A Look at Elections Past, Present, and Future

A lot can change in a year, particularly in politics. Imagine what can happen in two—or four.

During the latest Conversation with Friends on November 9, four alumni discussed not only the 2020 election, but the off-year 2021 contests, as well as topics as far-reaching as election security, the impact of the pandemic on voting trends, and the emergence of new forms of communicating with potential voters. Political consultant Eliza Leighton ’91 moderated the hour-long talk.

“The way that people are communicating is so different than it was even in 2016,” said Hannah Bristol ’10, who was the National Young Americans engagement director for the Biden-Harris campaign and now is the associate director of public engagement in the White House. “You can’t just trust that the base is going to come out; you have to talk to people in ways that reach them. There’s a growing hunger for transparency from our leaders—politics has been so intentionally confusing for so long, and people really want to know what’s happening.”

Bristol spoke about the difficulty of reaching young voters during her time with the Biden-Harris campaign, many of whom voted for other Democratic candidates in the presidential primaries.

“We needed young people to turn out in record numbers the way they did in 2016,” she said. “We really needed to paint a picture of what it meant [to vote for Biden].” That required a clear message about issues that particularly affect younger voters: unemployment, gun violence, and climate change.

In addition to looking back, the panel looked ahead to both the 2022 and 2024 elections. What’s key? The economy, said Doug Thornell ’95, the head of the political advertising department at SKDK, a public affairs and political consulting firm. “There’s a sense that we’re going to turn over to our kids a country that’s worse than the one we inherited,” he said. “One of the most important things that Democrats and Republicans can do over the next year is address that; it’s going to be one of the bigger issues that both sides are going to have to communicate about.” Should President Biden run for reelection in 2024, “he’s going to have to go back to what he won on, which is being a steward of the middle class.”

One voting bloc that has made a major difference in recent elections, particularly the most recent one in Virginia, is going to continue to be important, said Ben Wessel ’07, the former executive director of NextGen America, a youth voter mobilization organization. “A small contingent of the Republican Party has a large enough megaphone to drive narratives and reach Republican voters in a way I’ve never seen in my career,” he said. That reach in turn leads to “invented issues like the fight over critical race theory in Virginia,” he said. “That’s the new normal.”

In the end, it all comes down to authentic communication that meets voters and potential voters where they are with a message that reflects their experience. “If we’re going to have any chance in ’22 and if we’re going to keep the White House in ’24, we need to do a better job of broadening our tent,” said Thornell. “If the people constructing the message of the party have no experience with the lives of the people they’re trying to communicate with, the message is not going to be authentic.”


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