David Shor Is Telling Democrats What They Don’t Want to Hear

David Shor Is Telling Democrats What They Don’t Want to Hear
By Ezra Kline
Oct 8 2021

President Biden’s agenda is in peril. Democrats hold a bare 50 seats in the Senate, which gives any member of their caucus the power to block anything he or she chooses, at least in the absence of Republican support. And Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are wielding that leverage ruthlessly.

But here’s the truly frightening thought for frustrated Democrats: This might be the high-water mark of power they’ll have for the next decade.

Democrats are on the precipice of an era without any hope of a governing majority. The coming year, while they still control the House, the Senate and the White House, is their last, best chance to alter course. To pass a package of democracy reforms that makes voting fairer and easier. To offer statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. To overhaul how the party talks and acts and thinks to win back the working-class voters — white and nonwhite — who have left them behind the electoral eight ball. If they fail, they will not get another chance. Not anytime soon.

That, at least, is what David Shor thinks. Shor started modeling elections in 2008, when he was a 16-year-old blogger, and he proved good at it. By 2012, he was deep inside President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, putting together the fabled “Golden Report,” which modeled the election daily. The forecast proved spookily accurate: It ultimately predicted every swing state but Ohio within a percentage point and called the national popular vote within one-tenth of a percentage point. Math-geek data analysts became a hot item for Democratic Party campaigns, and Shor was one of the field’s young stars, pioneering ways to survey huge numbers of Americans and experimentally test their reactions to messages and ads.

But it was a tweet that changed his career. During the protests after the killing of George Floyd, Shor, who had few followers at the time, tweeted, “Post-MLK-assassination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2 percent, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon.” Nonviolent protests, he noted, tended to help Democrats electorally. The numbers came from Omar Wasow, a political scientist who now teaches at Pomona College. But online activists responded with fury to Shor’s interjection of electoral strategy into a moment of grief and rage, and he was summarily fired by his employer, Civis Analytics, a progressive data science firm.

For Shor, cancellation, traumatic though it was, turned him into a star. His personal story became proof of his political theory: The Democratic Party was trapped in an echo chamber of Twitter activists and woke staff members. It had lost touch with the working-class voters of all races that it needs to win elections, and even progressive institutions dedicated to data analysis were refusing to face the hard facts of public opinion and electoral geography.

Freed from a job that didn’t let him speak his mind, Shor was resurrected as the Democratic data guru who refused to soften an analysis the left often didn’t want to hear. He became ubiquitous on podcasts and Twitter, where Obama posts his analyses and pundits half-jokingly refer to themselves as being “Shor-pilled.” Politico reported that Shor has “an audience in the White House and is one of the most in-demand data analysts in the country,” calling his following “the cult of Shor.” Now he is a co-founder of and the head of data science at Blue Rose Research, a progressive data science operation. “Obviously, in retrospect,” he told me, “it was positive for my career.”

At the heart of Shor’s frenzied work is the fear that Democrats are sleepwalking into catastrophe. Since 2019, he’s been building something he calls “the power simulator.” It’s a model that predicts every House and Senate and presidential race between now and 2032 to try to map out the likeliest future for American politics. He’s been obsessively running and refining these simulations over the past two years. And they keep telling him the same thing.

We’re screwed in the Senate, he said. Only he didn’t say “screwed.”

In 2022, if Senate Democrats buck history and beat Republicans by four percentage points in the midterms, which would be a startling performance, they have about a 50-50 chance of holding the majority. If they win only 51 percent of the vote, they’ll likely lose a seat — and the Senate.

But it’s 2024 when Shor’s projected Senate Götterdämmerung really strikes. To see how bad the map is for Democrats, think back to 2018, when anti-Trump fury drove record turnout and handed the House gavel back to Nancy Pelosi. Senate Democrats saw the same huge surge of voters. Nationally, they won about 18 million more votes than Senate Republicans — and they still lost two seats. If 2024 is simply a normal year, in which Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, Shor’s model projects a seven-seat loss, compared with where they are now.

Sit with that. Senate Democrats could win 51 percent of the two-party vote in the next two elections and end up with only 43 seats in the Senate. You can see Shor’s work below. We’ve built a version of his model, in which you can change the assumptions and see how they affect Democrats’ projected Senate chances in 2022 and 2024.

Let’s start by choosing an election year.

1. Will Democrats do better or worse nationwide?

Last year, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, with 52.3 percent of votes cast for the two leading candidates.

2. Will education continue predicting party support?

Republicans used to win most voters with college degrees, while Democrats had an edge among non-college voters. But that’s changed. Here, you can see how the outlook changes if the divide returns to 2012 levels or the change we have seen since then continues to grow.

3. Will race continue predicting party support?

Racial polarization is another fundamental form of polarization and one that has defied analysts’ expectations in recent years, falling slightly in 2020.

4. Will voters still split their ballots?

Voters used to routinely support one party for president and another for senator. But by 2020, ticket splitting was rare, making the Democrats’ Senate woes even worse.