The former Obama Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer ask’s a damn good question….
And give’s a very good look at the American political playing field that DOES favor Republicans systemically even though there ARE more Democratic voters….
My own fragile self-esteem and awkwardness aside, I hate trying to answer the Question. Not only are there no easy answers, it’s the wrong question.
Republicans are winning the message war, but not for the reasons these donors, the media, or 90% of the folks on Twitter believe. And there are steps we must take to change this very annoying dynamic.
In this more mature, less defensive phase of my life, I’ve stopped hiding from the Question (and the questioners). Instead, I’ve found a more accessible, equally dissatisfying way to address the actual problem without absolving the party (or myself) of mistakes and missed opportunities. But before I get to the Democrats, I am going to use authorial privilege to talk about why Republicans suck at messaging.
When donors, activists, and media folks ask why Democrats suck at messaging, they are really asking why Republicans are so much better at it.
There is an old saying in Washington: “The only people who believe Republican talking points are Democrats.” This inherent sense that Republicans are better at politics than Democrats has survived as a feature of my party’s psychology for decades. Democrats love to imbue our opposition with strategic evil genius. Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, and Karl Rove are famous mostly because Democrats have hyperinﬂated their roles to explain away our losses.
There is no doubt Republicans are winning the messaging war, but are they winning because they are better messengers?
Democrats love to complain about the messaging chops of their congressional leadership team, but have you watched the Republicans? During every appearance, Kevin McCarthy looks like he just woke up from a nap and can’t ﬁgure out where he is or what he is doing. Mitch McConnell, one of the worst communicators in modern political history, sounds like he is reading The Almanac of American Politics with a mouthful of marbles. And no one exempliﬁes the adage of “less is more” more than Ted Cruz, an amalgamation of the ﬁve most annoying people you went to high school with. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton makes Jared Kushner look like a magnetic personality. Turn on Fox News, and you’ll ﬁnd a parade of awkward, angry white men doing bad impressions of Donald Trump. Even Trump, the supposed master media manipulator, has the discipline and strategic thinking of a coked-up Tasmanian devil. Just look at his Twitter feed from the end of the 2020 campaign. Instead of using his biggest platform to drive home a positive argument for his reelection and a negative message against Joe Biden, Trump engaged in a scattershot Festivus-style airing of grievances against members of his own party, the media, and random celebrities….
This is not to say that Republicans have no messaging attributes. They have perfected a strategy of social media trolling that tricks angry liberals into inadvertently spreading their message. The right has effectively created a narrative about Democrats and has stuck to it. “Make America Great Again” is one of the most successful political branding efforts in history. But on the whole, Republicans, as much as they are winning elections despite getting fewer votes, seem to be winning the messaging war in spite of themselves….
A series of focus groups conducted in the ﬁrst few months of the Biden presidency found that voters were unable to identify what the Democratic Party stood for. Two electoral landslide victories for Obama, a huge popular-vote win for President Biden, and four years of resistance to Trump—and the Democrats still have a brand problem. This is more than a failure by party leaders and activists to settle on a narrative….
The Democratic Party is more diverse (ideologically, demographically, and geographically) than the Republicans. This diversity is our strength, but it poses a central and seemingly insurmountable challenge to creating positive messages for the party. How does one compose a pithy slogan or a tweet-length narrative to accurately and appealingly describe a coalition so broad that it extends from Joe Manchin to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? It’s the difference between being asked to come up with a brand for one television network like HBO or ESPN and being asked to brand “television” more broadly. What compelling slogan would be inclusive of every channel, from Bravo to CNBC?
Frankly, the messaging and branding task is more challenging for Democrats than it is for Republicans. The geographic disparities in the Senate and the Electoral College mean that Democrats must turn out liberal-base voters and appeal to voters much more conservative than the median Democratic voter. Democrats have to sell a wider array of products to a wider array of people.
The Republican coalition is narrower. It’s more ideologically homogenous and as white as a ﬁeld of lilies. The Electoral College is biased toward Republican states, and the Senate gives small rural states like Wyoming the same number of votes as California and New York. To succeed, Republicans need only appeal to their base and little else, which allows for a simpler message.
I’m sure you are reading this and thinking, Shit is hard all over. Figure it out. You’re not wrong. Democrats must do better……But understanding the challenge helps explain how we got to this point….
….campaigns are not won or lost on a single decision or a killer ad. Presidencies are not deﬁned by a slogan. There is a harder, less entertaining, but much more informative way to understand politics: Focus less on the personalities and more on the structural impediments to progress. Democrats have a much smaller megaphone, and our message is getting drowned out.
Republicans dictate the terms of the conversation in American politics and have done so for much of the 21st century. Democrats aren’t doing everything right, but we also must recognize that doing everything right is still insufficient. Until more Democrats ﬁgure this out, we will remain trapped in the doom loop. During every campaign cycle, our strategy is defense.
So, how do we build a bigger, better megaphone?