The Overlooked (But Real) Possibility of a Big Democratic Win

Democrats have spent the past year talking much more about the prospect of a Donald Trump victory than about their own. The relentless focus on Trump is understandable, but it has obscured a central reality of the 2024 election: Democrats have a real chance to sweep the presidency, House, and Senate. And if they do, their congressional majority would likely be more cohesive and progressive than during President Joe Biden’s first two years in office.

Biden’s deficit in the polls is much smaller than the party’s panic suggests and has narrowed since Trump’s felony convictions. Democrats need to flip only a few seats to recapture the House. Holding the Senate won’t be easy, but thanks to the retirements of a pair of maverick Democrats, even a small majority could open a path to substantial legislative achievements such as the passage of a comprehensive voting-rights bill, a federal guarantee for abortion rights, lower drug prices, and an expanded social safety net.

A wide-ranging group of Democrats—including moderates running in swing districts as well as those in the party’s left wing—wants the president to emphasize the promise of his second term as much as, if not more than, the peril of Trump’s. Because Biden focuses so much on the threat Trump poses to democracy and the rule of law, they think Biden risks losing voters who want to see tangible improvements in their lives.  

“In my district, I would urge him to talk about bread-and-butter issues almost exclusively,” Representative Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, a Democrat in a competitive race for reelection, told me. “That’s not to say that preserving our democracy isn’t important, believe me. But it’s hard for people to even think about something as existential as democracy if they’re having trouble buying groceries or paying their rent.”

When Biden does talk about policy instead of democracy, he focuses more on what he did in his first term than what he would do in a second. This is standard practice for incumbent presidents, but voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Biden has convinced many Democrats that his record won’t be enough. Polling suggests they are right; surveys show that many voters—particularly those under 30—are unaware of, or unmoved by, Biden’s investments in infrastructure and decarbonization or his drug-price and gun-control reforms.

[Russell Berman: Democrats’ unproven plan to close Biden’s enthusiasm gap]

Biden hasn’t been completely silent about what he would do with a unified government. “If Americans send me a Congress that supports the right to choose, I promise you, I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again,” the president said during his State of the Union address in March, a line he frequently repeats on the campaign trail. He’s also talked about extending to all Americans a $35 monthly cap on insulin costs that Congress enacted for some Medicare beneficiaries, restoring the expanded child tax credit that he signed into law during the pandemic, and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

But to this point, such promises have gotten relatively little airtime. Biden’s campaign website, for example, doesn’t even include a policy section. Campaign officials say their emphasis on promoting Biden’s record and attacking Trump is both consistent with successful reelection bids of the past and responsive to the president’s current electoral challenges. Michael Tyler, the Biden campaign’s communications director, noted that the president is already performing well among people who are closely following the election. “The work that we need to do over the course of the next five months,” he told me, “is address the information gap with folks who have not been paying as much attention.”

That strategy worries some Democrats. Janelle Bynum, an Oregon Democrat trying to flip a Republican-held House district, told me she thinks the party is relying too much on its past accomplishments and not enough on its plans to address voters’ everyday concerns in the future. Biden, she said, “absolutely needs to focus on what it feels like on the ground level.”

Progressives are prodding him in this direction too. In April, the Congressional Progressive Caucus published an agenda comprising dozens of policies that it believes Democratic majorities could enact in a Biden second term and that it wants the president to highlight during the campaign. The group excluded proposals that Biden doesn’t support, such as Medicare for All. But it featured many ideas that fell just short of passing in 2021 and 2022, such as expanding Medicare coverage and Social Security benefits, implementing universal pre-K and tuition-free public college, and restoring an expanded child tax credit.

Few voters appreciate how close Democrats came to getting those reforms done, says Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington State, the chair of the progressive caucus. “We were literally just two votes away,” she told me, recounting her conversations with voters. “And people go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’”

By releasing an ambitious but achievable agenda, Jayapal said, progressives hope to motivate their base and shift the focus of the campaign. “People aren’t excited by losing,” she said. “They’re excited by winning, and they’re excited by the vision that comes with winning.”

Republicans, for their part, have not been shy about touting what they’ll do if they recapture the White House and the Senate while holding their House majority. Former Trump administration officials have drafted a 920-page playbook that calls for hollowing out the federal government, eviscerating the independence of the Justice Department and other agencies, and enacting a range of conservative policies. Speaker Mike Johnson has promoted legislation that the House could pass in the first months of his second term, including a multitrillion-dollar extension of his 2017 tax cuts.

Of course, campaigning on a vision is one thing; executing it is another. And that’s as true for Republicans as it is for Democrats. Democrats currently have 51 seats in the Senate; even if Biden wins, they are all but certain to lose at least one, that of the retiring centrist Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

But if they can hold 50 seats with a Biden victory, they will retain the vice president’s tie-breaking vote. And then they won’t have Manchin, or retiring Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, there to block Biden’s most ambitious proposals and filibuster reform. Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who took office last year, and Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who could replace Sinema, have each expressed much more support for Biden’s economic policies and are open to curtailing the filibuster.

“I’m hopeful that we’re not going to see these roadblocks getting in the way of popular reforms that majorities want to pass,” Representative Chris Deluzio, a Pennsylvania Democrat in his first term, told me.

[Ronald Brownstein: Biden’s Electoral College challenge]

A skeptic would counter that changing or scrapping the filibuster is likely to be difficult even without Manchin and Sinema’s opposition, and approving anything without Republican support would require extraordinary unity. Presidents, moreover, typically get less of their agenda through Congress in their second term than in their first, and Biden might be hard-pressed to claim a voter mandate for progressive proposals if he doesn’t campaign on them this fall.

Democrats who want the president to promote a more aspirational agenda know that achieving it won’t be easy. (As Representative Susan Wild put it: “I’m a realist.”) But in a campaign that Democrats are in danger of losing, some of them are betting that a forward-looking vision will at least help them get the chance to try.