Politico

Opinion | It Wasn't Ideology That Sank House Democrats. It Was Bad Strategy.


The results are still uncalled in several closely-contested House races—but that hasn’t stopped congressional Democrats from launching into “deep dive” mode, trading bitter accusations as they try to come to terms with their party’s unexpectedly poor performance in key battleground districts this year. The scale of the losses has come to many as a shock, and yet the intramural immolation is all too familiar: Progressives accuse moderates of having alienated the party’s base, while moderates blame progressives for having scared off potential crossover voters, independents and even some Democrats in tough swing districts with sloganeering around “socialism” and calls to “defund the police.”

For the past three and a half years, through our organization, Square One, we have been working exclusively and on the ground with Democratic candidates running in precisely those sorts of districts. We are with many of our endorsed candidates from day one, providing the connections, resources and support to launch, run and win their campaigns. And from our experience, we are sure that both arguments are wrong.

It wasn’t ideology that this year sank seeming Democratic shoo-ins like Gina Ortiz Jones, a first generation American and Air Force veteran who, when she first ran in 2018, came only 927 votes short of winning her longtime red south Texas border district. (We endorsed and supported her in 2018 and again in 2020.) Nor were too-progressive politics what sent highly regarded first-term members of Congress like New Mexico’s Xochitl Torres Small back home to traditionally Republican districts, or that consigned other high-performing freshman incumbents like Lauren Underwood of Illinois into painfully protracted ballot counts—the latter of whom we’ve endorsed and worked with for the past two election cycles as well.

It was weak strategy, based on bad polling information and poor decisions from the national party that left Democratic candidates in swing districts—and candidates of color in particular—unable to hold their own in the face of a massive, and massively underestimated, Republican voter surge. The fact is: If you’re going to win a campaign, you’ve got to campaign, which means getting in front of voters and meeting them where they are. And that was the one thing that Democrats running for Congress could not do this year, upon orders from the party’s campaign arm in Washington, DC.

Every election cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the DCCC), along with the Democratic National Committee (the DNC) and their biggest and most influential allies, wield disproportionate influence through the weight of their endorsements and their power of the purse. Often operating in concert, and inspiring big donors to follow, they decide which candidates are “viable,” who is worthy of full financial support, how their campaigns should operate and which consultants they can hire. And this year, the direction set by D.C. Democrats proved to be a very big part of why House Democrats fell far short of a hoped-for 2020 blue wave, instead diminishing their hard-fought majority won in 2018.

Their data was bad—the result of polling that vastly underestimated how many Republicans would turn out to vote and how their ever-strengthening fidelity to President Donald Trump would cause them to back GOP candidates all the way down the ticket. Their understanding of very specific voter beliefs in very different local districts was even worse—which is why Hispanic voters, lumped together into a non-differentiated, assumedly pro-immigration and anti-Trump bloc, provided the party with such disastrous surprises in south Florida and border areas of Texas. While the party isn’t solely to blame for using bad data, it should have known better than to use polls as the main indicator of future success and voter preferences. Indeed, 2016 had offered ample warning that polling was unreliable.

And the messaging dictates coming from Washington—delivered to all the congressional campaigns in conference calls and memos and advertising guidance from consultants—frequently missed their mark. Democratic campaigns we endorsed and were in frequent communication with were told to hit the Republicans hard for their poor handling of the deadly coronavirus epidemic. Yet swing voters didn’t view their local GOP candidates or officials as complicit in the Russian Roulette that the Trump White House had played around Covid. And advice on conference calls we sat in on that encouraged candidates to run TV ads saying they were “angry,” “fed up” and “frustrated,” was laughably ill-suited for candidates of color—especially Black women—running in nearly all-white districts.

Guidance from Washington broadly understood by campaigns as a ban on in-person canvassing was the most damaging decision of all—an error that compounded all the others. It seemed to make sense on its face. But it was also—like the defiant lack of mask-wearing at Trump rallies is for Republicans—a form of Democratic brand messaging: They walk in the low-down footsteps of Typhoid Mary, we take the high road with Tony Fauci. Applied to campaigns all across the country, it backfired terribly. Instead of finding ways to safely campaign in swing districts and talk to voters, wearing masks and social distancing, in the weeks before the election—as did Joe Biden’s presidential campaign—Democratic campaigns had to rely on second-hand insights, filtered through the misperceptions of pollsters and politicos in far-off Washington, D.C. They had no option but to rely on polling data, which a more robust ground operation would have exposed as inaccurate: Nothing better gauges voter sentiment than meeting voters in person. And so they had to connect with voters through the largely impersonal means of TV ads, email blitzes and massive spends on social media.

Again, based on our experience working with congressional campaigns, meeting a congressional candidate on-screen just doesn’t work—and it especially doesn’t work for candidates of color, who are seen as “the Black candidate” or “the Hispanic candidate” or “that Asian candidate” when they’re seen on TV, but simply become “the candidate” when encountered in person. Lack of direct contact is what made it possible to apply the label of “radical leftist” to Midwesterner Lauren Underwood, who grew up in her almost 90 percent white district, shares the health, economic and safety concerns of her neighbors, but was depicted this year in TV attack ads that darkened her skin, made a caricature of her features and tied her to lawless “riots.” It’s also why Gina Ortiz Jones, despite her military service and long-time home base in south Texas, could be portrayed as a carpetbagger for owning a (rented-out) condo in Washington, D.C., and be painted as all but irredeemably “other” by attack ads that focused on her life with a female partner.

Now that party leaders in Washington are embarking upon (yet another) much-publicized “deep dive” into their failures, we’d like to suggest that they start with some tough questions: Why do we Democrats know so little about our Republican counterparts—right down to where to find them and how to speak to them so we can conduct accurate polls? Why doesn’t our national party trust individual campaigns, especially the promising campaigns of candidates of color, to hire their own people and make their own decisions on messaging and strategy?

Our party leaders need to respect the judgment of candidates running in towns, suburbs and rural areas far outside of the Beltway. They need, in particular, to do a better job of listening to candidates of color, who are not currently well-served by the “top” professionals dispatched from D.C. to advise them. And they need to vastly loosen the reins when it comes to imposing potentially destructive one-size-fits-all national strategies on local Congressional races.

Washington is a top-down town, but today’s electoral landscape is a bottom-up, grassroots-driven world that both reflects and rewards diversity—not just of candidates, but of ideas and strategies. Losing sight of that truth is how we fail to win elections.

Continue

About the author

Lisa

Leave a Comment