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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

“Most people have already made up their minds,” novelist Joseph O’Neill writes in “Brand New Dems” in The New York Review of Books.  “But even in a time of partisan polarization, there persists a small demographic of persuadables—the low-information, temperamentally apolitical, ideologically squishy voters who are responsible for fluctuations in presidential approval polls. The perceptions of these voters is the subject of an intense public relations battle between Democrats and Republicans.” Noting the economic collapse and Trump’s botched pandemic policies, O’Neill adds, “Surely the chickens will come home to roost. The problem is that they won’t, unless they’re rounded up and forced into their coop. Republicans have long been better at this kind of work than Democrats. This is because Democrats are terrible at “messaging…Biden, to the extent that he is visible at all, is terrible at campaign messaging. He doesn’t connect well with his supporters, many of whom minimize their exposure to him for fear of demoralization. Nor does he connect well with persuadable independents…In April he devoted two of his biggest ads to defending himself against Trump’s accusations that he is dangerously soft on China and its role in the pandemic. Republican strategists, terrified of substantive electioneering, have decided that Trump’s best bet is precisely to lure Biden into an esoteric, anachronistic, and xenophobic fight about who will stand up to China. Biden has taken the bait. Even by the standards of easily rattled Democratic politicians, his is a remarkably rapid surrender of rhetorical ground.”

O’Neill continues, “Trump was able to spook Biden in part because of the second kind of messaging—party branding. This kind of messaging occurs day-in, day-out, regardless of whether there’s an election imminent, and it never stops. Its aim is to make party designation a durable asset for candidates—not only for presidential elections but for the countless other elections that color the political map red or blue. Republicans are good at party branding. Democrats are not, to put it mildly, and thereby cede deep structural advantages to the GOP…there are no branding handbooks for political operatives in the way there are for businesspeople. There are books about effective political language—for example, the GOP consultant Frank Luntz’s Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear (2007)—but these largely focus on messaging for campaigns, not on the question of how to build a lasting party brand. Corporations have long understood the importance of managing the social and cultural meaning of their products. They don’t think of a brand as an analytic tool but as an actual thing—an intangible asset, capable of being valued by accountants, that can make or break a company’s fortunes. The stakes are no different for political parties.”

“What are Democrats doing about this?,” O’Neill adds. “Very little, so far as one can tell. For years, their party-branding strategy, to the extent that one existed at all, has been to rely on the personal qualities of the president, or the quadrennial presidential nominee, to confer brand value on the party’s other candidates: the “coattails” effect. Even someone as charismatic and competent as President Obama couldn’t make that work after the 2008 election. When the White House is occupied by a Republican, Democratic branding is left even more to chance. A miscellany of liberal personages (the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, John Lewis) serve as the faces of the party while they pursue their differing political and messaging agendas. From the point of view of branding, the Democratic Party is a mess…Republicans, by contrast, understand the importance of party branding. They understand that favorable generic perceptions are crucial to the success of their candidates. As a result they are highly disciplined and highly aggressive communicators who notoriously stick to their partisan “talking points.””

O’Neill ventures a strategy for Dems: “The challenge, for the Democratic Party, is to turn the (D) designation into a resilient asset and the (R) designation into a resilient liability. What can Democrats do to make something like that happen?…A winning Democratic Party brand strategy would have two parts: a strategy for increasing trust in the party, and a strategy for diminishing trust in the GOP…The current Republican “product” is historically terrible. At this moment of liberal outrage and GOP brand instability, Democrats have an extraordinary opportunity to cement in the minds of Americans that Democrats can be trusted to govern and Republicans cannot…We’re talking, as always, about winning at the margins and winning for years. Democrats want marginal Republican voters to feel that they can’t trust the Republican Party—not anymore. There’s something off about those guys…There’s your master narrative, by the way: Republicans can’t be trusted anymore. “Anymore” is important, because your audience may have a history or culture of trusting them. The nature of your audience also dictates that your messaging can’t consist of trashing the other side. That would backfire. Your messaging goal is simply to make your audience feel uncomfortable about what (R) now stands for.”

Turning to the Democratic Brand, O’Neill writes, “A brand strategy for the Democratic Party must reckon with three audiences: squishy Republicans and squishy Democrats; the party base; and those on the left, often younger voters, who vote (D) reluctantly or not at all…The most obvious way for the Democrats to successfully position themselves, across their many audiences, would be by passing a universally popular piece of legislation that is strongly and durably associated with the party, as Social Security once was. This would require a transformative initiative—on health care, say, or on green energy—that not only comes to fruition but is touted in partisan and popularizing terms. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was flawed on both of these counts: it didn’t contain the public option, which disappointed a lot of people; and, calamitously, Democratic politicians were embarrassed, fearful, and apologetic about a policy initiative that Republicans loudly objected to. This was irrational as well as spineless. Republicans loudly object to anything Democrats do…The Democratic Party, at its strongest, has stood for ordinary people. There would be no more powerful, effective, and lasting way to restore trust in the party than to align its core identity with its practices. You do that by branding the party as the grassroots party, and you authenticate the brand by placing at the core of the party’s operations the technical, financial, and moral support of diverse grassroots organizing groups. You don’t interfere in primaries.You do support regionalism, variation, and an ethos of mutual respect. Montana Democrats, after all, may think differently from their counterparts in Massachusetts. In effect, the party ethos would be to validate, elevate, and sustain the passionate activism that represents its best bet for winning year after year…It might be said that the party would lose control of its brand. The answer is that the party doesn’t control its brand anyway, nor should it. This isn’t a conceptual argument; it’s a concrete one. It’s based on the actual political landscape, populated by citizen-consumers who demand a meaningful political product. If the Democratic Party wants to be viewed as the party of ordinary Americans, it must embody that vision. The DNCwebsite currently proclaims, “The Democratic Party elects leaders who fight for equality, justice, and opportunity for all.” That should read, “Democrats are Americans who fight for equality, justice, and opportunity for all. The Democratic Party exists to give them power.””

In his Washington Post column, “Why the GOP may lose everything,” E. J. Dionne, Jr. writes, “Having disastrously bungled the pandemic, Trump is not only falling well behind former vice president Joe Biden in the polls; he could also be creating a tidal wave that would give Democrats unified control of the federal government’s elected branches…My conversations with four of the top Senate challengers suggested that the coronavirus crisis has reinforced core arguments that helped the Democrats win the House in 2018, particularly around access to health care, while also increasing the saliency of inequality — in both economic and health outcomes — as a mainstream concern…At the same time, Trump’s brutal belligerence has turned Democratic candidates into missionaries of concord. This allows them to be implicitly critical of the president and reach out to his one-time supporters at the same time…If the GOP does lose everything, it will be because the Trumpian circus-plus-horror-show is entirely off-key for an electorate that has so much to be serious about.”

“Biden’s pick matters more in terms of where the party is heading over the next few years than in terms of who wins this year,” Charlie Cook argues in “Biden’s VP Pick Charts the Future Course for the Democratic Party” in The Cook Political Report. ” Cook notes that “Five of the last 13 vice presidents (Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush) have gone on to become president. Two assumed the highest post after the death of a president (Truman and Johnson), one assumed office after a resignation (Ford), one was elected at the end of eight years as vice president (Bush), and another was elected eight years after leaving the No. 2 post (Nixon). As Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns pointed out in The New York Times on Sunday, “The ramifications of Mr. Biden’s choice will be profound. Even if he loses in November, his decision will all but anoint a woman as the party’s next front-runner, and potentially shape its agenda for the next decade, depending on if she is a centrist or someone more progressive.”

Also at The Cook Political Report, Amy Walter observes, “In national polling, however, Biden’s favorable ratings look a little less impressive. The folks at fivethirtyeight.com found Biden’s average favorable/unfavorable rating at 45 percent to 46 percent (-1). That’s significantly lower than where then-Sen. Barack Obama was in the month after he became the presumptive nominee (+20), but 14 points higher than where Hillary Clinton was at the end of the 2016 primary(-15). The good news for Biden is that he starts the race as already well-known (91 percent can rate him), meaning it’s going to be harder to try and shape opinions of him than it was for candidates who had higher favorable ratings but were also not as well known (like Michael Dukakis or John Kerry). That doesn’t mean that Biden is immune to attacks. But, it also requires a level of discipline on Trump’s part to keep the spotlight on Biden instead of himself. The president has rarely if ever, shown that level of discipline.”

Walter continues, “More important, Trump had the luxury in 2016 of running as the outsider. This year, of course, it is his administration that is in charge. And, as we’ve seen in two recent interviews, one with Fox’s Bret Baier and the other with ABC News’ David Muir, Trump isn’t keen on having his administration’s handling of the pandemic be the focal point of the 2020 campaign. When asked by Muir on Tuesday if he’d be comfortable with the election as a referendum on his handling of the crisis, Trump replied, “Well I am and I’m not.” His response to a similar question from Baier met with a similar reply: “No, but it’s gonna be a factor.” In both interviews, the president was also nostalgic for the world that existed pre-COVID. A world where the economy was “the greatest” thanks to his leadership. Even now, as you can see in these polls, Trump’s job approval rating on the economy remains pretty solid. But, with the economy unlikely to recover anytime soon, it will be hard for those positive numbers to hold. As such, we should all be prepared for the Trump campaign to try and make the race a referendum on Biden’s fitness to be president rather than on Trump’s handling of this crisis.”

3 comments on “Political Strategy Notes

  1. Candace on

    “O’Neill continues, “Trump was able to spook Biden in part because of the second kind of messaging—party branding. This kind of messaging occurs day-in, day-out, regardless of whether there’s an election imminent, and it never stops. ”

    “Republicans are good at party branding. Democrats are not, to put it mildly, and thereby cede deep structural advantages to the GOP…”

    I think they’ve given those advantages to the gop by relying on comedians and opinion writers to be their response rather than directly confront Republicans and media outlets themselves.
    Democrats, don’t let the alternate universe sorcery go unanswered: grab the mic, kick some chairs around and break that spell.

    • Victor on


      The problem is those comedians end up feeling insulting. They make jokes at the expense of people, not ideas. So they attack Republican voters instead of Republican ideas.

  2. Victor on

    Biden did right in addressing the China angle. The problem is there is no substance to his critique and no follow up plan.

    China’s negatives are way up.

    The argument that attacking China drives up xenophobia is unproven and stupid.


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