Democrats are despondent over Tuesday’s loss in the special election for Georgia’s sixth congressional district seat. Though this part of metro Atlanta is historically Republican, the national Democratic leadership had convinced itself that voter dislike of President Trump was enough to pull normally loyal Republicans into the Democratic column. They were wrong, and until they learn the error of their ways, they will continue to lose.
Winning the sixth congressional district was always going to be an uphill climb for Democrats because of the district’s strong GOP tilt. While Trump received a much lower share of the vote there than did 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, he still beat Hillary Clinton, 48.3 percent to 46.8 percent; most of the remaining votes came from disaffected Republicans and independents who supported Libertarian Gary Johnson or wrote in other candidates, such as conservative Evan McMullin. Getting those voters to support a Democrat was a major challenge.
Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff had to do three things to win: mobilize and turn out Clinton voters; convince some Trump-voting Republicans either to back him or, more plausibly, stay home out of distaste for GOP nominee Karen Handel; and win about 60 percent of voters who had gone for Johnson or McMullin last year. Ossoff clearly accomplished his first task of motivating the Democratic base. Turnout was extraordinarily high for a special election: more than 259,000 people voted, compared with the 331,000 who voted in the presidential election. Ossoff’s 48.1 percent take was higher than Clinton’s showing. Voter apathy was not a problem for Democrats.
Ossoff clearly failed, though, to convince Trump voters to cross over or stay home. One reason Ossoff came so close to winning the district in the first round is that many Republicans, perhaps baffled by the dozen or so candidates, didn’t vote. But in the runoff, motivated by a clear choice between just two candidates and buoyed by millions of dollars in party get-out-the-vote money, GOP voters showed up: turnout in rock-ribbed Republican Cobb County was 79 percent of the proportion in November 2016, on par with turnout in DeKalb County, the bluest part of the district. Though Handel had barely made it to the runoff by winning just 20 percent of the vote in the first round, she easily consolidated her base when the choice came down to “R” or “D.”
Ossoff’s loss ultimately stemmed from his failure at the third task: persuading independents and never-Trumpers that he was the better choice. Third-party voters cast 4.9 percent of the vote in 2016, but Ossoff outperformed Clinton by only 1.3 percent. Since partisan turnout seems to have been about equal, this implies that Ossoff won by only about a quarter of the third-party supporters’ votes. Democrats hoped that he would do better, based on polls showing Trump’s low approval rating (less than 40 percent) among voters in the district. But Trump’s approval ratings were no better last November, and he still won because people who did not like either Trump or Clinton voted for him by a large margin. Apparently these mostly Republican voters remain willing to choose the Trump-backing GOP devil they know over the Democratic devil they don’t, even if they don’t like Trump himself.
This is the Democrats’ national problem in a nutshell. The Democratic mantra this year has been “resist,” a call to the barricades that energizes their base but apparently does nothing to attract more people to the cause. When Democrats are trying to win districts or states where Trump triumphed, they’re simply re-running the same failed strategy that sent Clinton down to defeat.
Rather than resist, the Democrats should desist—from overreacting to every tweet from the Oval Office and from trying to push their unmodified agenda. Whatever Democratic activists think, a majority of Americans do not want what they are selling. They may not like much of what the Republicans and Trump are offering, either, but when forced to choose, they will, however reluctantly, back the Trump-GOP synthesis over the united Democratic alternative.
One special election 18 months before the national midterms is just a data point, of course; extrapolating national trends from such a unique race as Georgia’s is unsound. But placed in the context of polls and other special elections that show the same thing—Democrats mobilizing their voters but not winning over Republicans or GOP-leaning independents in appreciable numbers—it is a warning. Unless Republican voters start to see Democrats as acceptable alternatives to their own Trump-backing party members, Democrats who hope to regain power quickly are just whistling Dixie.
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