The Empty Seat at the Kitchen Table and the One Poll Question that Explains 2022
On priorities, perils of ignoring them, and preserving democracy by listening to voters
After a brief moment of optimism for Democrats in late summer, the fall season of mid-term elections 2022 now seems poised to crush the hopes of the party in power like so much red and gold foliage underfoot. There will be no deviation from the historical norm—the historical norm being that the party in power loses, bigness of loss TBD. And the bigness may be very big. These are technical punditry terms.
Plenty of this on the podcast this week, where we deep dive a bit, as we must in late October.
There certainly was reason to think that a massive news story like the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs decision from the Supreme Court is the kind of story that can change the facts on the ground. It was a giant news event, potentially animating a key voting demographic of Democrats in unmarried women (and women more broadly). The problem for Democrats is that there is counterbalancing enthusiasm for this decision on the right, and it turns out that several months into a post Roe world, other daily concerns loom larger for voters (at least those who are not activists on this policy).
Those daily concerns is where voters remain focused. An October Harvard-Harris poll gave us one of the clearest illustrations of this when it asked voters, “What would you say are the most important issues facing the country today?” Top three answers: Inflation (37%), Economy/Jobs (29%), Immigration (23%), with crime and women’s rights rounding out the top five.
Asked what they believe the Republican Party is focused on, top three answers: Immigration, Inflation, Economy/Jobs
Asked what they believe the Democratic Party is focused on, top three answers: January 6th, Women’s Rights, Climate Change
This is a mismatch of priorities that no number of Jan. 6 hearings in primetime is going to change, as illustrated by a concerted, failed effort to change them for the last six months. Democrats are pitting existential, philosophical pitches against everyday living conditions.
Now, there are many people who think the existential danger overrides the everyday concerns. I would argue they are overrepresented in the media and political professions. They think voters should agree with them.
But do they?
While 71 percent of registered voters agreed that democracy was “under threat,” only about 17 percent of voters described the threat in a way that squares with discussion in mainstream media and among experts — with a focus on Republicans, Donald J. Trump, political violence, election denial, authoritarianism, and so on.
The poll results help make sense of how so many voters can say democracy is under threat, and yet rank “threats to democracy” low on the list of challenges facing the country.
When respondents were asked to volunteer one or two words to summarize the current threat to democracy, government corruption was brought up most often — more than Mr. Trump and Republicans combined.
If existential threat to democracy is what you’re selling, voters aren’t buying. One reason for this might be that Democrats undercut their dire message by spending millions to boost the exact kinds of candidates they say are a threat to democracy because they believed they were ripe for beating in general elections, but I digress. Regardless, it must be noted that an essential part of preserving democracy is convincing voters. They’re more convinced on Trump, but it’s striking how the results of this poll run precisely counter to media and Democratic messaging over the last two years, particularly with all-important Independents:
[Forty-five] percent of Americans regard Trump as a “major” threat to democracy, while just 28 percent say the same of the GOP.
That 28 percent figure is actually smaller than the percentage who view the Democratic Party as a threat to democracy (33 percent) — despite there being no comparable example of Democrats trying to overturn an election…
And independents are significantly more likely to view Democrats as a major threat than Republicans. Although more than 6 in 10 view each party as at least a minor threat, just 23 percent view the GOP as a major threat, while 31 percent say the same of Democrats. Independents are actually more likely to view voting by mail as a major threat to democracy (31 percent) than the GOP.
I’m reminded a bit of the 2016 GOP primary. Many were mystified (me included!) that this pretty talented group of Republican up-and-comers kept getting their asses handed to them by Trump, whose articulation of policy and priorities was, shall we say, somewhat rougher. You can attribute that to a lot of things, but one thing became clear to me—GOP voters simply weren’t in the market for the same old pitch from their leaders no matter how skilled the messengers. There was an appetite for more populism and less ideology. That’s something operatives and ideological folks (me included!) have to reckon with, and many have chosen not to in the subsequent years.
Democrats should have reckoned with this year’s version of this problem 8-10 months ago. Now, it is a losing battle, and one that is made worse by the same Democrats and media diminishing, even outright denying, the everyday concerns of voters in favor of their own priorities.
Pick the issue important to voters, you can easily find a prominent denial it exists.
A recession? When the country arrived at the grim milestone of two back-to-back quarters of GDP contraction, the definition agreed upon for decades for a recession, the White House and an obliging press simply came up with a new definition.
Immigration in a time of unprecedented crossings? Border’s fine!
Schools? This is less of a priority now that they’re finally open, but unwise to deny the concerns of still-miffed parents by saying you only closed schools for three months. (And while I’m at it, please don’t call everyone ableist for merely noting the impairment of a politician whose condition was intentionally hidden from voters for months.)
Inflation? Transitory, moderate, manageable, “zero percent.”
By the time inflation morphed in to a “top priority,” the solution proposed by the party in power was the Inflation Reduction Act, which both Democrats and media admitted shortly after passage was more about unprecedented climate spending than inflation reduction and, oops, probably increased inflation.
Again, there are people who think these are perfectly worthy and necessary priorities, but they are not the priorities of voters, and supplanting voters’ priorities with yours is a dangerous game in an election year, even if you cleverly name them “inflation reduction.” Voters aren’t fooled, as veteran Democrat message man Stan Greenberg has been telling anyone who might listen:
In memos, private communications and interviews, Greenberg has been imploring the party to — let’s put this bluntly — shut the hell up about all the work it’s done. It’s not that voters don’t care. He says voters actively turn against Democrats when they hear it.
“It’s our worst performing message,” Greenberg told West Wing Playbook. “I’ve tested it. I did Biden’s exact words, his exact speech. And that’s the test where we lost all of our leads… It said to the voters that this election is about my accomplishments as a leader and not about the challenges you’re experiencing.”
They’re actively turning against Democrats when they hear it because Democrats did not hear what accomplishments voters wanted (a danger Republicans will soon face when they take some of the reins of power, but that’s a post for another day). More Jan. 6 ads aren’t the ticket. Telling people they shouldn’t care about gas prices ain’t it anymore than telling them abortion is all that matters.
The truth is, the kitchen table was set with issues more than a year ago and Democrats never sat down. That won’t be fixed in the next week.
I had a couple of knowledgeable guest hosts on the podcast this week as my co-host Vic Matus recovers from surgery. He’s doing fine and is likely back into red wine and steaks by now, though I have not confirmed that. Josh Holmes obliged me with a Ruthless Pod/Getting Hammered crossover and Josh Kraushaar of Axios joined me for a nitty-gritty breakdown of the races he’s watching and why. Kraushaar is extremely knowledgeable about how and where money is being spent and the ins and outs of each competitive race, as Beltway reporters are wont to be, but he is also great at putting his finger on what voters care about and doing a little narrative-busting along the way. You’ll enjoy both Joshes, learn a ton, and we’ll be back with Vic next week!