Democrats' disdain for voters could cost them another election

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At a 2017 event, we asked George Stephanopoulos, in the context of the 2016 election that Donald Trump won, “Does the Democratic Party understand how angry people are? How do they plan on addressing that?” His dismissive response: “One-third of the country is always going to hate us, there’s nothing we can do about that.” Jake Sullivan, who was in conversation with Stephanopoulos, largely agreed. This sentiment echoes the disdain in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 speech at a fundraiser, when she said “. . . you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” 

Now, with President Biden, there’s another kind of disdain: for members of his party.

In his Friday interview on ABC with Stephanopoulos, Biden tried to prove that he is more coherent and capable than his debate performance. The interview is unlikely to quell voter unease. By denying what over 50 million people saw, Biden is risking a perception that he believes that he alone is right, and what his own supporters believe is wrong. By admitting to Stephanopoulos that he hadn’t even watched the debate and that only the “Lord Almighty” could potentially persuade him to exit the race, Biden is denigrating the legitimate concerns of many of Democratic voters.

After his disastrous debate, Biden has refused to step aside, stating “I’m the nominee of the Democratic Party. No one’s pushing me out. I’m not leaving.” This is exactly the kind of disdain for Democratic voters that is likely to cost Democrats the November 2024 election. Biden’s debate performance raised well-founded worries over his diminished capacity to communicate persuasively, and his energy level for a highly demanding job.

Voters saw and heard the debate for themselves. Viewers of the interview heard Stephanopoulos ask: “If you stay in and Trump is elected and everything you’re warning about comes to pass, how will you feel in January?” And they heard Biden’s answer. “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the goodest job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.” 

In short, it’s about Biden’s ego, his stubborn insistence on clinging to power, not about democracy. Telling voters they’re wrong, that, over their strong objections, Biden is still the best and only candidate, is not only arrogant: It’s gaslighting and beyond patronizing. It’s also alarming. If Biden refuses to believe his declining poll numbers, take a cognitive test or acknowledge any frailty at all, how much other data crucial to making informed decisions will he ignore if the facts don’t comport with his worldview or pre-existing biases?

Biden decided to seek reelection in late November 2022, in spite of a 52 percent disapproval rating and a poll where 56 percent voters who leaned Democrat preferred a Democratic candidate other than Biden. Instead of listening to voters’ clear preference for someone else, Biden consulted only family members and close advisors when making his decision, and the Democratic National Committee didn’t organize any primary debates. Due to a collective action problem, with career risk to any prominent Democrat who suggested that Biden shouldn’t run, Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips was the only Democrat who, after fruitlessly urging moderate Democratic governors to run for the nomination, ran a short-lived campaign himself.

Since April 2023, when Biden announced his reelection bid, his disapproval rating has continued to increase; it was 56 percent before the June 27, 2024 debate, and is now over 57 percent, while his approval rating has slumped to 37 percent, lower than Trump’s 41.8 percent. Since Biden’s debate performance, Trump has pulled further ahead of Biden, leading him by 8 points among registered voters nationally, and ahead in all seven swing states: by two points or more in Pennsylvania and Michigan, by almost six points in Arizona, and by six points in Georgia. 

Voters were never given a real choice in candidates during the Democratic primaries, because of Biden’s decision to seek reelection. Even if Biden steps down, Vice President Kamala Harris likely will be the presumptive nominee, either via Biden’s delegates being encouraged to vote for her at the Democratic National Convention, or, if she doesn’t win a majority on the first ballot, by a vote of the approximately 750 unpledged superdelegates.

No wonder Democratic voters are frustrated and apathetic. If Biden and Democratic leaders truly cared about the Democratic Party and not only their own power and careers, they would seek to involve voters as much as possible, inviting new Democratic candidates to participate in primary debates with each other, with town halls and voter polls conducted, especially in critical swing states, so that delegates to the Democratic National Convention could take voters’ views into account when voting in Chicago in August.

Listening to the electorate builds trust, enthusiasm and voter turnout. Forcing a candidate upon voters evinces condescension and disdain. For all of Trump’s flaws (or perhaps because of them), his supporters never feel that he is talking down to them. Republican voters had ample opportunity to choose a different candidate, from former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a crowded primary field. They chose Trump.

Yet Biden and the Democratic Party now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse this perception of disdain. Only if Democrats (and Biden in particular) start listening to and respecting their voters, and giving them a voice, will Democrats prevail in November.

Hilary Stockton is a business owner and writer. Greg Stockton is an attorney and writer.

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