Remember the Georgia Runoffs? Here Are Three Important Takeaways Not to Lose Sight of
While the political world has been consumed the past few weeks with the attempted violent coup at the U.S. Capitol, the ensuing impeachment effort, and finally the inauguration of a new president, I like to remember way back to a simpler time before all this craziness.
That simpler time I refer to, of course, was one day before the Trumpist mob invaded the Capitol — yes, the day Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won the runoff races for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats.
Because, assuming democracy continues in this country, those two victories that once seemed impossible in the Deep South can tell us a lot about the future of Democratic campaigns as they will be and as they should be. There are three things I think you should watch out for in particular:
- Democrats won without running as “Republican Lite” candidates.
- Warnock used puppies to de-fang racism.
- Untargeted stimulus checks provided a political advantage over more targeted forms of aid.
Let’s explore why these points are so key, shall we?
Democrats Running as Democrats in the South
For decades, the conventional wisdom for Democrats running in conservative areas was to distance themselves from their party and what it stood for. You’re going to need some conservative voters to win, the thinking would go, so you’d better not come across as too liberal. Just focus on local issues and loudly repudiating some super liberal straw man argument and you should be good to go. The catch is, it didn’t really work. Or at least it stopped working years ago when politics stopped being local.
Warnock and Ossoff didn’t do that.
They recognized that they had a path to campaign on popular, easy-to-grasp platforms, and they approached that opportunity aggressively. This doesn’t mean they campaigned as if they were Bernie Sanders. But they leaned hard into large COVID stimulus checks, and attacked their opponents aggressively for corruption and exploiting racism. They campaigned on things like voting rights and other controversial national issues, rather than pretending they’d never heard of the Democratic Party and focusing on getting local projects funded.
This marks a stark departure from past efforts by Southern Democrats. I’ll always remember working on Mary Landrieu’s 2014 campaign that tried and failed to localize an election that was bound to be nationalized. More recently, it’s a far cry from Doug Jones declining to even put his condemnation of Roy Moore’s alleged pedophilia in his own voice.
To be fair to those who came before Warnock and Ossoff, these narrow runoff victories — and thus the success of these new strategies — might not have been possible without the recent growth in support for Democrats among college-educated white voters. And given the demographics of their respective states, that still might not be a winning strategy and winning coalition in states like Louisiana and Alabama that don’t have as many college grads as Georgia.
But it took a different kind of strategy to step up and prove whether this rising new Democratic coalition really could carry a state that hadn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in who-knows-how-long. Warnock and Ossoff provided an encouraging proof of concept.
The Puppies De-Fang the Dog Whistles
Warnock in particular faced a tough balancing act: he (and Ossoff) needed strong turnout from Black voters in Georgia, which would argue for embracing his own Black identity in his campaign. But he needed to simultaneously avoid playing into the racist dog whistles that his opponent, Kelly Loeffler, was jumping in on with both feet.
A big part of Warnock’s response was to project himself as someone who liked policy and puppies:
“Ever since the start of the U.S. Senate runoff campaigns, the Democratic newcomer has relied on light-hearted ads where he walks dogs and jokingly brushes off the attempts of his Republican opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, to demonize him.”
The strategy here is pretty obvious and straightforward: use the puppies to define yourself as approachable and relatable and kind, then when the anti-Black stereotypes come out, they won’t land for most voters.
Warnock and his team did a pretty fantastic job with this, applying it consistently and effectively. Forging an emotional connection like this with voters is actually something way more Democratic candidates should try to do as part of their comprehensive political brand strategies.
Seeing this also got me thinking about how much I’d love to get the opportunity some day to test out other approaches to solving this challenge. We know from political psychology that racist attacks often tap into subconscious concepts people hold about “natural” hierarchies in society. For example, the racist trope of the “uppity” Black person relies on white people’s assumptions that Black people are or should be beneath white people in society’s hierarchy.
The puppies distracted from these racist attacks against Warnock and helped forge an emotional connection between him and voters that made it harder to attack his character in general. He won. It worked. But the puppies didn’t directly address or engage with the hierarchy question.
Would puppies have been more effective if Warnock had also framed the other issues he talked about to position his opponent as the one bent on upsetting hierarchies? What if Warnock had consistently framed his voting rights push as a matter of Loeffler keeping the people working for the politicians instead of the politicians working for the people, like it should be? Maybe it would have made a difference or maybe not, but that’s why I’d love to test it!
The debate in Washington over $2,000 COVID relief stimulus checks seems to have helped Warnock and Ossoff by allowing them to advocate for relief while their opponents opposed it. That was important, because the aid was pretty popular with voters, and drawing sharp contrasts on popular issues is the bread and butter of a good campaign.
But the broader lesson I draw here is about why the relief checks were so popular. Because there was a lot of discussion over ways to make the checks less popular.
Specifically, some economists and legislators argued that the checks were too broadly targeted. Too many people who didn’t really, really, really need the aid might get it, the argument went, and the same aggregate benefit to the health of the economy could be achieved at lower cost by targeting the aid more narrowly to those with the greatest need. That may be true from a strict policy standpoint, but there is no policy without politics.
Politically, this election reinforces the effectiveness of untargeted aid. That’s because people don’t really understand narrowly targeted aid. When there are lots of ins and outs about who qualifies and what they have to do to apply, it’s easier for voters to misunderstand what the government is actually doing for them and why it’s important. That means whoever worked to secure the aid doesn’t get much credit for it.
And when people don’t necessarily know if they’re eligible or how to apply if they are or what this is even really supposed to do, fewer people take advantage of the aid than need it. That experience even leaves those who do take advantage of the aid feeling frustrated by the confusing and byzantine application process. To drive home the point, one commentator recently referred to the complex rationales that contributed to the unpopularity of Obamacare for so many years by claiming:
“Bend the cost curve” was far more damaging than “defund the police.”
Whether that claim is true or whether it’s hyperbolic, voters in Georgia could almost certainly understand the blanket nature of the aid being debated. The could see that they would get aid easily and quickly if the bill passed, and they could see that the Republican Senate candidates would make it harder to get aid if they won. Bam.
It’s also worth mentioning that untargeted aid is more politically potent because of the stakeholders it creates. Look at Social Security and Medicare, both of which have survived numerous attacks over the years more or less unscathed. Each of these cornerstone achievements of the New Deal coalition basically grants benefits to everyone of a certain age, whether or not they have the means to “need” said benefits. To be crass for just a moment, that means rich people appreciate Social Security too, not just poor people. And rich people, sad to say, have a lot more power in politics. So when the inevitable assaults against these programs come, powerful defenders line up behind them. It was a much lonelier coalition defending welfare when it came onto the chopping block in the 90's.
So why have Democrats been more apt to pursue narrowly targeted aid in recent decades, rather than leaving targeting more broad? Part of the answer is undoubtedly technocratic; Democrats do like to listen to economists, which is generally actually a good idea. But Democrats have also let Republicans intimidate them for decades with disingenuous fearmongering about the deficit. Certainly Democrats like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi would remember those welfare fights from the 1980's, where Republicans were able to make political hay out of people receiving aid who maybe didn’t deserve it. But again, welfare didn’t have those wealthier allies.
There are now some signs that Democrats in the White House and in Congress are giving up on being scared of deficit nonsense. Hopefully the clarity of the results in Georgia will help the remaining non-believers in Democratic circles come around to the power of keeping aid simple and giving it powerful friends.