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The Challenge of the Democratic Communications Chasm
Two new polls show that voters would like the Democratic agenda if only they knew about it
Democrats are up against a lot in this upcoming election— history, a lingering pandemic, inflation, and a country in a pretty shitty mood. Add to this House and Senate maps that disproportionately represent Republican voters and it’s a recipe for disaster our party cannot afford.
This has — of course — sparked a vituperative, circular, and perhaps self-defeating debate about messaging. Are Democrats too progressive or not progressive enough? Too populist or not populist enough? Too closely associated with the “Squad” or plagued by corporate-friendly centrists like Sinema and Manchin? I won’t go on. The contours of this argument are all too familiar to anyone who follows politics. Establishment media like Politico and Axios enjoy reveling in and stoking this fight.
It’s safe to say our party hasn’t exactly nailed the message yet. We don’t have a solid story on the economy and lack a consistent narrative about Republicans not named Donald Trump. Figuring those things out is necessary but not sufficient for success in the midterms and beyond. But new polling out this week highlights another problem for the Democratic Party — the communications chasm. Our message is being drowned out by Right Wing propaganda and a conflict-obsessed traditional media. The public isn’t hearing our arguments, they don’t recognize our accomplishments, and they don’t know what we stand for. If they did, Democrats might be in a much stronger position.
The Gap Between Knowledge and Support
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the biggest story in the world. Despite the fact that we are prone to tuning out things happening outside of our borders, the American people are paying very close attention to developments in Ukraine. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 85 percent of Americans say they are “familiar with the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.” Eight in ten Americans engaging with any news story — let alone one happening abroad — is a stunning sight. Across all polling conducted to date, approval of President Biden’s handling of the crisis is mixed. In most polls, a slight majority of Americans disapprove of what he and his administration have done. But — and this is a big but — the dissatisfaction does not arise from a disagreement on the decisions the Biden Administration made or how those decisions were executed. The problem is ignorance. Data for Progress conducted a poll demonstrating the problem. The poll began by asking people whether they approved or disapproved of Biden’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The results were in line with most polls — 45 approve/48 disapprove. Data for Progress followed up with a neutral delineation of the steps that the Biden Administration took. Approval of the response jumped 18 points.
Simply informing people was enough to move Biden’s response from kind of unpopular to extremely popular. And it’s not just Ukraine.
Poll after poll has shown that the public is very unhappy with the economy and President Biden’s handling of it despite record job growth and a host of other positive economic indicators. The usual explanation for this dissonance is inflation — American families were hit hard by price increases for gas and groceries. I still believe this is the primary driver of economic discontent. But a new poll from Navigator Research shows that it may not be the only reason. According to the poll, only 19 percent of Americans believe the country has experienced more job growth than job loss over the last twelve months.
Put another way, 81 percent of Americans are either ignorant or misinformed about what’s happening in the economy. Millions of jobs have been created since President Biden took over and the unemployment rate is under four percent. Based on this poll, we can presume that if people knew what was happening Biden’s economic approval numbers would be better.
An Indictment and an Argument
These polls are an indictment of our media ecosystem. Ignorance on issues that don’t receive much media coverage is to be expected. But there doesn’t seem to be a connection between more coverage and a better-informed public. Ukraine is one of the most intensely covered stories in memory. As Nathaniel Rakich wrote in FiveThirtyEight:
According to closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, from Feb. 22-28, the three major cable-news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) mentioned Ukraine in an average of 2,478 15-second clips per day.1 On Feb. 24, the day after Russia started its invasion, 2 Ukraine was mentioned in a whopping 3,095 clips. To put this in perspective, during January, the word “COVID” was mentioned in an average of only 482 clips per day. Heck, on Election Day 2020, former President Donald Trump was mentioned by name in only 2,675 clips. In other words, Ukraine is utterly dominating the news.
It’s clear that despite the best intentions of some reporters, journalism is failing to convey accurate information to the public.
This communications chasm is an argument for Democrats to change their approach to communication. As has been written ad nauseum in this newsletter, most Democrats continue to depend on the traditional media to deliver our message. That strategy hasn’t worked for a very long time. Too few party members are willing to take the risks and make the investments necessary to communicate directly with our voters. Going around and above the filter of the media works. 38 million people watched President Biden’s State of the Union speech. Countless more saw clips of the speech on the news and on social media. And guess what? Seeing and hearing from Joe Biden made people like him and his policies more. An NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll released last week revealed that Biden’s approval rating went up eight points overall and there were jumps on core issues like the economy and COVID. Support for his approach on Ukraine went up 18 points — a number similar to the Data for Progress exercise.
The State of the Union only happens once a year, but the evidence is clear — the public needs to see more and hear more from Democrats. We can’t only rely on the New York Times and CNN to carry our message. Because of the Republican media advantage, Democrats must work harder and smarter to get our message out. We don’t have a Fox News or a Facebook pushing out our message. It means doing more communicating and doing it in clever ways. This Joe Biden interview with Heather Cox Richardson, the prominent historian with a massive substack audience, is a great example of a more aggressive, strategic approach to communications.
Obviously, our challenges are more structural than strategic. It’s going to take time to close the gap. But these polls should be a wake-up call to every Democrat that we need to get more aggressive and innovative in how we communicate.