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Democrats Have Five Tipping Points

They will determine if Biden wins or loses, and what happens to the Senate.
August 18, 2020
Democrats Have Five Tipping Points
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The building blocks, in terms of events intersecting with polling trends, are in place for the Biden-Harris ticket to decisively defeat the Trump-Pence ticket, both in the popular vote and in the Electoral College. 

Polling data has consistently favored Biden over Trump since the first theoretical matchup polls were taken. Today, at the start of the two-week convention period, the RealClear Politics average puts Biden up by 6.9 percent nationally and by 4.3 percent in the battleground states (with clear Biden leads in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin). These leads are not so prohibitive as to be irreversible.

FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages shows Trump’s job approval rating stuck at 41.9 percent and his disapproval rating at 54.6 percent. The milestone for polling will be the week after Labor Day. By then we can glean how voters see the economy following the August jobs data is reported, how they rate Trump’s management of the pandemic after the schools in the South have been reopened for weeks, and the reaction to the conventions. All of this will start to settle in with voters by the week after Labor Day. 

There are three tests which will determine if the Democrats have the discipline to win.

First, do the Democrats emerge united from their convention? The initial reaction to Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate should fill the Democrats with hope.

Trump’s, nasty reaction to Harris has ensured visceral and enthusiastic support from black as well as South Asian women and probably an approving nod from college-educated suburban white women. Moreover, Trump’s attempt to portray Harris as not eligible to be president has muted grumbling about from the progressive left, which views Harris as too moderate.

So unless something unexpected goes very wrong, the Democrats should come out of their convention quite unified as a party. 

The second test focuses on race and ideology. The Democrats lost three presidential races they should have won by foundering upon the intersecting vectors of race and ideology: 1968, 2000, and 2016.

In 1968, Humphrey, after the disastrous riots at the Chicago convention, was caught between Wallace’s racist thrust to his right flank—not only in the South but throughout the industrial North, which was chock full of blue collar manufacturing based union voters—and the desertion of young voters—both black and white—who had gotten clean for Gene.

Humphrey’s campaign had to fight a two front war to try to claw back union voters in the North from Wallace and anti-War and younger black voters along both coasts and in the Midwest. The AFL-CIO, led by Secretary Treasurer Lane Kirkland, helped Humphrey drive down Wallace’s support among union households up North, but the non-voting on the left was never quite overcome.

Humphrey staged a late comeback, but fell short by 500,000 votes in the popular vote (Nixon got 43.4 percent, Humphrey 42.7 percent and Wallace at 13.5 percent) allowing Nixon to carry the Electoral College 301-191 (with Wallace getting 46 electoral votes from the Deep South). Nixon’s Electoral College majority was due to Humphrey losing four key northern states: Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Delaware then totaling 67 electoral votes.

In 2000, Ralph Nader’s third party candidacy not only sapped Al Gore of energy and enthusiasm on his left flank, but cost him Florida in the Electoral College, negating Gore’s 500,000 popular vote margin.

Then in 2016, the combination of Jill Stein’s vote and a drop in the participation rate of black voters (from 66 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016) swung Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Which opened the door to Trump’s inside straight in the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote by 3 million votes.

So will the progressive wing of the Democratic party march enthusiastically behind the Biden-Harris ticket? Securing that enthusiasm is a two-way street. Biden has been smart to reach out to progressive leaders on the platform, but progressive voters have a choice. Do they want to follow the model of 1968, 2000, and 2016 and let their differences with Biden open a door currently closing on Trump’s re-election prospects? Or do they want to advance their ideas from an alliance within a Biden-Harris administration?

Progressives and Biden puting unity on most things over differences on some things is a predicate for victory.

The third test of Democratic discipline is straight political arithmetic. There are five clear tipping points for a Democratic win. If the Democrats reach three of these five tipping points they will win the presidency and hold the House. If they hit or exceed more than three of them, they are likely to take control of the Senate.

If, however, they hit only only one or two of these spots, then Trump is likely to win reelection.

(1) Win 43 percent of the white vote. To reach this number, Democrats need to carry a clear majority of college educated white men and carry over 45 percent of white women with less than a college education, in addition to splitting the senior vote of seniors, and losing white Catholics by no more than 5 percent to 7 percent.

Hitting or exceeding those targets means Democrats can absorb the loss of white Evangelicals by a landslide and a 20-point loss from non-college white men.

(2) Big minority turnout and win the minority vote by at least a 3-to-1 margin. The aggregate minority vote (black, Hispanic, Asian and multi-racial voters) needs to hit a full third of the national electorate and Biden must carry these voters by at least 3-to-1.

Since 2004 the trend line has showed a 2 percent rise in the share of the total vote cast by non-white voters every presidential cycle. If that continues to hold then the minority vote would hit 32 percent this year. It would be helpful if Democrats could energize that share up another point or two.

At the same time, Democrats should be worried about Trump’s performance. In 2016, he carried 13 percent of black men and 35 percent of middle-aged Hispanic men. Biden will have to eat into those numbers. (This is why Republicans are helping Kanye West get on the ballot in key states: they are trying to keep black male votes away from Biden, because they doubt that Trump can get back to double digits again with those voters.)

If you break the minority vote down by race, here are the targets Biden needs to hit:

  • Black vote: 93 percent
  • Hispanic vote: 72 percent (in 2016, Clinton took 67 percent while Gary Jonson took 5 percent)
  • Asian vote: Greater than 70 percent 

(3) Rebuild the Blue Wall and recapture Florida and North Carolina. The key to this mark is the total percentage of votes cast by those with some college, but not a four year degree.

Think of these folks as the kids who stayed home in 2016. In 2008, Obama carried this group by 4 percent, but in 2016, Trump carried them by 9 percent. If Biden can carry this group—which makes up a third of the electorate by 4 percent, that will be tipping point for victory.

(4) Independents. In 2008, Obama carried independents by 7 points. In 2016, Trump carried Independents by 6 points. In 2018 Democrats carried Independents by double digits. If Biden can carry independents by more than 8 percent, it will be the key to carrying states where the Democrats don’t have a registration advantage: Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Georgia, Colorado, and Arizona.)

(5) Never Trump Republicans. If Biden can keep Trump even a shade under 90 percent support from Republican voters, it would be a big deal.

How could he do it? By mining the votes of the quarter of the GOP who are self- described moderates. (The corollary to this is that Biden needs to hold at least 93 percent of Democrats.)

In 2018, Democrats were more loyal to their congressional candidates than Republicans. If that pattern repeats itself—especially in conjunction with independents breaking toward the Democrat—that could open up multiple Senate races for the Democrats. Not just Maine, Colorado, North Carolina and Arizona, but Montana, Iowa, and perhaps even South Carolina and Texas.

It would also put into play states once thought out of reach in the presidential race: Iowa, Ohio, and Texas.

To those Democrats who scoff at wasting the party’s time seeking Republican votes I would remind them to study history. It was key for Lincoln to snare free soil Democrats in 1860; for FDR to snag the support of his cousin TR’s Bull Moose Republicans in the North and West; and for JFK to get the votes of Republican Catholics. Not to mention the Reagan Democrats who created a governing coalition for Republicans for a decade.

To close on victory, Democrats will have to adjust skillfully to surprise events, yet be effective in the logistics of securing turnout amidst a pandemic.

They will have to message persuasively via virtual campaigning at the top of the ticket, at the same time they are mastering voter contact via social networking. Each of those challenges would be daunting on its own. Collectively they represent a Mount Everest-like climb. 

Because the polls have been consistently in Biden’s favor from the start, some observers may believe that a Democratic victory is already overdetermined. That is simply not true.

Defeating an incumbent president is never easy and never a sure thing. Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to be tested, multiple times, over the next three months. And if they fail these tests, Donald Trump will win.

Bruce Gyory

Bruce Gyory is a Democratic political strategist and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY-Albany.