7 questions with Seth Masket

What did the 2020 election cycle tell us about the Democratic Party and how can it change?

Seth Masket is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. His academic and research interests include political polarization, state and local politics, and campaigns and elections. Professor Masket is a regular contributor to FiveThirtyEight and the Unfug of Faction blog. His most recent book is Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020, which examines how the Democratic Party recovered from its defeat in 2016 and how the party’s emphasis on eligibility led to former Vice President Joe Biden won the 2020 nomination.

1. What unexpected developments or insights did you learn about the Democratic Party while researching this book?

I was impressed by how disoriented many veteran democratic activists came out of 2016. They felt that all of their instincts and all of the tools they had developed to tell them what was possible in American politics had failed that year.

I was also surprised at how much “pre-moneyball” discussions were. That said, the people I spoke to generally didn’t rely on a lot of hard data to tell them what would succeed or fail in a campaign. It was more like having impressions of choice based on gut instinct.

2. How do you think political activists, advisors, and media can change culture, assuming the winner got everything right and the loser got at least one thing wrong?

In a way, we’re moving more in that direction by embedding experiments in real campaigns to see what types of advertisements, promotions, etc., actually move voices. This is a great innovation and I would love to see more of it. Academics are interested, but don’t always have the resources to test these things, and cannot do it in real time. Partnerships between academics, journalists and campaign managers could be extremely helpful in giving all relevant groups ideas on how an election came about.

3. How should media coverage of primaries develop after 2020?

Part of the problem is that the real story of a nomination can be a little boring. That said, Biden was the best-known candidate who had the bulk of the endorsements and party money, and was the leader in polls through 2019 – it was no big surprise that he actually won the nomination. This is nowhere near as interesting a story as all the ups and downs of debates, the occasional gaffes and Twitter wars and so on.

Some of the more interesting reports I saw were from outside of the group. That is, why did activists and public officials with a long history support supporting black presidential candidates for Biden? Why did those who support female candidates support Biden? That told an important story about where the party was going this year.

I think it’s great to follow conversations about the nomination on Twitter, but that can also be misleading when journalists follow too much. It is not necessarily representative of primary voters. Even in the Democratic Party, the typical primary voter is usually much older, much more moderate, and much less online than the typical Twitter user.

One thing that I would really warn the media about is using the concept of “choice”. It’s a really full term, and it’s full of biased and misconceptions about who other people are going to vote for. There is also a tendency that white men in particular are more eligible than other candidates when the evidence doesn’t necessarily support it. Many voters may believe this, but that doesn’t mean the media need to reinforce this message.

4. In your book, you find that the Democratic Party has been broken. Has the Democratic Party “repaired” itself yet? If not, when will we know if this is the case?

One of the lessons the Democrats learned from 2016 was that this year they appeared divided and they were determined not to do so in 2020. You have done a remarkable job throughout the fall campaign of downplaying the divisions in the ranks, but those divisions persist regardless, and we have seen many of those old lines re-emerge in the days following the election as different factions of the party above them argued which side was responsible for losses. These faction lines are not really things that can be “fixed” and it is healthy for the party to argue about and even fight them in primaries as long as they come together for the general election. It’s a model that the Democrats have followed pretty well this year.

5. Do you think the party should be more transparent about the resulting developments behind the scenes that create the conditions for a particular candidate to win their nomination (e.g. change of staff or endorsements)?

The Democratic National Committee in particular found itself in a strange place in this cycle. In many ways, it tried very hard not to aim its hand at a particular candidate, but many people believed it was aimed at one group of candidates or another. On some decisions, such as superdelegate reform, the DNC was fairly transparent about how it came to its decisions. In other cases, such as the rules of the primary debate, the process was utterly opaque and capricious, and decisions appeared to come largely from the chairman’s office rather than from a major party debate. I don’t mind if the leaders of a party make decisions that affect the nomination competition, but sometimes those decisions seemed harder than they actually were. A party can be strong and yet quite transparent.

6. What should Democrats do after defeat to prepare the party for success next time?

I think there should be a little less emphasis on choosing the perfect candidate and a lot more on making sure people have access to the ballot. Turnout organizations in places like Georgia and Arizona seemed like a very smart investment for Democrats.

7. You conclude that the Democrats “are indeed a stronger party than the GOP”. How long do you think this will take and what do you think will be the next election, issue or event that stalled the party?

The serious divisions within the Democratic Party on issues like climate change, health care, taxes, etc., which the party largely kept under wraps during the election campaign, will be common during Biden’s presidency and Biden will have to make some decisions about staff, budgets and guidelines that will invariably disappoint some people. There’s a good chance we’ll see a lot of progressive primaries in 2022 compared to the establishment in Congress. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it has the potential to make the party look more divided and to create bad blood between the different factions.

Additionally, Biden will take power at perhaps the worst possible moment of the Covid pandemic, and even if the latest vaccine is successful, it will be a while before we are out of the woods and the economy recovers. No one will immediately blame Biden for these conditions, but after a while in office they will be seen as his problems.

Bonus questions:

What are your tips for staying on the ground during a chaotic primary (or general election)?

Who are the governors and members of Congress? Who are the people who regularly donate for the party being donated to? These are still pretty good indicators of who the candidate is likely to become. How good a public speaker or debater is is really not a good indicator.

One thing I found helpful in my study was asking people who don’t want them nominated. There have been some on-site surveys asking similar questions. Bernie Sanders always had an enthusiastic group of supporters, but also many critics within the party, which suggested to me that it was very unlikely that he would become the candidate, although it seemed possible for a while.

How do you think the Party’s rupture will affect our new COVID reality?

I don’t have much evidence of this yet, but I get the impression that the Covid pandemic that broke out in the US in March 2020 cut the Democratic presidential nomination contest a bit shorter. Sanders might have been more inclined to run a long riot campaign like 2016 if a new environment had not been created that excluded rallies and put his health and that of his followers at risk. There was also great uncertainty about the nomination, which made the Democrats more likely to close their ranks early.

What books, podcasts, or other resources would you find particularly insightful when it comes to understanding the Democratic Party?

Some Great Podcasts: Democratic 2020, Getting Smarter for Great Coverage in Colorado, Iowa Starting Line, and Caucus Land for Great Coverage in Iowa.

I always recommend Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, which offers an amazing look at the 1988 election cycle. Remarkably, it still says a lot about Biden. I’m also a big fan of the political scientist Byron Shafer’s book Quiet Revolution, which follows the reforms of the Democratic Party after 1968. Strong recommendations also for Ismail White and Chryl Laird’s recent book Steadfast Democrats, which explains the commitment of black voters to the Democratic Party, even if they disagree ideologically. Paul Frmer’s Uncomfortable Alliances have a lot to say about the Democrats’ erratic commitment to black voters over time. I would recommend Kelly Dittmar’s Navigating Gendered Terrain for understanding how democratic campaigns address gender.

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