Democrats Don’t Need a National Message

A bottom-up approach is better than a single line imposed by party leadership.

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About the author: Steve Israel is a former Democratic congressman from New York and the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He is the author of Big Guns.

On an early morning in June, I joined several dozen Democratic donors in a plush residence on the 64th floor of Trump World Tower to support the reelection of a Democratic congressman. The irony that we were raising money in the president’s building escaped no one, and the congressman took some questions from the audience about Donald Trump’s tweets and Robert Mueller’s investigation.

But most in the crowd wanted to know one thing: What’s the Democratic message?

There, in a building staffed with uniformed doormen, standing on floors so fine that we’d been asked to remove our shoes, the donors demanded to know why their party had no unifying theme. Or, more precisely, why wasn’t the message the specific message that they wanted messaged?

These questions have come up at Democratic gatherings across the country this year, from grassroots fund-raisers to posh weekend retreats. Late last month, House Democrats introduced what they hope will be the answer: “For the People,” their new slogan for the midterms. One top Democratic aide told me it’s meant to capture the innate sense among voters that “Democrats are for the people and Republicans are for special interests.” But my fellow Democrats have it wrong that they need a national-message template in the first place. Past elections have shown that the most effective messaging is local and specific to each district.

To really understand how we got here, it’s useful to attend a weekly Democratic caucus meeting in Room HC-7 of the Capitol building, as I regularly did when I served for eight terms as a congressman from New York. Sitting on cheap plastic chairs, balancing plates of breakfast foods on their laps, Democrats hash out the weekly agenda. But they all have different ideas of what that agenda should look like. The majority-minority caucus looks, sounds, and thinks in vivid contrast. And not just in terms of identity, with different ethnicities, races, religions, and sexual orientations represented. The Democrats I served with held varied views on all sorts of issues, from foreign trade and taxes, to budgets and health care. It’s what I loved most about being a House Democrat: My party looked like the country does.

But its collective worry about distilling all that diversity into a single message has persisted for years. When I served as the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015, I tackled this same problem. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked me to lead a project to fashion a disciplined and resonant message for House Democrats. My team studied polling and focus groups; consulted with linguists and neuroscientists; and researched what voters respond to in farm country, exurbs, and suburbs. We tested messages in all hues of red and blue. We had a full-day workshop with about a dozen House Democrats to brainstorm various themes, and lined a large room at Democratic National Committee headquarters with Sharpie-streaked whiteboards.

At one point, we sent a survey to every House Democrat, asking for suggestions for a succinct national message. The responses included: “Make It in America”; “Rebuild the Middle Class”; “When Women Succeed America Succeeds”; and various slogans and themes emphasizing jobs, health care, campaign-finance reform, free college tuition, equality, opportunity, security, and, in one case, access to contraception. (After all that, we came up with: “A Stronger America: A New American Security Agenda.” It didn’t take.)

It’s difficult to get all Democrats on a single coherent message, because of the precise problem we identified with our survey: There’s just too much ground to cover. Republicans don’t have these same issues. Meetings of the Republican conference generally offer all the brilliant diversity of its members’ Brooks Brothers ties. Aside from a few hand-wringing moderates, GOP members of Congress are bound in ideological lockstep. They’re parroting the White House—and being parroted by Fox News—on taxes and spending, terror and immigration, and any other hot-button issue that can frighten voters, including who uses which bathrooms. It’s easy to impose message discipline on a group like this: When you look alike and think alike, you’ll inevitably sound alike, too.

This isn’t what Democrats should aspire to. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill was correct in saying that “all politics is local,” and nothing in politics is more local than message. Democrats have won all the progressive seats they can win. The path to the majority is taking those remaining districts that are evenly divided or leaning Republican, and whose voters aren’t motivated to turn out over the prospect of impeaching the president or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It seems so obvious, but it’s lost on so many: A message that resonates in downtown Brooklyn, New York, could backfire in Brooklyn, Iowa—which happens to be located in a Republican district that’s now highly competitive. Midterm elections, which are fought in dozens of ideologically diverse media markets, should be thought of like tuning your car radio on the interstate. You’ll pick up that great country-and-western station in some markets, National Public Radio in others.

The fact is that a national message works best in presidential-election years. The party’s nominee is the “messenger in chief,” building a national brand that unifies base and swing voters, donors, activists, volunteers, canvassers, and down-ballot candidates. A midterm-election cycle, by its very nature, is fragmented, with hundreds of different campaigns with hundreds of individual candidates.

Even a national presidential message can fall out of tune. Two weeks before the 2016 election, when most polls were predicting an easy Hillary Clinton win, members of Congress from the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan were telling me a different story in their districts. They described Trump lawn signs spreading like dandelions in front yards; how the national Democratic message just seemed to waft over the heads of their voters; how their own supporters seemed visibly uncomfortable with the assumption that they were voting a straight Democratic ticket. Most of those representatives survived, but Trump carried their states or districts.

Representative Cheri Bustos is one of them. She was elected in 2012 in a western-Illinois district held by a Republican, then reelected twice. That old expression, “Will it play in Peoria?” is literally about her district, a 7,000-square-mile expanse of 14 counties. Trump carried the district, winning every rural county. So did Bustos. She spends just about every Saturday walking the aisles of grocery stores across her district to ask folks what’s on their mind, and what she hears is local, personal, and distinctly nonideological.

“They usually don’t talk with me about something that was in a tweet,” she told me. “They’re worried about the rising cost of health care and that their wages aren’t keeping up with their bills. They want a future where they can afford to take their kids to Disney World instead of settling for the Disney Channel.” She seems to have found a way to connect with her Republican-leaning electorate, by focusing on their lives, paychecks, and aspirations.

Still, some midterm elections—and this may be one of them—present a national zeitgeist that congressional candidates can tap into. It happened in 1994 with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” a detailed proposal unveiled weeks before the midterm election that enjoyed broad popular support. (Who could be against selecting “a major, independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Congress for waste, fraud and abuse”?) It happened again in 2006, the last time congressional Democrats seized the majority from Republicans, and in 2010, when Tea Party fervor defeated 63 House Democrats.

Even now many congressional Democrats credit the 2006 victory to a message framework called “Six for ’06,” an almost miraculous crystallization of Democrats’ typically long-winded plan into six cogent promises reflecting national anxieties at the time: raising the minimum wage, making college affordable, strengthening national security, lowering gas prices, and offering affordable health care and retirement security.

But the real winning message for Democrats that year wasn’t even included in the original six planks: It was, essentially, “Drain the swamp”—and was added later in response to a series of House Republican scandals dominating the news. Why was it added? Because Democratic lawmakers were hearing consistent voter outrage over the scandals. A CNN exit poll from Election Day 2006 found that the most important issue motivating voters was corruption and ethics.

That bottom-up approach is a better solution than a message imposed by party leadership. Democratic activists would be wise not to debate nouns and verbs, and instead give candidates their freedom of speech.

These days, when I attend a Democratic-donor event and hear demands for a simple, dramatic slogan, I conduct an unscientific poll. I ask the assembled to raise their hand if they think the message should be “stopping Trump.” Almost every hand shoots upward. Then I ask whether the message should be based on a future of career opportunity and wage security. Many of the same hands are raised. What about gun safety? Fewer, but still plenty of hands. Climate change? Hands. In these rooms, the very people insisting on message discipline vote for this variation: “Democrats: The Trump-Stopping, Job-Creating, Gun-Violence-Reducing, Climate-Protecting Choice.”

How’s that for a neat little bumper sticker?

Budging voters from their perches takes work. The hardest part of that work isn’t writing slogans—it’s reading minds. It’s discerning voters’ hopes, but also their anxieties and fears. Democrats weaken our connection with voters when we’re presumptuous enough to speak for every voter from Trump World Tower in Manhattan to a Trump-won congressional district in Kansas.

The people best able to rebuild that connection are Democratic candidates on the front lines: Bustos in Illinois. Conor Lamb, who won a special election in Pennsylvania by focusing on basic economic concerns. Danica Roem, who in 2017 became the first openly transgender candidate to win election in Virginia by focusing on local issues like highway traffic.

They know winning voters is more than mouthing the right words. It means showing up at the local supermarket and listening to what voters have to say.

Those Democrats can be trusted to find the right words.