Thursday, December 02, 2021


Jonathan Martin of The New York Times interviewed Brian Stryker, a Democratic pollster who conducted focus groupd of Joe Biden voters who either switched sides to vote for Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor's race or seriously considered Youngkin. Some of what Stryker says suggests that Democrat Terry McAuliffe committed unforced errors:
What was the first thing you told your partners after you got done with the groups — what was your big takeaway?

I was surprised by how dominant education was in this election. I was also struck by how much it was this place for all of these frustrations for these suburban voters, where they could take out their Covid frustrations in one place.

...Voters don’t think that in general a lot of Democrats felt really bad about closing the schools or felt like it was really a negative on people. I think showing some empathy on that could go a long ways in terms of: Yes, closing schools was hard on kids and hard on parents.
A number of liberal and centrist commentators have said that Democratic officeholders should have done everything in their power to get schools open as fast as possible, regardless of the health risks. But if I'm reading this correctly, just a sincere acknowledgment of the hardships would have gone a long way.

But Stryker's main message is that Democrats have a branding problem.
What is that branding problem, in a nutshell?

People think we’re more focused on social issues than the economy — and the economy is the No. 1 issue right now.

What drives this perception that Democrats are fixated on cultural issues?

We probably haven’t been as focused on the economy as we should be. I think some of that is voters reading us talking about things that aren’t economic issues. Part of it is just a natural reaction, too: We’re in an economy they feel is tough. It’s hard for them to think we’ve solved problems when they see so many.
Maybe Democrats need to say more (and do more) about high prices -- but are they talking about social issues too much? Joe Biden and congressional Democrats certainly aren't. Did voters regard McAuliffe's criticism of Donald Trump as talking about cultural issues? Do they think the pandemic is a cultural issue? (It shouldn't be, but Republicans have made it one.) Or do they think Democrats are obsessed with cultural issues because right-wing framing of Democrats becomes everyone else's framing of Democrats? (The ginned-up critical race theory panic certainly made Democrats seem more obsessed with racial issues than they are.)

And then there's this:
One of the things you also said in the memo was that McAuliffe’s strategy of linking Mr. Youngkin to former President Donald Trump was ineffective. What in the conversations with your groups made that clear?

The respondents kind of laughed at that approach. They said, “Oh, these silly ads that compared Youngkin to Trump — he just doesn’t seem like that guy.” The thing that these people disliked about Trump was that they didn’t like Donald Trump the person; it wasn’t Donald Trump the constellation of policies. That may very well have been the best message that McAuliffe had, but if we are in that position again, we’re going to lose a ton of races. We’ve got to have something better.

How much does Mr. Biden himself take the blame with these voters? Is his name invoked?

It’s Biden, Democrats — they all come together.
This goes by so fast that it's easy to miss what Stryker is saying; I'm not sure even Stryker understands. He's saying that voters feel Donald Trump doesn't taint other Republicans, even though he's obviously the head of the party and its guiding spirit, but Joe Biden, who's now perceived to be doing a poor job, does taint other Democrats. (Stryker makes clear that none of these voters regret voting against Trump -- they just don't see what he has to do with Youngkin.)

The GOP and the right-wing media tell their audience -- and Democratic voters apparently hear this, too -- that any Democrat (or liberal, or radical, or Hollywood celebrity, or college professor, or foreigner such as George Soros, or even a foreign terrorist) who offends them is equivalent to every Democrat. Democrats and the mainstream media send the opposite message: that Trump is unique and other Republicans aren't necessarily like that. And they're saying the same thing now about Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, and Matt Gaetz, as well as extremist ideologues like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis.

The result is that the Republican Party is a party that's run by extremists but is perceived as moderate, while the Democratic Party is run by moderates but is perceived as extremist. Democrats really don't understand that, and I'm not sure Brian Stryker does, either.

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