Joe Biden’s narrow win and the razor-thin victories of two Democrats in Georgia highlight the new president’s biggest political problem.
How to maintain his majorities in the House and Senate in 2022 and beyond?
In truth, Biden may have won 7 million more votes than Trump. But the overwhelming majority the Democrats won in California, New York, and Illinois skewed the perception of Biden’s win being larger than it was.
The actual difference was a measly 42, 844 votes in three states — Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin. In the Senate, Georgia Senators Ossoff and Warnock each won by a little more than one point. In 2016, Senator Maggie Hassan defeated then-incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte by a little more than 1000 votes. These numbers reflect more than a divided electorate. They show just how much trouble Democrats are in.
Biden’s biggest problem is that Trump and Republicans won rural America by almost as much as Biden and the Democrats won in urban areas. Biden’s huge urban turnout gave him the presidency but what about 2022? Or 2024 and 2026?
The incoming president described himself in the primary as a ‘transition candidate’, there to defeat Trump and pass the baton to a younger generation of Democrats. To achieve this will require setting the party up for success in both the 2022 midterms — where control of the House Senate and numerous governorships are on the line — and in 2024, when it seems highly possible Biden will step aside for Kamala Harris. For a presidential politics often based on a cult of personality, whether that of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it will be interesting to see a man take the helm who is focused more on his party’s success.
It appears that the GOP is in a position to dominate midterm elections when urban turnout will likely fall. But Democrats are hardly in a position to claim ownership of the electoral college in national elections.
Presidential parties almost always lose seats in midterm elections — notable exceptions including 1998, where voters punished the Republicans for impeaching Bill Clinton and 2002, when the Republicans made gains in the wake of 9/11. Biden will do everything in his power to make 2022 one of those rare cases. His strategy is four-fold: keep turnout among liberal urban Democrats high, stop voters in affluent suburbia drifting back to the GOP, try to reconnect with small-town former Democrats in the Rust Belt and hope Republican turnout can be kept down.
Initially, Biden will have Trump who will continue to motivate his base to turn out.
The ongoing presence of Trumpism will doubtless provide ‘the resistance’ with a reason to remain heavily engaged in elections. Biden has also prepared a series of executive actions on a whole host of issues, from rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement to ending the travel ban from several Muslim nations, which serve as red meat to the liberal base. His change in style and tone, especially on fighting the pandemic, as well as the appointment of career wonks to replace the never-ending soap opera of Trump officials, will likely go down extremely well with suburban moderates.
Also key to Biden’s plan is statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. That would put 4 more Democrats in the Senate and 6 more Democratic electoral votes.
His regulatory agenda will also be fresh meat for his base. He plans to beef up enforcement of the Civil Rights Act and we’ve already seen his efforts at giving transgender people equal access to bathrooms and girls’ sports.
It’s possible that these far-left moves will energize Republicans — especially Republican women in the suburbs who deserted the GOP wholesale in November. In fact, in order to satisfy his radical base, he will almost certainly have to play identity politics to the hilt. That means a backlash may develop, especially in rural America.
So Biden is going to have to go slow on some measures that his base will be screaming for. Most of them will be disillusioned before too long. But Biden can always use Donald Trump to get them ginned up again as Trump isn’t going anywhere and will dominate the GOP for years to come.