Why RI Progressives Keep Losing Elections
If you truly understand nothing else about elections, understand this: Elections are solely a popularity contest. That’s it. The winners are not those with the best policies, the most popular policies, the highest IQs, or those best suited for the office. Losing all comes down to a single problem: the failure to understand that elections are won on marketing.
If you are a progressive, you probably know already that the policy positions you support are very popular with the American public – far more so than liberal policies. Yet liberals keep winning Democratic primaries, handedly – both in Rhode Island and nationwide. If you are a liberal, you surely know that the policies you support are far more popular than the policies of the GOP. Yet not only are Republicans competitive in most elections, they win a bunch too. Why is this happening?
If you truly understand nothing else about elections, understand this: Elections are solely a popularity contest. That’s it. The winners are not those with the best policies, the most popular policies, the highest IQs, or those best suited for the office. A quick look back at our last two Presidents and most of Congress confirms this sentiment. Congress has a current approval rating of 22%. Joe Biden has been under 50% approval for the majority of his term and can barely crack 40% these days. His predecessor produced equally mediocre results his entire term. Yet these folks all won their primaries and ultimately the general election, and those like them keep winning. Why do Americans keep electing low-quality leaders and why can’t progressives break through?
It all comes down to a single problem: the failure to understand that elections are won on marketing. Those candidates and ideologies that understand the fundamentals of marketing and execute them best win, even when they are the worst choice. Progressives have shown over the years that they not only lack the marketing prowess to win, but they actively repel voters who might consider them. This is a problem, because for voters to approve of progressive policies and ultimately vote for candidates that will enact them, they need to get those outside of their circles on their side. In this piece, I focus on what progressives get wrong and how to get it right.
Progressives Must Drop the Democratic Party
This is the single most critical key to a progressive future and I listed it first in big letters because it is what must happen first for progressives to gain power. It will never, ever happen with the Democratic Party. It is an organization with decades of experience stopping progressives in their tracks. It is an organization with deep pockets that would spend it all to stop a progressive from winning a key primary, even if it leads to a Republican victory in the general election. They do not care if the GOP wins an election as long as it means a progressive does not win.
Starting off with a 40-point penalty
Running as a progressive Democrat comes with heavy baggage which creates inherent disadvantages. First and most importantly is they immediately lose the 40% of voters who would never vote for a Democrat in the general election. Contrary to popular belief, many conservatives vote Republican not because they like Republicans but because they hate the Democrats. Don’t take my word for it. Ask one and find out for yourself. So they start off the general election with a maximum score of 60 out of 100. Right off the top, that does not sound like a sound strategy.
Their own party is trying to defeat them
During the primary, progressives will have to contend with their own party doing everything it can to stop them from winning. Whereas all of the other candidates get boosted by their party in PR, earned media, and spending – those resources are used against progressives by the Democratic Party. Imagine being hired as a salesperson at a local company. You go out on your first day to start making sales calls. You are driving in your car and on the radio you hear an interview with one of your company’s top executives, but he’s boasting about your competitor’s products and wondering aloud how customers can even afford the products you’re selling. Would you keep working there, knowing your boss is actively trying to sabotage you? Yet, this is exactly what progressives do each election cycle.
They suffer by association
Most voters do not separate AOC from a Nancy Pelosi, or Ted Cruz from Mitch McConnell. There are Democrats and there are Republicans. This creates a big problem for progressives, who general election voters will associate with Democratic leadership despite their substantial policy differences. If Dan McKee is a low-quality candidate, it reflects poorly on Democratic state reps running for re-election. This is especially true here in Rhode Island where many voters have little familiarity with their state reps. Guilt by association is real in politics.
If the Democratic Party was knocking voters’ socks off and putting forward a hard hitting, winning campaign – then it would be beneficial to run under the same brand. But the party has instead dropped the ball time and time again, misreading voter sentiment, favoring high-dollar donors over poor and middle class voters, and most recently botching an opportunity to pass groundbreaking legislation to tackle our nation’s biggest problems despite the federal government being under full Democratic control. This ineptness does not go unnoticed and its effects are devastating to down-ballot progressive candidates, as we will witness in tonight’s results.
NGP VAN is not worth the tradeoff
The one and seemingly only argument progressives make to justify running as Democrats is the infrastructure and “support” the party provides. What they usually mean is access to a voter software app called “NGP VAN”. Is the tradeoff worth it? Based on results to date, and the availability of 3rd party tools that perform a similar function, it does not seem so. In fact, it seems like a terrible tradeoff: A curated voter database in exchange for literally every other aspect of the party working against them.
“But if I run as a Dem, I’m automatically going to get a built-in base of votes.” That sure doesn’t seem to be helping Seth Magaziner. Or Dan McKee. Or John Fetterman. Or Raphael Warnock. All of whom are neck and neck against weak opponents. A base is not enough. You must give voters something to vote for. But the Democratic Party label next to your name gives voters a resounding reason to not vote for you.
The Democratic Party misleads voters and voters know it
It is hard even for loyal Democratic voters to argue that the party has not botched the mid-terms in the most spectacular way. While all evidence pointed to the economy as the single most important factor in the lives of Americans this election season, the Democrats instead focused on abortion and “saving democracy” – both issues the party itself has directly blocked action on. Despite having full control of government, the party did not even attempt a floor vote to put Congress on record to codify Roe v. Wade. And while the party claims to be a defender of democracy, they have stopped at nothing to prevent 3rd parties from competing. Voters, especially independents, understand what is going on and have had enough of the ruse.
Relying on the Democratic Party is like hiring a bad consultant
As I touched on at the beginning of this article, elections are won on great marketing, and the Democratic Party just isn’t good at marketing. The GOP on the other hand are masters of the art, allowing them to win elections and compete nationally without any semblance of a governing platform. The party has perfected the art of taking any issue and getting large numbers of people to believe a certain way about it – even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That is the power of good marketing, and the Democrats just cannot compete. Whether it is bringing obscure terms to the forefront and weaponizing them (“CRT”) or using progressives’ own terms against them (“defund the police”), the GOP have the process down to a science. If progressives are to start winning, they will need to market their ideas and themselves the way winners do it. Here’s how…
Adopt a new brand
I am coming back to this again because it is so important. Your brand is your reputation. It is how people perceive you before they know anything about you. The Democratic brand is in the dumpster, and progressives need a new brand. For the same reason why generic brands do not carry the same cachet as name brands, running as an independent is not the best path forward. Progressives must form a viable 3rd party that belongs exclusively to them. Before you have doubts, know that the nation is rooting for you to do exactly this. So be it a collaboration and rebranding of the Green Party, which would provide immediate ballot access in 14+ states, or the launch of a new party – this is the single most important step progressives must take to secure power.
Talk benefits, not features
The top mistake new marketers make is focusing on features instead of benefits. Voters do not care about features, they want to know what is in it for them. “Defund the police” is a feature which in itself communicates no benefit to anybody. In fact, it sounds scary to the majority of voters. “If the police aren’t funded how will they protect us from [perceived threat]?” A tweaked version such as “Refund the people”, on the other hand, communicates a benefit – and one conservatives would have a harder time rejecting. Another option is “Replace the police”. The benefit implied is that the replacement would be better than the existing police. Voters hear a benefit within these slogans. The details are not important – in marketing, benefits are what gets people’s attention.
Communicating benefits is important not just with rally slogans, but with the messaging on every issue. When talking about the GOP trying to ban abortion, don’t give them an out. Abortions will still occur under a national abortion ban – they would just occur without a doctor’s supervision. In other words, the GOP is trying to ban safe abortion – say so! It is much more impactful when you accuse your opponent of trying to ban something deemed “safe”, and the word also hinders the ill-conceived notion that abortion is barbaric.
Use the GOP’s techniques against them
Republicans are world-class experts at taking any term and radically changing its definition. In fact they are so good at it, they can redefine terms without ever creating a new definition. Remember CRT? Chances are, your conservative friends have no idea what it entails, but they know they hate it. Socialism. They have no idea what it means, but they hate it. Marxist: you might have been called one, but the person who said it probably cannot define it. The GOP has successfully taken progressive ideas and turned them into negative sound bytes with ease, using basic marketing principles. Democrats are so outmatched by the GOP’s marketing game, that even they adopted some of the GOP’s terms for their own ideas (Obamacare).
How can progressives play this game? Here is the framework:
- Simplify your idea/policy into one sentence so voters can easily understand it.
- Communicate the benefit(s) in a way that makes it difficult to oppose.
- Repeat over and over.
Let’s try it with a few popular progressive ideas…
1. World-class healthcare at a super-low price.
2. Universal healthcare saves lives and saves you money by eliminating middlemen health insurance companies.
Raising minimum wage
1. Higher minimum wages mean more customers with more money to spend.
2. A higher minimum wage not only means more money for those who need it most, it means more customers for your business with more money to spend. It means less of your tax dollars go to government assistance. It means less theft. It means less turnover. It’s a win-win for everyone.
1. Replacing the police will lead to better protection and more accountability at less cost to everyone.
2. When police brutalize those in the community, we all pay for it through huge settlements which means higher taxes for everyone. When police get away with brutality, it makes us all less safe because it means the most vulnerable are less likely to call police if they see something suspicious.
These are just examples that can be built upon and perfected, but the rules remain the same – make it simple, make it awkward for the opposition to say no, and repeat it nonstop.
And last but not least….
Conservatives Are Not Your Enemy
I cannot count how many progressive campaigns I have watched publicly dismiss conservative voters as the “enemy”, people who cannot be reasoned with, a waste of time, etc. While I am certain that folks like this exist on all sides of the spectrum, dismissing conservative voters is a stupid move. If this is part of your playbook, don’t run for office. It is not for you.
As someone who has converted more conservatives to progressivism than just about anyone I know, I assure you that many conservatives are quite reasonable. This is why so many gravitated to Bernie Sanders when he was a potential Democratic nominee. Bernie often denounces the Democratic establishment and is by far the Democrat who most understands the pain of the people and what issues truly matter. He was the only key Democrat this election cycle to note that voters are far more concerned about the economy than abortion or “saving democracy”. So it is not surprising that he is the most well-liked member of Congress and would have picked off the most conservatives and independents had he become the nominee for President. We can dispel the notion that conservatives are not willing to consider a progressive candidate.
Like anything in life, getting conservatives to join your team means speaking their language and talking about the topics that matter to them. The first and most effective step in your conversation is to denounce the Democratic Party. If you are not willing to speak the truth about Democratic Party as they actually are, you will not convert a single conservative (and that is pretty difficult when you are running with team blue – see the problem?). But if you are prepared to talk about all of the things the Dems get wrong, it opens a pathway of trust where you can then discuss what the GOP gets wrong. In the end, you will find that most voters simply want what is best for them and their family. It is usually the same stuff you want. Conservatives hate the Democrats because they lie. They make promises and never fulfill them. The hate is real, and justified. Why don’t they hate the GOP just as much? Because the GOP follows through. When the GOP makes a promise to its voters, chances are they will stop at nothing to achieve it. Whether or not the goal is righteous or helpful to their voters is secondary to the fact that they do what they say they will do far more often than the Democrats. Voters appreciate that because the ability to detect a lie is easier than the ability to determine if certain policies are ultimately bad for them.
I’ll conclude with this fact: Progressive policies are wildly popular on all sides of the spectrum. If voters chose their candidates solely on policy, progressives would hold a supermajority in Congress and every state house. Instead, they sit on the margins, making incremental progress with brief flashes in the pan but little to show over the long term. It all comes down to marketing. Change the way you play the game and the victories will come.