just asking questions

David Shor’s Unified Theory of American Politics

Analyze this. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

David Shor got famous by getting fired. In late May, amid widespread protests over George Floyd’s murder, the 28-year-old data scientist tweeted out a study that found nonviolent demonstrations were more effective than “riots” at pushing public opinion and voter behavior leftward in 1968. Many Twitter users — and (reportedly) some of Shor’s colleagues and clients at the data firm Civis Analytics — found this post insensitive. A day later, Shor publicly apologized for his tweet. Two weeks after that, he’d lost his job as Civis’s head of political data science — and become a byword for the excesses of so-called cancel culture. (Shor has not discussed his firing publicly due to a nondisclosure agreement, and the details of his termination remain undisclosed).

But before Shor’s improbable transformation into a cause célèbre, he was among the most influential data gurus in Democratic politics — a whiz kid who, at age 20, served as the 2012 Obama campaign’s in-house Nate Silver, authoring the forecasting model that the White House used to determine where the race really stood.

And before that, he was a college Marxist.

This idiosyncratic combination of ideological background, employment experience, and expertise has lent Shor a unique perspective on American politics. He is a self-avowed socialist who insists that big-dollar donors pull the Democratic Party left. He is an adherent of Leninist vanguardism and the median voter theorem. And in the three years I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve found a single question about U.S. politics that he could not answer with reference to at least three peer-reviewed studies.

Shor is still consulting in Democratic politics, but he is no longer working for a firm that restricts his freedom to publicly opine. Intelligencer recently spoke with him about how the Democratic Party really operates, why the coming decade could be a great one for the American right, how protests shape public opinion, what the left gets wrong about electoral politics, and whether Donald Trump will be reelected, among other things.

What is it like to have your name become shorthand for a culture war controversy? 
I cannot comment on any of the stuff around all of that.

All right. That line of questioning is canceled

I feel silenced, but it’s okay. Let’s start here then: What are the biggest revisions you’ve made to your conception of how electoral politics works since you first took a job on the Obama campaign?

I think going into politics, I overestimated the importance of the personal ideology of people who worked in campaigns for making decisions — which was part of a broader phenomenon of overestimating the extent to which people were making decisions. In 2012, I would see progressive blogs* publish stories like, “The White House is doing a Climate Week. This must be because they have polling showing that climate is a vulnerability for Republicans.” And once you know the people who are in that office, you realize that actually no; they were just at an awkward office meeting and were like, “Oh man, what are we going to do this week? Well, we could do climate.” There’s very little long-term, strategic planning happening anywhere in the party because no one has an incentive to do it. So, campaigns’ actions, while not random, are more random than I realized.

I’ve also fallen toward a consultant theory of change — or like, a process theory of change. So a lot of people on the left would say that the Hillary Clinton campaign largely ignored economic issues, and doubled down on social issues, because of the neoliberal ideology of the people who worked for her, and the fact that campaigning on progressive economic policy would threaten the material interests of her donors.

But that’s not what happened. The actual mechanical reason was that the Clinton campaign hired pollsters to test a bunch of different messages, and for boring mechanical reasons, working-class people with low levels of social trust were much less likely to answer those phone polls than college-educated professionals. And as a result, all of this cosmopolitan, socially liberal messaging did really well in their phone polls, even though it ultimately cost her a lot of votes. But the problem was mechanical, and less about the vulgar Marxist interests of all of the actors involved.

A tasteful Marxist (or whatever the opposite of a “vulgar” one is) might counter that class biases were implicated in that mechanical error — that cosmopolitan, upper-middle-class pollsters and operatives’ eagerness to see their worldview affirmed led them to ignore the possibility that their surveys suffered from a systematic sampling error.

That’s exactly right. Campaigns do want to win. But the people who work in campaigns tend to be highly ideologically motivated and thus, super-prone to convincing themselves to do things that are strategically dumb. Nothing that I tell people — or that my team [at Civis] told people — is actually that smart. You know, we’d do all this math, and some of it’s pretty cool, but at a high level, what we’re saying is: “You should put your money in cheap media markets in close states close to the election, and you should talk about popular issues, and not talk about unpopular issues.” And we’d use machine learning to operationalize that at scale.

The right strategies for politics aren’t actually unclear. But a lot of people on the Clinton campaign tricked themselves into the idea that they didn’t have to placate the social views of racist white people.

What is the definition of racist in this context?

Ah, right. People yell at me on Twitter about this. So working-class white people have an enormous amount of political power and they’re trending towards the Republican Party. It would be really ideologically convenient if the reason they’re doing that was because Democrats embraced neoliberalism. But it’s pretty clear that that isn’t true.

I think that winning back these voters is important. So if I was running for office, I would definitely say that the reason these voters turned against us is because Democrats failed to embrace economic populism. I think that’s sound political messaging. But in terms of what actually drove it, the numbers are pretty clear. It’s like theoretically possible to imagine a voter who voted for Democrats their whole life and then voted for Trump out of frustration with Obamacare or trade or whatever. And I’m sure that tons of those voters exist, but they’re not representative.

When you take the results of the 2012 and 2016 elections, and model changes in Democratic vote share, you see the biggest individual-level predictor for vote switching was education; college-educated people swung toward Democrats and non-college-educated people swung toward Republicans. But, if you ask a battery of “racial resentment” questions — stuff like, “Do you think that there are a lot of white people who are having trouble finding a job because nonwhite people are getting them instead?” or, “Do you think that white people don’t have enough influence in how this country is run?” — and then control for the propensity to answer those questions in a racially resentful way, education ceases to be the relevant variable: Non-college-educated white people with low levels of racial resentment trended towards us in 2016, and college-educated white people with high levels of racial resentments turned against us.

You can say, “Oh, you know, the way that political scientists measure racial resentment is a class marker because college-educated people know that they’re not supposed to say politically incorrect things.” But when you look at Trump’s support in the Republican primary, it correlated pretty highly with, uh … racially charged … Google search words. So you had this politician who campaigned on an anti-immigrant and anti–political correctness platform. And then he won the votes of a large group of swing voters, and vote switching was highly correlated with various individual level measures of racial resentment — and, on a geographic level, was correlated with racist search terms. At some point, you have to be like, oh, actually, these people were motivated by racism. It’s just an important fact of the world.

I think people take the wrong conclusions from it. The fight I saw on Twitter after the 2016 election was one group of people saying the Obama-to-Trump voters are racist and irredeemable, and that’s why we need to focus on the suburbs. And then you had leftists saying, “Actually these working-class white people were betrayed by decades of neoliberalism and we just need to embrace socialism and win them back, we can’t trust people in the suburbs.” And I think the real synthesis of these views is that Obama-to-Trump voters are motivated by racism. But they’re really electorally important, and so we have to figure out some way to get them to vote for us.

How should Democrats do that?

So there’s a big constellation of issues. The single biggest way that highly educated people who follow politics closely are different from everyone else is that we have much more ideological coherence in our views.

If you decided to create a survey scorecard, where on every single issue — choice, guns, unions, health care, etc. — you gave people one point for choosing the more liberal of two policy options, and then had 1,000 Americans fill it out, you would find that Democratic elected officials are to the left of 90 to 95 percent of people.

And the reason is that while voters may have more left-wing views than Joe Biden on a few issues, they don’t have the same consistency across their views. There are like tons of pro-life people who want higher taxes, etc. There’s a paper by the political scientist David Broockman that made this point really famous — that “moderate” voters don’t have moderate views, just ideologically inconsistent ones. Some people responded to media coverage of that paper by saying, “Oh, people are just answering these surveys randomly, issues don’t matter.” But that’s not actually what the paper showed. In a separate section, they tested the relevance of issues by presenting voters with hypothetical candidate matchups — here’s a politician running on this position, and another politician running on the opposite — and they found that issue congruence was actually very important for predicting who people voted for.

So this suggests there’s a big mass of voters who agree with us on some issues, and disagree with us on others. And whenever we talk about a given issue, that increases the extent to which voters will cast their ballots on the basis of that issue.

Mitt Romney and Donald Trump agreed on basically every issue, as did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And yet, a bunch of people changed their votes. And the reason that happened was because the salience of various issues changed. Both sides talked a lot more about immigration, and because of that, correlation between preferences on immigration and which candidate people voted for went up. In 2012, both sides talked about health care. In 2016, they didn’t. And so the correlation between views on health care and which candidate people voted for went down.

So this means that every time you open your mouth, you have this complex optimization problem where what you say gains you some voters and loses you other voters. But this is actually cool because campaigns have a lot of control over what issues they talk about.

Non-college-educated whites, on average, have very conservative views on immigration, and generally conservative racial attitudes. But they have center-left views on economics; they support universal health care and minimum-wage increases. So I think Democrats need to talk about the issues they are with us on, and try really hard not to talk about the issues where we disagree. Which, in practice, means not talking about immigration.

It sounds like you’re saying that public opinion is a fixed entity, which campaigns have little power to reshape. I think many progressives dispute that notion. In their view, the “social views of racist white people” aren’t a given. Right-wing media has fed the public a story that pits their interests against those of immigrants. But if Democrats offer a counter-narrative about how corporate interests use ethnic divisions to divide and conquer working people, maybe they can change what is and is not “popular.” Why is that view wrong?

It’s worth being precise about mechanisms. It’s true that political parties have enormous control over the views of their partisans. There’s like 20 percent of the electorate that trusts Democratic elites tremendously. And they will turn their views on a dime if the party tells them to. So this is how you can get Abolish ICE to go from a 10 percent issue to a 30 percent issue. If you’re an ideological activist, that’s a powerful force. If you convince strong partisans to adopt your view, then when the party comes to power, strong partisans will ultimately make up that administration and then you can make policy progress.

The problem is that swing voters don’t trust either party. So if you get Democrats to embrace Abolish ICE, that won’t get moderate-ish, racist white people to support it; it will just turn them into Republicans. So that’s the trade-off. When you embrace unpopular things, you become more unpopular with marginal voters, but also get a fairly large segment of the public to change its views. And the latter can sometimes produce long-term change.

But it’s a hard trade-off. And I don’t think anyone ever says something like, “I think it was a good trade for us to lose the presidency because we raised the salience of this issue.” That’s not generally what people want. They don’t want to make an unpopular issue go from 7 percent to 30 percent support. They want something like what happened with gay marriage or marijuana legalization, where you take an issue that is 30 percent and then it goes to 70 percent. And if you look at the history of those things, it’s kind of clear that campaigns didn’t do that.

If you look at long-term trends in support for gay marriage, it began linearly increasing, year over year, starting in the late 1980s. But then, right when the issue increased in salience during the 2004 campaign, it suddenly became partisan, and support declined. After it stopped being a campaign issue, support returned to trend.

Graphic: Gallup

Campaigns just can’t effect those kinds of long-term changes. They can direct information to partisans who trust them, and they can curry favor with marginal voters by signaling agreement with them on issues. But there isn’t much space for changing marginal voters’ minds.

How do you square this analysis with the events of the past few weeks, in which the salience of racially discriminatory policing increased in tandem with Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump? Obviously there are a lot of other variables. But we have seen a surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement and police reform. We’ve seen Biden boasting a bigger advantage over Trump on the question of which candidate can best handle race relations — and all while progressive activists have been associating the left with the exceptionally unpopular concept of defunding the police.

Yeah. I’m not going to pretend that I would have predicted that this is how it was going to shake out. But I do think it’s actually consistent with what we’ve been discussing.

One way to think about electoral salience and the effects of raising the salience of given issues, is to look at which party voters trust on a given issue, not just what their stated policy preference is. So if you do a poll on universal background checks for guns, you’ll find that they’re super-popular. But then, politicians who run on background checks often lose. In the same way, if you poll comprehensive immigration reform, it’s super-popular, even among Republicans. But then Republicans can run on anti-immigrant platforms and win. So how do you square that circle?

One way is to remember that these polls give us a very limited informational environment. You just throw people a sentence-length idea, which they’ve often never heard of before, and then people react to it. So it tells you how people will respond to a policy at first brush without any partisan context. But ultimately, when people hear from both sides, they’re gonna revert to some kind of partisan baseline. But there’s not a nihilism there; it’s not just that Democratic-leaning voters will adopt the Democratic position or Republican-leaning ones will automatically adopt the Republican one. Persuadable voters trust the parties on different issues.

And there’s a pretty basic pattern — both here and in other countries — in which voters view center-left parties as empathetic. Center-left parties care about the environment, lowering poverty, improving race relations. And then, you know, center-right parties are seen as more “serious,” or more like the stern dad figure or something. They do better on getting the economy going or lowering unemployment or taxes or crime or immigration.

If you look at how this breaks down in the U.S. — Gallup did something on this in 2017, and I’m sure the numbers haven’t changed that much since then — you see that same basic story. But there’s an interesting twist. One thing that Democrats consistently get rated highly on is improving race relations. And this points to the complexities of racial resentment. The way that racially charged issues generally get brought up in the U.S. is in the context of crime, which is a very Republican-loaded issue (in terms of which party the median voter trusts on it). Or it comes up in terms of immigration, which is itself a Republican-loaded issue. So even if voters acknowledge the massive systemic inequities that exist in the U.S., discussion of them normally happens in a context where conservatives can posit a trade-off with safety, or all these other things people trust Republicans on.

What’s powerful about nonviolent protest — and particularly nonviolent protest that incurs a disproportionate response from the police — is that it can shift the conversation, in a really visceral way, into the part of this issue space that benefits Democrats and the center left. Which is the pursuit of equality, social justice, fairness — these Democratic-loaded concepts — without the trade-off of crime or public safety. So I think it is really consistent with a pretty broad, cross-sectional body of evidence (a piece of which I obviously tweeted at some point) that nonviolent protest is politically advantageous, both in terms of changing public opinion on discrete issues and electing parties sympathetic to the left’s concerns.

As for “the abolish the police” stuff, I think the important thing there is that basically no mainstream elected officials embraced it. Most persuadable voters get their news from the networks’ nightly news broadcasts and CNN. And if you look at how they covered  things, the “abolish the police” concept didn’t get nearly as much play as it did on Twitter and elite discourse. And to the extent that it was covered, that coverage featured prominent left politicians loudly denouncing it. And I think that’s a success story for everyone involved. Activists were able to dramatically shift the terms of debate around not just racial justice issues, but police justice in a way that’s basically the Second Great Awokening. But because Democratic politicians kept chasing the median voter, we got to have our cake and eat it too. We got to have public opinion shift in our direction on the issues without paying an electoral price.

To play insurrectionist’s advocate: The protests weren’t entirely nonviolent. And one could argue that, had there not been rioting in Minneapolis, there would have been less media attention and thus, fewer nonviolent protests. So how do we know that the nonviolent protests were the source of the movement’s political efficacy? And why didn’t the violence at the fringes of those protests activate the public’s concerns about crime?

I want to caution against turning this into physics. There’s only so much we can understand about the dynamics of these events. But if you wanted to be purely utilitarian, and set aside the morality concerns, I think you can tell a story about how the initial wave of violence triggered media coverage, or got the police or security forces really primed to use violence against nonviolent protesters, and without that happening, it wouldn’t have exploded as much as it did. It’s hard to know. I can’t really evaluate that counterfactual.

But there’s always a mix of violent and nonviolent protest; or, there’s always some violence that occurs at nonviolent protests. And it’s not a situation where a drop of violence spoils everything and turns everybody into fascists. The research isn’t consistent with that. It’s more about the proportions. Because the mechanism here is that when violence is happening, people become afraid. They fear for their safety, and then they crave order. And order is a winning issue for conservatives here and everywhere around the world. The basic political argument since the French Revolution has been the left saying, “Let’s make things more fair,” and the right saying, “If we do that, it will lead to chaos and threaten your family.”

But when you have nonviolent protests that goad security forces into using excessive force against unarmed people — preferably while people are watching — then order gets discredited, and people experience this visceral sense of unfairness. And you can change public opinion. And if you look at the [George Floyd] protests, there was some violence in the first two or three days. But then that largely subsided, and was followed by very high-profile incidents of the state using violence against innocent people.

And, you know, the real inflection point in our polling was the Lafayette Park incident, when Trump used tear gas on innocent people. That’s when support for Biden shot up and it’s been pretty steady since then.

In describing the Democrats’ troubles with non-college-educated white voters earlier, you put a lot of emphasis on discrete decisions that the Hillary Clinton campaign made. But, in my understanding, the 2016 election just accelerated a preexisting trend: In both the United States and Western Europe, non-college-educated voters have been drifting right for decades. Doesn’t that suggest that something larger than any given campaign’s messaging choices is at work here?  

That’s a great point. I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out, you know, “Where did things go wrong?” You see Matt Stoller and Ryan Grim do this, where you try to pinpoint the moment in time when Democratic elites decided to turn their backs on the working class and embrace neoliberalism. Maybe it was the Watergate babies. Maybe it was the failure to repeal Taft-Hartley. Maybe it was Bill Clinton in 1992.

But then you read about other countries and you see that the same story is happening everywhere. It happened in England with Tony Blair. It happened in Germany with Gerhard Schröder. The thing that really got me was reading about the history of PASOK, the Social Democratic Party in Greece. And you’re reading about an election in the 1990s where it’s like, “the right-wing New Democracy party made gains with working-class voters,” and you realize there are broader forces at work here.

So why is this happening? The story that makes the most sense to me goes like this: In the postwar era, college-educated professionals were maybe 4 percent of the electorate. Which meant that basically no voters had remotely cosmopolitan values. But the flip side of this is that this educated 4 percent still ran the world. Both parties at this point were run by this highly educated, cosmopolitan minority that held a bunch of values that undergirded the postwar consensus, around democracy and rule of law, and all these things.

Obviously, these people were more right wing on a bunch of social issues than their contemporary counterparts, but during that era, both parties were run by just about the most cosmopolitan segments of society. And there were also really strong gatekeepers. This small group of highly educated people not only controlled the commanding heights of both the left and the right, but also controlled the media. There were only a small number of TV stations — in other countries, those stations were even run by the government. And both sides knew it wasn’t electorally advantageous to campaign on cosmopolitan values.

So, as a result, campaigns centered around this cosmopolitan elite’s internal disagreements over economic issues. But over the past 60 years, college graduates have gone from being 4 percent of the electorate to being more like 35. Now, it’s actually possible — for the first time ever in human history — for political parties to openly embrace cosmopolitan values and win elections; certainly primary and municipal elections, maybe even national elections if you don’t push things too far or if you have a recession at your back. And so Democratic elites started campaigning on the things they’d always wanted to, but which had previously been too toxic. And so did center-left parties internationally.

What is your understanding of why there’s such a profound divide between college-educated and non-college-educated people on these so-called cosmopolitan issues?

Education is highly correlated with openness to new experiences; basically, there’s this divide where some people react positively to novel things and others react less positively. And there’s evidence that this relationship is causal. In Europe, when countries raised their mandatory schooling age from 16 to 18, the first generation of students who remained in school longer had substantially more liberal views on immigration than their immediate predecessors. And then, college-educated people are also more willing to try strange foods or travel abroad. So it really seems like education makes people more open to new experiences.

But politically, this manifests on immigration. And it’s ironclad. You can look at polling from the 1940s on whether America should take in Jewish refugees, and college-educated people wanted to and non-college-educated people didn’t. It’s true cross-nationally — like, working-class South Africans oppose taking in refugees from Zimbabwe, while college-educated South Africans support taking them in.

Other research has shown that messaging centered around the potential for cooperation and positive-sum change really appeals to educated people, while messaging that emphasizes zero-sum conflict resonates much more with non-college-educated people. Arguably, this is because college-educated professionals live really blessed lives filled with mutually beneficial exchange, while negative-sum conflicts play a very big part of working-class people’s lives, in ways that richer people are sheltered from. But it manifests in a lot of ways and leads to divergent political attitudes.

We’ve been talking a lot about the education split among white voters. But the polling results you just referenced from South Africa suggest that education-based splits on cosmopolitanism manifest across racial and ethnic lines. Are Democrats losing ground with nonwhite, non-college-educated voters?

Yeah. Black voters trended Republican in 2016. Hispanic voters also trended right in battleground states. In 2018, I think it’s absolutely clear that, relative to the rest of the country, nonwhite voters trended Republican. In Florida, Democratic senator Bill Nelson did 2 or 3 points better than Clinton among white voters but lost because he did considerably worse than her among Black and Hispanic voters. We’re seeing this in 2020 polling, too. I think there’s a lot of denial about this fact.

I don’t think there are obvious answers as to why this is happening. But non-college-educated white voters and non-college-educated nonwhite voters have a lot in common with each other culturally. So as the salience of cultural issues with strong education-based splits increases — whether it’s gender politics or authoritarianism or immigration — it would make sense that we’d see some convergence between non-college-educated voters across racial lines.

American politics used to be very idiosyncratic, because we have this historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all of these things that don’t have clear foreign analogues. But the world is slowly changing — not changing in ways that make racism go away or not matter — but in ways that erode some of the underpinnings of race-based voting. So if you look at Black voters trending against us, it’s not uniform. It’s specifically young, secular Black voters who are voting more Republican than their demographic used to. And the ostensible reason for this is the weakening of the Black church, which had, for historical reasons, occupied a really central place in Black society and helped anchor African-Americans in the Democratic Party. Among Black voters, one of the biggest predictors for voting Republican is not attending church. So I think you can tell this story about how the America-centric aspects of our politics are starting to decay, and we’re converging on the dynamics that you see in Europe, where nonwhite voters are more left wing than white voters, but where they vote for the left by like 65 to 35 percent, rather than the 90-10 split you see with African-Americans.

To be clear, if that happens, it would take a long time. But if I had to guess, I’d say young African-Americans might trend 4 or 5 percent against us in relative terms. But they’re a small percent of the Black electorate. These are slow-moving trends.

Are all of the trends you’ve studied unfavorable for Democrats? If the party is losing young African-Americans and non-college-educated whites, is it making compensatory gains? What is the outlook for the party over the coming decade?

I’ll start with the good news. The fear I had after 2016 was that Romney-Clinton voters were going to snap back to being Republicans, but Obama-Trump voters wouldn’t snap back to being Democrats. And that hasn’t happened — we’ve retained Clinton’s gains. We see this in 2020 polling. We saw it in 2018, with Democrats making big gains with these voters in the Senate, House, and state-level elections.

And those don’t just reflect discrepancies in which college-educated professionals decided to turnout for a midterm?

Some of it was. But roughly 75 percent was people changing their minds. So college-educated professionals have basically become Democrats. These voters aren’t optimal for winning the Electoral College. But they have other assets as a demographic.

There’s this sense in left-wing politics that rich people have disproportionate political influence and power. Well, we’ve never had an industrialized society where the richest and most powerful people were as liberal as they are now in the U.S. You know, controlling for education, very rich people still lean Republican. But we’re at a point now where, if you look at Stanford Law School, the ratio of students in the college Democrats to students in the college Republicans is something like 20-to-1. Harvard students have always been Democratic-leaning, but only like three or four percent of them voted for Donald Trump. So there is now this host of incredibly powerful institutions — whether it’s corporate boardrooms or professional organizations — which are now substantially more liberal than they’ve ever been.

And this is reflected not just in how they vote but in their ideological preferences. If you look at small donors — which, to be clear, are still mostly rich people — Democrats got around 54 percent of small donors in 2012. In 2018, we got 76 percent. People like to chalk that up to ActBlue or technology or whatever. But 2018 was also the first year where super-PACs, as a spending group, gave more to Democrats than Republicans.

So these constituencies that previously did a lot to uphold conservative power are now liberal. I don’t know what all of the consequences of that are. But Democrats are now better funded than they were. And the media is nicer to us. There’s a lot of downstream consequences.

Many on the left are wary of the Democratic Party’s growing dependence on wealthy voters and donors. But you’ve argued that the party’s donor class actually pulls it to the left, as big-dollar Democratic donors are more progressive — even on economic issues — than the median Democratic voter. I’m skeptical of that claim. After all, so much regulation and legislation never crosses ordinary Americans’ radar. It seems implausible to me that, during negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration fought to export America’s generous patent protections on pharmaceuticals to the developing world, or to expand the reach of the Investor State Dispute Settlement process, because they felt compelled to placate swing voters. Similarly, it’s hard for me to believe that the primary reason why Democrats did not significantly expand collective-bargaining rights under Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama was voter hostility to labor-law reform rather than the unified opposition of business interests to such a policy. So why couldn’t it be the case that, when it comes to policy, a minority of big-dollar donors who are highly motivated — and reactionary — on discrete issues pull the party to the right, even as wealthier Democrats give more ideologically consistent responses to survey questions? 

It depends on what level of government you’re talking about. When you’re talking about state legislatures, that’s all really low-salience stuff. And the reality is that state parties have to do some ethically questionable things to keep the lights on because small-dollar donors generally don’t donate to their campaigns. So in state and local politics, corporate money is absolutely a big driver.

But the rise of small-dollar donors has really changed federal politics. And again — to be clear — “small-dollar” donors are mostly affluent people. Most of these donors are giving hundreds of dollars. But the thing people don’t realize is, at this point, that’s most of the money. Most of the money in Democratic politics now comes from ideologically motivated small donors and very liberal millionaires and billionaires like George Soros. There’s corporate money, but it’s not the biggest pool anymore. This produces some counterintuitive dynamics where, like in West Virginia, there aren’t a lot of affluent liberals, and so there isn’t a lot of small-dollar donations, and so Joe Manchin is a little bit more beholden to corporations.

It’s true that, if you are a representative in a swing district, you have a strong incentive to raise lots of money. But I think those incentives mostly pull candidates left, for the simple reason that the way that you get a lot of small-dollar donations is to stand up and yell at Trump — or do whatever makes very liberal dentists and doctors excited. Obviously, that doesn’t mean calling for socialism. But these liberal professionals do tend to be pretty economically left wing.

David Broockman showed in a recent paper — and I’ve seen this in internal data — that people who give money to Democrats are more economically left wing than Democrats overall. And the more money people give, the more economically left wing they are. These are obviously the non-transactional donors. But people underestimate the extent to which the non-transactional money is now all of the money. This wasn’t true ten years ago.

So then you get to the question: Why do so many moderate Democrats vote for center-right policies that don’t even poll well? Why did Heidi Heitkamp vote to deregulate banks in 2018, when the median voter in North Dakota doesn’t want looser regulations on banks? But the thing is, while that median voter doesn’t want to deregulate banks, that voter doesn’t want a senator who is bad for business in North Dakota. And so if the North Dakota business community signals that it doesn’t like Heidi Heitkamp, that’s really bad for Heidi Heitkamp, because business has a lot of cultural power.

I think that’s a very straightforward, almost Marxist view of power: Rich people have disproportionate cultural influence. So business does pull the party right. But it does so more through the mechanism of using its cultural power to influence public opinion, not through donations to campaigns.

So, in your view, the reason that Democrats aren’t more left wing on economic issues isn’t because they’re bought off, but because the median voter is “bought off,” in the sense of responding to cues from corporate interests?

Yeah. One thing I’ve learned from working in Democratic politics for eight years is that the idea that the limiting factor on what moves policy to the left in this country is the personal decisions of individual Democrats is kind of crazy. Democratic politicians, relative to the country, are very left wing. But campaigns really want to win.

In my career, I have seen circumstances where polling has said to do one thing, and then we didn’t do it for ideological reasons. But every single one of those times, we ignored the polling from the left. Like, if Joe Biden wanted to just follow the polls, he should support the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits federal funding for abortion services). The Hyde Amendment polls extremely well. But the people who work on his campaign oppose the Hyde Amendment. So Joe Biden opposes the Hyde Amendment.

Like, if you look at the Obama administration, the first time they resorted to procedural radicalism was to make recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. They didn’t do that to win votes; a lot of labor’s agenda — repealing right-to-work laws, establishing sectoral bargaining — is unpopular. But Democrats do pro-labor policies because the people who work on Democratic campaigns, and who run for office as Democrats, are generally very liberal people. Leftists just don’t understand how small of a minority we are.

One personal anecdote: Shortly after Civis did a poll showing that a federal job guarantee is actually a very popular idea, one of my colleagues took a call from a big Democratic super-PAC. And they said, “You know, we saw the job guarantee polling from Civis” — and my colleague was about to throw me under the bus (you know, “Oh, it was just those crazy socialists in Chicago”) — but the super-PAC just thought it was cool. And then there was a long discussion about how to incorporate public job creation into messaging.

So I think people underestimate Democrats’ openness to left-wing policies that won’t cost them elections. And there are a lot of radical, left-wing policies that are genuinely very popular. Codetermination is popular. A job guarantee is popular. Large minimum-wage increases are popular and could literally end market poverty.

All these things will engender opposition from capital. But if you focus on the popular things, and manage to build positive earned media around those things, then you can convince Democrats to do them. So we should be asking ourselves, “What is the maximally radical thing that can get past Joe Manchin.” And that’s like a really depressing optimization problem. And it’s one that most leftists don’t even want to approach, but they should. There’s a wide spectrum of possibilities for what could happen the next time Democrats take power, and if we don’t come in with clear thinking and realistic demands, we could end up getting rolled.

Do you think the coronavirus crisis has expanded the realm of realistic demands? 

I think a really underrated political consequence of coronavirus has been a large increase in Democrats’ odds of taking the Senate. A year ago, I thought it was possible but a long shot. Now, it’s something that has a very reasonable chance of happening.

And I think that’s partly because a lot of Senate Republicans have put themselves in the position of opposing very popular things. The coronavirus has really increased the salience of health care, which is a Democratic-loaded issue. But it’s also made opposing things like paid leave incredibly toxic. And we’ve seen Republican incumbents do that again and again. I think Republican Senate incumbents are being blamed for a lot of what’s happening in ways that aren’t fully appreciated by the media. So that’s the most direct way that coronavirus is expanding the realm of the possible.

Sorry, so you were saying about positive trends for Democrats?

Yeah. So the other positive thing is that age polarization has also gone up. It’s not just that every new generation is more Democratic. Something much weirder has happened. People who were 18 years old in 2012 have swung about 12 points toward Democrats, while people who were 65 years old in that year have since swung like eight points toward Republicans. Right now, that’s a bad trade. Old people vote more than young people. But the age gap has gotten so large that cycle-to-cycle demographic changes are actually worth something now. On the Obama campaign in 2012, I calculated that demographic change between 2008 and 2012 — holding everything else constant — would gain Democrats like 0.3 points. Now, I think that number is probably two-to-three times higher. Young white people are now very liberal. And that’s going to be important.

The bad news is, over the next ten years, our institutions’ structural biases against Democrats are going to become very large. People say this a lot, but I don’t think they truly appreciate how bad things are. The Electoral College bias is now such that realistically we have to win by 3.5 to 4 percent in order to win presidential elections. Trump is historically unpopular, so this year we can maybe pull that off. But for the past 30 years or so, most presidential elections have been pretty close. So the fact that we need to win by four points is going to decrease the amount of time we hold the presidency. People like to say things like, “Oh, but the Sun Belt will trend towards us” — I think if you actually go and simulate things, barring some large realignment, the Electoral College bias is probably going to hold steady over the next decade.

So you don’t think Texas could become a 51 percent Democratic state by 2030?

If education-based polarization reaches a point where Texas becomes the tipping-point state, then that means that Michigan and Minnesota and Maine and Wisconsin are all gone. Right now, we’re in a place where there are a bunch of working-class states that are two points more Republican than the country. And that sucks, but we can live with it. If those states become five points more Republican than the country, then it becomes harder. I’m not saying it will be like this forever. But for the next two cycles, the baseline case is fairly bad.

The Senate is even worse. And much worse than people realize. The Senate has always been, on paper, biased against Democrats. It overrepresents states that are rural and white, and mechanically, that gives a structural advantage to Republicans. For 50 years or so, the tipping-point state in the Senate has been about one percentage point more Republican than the country as a whole. And that advantage did go up in 2016, because white rural voters trended against us (it went up to 3 percent). But the problem isn’t just about that increase in the long-term structural bias. If it were, I wouldn’t be so despondent about the future. The real problem is that the Senate’s bias used to not matter much, because the correlation between how people voted for president and how they voted for Senate used to be much lower. As recently as 2006, if you looked among Democratic incumbents, there was literally zero correlation between how states voted on the Senate level and how they voted on the presidential level. That year, Ben Nelson in Nebraska actually did better than Bob Menendez in New Jersey. So 14 years ago, the correlation was roughly zero. And now, it’s roughly 90 percent.

That’s the core of the problem. There used to be a lot of randomness down ballot, and there also used to be very strong incumbency advantages. In 2004, being an incumbent was worth about 11 points of vote share. Now it’s about three points. And with an incumbency advantage that low — and correlation with presidential vote that high — it’s just not possible for Democrats to win in all these states that used to be the backbone of our Senate majorities. We won an open race in North Dakota in 2012. It’s true that the bias is getting higher, and that that’s made things worse. But 90 percent of the story is that ticket-splitting used to be common and now it’s rare. And that’s not a Trump thing. Ticket-splitting was declining in the Bush era, and accelerated under Obama. And that trend line probably isn’t going to change.

Why not?

The reason people aren’t splitting their tickets anymore is probably because the internet exists now and people are better informed than they used to be. There was this broadband rollout study where they looked at the fact that different places got broadband at different times. And what they saw was that when broadband reached a given congressional district, ticket-splitting declined and ideological polarization went up. 

Right now — because we already have a lot of these incumbents in red states, and because we were lucky enough to have a big wave when many of them were on the ballot in 2018 — we have a decent chance of winning the Senate in 2020. But if you just project out the trends — if you fit a regression on 2018 polling and apply it forward — if we have a neutral national environment in 2024 (i.e., a 2016-style environment), we’re going to be down to 43 Senate seats. It’s really quite bleak. The Senate was always a really fucked-up anti-majoritarian institution. But it was okay because people in Nebraska used to vote randomly. But now they have the internet, and they know that Democrats are liberal.

So what should Democrats do? Abolish the internet? Or add states? 

Everything we can. Obviously, D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood are great. But we should really strongly consider adding more than two states. I’ve been trying to push the U.S. Virgin Islands, for example — home to largely nonwhite, marginalized people who don’t have representation. We’ve actually done polling on this. And even with pro and con arguments provided, it polls really well. People have really weird, incoherent views on representation. When you tell people, “There are 50,000 people in American Samoa and they don’t have a senator to stand up for their interests. Do you think they should get a senator?” — even when you tell them that Republicans say this proposal is an absurd Democratic power grab — still a very large minority of Trump supporters say yes. In our polls, majorities are onboard with adding three or four or five states. People think it’s fair. One fun thing is, Virgin Islands statehood actually polls much better than D.C. statehood. D.C. statehood is actually the least popular of any of the statehood proposals we’ve polled.

What probability would you assign to Donald Trump winning reelection? 

I think one big lesson of 2018 was that Trump’s coalition held up. Obviously, we did better as the party out of power. But if you look at how we did in places like Maine or Wisconsin or Michigan, it looked more like 2016 than 2012. Donald Trump still has a giant structural advantage in the Electoral College.

So, in 2016, we got 51.1 percent of the two-party vote share (of the share of votes that went to Democrats and Republicans). And if we had gotten 51.6 percent of that, we would have had about a 50 percent chance of winning an Electoral College majority. We probably needed to get to 52 percent in order to have a high chance of winning the presidency. For most of the last six months, in public polls, Biden was at 52 or so. Now, we’re at like 54.

So, the question is just: Are things going to go down?

I’m not gonna speculate about whether the coronavirus will get better or whether it will get worse. I think you can tell plausible stories in either direction. But if you go back and look at polling this far out, and then do a regression where you predict Election Day as a function of polling, generally, when candidates are this far ahead, things tend to revert toward a mean. And unfortunately, in this case, the historical mean we’re regressing to isn’t 50 percent; incumbents have historically averaged 51 percent of the vote. So things are likely to tighten. And, of course, polling was wrong in 2016. And actually, on a state level, the polling was wrong by a similar margin in places like West Virginia or Ohio or Michigan or Montana in 2018. So after we get through the conventions, and partisans activate on both sides, there’s a substantial chance that we’ll find ourselves in a close election. And everybody should treat it that way.

Personally, I remember that in 2016, around September, we gave Hillary an 85 percent chance of winning. And this led to situations where you had Democratic organizations, our clients at Civis, wanting to take money out of Pennsylvania and put it in other places. I think one person literally asked me, “What if we try to maximize 370 electoral votes instead of 270.” I think there’s going to be a real instinct for us to take the election for granted, and start to do dumb, hubristic things like spending millions of dollars on our victory stage, which is something that Hillary Clinton did.

So we should all have the discipline to continue investing in tipping-point states and appealing to the median voter. Because this is an incredibly important year. This is our last chance to win a trifecta for a very long time. And if we don’t win the presidency, things could get very dark. So everything we do matters a lot.

*In an earlier version of this interview, Shor attributed a blog post about “climate week” to Daily Kos Elections (DKE). He was referencing something he remembered reading eight years ago extemporaneously, and misidentified the outlet that published the (alleged) blog. DKE published no such post.

David Shor’s Unified Theory of American Politics