Jacob Kaplan ’25
If the 2022 midterm elections demonstrated anything, it is that negative partisanship can be an effective strategy, even in an otherwise disadvantageous political environment. Democratic campaigns at local, state, and federal levels successfully used GOP extremism to their advantage. By highlighting far-right, unpopular positions on issues ranging from abortion to entitlement programs, Democrats were able to largely counteract existing political headwinds. Historically, the party in power has lost nearly thirty seats in the House of Representatives and four seats in the Senate during midterm elections. These trends were anticipated to be exacerbated by nationwide concerns about inflation and crime, largely stoked by right-wing media; however, Democrats had one of the most successful midterm election cycles in years, only losing a handful of seats in the House and actually gaining a seat in the Senate.
Heading into the 2024 election cycle, the Democratic party seems quite content to rely on this current framework. But this overreliance on negative messaging has several downsides, and risks a potential defeat in 2024, with important governmental positions (i.e., the presidency) at stake.
The macroscopic narrative of Democrats fending off the “red wave” in 2022 has disguised some critical underlying trends. The Democratic party continues to experience eroding support among key demographics, including white voters without college degrees, Black Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans. These voters are incredibly crucial to building the coalition that the Democratic party needs to be successful, and their concerns should not be dismissed, in particular, as Latino Americans continue to become a larger portion of the American electorate. The resounding defeat of gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist in Florida has provided insight into the disastrous future the Democratic party faces without the support of Latino Americans. Clearly, these groups are not responding to messaging about GOP extremism. After failing in many ways to secure substantial policy goals for both poor white voters and communities of color, Democrats may lose these voters forever without engaging in more positive attempts to win them back. The Democratic party may also see diminished enthusiasm among young voters without more efforts to embrace progressive policies.
Furthermore, negative messaging risks engaging in a psychological phenomenon akin to the law of diminishing returns. As Democratic politicians seize every election as an opportunity to shout about nationwide abortion bans and the privatization of Social Security and Medicare, these claims continue to lose their emotional impact. When voters continue to hear similar cries about Republican extremism (as substantial as those fears are), they grow apathetic. This is particularly true given that negative Democratic messaging primarily relies on hypothetical injuries rather than realized ones. Getting voters to care about a privilege they currently have, that they may theoretically lose in the future, is, and will always be, harder than rallying against a current injustice. Again, concerns about GOP policies are incredibly valid, especially as we see the party become increasingly dominated by violent, hateful rhetoric and behavior; but, in its current form, negative messaging will continue to lose efficacy as it is overused by Democratic officials.
So how should the Democratic party move forward?
To form winning coalitions and motivate voters, the Democratic party must embrace a positive messaging framework. Democratic candidates must make an affirmative case for delivering them control of the government, rather than simply standing in as a generic alternative to Republicans. Campaigns should aim to illustrate practical policies they will implement when in office, such as an increase in the minimum wage, permanent expansion of the child tax credit, or a codification of Roe v. Wade. These statements should place a particular focus on delivering tangible benefits for portions of the Democratic base that have long been neglected, especially people of color.
Positive messaging allows Democrats to honor something that has been both their greatest strength and weakness: the diversity of their coalition. Democrats nationwide can tailor their particular campaign to the population they aim to represent, instead of operating just as a “non-Republican.” This may look like advocating for restoring dignified jobs in manufacturing industries within the industrial Midwest or seeking to implement common-sense gun reform legislation and community-based violence prevention programs when running in areas historically impacted by gun violence. Examples of this affirmative, specific messaging include the recent Senate campaigns of Tim Ryan in Ohio and (now-Senator) John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. A campaign for Congress in Mississippi should not be identical to a mayoral campaign in San Francisco. Positive messaging acknowledges this, rather than forcing all candidates to run the same “anti-MAGA” message.
Efforts by the Democratic party to embrace positive messaging will lead to both the broadening and strengthening of the party’s coalition. Long-term, voters are more likely to support a party they feel they can identify with than one that is simply the “less-bad” option. As Democratic voters mobilize behind critical causes, including environmental justice, economic equality, and more, they remain with the party for longer. In effect, positive messaging creates a positive social infrastructure for the party that remains after each election cycle.
Negative messaging will always have some role in politics, particularly when one of the dominant parties holds a multitude of unpopular, extreme, and hateful positions. However, if Democrats hope to be successful into 2024 and beyond, they must embrace a positive messaging framework. Illustrating an affirmative vision for life under Democratic governance will expand and reinforce the connection between the party and its voters. Whether running for president of the United States or city council, Democratic candidates must resist sole dependence on GOP extremism as a campaign tactic and instead fight to earn every vote through substantive policy goals.
In an era when voters increasingly feel disconnected from both parties, Democrats must fight to earn every individual vote and to answer the question, “What will the party do for me?”