Is the Democratic Party really just conservative?

United States

Sarah Wagner

Sarah Wagner studied political science, English and education at the University of Trier and at the University of Nebraska-Omaha on a Fulbright scholarship. Since 2015 she has been working as an education officer at the Atlantic Academy Rhineland-Palatinate. She is co-editor of the anthology "Donald Trump and Politics in the USA" published by Nomos Verlag in early 2020.

Can US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden kick Donald Trump out of office? Many social conditions and internal party preconditions appear favorable for this.

The article is updated at regular intervals.

Cheers among the supporters of the Democratic top candidate Joe Biden: After several electoral defeats in the primary campaign for the US presidency, he wins the state of South Carolina at the end of February. (& copy picture-alliance, Al Drago / CNP / AdMedia | Al Drago)

"You want a candidate who is a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama Biden Democrat. Join us!" [1] With these words, Joe Biden turned on March 2020 Super Tuesday, an important date in the Democratic Party's primary campaign, to his voters. Many had almost written off the 77-year-old former vice-president after he lost the primary elections in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, but his comeback in South Carolina and his on Super Tuesday and victories in the elections that followed cemented his status as a Democratic presidential candidate. On August 20, Joe Biden also accepted the official nomination by his party at the virtual party conference. Although the field of applicants for the Democrats was very diverse in this election cycle, the Democratic electorate opted for a familiar face. What led to this and what challenges does the party face in the 2020 election year?

The electorate

The party is increasingly elected by women, by people in cities and suburbs, by Afro-Americans, by Latinos and Latinas. But the party fights in rural areas. Their support dwindles among white men with a low level of education, but it scores points with young people, people with (higher) educational qualifications, Jews who place themselves as not believing or not at all. Within their electorate, 46% now describe themselves as liberal, a rising trend that is primarily attributable to younger and white voters. Moderate and conservative party supporters make up 39% and 14% in the party. [2] From an ideological point of view, the party is thus moving further to the left; the progressive wing of the party, which is often much noticed in the media and active on Twitter, makes according to estimates of the New York Times about 22% off. [3] The main thematic focuses are the health system, education, climate change, the MedicareSystem and the opposition to President Trump. [4] To understand why this electorate ultimately chose Joe Biden, it is helpful to look back at the previous four years.

A rollercoaster of emotions - the 2016 and 2018 elections

In 2016, the Democrats not only lost the race for the White House with Hillary Clinton, but also revealed a much wider loss of power for the party at the national and state levels. Congress and the White House were in Republican hands, but the party also suffered severe losses in state parliaments and gubernatorial elections. In particular, the narrow loss of important and secure states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania shook the party and fueled the long-smoldering internal party discussion about the future strategy: Which contents, candidates and strategies could be promising for the Democrats? In a nutshell, the main issue here was whether the party should again try to attract white voters in rural areas, due to their influence in the US electoral system, or, with a view to demographic change in the USA, to ( young) members of minority groups. And how big should the party's turn to the left, starting from the grassroots, be in this context? Based on demonstrations, neighborhood meetings and digital activism, countless groups and organizations formed with the aim of not only criticizing Donald Trump's politics, but also using the 2018 mid-term elections as a corrective. In the House of Representatives, the party was able to win a majority by winning many traditionally moderate-conservative districts. [5] The elections for the parliaments of the individual states and the gubernatorial elections were also successful for the party. In Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in particular, the capture of the governor's seats signaled an enormous surge in electoral mobilization. [6] These three states switched to the Republicans in 2016 with an extremely narrow difference in votes, even though they were generally considered blue, i.e. democratic, strongholds until then. in the Electoral College these three states have a total of 46 Electoral Votes, and thus represent an important piece of the puzzle for a victory in the presidential elections. Above all, the party's diverse field of candidates received media attention. A record number of women ran for the party in the congressional districts and in nationwide votes and won, many among them Women of Color. This not only reflects the increased mobilization of women in response to the election of Donald Trump, it also reflects the demographic changes in the Democratic electorate, within which women and above all Women of Color play an increasingly important role.

Even if many candidates from the left-progressive wing of the party stood and received intensive media coverage, it was the candidates from the moderate center who won former Republican districts and thus enabled a majority in the House of Representatives. One of the reasons for this was that the thematic focus was on the topic of health policy, which is important for the party and its electorate. Based on this experience, the main party organ of the Democrats, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), once again defined the topic of health care as central to the elections in a memo in May 2020 - be it for the presidential election or the elections for the parliaments of the federal states.

The 2020 primaries

The results of the 2018 midterm elections could not finally clarify the internal party discussion about the future programmatic and personnel orientation, which symbolized Bernie Sanders' candidacy, which was still successful at the beginning of the primaries. The initially almost confusing field of applicants thinned out after the first stages of the primary campaign, but the party only consolidated after the victory of Joe Biden in South Carolina, who won the state thanks to the great support of black voters behind him. This was done to stop Sanders and thus prevent the party from shifting too drastically to the left. In addition, Sanders, who is in coalition with the Democrats in the Senate, was considered Independent as self-described Democratic Socialist and with its more fundamental criticism of the economic, political and social structures of the USA for many within the party as not eligible for a main election.

Joe Biden alluded to this in the speech quoted at the beginning. Because the factor "eligibility" revealed itself to be essential for the democratic electorate. At the beginning of June, Biden secured the majority of the delegate votes required for his nomination. Women from the suburbs, the elderly, and Afro-Americans, clearly preferred Biden to its competitor Sanders, but above all to Biden's lead white non-college-educated voters made the party sit up and take notice. It was precisely in this segment of the electorate that Hillary Clinton found it difficult to gain a foothold in 2016. [7]

While the primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders lasted almost until the party congress in 2016, Sanders left earlier this time and assured Biden of his support. This has the advantage that Biden can focus on the main election campaign earlier than Clinton and strive for intra-party unity, which was done, for example, by integrating the Sanders camp into the development of political content for Joe Biden.

After the early retirement of his biggest competitor Bernie Sanders, the 77-year-old Democrat Joe Biden can now fully devote himself to the main election campaign. (& copy picture-alliance)

United We Stand? The party and the election campaign

Under the influence of the corona pandemic, the 2020 election campaign is also developing differently than in the previous elections, especially in terms of organization, finances, social media and of course the strategy of the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party. Even the Democratic Nomination Congress in August was affected by these developments and was held digitally from August 17-20. Joe Biden also speaks primarily digitally from his house in Delaware to the electorate and also does fundraising in this way. The Democrats are surprisingly successful in soliciting donations virtually. [8]

Joe Biden's limited reach in social media poses a challenge. While Donald Trump had 85.6 million followers on Twitter on September 1, 2020, Biden had 9 million. Meanwhile, the Democrats with the Democratic Data Exchange founded an independent, for-profit company under the direction of Howard Dean to collect, bundle and use voter data and other important information more effectively. [9] Overall, the Biden campaign is based on a loose network of supporting companies and initiatives - in contrast to the consolidated data and donation infrastructure of the Republicans.

However, the party can report its first virtual party conference as a success. There were no major technical breakdowns and the party was able to present itself as closed. [10] The Democrats' focus on defining the election as a referendum on Donald Trump also became clear.

The content mentioned at the party congress is also based on Joe Biden's political positions, which were intensively discussed and revised due to the pandemic and anti-racist protests in the USA, as well as the core of his Message: Biden is about the soul of the nation. He promises a restoration of American values ​​and norms, which he sees threatened by Trump, as well as a return to political normality. The aim is to symbolize the greatest possible contrast to the current president and his administration and crisis management. The basic question, however, is whether Biden can sufficiently motivate the electoral coalition of the Democrats with this partly nostalgic election campaign.

Whether the domestic political developments in the USA and the protests against police violence will mobilize this electorate for the Democrats cannot yet be judged. The historic election of Kamala Harris as vice presidential candidate sent out a signal to key Democratic voters, women and especially African-American women. Although Harris's voting behavior in the Senate is to be located further to the left than the reporting often suggests, progressive activists criticize the Senator's past as attorney general in California and classify her as not progressive enough. [11]

Within the party it is also discussed whether the focus of the election campaign is more on a strategy of turnout or persuasion should lie, i.e. first and foremost a mobilization of the own base should take place or the attempt to convince alternate voters of themselves. The Biden campaign, in which many alumni of the Obama campaign are involved, is based, among other things, on an aspect of Barack Obama's re-election strategy Operation Vote with the aim of mobilizing the traditional democratic electoral base. In many highly competitive states, however, both elements will matter. This also applies to the Senate races. Because even if the attention is focused on the race for the White House, 35 of the 100 Senate seats and the entire House of Representatives will also be up for election on November 3rd.

An electoral balancing act

In view of the volatile and polarized situation in the USA, forecasts are difficult. For example, did the Democrats hope in early 2020 that Impeachment by Donald Trump in the election campaign, this topic is now light years away for US voters. A pandemic, severe civil unrest, high unemployment rates and a confrontational president should give the Democrats enough points of attack against the Republicans. This is also reflected in high polls for Joe Biden earlier this summer. However, the party cannot rest on it, as the 2016 election showed.


The Current Protests - An Opportunity for the Party?

The protests against police violence and racism, which spread to all 50 states in the United States following the death of the African-American George Floyd when he was forcibly arrested in Minneapolis, pose a challenge to the Democratic Party's campaign communications. In addition to peaceful demonstrations, there are also riots and looting, which President Trump uses as a template for his own staging as a candidate for law and order. The Democratic Party, whose most loyal constituencies are Afro-Americans, has dealt with the Black Lives MatterMovement in solidarity, Joe Biden and the party leadership have distanced themselves from certain concrete political demands of the protesters. While at the activist base the call for Defund the Police, that is, a withdrawal or at least reallocation of police funding, is getting louder, Joe Biden campaigned in an opinion piece for a reform of the police system and at the same time promised a financial injection of 300 million US dollars for the police. The Democratic members of the House of Representatives, who come from conservative constituencies, also see the demand "Defund the Police" critical and fearful of their re-election. At the same time the party is trying to do this in Congress Justice in Policing Act that would reform many aspects of policing in the United States. Because the party is aware that not only the national polls for the Black Lives MatterMovement have risen sharply, but also that they cannot take the support of black voters for granted. The party must convince young black men in particular not to ignore the November election or to turn away from the Democrats.