There’s a bit of wisdom in the ad business that “new” is the most powerful word you can attach to a thing you want to sell.
Persuading the mass public is more complicated than that, but it does offer a simple explanation for why midterm elections are a time of dread for the governing party. New is what the party currently out of power represents. And it is hard to compete with new.
It gets infinitely harder when voters are in a sour mood.
Republicans smell the blood in the water and have been on the attack, led by the culture warriors of the hard right. Book bans. Don’t say gay bills. Attacks on transgender kids. Attacks on teachers. Attacks on Mickey Mouse and Pluto. The whole QAnon-inspired infatuation with pedophilia.
And of course former President Donald Trump’s big lie about a stolen election, recently echoed in Minnesota by gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen when he suggested our squeaky-clean Secretary of State Steve Simon should be thrown in jail.
What you mostly hear by way of a response is crickets. Democratic leaders have been unable to agree on a message, or whether they should even have one.
Conventional wisdom says don’t take the culture war bait. Keep the focus on meaty kitchen table issues like health care and the economy. Or maybe go all-in on abortion rights now that Roe v. Wade appears to be toasted. Use that to bludgeon Republican candidates the way they used healthcare in the 2018 midterm election. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a good case for a policy-based message in a recent New York Times piecearguing there’s still time for Democrats to deliver on the big promises of the 2020 election and avoid a mid-term disaster.
The counter argument is that ignoring the culture war unleashed on America’s legislatures, school boards and pregnant teenagers is like the Ukrainians thinking if they just ignore Vladimir Putin he’ll go away. To see what fighting back might look like, I recommend the fiery rebuttal speech made by Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow when a Republican colleague accused her of “grooming” young children for working in the sex trade.
Which is more likely to succeed?
That’s where I come back to the new/old dichotomy. It would be great to see some big policy wins that help Americans deal with things like inflation and crime. Lord knows we need it. But if engineering one of the strongest economic recoveries in history didn’t give Democrats traction in the polls, more of the same is unlikely to have a different effect. It’s too easy for a disaffected public to mash it all together as politics as usual.
The better communications strategy is to redefine new in the minds of voters. Take the shine off it by painting a clearer picture of more Republicans in power.
Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of the first President Bush gives us an example of how such a redefining worked in the 1988 presidential election. Voters were ready for change after eight years of Republican government and Bush was down badly in the polls – until strategist Lee Atwater convinced him to amplify the Story of Willie Horton, a Black man who raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend while on a weekend prison pass. A supposedly independent group turned the story into an infamous ad. It changed a lot of voters’ minds about walking away from Bush. It was also underhanded and racist, and that rightly soured a lot of Democrats — including me — on the whole idea of attack ads.
Now, however, Democrats have every opportunity to occupy the moral and patriotic high ground if they take the fight to the culture warriors. Especially if Democrats are able to put together a more disciplined brand voice than they have to date.
The key is to make it about all of us. All Americans. Democrats are our last defense against the Republican Party’s relentless attacks on truth, justice, freedom, moms, kids, schools, science, our health, our democracy.
I think the message is simple. They are lying to us. They will betray our trust. That’s a big enough organizing idea to call out everything from banning abortion to banning books, and of course the Big Lie itself. There’s even room to talk about inflation. You don’t have to do much math to understand that the hard right’s America First focus on restricting global trade and immigration might have something to do with the supply chain disruptions and labor shortages that are causing a lot of inflation. Add to the message that voting Republican costs too much.
There has been some talk of the Democrats needing a message simple enough to put on a bumper sticker. They reportedly flirted with the unfortunate line Democrats Deliver. I’d sign the party’s messaging with a single word that represents the opposite of both dishonesty and betrayal: True. Or, to better engage voters in the fight, Vote True.