Washington Post: Can Democrats avoid the pitfalls of 2020? A new analysis offers striking answers.
Washington Post – May 27, 2021
By Greg Sargent
As Democrats face a 2022 midterm landscape that could cost them the House, they are grappling with hard strategic challenges. Democrats in tough districts with many Republican voters in them feel twin pressures: one is to emphasize their bipartisan outreach. The other is to refrain from prosecuting the case against GOP radicalization too forcefully.
A new analysis of House Democratic losses in 2020 done by a progressive donor and strategy group — which is circulating among Democratic strategists — suggests some counterintuitive answers for Democrats navigating these pressures.
The analysis — which was done by the group Way to Win and was provided to me — suggests large TV-ad expenditures on emphasizing bipartisan outreach do not appear to have paid dividends for House Democrats in the 2020 elections.
The analysis also finds that Republicans spent a lot more money on casting Democrats as extremists than Democrats did in making the case against Republican extremism.
Democrats, of course, lost a net dozen House seats, underperforming victorious Joe Biden all over the place. The findings suggest Democrats need a rethink of their approach to those conundrums, the analysts conclude.
This is also more pressing now that Republicans are radicalizing in a way that poses a threat to future democratic stability, raising questions about how Democrats can highlight this to the public.
The study by Way to Win — a group distinguished by its big expenditures on turning out the Democratic base — attempts a comprehensive look at all the TV ads that ran in House races in the 2020 cycle. Some findings:
- Democrats spent three times more than Republicans on ads that touted bipartisan outreach. Democrats spent $21.8 million on ads about “bipartisanship” or “working across the aisle,” while Republicans spent $6.2 million on them.
- Democrats spent six times as much on positive ads than Republicans did. Democrats spent $18.6 million on positive ads that also happened to mention Republicans (say, by touting the ability to work with them), while Republicans spent $2.9 million on positive ads mentioning Democrats.
- Republicans spent more than 10 times more on ads with the words “extremist” and “radical” than Democrats did. Republicans spent $51 million on such ads, while Democrats spent $3.4 million.
- Overall, Republicans spent more than $87 million on ads with one or more of the following words in it: “AOC,” “Ocasio,” “Pelosi,” “socialism,” “socialist,” “defund,” “radical,” “extremist,” “extreme.”
- GOP ads were more likely to use words with “emotional punch,” such as “taxes,” “radical” and “jobs,” while Democratic ads featured words like “insurance,” “voted” and “work.”
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president of Way to Win, said that, in sum, Democrats in 2020 sent mixed messages: They touted their willingness to work with Republicans, even as Republicans called them socialists and extremists.
“By far their biggest spend,” Ancona told me, speaking of Republicans, was “on vilifying us as extreme in all kinds of ways.”
Meanwhile, Acona said, by constantly touting bipartisanship, Democrats were “effectively normalizing their attacks,” because Democratic messaging essentially said: “We want to work across the aisle with people who are painting us as extreme villains.”
“We should be painting them as the extreme outlier that they are,” Ancona told me.
The study has been shared with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The study includes ads spent by the DCCC and by individual campaigns and other groups, so it’s difficult to vet. Asked for comment, the DCCC declined.
As it happens, the DCCC’s own internal analysis, reported on by Paul Kane, has similarly concluded that Democrats were caught off guard by the potency of GOP attacks.
If you want to evaluate Way to Win’s data for yourself, the organization has created a comprehensive website and database of information it compiled on that spending, organized by key words used in ads, topics covered and more.
Obviously it’s hard to say whether this messaging was the direct cause of Democratic losses. But all this uncertainty suggests a need for a comprehensive effort to rethink basic questions, such as how effective touting bipartisanship is, and how to find the right language to characterize today’s GOP.
The study, for instance, also finds that Democrats spent far more on ads about health care and the coronavirus, while Republicans spent far more on ads about the economy. While health care did win the House for Democrats in 2018, questions linger as to whether they were too quick to fall back on it in 2020, and about the party’s economic messaging going forward.
This analysis also complicates an oft-heard argument about Republicans using leftist elements in the party — such as the “defund the police” movement — to tar mainstream Democrats. It’s sometimes said Democrats should more publicly denounce those elements.
But the analysis suggests that at least part of the problem — in 2020, anyway — was that Democrats failed to rebut those attacks head-on or to effectively make the case that the GOP is genuinely captured by its extremist elements in a way the Democratic Party simply is not. That’s a very different failing than not doing enough to call out leftists.
All this comes as Democrats seem to be edging toward a more forthright condemnation of GOP radicalization. They have run ads highlighting the GOP dalliance with QAnon, but as Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg argues, there’s much more to do in getting the language right on the GOP’s descent and making it central to the 2022 conversation.
To cite one example, Ron Brownstein demonstrates that senior Democrats seem oddly blasé about the extraordinary GOP campaign underway to restrict voting and take control over voting machinery in the states. You don’t often hear Democrats calling out Republicans as a threat to fundamental democratic stability.
So perhaps some of the party’s greatest minds will take on these strategic conundrums a bit more directly.