? If not, when will we know if it has?
One of the lessons the Democrats took from 2016 was that they appeared divided that year, and they were determined to not do that in 2020. They did a rather remarkable job of playing down divisions in the ranks throughout the fall campaign, but those divisions remain nonetheless, and we saw a lot of those old lines show up again in the days after the election when different factions of the party were arguing over which side was responsible for losses. Those factional lines aren’t really things one can “fix,” and it’s healthy for the party to argue about it and even fight it out in primaries, as long as they come together for the general election. That’s a model Democrats followed fairly well this year.
5. Do you think the party should be more transparent about the consequential behind-the-scenes developments that set the stage for a specific candidate to win its nomination (such as staffing moves or endorsements)?
The Democratic National Committee, in particular, was in an odd place this cycle. In many ways, it was going out of its way to not tip its hand toward any particular candidate, but many people were convinced it was biased toward one group of candidates or another. In some decisions, such as superdelegate reform, the DNC was pretty transparent about how it came to its decisions. In others, such as primary debate rules, the process was completely opaque and capricious, and decisions seemed largely to emanate directly from the chair’s office rather than from a larger party discussion. I don’t mind a party’s leaders making decisions that affect the nomination contest, but sometimes these decisions seemed more heavy-handed than they actually were. A party can be strong and still fairly transparent.
6. For Democrats running in local or state races who lose, what should they do after their loss to help set the party up for success next time?
I feel like there should be somewhat less emphasis on picking the perfect candidate and a lot more emphasis on making sure people have access to the ballot. Voter turnout organizations in places like Georgia and Arizona looked like a very smart investment for Democrats.
7. You come to the conclusion that the Democrats are “actually a stronger party than the GOP.” How long do you think this will last and what do you think will be the next election, issue, or event that causes the party to falter?
The serious divisions within the Democratic Party on issues like climate change, health care, taxation, etc. that the party largely kept under wraps during the campaign are going to come up a lot during Biden’s presidency, and Biden will need to make some decisions about staffing, budgets, and policy that will invariably disappoint some people. There’s a good chance we’ll see a lot of progressive vs. establishment congressional primaries in 2022. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it has the potential to make the party look more divided and generate some bad blood among the various factions.
What’s more, Biden will take over in perhaps the worst moment of the Covid pandemic, and even if the latest vaccine succeeds, it will be a while before we’re out of the woods and before the economy recovers. No one will blame these conditions on Biden right away, but after a while in office they will be seen as his problems.
What are your tips for staying grounded during a chaotic primary (or general election)?
Who are governors and members of Congress endorsing? Who are people who regularly donate to the party donating to? These are still pretty good indicators of who is likely to become the nominee. How good a public speaker or debater someone is really isn’t a great indicator.
One thing I found helpful in my study was asking people who they don’t want to see nominated. There were a few polls out in the field asking similar questions. Bernie Sanders always had an enthusiastic group of supporters but also had a lot of detractors within the party, which suggested to me that he was very unlikely to become the nominee, even though it looked possible for a while.
How do you think the fracturing of the party will be affected by our new COVID reality?
I don’t have much evidence for it yet, but it’s my impression that the Covid pandemic, erupting in the U.S. in March of 2020, cut short the Democratic presidential nomination contest somewhat. Sanders might have been more inclined to mount a lengthy insurgent campaign like he did in 2016 if not for a new environment that precluded rallies and put his health and that of his supporters in jeopardy. It also created a lot of uncertainty about the nomination that made Democrats more likely to close ranks early.
What are some books, podcasts, or other resources you find particularly enlightening when it comes to understanding the Democratic party?
I always recommend Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, which is an amazing look at the 1988 election cycle. Remarkably, it still tells us a lot about Biden. I’m also a big fan of political scientist Byron Shafer’s book Quiet Revolution, which follows the reforms to the Democratic Party following 1968. Strong recommendations as well for Ismail White and Chryl Laird’s recent book Steadfast Democrats, which explains the commitment of Black voters to the Democratic Party even when they disagree with it ideologically. Paul Frymer’s Uneasy Alliances has a lot to say about Democrats’ wavering commitment to Black voters over time. I’d recommend Kelly Dittmar’s Navigating Gendered Terrain for understanding how Democratic campaigns address gender.
Thank You Seth Masket for Answering Our 7 Questions.