Biden won New Hampshire's 4 electoral votes 424,921 (52.7%) to 365,654 (45.4%) without breaking a sweat. Senator Jeanne Shaheen was reelected with an even bigger margin-- 450,778 (56.6%) to 326,229 (41.0%) and both mediocre Democratic members of Congress-- Chris Pappas (51.3% to 46.2%) and Anne Kuster (53.9% to 43.7%)-- were reelected. That was the good news. In the new federal races, it was a donnybrook. The Republicans gained control of both chambers of the state legislature-- netting 47 seats in the 400 seat state House (1,319,131 votes to the Democrats' 1,267,790)-- and 4 seats in the 24 member state Senate, netting 4 seats, again with a popular vote win: 395,499 to 368,629. What happened?
There was a wipeout in the gubernatorial election, where the Democrats decided to run a Republican-lite nothing candidate, corporate shill Dan Feltes. The results were entirely predictable-- Chris Sununu beat him 516,609 (65.1%) to 264,639 (33.4%). In the Democratic primary Feltes had beaten the real Democrat in the race, progressive Andru Volinsky 50.9% to 46.1%.
Still... what happened? My friend Irene Lin was Volinsky's campaign manager. A few weeks after the election, the Washington Post persuaded her to write an OpEd about a topic related to those losses: door knocking.
She began by noting something we all felt at the time, namely that "When Democrats went to sleep on Nov. 2, they dreamed of a massive blue wave that would put an end to the Trump presidency, retake the Senate and put a dent into rigged gerrymandered maps by flipping state legislatures. Instead they narrowly avoided a total nightmare: While Joe Biden won the White House, Democrats fell short in elections up and down the ballot." And then asked the same question I just did: "what happened?"
She noted that "It wasn’t a shortage of cash-- candidates from the Senate down to local races were swimming in record amounts of money... Nationally Democrats focused much of their campaign message on President Trump’s tragically incompetent handling of covid-19." That turned out to be a multi-edged sword for the Democrats and not all in a good way. Democrats largely gave up on door-to-door canvassing and also hurt their own registration efforts. "It's hard," wrote Lin, "not to wonder if a little more traditional field organizing and in-person voter contact would have brought Democratic fantasies closer to reality," especially since "Republicans had no such pandemic-related qualms," boasting over the summer that they "were knocking on a million doors a week after relaunching the party’s ground game in June. GOP gains in voter registration in battlegrounds like Florida and Pennsylvania should have been a wake-up call that the polls were once again underestimating Trump’s strength. There is certainly a structural disadvantage to being the party that feels any kind of moral responsibility to keep people safe: The decision by many campaigns to stay cautious instead of innovating safe new ways of canvassing wound up sabotaging Democrats in a multitude of states."
Even in the suburbs, where Biden showed strength, a lack of canvassing appears to have hurt down-ballot candidates. Biden wound up having zero coattails-- people who wanted to vote against Trump and knew nothing about Democratic candidates lower down the ticket reverted to the GOP in crucial places like Pennsylvania, where Republicans held on to their majority in the State Assembly rather easily even though Biden won the state by more than 100,000 votes.
In fact, for all Democrats’ focus on flipping state legislatures, the only chambers that changed hands went to Republicans. In New Hampshire, down-ballot Democrats got demolished, losing over 40 seats in the State House and four in the Senate, giving the GOP unified control of the state government in a state Biden won by over seven points.
One of the few Democrats to survive the bloodletting there was 25-year-old state Rep. Joshua Adjutant, who flipped a Grafton County House seat in 2018. He chose to defy the state party edict to avoid in-person canvassing. “I knew my seat was critical as a 50-50 swing district, so I believed it was critical to go on offense with my message to counter the GOP negative attacks on Democrats supporting an income tax,” he told us. “Not once did I run into any voter who was offended I was asking for their vote.”
Adjutant knocked on 2,000 doors and won by 80 votes. Meanwhile, a total of just under 1,400 votes cost Democrats control of the state Senate. Each of the four seats lost were determined by mere hundreds of votes, a margin that could have been overcome through more in-person contact.
Democrats also got wiped out in Florida, where Republicans called them socialists and lied about their support from foreign dictators. Trump tripled his win margin from 2016. “There was no proactive messaging from the Biden campaign to counter any of that, let alone from the Florida Democratic Party,” Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani told us earlier this month. Her campaign resumed door-knocking over the summer in the Orlando district she flipped in 2018, and she retained her seat after knocking on 33,000 doors. “And then there was the lack of field operation, so they couldn’t even cut through the noise because they’re not at the doors, not building long-term relationships with their constituents. All that is a combination for major, major losses.”
Texas Democrats also experienced a wipeout that embodied all of these demographic and geographic problems. Trump surged with White rural and suburban voters and Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley and made gains in Latino precincts in Houston. The dream of flipping the state House fizzled, with Democrats netting just one seat.
The Biden campaign had just five paid field organizers across the entirety of the Texas border region stretching from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley, and they were hired late in the game. Republicans in Hidalgo County began holding biweekly block walks over the summer, which helped contribute to the county’s significant swing to the right on Election Day. Biden won Hidalgo by 18 points, but that was 20 points less than Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in 2016.
There wasn’t just one reason Democrats lost in these districts; economics, the dominance of the oil and gas industry, and differences of opinion on immigration, guns and abortion also contributed. But door-knocking was certainly part of it. In an interview after the election, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the state party broke an agreement with the national party not to canvass door-to-door a week before Election Day.
In an assessment of the party’s missteps, former congressman Beto O’Rourke also pinpointed the lack of community engagement as a major problem: “Nothing beats meeting your voters eyeball to eyeball. We should always find a way to canvass directly at the voter’s door. There is a safe way to do this, even in a pandemic.”
In the weeks and months leading to the election, Democratic hesitancy to engage at the doors led to a flurry of articles questioning the efficacy of canvassing. Some political scientists claimed reaching out to voters digitally would be just as effective-- to which we say poppycock. We believe Democrats and the media alike underestimated the Trump turnout phenomenon, and it needed to be countered by in-person persuasion. And Democrats often rely on voters who are not so easily reached by digital means, meaning a lack of field game can depress turnout even further.
In the previously red states Biden flipped, door-to-door engagement led by community-based organizations clearly made the difference. While the presidential campaign sat on the sidelines, activist groups that had already spent years organizing in Georgia and Arizona more than filled in the gaps with the cultural competency often missing from top-down campaigns.
Unite Here, the powerhouse hospitality workers union, began canvassing in July in Arizona and Nevada, with a focus on minority communities where people don’t often think their votes make a difference. Working with doctors and experts, they found ways to canvass safely, with personal protective equipment, social distancing and other precautions.
The union wound up knocking on 3 million doors combined in Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania. In Arizona, they were joined by organizations such as LUCHA and Mi Familia Vota, Latino-led groups which began organizing in the state in the wake of the passage of SB 1070, the infamous “Show Me Your Papers” bill from 2010. They were part of a coalition that knocked on a million doors in Arizona. Indigenous tribes like the Navajo Nation were also key, canvassing their communities and netting Biden an overwhelming advantage.
“The people we talk to aren’t on Zoom, let’s get that straight,” D. Taylor, the Unite Here president, told us. “And a text message, or a TV ad or mail piece, those are talking atpeople, they’re not talking with people. You have to listen to their concerns, you have to find how that applies to what your candidate stands for.”
In Georgia, groups like Black Voters Matter, South Georgia Project, Asian American Advocacy Fund, GALEO and Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight registered 800,000 new voters and made sure they voted. Now the party plans to knock on doors, in pandemic-safe ways, before the January runoffs there that will determine control of the U.S. Senate. While that’s heartening, Taylor says he still hasn’t gotten a call from national Democrats looking for advice on how to canvass or engage year-round with the community. We fear the lessons of 2020 will be discarded by party elites who choose to blow millions of dollars on TV ads instead of on genuine engagement-- as they’ve done so often in the past.
Imagine if the $190 million that had gone into the long-shot Senate campaigns of Amy McGrath in Kentucky and Jaime Harrison in South Carolina had been directed to these year-round grass-roots groups that are usually begging for money and resources. That kind of investment needs to begin now-- door-knocking and engagement cannot simply be confined to election years if we are going to make real change and capture the hearts and minds of voters. The election taught Democrats a painful lesson: They cannot simply assume demographics are destiny. Instead, they need to build a new majority block by block.