just asking questions

How Democrats Beat Back the GOP on Crime and Inflation

Voters in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Stan Greenberg has been a major figure in the Democratic Party for decades. Well known for his influential study of “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, Greenberg served as Bill Clinton’s pollster in 1992 and was later a polling adviser for world leaders including Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair. He has continued to weigh in on domestic politics with a series of books and a steady stream of articles. And recently, he has been admonishing the Democratic Party over its messaging on crime and the economy — echoing the Clinton campaign’s focus on pocketbook issues for 30 years ago. I spoke with Greenberg, who is a founding partner of Greenberg Research and Democracy Corps, about Tuesday’s surprising results, where Democrats go from here, and whether President Biden should run again.

Democrats confounded most people’s expectations on Tuesday. What’s your big-picture take on why?
Let me mention that I did an Election Day and pre-election survey, a big sample for Democracy Corps and PSG Consulting, which reflects the exit polls. So I’m drawing in part on what I learned from that. First of all, we lost by two points.

It’s a little early to say that definitively, right?
That’s the Edison Research number adjusted for the actual votes cast. So even though we have pulled through and defied what one would expect historically, and considering the remarkable number of people who think the country’s on the wrong track, and considering the out-of -touch national Democratic message — despite that, we were able to hold it to two points when it was poised to be much worse.

But it’s important not to take the wrong lessons from the fact that we were saved by late partisan polarization, which reflects the post-2016 era where we have high turnout and consolidation of both parties. A lot of moderate Democrats in our October poll said they were voting for Republicans, about twice as many Republicans who said they were voting for Democrats. But that disappeared in the intense partisan polarization at the end. And that was driven on the Democratic side by worries about abortion, Social Security, and democracy. On Tuesday, about 3 percent of Democrats voted for Republicans and about 3 percent of Republicans voted for Democrats. A quarter of people in our survey said they made up their mind on the last day, or in the last few days before the election, which we’ve never had before. So we were on a knife’s edge, and it could have been and was poised to be much worse.

We did better than expected with white college women, and better than expected with white unmarried women. So there were some parts of the base, women in particular, that over-performed. And we also did better than expected with Hispanics, close to the margins in 2020. That’s down from what it was before, but in our data, it didn’t erode further in this election. Our poll shows lots of problems with Hispanics for Democrats, but the numbers were pretty good. Obviously Florida’s very different, and a lot of the analysis has centered on what happened there, but Florida is not the country.

As far as I can tell so far, the most unusual thing about this election is that independents swung toward Democrats, which is almost unheard of for a party in power in a midterm. Why do you think that happened?
I suspect it was the same reasons why people who voted Democratic. Those three issues: abortion, threats of Social Security, and democracy.

The Democratic Senate and House candidates were also strong on cost-of-living messaging. They treated that and crime as a priority from the beginning, which is part of why we’re winning these races.

But you wrote a recent, widely read piece in The American Prospect about Democrats’ inability to address crime. How do the results affect your view on that?
If you look at the candidates who won, they addressed the crime problem early on and spent a lot of money being clear that they were against defunding the police, and being clear that they opposed those in the party who are advocating it. Voters believe that we wanted to defund the police. And so if you didn’t make your message almost entirely about respect for police and funding the police, you were not going to make any progress.

I’m actually surprised how much voters are open to rethinking Democrats on crime, but not in the context of this election, where Democrats were mostly saying the wrong thing. They were making the issue more important, but without the right message. The national Democratic message was block grants for more police, banning assault weapons — a range of government programs that our data showed hurt us. If you look at what happened in New York, they led with that kind of messaging.

Crime has ticked up in New York City, but as people like to point out, it’s very safe compared to many other places in America. Yet the crime message seemed to have resonance for people in the state, especially outside the city itself. 
I think it’s beside the point to look at the crime rate in New York City compared to other places. We all had a traumatic experience with the pandemic, and dramatic growth in violent crime beginning in 2020.

In our tests, Biden voters thought that Democratic policy was to defund the police. That was out there as a very powerful branding and description of what our priorities were for years, as voters grew more angry about what was happening on violent crime. When we did polling together with a consortium of other pollsters in 2021, they found in their data that more people in the Black community and Hispanic community were worried about violent crime than they were about police abuse. And Democrats still were not prioritizing it. When I did my polling this year, starting in July, crime matched cost of living as a concern for the Black community. It was virtually the very top problem all of this year going into the election. And this problem is exaggerated, I think, in New York City. The crime problem is visible there, and quibbling over the statistics just misses the fact that Democrats haven’t prioritized public safety.

Do you think that this midterm is a one-off, unique situation because of the Dobbes backlash and other factors, or does it point the path toward something more sustainable for Democrats? 
I think this is a one off. And again, we’re down two points. We’re close in the Senate, but we lost Senate seats that we would not have lost had we had a much stronger message, and recognized the discontent of the majority of Americans, which centers on not getting a pay raise in years and power shifting to the big corporations and top one percent.

Two-thirds of voters give the economy a negative rating. And yet the president continues to go out there and talk about how good the economy is. National Democrats just don’t understand how much pain their own voters are in on the economy, but also their anger and worries about violent crime and anger about the border being opened as well.

Which Senate seats are you referring to that were winnable? Wisconsin?
Yes, and I think Pennsylvania and Georgia would’ve been easier had we been running on the main problem. There’s deep economic discontent in the country.

If you look at where people were in 2000 and where they are in 2022, median income has gone down. And if you look at what’s happened with the Black and Hispanic population, it’s gone even down even more. People have gone through successions of these crises — financial crisis, the pandemic. And they embrace it when the government supports their households, and vote for Medicaid expansion wherever they get the chance. We’ve shown how much what we’ve already done helps families, and Republicans aren’t even in the game.

Do you think Joe Biden should run again?
Biden should not run again. This election being saved from the worst outcome is not a rationale, and this White House is just not in touch with this country that’s demanding change.

What does Ron DeSantis’s dominant evening tell you about the direction of Republicans heading into 2024 and beyond? 
In 1992, when Clinton ran, I watched the support we got from unions, for no reason that I could quite understand. We had the wrong position on trade and other things that they cared about, but they were desperate to win — they had been out of power so long that they supported Clinton, even though we had many more candidates that were pro-union and more aligned with them.

I think Republican voters are going to be very focused on winning. And I think that will become a powerful argument — DeSantis being a winner, Trump being a loser. Despite all of what has been said, I think that will become a compelling rationale. And Trump also faces legal jeopardy and other issues that constantly put him in question as someone who can be elected again.

Do you think DeSantis could assemble the kind of broad coalition that’s needed to win nationally or even when convincingly, the way he’s done in Florida? Will that translate?
I doubt it. I think it’s more about the Democrats. I think we have many voters that are just desperate for Democrats to finally do the right things, to be a party that’s relevant for these times. So think most of it in our court. We should have had a candidate in 2020 that was addressing those issues, but the importance of defeating Trump trumped that, so it put off addressing the modernization of the party. But I think that will happen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How Democrats Beat Back the GOP on Crime and Inflation