City Dems Must Muscle up Their Vote

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The outcome of the Nov. 3 election gave Philadelphia Democrats one thing to cheer about: their lopsided voter advantage swept Joe Biden to victory in the state, making Pennsylvania the first to affirm he won a majority in the Electoral College.

They should pause their cheers now and survey instead the gaps in their lineup moving forward toward 2022. That’s when their muscle will be needed as statewide Democrats seek to carry forward the eight-year tenancy of Tom Wolf, who will be stepping down, with a rare third term in a row for one of their own. They’ll need Philly Dems, lots of them, to pull this off. They’ll need this city, which has grown in population as well as in Democratic registration.

But they will need more of our citizens to actually vote for the Democratic ticket than did this year.

The 2020 election was hard to interpret, given the countervailing impulses of the pandemic (don’t go out to vote!) and universal absentee-balloting (just mail it instead!). But they were equally confounding for all Keystone Staters. In the end, more people voted everywhere.

Yet the understaffed Republican team in town actually drew more new total votes than the Democrats did, comparing 2020 to 2016. In particular, Democrats underperformed in working-class and modest middle-class neighborhoods far from the expansive glitz of Center City and environs.

Progressives – led by activists who have made leadership inroads in these wards and in their districts – did vote heavily in their part of town. Chiefly, however, the voters they turned out in high numbers were – fellow progressives. They tend to be college-educated and young, and, like all factions, to cluster around their own media and rally to their own slogans.

That would be fine for Democrats at large if other Democratic voters responded to their causes and their cries. And there is no philosophical reason why they shouldn’t; progressives deplore the perilous challenges facing low- and middle-income, modestly schooled Philadelphians and seek governmental measures to war against them. Progressives even have leaders in those wards. What they don’t have is followers.

Old-school, streetworking party cadres have long been the mainstay of “blue” outreach to bluecollar voters. But the streets were devilishly hard to work in a season ruled by social distancing. Telephone and internet outreach can only go so far, especially with voters who are low on home resources.

There is bipartisan hope that the electoral hurdles posed by COVID-19 will fade away by the next general election. But the city’s Democratic activists must start planning today to coordinate effective outreach to potential supporters on less-fashionable rungs of the social ladder. Regardless of the growth seen in some neighborhoods, Philadelphia will remain a crucial electoral cauldron where poor people and middle-class moderates need to see how Democratic administrations and Democratic leaders will help them; after which they must be rallied to come out and support them.

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