Lessons learned,” Bennilover.

At an event on May 20th organized by Way to Win, communications activists, data analysts, and organizers came together “to share lessons across the narrative and messaging landscape and hear new ideas as we get ready for 2022.” The conference was called M3—short for media, math, and movement.

Way to Win is a network of progressive and liberal donors that supports grassroots, long-term mobilizing. In the 2020 cycle, the network raised over $100 million. Among other things, these donations supported large investments in Arizona and Georgia that helped shift those two states to the Democratic column, helping Joe Biden win the presidency and Democrats narrowly eke out a majority in the US Senate.

The 2020 election outcomes are mixed. Joe Biden’s election as president, was, as Way to Win vice president and chief strategy officer Jenifer Fernandez Ancona put it, a “huge electoral victory.” Yet, as Fernandez Ancona acknowledged, of 27 congressional seats rated on Election Day as “toss-ups,” Democrats won none of them.

Overall, Democrats achieved control of both sides of Capitol Hill, but barely. Famously, the net gain of three seats in the Senate (including two in Georgia) resulted in a 50-50 split, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. In the House, the Democrats lost 12 seats, but maintained a nine-seat margin, the narrowest in 20 years.

The word “fragility” came up often. Dorian Warren, co-president of Community Change, noted this “moment of progressive governance feels very fragile.” Warren added that “backlash threatens.”

What lessons did activists at Way to Win’s conference draw from these mixed outcomes? Some themes that stand out are the following:

  • While conventional wisdom often calls for attracting swing voters, election data suggest that clear messaging beats moderation pretty much every time. Left-versus-right is rarely the right frame. Fernandez Ancona notes that House Democrats who lost their races focused on protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions, a phrase that policy wonks love but which often leaves voters unenthused, when a “values frame of universal healthcare” would have likely been far more effective.
  • In the age of social media, television ads matter less. Successful campaigns rely on microtargeting, for which media like YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok are far more effective.
  • Polling’s focus on individual voters leads analysts to mistakenly assume voters decide how to vote on their own, observes Michael Podhorzer of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations). Podhorzer contends most people make voting decisions not in isolation, but rather based on conversations with their peers (“reference group”). That is why campaign strategies which aim at persuading “influencers” can be effective.
  • In 2020, with some important exceptions (e.g., Arizona, Georgia), Republicans did a better job of turning out voters than Democrats. This had a lot to do with Republicans’ more effective use of microtargeting techniques.
  • Latinx voter trends varied by state. In Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada, Latinx voters strongly backed Biden and Democrats. But in Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York, the trend favored Republicans. Reasons for this shift are complicated, but variation in state-level organizing was identified as one key factor.
  • Organizing, notes consultant Emmy Ruiz, takes time and requires patience—or, as Ruiz puts it, “the long game.” As she observes, “Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Georgia didn’t happen overnight. It is going to requires continual investment.”
  • Deep organizing matters. Nsé Ufot, CEO of New Georgia Project, which registered over 400,000 Georgia residents to vote last year, notes that “research throughout 2020 showed us that COVID was the number-one issue.” But in the runoff, in one-on-one conversations with voters, organizers learned that receiving stimulus checks had displaced COVID. The slogan “Mitch better have my money,” Ufot notes, became “way more effective than the COVID messaging.” And pivoting to that message was central to the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff as senators.

Liberal Myths: Mistaking Corporate Power as Right-Wing Messaging Brilliance

By and large, the conference provided level-headed analysis of both strengths and weaknesses, with a forthright acknowledgement of the organizing and base-building work ahead. But not everything hit the mark. For example, some speakers suggested that Republican donors give to support their economic interests (e.g., to get tax cuts), while Democratic Party donors are values-driven. Data suggest a more complicated reality. Fun fact: In the 2019–20 election cycle, business donors gave $2.48 billion to Democrats and $1.86 billion to Republicans. Maybe only Republican business donors care about benefits for themselves, but that seems doubtful.

Of course, one might expect such claims at a conference organized by liberal donors. But another myth oddly elevates Republicans to the status of political judo masters.

One part of the myth is a simplified story that makes Ronald Reagan the singular villain. At the conference, author Anand Giridharadas called 1981, the first year of the Reagan presidency, “the year the United States launched the assault on government.” Yes, Reagan helped delegitimize government, but he did not initiate the assault.

Once there was a president who deregulated trucking and airlines, helping weaken unions in the process. During his presidency, the maximum tax rate on capital gains was cut by Congress from 49.875 percent to 28 percent. That president was Jimmy Carter. This shift was quite visible, sparking a 1980 primary challenge to Carter from Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who later would become known as the “liberal lion” of the Senate. Neoliberalism, in short, has had bipartisan backing, and, to elaborate a little, is a product of economic forces (some international in scope), as well as US politics.

Indeed, the same politicians in different times support markedly opposed economic policies. Back in 1967, then-Governor Reagan is credited with signing into law the largest tax increase in California state history. In the opposite direction, in 1981, a Delaware senator named Joe Biden voted for Reagan’s historic tax cut bill.

At the heart of the myth is the belief in Republican messaging brilliance. As Giridharadas puts it, “The right has an almost unsolvable burden. The right has to overperform the number of people who will benefit from its policies by 40–50 [percentage points of the population].… The level of athletic training is extraordinary. It is dead in the water unless it is out-of-this-world talented.”

How talented is the right? Maybe not so much. The late Yale political scientist Charles Lindblom, author of the 1977 book Politics and Markets (and onetime American Political Science Association president), would have told Giridharadas that in a capitalist economy, business elites enjoy a “privileged” position. This position does not always align with party, but it alters the field of play. Lindblom’s position is backed by others. Thomas Ferguson wrote about the investment theory of politics in 1990s. In the past decade, Ben Page of Northwestern has covered similar ground.

As New York Times reporter Ann Crittenden back in 1978 summarized Lindblom’s view, business’ privileged position gives “corporations a degree of influence over the political process that no other interest group can begin to match” and can “produce a favorable public attitude” toward their privileges, which, of course, often leads to votes.

There is more to Lindblom than this. It’s common in the US to focus on corporate campaign donations and lobbying, and these are important, but there is also a structural component; for example, the dependency of government on economic activity itself and the tax revenue it generates gives business leaders disproportionate influence to push for lower corporate income tax rates.

A World Cracked Open

The challenges are real, but so are the opportunities. Rashad Robinson of Color Of Change said his group is focusing on “Winning more in the next four years than we have in the last 15.” For his part, Giridharadas noted that “the country has changed, the conversation has changed, the neoliberal [model] has puttered out. We are at the cusp of a new progressive era.”

To achieve this shift will require addressing deep-seated anxiety, as Future Majority research director Gretchen Barton explained. Based on dozens of long interviews with voters of all political persuasions, Barton noted many voters she spoke with expressed a “lack of hope for the future.” As Barton elaborates, “All the polls will lead you to believe that we’re doing OK. We’re not OK.”

Barton’s findings echo comments made to NPQ by Sendolo Diaminah, codirector of the organizing group Carolina Federation, last December. As Diaminah explained, “We can’t transform the politics without coming clean and getting right with the fact that the vast majority of our people have been decimated and devastated.”

The dislodging of neoliberal assumptions that have for decades reinforced business power provides an opening, but building a lasting governing majority requires addressing the pain that Barton and Diaminah identify. Anat Shenker-Osorio, who runs a communications firm, warns that the tenor of “fear-based messaging” can be counterproductive. Such messaging, Shenker-Osorio contends, gins up the activist base, but “evokes a freeze response for the demobilized.” A winning approach, she adds, must set forth a “hopeful sense of the beautiful tomorrow” centered in “what is good for working people.”

The Coming Midterm Elections

In 2010, two years after Barack Obama was elected president, the Republicans gained 63 seats and won control of the US House of Representatives. After losing the presidency, in 2018 the Democrats gained 41 seats and won back the House. Preventing a reprise of this pattern in 2022 clearly was a central goal of the conference.

Stephanie Valencia, cofounder and president of Equis Labs, which mobilizes Latinx voters, remains optimistic: “There has been nothing conventional about the last two years,” she notes. “Let’s make sure there is nothing about nothing conventional about the next two years.”