Republicans are stacking state legislatures and secretary of state offices with people who are obsessed with investigating the 2020 presidential election. They are actively fighting the select committee charged with finding out how the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol came about. They are continuing to push increasingly restrictive voting rights laws. And Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert say and do things that would have been unthinkable for a member of the House of Representatives to say or do a generation ago.
Through it all, Democrats have been sounding the alarm, arguing that more than just the fringiest bits of the Republican Party constitute a threat to democracy. The Democratic base agrees. But is the “threat to democracy” theme a plausible midterm strategy?
Probably not. Interviews with a half-dozen pollsters and strategists reveal a level of doubt that those calls actually activate swing voters during a time of economic restlessness and as the world struggles to stamp out the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive to think American democracy being in trouble wouldn’t be a pressing concern for every American. But it’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around something that hasn’t happened yet, argued Democratic pollster Pete Brodnitz. “Well, the first thing is, it’s always hard for people to imagine the worst. But the second is, in people’s daily lives they have more pressing things that they’re focused on,” Brodnitz said. “I’ve done work in places where democracy really has been at risk, and I’ve worked in places where there have been coups and then where there has been a discussion about restoring democracy.… Even in places like that, you’re going to have a strong sense that economic issues are paramount.”
“If you see Democrats running ads on this stuff, like Republicans being a danger to democracy, my guess is it’s probably mostly going to be fundraising stuff online, like digital banners, social media ads to try to get people to click through and donate to them,” said David de la Fuente, a senior policy analyst at the Third Way think tank, who tracks political and electoral trends. “Because I think ‘the Republicans are sliding toward anti-democracy police’ is something that definitely plays really well with the Democratic base.”
It’s an extremely important issue, de la Fuente continued, but unfortunately not the most resonant with the sliver of undecided moderate and swing voters both parties want to win over. De la Fuente pointed to Gallup polling showing that elections only clock in at 1 percent on the “most important issues” question.
In other words, it’s an extremely important topic, but to rally voters they need to rally, these pollsters say Democrats should look to other issues. “Let me put it this way. I would personally argue that protecting our democracy is the single-most important issue in the country right now, and I could talk your ear off about that for an hour,” de la Fuente continued. “But I would advise Democratic candidates to mostly refrain from talking about that in communication that is toward a general election electorate and instead talk about kitchen table issues like how the Democratic Congress is lowering taxes for working families and bringing down health care costs.… That’s the stuff that the median voter cares about.”
But is it necessarily an either-or situation? Democrats can make both arguments, simultaneously to the base and the public at large. Warnings about democracy can seem abstract sometimes, said Mark Riddle, the executive director of the Future Majority super PAC.* Riddle added that Republicans’ modus operandi right now is just to disrupt Democrats’ agenda as much as possible, which essentially adds to the perception that Democrats are ineffective.
“I think with voters, democracy can sometimes be abstract, as well as voting,” Riddle said. “They see legislation moving. They saw a transfer—it was not a peaceful transfer of power, but it was a transfer of power. Their localities are working, those sorts of things. We can argue power grab, sure, but I think it should be much more in line with talking about the continued chaos that now a large number of Republicans are deploying on a daily basis.”
In the past few weeks, Democratic strategists and pollsters have been surveying recent elections and polling data to size up where the party stands. Some of the findings have been ominous. A recent PBS Newshour/Marist Poll found that adults feel that Democrats are a bigger threat to American democracy than Republicans, although it was within the margin of error, at 42 to 41 percent.
Elsewhere, a memo from Democratic pollster Bryan Stryker surveying the outcome of the Virginia governor’s race offered similarly dour findings for Democrats. The memo detailed how the party’s “weak national brand left us vulnerable” in the gubernatorial election, where former Governor Terry McAuliffe lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin. The memo went on to say that voters think the Democratic Party is “focused on social issues,” not the economy; that Democrats lack a brand among swing voters; and that any congressional accomplishments the party has had over the last year have been eclipsed by “infighting” as the country careens “from crisis to crisis.”
It’s not that arguing about the precarious state of American democracy isn’t important, it’s that it doesn’t quell some of the pressing concerns among the voters that Democrats want to reach. “If we’re talking about someone being anti-democratic, that is, in pollster speak, not a pressing issue,” one Democratic strategist and alumna of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told me. This strategist said the pressing concern for the party was to focus on appealing to the pressing concerns of voters (such as Covid-19, schools, and the economy) while also painting Republicans as a direct threat to those concerns.
The message Democrats needed to offer, the strategist said, is that “‘Republicans are dangerous, they are dangerous to themselves, they are dangerous to the country. They are dangerous to you with your two-car garage.’ That is something that swing voters care about. Anything that forces them to think about if government’s going to hurt them, or change their life, they hate. So if we’re reminding them that Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert or any of these idiots could have power and influence and potentially change their life because they’re so dangerous and reckless, that’s a positive. If we’re telling them that these people are going to change how votes are counted, our base kind of cares about it …,” but the larger electorate doesn’t get activated in the same way.
Brodnitz said that the key would be for Democrats to become “the most trusted party when it comes to the economy.” On a macro level, that means making voters feel like Democrats are the party of solving problems. “I think the solution to all this is to win elections, and to win elections you should focus on solving people’s problems that they’re really experiencing in their lives,” Brodnitz said. “Any time that you poll, it is like many other issues where people will tell you it’s important, but then ask them, ‘Out of this conversation, what did you take from that?’ they’re probably not going to mention democracy.”
Paul Maslin, another Democratic pollster, stressed that warning about the state of democracy is effective among the Democratic base. But he said it was unclear whether it has “any merit in the middle.”
“It may be that voters in the middle are like, ‘I’m past all that.’ Talk to me about something real to my life—a job or health care or the economy or education or whatever.… They may still view it as political squabbling. And that’s fine. Or maybe not,” Maslin said. “All I’m saying is, (a) it’s real, so there’s an opportunity; (b) it absolutely will have impact among our base and among our Democratic voters that we want to turn out. What I don’t know is what happens in the middle of the electorate.”
There is, of course, a scenario where concerns about the state of American democracy become the only issue on people’s minds, regardless of political affiliation, economic concerns, or the state of the Covid pandemic. In that scenario, though, it might be too late for anyone to do anything.
* This article originally misidentified Mark Riddle’s organization.