By Don Mohler
Democrats often make the mistake of failing to talk like real people talk. They embark upon wonky policy discussions that voters hear in the same way that Charlie Brown and his pals heard their teacher, “Wah wah woh wah wah.”
So as we sprint to the finish line, I have a few humble suggestions for my Democratic friends.
Not Everyone is a News Junkie
Stop wringing your hands over how in the world elections across the nation can be so close when one party is running a cast of characters who make Lenny and Squiggy look like Rhodes Scholars. Here is the answer: there are millions of Americans who don’t wake up each morning to turn on Morning Joe or Fox and Friends before having their morning coffee. They are trying to find their children’s shoes before sending them off to school. They run to Dunkin Donuts because Johnny just told mommy that it was his day to bring a snack to school. They try to figure out who is getting whom to practice after school. And they worry about whether or not they can pay this month’s rent. These are the voters that we like to call “swing voters.” They are not just a data point for Steve Kornacki at “The Big Board.” They are real, and you better be able to reach them. It’s not rocket science.
Of Course Inflation is an Issue
It does not matter that gas prices have inched back down again. It is still expensive. Hamburgers cost more. Hot dogs cost more. Bread cost more. Milk cost more. Don’t deny it. Don’t try to rationalize it by saying but things are bad all over the world. People don’t care about that. They care about their grocery and gas bills. Tell voters you get it, and you will fight like hell to get prices down. But also tell them that taking away Social Security and Medicare and making it harder for people to get health care sure isn’t the answer. Tell them that we are all in this together, and that you won’t quit until we get this under control. Speak in terms of “we” and not “me.” It will yield a powerful response.
Crime, Crime, Crime
James Carville may have believed it was “the economy stupid.” I respectfully suggest that it has been supplanted by “it’s crime stupid.” Republicans use the issue to scare the bejesus out of us, while Democrats prefer Kevin Bacon’s Chip Diller in Animal House, “Remain calm. All is well. All is well.” No it is not, and guess who wins that argument every single time? Some of us are old enough to remember the 1988 presidential campaign in which George W. Bush pounded Michael Dukakis with the now infamous Will Horton ads. Horton was incarcerated in Massachusetts and did not return from a weekend furlough. He went on to commit the crimes of assault, armed robbery, and rape while on the run. He remains imprisoned in Maryland to this day. As always, two things can be true: the ad banked on the inherent racism and fear of the “other” that remains prevalent in American society today, and Willie Horton did commit these crimes which scared the hell out folks of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Denying that crime is an issue is foolhardy, and allowing Republicans to pretend that they are the party that cares about this issue is a recipe for electoral disaster.
Debating a Bunch of Liars is Not Easy, But There is no Other Choice
At last count, there are nearly 300 election deniers running for office in 2022. They are infuriating. They are terrifying. Yet they are not a new phenomenon. As listeners of Rachel Maddow’s latest podcast “Ultra” now know all too well, fascist, anti-democratic, and Christian nationalists were alive and well in 1939. Yes, they occasionally go back into the shadows and hunker down in their mother’s basement, and yes, Donald J. Trump emboldened them. But they’ve always been here. The difference is that they are now on the ballot all over the nation. You don’t beat them by avoiding them or simply hoping they will go away. They won’t. And when they are packaged in an articulate and attractive candidate like Kari Lake in Arizona, they are particularly dangerous. But as Katie Hobbs is about to find out in the State of McCain, fear of going toe to toe is not a winning recipe. Be present. Stand up straight. Calmly look the denier in the eye, and say, “That is not true. I know it. You know it, and (looking directly into the camera) you the good people of Arizona know it. The people of this great state deserve better. You ought to be ashamed.” Note to Katie Hobbs: you still have time.
Two Competing Forces: Rowe versus the Hidden Trump Voter
Pundits are rightfully tying themselves in knots because there are two forces that will be on full display on election day. Both in 2016 and in 2020, the myth of a “hidden Trump voter” became a reality. Donald J. Trump outperformed expectations in a number of key battleground states. The first pollster to correctly open this Crackerjack box will go to the head of the class. At the same time, there are conflicting narratives developing around the impact of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. On the one hand, we have the overwhelming victory in Kansas for those who voted to protect a woman’s right to choose. We also have data indicating that women are registering in large numbers all across the nation. At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that American’s views on abortion access is nuanced and not as clear cut as some would like us to believe. While Americans clearly line up to protect reproductive rights, the polling results are very mixed when they are asked what that means in reality. The word “viability” is an SAT word that no one will ever miss in the future. Mix in that Dobbs was decided in June and that Americans have limited attention spans, all bets are off come this November
Perhaps Maryland Can be America in Miniature
Wes Moore and Aruna Miller are on the verge of a huge victory in the State of Maryland. Yes, they’ve been aided by the Republicans rushing to nominate one of the 300 deniers mentioned above. Republican Governor Larry Hogan calls his party’s current nominee, “a QAnon nut job.” Ouch. But something else in happening. Moore and Miller have travelled all over the state, to the reddest of red counties to sit down at community forums to listen to what voters have to say. When asked why he was doing so, the Democratic candidate offers a simple reply, “They may not be Democrats, but they are Marylanders. I’ll be their Governor, too.” Is it a simple message? Yes. But there is something else at play as well. Despite what we read and see on the 24-hour cable universe, Americans do want to feel connected. They do want to feel as if there is a still a common purpose and a common good. When President Obama spoke of there not being red states and blue states, but a United States of America, that resonated, even if it was aspirational. When Wes Moore says he will “leave no one behind,” that appears to be having the same effect. Will a message of optimism convert the 35%? Of course not. Could it make a difference with the other 65%? I want to believe, no I have to believe, that the answer is a resounding yes.
So, to all of the candidates out there. Don’t be distracted by the radical fringe. Keep it simple. Listen to people. Talk like a normal person. Be aspirational. You might just be surprised at the result.
Don Mohler is the former Baltimore County Executive and President and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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