Opening Up the Middle

How the Democrats reached out to centrist voters.

Joe Biden, in black and white, gestures with his hands against a blue background with white stars.
Joe Biden. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The Democratic Party has a big job in 2020. It needs to oust Donald Trump, capture the Senate, and win with a margin big enough to claim a mandate. To get there, its convention tried to do three things: unite progressives behind Joe Biden, present his best qualities to a broader audience, and prod Democratic voters to turn out. But the convention also sought to change the way Americans think about the crises and values of this election. Without surrendering progressive ambitions, Democrats framed themes and issues to attract voters in the political center. Here’s how they did it.

1. Diversity as unity. The convention was full of appeals to and from people of color. But for white folks who might feel threatened—those who fell for Trump’s appeals to white grievance—the party framed diversity as part of an overarching unity. The convention’s recurring mantras were “We the people,” “Uniting America,” and “Out of many, one.” A video recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance showed people of all ethnicities repeating, for emphasis, the phrase “one nation.” Another video showed a Black protester hugging a white cop. Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, in separate remarks, noted that Americans “of all races” had joined in protests over George Floyd’s death. Barack Obama also stipulated, for the benefit of anxious white viewers, that “Black lives matter” meant that the lives of Black Americans mattered “no more, but no less” than the lives of white Americans.

2. Republican outreach. The convention featured testimonials from past Republican officeholders—former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and others—as well as voters who called themselves lifelong Republicans. These speakers praised Biden as a man who reaches “across the aisle.” But none of the testimonials mentioned any issue on which Biden had compromised a progressive position. Instead, they depicted Republicanism simply as an identity. As Kasich put it, “I’m proud of my Republican heritage.” In this way, the convention sought to welcome Republicans without alienating progressives

3. Stability. Trump has branded Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a leader of the “radical left.” This is a standard conservative pitch, aimed at scaring “suburban housewives” about the prospect of a revolution. But Ocasio-Cortez, in her convention remarks, argued that the status quo was already chaotic. She described “the unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth,” compounded by coronavirus-related “crises of mass evictions, unemployment, and lack of health care.” To restore order, she called for policies that guarantee “long-term stability for the many.” Likewise, in her speech on Wednesday, Sen. Kamala Harris, the party’s vice presidential nominee, lamented “the loss of normalcy” due to Trump’s mismanagement of the virus. These weren’t cries for revolution. They were appeals to the public’s craving for security.

4. Competent government. Republicans love to call Democrats the party of big government. But when a Republican administration spectacularly fails to deal with a virus that’s killing Americans, shutting down businesses, and wrecking the economy, electing the party of government seems like a decent idea. The virus shows “how many lives can be lost when our government is incompetent,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told viewers in a convention video on Monday. “We have seen in this crisis the truth that government matters. … It determines whether we thrive and grow, or whether we live or die.”

5. Saving the Postal Service. Trump’s attack on the U.S. Postal Service, threatening its funding in a standoff with House Democrats, is one of the stupidest political moves in memory. The Postal Service is the most popular brand in the country, with an 80 percent favorable rating even among Republicans. At their convention, Democrats seized on this issue, warning that Trump was putting “seniors at risk by trying to defund the post office.” It’s hard to find a topic on which Americans love the government more.

6. Patriotism. Republicans claim a monopoly on muscular, flag-waving love for America, while depicting Democrats as weak. But Trump, by threatening America’s allies and embracing its adversaries, offers Democrats a chance to flip the script. Former Secretary of State John Kerry—who, as the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, was called soft on the Iraq war—lambasted Trump on Tuesday for writing “love letters to dictators.” Powell rebuked Trump for succumbing to “the flattery of dictators and despots.” Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who served as defense secretary under Obama, excoriated Trump’s “un-American” disinterest in alleged Russian bounties on American troops. Kerry, Powell, and Hagel are all military veterans. So is Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war amputee who, on the convention’s final night, condemned Trump, “the coward in chief,” for ignoring the intelligence on Russian bounties and letting “tyrants manipulate him like a puppet.”

7. Faith. Republicans present themselves as the party of traditional religious values. But Trump’s moral crudity and spiritual emptiness have alienated some religious voters, creating an opportunity for Democrats to connect with them. The convention’s final night showcased Biden’s Catholicism, many of his supporters (including NBA star Stephen Curry) discussing their own faith, and reminders of the historic ties between churches and social justice movements. Sen. Chris Coons kicked off the evening by recalling the role of religious leaders in the struggles for abolition, suffrage, civil rights, and labor rights. A video showed Biden speaking about his own beliefs and about his relationship with the black church in Charleston, South Carolina, where parishioners were massacred by a racist gunman in 2015.

8. Authoritarianism. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran against Biden for the presidential nomination, could have used his speaking slot on Monday to revive leftist critiques he had raised in his campaign. Instead, he focused on a concern that transcended ideology: Trump’s abuse of power. Trump “is leading us down the path of authoritarianism,” Sanders warned. “I will work with progressives, with moderates, and, yes, with conservatives, to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.” Sally Yates, a former Justice Department official who resigned over Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, denounced the president’s “attacks on the FBI, the free press, inspectors general, [and] federal judges.” She appealed, across party lines, to voters alarmed by Trump’s attempts “to remove any check on his abuse of power.”

9. Children and families. Like Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren ran for president from the left, attacking corporations and private health insurers. But for her convention speech, she didn’t stand in front of a big bank or a corporate polluter. She stood in front of cubbies at a child care center, talking about Biden’s plans for universal preschool. With day care facilities closed and “no idea when schools can safely reopen,” she observed, “parents are stuck.” She concluded, “Child care is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation. It’s infrastructure for families.” Her message connected the Democratic policy agenda with household life, as a material expression of family values.

10. Earned citizenship. Trump portrays undocumented immigrants as invaders, calling them “illegal aliens.” But Democrats, at their convention, made the case that while some people did come to the United States or remain here in violation of immigration rules, many of them have earned citizenship by contributing to our country in other ways. One way is paying taxes; another is military service. “My mom is the wife of a proud American Marine and a mother of two American children,” said an 11-year-old girl in one convention video. “My mom worked hard and paid taxes.” Trump deported her mother, she said, and “tore our world apart.”

Some of these appeals may fall on deaf ears or lose out to Republican counterattacks in the coming weeks. But they’re carefully crafted, well adapted, and worth the attempt. They take account of new circumstances, exploit Trump’s missteps and weaknesses, and target the sensibilities of persuadable voters. And they do it by building on the Democratic Party’s pro-government brand, without abandoning policy ideas on the left. The Democrats aren’t repositioning their party for the general election. They’re expanding it.

For more of Slate’s political coverage, subscribe to the Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts or listen below.