One of the 2022 results that surprised me was Catherine Cortez Masto’s successful re-election in Nevada.
She ran against Adam Laxalt who, while not a fantastic candidate, isn’t on par with Blake Masters or Dr. Oz. And it seemed to me that she’d done extremely little to distance herself from the national Democratic Party brand in a state and year where the overall political winds were not at her back. And, indeed, you see that Nevada’s Democratic governor was the only incumbent state chief executive to lose in November, so it was hardly a gimme race.
So how did she pull it off? I think Dobbs was clearly an important factor, as it was in many states.
But a new report suggests that Cortez Masto and her campaign can offer some important lessons, namely that one incredibly banal message about law enforcement that she ran is apparently very potent. To an extent, this insight backs up things I’ve believed for a long time about the value of normie politics. But I also think that people who are more left-wing than I am will find a fair amount to like in this story because it suggests the possibility of making substantial gains in public opinion with very superficial gestures to the center.
Democrats’ best message, revealed
The key insight here comes from Data for Progress’ post-election report, which I recently heard Danielle Deiseroth, Marcela Mulholland, Julia Jeanty, and McKenzie Wilson describe in a post-election panel.
The report includes the results of a large sample experiment DFP did with Brian Schaffner that involved a sample of 77,197 registered voters. Each person was given six different head-to-head matchups between congressional candidates, with each candidate given a random set of demographic characteristics and also randomly assigned a policy message drawn from real things said by real politicians. This is designed to capture two things that a typical poll doesn’t:
Given these realistic settings, the impact of different messages on vote choice is just very very small — the vast majority of people vote consistently for either the hypothetical Democrat or the hypothetical Republican regardless of what message they are assigned. Campaign effects are small.
But because the sample is so large, you can pick up on the impact of small campaign effects. And that matters because so many races are so close. Small effects can be a big deal.
They ran 135 different Democratic messages in this experiment, of which 35 generated statistically significant campaign effects.
And now the big reveal, Democrats’ top campaign message:
I worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement to crack down on crimes and keep our communities safe. I led the fight to combat sex trafficking, helped protect victims of sexual assault, and passed legislation to combat law enforcement suicide. I’ve worked tirelessly to get law enforcement the support and resources they need to keep our communities safe
When I shared this factoid on Twitter, I got a somewhat incredulous response from a number of rightists who didn’t believe a Democrat would ever say that. This was funny because these are all real-world messages, in this case, one from Cortez Masto. You can see a version of it here on her campaign website, and it’s similar to the opening of her official bio on her Senate page.
The flip side of the rightists’ incredulity is that a lot of progressives I’ve talked to are a little disheartened to see that the very best thing DFP could come up with is so boring. This message doesn’t speak at all to the big, structural changes that get progressives out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t reference the existential battle for American democracy, and it doesn’t touch on the climate crisis that has become the progressive movement’s top priority or the abortion rights struggle that invigorated so many after the Dobbs decision. It’s just blah.
But part of the reason this blah message works is precisely because it’s blah. Persuadable voters aren’t persuaded by the stuff that gets progressives fired up, in part because if they were fired up about that stuff they wouldn’t be persuadable voters, and in part because everyone already knows that Democrats care about that stuff, so talking about it at the margin doesn’t change anything. And in that light, what takes the message from good to great is that despite being so blah, conservatives were incredulous that a Democrat would actually say it. The content is not that surprising or exciting but the context apparently is — voters were genuinely swayed by a Democrat making some extremely banal supportive statements about law enforcement.
And it’s not unique to Cortez Masto or her precise framing. This from John Fetterman apparently worked really well, too:
Everyone has the right to feel safe in their communities. I worked with the Chief of Police, our police officers, and the community to reduce violent crime. I’ve worked hand-in-hand with the police and I understand the challenges our police forces face and how to support them to make communities more safe. I will make sure law enforcement has the resources necessary to do their job, but I will also prioritize oversight, accountability, and violence prevention.
Fetterman’s version of this nods a bit more to the left by mentioning oversight and accountability, but is also even more straightforwardly tough on crime than Cortez Masto’s. He talks generically about violent crime instead of centering more feminist concerns like sex trafficking and sexual assault.
The point is that just being a Democrat who says loud and clear “I think it’s good when the cops arrest criminals” actually moves the needle meaningfully because people’s baseline impression of Democrats on crime has become so bad.
The other good messages are also boring
Here’s another Cortez Masto message DFP says tested very well:
My number one priority is improving our economy. I’m focused on creating jobs, and I’m pushing for skills training programs, supply chain relief, support for small businesses, and more to ensure our economy continues to create opportunities for families.
What does that mean exactly? I’m not sure. But people liked it. The absolute best economy message was this one from Maggie Hassan, who crushed a relatively weak opponent by saying stuff like this:
I helped pass legislation to support manufacturing and strengthen our ability to outcompete China. I’m working to bring good-paying jobs home and to support the next generation of entrepreneurs right here in America. Reducing our reliance on other countries and bringing jobs back to America is a win, no matter what party you are in.
This is not vacuous. And to give progressives their due, it’s absolutely not the kind of Econ 101 stuff that you’ll find on Slow Boring.
But it’s also not a spicy progressive message about “greedflation” and the need to stand up to corporate America. Its genuflection toward bipartisanship would make resistance Twitter cringe, and the way it name-checks “the next generation of entrepreneurs” would get you kicked out of a DSA meeting.
And none of the five best messages from the DFP experiment reference the threat to democracy or the struggle against fascism. None of them mention climate change. And none of them mention the big ideas that got dropped from Build Back Better, like subsidized child care or paid leave. This one, the fourth-best message overall, was the best message on the welfare state, pretty narrowly focused on seniors:
I passed a law to ban surprise medical billing. I also passed major prescription drug reform that will allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and will cap out-of-pocket expenses for seniors. I will also always protect Social Security to make sure seniors have the benefits they've earned.
But part of what is interesting about this is that while none of the stuff that tests really well is particularly progressive or drawn from the advocacy groups’ agenda or talking points, it’s all consistent with the main progressive ideas. It’s not hippie punching and it’s not really adopting new, more moderate policy positions. But it is definitely front loading a set of concerns that, while compatible with progressives’ agenda, is not what mobilizes activists.
If a message falls in the wilderness
Of course in practice, even successful candidates like Fetterman, Cortez Masto, and Hassan don’t fare quite as well on Election Day as these messages perform in experimental settings.
That’s in part because they also say other, less-effective things, which is in part because you need to answer the questions you’re actually asked. But the larger problem is that it’s not good enough to have a strong message; people need to hear your message. This is why spending money on ads is good because you can make the ad about whatever you want. If you tweet the Cortez Masto economy message, it won’t go viral — but if you tweet the less effective greedflation stuff, people will talk about it, and that in and of itself is part of its appeal.
To an extent, that’s just the world we live in and politicians need to learn to navigate it.
But I don’t think it’s correct to be totally fatalistic about this and say there’s no better path than running a lot of high-virality, low-efficacy messages. Things get coverage because they’re seen as inherently interesting, but also because they’re seen as intersecting with the important policy debates of the day. People get a lot of their information about which policy debates are important from the media, and the media gets those ideas in part from advocacy groups. And what advocates and activists talk about is partly a function of what they genuinely care about in their hearts, but it’s also a function of what they can get funding for.
Putting more money into advocacy around surprise medical billing, job training, prescription drug prices, and Social Security and less money into climate change and paid family leave would generate more buzz around these popular issues, and they would be less “boring.”
And because politics is so partisan these days, this would almost certainly be a better strategy for advancing progressive ideas on climate change and paid family leave. At the end of the day, to get paid family leave done, Democrats needed either to win more Senate races in 2020 or more House races in 2022 (or both), and the best way to do that would have been for candidates to talk about how they “worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement to crack down on crimes” and “support the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
Making normalcy spicy
My other thought about this, though, is that there are probably slightly less bland ways of conveying the basic Fetterman/Cortez Masto point that you’re a Democrat who thinks it’s good for cops to catch criminals.
One way would be to talk more about the staffing shortages that currently afflict most large police departments. America’s police departments have not been “defunded,” but for a variety of reasons they are suffering from the problem you would worry about if they were defunded — fewer police officers. Having fewer officers is bad because it results in more crime, but it’s also bad because it inherently generates less accountability. How strict a department can be about discipline is, at the end of the day, largely a function of how hard it is to replace officers. In any workplace, if vacancies are very hard to fill, you’re going to be reluctant to let anyone go, you’re going to be sad to see anyone quit, and you’re going to have a relatively low bar in terms of the mid-career people you’re willing to employ. This is not the equilibrium that people passionate about criminal justice reform are hoping for, but it’s also just bad in an obvious crime control sense.
Some of these campaign communication issues are about money.
But some of them fall out of the same social and media trends that have created an environment where Cortez Masto’s blah criminal justice message struck people as surprising and effective. Progressive opinion leaders think of policing and law enforcement as an ignoble career path. And when only conservatives see it as a valuable form of public service, only conservatives want to be cops. Conservatives generally don’t live in or enjoy big cities, so urban police departments end up with staffing problems. Meanwhile, having police forces constituted entirely of hardcore rightwingers creates its own problems of democratic control and discipline.
The solution is for Democrats and progressives to talk more positively about becoming a police officer, to characterize it as a good thing to do with your life that provides valuable service to your community, and to say in particular that people who care about racial justice and procedural fairness in criminal justice should try to do the work. I once wrote about creating a Police for America program modeled on Teach for America, which I think is a good idea. But it is also just a thing that a politician should say: young people who want to make a difference in the country should seriously consider a career in law enforcement, even if (and in some ways especially if) they never thought of themselves as the kind of person who’d become a cop.
There’s a lot of aversion in Democratic Party circles to the style of “hippie-punching” politics that’s associated with the old Democratic Leadership Council and the idea of deliberately picking fights with the left wing of the party. That makes sense, to an extent, but the underlying concept is sometimes overgeneralized to not wanting to say anything that would generate any blowback from the left.
I think that’s a mistake.
You don’t need to take a swipe at anyone to say something clear, direct, and forceful like “we need to help police departments recruit by promoting a positive attitude toward the idea of becoming a police officer,” but you do need to be fearless about the fact that some people might yell at you. A little blowback for saying something very normal is, I think, a good thing. It means that you get to be normal without being boring, to ensure that people hear what you are trying to say at a time when most Democrats — including ones like Fetterman, who progressives are pretty enthusiastic about — are trying pretty hard to give off normal person vibes.
It is noteworthy that all of these effective Democratic messaging examples avoid using any academic language. E.g., “structural factors” or “birthing persons”. I think avoiding such esoteric and alienating language is one of the simplest ways to embrace popularism without having to compromise on policy.
Conversely, adding such academic language to generally popular messages is the quickest way to make it unpopular. E.g., everyone is opposed to surprise medical billing and supportive of policies to regulate that away. But if we dress that up with language about “inherent capitalistic exploitation” and “structural factors that victimize historically marginalized groups”, voter’s will just think we’re a bunch of unserious weirdos.
An interesting thought experiment is to ask, “what totally banal message would make a GOP candidate slightly more appealing to me?” For me specifically in Ohio, the fact that Mike DeWine believed Covid was real, empowered a (female) physician to lead his Covid response early on, backed her up in the face of right wing maniacal attacks, encouraged people to wear masks and then get vaccinated, all that left me (and a lot of other Dems in the state) hugely impressed. If we’d had any Georgia-like election shenanigans, I’m confident he would have pulled a Kemp and stood firm for election integrity.
Merely standing up for common sense on the topics your party has most lost their damn minds over is the biggest thing you can do to stand out. But it’s not easy- it takes an independent mind to be able to break out of your own tribe’s group think enough to even SEE where they’ve lost their minds.