Democrats Have a Messaging Problem. Will They Do the Work to Fix It?

Illustration for article titled Democrats Have a Messaging Problem. Will They Do the Work to Fix It?
Photo: Fiora Watts (Shutterstock)

More than three weeks after Democrats’ disappointing showing on Election Day, party leadership is still arguing over what went wrong. Beyond winning the White House—and activists argue that had it not been for their activism and street-level organizing, Democrats would have lost that race, too—there aren’t too many bright sides.

They expected to expand on seats, not lose them. Local Democrats hoped to take over state legislatures and failed. In fact, Republicans flipped New Hampshire. Democrats believed that the economic fallout and death toll resulting from Donald Trump’s poor handling of the pandemic would work against the White House occupant and his party.

The opposite happened.

As some experienced organizers wrote in Politico, Democrats depended on bad polling data and underestimated Republicans’ organizing and campaigning skills—especially with Latinx voters. In short, Democrats were strategically lazy.

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But the main reason Democrats woke after Nov. 3 with less power than they expected is because of a weak national messaging strategy and leadership ran away from the radical base of their party instead of embracing it, activists told The Root. They were especially offended when Rep. Abigail Spanberger and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn blamed “defund the police,” socialism and other progressive platforms as reasons why Democrats underperformed. And while some members of Congress who spoke with The Root sympathized with Clyburn and Spanberger’s comments, they also admitted that voters do not know what the party stands for, making GOP-counter messaging very effective in not only gaining an advantage with under-engaged voters but causing infighting between moderate and liberal members of Congress.

“Too often, we allow the Republicans to define us,” said one Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “They get their message out and it’s consistent. The problem that we have in the Democratic Party is that we’re a big tent. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We have the Me Too movement, we have the Black Lives Matter movement, we have the gay rights marriage issue in our tent. So, it’s a lot more difficult to hone our message down to three points.”

Another Congress member said his colleagues need to take more responsibility for their campaigns.

“My opponent called me a socialist,” said another Democratic House member, also on the condition of anonymity. “I pushed back. When my opponent tried to suggest that I would recall law and order, I pushed back. And at the same time, I was able to articulate to the activists that I understood their complaints. I supported bills like the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. So a lot of this is how you package your campaign. I could understand if we didn’t have the resources. I think some of us probably just made bad choices.”

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Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, said Democrats spend more time fighting activists over defund the police instead of working with them to understand the platform. She and other activists interviewed for this story say that Democrats have a messaging problem and too often cave in to Republican fear-mongering and disinformation tactics instead of defining exactly what they stand for.

“We can’t soften what we mean in order to create what they call a bigger tent,” she said. “We’re not trying to make friends with people who don’t understand why we absolutely want to defund the police. We’re not trying to find a happy medium with those who say that they want to pour more police into our neighborhoods.

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Abdullah added: “So if you don’t like what we’re saying, we’re going to continue to talk with you. But we’re not going to water down our message in order to make people who don’t understand feel more comfortable. As a Black mother of Black children, I’m working for a world where they can live and walk freely. I’m not going to soften that to make some white suburban mothers feel more comfortable.”

Activists and politicians have historically butted heads and that antagonism predates the BLM movement. Making the two sides’ relationship even more fractious is their approaches to reaching the same communities clash because their messaging isn’t the same. The question, though, is whose messaging is most impactful. Activists who spoke with The Root say had it not been for their radical calls for defunding the police and other platforms, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan would not have shifted blue in favor of Biden.

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“I think they have an identity problem,” said Angela Peoples, co-founder of The South, which organizes around social and political justice issues. “Unfortunately, the leadership, the folks who speak for the Democratic Party, are not in tune with the people who vote for the Democratic Party. This notion that their base of voters is more centrist is just not true. It’s not what we see at rallies. It’s not what we see in our one-on-one community meetings, in the moments between election cycles, when organizers and community leaders are trying to keep people engaged and pass policies that actually improve our lives.”

Peoples added that any suggestion by Democratic leadership that defund the police or any progressive slogan cost them races is “shortsighted.”

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Ocasio-Cortez put it simply in a Nov. 11 tweet when she wrote, “The idea that politicians can control activist messaging doesn’t make sense. They don’t work for us. Our job is to listen and develop our message, own it, win,& lead. Civil rights movement didn’t poll well at the time either. MLK was disliked. Does that mean he wasn’t effective?”

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There are signs that candidates running to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) are at least beginning to realize issues. DCCC’s main function is to provide campaign strategy and tone for successful congressional races, something that outgoing-DCCC chair Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) did poorly and is stepping down as a result. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who is running to replace her in this week’s election, told Axios that Democrats dropped the ball on Latinx voter outreach and that “you can’t talk to a community without having culturally competent people who are doing the messaging and getting the truth out to them.”

Rep. Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) wants to do away with the DCCC ban against political consultants who worked for candidates who challenged Democrats preferred choices. The ban blocks vendors who work with primary challengers from tens of millions of DCCC contracts, a move that infuriated progressives when it was enacted in 2019. Maloney says the ban “separated ourselves from some of the most creative and diverse people working in politics, particularly in the area of digital and social media,” he told Axios.

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Maloney’s call for lifting the ban is important because activists and progressive House members are more likely to support primary challengers, as well as work with BLM-leaning strategists who have the digital and mobilization skills Democrats are accused of lacking.

In the same Axios interview, Majority Whip Clyburn said Democrats “were not able to discipline” themselves and that they should “stop sloganeering” if they want to perform better in national races.

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In an interview with The Root, Clyburn doubled down on “defund the police” as a problem, but he did take some responsibility, saying Democrats need to invest more resources outside of urban areas.

“We’re getting our butts kicked in rural communities,” he said. “Democrats are losing badly in rural communities. That’s why a state like South Carolina and North Carolina, we lose those congressional districts and we can’t help but lose them. I lost four counties this year. I ain’t never lost a county in my district until this year and I lost four of them. One of them, I lost pretty good. I never lost it before. So I’d ask you why I lost those counties. In 26 years, never lost a county, but this year I lost those four counties.”

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After I pushed him on why he lost those counties, he said, “Because we do not have a good program for rural communities. Rural hospitals are closing, they’re going to blame somebody and they’re blaming us.”

The irony, though, is that there are activists who organize around defund the police who are winning and gaining ground in rural communities and red states, starting with Georgia. Nse Ufot, whom Stacey Abrams tapped as CEO of the New Georgia Project to help her flip Georgia, said she attracted new voters with bold messaging that included Medicare for all, free rent and defunding the police. While Clyburn and other Democrats offer up external excuses for losses, Ufot believes they need to do some soul-searching.

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“They are going to keep losing and it’s going to be a problem,” she said. “I have had direct face-to-face conversations with Democratic leaders, people who hold leadership positions. And I don’t know if Clyburn’s position is reflected across the ecosystem. There are people who get it and who know. Now there are folks still trying to figure out how to humble themselves, to ask community organizers how they can do better. But there is a growing recognition that the status quo ain’t working. And it’s definitely not going to allow us to grow power, let alone hold on to the little power that they have.”

Another issue is that national Democrats tend to run away from activist-minded candidates instead of embracing them. Then-state Senator Charles Booker, who ran against well-funded Amy McGrath in the Democratic primary on defunding the police and showed up at BLM marches while she was absent, barely lost to her after his campaign got national attention just weeks before the primary. McGrath, who every mainstream Democrat-backed, lost by a landslide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in one of the most expensive ass-kickings this election cycle. Booker lost, but what he proved was that a Black man in a white-ass state running on a Black-ass message could attract white voters.

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Booker told me earlier this year that he campaigned on “defund the police” in the whitest parts of Kentucky, where people “put their fists in the air saying ‘no lives matter until Black Lives Matter.’

“They were marching in the streets with white supremacists watching. They ain’t care. I think we’re at a point where we can build new coalitions that speak to structural issues that hurt everybody.”

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Again, he lost. But what closed the gap between him and McGrath was that he took bold positions that were well-articulated and easy to distinguish. No one knows what would have happened had national Democrats coalesced around Booker sooner, but what we do know for sure is that Black progressives who incorporate BLM language into their campaign can be competitive. Anywhere.

What Trump does well, and what GOP leadership exploited, is his clear and focused messaging to the innermost fears of his base. Sure, Trump is a racist, xenophobic and sexist but that makes for excellent campaigning. He gained more than 10 million additional votes this year than in 2016 on the same message of division when (white) political onlookers expected much of his base to flee over his handling of the pandemic.

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Not only is Trump wildly popular at the state level, candidates running for office literally run based on loyalty to Trump. Cameron Webb, who lost his congressional race in Virginia, commended his opponent’s pro-Trump messaging, which attacked Webb for being “radical.” Democrats will never admit this publicly, but the GOP’s racist messaging works and they saw results with record turnout. Republicans may not have won the White House, but they won many of the local races, which—because of the 2020 census—will determine the legislative branch of government for the next decade through redistricting.

Neal Carter, a political strategist who has led campaign messaging on statewide campaigns, said part of the problem is that Democrats traditional leadership tend to look down on progressive thinking, refuse to push the needle towards anything radical and end up backing middle-of-the-ground Democrats who don’t advance any new ideas that could attract new voters and gain the respect of the BLM movement

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“Leadership does need to be shifted a little bit,” he said. “There are a significant number of legislators who have either served one or two terms that don’t get the same opportunities and are kind of treated as just an additional vote in a district, and not as actual thought leaders on legislation. They’re just expected to vote with the Democratic body, and that’s it.”

Members of Congress who have taken on the thought leader roles of Congress but get criticized for it are Congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich). For all of the heat the establishment directs at them, the four lawmakers sure know how to win elections and get reelected. No matter how aggressively Trump tried to paint them as terrorists, un-American and all racist slurs, they never allowed it to undermine the integrity of their campaigns—nor, did they play blame games for their primary challenges.

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For all of the blame directed at them, albeit indirectly, for causing their fellow members to lose elections because of their platforms, they each won their reelections by large margins. While Congress members interviewed for this story say the ideological debates will not break their party, the reality is that party leadership and moderates are too fast to blame The Squad and their radical platforms for their problems. And that is going to put them at risk of losing even more ground if they don’t figure out how to work better with BLM activists and their more radical colleagues on messaging instead of blaming them for their problems.

A Midwest House member put the whole finger-pointing game in context.

“Republicans down ballot won all across this country,” the member said. “So I don’t necessarily blame the party for losing those seats. I think that the mistake that the party has made is not cultivating these various constituencies until it’s time to run an election. People don’t know who we are or what we stand for. Once we tell people, they say ‘Great! I didn’t know that you all were doing that.’ But we don’t do it well. We don’t let people know who we are and what we stand for. That’s the one thing about The Squad: people know where they stand, and they’re not afraid to say it. Even if I disagree with them sometimes, I respect that they stand for something.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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DISCUSSION

Whoever named it “Defund the Police” killed that baby in the crib. They could have called it Police Budget Reallocation/Reapportionment or literally ANYTHING that did not sound like it completely deprived police of *all* their funding. If we learned anything from Lovecraft Country or even Spirited Away, there is power in a name, and christening Defunding the Police stopped that dead in its tracks.

Democrats have ALL the communications majors working for them, and no damn cohesive message. Let us hope that shiny, new, all-female communications team at the White House drastically improves messaging from the top-down. Godspeed, ladies!

Love me some Dems, but yeeeeesh, the pre-election DNC message was so milquetoast, it is no small wonder that every staunch republican with a beating heart showed up at the polls. The DNC message was essentially, “Hey, Joe is not Trump,” which, on paper, should speak volumes and be enough, but with Trump’s 70M+ voters being hooked on the red meat the throws them daily, you really cannot be mad about how poorly the DNC performed nationally.

Comparatively, the DNC sold the country bags of frozen Trader Joe’s chicken breasts that we have to thaw and cook ourselves, whereas Trump gave his followers buckets of KFC and fountains of gravy. While you or I might like to cook, let’s be honest, the average American just wants whatever is swiftest to get on the table during this pandemic. I’ll still choose Trader Joes democracy, (and try and pass the marshmallow test) but I simply do not expect that of most people (and white women, specifically) here after the 2016 and 2020 elections. In fact, had we not elected Biden, I fully would expect us to be drowning in a national vat of orange-tinged KFC gravy, because Trumpists would say it prevented forest fires or whatever they read on 8kun.