Very broadly speaking, the Democrats and Republicans have adopted two fundamentally different strategies to wining elections. I am not claiming that these strategies are used in every race and by every candidate, just that they are the broad approaches of the parties.
Democrats have adopted a general strategy of winning by getting more voters to vote for them. Republicans have adopted a general strategy of reducing the number of votes for the Democrats. This might seem to be distinction without a difference, but these are fundamentally different approaches as I will show.
One part of the Democrat’s strategy is expanding the number of voters who vote by having more registered voters. They tend to support laws that would make it easier for citizens to register to vote and they tend to encourage people to register. They also tend to support restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time. In contrast, Republicans have done their best to prevent ex-felons from voting—even when they have the right to do so. Republicans will sometimes accuse Democrats of getting non-citizens (or dead people) to vote. While it is true that non-citizens sometimes do get registered to vote, this seems to usually be an accident. Voter fraud is exceptionally rare and non-citizens voting is a rare form of fraud, despite Republicans claims. Democrats and Republicans both seem to believe that new voters are more likely to vote for Democrats—so this strategy makes sense.
Democrats also tend to favor expanding the opportunities for citizens to vote. This includes such things as having many polling places, having the polls open for extended periods of time, having reliable public or private transport to the polls, and allowing vote-by-mail (sometimes known as absentee ballots).
Republicans, in contrast, have been waging legal battles to limit ballot boxes. They have also adopted a strategy of reducing polling sites and hours. Trump has waged a war of lies against mail-in-ballots. There are concerns that Trump is encouraging his supporters to engage in voter intimidation. Republicans also oppose making election day a national holiday—while Democrats favor this.
Democrats and Republicans generally believe that Democrats would be more likely to win if it were easier for citizens to vote. Republicans have traditionally tried to engage in voter suppression under the guise of fighting the almost non-existent voter fraud but Trump has gone so far as to claim that Republicans would never be elected again if it were easier to vote. While Republicans could win in fair elections, the approach of both parties is rational: easier voting does seem to favor Democrats because more people want to vote Democrat. While it is true that voter suppression can also impact those who would vote for Republicans, voter suppression is targeted as much as possible to impact populations who are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.
Before the Southern Strategy, it could be argued that the Democrats did not support minority voting. But this changed and now the Democrats have been trying to get more votes by appealing to minority groups. They generally do this by offering small, but meaningful, benefits in return for votes. While the establishment Democrats serve the interests of the power elites well, they will also support laws that provide some benefits to the working class and minorities. For example, Democrats tend to support anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, affordable health care and an increase in the minimum wage (but not too much). As another example, the Democrats have opened seats at the tables of power for minorities—with Obama and Harris being but two examples. While the Republicans do have minority members, they lag far behind the Democrats (and the Democrats are only doing so-so).
After losing to Obama twice, the Republicans seriously considered adopting the Democrat’s strategy of expanding their appeal to minorities. However, Trump put a decisive end to this in what amounts to a re-activation of the southern strategy. That is, the Republicans have stepped up their appeals to white fears, racism and xenophobia. White supremacists certainly approve of this approach. This does make sense: the Republicans probably cannot outcompete the Democrats here to win over a majority of the minority voters. They can, of course, recruit some individuals and present them as “proof” they are not racist (or sexist). Trump’s election showed the effectiveness of these strategies—and his re-election in 2020 would help confirm that the Republicans made the “right” choice.
Republicans do criticize the Democrats for allegedly pandering to minorities (and women) asserting both that the Democrats are devoted to political correctness while also claiming they are cynically exploiting minorities they do not care about. While these could be true, there are two main responses. The first is that the Democrats offer minority voters a return on their vote—such as places at the table and legislation they want. This is how politics works—people vote to get a return on that vote. The Democrats can be fairly criticized for providing too little return on that investment—but the Republicans offer minorities in general far less. Second, while motivation matters in terms of assessing a person’s ethics, it has no bearing on whether the action they take, or its consequences are good or bad. I will show this with an analogy.
Imagine that Carl the contractor wants to get your money—that is all he cares about. One option is for Carl to do the right thing and provide good work at a fair price. Another option is to use his tools to break into your house to steal your property. Carl’s motivation is the same in both cases; but how he gets your money matters morally. Likewise, even if the Democrats just want to win, it does matter how they do it. The Democrats are trying to win by getting more voters to vote for them by expanding voting rights and making it easier for citizens to vote—they believe they can win this way because they believe more people want them to win. As such, their strategy is to strengthen and expand democracy.
And this is where the Republicans come in: Republicans are trying to win by keeping more people from voting and try to ensure they target those who are likely to vote for the Democrats. They believe they can win this way because they believe more people do not want them to win—so they need to make sure that fewer people who do not want them to win get to vote. The path to victory is to weaken and restrict democracy. I am not claiming that the Democrats are angels—but they are doing the right thing even if they have the wrong motivations. It might be true that the Democrats would do what the Republicans are doing if the situation were different—if so, they would be doing wrong in that hypothetical situation.