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Preparing for the election, whatever the rules

With election 17 months away, parties honing messaging

A blowup figure lies on the ground outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday as the Declaration for American Democracy coalition hosts a rally calling on the Senate to pass the S 1 elections overhaul.
A blowup figure lies on the ground outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday as the Declaration for American Democracy coalition hosts a rally calling on the Senate to pass the S 1 elections overhaul. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Democrats have been understandably upset at Republican efforts to make voting more difficult — especially for minority voters and others who have supported Democrats in the past.

The Washington Post reported last week that “14 states have enacted laws this year that tighten the rules around casting ballots.”

“Many of the bills target mail voting,” the Post’s Elise Viebeck wrote, while others “seek to curtail early voting, impose restrictions on voter registration efforts, limit the power of local officials to oversee elections and stop private donors from supplementing their operational budgets.”

National and key state Democrats have been doing what they can to stop GOP efforts, but unless Congress acts to protect and expand voting rights — which seems increasingly unlikely — Democratic candidates will have to play by rules they regard as unfair.

Given that reality, Democrats need to start focusing on strategy and tactics that will turn out voters for the 2022 midterms.

I’m not suggesting it’s time for Democrats to turn the page on the For the People Act (HR 1) and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act (HR 4), or on their efforts to stop Republican state legislators from tilting the playing field. But we are going to have another election in 17 months, and whining about the rules only gets you so far.

Define the message

Every election involves two related elements. The first includes defining what the election is about and delivering that message. The second emphasizes identifying supporters and getting them to the polls.

We already have a fairly good idea what the 2022 GOP message will be. Republicans will complain that Democrats have moved far to the left, assert that President Joe Biden is inept or a tool of socialists, and insist that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is really in charge of the Democratic Party.

This week, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott of Florida released a “survey” conducted by one of his consultants, OnMessage Inc., that showed likely Hispanic voters “choose capitalism over socialism.”

“Hispanic voters understand the dangers of socialism from first-hand experiences. This is bad news for Democrats and great news for Republicans,” Scott said.

Once again, as they did in 2020, Republicans are going to portray Democrats as socialists — an interesting strategy given Biden’s values, beliefs and agenda. But it only takes one or two high-profile “Democratic socialists” to poison the well, so Democrats ought not dismiss the Republican message this time.

But that won’t be the only Republican message. They’ll likely talk about higher taxes, crime, immigration (“the border”), environmental extremism and, depending on the state of the economy, jobs. Some will suggest that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election.

Democrats are likely to praise Biden’s success in addressing COVID-19 and his handling of the economy. If there is a bipartisan infrastructure bill, Democrats are likely to use it to show that the president delivered on his promise to work with Republicans. Without it, Biden and every Democrat running in a competitive state or district in 2022 will have to explain to voters what happened.

Democrats surely will continue to make an issue of new GOP-enacted state laws that make voting more difficult, as well as Republican opposition to national legislation that would enhance voting rights and campaign finance reform.

“Our voters are very aware that they are being targeted by the GOP,” one veteran Democratic election strategist told me recently. “Still, we will need to motivate and educate voters on the rules of the road in individual states.”

Since the most important issue of 2022 may not have emerged yet, Democrats have plenty of time to work on a campaign message that can play well with the public — whether it’s a positive message about Biden’s agenda and performance, or a negative message about GOP extremism and Donald Trump’s role as the leader of the party.

Turnout, turnout, turnout

The second part of the campaign equation involves identifying and turning out voters, and this will involve both national and state-specific messages and mechanisms.

Both parties know they must devote plenty of resources to voter turnout in 2022.

While presidential and midterm turnout surged in 2016, 2018 and 2020, turnout tends to be much lower in nonpresidential years — which is why Republicans and Democrats are accustomed to spending heavily to identify supporters and turn them out during midterms.

The recent increase in both presidential and nonpresidential year turnout does raise some new questions about 2022.

Without Trump on the ballot or in office, will Republican voters turn out as they did in 2016 and 2020? Will Democrats be able to keep their voters energized with Biden in the White House and Democrats controlling the House and Senate? What new techniques or strategies will Democratic operatives come up with to get people to show up?

Democrats surely will need to explain to their voters how the election process has changed and establish systems to help voters cast their ballots. New Republican state voter laws will be challenging, but it’s up to Democratic operatives to look for new messages and ways to mobilize their voters. That’s their job.

Luckily for Democrats, it now appears Trump will be active in the midterm campaign, which should help mobilize some on the left who are disappointed with Biden and the Democrats’ legislative output.

But that may not be enough to energize those swing voters who hoped Biden would succeed in recreating a spirit of bipartisanship that depended on a reasonable Republican Party willing to work with a Democratic president and Congress.

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