Lessons from the 2021 elections, part two

Posted on November 17, 2021

We should use election results to understand the political moment. Like opinion polls, elections are a snapshot of how voters feel at a given time. The questions, then, are why did voters feel that way and how can we use that knowledge to do better in the future?

Pundits on all sides were quick to interpret the 2021 election results as confirmation of what they already believed. Trump supporters saw it as evidence that the former president was as influential as ever. Moderate Democrats thought it was a rejection of the Democratic Party’s embrace of some progressive policies, calling for a swing “back to the center.”

But the truth is, November 2021 was a turnout election. Democrats turned out strongly, but Republicans voted like maniacs.

2017: Dem. Ralph Northam 1,409,175 vs. Repub. Ed Gillespie 1,175,731 votes
2021: Dem. Terry McAuliffe 1,597,437 vs. Repub. Glenn Youngkin 1,663,240 votes

Terry McAuliffe got more votes than any prior candidate for governor. Almost 190,000 more Virginians cast their ballots for him than for Governor Ralph Northam in 2017. But McAuliffe lost because Glenn Younkin got nearly 500,000 more votes in 2021 than Republican Ed Gillespie in 2017.

As the McAuliffe campaign pointed out: “African American turnout was up 116 percent and Latino turnout up 125 percent” in 2021 compared to 2017. But also, as we pointed out in our last column: “about 74 percent of voters were white in 2021 while only about 67 percent were white in 2020. And in 2021, only about 10 percent were aged 18-29 while nearly 70 percent were aged 45 and up. Compare that to 2020 when 20 percent were aged 18-29 and only 56 percent were 45 and up.”

Conservative constituencies were far more enthusiastic about voting in 2021.

New Jersey
2017: Dem. Phil Murphy 1,203,110 vs. Repub. Kim Guardagno 899,583 votes
2021; Dem. Phil Murphy 1,333,620 vs. Repub. Jack Ciatterelli 1,251,761 votes

Phil Murphy got 130,000 more votes in 2021 than in 2017, but Jack Ciatterelli got 350,000 more votes than the Republican nominee in 2017. Murphy’s three-point win represented a 13 point shift away from Democrats compared with the 2020 presidential race and an 11 point shift from Murphy’s first election in 2017, both overwhelmingly the result of turnout.

Other commentators have looked at the 2021 results and declared that significant numbers of rural or suburban or Latino or non-college educated whites switched sides to vote Republican. And no doubt some did. But even when we look at subgroups, it’s far more likely that rural Republicans turned out strongly while rural Democrats stayed home – rather than a lot of individuals changing sides.

How can we do better?

The bottom line is that conservatives motivated their voters and progressives, while doing better than 2017, were nowhere near as effective. That fact does not support an argument that Democrats should become more centrist. On the contrary, it suggests that Democrats must emphasize issues that get more progressives excited.

In 2021, rank-and-file Democratic voters didn’t really hear a progressive economic program. Or a progressive social program. To them, most of the energy on both sides seemed focused on right-wing attacks, from Critical Race Theory to taxes. If we want our side to get proactive at election time we need to be more proactive in our own messaging.