Reaching Escape Velocity
The gravity of the Democratic brand can bring candidates down in swing districts, but escape is possible.
The increasingly toxic Democratic brand is an anchor weighing down candidates in reddish districts. The force of a party label seems like a law of nature akin to gravity, bringing candidates — even those whose background can appeal to traditional GOP voters — back down to earth.
The exceptions to this rule are familiar to our readers: Jared Golden and Joe Manchin on the center-left; Susan Collins and blue-state Governors like Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker on the center-right.
While most candidates perform within a few points of their party’s standard bearers, these candidates do not just split a few tickets.
They shatter them.
In 2018, Joe Manchin won more than one in five Trump voters in West Virginia while Charlie Baker won about one in three Clinton voters.
There is increasing recognition of the Democrats’ brand challenges. However, little attention is paid towards understanding how certain candidates are able to not only eke out a few swing voters, but to build brands that connect deeply and distinctly from the national party label.
Faced with the law of gravity, these candidates achieve escape velocity.
Scientists know how to calculate escape velocity, it’s easy:
Escaping from Earth’s surface requires a speed of 25,020 MPH.
Escaping from the Democratic Party brand appears more complex — there is no clear scientific formula. But if Bezos can go to space and Musk can reach orbit, we should be able to get at least a rudimentary understanding of how to achieve the brand needed to replicate those who have already proven it is possible.
More below on what Democrats can do to reach escape velocity in red districts, but first what our team was reading and discussing this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. The authoritarians at home and abroad are aligned on Ukraine: The Washington Post on how Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and their allies have taken to praising Putin and dismissing Biden:
“While most congressional Republicans back Biden’s tough line against Moscow — or argue it should be even tougher — a faction made up of conservative Republicans, supporters of former president Donald Trump and conservative media figures says Putin should be left alone, or even congratulated, by Americans. Trump complimented Putin on Tuesday, saying it was a ‘smart move’ by the Russian president to send ‘the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen’ to the Ukraine border.”
2. Sean Illing in Vox with James Carville on why Manchin is actually good, Sinema less so, and why 2022 isn’t quite hopeless yet:
“You got to remember that there’s a paper-thin majority in the House and a 50-50 Senate. You can ask a lot of party unity, but Jesus, they only lost two out of 50. I understand people’s frustration, but for God’s sake, the answer to it is not to get mad at Democrats. The answer is to go out and elect more Democrats.”
3. Daniel Cox in FiveThirtyEight offering potential explanations for why white liberals are so pessimistic about politics:
“Why is the feeling of doom and gloom so pervasive among many white liberals? One possible explanation may lie in how white liberals prioritize politics over other types of activities. Certainly, when it comes to religious participation — an activity strongly associated with stronger social connections and feelings of personal satisfaction — liberals have experienced a precipitous decline over the past few decades. According to Gallup data, only 35 percent of liberals belonged to a church or religious congregation in 2020, down from 56 percent in 1998.”
Running Against the Cable News Caricature
The Republican propaganda machine is a formidable enemy — especially when fringe elements on the far-left consistently provide fodder.
As POLITICO reported last week, internal polling recently conducted by the DCCC confirms just how “alarmingly potent” GOP culture war attacks are against Democrats. On cable news and online, the right has successfully constructed a toxic Democratic caricature by inundating its vast audiences with the words and actions of a small but vocal minority on the far-left.
No example captures this phenomenon more clearly than the issue of “defund the police.” The data are clear: the vast majority of Democratic voters (including more than three quarters of Black voters) do not support the measure, and the small but vocal cohort of Democrats who do want to defund the police represent a fringe slice of the party. Despite these facts, Republicans have been relentless (and successful) in tying the highly unpopular policy stance to the Democratic brand.
Without a coherent and forceful Democratic rebuttal to such attacks, they have been all too effective: high-profile post-election analysis from Third Way, Collective PAC, and Latino Victory Fund found that Republican-led efforts to brand Democrats as “radicals” were highly damaging in 2020, especially in contests where “law and order” was a key theme.
The good news is that Democrats can mitigate the worst effects of GOP culture war attacks by forcefully and concertedly pushing back with a clear counter-message. According to POLITICO:
“The data showed that Democrats could mostly regain the ground lost to Republicans if they offered a strong rebuttal to the political hits. When faced with a “defund the police” attack, for instance, the presenters encouraged Democrats to reiterate their support for police. And on immigration, they said Democrats should deny support for “open borders or amnesty,” and talk about their efforts to keep the border safe.”
Particularly in right-leaning and swing districts, the solution to dealing with the Democrats’ toxic cable news caricature is running vocally against it.
Achieving Escape Velocity
It’s one thing to rebut an attack, it’s another thing to snuff it out entirely. Pushing back against GOP culture war attacks might limit the extent of the damage, but such returns are multiplied among the Democrats who reach escape velocity and depart entirely from the party’s national persona.
In other words, polling shows Democratic candidates must play whack-a-mole against individual charges. But gravity-defying candidates show it is better to play a different game entirely.
Candidates who reach escape velocity — building a profile visibly distinct from their party — are well fortified against the gravity of the party’s national brand, even as that brand gets increasingly toxic among voters.
Joe Manchin is a particularly strong example. The 2018 West Virginia Senatorial race had been ranked a toss-up in the months leading up to November. In a state where Donald Trump had won by a whopping 42 points just two years prior, any ordinary Democrat would have been rightly declared dead on arrival. But, as the WV Metro News highlighted in the days following Manchin’s solid four-point victory, Manchin is no ordinary Democrat:
“The big picture answer to his success is that Manchin has, over the years, established his own political brand. His political identity is not that of a Democrat, but rather as the ‘party’ of Joe Manchin. West Virginians know him. Not everyone trusts him or even likes him, but he has built a comfort level with enough voters to carry him across the line in a tough election.”
How is the “party of Joe Manchin” branded? Among other things, it looks something like the candidate putting a bullet through an Obama-era cap-and-trade bill and then doing the same to a GOP-backed plan to repeal Obamacare.
That same year, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp played up her vote to confirm Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court while explaining the rationale behind her decision not to back Brett Kavanaugh.
Jared Golden followed the same playbook in his rural Maine district, building a distinct brand around his background as an aide to the state’s Republican Senator, Susan Collins, service as a in the Marine Corps, and support for the Second Amendment:
These brand-differentiated Democrats didn’t simply push back against GOP attacks linking them to the Democratic fringes. They cultivated strong and independent personal brands designed to defuse them from the start — and the data demonstrates that they did.
In the 2018 races, Manchin outperformed Hillary Clinton by more than 23 points, Heitkamp (despite coming up short of a victory) outperformed her by 17, and Golden by almost 10.
In 2020, as Democrats were faced with a tidal wave of down-ballot losses, Golden flipped the script and outperformed Joe Biden by nearly nine points.
In each case, these Democrats were able to reach escape velocity and transcend the gravitational pull of a toxic party brand. And while the science of overcoming partisan gravity may not be exact, we can find clues in their campaigns that can and should be replicated in this year’s midterms and beyond.