Let's All Take a Breath, Please

On central messaging in campaigns.

[For those who want to listen to this on-the-go, the audio version should be up on Apple’s podcast website soon. You can also listen here.]

So, we woke up this morning to Democrats losing the marquee campaign of 2021.

When all is said and done, Glenn Youngkin and the GOP have wrestled away control just two years after Blue Virginia became the bright, shining hope of the Democratic Party.

While folks furiously debate last night's results, I just wanna respectfully point out that if you were to ask the average voter in the state what McAuliffe's pitch was to them other than being anti-Trump, I'm not sure they'd have a ready answer.

This is more complicated than the exhausting "should Dems go left or middle" debate that's overlaid on all of these elections. Both moderate and progressive Dems won across the country last night.

Most folks just didn't know McAuliffe's vision for the state.

This isn't about his platform, by the way. And it's not a reflection on the extraordinary success of VA Dems in the legislature over the past two years.

It's about the central messaging. Voters need a lot more from Dem candidates than simply being anti-Trump.

The vast majority of voters don’t run to candidate websites and read their platforms in earnest; they rely on information shortcuts about candidates to make a decision. More often than not, this is usually party identification. Sometimes, it’s about the candidate being from their hometown or region. Sometimes, it’s an immutable characteristic that speaks to a common lived experience.

Do I wish we lived in a world where candidates’ platforms were scrutinized and debated in good faith as the defining feature of campaigns? Of course, but we don’t live in that world.

We live in a world where most voters have tough jobs and kids and all sorts of other day-to-day responsibilities and worries that take up far too much room to pour over the nuances of education policy.

Glenn Youngkin took advantage of a compelling information shortcut. He latched on to schools. He tapped directly into the anger that parents felt across the state over how schools have been run during the pandemic.

That’s not the whole story, of course. Not even close. The white panic over Critical Race Theory and cis, hetero panic over LGBTQ inclusion certainly played into this, and anyone denying that isn’t being reasonable.

But a lot of parents are simply angry about how schools in Virginia have broadly been run during the pandemic, and Youngkin found a way to combine that anger with the bigoted nonsense into a cohesive message:

You’re angry about schools? So am I. I’m an angry parent, too. Where is the respect for parents?

Yeah, definitely coded for racist and transphobic voters but broad enough that A LOT of parents who have no idea what to think of CRT and trans rights—many of whom don’t even care, regardless—found someone who understands their general anger over schools.

Meanwhile, I ask again: what was McAuliffe’s message?

I liked McAuliffe’s platform. I liked that Virginia Democrats had two years of phenomenal success in passing bold legislation.

But he had no central message beyond “Youngkin is like Trump, and I’m not”.

Let me be clear about something: when I say “central message”, I’m pointing not to what a candidate literally says but what voters perceive. What they’re hearing and thinking and discussing at the water cooler because that’s the central message at the end of the day: what the voters perceive it to be.

And what voters heard again and again is that Youngkin was critical of schools and McAuliffe was critical of Trump.

This may have worked for McAuliffe if Youngkin hadn’t been so skillful in having it both ways: mollifying the Trump base by not totally distancing himself while somehow convincing Trump, the most impetuous person alive, not to campaign in-person in the state.

Youngkin successfully distanced himself from Trump without disowning him, and McAuliffe’s central message was thoroughly undermined.

Yet, McAuliffe should never have gone down this path in the first place. It will be many years from now, and I’ll remain astonished that his campaign chose this strategy despite overwhelming success by Democrats in the state legislature that would have been too easy to make the central message.

Again: this isn’t about moderate vs. progressive. It’s about having a vision for the voters and successfully communicating that vision. McAuliffe didn’t do that.

Don’t believe me? Look at Virginia Delegate Danica Roem of the 13th District. In 2017, she became the first openly-trans person elected to a state legislature in American history by defeating arguably the country’s most anti-LGBTQ state lawmaker in a district that hadn’t gone Democratic since 1992.

Last night, she was elected to a historic third term, and for the third consecutive election, it was the same story for her: she faced an anti-LGBTQ opponent who said horrible things about her in a swing district, and she still won convincingly.

In fact, Roem is currently on track to win this race by almost nine points. That would be huge in any election but particularly jarring in a year when Democrats throughout the state took a beating at the polls.

I don’t think Delegate Roem would claim to have a special secret to her success. It’s actually very simple: she has a strong central message that addresses the primary concerns of her constituents. They know she’s the woman who’s obsessed with transportation policy and kitchen table issues and she’s backed it up with her legislative record.

That’s it. No mystery there. I would imagine that even some constituents with low-key anti-LGBTQ views have voted for Roem because they trust her to work on the issues important to them.

She doesn’t hide the fact that she’s a trans woman, and she’s quite proud of her identity. She also doesn’t back down from the hatred of transphobes.

But she has a central message that resonates with her constituents.

There is so much internal fatalism throughout Democratic politics at the moment, and it seems to imply that Democrats have done everything we can to win over voters but the voters don’t want us.

That is absolutely false. Democrats are broadly aligned with the electorate, but we are terrible at sticking to simple and direct messaging that communicates a bold vision.

All the pieces for success are there, and I refuse to believe that we can’t right the ship before the Midterms.

But we have to communicate a bold vision instead of relying on the broad dislike of Trump.

If we do that, we’ll win.

If we fail to do that, we’ll lose and we’ll deserve it.

Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is Charlotte’s Web Thoughts, my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.

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