Based on a lot of great research by political messaging gurus I respect, I am convinced that the best play for Democrats consists of talking populist economics, taking on corporate special interests, and combining it with a head-on approach to race and class that raises issues of racism upfront. This cycle I had a chance to experiment with this kind of approach and the evidence suggests it was a big winner.
In the spring of this year, a banking reform coalition I work with called Take on Wall Street commissioned some polling from Celinda Lake’s firm on what messages might work best in the midterms. We found that taking on the Big Banks is a great issue for Democrats in general, but also found more specific language that candidates or outside organizations could use to persuade voters and get them motivated to vote. The topline didn’t surprise us, as there has been a lot of other polling in recent years that has made this point.
What did surprise us was that one issue had an especially big impact, especially on less frequent voters. Celinda discovered that one particular provision in the recently passed GOP Wall Street deregulation bill (the Crapo bill for you wonks out there) made people especially mad: the part that made it easier for the Big Banks to discriminate against people based on their race. The most fascinating thing in Celinda’s research was that not only did this make people of color angry, as you would fully expect, but it also made white people really mad, too. Looking for ways to bring whites and people of color together in these racially charged times? Looks like taking on Wall Street is a great way to do it. From the memo Celinda and her colleagues wrote outlining their findings:
Nearly 9-in-10 support a proposal to hold to account financial companies that deny loans, charge higher interest rates, or engage in other discriminatory practices, based on a person’s race. This policy is the top-testing proposal, with supermajorities of every major subgroup in the data strongly supporting it, including voters in Congressional districts rated by Cook Political Report as Lean and Likely Republican.
So the folks at CWA, a union that has been doing a great deal of work on Wall Street issues, and the PAC I chair which is named Fair and Balanced PAC (and yes, we did name it that to troll Fox News) decided to use that research and target some key districts where we thought it could make a difference. We decided to do multiple kinds of digital ads and then do a telephone and texting program to reinforce the message of the ads and get a read on how people were responding. You can find a couple of the ads we ran here, and here.
Latinx voters were an important community to turn out to vote, and also one heavily hit by subprime mortgage lending and the financial collapse in 2008. So we targeted them in the Heller race in Nevada and in two key House races in Texas, against Hurd and Sessions, which we figured would also help Beto’s efforts to turn out the vote. We targeted a multi-racial set of voters in NJ 3, represented by MacArthur, and mostly white voters in Iowa 3, against Young. At the last minute, we also put a smaller amount of resources into the Nebraska 2nd district, against Bacon, working with other progressive groups to help Kara Eastman.
This was a small test and more experimentation is needed in the 2020 cycle, but for progressives looking for a populist message that works, this message works. It worked for undecideds, as well as people already planning to vote for the Democrat. Our callers found that in the House races, the working-class demographic was more than a third undecided, but were moved by this message. Based on the view and engagement rates on social media, and the strongly positive reactions on the phones, we think this program was a major success. Add to that the results in the races we targeted:
Heller lost by a worse than expected margin to Jacky Rosen.
Colin Allred’s victory against powerful GOP House incumbent Pete Sessions, a member of the House Republicans’ leadership team, was described by many political analysts as a “major upset.”
We might be headed to a recount in a race with a razor thin margin in South Texas, a race where Gina Ortiz Jones had been abandoned by most of the big players in the Democratic Party after polls showed her down by 15 points. FAB PAC stayed in the race partly to turn out votes for Beto in that district, partly because Jones was such an impressive candidate that I thought the polls were off, and partly because our message seemed to be really resonating there.
Cindy Axne’s win was another upset surprise of 2018: her district went solidly for Trump in 2016, and her opponent, David Young, had run a strong campaign.
The Tom MacArthur/Andy Kim contest was one of the closest in the country all the way through, but most people expected MacArthur to pull it out because he was so strongly established in the district. Health care gets most of the credit here, but based on our telephone conversations, we think the Wall Street issue played an important role here as well.
In Nebraska 2, most pundits and DC Democratic groups wrote Kara Eastman off early. DailyKos even downgraded the race to Likely Republican the last week before the election. Even though we lost here, Eastman came a lot closer than expected.
As well as Democrats did on health care this year, we are not going to win the presidency and Senate back next year without having a strong economic message. Right now, the Republican Party is favored over the Democratic Party on this issue, in part because voters don’t know what we stand for economically. We need to tell a story about how Trump is trying to divide Americans on the basis of race, and his big money, special interest cronies like the Wall Street banks are using those divisions to distract us, so that they can get even richer and more powerful. We need to tell voters what we are going to do for working folks of all colors to stop big business from exploiting them, and to help them get better jobs, bigger raises, and decent housing at a fair price.
The Race/Class Narrative ideas developed in another study by Demos; Celinda and her colleague Jonathan Voss; Ian Haney Lopez; and Anat Shenker show that we should lead with a narrative that goes straight at the racism and divisiveness of Trump’s Republican Party. This kind of narrative works better than either a vague agenda that barely mentions economic issues on one hand, or an agenda that talks about economic issues, but never mentions the racial issues Trump keeps stoking on the other.
The RCN approach works better with both white, working-class swing voters and with people of color. We combined that frame with an attack going after some of the biggest villains in the American political landscape: Big Banks. It was a winning formula. Democratic presidential candidates with credibility on the Wall Street issue would be well-advised to wire that message into their campaign in the coming year and a half, and Democrats running up and down the ticket would be well-served if they did the same thing.