Democrats often see themselves as "David" in battle against the "Goliath" of big conservative money. Populist Democrats supposedly sling their small stones against an array of oversized foes such as the Koch brothers, Big Oil, Big Pharma, health insurance companies and the general gargantuan power of wealth in America.
The 2020 election tells a different story. In the Georgia Senate runoff elections, Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are setting fundraising records and outraising their Republican opponents.
While Republican outside spending has blunted the Democratic advantage in Georgia, an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics finds a Democratic advantage in overall outside spending in 2020 across the country. Looking also at direct candidate spending, the watchdog group finds that Democrats outspent Republicans up and down the ballot.
This new reality is rooted in the changing relationship between individual income and party identification. Through much of recent history, as individuals gained higher incomes, they increasingly identified as Republicans. There are still plenty of wealthy Republicans, but now there are more Democrats with high incomes. And Republicans are making a credible case to be the party of the working class — at least the white working class.
The Democratic money edge is also connected to Democratic strength in areas with thriving economies — namely the cities and suburbs of America. Joe Biden won about 50% of the popular vote, yet 70% of the gross domestic product came from the counties that he and Kamala Harris carried. Trump counties only counted for 30% of the GDP!
Republicans usually claim that their policies promote a dynamic and prosperous business climate. Yet the dynamism of the American economy seems to reside in Biden-Harris country.
The working class across America used to flock to Democrats as they advocated programs like Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill and the rights of organized labor. As the Democrats have grown more upscale, the white working class has moved away from the party of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Donald Trump has appealed to the working class with a mix of economic protectionism and racist anti-immigrant tirades. He also made an economic argument that the rising tide of the pre-COVID economy did indeed raise all boats.
Has the Democrats' new wealth undermined its populist agenda? Are they pushing hard enough to expand economic opportunity for all? Democrats can point to populist items on their agenda, but are they priorities?
Ramesh Ponnuru wrote recently that the Democratic push to reduce student debt primarily benefits more affluent college graduates. Are Democrats pushing enough for policies that expand economic opportunity and exert upward pressure on the stagnant wages of the working class?
Florida voted this year both to give Donald Trump a second term — and for a referendum to increase the minimum wage to $15. In Congress and in state legislatures, Democrats support this policy much more strongly than Republicans. So why do voters support Republican candidates and Democratic policies?
Donald Trump won well over 70 million votes, many from a working class that a generation ago was the core of the Democratic coalition. Democrats are better known for calling Trump's voters "deplorable" than for advocating for policies that expand economic opportunity among people who are struggling.
Donald Trump has convinced many voters that undocumented immigrants and free trade are huge threats to their opportunity to prosper. Why have not the Democrats developed a stronger counter argument? What is holding them back? Are they too tied to big money?
Dan Hofrenning is professor of political science and environmental studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield.