Opinion | Commentators slammed Democrats’ ‘messaging,’ but what did they know?


A certain species of American political animal, the all-knowing arbiter of campaign “messaging,” proliferated in coverage of the 2022 midterm elections. They were everywhere — on Fox News, MSNBC and many outlets in between.

Chances were good that if you heard them, they were flaying Democratic leaders over their attempts to push back against the Republican onslaught on President Biden’s record. They weren’t focusing on the economy! They were talking too much about threats to democracy! Who cares about such highfalutin abstractions?

This messaging crisis, such as it was, merged with red wave-ism, the hype from many media outlets that Republicans were on the verge of a midterm rout. Sure, there were reasons to think a Democratic comeuppance was all but certain — midterm backlash against the party that occupies the White House is traditional — but shots flew at the Democratic message crafters.

That is, until late Tuesday night. When it became clear that the expected Republican red wave wouldn’t be washing up on any cable-news election maps, Fox News contributor (and Post columnist) Marc A. Thiessen argued that the political malpractice actually rested with Republicans, who had failed to take advantage of Democratic weaknesses. “That is a searing indictment of the message that we have been sending to the voters,” he said. (Thiessen expanded on this theme in a Post column Friday.)

Hammering Democratic messaging appears to have been a messaging problem of its own, at least to judge from the still-unfolding results. Democrats learned Saturday that they would keep control of the Senate, and they still have a slim chance of retaining the House. So let’s take a hindsight-assisted look at some of the “messaging” commentary leading up to Election Day:

· “President Joe Biden spent the closing days before the midterm elections … focused on one paramount issue: the direct threat to democracy posed by many of the Republicans on ballots across the country.” — Daily Beast, “Biden’s Closing Message Is Vital to Biden — but Maybe Not to Voters,” Nov. 8.

The Skinny: “Focus” is subjective, and Biden did give an address in the closing days of the campaign on threats to democracy. But look at the transcripts of his stump speeches and remarks over this period: They’re focused to the point of obsession with pocketbook issues — inflation, jobs, investment, government spending, health-care costs, Social Security, student debt relief. Abortion rights and democratic decay rank as afterthoughts.

· “When voters tell you over and over and over again that they care mostly about the economy, listen to them. Stop talking about democracy being at stake.” — Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen on CNN, Nov. 6.

The Skinny: Candidates commonly address more than one issue in their appeals. (In response to a request for comment, Rosen emailed, “Even voters who said they cared the most about the economy didn’t like what the Republicans were selling on the economy and other issues like abortion. They rejected the GOP scare tactics and nastiness. And Biden gets credit. Cause if the losses were bigger he would get the blame. So hats off to him and I am glad my pessimism was wrong!”)

· “Biden highlights democracy and abortion rights in final campaign pitch.” — NBCNews.com headline, Nov. 7.

The Skinny: The story recounts a Biden appearance in Bowie, Md., last Monday. He spent more than nine minutes talking about the economy and pocketbook issues; less than three minutes on democracy; and one minute on abortion. A study of ad spending in congressional races shows that Democrats outspent Republicans on such issues as abortion, jobs, Medicare and Social Security, while Republicans outspent Democrats on such issues as inflation, taxation and economy.

· “They actually don’t have something to say about the economy.” — Harris Faulkner, Fox News host, Nov. 8, referring to Democrats.

The Skinny: Whatever you say, Faulkner.

· “I think there was this kind of fool’s gold — this idea that the threat to democracy is so severe in the wake of this insurrection and in the wake of these election deniers possibly grabbing control of the government that that was something that you had to talk about. But you also have to talk about the economy. I think the tragedy here is that the Democrats actually have something to say about the economy. … We didn’t focus enough firepower on that issue, and I think it’s going to potentially cost us.” — CNN political commentator Van Jones, Nov. 7.

· “ ‘Democracy under threat’ is a message Biden’s base has already bought and that probably won’t move most other voters.” — MSNBC’s Chris Jansing, Nov. 3.

The Skinny: A massive survey of the American political landscape — by NORC at the University of Chicago for Fox News and the Associated Press — showed that 86 percent of respondents viewed the future of democracy as an important consideration in thinking about the 2022 midterm elections.

· “Democrats confront their nightmare scenario on election eve as economic concerns overshadow abortion and democracy worries.” — CNN headline, Nov. 7.

The Skinny: Here we find the ideal synthesis of red wave-ism with the Democrats’ alleged messaging deficiencies. A key line from the story drives at the analytical problem: “Democrats are closing the campaign warning about democracy and Trump’s influence while Republicans believe they are addressing the issue voters care about most.” Boldface added to highlight the degree to which the story adopts GOP framing for the midterm races.

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