Democrats Need to Decide If We Want to Win the Midterms
This is part 2 of a multi-part series from EveryDistrict about Democrats’ path forward in the states in 2022. For more about EveryDistrict, visit EveryDistrict.us. For more about our long-term plan for Democrats to gain power, visit 2040.EveryDistrict.us.
It’s a rule of political physics that the President’s party loses seats in that first midterm. For Democrats, that is a threatening proposition, with a miniscule majority in the Senate and the House. And Joe Biden’s flailing popularity has led to articles noting that Democrats are “bracing” for a difficult midterm. And yet, the reality of the opposition – a political party that is helmed by a man who attempted a coup nine months ago and that has fought seemingly on behalf of a deadly virus for the last two years – means that we should not go quietly into the good night of a 2022 election defeat.
That is, however, what Democrats seem to be doing right now. If we actually want to win the midterms in 2022, defy political history, and create space for more meaningful policy gains, how might we make it happen? With an eye toward what can be done in the states, here is a four-part plan for Democrats to regain momentum over the next 12 months.
Rebuild Biden’s Popularity
As we wrote in our 2022 Project, the academic literature broadly identifies three potential reasons for the durability of why the President’s party loses in that first midterm. Two theories, presidential performance and presidential penalty, ascribe the resulting loss in the midterm to voter desire to blame the president and the president’s party for the negative state of affairs or to place a “check” on the president’s party. A third more structural argument, “surge and decline,” argues that, as a function of the midterm turnout dynamics, the coalition of people who turned out for the president do not show up two years later.
Taken together, these approaches point to a singular political strategy: addressing the key issues affecting voters’ views on the president and delivering for our supporters and the country. Recent evidence shows that voters who have received the Child Tax Credit have seen a 4-point swing toward Democrats. We can keep that momentum going by:
- Passing the damn bill on Capitol Hill, as soon as possible;
- Taking steps to end the pandemic as quickly as possible, through prompt implementation of the mandates that will get life back to normal; and
- Delivering key base policy priorities.
In an age of debates about so-called “popularism,” step one of a better midterm is a popular president. We get there by addressing the concerns of our voters through policy action that shows we care about people like them. But that’s not all that is needed.
Advance Political Reform
Democrats also face a major structural gap politically. Republicans control most states’ redistricting processes. They have begun to gerrymander states to reduce competitiveness and pick up the few seats they need. Republicans also continue their assault on free and fair election practices. Meanwhile, supposedly non-partisan commissions in states like Arizona, Colorado, and Virginia are yielding unfavorable maps.
Where does that leave Democrats? With a clear message to advance democracy reform at the federal and state level. The defeat of the Democrats’ voting rights package last week shows the need for Democrats to break the filibuster to advance the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and a democracy package that ensures every voter’s vote will count in 2022 and beyond.
The Department of Justice should work diligently over the next few months to enforce what remains of the Voting Rights Act, in the hopes of preserving and expanding minority districts in the South.
At the same time, Democrats in blue states need to push for maps that counteract Republican gerrymanders elsewhere. The Illinois Democrats have already led the way, with a proposed 14-3 map. Similarly, we must address the failings of our democracy in states where Democrats hold power. Throughout the pandemic, some of the most challenged blue states for voting rights made major gains in increasing the franchise. Those improvements must be doubled down on as we look to the future. Nowhere is this more critical than in New York, where vulnerable incumbents Upstate and on Long Island will need strong Democratic turnout to survive and protect the Democratic majority in the next cycle.
These approaches to overcome the structural advantages that Republicans have can give Democrats a fighting chance in more places. But it doesn’t reshape the narrative of the moment.
Remember the Media is Not Your Friend – We Need a Message Plan, Too
As Alex Pareene has written about, Democrats do not have the sort of propaganda machine that Republicans control, where the latest outrage gets quickly translated into talking points for all GOP operatives and politicians. Instead, Democrats have relied on traditional media to tell the truth. But that is a risky strategy, made clear by the Beltway media’s universal condemnation of the Afghanistan withdrawal, which precipitated Biden’s flailing numbers.
Democrats instead need to make real investments in effective party-building messages in the states and districts that will define the future of the country. Building on Donald Green et al.’s work, sustained communication with persuadable voters can help Democrats build momentum going into November 2022. Rather than pursuing vanity projects, pet issues, or just fact-checking, Democratic big money should invest in a program of consistent engagement that creates an echo chamber of pro-Democratic messaging. And this engagement should go beyond a single candidate and begin well before the campaign heats up next fall.
Field with a Focus on the Key Voters
With a messaging program tailored to win in key states and districts, Democrats’ campaign work in 2022 will need to employ more effective strategies to win voters in the swing districts and states. As a state legislative-focused organization, we have a deep understanding of what the most competitive districts look like. (See our previous post for more). In the states, over 60% of the districts we need to win lean Republican.
Traditional, unsophisticated field strategies will not help us overcome the headwinds of 2022 or to pick up seats. Instead, campaigns will need to go deeper – persuading more voters to shift toward Democrats and offering more convincing approaches for turning out lower propensity voters. As an organization, we have been piloting new, election science-informed approaches to do just that. In our next article, we will lay out our theory of the “lean campaign,” that can remake how campaigns at the bottom of the ticket build lasting power for Democrats in purple places.