The survey data is clear: one of the biggest threats to defeating Donald Trump in the upcoming election is a Democratic enthusiasm gap. It exists, in part, because Democratic voters spent the last twelve years voting for change, and now they are exhausted after they kept getting a status quo that gratuitously kicks the face of humanity. The enthusiasm gap also exists because Joe Biden has seemed more focused on trying to court Republicans in ways that can demotivate Democratic voters.
Progressives sounding alarms about these facts are periodically depicted as seditious Russian-backed assets nefariously trying to throw the election to Trump. But many of the lefty jeremiads are more like the jeers I heard at Veterans Stadium as a childhood baseball fan.
Back then, many Phillies fans booed my favorite player Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman of all time. They booed him so incessantly that at one point he jokingly wore a wig on the field to try to hide his identity. It was heartbreaking to me as a kid, but I came to understand the boos as not so much coming from a place of nihilism, but instead coming more from a place of sadness. Philadelphia’s notoriously unforgiving fans booed because they were bummed out by the Phillies’ losses. They wanted Schmidt to do better and wanted the Phillies to win ball games.
It’s the same thing for many progressives: most of them criticize Biden not just because some of his policies are so wrong on the merits, but also because his wrongness is a clear and present danger to the effort to win the 2020 election.
A comparison of Biden’s positions and polling suggest that this danger is now very real, even though the Democratic ticket still could win.
Biden has continued to oppose Medicare for All, even as polls show the health care crisis has made that proposal even more popular.
Biden has used the wildfire season to declare that he won’t ban fracking — a move portrayed in the media as a way to court Pennsylvania voters, even though a new poll shows a majority of voters there oppose fracking.
Biden engineered a Democratic convention promoting GOP politicians as a way to try to make this “the year of the Biden Republican,” as Rahm Emanuel put it. And yet a recent CBS/YouGov poll shows Biden earning the support of just 5 percent of Republican voters and trailing Trump among independent swing voters.
The Biden-Sanders task forces produced some solid progressive economic policy recommendations, but Biden hasn’t campaigned on those proposals. Instead, his campaign publicly downplayed the recommendations, while Biden has continued to periodically echo his infamous “nothing would fundamentally change” theme by telling donors he may not actually push those policies. Now, one poll shows him underperforming among some Latino voters and another poll shows just 9 percent of his own voters say they are supporting him because of his position on issues.
A Terrifying Enthusiasm Gap
Taken together, all of this has helped create the warning lights now flashing in the latest polls.
Biden is still ahead overall, but his margin is smaller than it appears, and the race in key battleground states remains tight, even as the Trump economy craters and the Trump-intensified pandemic persists. Meanwhile, there appears to be a significant enthusiasm gap between both candidates’ voters.
Now comes the latest Fox News poll (which despite the sponsoring media outlet is widely considered a credible, high-quality survey). In that survey, Biden still leads the race, but 59 percent of Trump voters say they are enthusiastic for their candidate to win while only 43 percent of Biden voters say the same about their candidate.
Here’s the really scary part: at this time during the 2016 election cycle, this same poll showed that Hillary Clinton was actually leading Trump in those same enthusiasm metrics by a gap of 44 percent to 35 percent.
In other words, in terms of voter enthusiasm, Biden is far behind where even Clinton was.
Now sure — that may reflect the fact that Trump’s overall potential voting base is smaller than it was in 2016 and thus his total universe of voters is now only the hardest of hard core. But it is still terrifying, especially when you zoom in from the macro data as the New York Times recently did.
In its story about the swing state of Wisconsin, the paper of record reported that African-American voters in Kenosha — where a police officer repeatedly shot Jacob Blake in the back at point-blank — “had grown dispirited and cynical about the political system.”
“Let’s say I did go out and vote and I voted for Biden,” a friend of Blake’s told the Times. “That’s not going to change police brutality. It’s not going to change the way the police treat African-Americans compared to Caucasians.”
When Trump responded to the violence and protests with messages designed to fearmonger suburban voters with law-and-order messages, Biden validated the framing. Two days before the Times story, Biden’s campaign released a sixty-second television ad condemning riots.
“I want to make it absolutely clear: rioting is not protesting, looting is not protesting,” Biden says at the beginning of the ad, which ran nationally. “It’s lawlessness, plain and simple, and those who do it should be prosecuted.”
While the ad calls out Trump for fomenting violence, the goal is clear: try to motivate a few Republican swing voters, rather than energizing the much larger Democratic base.
To be sure, enthusiasm may not determine the election outcomes — an excited voter’s ballot is no less powerful than a depressed voter’s ballot, and as long as both ballots are turned in, then enthusiasm levels don’t matter. But enthusiasm tends to relate to turnout, and it could particularly determine turnout at a moment when some Americans will be required to be so psyched about the election that they are willing to venture out during a pandemic to cast their vote.
In that situation, enthusiasm probably matters a lot — which means an enthusiasm gap could be a big problem.
The Answer Is Not Vote Shaming
Some seem to think the way to solve this potential political emergency and prevent another 2016 is to engage in vote shaming.
There was actor Bradley Whitford — who played Josh Lyman in the liberal brain-rotting fantasy show The West Wing — taking to Twitter to declare “the planet and the most vulnerable among us don’t have the luxury of theoretical purity.”
The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart similarly wrote: “I’m so tired of those holier-than-thou progressives who continue to demand purity in the face of an existential threat like Trump.”
The Pod Save America bros are concerned about potential Green Party voters, and even some environmentalists are hectoring young people with demands that they avoid trying to “make a purity statement” with a third-party vote — as if their dissatisfaction is performative rather than authentic.
Tactically, this kind of vote shaming never works — it just pisses people off and further alienates them because the arguments are so dishonest.
Voters aren’t unreasonable “purists” because they are unhappy that Democrats don’t seem to be offering policies that will prevent communities from being incinerated in climate-intensified wildfires. They aren’t “holier-than-thou” by expressing dissatisfaction with a Democratic Party still propping up a for-profit health care system that threatens to quickly bankrupt people when they need medical care.
At a moment of such pain and suffering, attempting to guilt, insult, and bully voters into supporting the Democratic cause is moronic and ineffective — and worse, it is ignorant of millions of Americans’ lived reality over the last twelve years. The Democratic electorate has voted over and over and over again for change, and their party’s leaders have returned the favor with bank bailouts, record oil exports during a climate emergency, an abandonment of the labor movement, corporate-written trade policies that crush workers, and health care reform that props up insurance profits.
Who could experience the real-world consequences of that and not feel a wee bit frustrated?
Yes, wanting voters to throw Trump out of office is totally understandable — he is far more dangerous than Biden, he must be defeated, and there are plenty of constructive ways to make the case that voters should back the Democratic ticket (which I’ve said before is what I’ll be doing). But vote shaming isn’t one of them. Indeed, throwing shade at voters for feeling burned-out and unenthused is the modern-day “let them eat cake” — and the impulse to engage in as self-destructive a tactic as vote shaming evinces the dangerous ideology at work here.
Follow the Donors
You’ll notice that Democratic vote-shamers rarely complain the other way. Typically, they lament progressive pressure, but don’t lament big donors constantly demanding ideological fealty to an incrementalist corporate agenda that makes sure nothing fundamentally changes — which inevitably leads to voter disillusionment.
They celebrate efforts to policy-pander to affluent conservatives, but scoff at the notion of having to do any work to secure support from disaffected lower-income Americans who might consider sitting the election out or voting third party because they are so completely disgusted with both parties.
In this worldview, Democrats promising tax breaks to wealthy suburbanites is seen as laudable pragmatism and shrewd politics to attract affluent Republicans. By contrast, the idea of having to promise a Green New Deal to young people who see a lifetime of climate dystopia and think about voting third party — that’s seen as uncouth behavior and detestable pandering to petulant serfs who supposedly don’t deserve even minimal respect or attention. The political class tells us to pay them no mind — they are the electoral arena’s “no real person involved.”
As an election strategy, this attitude presumes that Chuck Schumer was right in 2016 when he insisted that “for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Of course, that theory has been electorally shellacked for a decade. And yet these Democratic elites adhere to it — and vote shame anyone who questions it — not because it has been successful and is the best strategy to win back Congress, expand health care, or save the planet from climate change. They cling to the hypothesis because it at least provides a rationale — however absurd — to continue running campaigns whose number-one directive is comforting the donor class.
More than even defeating Trump, satisfying the big contributors is the top priority because at least that is guaranteed to keep their checks going to Washington super PACs, consulting firms, think tanks, and advocacy groups that are the permanent full-time employment machine for the entire Democratic political class, regardless of whether that political class ever actually wins elections or materially improves the lives of voters.
As long as donor maintenance is the prime directive and the money keeps flowing, that political class will be safely insulated in their second homes in the Hamptons, still getting the big TV invites, and the fat corporate lobbying contracts even if Trump wins.
We Don’t Have the Luxury or Privilege To Watch Biden Blow It
The rest of us, though, are screwed in a second Trump term. We don’t have vacation compounds, escape pods, or endless cash reserves for the basic necessities of life — and so we do not have the luxury and privilege of staying silent while Biden’s corporate-friendly politics and nothing-will-fundamentally-change message elicits an enthusiasm gap that could blow this election.
When, for instance, Bernie Sanders politely suggested that Biden needs to amplify a stronger economic message and “do more as a campaign than just go after Trump,” that wasn’t apostasy — that was much-needed encouragement for Biden to do the most basic things to actually win the race.
When progressives criticized Biden for loading up his transition team with corporate cronies, that wasn’t some evil plot to tank the Democratic ticket — it was an effort to root out the soft corruption that has defined Democratic politics for three decades and that has contributed to voters being unenthused about the party.
When progressives wondered aloud why Biden was giving a platform to unpopular Republican politicians like John Kasich at the Democratic convention, it wasn’t some pointless temper tantrum — it was an attempt to steer Biden away from touting the GOP politicians who turn off Democratic voters and toward generating the massive Democratic turnout that will be necessary to defeat the current president.
When we spotlighted Biden’s campaign using GOP talking points and suggesting he will not follow through on his campaign promises, that wasn’t a display of purity trolling — it was a warning that such messages were not only dishonest but potentially vote-depressing. And when Team Biden then backed off, that’s not something to complain about — that’s a victory not just for better policy, but also for the campaign to defeat Trump.
That’s a different interpretation than you are probably used to seeing. After all, in our red-versus-blue, with-us-or-against-us tribalized politics, loyalty is venerated as the ultimate value. But here’s the thing: loyalty is not falling in line and shutting up while leaders coddle donors and create a dangerous voter enthusiasm gap.
That’s political suicide — and all of us who do not want to see another election-night disaster have an obligation to speak up and try to avert it before it happens.