A Month Later: Strong Dem candidates defy history, but hurt the long-term prospects of the party
ClearPath's U.S. Midterm Series
It’s been a month since the 2022 US Midterm. By now we know Democrats not only beat back a Red Wave, but defied history. Dems gained a seat in the Senate and lost just 9 seats in the House. In the last 100 years, the President’s party has done this well in a midterm election just 3 other times. Democratic operatives have shifted from expecting a competitive Democratic Presidential Primary to planning a Biden re-election campaign. Team Biden all but said “I told you so.” And the Executive Director of the DCCC went on a victory lap.
Can we pause for a moment? As campaign strategists, when we look at this, something just doesn't add up. How does a President with a negative job approval rating (44% - 55% approve - disapprove) carry his party to a decisive win? How does a President with nearly half of voters (47%) thinking his policies are harming the country (14 points higher than those thinking he is helping) lead his party to a history-defying victory?
Maybe he's just super popular on a personal level? Nope. Turns out his personal favorability rating is worse than his job rating (41% - 56% favorable - unfavorable).
Maybe his party has a stellar standing and overcame the President’s tragic numbers on the back of its own brand and popularity? Ummm, not exactly. The Democratic Party also holds a negative favorability rating (44%-53%). More than half (51%) of voters think the party is too extreme. And by a 2:1 margin, voters prefer Republicans over Democrats on handling arguably the biggest issue of the election (inflation).
So it would appear the Democrats defied history despite the party and President, not because of them. But how?
Extraordinarily. Strong. Candidates.
Raphael Warnock, Mark Kelly, John Fetterman, Maggie Hassan, Catherine Cortez Masto. As we’ve said, Democrats require great candidates to win elections. Democrats outperformed expectations because their candidates built brands independent of the deeply unpopular Party and President. They did not echo the President’s final plea to voters to defend democracy.Instead, they were laser focused on the issues that mattered in their races, inflation and abortion rights.
Democratic party strategists are patting themselves on the back for defending democracy, but they lost the House and arguably left a few Senate seats on the table. Instead of asking how they prevented a Red Wave, they should ask why they failed to achieve a historic Blue Wave. Dems had extremely high quality candidates. Trump's insertion into the election provided the gift of hand-picked, cringe-worthy candidates in key races. And in a moment when people still crave stability, Trump's brand of aggressive chaos served as a reminder of the risks of the modern GOP, over which he still maintains a strong grip.
"Really strong candidates" is not a good strategy. We must ask ourselves: how much stronger of a night would Dems have had if they could leverage a strong party brand or strong party leadership?
1) The current Democratic strategy is not sustainable.
Candidates matter. But relying almost exclusively on strong candidates to win elections on their own is constantly playing with fire. There are four reasons why this "strategy" is unreliable:
Dems benefitted from noxious Republican candidates. Donald Trump refuses to exit the scene. Some of his most high profile candidates failed miserably. Herschel Walker, Dr. Oz, Sarah Palin. Mitch McConnell recognized this. Speaking of playing with fire, Dems even helped some of the extremists in their primary bids, in order to face a more extreme candidate in the general election. While this worked out this cycle, it is a dangerous strategy. Relying on extreme opponents is a crutch. What happens when your opponent is good?
Not every strong Dem candidate wins. As much as we talk about Georgia and Pennsylvania, what about Wisconsin? Or North Carolina? Or Ohio even? If Dems spent as much time staring at their losses as they do at their wins, they might start to draw the right lessons. Take Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin. He followed the playbook. He separated himself from the Party. He hammered Ron Johnson on abortion. He was a good candidate. But he lost by 1 point. 1 point! How much do you think the Dem brand or an unpopular President cost him? Probably more than that. Or Cheri Beasley in North Carolina. She lost by 3 points in a state Obama carried twice, and Trump only won by 1 point in 2020. And in Ohio, Tim Ryan lost to J.D. Vance by nearly 7 points. Being a good candidate wasn't good enough.
Strong Dem candidates that do win often do so by razor thin margins. Even the wins are hardly convincing. Sure, US politics is zero sum (you win, or you lose). But as strategists, we look at wins like Nevada, where Cortez Masto won by just 9,007 votes (0.9% of the electorate), Yadira Caraveo in Colorado who won by just 1,632 votes (0.7% of the electorate), and Katie Porter in Southern California (and one of the best Democratic fundraisers) winning by 9,092 votes (3.4% of the electorate). With victories this thin, the idea that some might claim this as a huge Democratic win is alarming. Democrats were a few thousand votes here and there from getting destroyed. Sure, a win is a win. But let's draw the right lessons.
"Events" and candidate missteps carry outsized weight. John Fetterman had a stroke on the campaign trail. A stronger opponent (i.e., not a literal puppy killer) would have exploited the medical emergency to defeat Fetterman. Fetterman prevailed. But not every strong Dem candidate can withstand a major event or overcome a misstep. Take Elaine Luria in Virginia. She was part of the 2018 Democratic retaking of the House. She edged out a Republican incumbent by just 6,113 votes. She won reelection in 2020. In her closing ad of 2022, however, she says direct to camera “I’m not your candidate” 4 times. Not to play armchair psychologist, but that doesn't feel like the message you want to repeat. A misstep from an otherwise strong campaigner. She lost by around 10,000 votes. On the other hand, Herschel Walker managed 48.6% in the Georgia Senate run-off despite his numerous and well-documented shortcomings. He is buoyed by a strong brand and almost won against a good candidate.
Relying on strong candidates is terrible strategy. It jolts the party from election to election. Big picture, it offers no real plan to defeat extremists. If we truly believe our democracy is at risk,then we may as well be playing dice with it. The longer we ignore the problem--that the Democratic Party brand is "non-existent" at absolute best--the more likely we are to wind up a failed democracy.
2) A strong Party brand is necessary for a long-term strategy.
Yes, this is obvious. And no, this is not a novel idea. But someone in DC doesn’t seem to get it. Or maybe a lot of someones.
A strong Democratic Party brand is a prerequisite to long-term success. Any real strategy from the Democrats will focus on this. A strong party brand provides three advantages:
Solid Foundation: New Dem candidates begin with the attributes of the party. Right now, that means they start in a hole on the economy and public safety. They are "soft" on core American values like hard work and patriotism. Investing in the brand for the long-term means closing those gaps on important values and issues so candidates have a strong foundation to build from, rather than a hole to fill right out of the gate.
Offensive deployment: With negative favorability ratings and half of Americans saying the Dem party is too extreme, Dems cannot use the party as an attack dog. They try of course. The DCCC attempts to provide air cover for candidates. Biden tried to control the narrative of the campaign. And voters ignored them. A strong party that listens and engages, that voters trust, would carry the heavy loads for candidates, attacking on the right issues, in the right races (e.g., abortion rights!), and with effect.
Defensive bulwark: The best utility of a strong party is the unbreakable foundation it provides. Republicans enjoy this. No matter the Republican candidate, Dems struggle attacking them on economic issues. Why? Because the Republican party brand is rock solid on handling the economy (despite mountains of data proving that the Republicans are terrible at running a free-market economy). The Republican brand acts as a shield. They root it in values (reward hard work, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, stop the freeloaders). Dems don't have this. Obviously, Dems do not have to compete on the same values, but they can create a brand that shields candidates from attacks rather than opens them up to more. What are those values? What is that brand? Who are Dems fighting for, anyway, and why do they fail to hammer this home?
3) Leadership change is great, but Dems need to build an actual political party.
Pelosi and other octogenarian Democratic Party leaders stepping down creates an opportunity for the Party. Leadership that better reflects Democratic voters and the party's future is important. Representation matters. Perspective matters. But changing the face alone is not strategic change. Hakeem Jeffries leading the House Dems is historic (he is the first Black party leader in Congress). Senate Dems added 50-year old Brian Schatz to leadership. But their selections highlight the very problem we’ve been talking about: there was no buildup, no investment in the next generation of leaders.
Dem leaders who’ve held office for decades should have proteges. There should be a well-honed bench ready to follow them (at least 2 generations deep, at this point). Instead, that bench is decidedly empty.
And yet, it's more than just a lack of investment in a bench of candidates. The weak brand and lack of a solid bench creates a paradox. Mark Kelly cannot be both the independent, Arizona-focused advocate and also a leader of the Democratic Party. Raphael Warnock cannot be the Georgia Reverend, fighting for people regardless of party, and also a leader of the Democratic Party. If Democrats continue to require strong, independent candidates to win elections, those same would-be leaders cannot lead the party. To lead is to lose. They must remain independent.
Investing in long-term party building is as much about building a strong bench as it is building a strong brand by advancing a strategy to serve people. Politics is about power. But to what end? We believe that "end" is about helping people. Ostensibly, so do Democrats. How do Dems show that? How do Dems own that brand?
Listening to people and being part of their communities. The Democratic party often feels out of touch with its own voters. Some of this is the issues we focus on. Some of it is how we talk. More importantly, it requires actually being part of the community. Being there in times of need, helping people outside of the election cycle, aligning, advocating, and organizing with community groups to fix problems. Asking people to vote Dem should not be the only time voters hear from the Democratic party.
Reflecting the communities the party purports to represent. A few weeks ago, we said Biden’s speech on fighting for the Soul of the Nation was “written for college-educated Democrats, by college-educated Democrats”. Dems lost ground among working class voters in 2022. Again. And we are not talking about White working class voters. Dems went from around 48% support in the working class in 2018 and 2020 to just 43% in 2022. There was no change in White working class support. Instead, voters of color in the working class are shifting against Dems. As the party that self-ascribes diversity and fighting for working people, losing support among working class people of color is telling. Staffing campaigns and offices with people from working class backgrounds (heck, even candidates from the working class) in diverse communities is incredibly important to building a party that credibly represents its target voters. This is not simply about having their faces around. Rather, it's about having their voices and perspectives. Without this change, we will continue to hemorrhage votes among these "core Democratic constituencies."
Fighting for a clear, consistent, core value set. Dems struggle with values. This is remarkable because it is the most fundamental question a political party should be able to answer: who and what do you stand for? What are Dems for? Really, what are they for? Often, the Dem party simply becomes ‘Not Republican’. That's enough for many of us, but it's not a brand. What happens when the Republican isn't as odious as Trump or Walker? Just take a look at the Democrats’ “Freedom” messaging this cycle; these are direct reactions to Republican stances, not emblematic of a unique Democratic vision. What is our vision? Who are we fighting for? What are our values? These are the questions Dem strategists should focus on answering. And armed with answers, build that brand.
Dems beat expectations in 2022. They did it on the back of extraordinary candidates. But the more the Party requires candidates to win on their own, the further Dems stray from a coherent long-term strategy. The reality is, this Midterm could have been much better for Dems if the Party and leadership were assets. It is a mistake to think the brand is simply a problem to work around. It can be better. It must be better. Let's make it better.
For the record, at the macro level, the President is right albeit late to the game. Our democracy is in danger. Norms are fraying, flaunted, or outright demolished. Political violence, while still rare, is increasingly common. Attempts to circumvent, undermine, or dismantle the laws that undergird our democracy are daily headlines. This is not a comfortable trajectory. We must act. But where the President was wrong is in thinking this would be a major last minute "call to arms" for small-d democrats of the nation to unite behind big-D Democrats as the protectors of our democracy. Pre-election polling showed that while people are concerned about the state of our democracy, there is no cross-cutting reason. Biden’s “call to arms” did not break through.