By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The big complaint being repeated constantly is that President Joe Biden and the Democrats are losing the messaging war to the Republicans. That despite Biden’s significant legislative wins, he and the Democrats aren’t doing much of a job in selling that to the voters. There’s some truth to that.
This is another in a periodic series examining the mid-term elections. The series is based on excerpts from a forthcoming book, “The Midterms: Why They Are So Important and So Ignored” (Middle Passage Press).
One key to delivering a message that touches a nerve and makes a president look like he’s a man of real action is to keep the message and the wording punchy and simple. If it’s perceived as complicated, abstract, or even non-existent, it falls flat.
The Republican Party has long understood that. Richard Nixon’s “crime in the streets,” Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” the younger George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished,” Donald Trump’s “shut the border down,” and “Make America Great Again” are perfect examples.
They might seem facile, even inane, but in the arena of high-stakes politics, they worked because they were simple and understandable.
Another key to winning elections is framing the message in a way that touches an emotional chord with the average voter. If that voter is a less educated, white rural, or blue-collar worker, and an evangelical in the South or the heartland states, that’s almost certainly a surefire winner.
These are the votes that form a big segment of the Republicans’ base. Those campaign throw-away lines from the four GOP presidents touched a nerve with them.
The Democrats, by contrast, have been great at churning out detailed position papers on the issues. In presidential and mid-term campaigns, their websites have brimmed with stats, charts and detailed information about everything from the economy to foreign policy issues.
They are mostly unread and have no unifying catchphrase or compact emotion-charged message, which could be spun out and repeated over and over to the public.
One commentator cited Biden’s slogan and legislative initiative, “Build Back Better” as a near textbook example of this. It was compact, but it didn’t say anything.
He quipped, “It sounds like a chain of chiropractors.”
Contrast that with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” chant. That punched the narcissistic, cheerleading button for millions.
Biden’s failure to effectively promote his administration’s accomplishments has so worried his top pollster, John Anzalone, that he addressed an urgent memo to his boss in June 2021. He had conducted a series of focus groups among swing-state voters and found that voters there were not cheering Biden for his attempt to pass a massive infrastructure bill that would create jobs and promote economic recovery. Instead, they were wringing their hands over inflation and crime.
Anzalone drew the obvious conclusion: “Republican leaders are likely to attempt to ratchet up attacks and tie national Democrats to the trend.”
Anzalone made clear in the memo that Biden could counter by simplifying his message, dropping the infrastructure verbiage, and calling it simply “the jobs bill.”
With time running out before the 2022 mid-terms, and the warning bells sounding louder about pending disaster, the Democrats have pivoted in their messaging.
“Build Back Better” was pushed to the curbside, and slogans like “the Democrats put checks in the pocket,” and “are bringing jobs back now” became the pitches. They sounded suspiciously like they were striking a Trumpian note in compact, stick-to-the-point messaging.
The object is to better sell the idea to voters that Biden’s economic agenda is working and has helped lots of people. It doesn’t wipe away the discontent and anger millions of voters have about inflation and high gas prices, but at least the message is simple, intelligible and poses a counter to the economic fears whipped up by the GOP.
It is a classic case of trying to beat the GOP at its own game. The Democrats’ sole goal is to spur more Democratic voters to the polls this November.
Another complaint about Biden is over the lackluster or non-existent efforts of some top Democrats to tout his agenda to voters. He has called on them to hit hard on the theme that if Democrats lose one or more of the wings of Congress “think of the grim alternative.”
Biden also rightly lambasts the never-ending speculation that he might not run for reelection in 2024. He has made it clear that he will run.
But he also sees this as a distraction that takes the focus away from Democrats doing their job, which is to put maximum effort into getting a big voter turnout in the midterms.
There is no alternative if Democrats want to hold power after the 2022 mid-terms. Past mid-term defeats, some monstrous, for the Democrats have amply proven that.
The Democrats reversed that sad history with their success in the 2018 mid-terms. Now they are in a frantic race to make sure that their success in 2018 was not an aberration.
Again, the clock is winding down fast to the November midterms. For Democrats and Biden, the challenge is getting the message right.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.