Democrats Struggle to Energize Their Base as Frustrations Mount
Democrats across the party are raising alarms about sinking support among some of their most loyal voters, warning the White House and congressional leadership that they are falling short on campaign promises and leaving their base unsatisfied and unmotivated ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
President Biden has achieved some major victories, signing a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill and moving a nearly $2 trillion social policy and climate change bill through the House. But some Democrats are warning that many of the voters who put them in control of the federal government last year may see little incentive to return to the polls in the midterms — reigniting a debate over electoral strategy that has been raging within the party since 2016.
As the administration focuses on those two bills, a long list of other party priorities — expanding voting rights, enacting criminal justice reform, enshrining abortion rights, raising the federal minimum wage to $15, fixing a broken immigration system — have languished or died in Congress. Negotiations in the Senate are likely to further dilute the economic and climate proposals that animated Mr. Biden’s campaign — if the bill passes at all. And the president’s central promise of healing divisions and lowering the political temperature has failed to be fruitful, as violent language flourishes and threats to lawmakers flood into Congress.
Interviews with Democratic lawmakers, activists and officials in Washington and in key battleground states show a party deeply concerned about retaining its own supporters. Even as strategists and vulnerable incumbents from battleground districts worry about swing voters, others argue that the erosion of crucial segments of the party’s coalition could pose more of a threat in midterm elections that are widely believed to be stacked against it.
Already, Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have taken a sharp fall among some of his core constituencies, showing double-digit declines among Black, Latino, female and young voters. Those drops have led to increased tension between the White House and progressives at a time of heightened political anxiety, after Democrats were caught off-guard by the intensity of the backlash against them in elections earlier this month. Mr. Biden’s plummeting national approval ratings have also raised concerns about whether he would — or should — run for re-election in 2024.
Not all of the blame is being placed squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Biden; a large percentage of frustration is with the Democratic Party itself.
“It’s frustrating to see the Democrats spend all of this time fighting against themselves and to give a perception to the country, which the Republicans are seizing on, that the Democrats can’t govern,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who leads the A.M.E. churches across Georgia. “And some of us are tired of them getting pushed around, because when they get pushed around, African Americans get shoved.”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a leading House progressive, warned that the party is at risk of “breaking trust” with vital constituencies, including young people and people of color.
“There’s all this focus on ‘Democrats deliver, Democrats deliver,’ but are they delivering on the things that people are asking for the most right now?” she said in an interview. “In communities like mine, the issues that people are loudest and feel most passionately about are the ones that the party is speaking to the least.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats acknowledge that a significant part of the challenge facing their party is structural: With slim congressional majorities, the party cannot pass anything unless the entire caucus agrees. That empowers moderate Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia to block some of the biggest promises to their supporters, including a broad voting rights bill.
A more aggressive approach may not lead to eventual passage of an immigration or voting rights law, but it would signal to Democrats that Mr. Biden is fighting for them, said Faiz Shakir, a close adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Mr. Shakir and others worry that the focus on the two significant pieces of legislation — infrastructure and the spending bill — won’t be enough to energize supporters skeptical of the federal government’s ability to improve their lives.
“I’m a supporter of Biden, a supporter of the agenda, and I’m frustrated and upset with him to allow this to go in the direction it has,” said Mr. Shakir, who managed Mr. Sanders’s presidential run in 2020. “It looks like we have President Manchin instead of President Biden in this debate.”
He added: “It’s made the president look weak.”
The divide over how much attention to devote to staunch Democratic constituencies versus moderate swing voters taps into a political debate that’s long roiled the party: Is it more important to energize the base or to persuade swing voters? And can Democrats do both things at once?
White House advisers argue that winning swing voters, particularly the suburban independents who play an outsize role in battleground districts, is what will keep Democrats in power — or at least curb the scale of their midterm losses. They see the drop among core groups of Democrats as reflective of a challenging political moment — rising inflation, the continued pandemic, uncertainty about schools — rather than unhappiness with the administration’s priorities.
“It’s November of 2021, not September of 2022,” John Anzalone, Mr. Biden’s pollster, said. “If we pass Build Back Better, we have a great message going into the midterms, when the bell rings on Labor Day, about what we’ve done for people.”
Even pared back from the $3.5 trillion plan that Mr. Biden originally sought, the legislation that passed the House earlier this month offers proposals transforming child care, elder care, prescription drugs and financial aid for college, as well as making the largest investment ever to slow climate change. But some of the most popular policies will not be felt by voters until long after the midterm elections, nor will the impact of many of the infrastructure projects.
Already, Democrats face a challenging education effort with voters. According to a survey conducted by Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm, only about a third of white battleground voters think that either infrastructure or the broader spending bill will help them personally. Among white Democratic battleground voters, support for the bills is only 72 percent.
Representative James E. Clyburn, the high-ranking House Democrat from South Carolina and a close ally of Mr. Biden, said the way the bills were negotiated and reported in the media had voters in his district asking him about money that was cut from initiatives rather than the sweeping benefits.
“People stopped me on the streets saying we cut money from our H.B.C.U.s,” Mr. Clyburn said, pointing out that more funding for historically Black colleges and universities will be added in the coming years of the administration. “So while everybody keeps blaming the Democrats, Democrats, Democrats, it’s the Senate rules that are archaic, and stop us from passing these bills.”
Mr. Clyburn and other lawmakers say they struggle to explain the vacillations of congressional wrangling to their voters, who expected that by electing Democrats to the majority they would be able to pass their agenda.
“Nobody thought about the filibuster and the realities,” said Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee. “People don’t understand the Byrd rule and the parliamentarian and the things we have to put up with. It does lower their enthusiasm.”
As they’ve begun to do with the infrastructure bill, the White House plans an aggressive approach to sell the social policy legislation once it passes, dispatching Mr. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other top officials for events across the country.
“There is a real window of opportunity to show the cooperation and competence people expect from us,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey and a leader of a moderate wing of lawmakers in congressional negotiations. “It’s up to us to communicate what we just accomplished for families and for the country.”
Yet many activists say the White House is to blame for failing to aggressively push for the central promises made to their supporters during the campaign. They said they wanted Mr. Biden to leverage both his bully pulpit and executive powers to tackle student loans, criminal justice, immigration reform and other issues.
“We’re talking about democracy in such a crisis and here we are with very few legislative days left and the lack of urgency is deafening,” said Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a minister and civil rights advocate who has helped lead the response from faith leaders on voting rights. “For the president to say he can only do one thing at a time is simply not true.”
Lorella Praeli, the president of Community Change Action, a group advocating immigration reform, offered a terse warning to the administration about keeping Latino support: “There are no participation trophies.”
Already, the national environment looks difficult for Democrats, who may lose seats in redistricting and face the historical trend of a president’s party losing seats during his first term in office.
Tomás Robles, the co-chair of Lucha, a Latino civil rights group based in Phoenix that is widely credited with helping Democrats win the state in 2020, said people were “disillusioned and unmotivated” by what they had seen in the first 10 months of Democratic governance.
“When you’re not passing bold progressive policies, you have to be able to show something,” Mr. Robles said. “President Biden gets the most blame because he’s the most visible, but it’s the party as a whole that has failed its voters.”
In Georgia, inaction on voting rights has fueled a steepening decline of enthusiasm for Mr. Biden among Black voters. The New Georgia Project, a progressive civil rights group, conducted a study last month of Black voters in Georgia, and found that 66 percent approved of the job Mr. Biden was doing, and 51 percent thought that his administration was working to address the concerns of the Black community. In 2020, Mr. Biden won more than 90 percent of Black voters in Georgia.
Representative Cori Bush, a progressive whose district includes large parts of St. Louis, said the social safety net and climate provisions included in the bill that passed the House could not be pared down any further. And, she added, the White House has to follow through on other provisions if Democrats want to excite Black voters — perhaps the party’s most loyal constituency — ahead of the midterm elections.
“Do I believe Black community members will be happy to see these investments? Absolutely. Will they feel like this has changed their lives in some ways? Yes,” Ms. Bush said. “But will this be enough to excite? When you’re excited, that means that you feel like something else is coming. You have hope that more is happening. So what’s next?”