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25 August 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 5:47am

“The Democrats risk being out of power for the next decade”: David Shor on how his party must change

The star US strategist on the case for reforming Congress.

By Harry Lambert

David Shor’s political analyses resonate widely. When he speaks, Barack Obama and Dominic Cummings are among the many who listen; both have heralded Shor’s work in recent months. Today Shor, 30, works as a Democratic strategist at OpenLabs R&D, based in New York. In 2012, at the age of 20, he worked on Obama’s re-election campaign as an in-house Nate Silver. He was the young augur who interpreted the polls.

When I first spoke with Shor, before the fall of Kabul, Joe Biden’s approval rating was hovering at a respectable 53 per cent. It has since fallen to 49 per cent, the lowest level of his presidency. The difference may seem negligible, but in Shor’s analysis it suggests that the Democrats will lose control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.

The party currently holds ultra-thin majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. To retain both houses of Congress in 2022, said Shor, “Biden’s approval rating needs to be above 52 or 53 [per cent].” Biden’s rating is critical because American politics has in recent decades become far less localised. But why does it need to be greater than 52 per cent as opposed to a simple majority of more than 50? Because American politics has, in recent years, also been weighted against the Democrats. If the party does not pass structural reforms to Congress in the next year, Shor believes it will “likely be kept out of power for the next decade”.

There are two major reforms Democrats could pursue. In the House, the Republicans have redrawn (or “gerrymandered”) enough congressional districts since 2010 to win a majority of seats even if they win fewer House votes across the US, as happened in 2012. Democrats could fix this by requiring that all districts be drawn by non-partisan commissions.

In the Senate, meanwhile, the Democrats suffer from the over-representation of small states: both Republican Wyoming (population 580,000) and Democratic California (39.5 million) are represented by two senators each. The Democrats could alleviate this by giving statehood to Washington DC, which would give them two new senators. Both ideas need support from a handful of centrist Democrats in the Senate, who have so far proved resistant to such bold change. But without reform, Biden may soon lose the power to govern without Republican support.

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[see also: Why Joe Biden’s presidency is faltering]

When we spoke again after the fall of Kabul, Shor was caught between calm and concern over Biden’s dip in popularity. He suspects this slide is temporary, but the Democrats have made no progress on structural reform, which remains his overriding concern. “Every sign points to an electorate that’s roughly as Democratic as it was a year ago. That’s dangerous precisely because we were on the knife’s edge of losing.”

For Shor, it is clear how to approach politics. “Winning is very important. You should do popular things. You should actually appeal to the median voter. I guess you can call it ‘popularism’.” To win, Democrats need to “keep the conversation on the issues that people trust us on, and away from the issues that they don’t”. It is hard for parties of the centre-left to win by talking about immigration and crime, or the more radical aspects of social justice, added Shor.

Prior to Afghanistan, Shor credited Biden with managing “to avoid a lot of the controversies. I think the [Biden] formula – to talk about and run on broadly popular economic issues – is good”. He noted that Biden’s initial $1.9trn Covid-19 relief bill was “the most popular policy we have ever polled”. Many Democrats, however, deviate from Shor’s playbook: they are led by their values even when they contradict public opinion, which Shor thinks futile. “If you had told me in 2012 that most of the Democratic field would embrace [slavery] reparations and decriminalising border crossings, I would have thought that a joke.” Talking about divisive issues or issues that “people don’t care about”, said Shor, is damaging. Most voters know this, but many in the media and politics do not.

The problem is that political debate is shaped by the few, not the many. Young white graduates, Shor noted, account for one in 20 voters, yet make up “a literal majority of people who work in politics”. Many are unaware of, or uninterested in, the unpopularity of their own biases.

Biden is from a different political generation, one that Shor believes has a better grip on how to retain power. “Biden just intuitively understands that defunding the police is crazy.” Yet as the US has polarised in recent decades – for every 100 voters, only a handful are now swing voters – the rules of the game have changed. The incentives for young politicians today are clear: raise money from the hyper-engaged, cater to hyper-partisan outlets, and build a digital following. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congresswoman from New York, exemplifies the new tribal politician.

But an older generation – and Shor here includes Bernie Sanders alongside Biden – know that gaining a cult following does not help you win. The key is to build a broach church. Shor believes that polling is the way to “get around” your biases and align your view with the world’s view. If a politician or activist ignores the public, Shor told me, it is easy for them to think “we’re so progressive, we’re so amazing”. But what they are really doing is “privileging the concerns of rich, educated people”.

[see also: The US’s retreat from world affairs presents tough choices for the UK]

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat