Will Messaging Make All The Difference in the 2018 Midterms?

In politics, like any good public relations campaign, maintaining consistent brand messaging is a daily challenge that requires considerable effort and attention. And also like PR, politics are constantly shifting. Politicians and their staff must have a clearly-defined message and adjust it when necessary. Since Donald Trump entered office in 2016, we have seen the messages of the Republican Party adapt Trump’s rhetoric. This has been most notable on recent issues such as immigration and trade. With U.S. midterm elections upon us, the messaging for both parties could change significantly depending on the outcome of the elections.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats are undergoing major shifts in party composition, and representation across the U.S. Congress. According to data from CRS, 15 to 25 percent of representatives will be new in 2019. Change is coming, but the question remains — how much will this change affect how each party shapes their message?

The Republicans

Since Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States, a new kind of Republican has emerged. What was once known as a Tea Party Republican is now thought of as a Trump Republican, differing from the more moderate Reagan-era Republicans that were at the forefront of the party before Trump became president. Trump uses a narrative based on fear to mobilize his supporters, seizing on issues like immigration to stoke those fears and encourage support for Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

One narrative central to the Trump administration is “America First”. The phrase highlights Trump’s views across policies — including trade, defense, and of course his hardline anti-immigration stance, a stance that has been adopted more and more by Republican candidates during this midterm election season. Many leading Republican candidates are adopting tactics similar to Trump’s when it comes to immigration, depicting undocumented immigrants as criminals and calling for the construction of a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The Democrats wanna get rid of ICE … MS-13 doesn’t like Ice, and that’s why I like ICE,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Kansas recently. Democrats, he added, backed policies “that release violent predators and bloodthirsty killers, like MS-13, into our communities.” MS-13 is a transnational criminal organization that represents less than 1 percent of gangs in the U.S., yet Trump constantly brings it up as a reason to believe that immigrants and crime should be thought of as intertwined.

With election day upon us, the GOP is seizing on the immigrant caravan to stoke these fears again. It’s the closing argument for Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee, who, during a competitive Senate race with Democratic former governor Phil Bredesen, has aired ads that mention the caravan nearly 800 times, according to an analysis by Kantar/CMAG, which tracks political ads.

Many Republicans appear to believe that a message of fear will motivate their base to get out and vote, regardless of the veracity of the claims that they make. Should Republicans hold their majority, or maintain more seats than expected, it is likely the Republican messaging will become more similar to Trump’s rhetoric in the short term, and this could lead to a Republican Party message arc that is more right-leaning and tougher on issues like immigration, crime and foreign trade for years to come.

The Democrats

On the other side of the aisle, we’re witnessing a newly-motivated, more diverse Democratic base that is energized after the results of the 2016 election.

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, the eligible voter (EV) population is becoming more racially diverse. In 2016, Caucasians made up 69 percent of EVs in 2016. That figure is expected to drop to 67 percent by 2020 and 59 percent by 2036. During this same time period, the Hispanic population is expected to grow from 12 percent in 2016 to 18 percent in 2036. Asian-Americans and other groups are expected to grow by 3 points in the same time span.

Democratic voters are also becoming more progressive and left-leaning, leading to questions about how party leadership will change to reflect this shift in voter demographic.

We have seen Democratic candidates, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, score unexpected Democratic primary victories that highlight the increasingly progressive liberal faction that is growing in today’s Democratic Party.

Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic social activist who was a former organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and also a staffer for the late Ted Kennedy, defeated the incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, one of the more notable Democrats in the House of Representatives. Her progressive platform focused on issues like medicare for all, abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), fully-funded public schools and universities, and justice system reform.

That she handily defeated a longtime Democrat in the House of Representatives (winning 57.5percent of the vote compared to Crowley’s 42.5 percent) is evidence of the change in policy views and narrative that could be coming in the Democratic Party.

Battling for the support of Democratic voters outraged by the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies, Pressley came out strongly against ICE during her campaign using language that did not instill fear, but focused on its shortcomings as a broken system.

“ICE was created less than 20 years ago, and it is clear now that the agency is irrevocably broken,” Pressley said in a statement. “ICE’s role in supporting the existing system — including separating families seeking refuge in the United States and conducting indiscriminate deportation raids in our communities — is creating an atmosphere of toxic fear and mistrust in immigrant communities,” Pressley said.

By staying away from fear-mongering language when speaking of ICE and the Republican party, she plays more heavily on other emotions of constituents by emphasizing sympathy for the separated families. This messaging is consistent with her progressive Democratic peers when speaking about immigration, among other issues.

The Future

These midterms have the potential to leave a significant impact on our country and our political future. We can take clues from how each candidate is speaking to their base to guess how the Democratic and Republican messaging could change after these midterm elections are over. We are seeing a wider gap in rhetoric between the two parties — Republicans are relying more on fear-mongering while Democrats embrace empathy. The vast differences in messaging and approaches to political narratives are likely to contribute to the widening political gap that exists in our country.