The Hill Newspaper—-8/22/2021
Earlier this month a coalition of progressive groups announced they were going to spend upwards of $100 million on television and digital ads to boost President Biden and the Democrats. When in doubt, flood the airwaves. What a waste!
I have a serious confession: For decades I have specialized in doing television and radio ads for Democratic candidates and groups. From the 1980s to the early 2000s our firm’s primary method of delivering a message and communicating with voters was paid ads. In a course on campaign advertising that I taught at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management for 20+ years, and in counseling candidates, I used to hold fast to the notion that 70-80 percent of most candidates’ budgets should be devoted to paid ads.
Is paid media important? Of course, but these ads don’t do what they used to in the era of three major networks, very limited cable and no such thing as the internet. Not to mention when Amazon and Netflix and a myriad of other ways to watch programming without advertising came on board.
Yet we are stuck in the practices of yesteryear — and instead of using our funds to enhance political organization, personal door-to-door campaigning, sophisticated targeting and communication, we throw what we have against the wall and see what sticks.
Democrats have tended more than Republicans to focus on the shiny objects of TV ads, instead of organizing and motivating our base to reach out and convince potential voters on the ground.
To be blunt: Democrats are not putting nearly enough of the billions raised into early, hard-core organization and way too much into glitzy TV ads.
How much of that $100 million goes to organizing? How much PAC money or candidate money goes to hiring staff and paying people to contact voters? How much goes to identifying voters’ interests and learning about what interests them?ADVERTISEMENT
Look what is happening to rural voters. Trump won rural voters with 59 percent of the vote in 2016; he won with 65 percent in 2020, despite losing the overall popular vote by over 7 million votes. Have you driven through rural America lately? Have you seen the signs and the barns painted “TRUMP,” the caravans during opening day of fishing season in Minnesota with flags flying and horns honking, even the t-shirts being worn at Target and Walmart?
Where are the Democrats? Where are the yard signs and supporters outside metro areas? Where are the local neighborhood headquarters in people’s living rooms? Have we given up on independent minded, less politicized citizens who may not always vote in every election? That is a big mistake.
An important recent Pew poll shows that of those who did not vote in the high-turnout election of 2020, Biden was favored over Trump by 15 points. Many of these were voters under 50 years of age and are not obviously committed voters by any means. These are critical voters for Democrats to target.
Many pundits and prognosticators have written the Democrats’ political obituary for the 2022 off-year elections. They are usually a disaster for the party in power, losing on average 26 House seats and 4 Senate seats. Their other reasons are many: the razor thin margin of less than a half dozen Democratic seats in the House and an even count of 50 in the Senate; redistricting that will cost Democrats seats, as Republicans game the system in southern and western states; a polarized nation where President Biden hovers around 50 per cent popularity.
Now, those are serious head winds. But one way to counter them is to increase our focus as Democrats on voter identification, turnout, and serious persuasion. We have the right messages for many of these voters — child care and early childhood education, expanded community college, child tax credits for struggling families, direct care worker help for seniors, expanded Medicare coverage for dental care and prescription drugs. This is a “pro-work,” “pro-families” and “pro-community” agenda. And, by the way, solve COVID, pass the infrastructure and budget legislation before Congress that truly helps people — and show ourselves to be the party “that gets the job done.”
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If we organize around these messages and go after voters with sophisticated targeting, starting early, and “go back to the future” with person-to-person and door-to-door engagement, we might find ourselves maintaining the majority. This means real political money for rural areas, tracking our base, keeping a focus on less-likely voters and convincing them of what is at stake in 2022 and, yes, not wasting so much on expensive and less impactful TV ads.
Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.