I’m worried that democracy is being eroded.
Our Democratic system is under direct threat.
I think democracy’s — I think it’s much more fragile than I realized.
Well, as I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault.
I’m asking our nation to come together, unite behind the single purpose of defending our democracy, regardless of your ideology.
And everybody who’s listening to this podcast, who cares about these issues, needs to fight harder. I mean, make phone calls. Go door to door. Send resources.
In our bones, we know democracy is at risk. But we also know this. It’s within our power, each and every one of us, to preserve our democracy.
You have the power. It’s your choice. It’s your decision. The fate of the nation, the fate of the soul of America, lies where it always does, with the people.
Shane, have you recovered from last week?
I mean, it’s like one week ago for the formal end of the 2022 campaign. We haven’t even called the House at this exact moment, and yet we’re about to have a 2024 campaign. So I would say, no, I have not. I have not yet recovered.
You know, I remember —
Shane, I’m really excited to have you on and to be able to do this. For maybe the unaware, you’re a national political correspondent, which means that pretty much your job is to understand the parties and where they’re at, what they’re up to, what their message is particularly at a high level.
In that context, I want to think about the midterms that we all just experienced. How was the Democratic Party thinking about Joe Biden’s message heading into the midterms? And how was the party specifically thinking about his ask of voters to protect democracy over everything else?
I mean, I would say the weekend before the midterms, the party was largely freaking out. They were freaking out about what they expected to be significant losses in the House of Representatives. They were freaking out about the possibility of also losing the Senate. And when it came to the president, they were worried that he wasn’t talking about the issue that in poll after poll was shown to be the top issue for voters in 2022, which was the economy and inflation.
And there was actually a moment just before the midterms that I think really captured this, which was Hilary Rosen, who is this longtime Democratic strategist, been around forever, and she did the Sunday shows. And she was on CNN. And she sort of ripped into the Democrats and said, we have missed the message on this election.
The voters keep telling us over and over, we care most about the economy. And all we are doing is talking about how democracy is at stake. This is the catch phrase in politics. It’s like, meet people where they’re at, right? So we were not meeting people where we’re at. That was the concern that Democrats had over and over and over again heading into the election.
I mean, one of the nights that I was working, one of the many nights that I was working late this last few weeks, and I was in the office, I stayed to cover Joe Biden’s speech about democracy. And I was in the office late enough that I said, I’m taking a taxi home. And I remember calling.
And I talked to several Democrats on my taxi ride home. And I was saying, hey, what did you think of the president’s speech? And they said, look, I mean, it’s fine. They weren’t against him giving a speech about democracy the week before the election, but it wasn’t what their campaigns were about. They felt that it was him talking about an important moral cause, but not necessarily something that was helpful politically.
Right. There was a feeling that Biden and other Democrats were overly focused on trying to convince voters to reject growing extremism and that maybe that wasn’t something that the majority of Americans were all that troubled by.
Yeah. I mean, there was a ton of criticism for Democrats for intervening a handful of these primaries to push these more extreme Republican candidates who were successful in a House race in Michigan, where the Democrats backed a more extreme Republican who ousted in a primary, one of the 10 Republicans who had voted to impeach Donald Trump. There was pushback to that.
There was pushback to Democrats pushing through candidates, for instance, in Illinois for governor and how the Democrats got a lot of — can you say shit? While the Democrats got a lot of problems for doing that, you can lose the fact that there’s a supply and demand issue here, which is the Republican electorate, there was demand for these kinds of candidates. So the Democrats —
— helped supply the candidates, but the voters were looking for them. And so when Joe Biden was talking about this, he was talking about a real phenomenon that the Republican Party was moving in this direction, that if you took the totality of the 2022 primaries, Donald Trump, for the most part, was winning in terms of getting candidates aligned with him through the Republican primaries. And so when you look at how the results came out, his focus on democracy was part of a broader message that he was pushing. It was part —
— of a broader message that Democrats were pushing, which was this is a Republican Party that is so extreme that they will take away your democracy. They will take away your abortion rights. They’ll take away your Social Security. They’ll take away your X, Y and Z. And put it all together, and it seems like it had some success.
Mm. Two things there. One, to highlight what you said, I think that is a core point. What we often talk about as bad candidates was really a reflection of what Republican voters wanted. The slate that Republicans had in this midterm, as we talked about on this show, was often driven by Republican voters who have wanted those grievances reflected in their candidates.
But then the second thing here is, I mean, it wasn’t fully out of left field for people to question that democracy messaging strategy, right? To your point, polling did consistently show that Americans ranked economy as the top concern, concerns about inflation as a broader concern. How should we think about that type of issue-based polling that told us that consistently throughout the year and what we know to be true now, which is that voters were really concerned about democracy and protecting the political system?
Yeah. I mean, I think the real question is about how do you ask people, what are the issues you care most about? Because in poll after poll, including The New York Times poll that we did in October, overwhelmingly, inflation and the economy were the top issues. It was 44 percent of voters said those were the top issues for them. And democracy, that was down at the 8 percent, 9 percent range.
And so if you’re going to say, well, what’s the most important issue, I think the most important issue of the 2022 elections was probably the economy and inflation, but it doesn’t mean that it was the decisive issue. And I think that that’s where you get into what the Democratic messaging was, which was it was trying to take this election and, for voters, say, look, you might not like the economy, you might not like Joe Biden, but if you go to the voting booth, don’t just think about the economy.
Don’t just think about Joe Biden. Think about the broader consequences for this country. Don’t make it a referendum on Joe Biden. Don’t say, I don’t like Joe Biden, so we’re going to vote for the Republican. Say, I don’t like Joe Biden, but I also really do value abortion rights. But I also really do value free and fair elections. But I also really do value X, Y and Z priorities that the Democratic Party aligned with them on.
And what you can see is, in totality, in many states — we can get into this, but in many states — the results show that on balance, voters were choosing the suite of issues that were not just their feelings about Joe Biden and not just their feelings about the economy when they cast their ballots.
Mm-hmm. I know it’s just a week from election results. I know that we’re going to get more and more info about the specifics of who came out on Tuesday. But to the extent that we know now, who responded specifically to that message about protecting democracy?
I think I’d answer that question a little bit differently by not exactly answering your question. But what I would say is that Joe Biden won in 2020 chiefly by motivating an anti-Trump, stop-Trump coalition. And the same coalition was what delivered Democrats the House of Representatives in 2018.
And so for the Democrats, for the White House, this was the kind of messaging that could pull the party together and bring in progressives who might have been disaffected with some of the things that Joe Biden didn’t push through, moderates who might have had misgivings about Joe Biden’s leadership, that those are both voters who went with Joe Biden in 2020, and that this kind of messaging could bring them around in 2022.
And while the exit polls will continue to get adjusted in the days and weeks ahead, there’s one really interesting finding in the exit polls that shows where this worked, which is voters rank their feelings about the president in four main categories. Do you approve strongly?
Do you somewhat approve? Do you somewhat disapprove? Or do you strongly disapprove? What happened this election that’s really different is that voters who somewhat disapproved of Joe Biden actually voted for the Democrats.
So a plurality, 49 percent, of voters who said they somewhat disapproved of Joe Biden, they nonetheless went and voted for a Democrat for Congress. And that’s very different than what has happened before. In the 2018 midterms, during Trump’s first term, during the 2010 midterms, during Barack Obama’s first term, those voters went overwhelmingly for the opposition party. So for months going into the election, Republicans said, oh, look at Joe Biden’s approval rating. We’re going to win. The environment is so bad. He’s at 41 percent. He’s at 40 percent. This is toxic. You can’t run that far ahead of Joe Biden’s political gravity. And at the end of the day, that’s what Democrats did because a chunk of voters, who didn’t like Joe Biden, nonetheless went and voted for a Democrat.
It somewhat feels like 2020, where you have this unlikely and, frankly, relatively dissatisfied coalition turn up and vote for the Democrat anyway, even though it wasn’t always clear that they would.
I mean, this is the dynamic typically in a midterm, right? The party out of power — and at this point, the Republicans were out of the House, they were out of the Senate, and they were out of the White House — they’re usually the party that’s most pissed off. They’re the party that’s aggrieved. They’re the party that’s getting policy stuffed down their throat that they hate.
And if you look back at 2018, and you think about how Democrats were feeling during those midterms, they were the ones having everything ripped away from them by Donald Trump. And you go back to 2010 and think about those midterms. It was the Republicans who were exclusively having everything ripped away from them by Democrats. They were angry about the spending. They were angry about the health care bill.
But this year, it was different. The single most impactful change that happened, it was being stuffed down the throats of Democrats, right? The Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court, it’s just hard to overlook. This took away a half-century of federal abortion rights.
And so what you had is a Democratic base — not just a Republican base, but a Democratic base — that was having their policy priorities ripped away from them. So the dynamics were different. And I think that the messaging around the Republican Party sort of tried to tie all those things together. And I think it surprised most people. It surprised even Democrats the degree to which it was successful.
The Republicans are still taking control of the House. And in the House, 218 votes is the only thing that matters. They’ll have subpoena power. They’ll have power to initiate investigations. But when it comes to setting the stakes of how the election unfolded, I do think it’s hard to overlook that inversion, that the party out of power is usually the ones that are getting screwed. And in this case, the people who are in power in Washington, their voters are the ones feeling most aggrieved.
So Shane, Democrats were able to successfully make the case for democracy protection, especially in important battleground races. But let’s square that, though, with results we saw in other parts of the country. I’m thinking of New York or Florida, where there was a significant shift in the Republican direction. This is something our colleague, Nate Cohn, has been reporting on.
The 2022 midterms unfolded in a way that recent midterms and recent elections haven’t, frankly, which is to say they didn’t unfold uniformly, the same way, all across the country. There wasn’t so much a national trend at the House of Representatives. There was a series of state trends.
In New York, the Republicans are going to pick up several seats, even though this is one of the most Democratic states in the country. But in many of the battlegrounds, the places where Trump-aligned candidates were talking about not certifying the last election, states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, there wasn’t a red wave. There was a blue wave, that voters came out because they were motivated by the suite of issues we talked about already.
They were motivated to protect democracy. They were motivated because abortion was quite literally on the ballot in Michigan this year, where there was an abortion measure. And in Michigan, the Democrats are actually taking more power, taking over parts of the legislature.
In Pennsylvania, there was a strong rejection of the Republican candidate for Governor Doug Mastriano by, really, a landslide in a state that’s that close. And along the way, John Fetterman won the Senate race. The only Senate seat to flip so far is for the Democrats, and it came in a battleground state.
And so in these states, where the issues of democracy and abortion were more viscerally there, they won statewide, and they won locally. And so that was a very different election than the one you saw in New York. It was a very different election than you’ve seen in California, where they continue to count the votes.
It wasn’t that there wasn’t some red waves. It was that the red wave was true in New York, but it wasn’t true next door in Pennsylvania. And, again, that’s different. We have not seen an election like that, that was localized by state, in many years.
I guess you’re saying that to the extent that media and the Democratic Party missed the story, it was in seeing things going the way that you would expect, or even worse, in places like New York or Florida and thinking, oh, this is going to be what happens nationally, that voters are not going to respond to that kind of “democracy on the ballot” question. It won’t be enough.
When as it turned out, particularly in the most critical races, in the biggest battlegrounds, and when democracy and extremism felt really tangible to voters, when it didn’t feel, really, like a theory or academic concept, people did behave very differently.
I mean, if you look at the win-loss record of the Republicans that Trump backed, who were election deniers in these key swing states, it’s overwhelmingly a series of losses. It’s Kari Lake in Arizona losing. It’s Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania losing. It’s Tim Michels in Wisconsin losing. It’s Tudor Dixon in Michigan losing.
The lone win is in Nevada, where the Republican is winning the governorship and unseating the Democratic governor. That’s just the governors’ races. And if you go into Secretary of States’ races, all of the Republican candidates who ran on Trump’s denial of the last election, they all lost. And you just don’t often get that kind of uniform defeat in a midterm for the party out of power.
Mm-hmm. It’s interesting because in the lead up to the election, abortion and democracy were sort of being talked about as two distinct and separate issues — abortion as a tangible issue that might mobilize voters and help Democrats turn out specifically among the base, and democracy as this kind of existential threat that it wasn’t clear if Americans would respond to.
But in the end, it seems like you’re describing a midterms environment where they sort of work together as part of a larger message about unchecked extremism among Republicans and that abortion and what has happened to Roe v. Wade was, on some level, an example of how Republicans have distorted democracy. And that’s how it resonated with swing voters to back Democrats. Intertwined issues rather than distinct ones — is that fair?
Yeah. I think you can go back to the messaging that was coming from the White House, some of which was mocked, which is that Joe Biden, early in 2022, started using the word ultra MAGA.
Then this was not an accidental label. This is a label that had come through months of research by groups aligned with the White House saying, look, we made word clouds of what Democratic talkers said about the Republican Party, and it looks like a mess. Nothing pops out.
We see all these different words — spineless, supremacist, democracy, cowardly, petrified, race, culture, wars, identity, politics, divisive. But they’re all around the same size. There’s no singular message.
And what we need is a label, a label that we can put on the Republican Party that voters already associate with negative things. And the research came up that MAGA, which is a term that the Republican Party had embraced, that MAGA was actually an effective tool to lump these things together in the minds of voters because voters already were lumping them together.
Mm-hmm. And voters already intuitively felt Republicans were changing.
They felt that they were changing. And they felt that this MAGA label, the Trump-embraced MAGA label, in this research, it meant already radical and extreme and power hungry. So the Dobbs decision leaks, and Joe Biden rolls out this ultra MAGA label. And it told voters that a big change was coming, that a Supreme Court was, in the view of many Democrats, radically rewriting what was the law for 50 years around abortion. And so yeah, it fit into that messaging frame. And I’m not saying that this was a brilliant plan, that the White House had concocted to come up with this just before this happened, right? Some of this is happenstance. But what is true is that Joe Biden went from that 2020 race, where he was talking exclusively about Trump, to a broader label. And some of the reporting I’ve done shows that it wasn’t easy, necessarily, for him to come to using a label, right? He is a label-averse kind of a guy.
He is a Senator who reached across the aisle, who prizes his relationship with Republicans, who is proud of the fact that he got some Republicans to line up with him on an infrastructure package, right? He is not the first person to go use words to label the party writ large.
But he came to this in part from some conversations he’d had with historians. So Biden meets with historians at the White House occasionally. And they told him that, according to a person who’s spoken with Biden about this, that this kind of labeling, that it’s effective. And it has been effective throughout history at sort of battling far-right factions. And so Biden did really come to embrace it.
And interestingly, after Biden embraced this kind of label, so did Trump, right? He slapped ultra MAGA on a T-shirt. He slapped it on wine glasses and pint glasses. And he says, I’m your MAGA king, just days before the election. And so if you’re trying to push out a message that this party is this thing, and the other party wraps themselves up in it too, it helps promote the message, right? And the combination was that it stuck, that I think for —
Oh, go on.
No, no, no. I want you to finish. But I’m saying, I’m sure in the Trump Republican head, they thought that this was going to be another basket-of-deplorables moment, to go back to 2016, that they could use a label that came from Democrats and actually use it as something that they can embrace branding-wise to drive energy among the base. I think the key difference here is while in 2016, independents, swing voters did not like the Democratic options and did not view the Republicans as radical, in this case, MAGA Republicans is, in fact, something that they ended up punishing Republicans for.
I mean, I think the biggest challenge for Trump in 2022 and going into 2024 is the idea of Donald Trump was deeply appealing to the middle in 2016, the middle that was really unhappy with where the country was and was ready —
— to just break things, right? When you talked to voters in 2016, voters were talking about upending the system. And he was the candidate who they thought would do it. And it was a risky bet, but you know what? Let’s just do it. It’s time. And they saw what that looked like. They had four years of it. And when it comes to denying the election, they saw a pretty ugly result at the end of those four years. This has not showed up in polling, and it’s really one of those things that’s impossible to test, but I am really curious about how the assault on Nancy Pelosi’s husband played at the very end of the cycle.
I am too. I really think this was a late break from those independent moderates, and something happened in the last couple of weeks. And that was a real example of that extremism and violence.
Yeah. It’s hard not to overlook that this political cycle began with violence and ended with violence, right? Democrats took control of the Senate on January 5, 2021. And on January 6, the Capitol riot happens, right? It is the first full day the Democrats are now going to be in control of Washington.
Now, they hadn’t taken formal control yet, but the first full day. And at the very end of the cycle, you had another example of political violence and the break-in of Nancy Pelosi’s husband, which was not met with the kind of universal condemnation by the Republican Party that it might have once been. It was met with some conspiracy theories spreading at the highest levels. The break-in —
It was met with jokes by some candidates on the ballot for Tuesday.
It was met with jokes by some. It was met with mocking by others. There were memes that was pushed out by Donald Trump Jr. The idea that the country was moving toward a place where the octogenarian husband of the House Speaker could be in their own home, somebody could break in, a politically motivated assailant could break in, threatening to potentially kidnap the House Speaker, and bludgeon her husband with a hammer —
Again, there’s not polling to show the impact of this, but it’s one of those moments that almost everyone in the country heard about. And it’s hard not to imagine that it didn’t have some impact on the psyche of voters as they went to the polls. Again, I don’t have any way to show that yet, and I’m not even sure how you would, but it just feels like the kind of moment that matters.
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. In 2016, people agreed with Trump that the system was broken and that the establishment was totally out of touch. But in 2022, there is not that same level of agreement, particularly when what has become of the Republican establishment now represents a openly, at least in this cycle, anti-democratic wing. It seems like a key question here then, is to what extent should we see this as a Democratic victory versus a Republican loss, that the GOP just handed them this huge advantage in the form of Trumpism, in the form of extremist positions, in the form of out-of-touch candidates?
Can you ask that again?
[LAUGHS] To what extent did Democrats win this? And to what extent did Republicans lose this?
I mean, I don’t know that there’s a clear answer to that question. There’s never just one side of an election, that just one side won and one side lost. I think that what is clear is that that embrace of Trump without Trump on the ballot was not helpful. And I think that that’s something worth looking at too, which is that for all the talk of the downsides of Trump this year — and there’s a lot of talk among Republicans about the downsides of Trump this year — there is an argument from Trump allies that what they really needed was Trump himself.
The problem wasn’t —
That everyone else is doing diet Trump, and what —
— people want is the pure, unfiltered stuff.
That there’s no substitute for the real thing, right? And so by the way, this is a calculus that House Democrats made at the very beginning of the cycle. They did a big study of what went wrong in 2020. So House Democrats lost seats in 2020. They are likely to have lost more seats in 2020 than they lost in 2022, in a year where everyone is expecting them to lose a bunch of seats.
So after that 2020 race, they set off on this big internal study. They called it the Deep Dive. And in this study, one of the findings they had was, we think, that Trump is a minus, Trump is a big political loser, because Trump’s base doesn’t turn out.
And so in this big PowerPoint presentation that they presented to their conference early in 2021, they had a few slides talking about this exact question and said, what’s going to happen if he’s not there? And one of the side questions they had — and I’ll read it to you — is, will this Trump toxicity work without Trump turnout?
These are negative things that Trump has brought about for his party, but he also had an upside. He brought out people who otherwise weren’t voting. And so in the post mortem that’s happening, I think it can get lost that there are people inside the Republican Party who don’t see the lesson as less Trump. They see the lesson as more Trump. And that’s playing out right now as House Republicans select their leadership team for the coming Congress.
That does feel like the core question facing the Republican Party right now, not just what to do about Donald Trump as an individual, but what are the defining features of Trumpism? And how much does that have a place among the Republican base? As Donald Trump makes his presidential announcement, this is what the party is asking itself.
Yeah, and it’s going to ask itself in two key places simultaneously over the next two years. Place one is the campaign trail, where the question will be, do people run against Trump, and how many of them, because he won, again, the 2016 Republican primary through a fractured field, right? That was not a majority of the Republicans. But he still holds an almost exclusive hold on 35 percent to 40 percent of the Republican Party. And so when I’ve talked to Republicans, the question is, how many want to run? Well, they’re all afraid that too many of them would run, and the chance if one strong one gets in, then many of them will get in, and then he skates through a divided field. So it will happen on the campaign trail, but it’s also going to be happening on Capitol Hill, where I don’t think we should forget that even if Republicans had a deeply disappointing night, they are on track to have the House majority.
And once they have the House majority, they have subpoena power. They have ability to pass legislation. They have an ability to set their own agenda separate from Donald Trump. To the extent that Kevin McCarthy as potential House Speaker is able to muscle through legislation, he can put out legislation that would define what a Republican Party could stand for separate and in addition to Donald Trump.
He could initiate investigations into the Biden administration that would define what the party stands for separate and in addition to Donald Trump. So the question of what does the party become, it’s going to happen in two places at once.
Mm-hmm. It feels like, to your point about the campaign trail and about Capitol Hill, it’s really a question about Republican voters themselves. Donald Trump, from every indication I’ve ever had about the man, is going to say the things that he has always said. To me, what seems to be the open question is whether that 30 percent to 35 percent that has been so tied to him responds to those messages in the same way and, to your point about Capitol Hill, whether they’re pressuring the Republican House to really play out Trump’s grievances, because what we could be defining as Trumpism could be just what the Republican base believes in, whether Donald Trump is leading the charge or not.
Well, Astead, I think you know this better than almost any other political reporter, which is they call themselves political leaders, but, in many cases, politicians are political followers. They’re following where the votes are. They’re following where their base is. They’re following the first election they face in every election, which is the primary. Their chief concern politically is their own base. And so where the base of the Democratic Party goes and where the base of the Republican Party goes, so goes the party itself in general.
Mm, mm-hmm. As we said, there’s an open question about that Republican base. But to your point about the Democratic base, what should they take from the results on this Tuesday? I mean, on one hand, there is a universal understanding of Democrats beating expectations, of overperforming, of really succeeding using, as we talked about, that language of Republican extremism and protecting democracy and abortion rights.
But at the same time, with all of those things kind of breaking the Democrats’ way over the last couple of weeks, they still will face a Republican House, and they still face a Democratic base that has shown real signs of erosion and continued to show some of them in these midterms. If you are the Democratic Party after the glow of this midterms, what fades off, how should you view the state of where Democrats are right now?
Well, I think that the best thing to do sometimes is actually to listen to the politicians. And Joe Biden had a press conference right after the election. He was asked, given the results, given some of the unhappiness in the country, what would you do differently? And one of the very first words he said was nothing.
He said he didn’t want to do anything differently. And when you talk to people around the White House, they say the Republicans weren’t actually running against our agenda. They didn’t run against the specific policies that we pursued. So the White House doesn’t feel like their agenda was rejected.
But when we’ve talked about what did Democrats run on, we’ve talked about it almost as if they were the opposition party. They were running to stop a set of Republican priorities. And so I think it’s a real open question what the agenda is for the second half of Joe Biden’s first term.
And beyond that, there are already questions about who the party standard bearer should be in the future. As much as there are nagging concerns about Joe Biden’s age, there are deeper concerns among Democrats about the idea of running against Donald Trump again. And the same reason that Democrats came to Joe Biden in the first place might be the reason they rally around him again, which is he is still the only Democrat to have beaten Donald Trump. And his candidacy is very much pitched on that he’s the candidate who can do it again.
Right, right. On one hand, you have an electorate who, even while backing Democrats in this midterms in historic fashion, did so while reporting that they weren’t that satisfied with the president and the party in power, that they were doing so in spite of President Biden, not because of him. I’ve talked to so many Democratic voters who tell me they’re sick of their party offering themselves as just not Republicans. But at the same time, the strongest bond between Democratic voters, the biggest motivator for Democratic voters, the biggest money driver for the voters Democrats need, seems to be pitching themselves as not Donald Trump and the Republicans.
If you think about what are the two successful political coalitions that Democrats have mobilized in the last 15 years, the first was Barack Obama’s political coalition of hope and change. The second is a stop-Trump coalition. And that came together first in the 2018 midterms. It came together again in 2020 with the election of Joe Biden.
And it showed its strength in an unlikely and unexpected way in these midterms, where Democrats are still expected to lose the House, but by such a small margin that it wasn’t really a repudiation, and to hold or even gain seats in the Senate. And so there’s tension among Democrats for what the party should stand for, but there’s broad agreement that stopping Trump is the recipe to unite the party.
Just days before Joe Biden secured the Democratic nomination, he described himself, I think for the first time, as a transitional figure. He was running to transition the Democrats to a new future. And right now, we know what the present is. And the present is that he can lead a stop-Trump coalition. But what we don’t know is what that future looks like and who’s leading it.
Mm. Thank you, Shane. I really appreciate your time.
Well, thank you very much. And on behalf of Melania, myself, and our entire family, I want to thank you all for being here tonight. It’s a very special occasion.