Democrats Still Don’t Know How to Talk to Their Own Voters

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:, December 29, 2017)

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Democrats are poised to take control of the U.S. House and possibly the U.S. Senate in 2018, but their potential to squander this opportunity is hard to ignore.

One of the iron laws of electoral politics: The party of an unpopular incumbent president always suffers significant losses in midterm elections.

But if the 2016 Donald Trump campaign tell us anything, what’s past is not necessarily prologue. The Trump campaign broke all of the rules of political campaigns and still won (an electoral college victory).

Could the political pundit class be wrong again in 2018?

The Democrats should remember the broad consensus among political experts on the morning of November 8th last year. [Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s premature endzone dance the day before Election Day is an entertaining reminder of the fallibility of political pundits.]

The lesson of that day is simple: Democrats should never be over-confident about their chances on any election day.

Although, the early signs are looking very good for the Democrats in 2018. The prediction market PredictIt currently estimates the Democrats have a 59 percent chance of gaining control of the U.S. House in 2018 and a 47 percent chance of controlling the U.S. Senate. In both cases, these probabilities are significantly higher since the election of Democrat Doug Jones in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama.

Yet, beyond the constant ‘anti-Trump’ drumbeat, the Democrats struggle to find a compelling message that appeals to a broad range of American voters, but particularly swing voters. Though, according to former DNC chair Howard Dean, the message doesn’t matter as much in midterm elections:

“In the off-year elections for Congress, your message is ‘I’m not the president’ and that’s all you need,” said former DNC chair Howard Dean on MSNBC’s Morning Joe recently. “In 2018, not being Donald Trump is enough and the Republican Party is going to get nailed with corruption because of the tax bill — 14 Republican Senators who voted for that tax bill are making one million dollars or more off a provision that was slipped in at the last minute by Orrin Hatch. You cannot be voting to line your own pockets. People don’t like that, I don’t care what party you are in.”

Dean is correct on the corruption charge, but whether the Democrats can make that charge (or any other) stick is the real challenge.

Of course, the early signs — including elections in Alabama, Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania — show the Democrats are likely to witness a turnout surge in 2018 relative to the Republicans. There is also strong evidence independent voters are going to lean Democratic.

And underwriting these positive trends for the Democrats is the wide and indubitable #Resistance movement which is showing a persistence and vitality similar to the Tea Party movement in 2010.

However, there is a key difference between the Tea Party and the #Resistance. The Tea Party drew its energy from the impending launch of Obamacare that was not going to take effect until after the 2010 midterm elections. In other words, the Tea Party’s energy source was not going away before voters entered the voting booth.

In contrast, the #Resistance largely draws its power from the assumption that a serial misogynist, Donald Trump, colluded with the Russians to steal the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton.

Charges of sexual assault against President Trump are not going away, but should Robert Mueller’s investigation fail to support the collusion premise, and even if a number of Donald Trump’s inner circle are presented with obstruction of justice or false testimony charges — potentially even the president himself — what then will happen to the #Resistance’s energy level?

The Democratic Party’s leadership is not preparing its base for the possibility that the Mueller investigation will not prematurely end the Trump presidency.

The ‘Trump is a traitor, bigot and sexist pig‘ slogan may not be enough to convince voters to elect Democrats if the Mueller investigation finds little concrete evidence of collusion. Add a strong U.S. economy to the electoral equation, and the Democrats may not have the tailwind advantage they assume in 2018.

Despite what Governor Dean says, the Democrats need a coherent message in 2018, if only to set up their nominee, most likely Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), in the 2020 presidential campaign.

In that effort, the Democrats are already testing some messages before the 2018 midterms.

Beyond ‘Never Trump,’ What is the Democratic Party’s Message?

Last July, Democrats repackaged their traditional pro-labor and pro-government intervention economic policies under the slogan “A Better Deal.”

The Deal, focused on such things as fighting corporate mergers, lowering prescription drug prices and creating jobs for 10 million Americans, proved so uninspiring that the party leadership mercifully let it die on the vine before the American people even knew about it.

The National Republican Congressional Committee rightfully called the re-packaged Democratic Party agenda “stale.”

“Democrats fail to connect with millions of middle class Americans because they simply don’t understand them,” said Jesse Hunt, National Press Secretary at National Republican Congressional Committee.

But middle class Americans understand giving nearly 50 percent of tax cuts to the Top 1 percent? That’s the logic Trump and the Republicans are betting the 2018 midterms on.

With the passage of the Trump tax reform package, many Democrats believe they have their core argument for the midterms: Trump and the congressional Republicans serve the Top 1 percent to the detriment of everyone else.

On the surface, it appears to be a good argument. But it has one serious problem…it completely ignores the American political ethos embedded in this republic since its creation 241 years ago.

Americans don’t begrudge the ultra-wealthy or the advantages that come with it. Quite the opposite, on average, they applaud them. It was Barack Obama himself, in an interview with Bloomberg Business Week in 2010, said, “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That’s part of the free market system.”

Americans are an aspirational people centered on individual pursuits of happiness, not collective outcomes or obedience to economic fairness or social justice. It is encoded in our Constitution, which is not a collection of moth-eaten political ideas and procedures but, rather, a testament of this country’s origin myth.

As social critic Sam Harris will tell you, “Words matter.” And the U.S. Constitution makes it clear in the Bill of Rights that individual liberties and freedom from the government supersede considerations of economic equity or justice.

Yet, what do today’s Democrats offer as a message to the American voter?

New York Times journalist Michael Tackett recently interviewed six prominent Democrats from outside the D.C. beltway about what message they would craft for their party in 2018. With one exception, their answers are not encouraging.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee says there are three pillars for future Democratic Party success: jobs, unity, and a focus on state-level solutions.

While there is nothing wrong with any of those ‘pillars,’ its not a significant upgrade from Schumer and Pelosi’s hastily crafted “A Better Deal.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel does mention the importance of ‘aspirational’ agenda, but decays back into proclamations about “making debt-free college a reality, expanding access to affordable health care and creating good-paying jobs.”

All good policy ideas and important to this country’s future. But its not a compelling message.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra talks movingly about his experience as the son of immigrants and says the government should again ‘have people’s backs,’ while Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo emphasizes Americans getting ‘a fair shot at a good job.’

South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg perfectly encapsulates these “new” messages when he says, “We are the party that is out to support and protect ordinary people going about their lives.”

Nothing gets voters more excited than being called ‘ordinary.’

One common theme across these five Democrats is that the American people need to be protected by the government. It takes the government’s help to create good-paying jobs, provide affordable health care, and keep college affordable.

Another theme they all carry is that the Democrats can win elections again if they craft the right mix of policy ideas — policy drives voters’ preferences.

If only that were true.

There was one Democrat in Tackett’s piece, however, that did seem understand how American voters think: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

His words are inspirational, aspirational, and confrontational. He speaks of a “future where we can be the best version of ourselves” and “where every American can achieve their highest potential without limits.”

Reed may be low on specifics, but is high on ideals. This is at least the beginning of the right approach to communicating with American voters. They too are low on specifics but inherently understand the higher ideals of this country.

India’s young voters and America’s millennials may offer some useful insights to the Democratic Party

The Democrats may want to familiarize themselves with the fast changing politics of India over the past few years. As economic growth has quickened, India’s voters, particularly younger ones, are moving away from the traditional parties organized around caste or religious block and choosing ‘aspirational’ parties, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which scored significant electoral victories in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh in 2017.

“For the first time, we are moving away from identity politics to aspirational politics” says BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma. “The youth want to move up in life. They see that the BJP is a party that does not talk the language of caste (class) and religion.”

 Of course, India is not the U.S. and the social dynamics of a fast-developing country are different from those of a mature, developed economy. Nonetheless, consumer marketers in the U.S. have long known the importance of aspirational messages in attracting customers.

“Effective marketing has always been about identifying and fulfilling aspirations,” says Rainmaker Digital CEO Brian Clark. “If you’re selling material goods, you need to understand how your widget fits into the broader aspirational lifestyle of your target audience.”

Yet, there is evidence, at least among millennials, that aspirational messages are becoming less important than socially realistic messages.

According to The NPD Group’s Marshal Cohen, Americans today are “shaped largely by the Great Recession, diminishing discretionary income, and the desire for experiences over things.”

This shift among consumers may be  driven by other factors as well, particularly social media, according to one market research executive.

“Advertising has always held up a mirror to society, so the rise of reality shows, online influencers and vloggers with lower production values and more natural settings have probably contributed to this (realism) trend,” says Paul Bainsfair, director-general at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in London, UK.

How might this consumer shift towards realism translate to politics and how should the Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) respond?

Aspirational and realistic messages are not mutually exclusive categories and any conclusion that appealing to voters’ aspirations is now démodé is ill-advised.

Instead, this new consumer trend does suggest aspirational-focused communications, to be effective, will need to be firmly rooted in reality.

From a political perspective, voters may become less tolerant of sugarcoating or exaggeration and more willing to accept policy ideas that are a bit messy or imperfect. After two years of Donald Trump’s superficial relationship with knowledge and truth, voters may be seeking a level of policy realism political consultants would normally advice candidates to avoid.

Still, if the Democrats were to ignore the aspirational nature of the American people they would give the Republicans an opening to exploit. A realistic attention to taxes, defense spending, social programs and government deficits is not a license for Democrats to lower the expectations of the American people.

Without a more inspired message, the Democrats may squander their current advantage

Democrats keep insisting on making policy-based ideological arguments to an American voter population that wants to be inspired. The Republicans understand this and have effectively exploited it for electoral advantage since Ronald Reagan.

Unless the Democrats find a message to discount two years of strong economic growth in the minds of voters, they may not win control of the Congress in 2018 or the White House in 2020 — despite the flood of public opinion evidence suggesting otherwise.

K. R. K.

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About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.