US Democrats: Your problem isn’t the man, or the message. It’s the machine…
That sickening feeling in the pit of the stomach came at about 2.30 am French time on Wednesday, 4th November, when the first results were announced for Miami Dade county in Florida.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton had won this county by a margin of over 30%. It’s natural Democratic territory, but Biden’s lead was only 10%. And if Biden were to have an undisputed win, he needed to take Florida. 538.com gave him a 62% chance of doing so, but with that announcement it was clear he wasn’t going to. And it was also clear that, once again, the polls were wrong.
How on earth could they be so wrong, again, in the same direction? Surely the pollsters had done a full examination of their mistakes in 2016 and corrected for them? The “shy Trumpers”, the sampling biases?
Of course, no sooner had the trend of the night emerged, the Bernie Bros started up on Twitter. If only the Dems had chosen the other old white dude, the one who proudly calls himself a socialist…. But that is total wishful thinking. Miami Dade was always going to be a critical county to take. And a significant part of its population has Cuban heritage. Not just any Cubans, but lots of anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Trump, of course, had been tweeting utter rubbish about how a vote for Sleepy Joe would usher in a new order controlled by left-wing socialists and the USA would quickly come to resemble Venezuela. Or Cuba. It was nonsense, so nonsensical that it hardly seemed worthwhile Biden trying to dismiss it, but it will have resonated in Miami Dade. No one tried to paint Clinton as a socialist: she was a friend of Wall St. A self-confessed “democratic socialist” like Sanders would have been even more catastrophic in Miami Dade.
Why the focus on one county in the whole nation? Well, Florida is a swing state. You really need to win Florida, and Miami Dade is one of its largest counties. It’s a solidly-Democratic county, too: one whose votes the Democrats surely thought they could bank. But once the swing against them in Miami Dade emerged, Florida was lost.
The Electoral College system rigs US democracy in favour of the GOP. Of course, it would be better to abolish it. First, though, you need to control Congress, with a two-thirds majority. Then you need to be confident that three-quarters of state legislatures will back the necessary constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, if you are going to win the Presidency, you need to game the system and focus on the swing states.
I am not a psephologist. I am not even an American: I am watching and experiencing this from rural northern France. But it seems to me that the reason the polls got it so wrong again is simple: they didn’t. They measure voting intention accurately. The GOP is just better at turning voting intention into votes in the ballot-box. Getting its people to register, getting them out and pressing exactly the right buttons in each case. In Miami Dade, it was the “socialism is scary” button, and you can bet that the GOP was well aware of which of its target voters there would be most triggered by an irrational fear of socialism.
The key to this success is data technology, and the GOP owns the companies that understand it best. Trump-supporter Peter Thiel owns Palantir. The famous Cambridge Analytica, whose use of stolen Facebook data helped tip the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum, is (was) part of a network of companies controlled by Robert and Susan Mercer, both long-term supporters of Trumpism. I am not going to try to untangle the web of organisations involved — their ownership structures are all designed to conceal their ultimate controllers, but it is safe to say that none of them are ardent Democrats. Using data tech like this in the EU is almost certainly unlawful under the GDPR: the USA faces no such constraints. So while the Republicans have access to such tools, and the Democrats don’t, they will always do better than the polls suggest.
Ironically, in 2008, the Democrats mastered technology and used it to help win the Obama landslide. Of course, the charisma and energy of their candidate helped too, but the way his campaign hooked into and exploited grass-roots enthusiasm (and dollars) was approvingly noted by many at the time. By comparison with the sophisticated tools used by the GOP in 2016 and 2020, the Democrats 2008 technology was simple and focused on social media and the building of online communities of small-scale donors and activists. The sort of data-harvesting that now powers all the online platforms and their advertising-supported business models was in its infancy. But by 2012, Obama’s re-election campaign had reverted to relying on large-scale donors, and the data scientists had been taken on by the Republicans.
As I write this, I don’t even know whether Biden will eventually prevail. It is certainly close, and it seems inevitable that at least one race will be decided in the Supreme Court. But win or lose, it is essential that the Democrats address their tech and organisational deficiencies. The demographics of the United States favour the inclusive, progressive values of the Democratic party of Barack Obama, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Democrats should have taken Texas — in fact, given the demographics, they should have had a clean sweep of the sunshine swing states of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. But they need the mechanisms to turn demographics into Electoral College votes, seats in Congress, and control of state legislatures. In Texas, they need to engage the growing Latinx community as well as the new college-educated suburban population, and in the 2020s, targeted data tech is an essential tool.
There is a charming naïveté in the belief that if only they could find the right candidate, with the right policy platform, they would win. Twenty-first century politics doesn’t work like that. Tech is all-important. By 2024, the tech used by the GOP in 2016 and 2020 will be obsolescent: new approaches will be needed as well. It’s too bad that the ideology of tech has evolved from the West Coast roots of John Perry Barlow, Vint Cerf and the rest to a finance-driven obsession with capital, cash-flow and control that sits much more comfortably in the Republican Party. The Democratic Party needs to control its own tech the way that the GOP does with the likes of Palantir (and Facebook), and use it to get the votes it deserves.
It really isn’t down either to the man or to the message: it is down to the machine.