The Run-Up: What Democrats and Republicans Got Wrong About Voters

archived recording (reince priebus)

But the report notes that the way we communicate our principles isn’t resonating widely enough. Focus groups described our party as narrow minded, out of touch, and quote, “stuffy old men.”

archived recording (reince priebus)

To those who have left the party, let me say this. We want to earn your trust again. To those who have yet to join us, we welcome you with open arms. There’s more that unites us then you know. And my job is to try and make that clear. And that’s the purpose of the plans that I’ve announced today.

archived recording 1

Election day turns into election night.

archived recording 2

Something happened last night that will forever shake up the coalitions.

archived recording 3

That’s not how it went.

archived recording 4

White men without a four-year college degree came out for Donald Trump in historic numbers.

archived recording 5

Donald Trump called Mexicans rapists, promised to build a wall, and deport undocumented immigrants. And yet, 29 percent of Hispanics nationally voted for Trump.

archived recording 1

Well, a new report underscores Democrats messaging shortfalls with Latino voters in the 2020 election.

archived recording 2

This Latino thing is an issue here for the Democrats.

archived recording 3

And you know what? The trend seems to be continuing in 2022. What you’re looking at —

archived recording (barack obama)

It’s been a long time coming. But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

[CROWD CHEERING]

astead herndon

Are we all recording? We’re all —

adam nagourney

Yes

astead herndon

In your scale of career accomplishments, does this come before or after writing the front-page story about Barack Obama’s election?

adam nagourney

It’s pretty close, Astead. Like I don’t think —

astead herndon

OK, what did the Democratic Party take from the 2008 election? When you were writing that story, what was the political takeaway for the parties?

adam nagourney

So the political takeaway was that the country was moving demographically in the direction of Democrats. And this was not a fluke or sort of a singular event involving Barack Obama, but also that the Democratic Party was going to get bigger and bigger because the country was changing demographically. There’s this whole idea that demography is destiny, and that as the country becomes less white, is there more people of color who are becoming part of the electorate and voting that therefore, automatically, they’re going to be they’re going to be voting Democratic.

astead herndon

So in 2008 when this election happens, it is taken by the Democratic party as more than just an individual sign of Barack Obama being historic and unique, but actually, a larger takeaway the party had about the country. The takeaway seems to be that the country itself had changed.

adam nagourney

That is absolutely right, that there was — I don’t want to use the word “realignment,” because in the world of politics, it’s a bit of a cliche — but that there was a realignment. I just did it. And I remember, I think it was about a year later —

archived recording (bill clinton)

We Democrats have been given an incredible opportunity.

adam nagourney

— 2009 at a fundraising dinner —

archived recording (bill clinton)

To see Barack Obama be president, to me, not just the first African-American president, but a president who represents our future, because he lived in Indonesia. His father was African. His mother was Kansan. That’s really where America is going. It’s never going to be biracial or just —

adam nagourney

— and Bill Clinton came in and sort of made this speech to sort of stop me in my seat —

archived recording (bill clinton)

We have won the great culture war that has divided America for 40 years.

adam nagourney

— in which he talked about how the Democratic Party is about to enter this period of long-term electoral dominance because of the way the country was changing demographically. And I was really struck by it because it was at that point, a pretty new analysis. And whatever people might think of Bill Clinton now, he always —

astead herndon

This was at the height of Bill Clinton’s — he had gravitas saying that’s.

adam nagourney

That’s right. So when he comes along with a political analysis like that, I’m sitting in my chair in a ballroom with my computer on my lap no doubt and I just look up, right? I’m like, he’s saying this. This is really interesting. And that really sort of influenced the way at least I was thinking about where the country is heading.

astead herndon

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been fascinated by this conventional wisdom of 2008 and the Obama era. And I looked back at some of the headlines from that time, and they’re really striking. I mean, one says the end of white America, quote, “The election of Barack Obama is just the most startling manifestation of a larger trend, the gradual erosion of whiteness as the touchstone of what it means to be American.”

Here’s another one from 2009. James Carville, a very famous Democratic voice — the title of his new book was “40 More Years, How Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.” I mean, this is a level of chest thumping that is unique for political parties.

adam nagourney

Absolutely right. So

astead herndon

Those assumptions, particularly about the racial groups coming in and that the white share of the population would decrease, are really undergirding that Democratic confidence. But that’s 2008. In 2009, he is immediately following the initial Obama election. It’s not long before those assumptions are challenged by the rise of the Tea Party.

adam nagourney

That’s right. That’s right. From the Republican Party, the same Republican Party that is supposed to be now dead for the next 40 years, you have the Tea Party arising. And they came to life in response to two of the major initiatives of President Obama’s first two years — the bank bailouts after the 2008 economic collapse, and two, Obamacare.

archived recording

Political aftershocks echoed in Washington.

adam nagourney

And then, boom.

archived recording

Campaign 2010 proved to be an historic election for the Republican Party.

adam nagourney

That really just sort of energized all these voters.

archived recording 1

First, let’s get a sense of the scope, the drama of the Republican victories here.

archived recording 2

By the time the dust settled early today, Republicans had scored the largest party turnover in 70 years.

archived recording (barack obama)

Now, I’m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like me, like I did last night.

adam nagourney

The Democratic Party gets shellacked in the 2010 congressional election. It was a really, really big setback.

archived recording 19

It goes to show you how fast things can change in the political world of the United States.

archived recording 20

And based on our estimates, our projections right now, we believe —

astead herndon

And not only did they lose after all that chest thumping, but they lose specifically in a way that seems to indict the very thing that Clinton was talking about, that Democrats had won the culture war in America. Because I think we should say that that Tea Party movement has a lot of racial undertones.

adam nagourney

Sure.

astead herndon

In some cases, we should say overtones, that are infused with it. It wasn’t just bank bailouts or Obamacare, but it was also birtherism and the belief that Obama wasn’t born in America. How did Democrats think about that piece in relationship to the idea that the country was moving in their cultural direction?

adam nagourney

I don’t think the Democratic Party understood well enough how much that was a rebuttal of the idea that the world is changing and that people of color could not be elected president. I don’t want to generalize here. But I think many of them sort of dismissed that as extremism or just the fringes of a party.

astead herndon

Is part of the reason they dismissed 2010 just that Democrats feel better about their presidential coalition than their midterm coalition, right? It seems like in some ways, they’re just dismissing midterms.

adam nagourney

Yes. Democratic voters you know, historically, just don’t turn out in midterm congressional elections the way they do in presidential elections. So coming into 2012, the White House was reasonably confident — I would say more than reasonably confident — that Obama was going to win a second term because the presidential coalition was different, and just because they were still confident that the country is moving inexorably in this direction that Bill Clinton talked about just a couple of years before.

astead herndon

Right. And Obama winning re-election would seem to validate that. And so when the Republican Party is putting out this autopsy in the wake of his second victory, they’re essentially agreeing with the assumptions that the Democratic Party had already made.

adam nagourney

Yeah. We have a consensus here about what’s going on with the Republican Party. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party, at this point, or at least the establishment, agrees as to what the problems with the Republican Party. It was quite remarkable.

astead herndon

Again, I was reading coverage from that time. And let me just read you a couple of lines that speak to this point you’re saying. I mean, they really jumped out to me.

In one case, quote, “It looked possible that Barack Obama’s election four years ago heralded a new era of Democratic dominance. Now, it looks almost certain. The face of America has changed, and only one party has changed with it.” There was another one that I read that said, “Welcome to liberal America. Barack Obama focus on climate change, weed, and gay marriage. This is the country and the Republican Party has to adapt.”

I mean, that’s really strong media language. I think it speaks to your point. That’s only possible from a media perspective. If that is the agreed view of both parties, it seems as everyone was in agreement at that time that was the mood of the country.

adam nagourney

Just promise me that I did not write that. I hope not.

astead herndon

I promise you. No, Adam Nagourney byline.

adam nagourney

It’s a big oops. Yeah, look. We can look back at it and go, duh. But you know, the fact of the matter is that it was all part of what a lot of very, very smart people were thinking at the time and writing at the time and saying at the time. The examples you use might have gone a little bit further than perhaps, you should go, but that was the ethos right there. You just captured it.

astead herndon

I mean, this helps me understand why Trump’s campaign as we get to 2016, was dismissed from the second he came down the escalator. It seems from what you’re saying that it was more than just because people thought Trump, the person, couldn’t win, or that Trump, the campaign, was unconventional, but that there was a generally accepted conventional wisdom of how you had to become president in this new America. And certainly, Donald Trump couldn’t fit that bill.

adam nagourney

Yeah, one thing to keep in mind is that Trump was sort of trashing this report from almost a day it came out. I found a tweet he wrote where he said, “RNC report was written by the ruling class of consultants who blew the election —

astead herndon

[LAUGHS]

adam nagourney

— short on ideas, just giving excuses to donors.” Now, in 2016, Trump was running against what the Republican Party was saying, had been saying, was necessary to win a national election. He was running against the punditry. He was running against what the Democratic Party was saying about how the country was changing.

And by the way, I said I’m not sure in the long term, we might look back on this and say, that stuff’s all right. But it wasn’t right in 2016. And it wasn’t right with the candidate named Donald Trump.

astead herndon

Hello? Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?

— is the person, who along with Trump, criticized the autopsy when it came out.

kellyanne conway

Hi. It’s Kellyanne. I don’t know what’s wrong with a computer, but I could unmute. I’m on my phone.

astead herndon

I’m curious, do you remember that autopsy and its prescriptions? And then personally, kind of how did you see where Republicans were going into the 2016 race?

kellyanne conway

I do recall the autopsy. And an autopsy presumes that you are working on a corpse, a dead object or person. And so that was the first problem with having an autopsy. It presumed that the Republican Party was on the decline, was moribund. And in some ways, I believe it was sclerotic and non-responsive to everyday Americans concerns. Mitt Romney —

astead herndon

Did you feel that at the time? You felt that at the time?

kellyanne conway

Oh, yes. I said it very publicly. I think I was the only Republican pollster to publicly say that President Obama would be re-elected. It isn’t what I wanted. It isn’t how I voted, but is what I saw.

I don’t know a billion things about a billion things. But I know voters, and I know consumers. And he was a more compelling, persuasive messenger.

I said at the time, said many times since, that they really missed — their political pollsters are not cultural anthropologists. They miss the significance and the consequence to many Americans of the first African-American president. Darn right they were going to go give him a second term. It’s as if these African-American men were going to say, you know, I think the first African-American president — I think four years for him is plenty. Let’s just go get the white guy in the belted khakis who runs the capital. I mean, it was silly on its face.

So there are many miscues. But I think mostly, it was just a lack of connection with the American people and what voters — the angst and frustration that so many voters felt. And that is something that Trump tapped into in 2016.

astead herndon

What is for you the biggest reason that Trump was able to find new voters? One of the assumptions of that memo was that you could not find particularly non-college, white voters, that that was a capped group. Trump has brought more of those folks to the polls. Why do you think that is?

kellyanne conway

So no group is capped. That would be a foolish thing to say because not everyone in this country votes. And sure, you have a capped voter group if you’re doing business as usual in politics, if you’re afraid to actually start listening to people. And Trump reached them through an economic angst message that basically said to them, you still matter.

So that also has an awful lot to do with that we take care of Americans before we worry about taking care of people in other countries. And that’s not cut and dry. And please don’t misuse it or misread it for how it’s intended. What I just said I’d heard in focus groups for ages. Why aren’t we taking care of our own people? We have kids who don’t have enough to eat. We have homeless in the streets. This shouldn’t be in this country. And he was able to sort collect that and reflect that back to many Americans. And I think also —

astead herndon

But the Trump message initially was more than economic. I mean, he also came down of course, built the wall, the kind of cultural messages too.

astead herndon

What did you think about those cultural messages and how those were resonating with the public?

kellyanne conway

You have to be specific. What are they?

astead herndon

I’m talking about build the wall.

kellyanne conway

Because build the wall — the wall was about border security. That to him, is about fairness.

astead herndon

I’m talking about the Mexican and rapists comment. I am talking about some of those comments that also brought people to him. I’m talking about birtherism. I mean, it seems like there’s a whole scope of issues. I understand the trade and economic point. I guess I’m saying, do you see those other things as core to the reasons why people were coming to Trump too?

kellyanne conway

No. I don’t.

astead herndon

You don’t?

kellyanne conway

I don’t. No, I don’t. People vote on their pocketbooks, first and foremost, generally.

kellyanne conway

But after Romney’s loss, they said, oh, my god. Romney lost Hispanics. We must talk more about immigration. It’s like, well then, you’re not listening to Hispanics. Yes, they care about that. But they care about 50 things.

And so listen, we don’t tell voters what’s important to them. They tell us. So sure, you’re going to get a majority of Americans saying a majority of Republicans saying, I think we should reform our immigration laws or enforce them or whatever they’re going to, of course. But where is the intensity? Is that more important to you, as a Hispanic male head of house who wants to keep his job and wants his kids in a better school and wants to make sure his multi-generation household that includes his parents, his mother’s mother, his own kids, and he and his wife — he wants to make sure the issues for all three generations are attended to. And let me tell you something. People — if you don’t know people own guns, if you don’t know people or pro-life, if you don’t know people whose kids go to public school or who don’t have college degrees — and it’s even beyond that, just pretending people don’t exist, like, oh, I can’t believe anybody would actually go to church on Wednesdays and Sundays. I can’t believe anybody would actually own 12 guns. And I can’t believe — well, there are people out there like that.

And just attacking Trump and never really educating oneself on the Trump voters, now 74 million strong — I mean, that is ignorance and arrogance.

Here’s what I would say to you. We never deeply examine that which we deeply disdain. And that’s what’s happened. That’s what happened with the autopsy.

archived recording 1

It’s great to have you with us here on this election night in America, perhaps the most consequential election in a generation.

archived recording 2

We’re getting a read right now at least, of who came out to vote. And that picture is not necessarily as expected. When you look at the demographics —

archived recording 4

This is potentially the trouble spot for Joe Biden. And it’s Miami-Dade. As you can see —

archived recording 5

Where the Cuban turnout was 13 points higher for Trump. So there’s undeniably something real going on here.

jenny medina

Were you kicked out of choir, Astead?

astead herndon

Literally thrown out, but that’s a story for another day.

jenny medina
astead herndon

OK. So, Jenny, take me back to election night 2020. I mean, how did it feel to have the rest of the political world waking up to something that you have been trying to say and your stories have been reporting for a long time now, which is that the Latino vote is broad and complicated and definitely shouldn’t be taken for granted by Democrats.

jenny medina

Right. What happened on election night 2020 was sort of funny in a way, because the first results that came in that applied to this were the Florida results. And the reaction from the sort of pundit class and on television was like, what’s going on there? And there was just total shock.

But the reality is, is that Cubans in Miami, Latinos in Florida have been voting for Republicans for a very long time. So for anybody paying attention, it wasn’t a shock at all. And at the same time that that’s happening, you have another state, Arizona, where the results were much murkier. And eventually, the state swung toward Democrats, for Joe Biden, in large part because of Latino voters there. And so you had these two things going on at the same time.

But to me, the really interesting part was Texas and South Texas, specifically, because that’s a region that had voted for Democrats for decades for really more than a century. And all of a sudden, you saw these dramatic swings toward Trump.

astead herndon

So I want to break this all down, because I know that you have a perspective on that election that I think might surprise some people, which is that you see the presidential election in 2020 as a bigger bombshell for the political establishment than in 2016. Am I representing that right?

jenny medina

Yes. I mean for me, 2016 really wasn’t all that much of a surprise. I live in California where we have all seen other politicians ride to power on this anti-immigration message, anti-immigrant message. That didn’t seem so shocking to me. That seems like a repeat of what we’ve seen throughout history.

I think what I expected, and what many people in the political establishment expected, was a real severe backlash, particularly from Latino voters against Trump after 2016 and going into 2020. And of course, that’s really not at all what we saw. You had him coming down of course, the escalator insulting Mexicans. And not only that, you had four years of real anti-immigrant policies and sort of this continued rhetoric of anti-immigration and build the wall.

And Democrats sort of banked on this notion that they could be anybody but Trump and win among those voters. And in fact, that’s not at all what happened.

astead herndon

So given all of those things, I can see how the long-held assumptions about how minority voters would behave could still hold as recently as two years ago. But I’ve yet to hear an explanation for why people were so convinced that minority voters would universally back Democrats. I mean, do you have some kind of sense of where that belief comes from?

jenny medina

Oh, for sure, part of that belief comes from the story of California and what we had seen here over the last few decades.

astead herndon

What do you mean?

jenny medina

Well, in 1994, there was a ballot measure called Proposition 187. And that would have basically made it impossible for any undocumented immigrant to receive any sort of social services. Any kind of non-emergency health care, public education, anything like that would have been explicitly prohibited. And at the time, there was somebody, a Republican named Pete Wilson, running for reelection as governor. And just like President Trump did —

archived recording 1

They keep coming — 2 million illegal immigrants in California.

jenny medina

— he really campaigned on this message of anti-immigration.

archived recording 1

The federal government won’t stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.

jenny medina

— and cracking down on illegal immigration.

archived recording 2

And on working to deny state services to illegal immigrants.

jenny medina

And use the enthusiasm for Prop 187 to win reelection.

astead herndon

Keep California great again.

jenny medina

Absolutely. And keep California great by kicking these immigrants out or stopping their flow or stop giving them services. And just like happened in 2016, white voters really showed up and of course, voted in favor of this measure and voted in favor of Pete Wilson who won reelection.

But the victory for Republicans was sort of a mirage. Because what happened next in all the subsequent years is that Hispanic voters registered in force. There was a big surge of new voters, new citizenship, from Latino voters. And they showed up overwhelmingly for Democrats. And it was a backlash against the Republican Party.

So instead of being the sort of purplish state that California had been for a long time, this is the state that elected Ronald Reagan, remember, California turned into this solidly blue, deeply blue place we know it as now, in part because of those new Latino voters.

astead herndon

OK, so this feels like a critical piece of our puzzle. California is really where the assumption that an influx of Latino voter would be good news for the Democratic party. That’s where it comes from. I mean, it seems that’s why the political establishment was caught so off guard in 2020 was because they took the lesson of the 1990s, that Prop 187 lesson, to say that it applied to Latino voters all across the country, that they would behave just as Latinos in California did. Is that right?

jenny medina

Right. I mean, the term “Latino” encompasses this huge diversity of people, some people who have been in the country for a few years, and some people who have been here for many generations, some people who come for economic reasons, and some who come sort of fleeing dictatorships and communism. And everybody comes with a different set of assumptions and a different set of desires and a different history.

And there has been this sort of pervasive notion that Latinos are a voting bloc, that they’re some sort of monolithic vote, that it will overwhelmingly favor one party or another, and it’s going to march in lockstep together. And though that’s been a pervasive sort of conventional wisdom thought, it’s never been borne out in reality in the data.

astead herndon

So coming out of that election, it seems that both parties, and in particular Republicans, understand that some Latino voters are willing to support the party in places they may not have expected, that they can make big difference in elections. How then, did they apply that going forward? How do they use that information for say, this year’s midterms?

jenny medina

I mean, I think what Republicans really took from 2020 is this notion that they could still use the kind of rhetoric, including anti-immigration rhetoric that they wanted to use, and not lose Latino voters in many parts of the country. And it’s now gotten to the point in 2022 where it’s not just voters that this is attracting. There’s actually a record number of Hispanic candidates running as Republicans.

And one of the most interesting places to see that play out is South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, where you have several races where Latinos are running as Republicans in Democratic strongholds and believe that they can win. And probably the most interesting place to see this is the Texas 15 congressional race.

archived recording (monica de la cruz)

My name is Monica de La Cruz. And I live —

jenny medina

— where you have a Republican, Monica de La Cruz —

archived recording (monica de la cruz)

My home is close to port of entry for illegal immigrants.

jenny medina

She’s very much in favor of a border wall.

archived recording (monica de la cruz)

And the Biden administration has given a green light to the cartels, to the Mexican cartels, to take control of this border.

jenny medina

She’s very heavily focused on border security. She’s talked about elections being stolen. She’s just unapologetically a Trump Republican candidate and thinks that she can swing the district to go for Republicans for the first time in basically a century.

astead herndon

I mean, Jenny, hearing you say all of this, I’m struck by the fact that when Reince Priebus put out that autopsy 10 years ago, the thought was that Republicans had to improve among Latino voters. But doing so required them to embrace immigration reform, to moderate their messages on race and particularly immigration. Now in 2022, you have Republicans making real inroads with Latino voters and an increasing landscape of Latino candidates.

But, at least in Texas, that is not coming through the autopsy’s vision of how you needed to talk to those communities. It’s coming through a Latina candidate, who herself, is campaigning against immigration reform.

jenny medina

I don’t know that anybody could have with a straight face, predicted that, or at least have anybody believe that prediction. I mean, the conventional wisdom was absolutely that Republicans needed to soften their message on immigration in order to win these new Hispanic voters across the country. And now what we’re seeing is that’s just not at all the case.

astead herndon

So we started this show by saying I was going to ask provocative questions. So I want to ask one. Did Trump solve the memo? I mean, he didn’t embrace immigration reform. He didn’t stop anti-immigration rhetoric.

But still, the Republican Party is making meaningful inroads and running credible Latino candidates. Do they have to credit Donald Trump for that?

jenny medina

Well, sort of. I mean, there’s no question Donald Trump deserves credit for some of this enthusiasm. In the Rio Grande Valley that we’re talking about for example, there were Trump trains all the time, of these big trucks with Trump flags flying off the back of them.

astead herndon

Quite literal trains.

jenny medina

Well —

astead herndon

Well, I guess not —

jenny medina

Caravans —

astead herndon

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

jenny medina

Trump caravans.

astead herndon

Quite literal — I mean, the millennial definition of literal, which is not literal at all.

jenny medina

So you had these Trump caravans that were bringing out voters. And I think it’s important to say some of these voters are first-time voters who had never voted for their lives. And the first vote they cast is for Donald Trump.

But honestly, I think that also gives him a little too much credit and paints a little bit too simplistic of a picture. Because what we really still do not know is if this is some significant, meaningful, lasting change. Is this really a big shift? Or is this sort of a blip and just the normal historical swing that we’ve seen among Latino voters for decades?

astead herndon

So at the first mistake was expecting this group of voters to embrace the Democratic Party as a blowback to that conservative, anti-immigration rhetoric. We could be making a mistake in the opposite direction, which is expecting a mass rush to Republicans and some big Democratic blowback when there’s not really evidence of either.

jenny medina

Right. There’s this notion among a lot of Republicans that I talked to and even pundits who will say, oh, well, these Hispanic voters are conservative. And their values have been conservative all along. And this is the party they really belong to.

And I think that just is an oversimplification. I mean, there is a widespread assumption that Latinos care about immigration more than anything else. That’s not been borne out in polling. There is a widespread assumption now, to go back to the overcorrecting, that all Latinos care about is the economy at the expense of everything else. I also don’t think that is the case.

astead herndon

So, Jenny, after all of these stories, after traveling and talking to folks, what do you think your reporting tells you about the idea that demographics were destiny, that the racial changes in the country driven by Latino voters were going to help the Democratic Party?

jenny medina

I mean, I think it’s very clear at this point that demographics alone, are absolutely not destiny, and that Democrats cannot count on the sort of sheer goodwill of Hispanic voters to ride to power, that they’re going to have to work for that and that it will be a long protracted battle with Republicans for many years going forward.

archived recording (president biden)

That’s why tonight, I’m asking our nation to come together, unite behind the single purpose of defending our democracy, regardless of your ideology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *