New Year’s Resolutions for Democrats

Happy New Year to all my friends in DC! I do miss you all, although I am glad also for the little distance I have achieved. I wish travel was easier but meanwhile there is much music, art, beauty, books, and fun here in Jackson and New Orleans (where I co-reside these days).

From the vantage point of a little distance, many Democrats in Washington seem to be struggling with message. So here are some suggested New Year’s message resolutions from a thousand miles (give or take) to the South.

1. Talk about what people care about. Talking about policy and programs that, granted, may benefit us all in the years to come just seems off to people who are thinking about now. People have too many immediate economic problems and COVID frustrations to want to hear about much else.

2. Do not declare pre-mature victories. Even major legislative victories do not fill the gas tank, fix the supply chain, or take down the restaurant signs apologizing for slow service due to staff shortages. Better to communicate you know what the problems are and are working on it than that you have solved a problem people didn’t even know was there when they are focused on self-evident ones they face day-to-day.

3. Stick to one message at a time. If you are arguing to preserve what has been settled law for two generations, that women should be able to terminate a pregnancy that was unintended and/or is a threat to them, then make that argument. There is no need to load it up with other agendas. You lose the main point.

4. Remember that dollars are costs not benefits. Don’t put them in the lede. When the government spends a billion or so on something that is big spending. What problems did it solve? How did we make people’s lives easier or better? The amount may matter a lot legislatively but they all sound like big numbers. Example: That there will be bike lanes in all five boroughs of NYC is great for people who bike there; the amount it will cost is just that.

5. Say what you mean. We are “protecting” a damaged environment when we need to salvage it. We “give” groups what they “deserve” and then wonder why people think we are about entitlements. Better to describe the benefit – preferably a universal one – than to declare a circumscribed entitlement. Same with the number of things we declare to be a “right.” Something can be sensible – or help the country – without it being a right. And while I understand “workers” and “families,” I have never really have gotten the working families thing except as a linguistic compromise between “families first” and “working people”. Consider describing the benefit and leaving off the preamble “working families deserve…” The edit will add clarity, at least.

Aside: The Sunday NYTimes includes a piece on whether Stacey Abrams is a moderate or a progressive. I can’t answer that but I can say she uses language with admirable precision without a lot of symbolic wrapping paper.

6. Talk about Republicans sparingly. Yes, many of them are ideologically driven white supremacists who are taking actions that undermine democracy and threaten the planet. But those things are more important than partisanship. When you frame issues in partisan terms rather than as choices we need to make, you end up belittling the matters at hand. We need to decide whether it will be easier or harder for people to vote; whether it is right or wrong to make it harder for some citizens to vote than others; whether we still believe in one person-one vote. Plenty of people think it should be equally easy and convenient for everyone to vote but do not see that Republicans are undermining our democracy. Besides, the Republicans are not the point.

7. Stop attacking each other. I might not love The Squad or Joe Manchin, and can argue with either. I see zero value in suggesting either are ruining the party because that just says the party is ruined. Stick to the point. Avoid the party and the personalities.

8. Avoid abstractions. Clearly framed concrete decisions give people a context for taking a position. Vitriol on both sides just sounds like, well, politics. Republicans commit bad vitriolic writing too, of course. Roger Wicker, the more tolerable Senator from Mississippi, put out a piece subtitled “51 Senators put Socialist agenda on life support.” I presumed that was to keep it from dying, right?

9. Quit listing constituencies. Way too many times there is political rhetoric followed by the specific consequences for Latinx people, the black community, and women. We will just slide by the gender-neutralizing of the Spanish language for now and simply note that listed constituencies exclude others without anyone actually feeling more included by being listed.

10. Lighten up. If everything is portentous, how can we know what you think is important?

Happy 2022! There were some good moments in 2021 (like January 20th and the day I got a condo in New Orleans). But there is room for improvement in 2022.

Thoughts on “Revisiting Polling”

This week five major polling firms released a statement on “Revisiting Polling for 2021 and Beyond,” which you can find here. Friends, former clients, and readers of this blog have asked me what I thought of it. This post answers that question without going behind anyone’s back, especially since I applaud most of it. The group of five pollsters are all former colleagues, some are also friends, and they include some of the researchers I respect the most. (These are overlapping; not mutually exclusive categories.)

First, I thought it was thoughtful, analytic, reflective and productive. I found it useful and interesting that the impact of unexpected Republican turnout contributed to the problem but did not account for it. I totally agree that presenting results with a range of scenarios – different turnout levels for example – would be productive. I acknowledge that I tried to do that a few years back and found that clients adopted the optimistic scenario as the “real” one. Further, both clients and the powers-that-be appreciate expressions of certainty, even when none exists. A group effort to present results as a range may be more productive than an individual one.

Second, I welcomed the discussion of weighting procedures and the use of analytic modeling in polling. In the old days, polling used random samples. The margin of error tells the statistical probability that a random sample is wrong but that is not how virtually any pollsters are sampling these days. Instead, pollsters are weighting the data to presumptions of the electorate – often well-researched and well-grounded presumptions but presumptions nonetheless. Apparently many of these were too optimistic on the Democratic side. I would also hope for greater transparency in identifying those presumptions in the future.

Third, the use of modeling to ground the sample in base attitudes and partisanship as well as demographics is important. If analytics says 40 percent of the electorate in question tilts Republican, then the sample should too. The more sophisticated and accurate the modeling is, the better grounded the polling will be, and the better able to show change and relate other attitudes to those grounded in modeling. Using the modeling properly requires certain sampling and calling protocols, however, that were not covered in the memo. Proper alignment with modeling would, for example, have made partisan bias due to COVID behavior extremely unlikely. Modeling, however, includes a “mushy middle” of people about whom there is uncertainty. They are in a modeling middle not a middle in reality and even when polling and modeling match, that can be a source of error. Modeling, too, needs to be more transparent about its own level of error, and more politically astute about what is modeled and how.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I appreciated the opening up of the discussion to analytics practitioners and others outside of polling. In fact, I believe the resolution of “the polling problem” is outside of polling. The change in sample frame from random to weighted “representative” samples – forced by response rates – means polling will continue to rely on presumptions and will not again provide accuracy within the margin of error, except when the presumptions are correct.

The resolution, in my view, is in a great deal more clarity in what the research questions are and a lot more creativity in how to answer them. I agree with my former colleagues that polling remains an important element of political campaigns. It should not, in my view be the only or perhaps even the dominant methodology employed. There are an emerging array of methodologies and unlimited potential for experimental design. Some are advances in projecting results and others help get at underlying attitudes and message development. Perhaps there needs to be some separation of research that fulfills those goals.

There should also be a new attitude of listening to voters rather than approaching them exclusively with an ivory tower sense of distance. People will usually tell you what they think if they think you really want to know. Analytics can do a lot more to help win elections, but analytics practitioners need to understand their own limitations too. And pollsters often ask questions in ways that are obtuse, at best, beyond the Beltway (a phrase that is meaningless to many). New ways of listening and new qualitative techniques are as important in understanding the electorate as are fixes in projections.

Consumers of polls need to understand both their value and their limitations. Elected officials certainly express more skepticism about the “horse race” number these days, but that should continue when their pollsters tell them they have 52 percent of the vote with their opponent at 48 percent. That doesn’t mean you will win, and the why of it all – what voters are thinking and feeling about their own lives is critical too.

I wish the media would stop treating polls as a central story about voters and the election. Dueling polls are much less interesting than dueling candidates, or ideas, or constituencies. And if you must cover polls, do so please in a way that is more discerning about polling quality, and far more transparent about how the poll was conducted and weighted, and how that offers potential bias. It always does.

Left v. Center? Bottom-Up!

The media has been vaunting the divide between the Democrats’ left and center and how the cleavage threatens Democrats’ tenuous majority. Here, a thousand miles outside the Beltway, a lot of the conversation seems pretty obscure: Like who the “squad,” a crew of House members with a talent for press relations and a vocal national constituency, do and do not like among Biden insiders; and how activist slogans designed to attract attention can put Democratic candidates in an uncomfortable vise.

Once we are past the immediacy of the pandemic, Democrats face an overriding challenge that I believe will determine whether we expand or contract our narrow majority: whether Americans are convinced Democrats have an agenda that will bring sustained economic growth that benefits most of us, and particularly lower and middle income Americans. That is what voters want of their leadership and so a successful economic agenda is necessary to Democratic success.

There are three reasons for the utter centrality of economic issues.

Urgency. We almost lost our democracy in no small measure because incomes for lower and middle income Americans have been falling behind since at least the early 1980s. They know it. They are angry about it. They think the Republicans have more to say about it than the Democrats do.

For a refresher on income trends see https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/. It shows that wealth for lower and middle income households has been declining since 1983. It also shows that people recognize that income inequality is growing. “Income inequality” is not the framing that engages them – they are more concerned about their family than the abstraction. Polling did not ask whether they favor or oppose making more money for the same amount of work, because it doesn’t have to ask that obvious question. Polling does show that the economy rated more highly than other issues, except for the immediacy of health care and the pandemic in some polling. (See Q9 in https://www.washingtonpost.com/context/oct-6-9-2020-washington-post-abc-news-national-poll/e4e13300-1a85-4b08-ac26-5975d0de0d51/.)

President-Elect Biden won despite Trump having an advantage on the economy because of Trump’s perceived character, craziness, and his failures to address the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats cannot expect to keep winning without a coherent economic narrative. They should expect continued deep divisions on climate change, racial justice, and immigration if lower and middle income white voters (and the issues are not exclusively with whites) continue to feel a Republican narrative of tax cuts combined with hostility to liberals, black people, and immigrants is closer to their interests than whatever building back better ultimately means in economic terms.

A coherent and cohesive economic narrative leaves room for internal disagreement in its particulars. The shape of the program and its emerging narrative must, most of all, be practical. It needs to work. Ideology is secondary to that overarching goal.

Confidence in Leadership. Voters confidence in their government and their political system is at a low point and their confidence in the electoral process has dropped. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/.

People need to feel their government can respond to them and their needs. A coronavirus vaccine will doubtless help, as will real and consistent information before then on how to stay safe. But if they continue to believe the rich get richer while the poor and the middle class get left behind, as they have felt for a generation, then our democracy will continue to be under threat because too many will feel it does not works for them. Voters’ anger at being, in their view, ignored produced a Trump in the first place. Trump will not be the last demagogue.

Room for a Broader Agenda. Racial justice, climate change, and immigration are each critical issues – and there are more. But realities on these in particular have been masked by growing anger at stagnant incomes and reduced wealth. I am certainly not suggesting waiting on any of these issues. I am asserting that voters must see the economic agenda as central and as inclusive.

Black people and immigrants are disproportionately represented among those whose incomes have stagnated. Increasing their wealth is part of the economic agenda although the central thrust must be lifting incomes for the many who need it. If the outcome and its narrative are successful, there is more room to build support for reality-based approaches to America’s history and to our current crises.

From my perspective, we all owe a debt to Black Lives Matters protesters and to grassroots organizing for racial and economic justice throughout our history. Change generally comes from the bottom and not from the top. Responsible governance listens to grassroots voices. Those crying out for wage growth – even though they are sometimes doing so in resentful and unappealing ways – also need to be heard if we are to restore our democratic equilibrium moving forward.

Message Morphs and the Fifth Debate

The Iowa Democratic Party Liberty and Justice (LJ) dinner is a marker in the nomination process as candidates have the opportunity to show off their organizations and message positioning. New polling suggests shifting allegiances. With just 90 days before the caucuses, the shape of the race matters more now than it did over the summer. Candidates are also adjusting their messages and positioning, with new interplay expected in the next DNC debate.

Certain thematics are contested by multiple candidates:  At least Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar articulate that they can bring people together within the party and ultimately across party lines; both Booker in the past and Harris now claim the mantle of the candidate of justice; Buttigieg, in using language reminiscent of President Obama’s, is competing with Biden for the Obama meme, and both Buttigieg and Yang speak to generational change.  Sanders, Warren, and maybe Harris support bolder change on health care, while Warren and Sanders seem to share the reform lane with some Buttigieg and Harris incursions.  Buttigieg, Yang, and Steyer lay claim to outsider status.    

I am not aligned with any of the nine candidates who now look likely to make the debate stage this month (although neither do I feel a need to adhere to strict neutrality).   My thoughts on each begin with a recap, and what I will look for in the next debate from a message perspective. 

I begin with the Iowa top four based on the New York Times/Siena poll.  The Iowa caucuses are not the whole ball game but are likely to sort the “contenders from the pretenders,” as the role of the caucuses have been described.  Additionally, delegate math dictates a smaller viable field as soon as voting begins.  (See https://www.270towin.com/thresholds-for-delegate-allocation for a discussion of thresholds.)

The Top Tier:

Vice President Joe Biden – Biden’s message is not changing as far as I can tell.  He is competing on both the capacity to bring unity and on his ties to President Obama.  The sense that he is the candidate who would make the race a referendum on Trump and not on himself seems to be fading.  Voters seem to perceive Trump’s own fortunes as weaker (although they may well be wrong, particularly given this poll released today:  NY Times/Siena Poll ) and Biden seems less of a force than voters initially believed.   In prior debates, it was enough for Biden to hold firm on message and stay out of the fray.  If his Iowa and New Hampshire leads are as endangered as some polls suggest, he will need to fight back both to hold the Obama mantle and to be seen as a unifying force – morphing more to “strict father” than “Uncle Joe” in archetypal terms.     

Mayor Pete Buttigieg – Buttigieg has had a very good week, with polling that shows him in a very competitive position in Iowa and with an impressive show of force at theLJ.  His message, meanwhile, has shifted to a more moderate call for unity with an emphasis of his Midwestern roots, and away from some of his earlier progressive and values-based positioning.  Sexual orientation, age, and talent likely save him from appearing too moderate for the primary electorate.  Some of his tactics – character attacks on Warren (even with the disclaimer) and his campaign’s blaming African Americans for their lack of support for him are familiar and questionable tropes.  I don’t know that they damage him but it will be interesting to see whether they are repeated, or whether he grounds more thoroughly in his vision of a “new era” as he did at the LJ dinner.   

Senator Bernie Sanders – Sanders has the firmest support of any of the candidates and while it is not quite as broad as it was – and certainly narrower than it was in 2016– maintenance and turnout could produce a top three finish for him in early states. Being a vigorous and spirited Sanders, which comes naturally to him, is likely enough to hold his base.  One issue for him in the debate, is whether he creates any daylight between him and Warren on Medicare for All, which could help them both.

Senator Elizabeth Warren – Warren has moved into the number two spot, and some would argue the number one spot based on state polls.  Voters like her and her plans, and a shift in voters’ mood and her numbers has tamped down some of the concerns about her winability.  Still, many voters as well as party leaders are reluctant to see a campaign in which Medicare for All is the lead issue.  Her response is strong – that “hope and courage” win elections.  Her jobs moving forward are (1) to be the candidate of hope and courage and not the candidate of a single programmatic idea, even an important one; and (2) to draw a connection for voters between who she is now and her roots in non-coastal America.       

The Second Tier:

Senator Corey Booker – Booker’s message has seemed a bit transient and his positioning is not clear to me, unless it is in the personal appeal of his optimism.   He also sometimes emphasizes criminal justice reform in ways that compete with Harris.  Booker has a choice to make on whether optimism and emotionalism or issue comparisons with others will help move his candidacy forward.

Senator Kamala Harris – Harris has shifted the emphasis of her campaign to focus on Iowa and rolled out an altered message at the LJ.  Instead of starting with “as a former prosecutor,” she broadened her message to talk about justice and that she has always been “for the people” in an effort to bring them justice.  The messaging was very well received.  It certainly gives her a broader palette on which to portray her concerns about people and her core values.  Whether she can show the force of those values without appearing acerbic or tactical, remains to be seen.       

Senator Amy Klobuchar – Klobuchar is competing with Buttigieg on Midwestern cred, and with Buttigieg, Biden, and perhaps Booker as a unifying or anti-divisive force.  She has not thus far given a clear portrayal of what a Klobuchar presidency would look like, which may be her task in Debate Five.  She stood out on personal appeal in the last debate; in this one I suspect she needs to look the contender by saying how her presidency as well as her candidacy would be distinctive in the field.

Tom Steyer – Steyer is running as an outsider and a progressive.  But he entered late and his self-funding has both put him on the debate stage and is self-limiting.  Democratic voters are not in the mood for self-funding billionaires.   His efforts on impeachment have also been, perhaps, overtaken by the actual event.  Following the old rubric of Message-Organization-Money as key to political victory, Steyer seems stuck on the third.

Andrew Yang – Yang has an enthusiastic if small core of support, and the question is whether he can broaden his positioning.  The Buttigieg morph may give Yang a new opening to be more of the candidate of new ideas and a new generation, and compete with Buttigieg on those grounds. 

Conventional wisdom – which is sometimes wrong – dictates that there are no more than three tickets out of Iowa – that only three contenders have a real chance of the nomination after Iowa.  I suspect that whether there are three or four “tickets” depends on the rank order and level of support for the first three.  Five tickets requires difficult arithmetic since there is a 15 percent threshold for delegates, although five candidates bunched together is possible.  Additionally, particularly if Biden’s support fades in Iowa, South Carolina with very different demographics could have an especially important impact in making its own choice.  In any case, the race is far from over but the field of seventeen candidates is shrinking rapidly to a far smaller group that has any real argument for viability.  The November debate may be the last opportunity for the second tier to move up, and will certainly clarify message and positioning within the first tier of candidates.

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