Do read Can Democrats avoid the pitfalls of 2020? A new analysis offers striking answers by Greg Sargent. You’ll remember that Democrats didn’t do as well in House races as they had expected to do last year. And now it wouldn’t take much for the Republicans to take back a House majority next year.
Greg Sargent discusses an analysis of campaign advertising that points out how much Democrats emphasized “working across the aisles” to “get things done” while Republicans emphasized “Democrats are demons who want to abolish police departments, turn America socialist, and eat your babies.” Guess which approach worked?
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.”
That’s exactly what happened in Missouri. Republican campaign ads were all negative, all the time, and worked hard to hang unrest in Portland, Kenosha, etc. around the necks of Democratic opponents. Videos of flaming cars were frequently featured, as was the word “socialism.” The Dems tried to emphasize how good they were at working with Republicans. That’s exactly what happened. And it workd, for the Republicans.
This isn’t necessarily a new problem. I think Claire McCaskill lost to Josh Hawley in 2018 in part because she was too careful to not come across as “too liberal.” Her big issue was a promise to reduce prescription drug costs. Any issue more hot-button than that was avoided. I don’t recall that she ran any negative ads against Hawley. Meanwhile, Hawley’s ads against McCaskill accused her of all kinds of misuse of funds and personal corruption, and I don’t remember that she answered them.
Yes, Missouri is a red state, but the cities are blue. A big turnout in the cities can overcome the rural votes. But McCaskill cautious campaign didn’t inspire anyone in St. Louis or Kansas City to go out of the way to vote for her. A more full throated defense of urban issues, and a promise to stand up to Trump, might have kept her in the Senate.
Back to the anlysis of 2020:
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 [leftist] 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.
Making the case that “the GOP is genuinely captured by its extremist elements in a way the Democratic Party simply is not” is a bit trickier than just calling the other side names, but I think that might be a smarter tactic than just running away from “the left” (as McCaskill did in 2018).
I hate negative ads, and I part of me hates to advocate negative ads, but we’re in an unusual situation here in that one party has ceased to be a party and has become a danger to democracy itself. The Dems need to pull out all the stops and hand the right’s radicalism around GOP necks next year.