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Pundit accountability

Voters waited to cast their ballots Cranberry Township, Pa. on Election Day.Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

High voter turnout was supposed to usher in a Democratic sweep. What happened?

Americans under the age of 40 vote at relatively low rates. They also lean left politically. The same is true of Latinos and Asian-Americans.

This combination has helped feed a widespread belief that an increase in voter turnout would benefit Democrats. People ranging from Bernie Sanders to President Trump have made that claim. So have I:

“The country’s real silent majority prefers Democrats,”

I wrote in 2017.

I now think that’s at least partly wrong, and I want to explain today.

First, a little background: A decade ago, the journalist Dave Weigel — now a Washington Post reporter — introduced a concept he called pundit accountability. The idea was that journalists make a lot of analytical judgments and that we should occasionally revisit them to acknowledge what we got right and wrong. Doing so is a sign of respect to readers and can make us better at our jobs going forward.

Over the years, several journalists have picked up on Weigel’s idea, especially around the end of the year. I’m doing so with today’s newsletter.

I’ll start with the more pleasant side of accountability. In hindsight, I feel good about pieces explaining why Trump was unlikely to win re-election, why Democrats should hope Joe Biden would run for president and why the U.S. would struggle to contain the coronavirus.

I feel less good about largely writing off Biden after he lost New Hampshire and Iowa and about treating the 2020 polls credulously. The common thread: Politics is less predictable than we journalists sometimes imagine. I’ll try to do a better job of remembering that.

That idea also helps to explain the misperceptions on voter turnout. In 2020, turnout soared, yet Democrats did worse than expected. Yes, they defeated Trump, but they failed to retake the Senate (for now) and lost ground in the House and in state legislatures.

How could this be, when the big demographic groups with low voter turnout — Millennials, Latinos and Asian-Americans — lean left?

Because the infrequent voters in these groups are less liberal than the frequent voters.

“Latino nonvoters, for example, seem to have a higher opinion of Trump than Latino voters,”

Yanna Krupnikov, a political scientist at Stony Brook University, told me.

Over all, nonvoters split roughly evenly between Democratic leaners and Republican ones, a recent Knight Foundation study found.

Once you think it through, the pattern makes some sense. It involves social class.

People who don’t vote (or who didn’t until 2020) are more likely to be working class — that is, not to have college degrees — than reliable voters, Knight concluded. And working-class Americans are more conservative on several big issues, including abortion, guns and immigration. They’re also less trusting of institutions and elites.

By The New York Times | Source: Knight Foundation

The fact that turnout surged this year and Democrats didn’t do as well as expected is yet another example of the party’s struggles with working-class voters, and not just working-class whites. Whether Democrats can figure out how to do better may be the biggest looming question about American politics.

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