At our November 2023 Ideas We Should Steal Festival, Governor Josh Shapiro had a few pointed words of warning for our fair city on the eve of America’s ultimate rematch: Democracy vs. Autocracy, Part Deux
“Philadelphia has a big test in 2024,” he said. “And it should be lost on no one what the data has shown us over the last few years in Philadelphia.”
He was talking about our dwindling voter turnout numbers. In our state’s most recent election, Philadelphia lagged 5 percent below statewide voter turnout, while Pittsburgh and the Philly suburbs performed more than 5 percent above. In 2022, we were 13 percent behind the rest of the state.
“Think about this for a moment,” the Governor said. “I won with more votes than anybody in the history of Pennsylvania for governor in ’22. If you just simply had Philadelphia’s turnout at the same level as the statewide turnout, I would have had another 117,000 votes.”
Why does that matter? Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania by only 44,000 votes. Joe Biden won it by only 80,000 votes. Make no mistake about it, folks: Pennsylvania is in play and Philly could make the difference. But this time the verdict could tilt towards the return of autocracy.
“I think we have to wake up and realize that the way we conducted our politics on turnout in 2013 is not the way we need to conduct it in 2024. Our politics have changed.” — Gov. Josh Shapiro
“Our politics have changed.”
A crisis is brewing, much of it below the media spotlight. Ask yourself: Why is President Biden here, like, all the time? Philly, of course, is reliably Democratic. But running up the score locally has long been the key to taking Pennsylvania.
For decades, Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady earned his keep politically by turning out pluralities huge enough in Philly to keep the Commonwealth blue in presidential elections. That’s why, on election day 2020, Biden was glued to Brady’s ear via cell phone. Biden ended up underperforming in Philly compared to Hillary Clinton, but lost by better margins out west and vastly outperformed her in the close-in suburbs — barely squeaking by.
After last spring’s mayoral primary — turnout: 32 percent — there was Brady in the pages of The Washington Post, expressing some doubt. “We do everything we can — the apathy is just there,” he said.
Are we on the cusp of a vast realignment? The most apathetic groups of which Brady speaks tend to be traditionally Democratic voting stalwarts. More Black voters, particularly Black men, are just staying home or leaving the Democratic fold altogether — Meek Mill’s recent seeming endorsement of Trump, believe it or not, does not augur well — and the party is hemorrhaging Hispanic support. Working class voters of all races are rejecting the Democratic Party, a trend we’ll get to.
Brady has become adept at managing the voter apathy of which he speaks, winning low turnout local elections — he essentially endorsed Cherelle Parker for mayor, and his 3,000 foot soldiers were instrumental in electing Dan McCaffery to the state Supreme Court — but presidential races are a different electoral animal. Shapiro maintains we need to rethink some of the old models.
“I think we have to wake up and realize that the way we conducted our politics on turnout in 2013 is not the way we need to conduct it in 2024,” Shapiro said. “Our politics have changed.”
The governor’s diagnosis is spot on, but you have to wonder if his prescription is strong enough. “We have to make sure we are lifting up voices of people who have real lived experience, who oftentimes have been left behind — people of color, women, others who have not gotten a shot in our politics,” he said. “I view that as central to my political responsibilities — it was one of the reasons I strongly endorsed [Working Families Party incumbent] Kendra Brooks in the City Council race. We have real differences on policy, but I thought her lived experience is valuable to have on Council. Similarly, in the western part of the state, [progressive] Sara Innamorato became the first woman to lead Allegheny County. We should find ways to engage people like that and encourage excitement in our electorate.”
Brady won’t say it, but he doesn’t disagree. As much as he beats up on the Democratic Socialists, he knows they turn out voters and Joe Biden needs their field game just as much as he needs the party’s establishment machinery. It’s an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” strategy.
“One thing Bob Brady knows better than anyone on the planet is how to count votes and win elections,” Brady’s longtime consultant Ken Smukler told me. “And sometimes he does it with groups that he is not always politically-aligned with. He did it last year helping to sweep the four statewide judicial races. Brady may not always get all the votes he wants but, year after year, he gets all the votes he needs.”
Being anti-Trump isn’t enough
If Shapiro and Brady and, for that matter, the Biden campaign are contemplating an all-out widening of the Democratic tent, that’s one thing. The hiring this week of a dream team to lead the president’s statewide campaign team seems philosophically diverse enough: Nikki Lu from the Labor Department; Brendan McPhillips, late of the Fetterman for Senate and Gym for Mayor campaigns; and Kellan White, a Casey consultant and veteran of Rebecca Rhynhart’s mayoral run.
If they’re just relying on a progressive or base wave to counter MAGA and rescue democracy, that feels risky. Some, like the brilliant political strategist Simon Rosenberg, argue otherwise. Anti-MAGA fervor is so heightened, Rosenberg maintains, all Biden has to do is get out of the way. Brady told me that “we’re going to be okay” when I asked about Philly turnout — conceding that it may be fueled more by anti-Trump, as opposed to pro-Biden, sentiment. “But I’ll take that,” he said.
Here’s the problem, though, with relying too much on progressive support. How many more progressives are there who aren’t already voting? Doesn’t anti-MAGA fever bring them out anyway? After all, national polls suggest that only 25 percent of the electorate identifies as liberal, let alone progressive, lagging well behind “conservative” and “moderate.” In Philly, as in the rest of the state and nation, it seems that the real opportunity to goose turnout is to recapture the support of those non-ideological, yet culturally conservative, voters who shower after work — a strategy Shapiro has used to his own electoral advantage.
“I won with more votes than anybody in the history of Pennsylvania for governor in ’22. If you just simply had Philadelphia’s turnout at the same level as the statewide turnout, I would have had another 117,000 votes.” — Gov. Josh Shapiro
Around two-thirds of eligible voters in November will be those without college degrees. “Moreover, in all six key swing states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the working-class share of the electorate, both as eligible voters and as projected 2024 voters, will be higher than the national average,” writes Ruy Teixeira, in The Liberal Patriot newsletter.
Biden lost working class voters to Trump by a mere 4 percentage points in 2020, and polls now say he’s down among that cohort by anywhere between 14 and 18 points. Whatever happened to “Middle Class Joe?” His party has been complicit in the painting of an easy caricature of itself: anti-police and anti-border, obsessed with decolonization, pronouns and microaggressions. Meantime, its historic core constituency — comprised of both Black and White voters — keeps telling it: Hey, how about talking about our lives, for a change?
You want to stop the oncoming Trump autocracy train, Joe? Stop talking about the threat to democracy — it’s too abstract, too highfalutin — and, as Matt Yglesias has argued, highlight how you’ve cut the cost of insulin, cut junk fees for consumers, and driven down the number of those without health insurance to historic lows. (A record 20 million Obamacare signups thanks to Biden reforms in the most recent open enrollment period alone.)
Don’t just run against Trump — take a page from Harry Truman in 1948 and also run against the least productive Congress in history, with all of 27 bills passed last year. “Give ’em hell Harry!” a supporter called out during Truman’s 1948 whistle stop train campaign against a “do-nothing Congress.”
“I don’t give ’em hell,” the underdog of underdogs ad-libbed. “I just tell the truth about ‘em and they think it’s hell!”
And don’t run from your weaknesses — turn them into strengths. Where’s the viral web ad or guest SNL sketch of Biden with Mick Jagger — they’re the same age — doing a Satisfaction duet? Now that McPhillips, Fetterman’s former aide, is on the team, maybe someone will revisit Ed Rendell’s unheeded advice to Hillary’s campaign in 2016. “Put her in a car with John Fetterman and let her drive the state,” the former governor recommended. Fetterman still gets how to appeal to working class folks who haven’t been manipulated by political messaging that plays to their grievances; he’s courageously stood up to his compatriots on the left on fracking and border security because he knows the power of kitchen table issues in the voting booth.
You know who else gets this? Josh Shapiro himself. His first act as Governor was to open some 65,000 state jobs to Pennsylvanians without college degrees. His forward-thinking higher education reform proposal would cap tuition at state-owned universities and community colleges at $1,000 per year for those earning less than $70,000 annually.
What was it Willie Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks? “Because that’s where the money is.” Well, guess where the votes are? Maybe Democrats should try and abscond with them.
MORE ON POLITICS FROM THE CITIZENPA Governor Josh Shapiro (glasses, navy jacket), and advocate for increasing voter turnout, joined other elected officials and volunteers help assemble care packages for victims of gun violence still in the hospital on the 2024 King Day of Service at Girard College in Philadelphia. Photo by Albert Yee.