Shortly after Election Day, Sam wrote a piece entitled “Biden, McConnell, and Reasons for Optimism,” in which he laid out several reasons why Democrats should be content with the 2020 election results despite underperforming. While I agree that winning back the White House should instill some cautious optimism about the ability to undo many of the Trump administration’s actions, Democrats do have reasons to be concerned about the road ahead.
The first problem is the Senate, which will likely remain in Republican hands despite the two runoffs in Georgia. This presents numerous challenges for Joe Biden’s ability to enact any meaningful agenda items. Biden will be forced to pivot to the right with his cabinet picks, and any progressive legislation the House manages to pass will be dead on arrival at the hands of Mitch McConnell. Additionally, should Stephen Breyer choose to retire from the Supreme Court, Biden would be constrained in who he nominates to replace him.
The second problem is the House, where Democrats were expected to build on an impressive showing in 2018. But rather than bolster their existing majority, Democrats lost several seats and may end up losing a few more. Not only does this further limit the amount of wiggle room the party has to pass legislation, but it also effectively eliminates any margin for error in 2022. In all but two midterm elections since 1936, the president’s party has lost seats in the House, losing an average of 29 seats. Unfortunately for Democrats, that means Republicans may end up controlling both chambers in the final two years of Biden’s first term. Even more worrisome, with redistricting on the horizon, Republican state legislatures may give the GOP an even larger built-in advantage in the House by continuing to draw gerrymandered districts.
The third problem is the Electoral College map. Technically speaking, our reviled method of electing a president actually benefited Democrats in 2020, as Biden’s electoral vote share (56.9%) is larger than his popular vote share (50.9%). But that obscures the fact that Trump would have needed fewer than 50,000 additional votes across Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district to be reelected despite losing the popular vote by several million votes. Because the margins in these states were so close, Democrats may run into more trouble in future presidential elections. Moving forward, it may be increasingly difficult for them to hold onto the blue wall states they lost in 2016, especially without a moderate white man at the top of the ticket. And while Sun Belt states look more competitive, most of them still tilt Republican and can’t be relied on year in and year out to deliver a Democrat to victory.
The fourth problem is Donald Trump, who probably won’t go away any time soon. Even in defeat, Trump retains a viselike grip on the Republican Party and should be considered a frontrunner for the 2024 nomination if he wants it. Trump could end up spending the next four years in campaign mode, working to keep the party unified behind him. That should be especially concerning considering Democrats will have to contend with party infighting that may fracture their coalition. There’s a plausible scenario in which Biden chooses not to run for reelection, Democrats suffer through a rancorous primary battle, and the party hobbles into the general election against a well-funded Trump. A Republican-friendly electoral map and the lack of incumbency advantage could be a recipe for disaster in 2024.
I don’t mean to rain on Biden’s victory parade, nor do I think Democrats are necessarily doomed. Victories in Arizona and Georgia prove that the Sun Belt is no longer safely Republican. The increased voting power of Generation Z and non-white voters will continue to give Democrats a popular vote advantage. Republicans may have their own battle for the soul of their party if not everyone falls in line behind Trump, which would mitigate any unity benefit they’d garner from being in opposition.
However, the last four years have made me generally pessimistic about the trajectory of American politics. Republicans have proven they’ll do just about anything to hold onto power. Democrats have a messaging problem and didn’t get the harsh rebuke of Trumpism they were looking for. Meanwhile, the chasm between both sides only grows larger.