The Failure of the Consultant Class
Down-ballot Democrats raised millions, far outpacing their opponents. They didn’t make an argument.
President-elect Joe Biden ended up winning a closer-than-the-polls-showed election, but down-ballot Democrats across the country weren’t so lucky. Democratic candidates failed to take a clean majority in the Senate; they now need to sweep the two Georgia run-off elections set for this January. In the House, Democrats lost much of their majority, which they had expected to expand earlier this year.
The finger-pointing started almost immediately, with establishment Democrats blaming the party’s left-wing for losses within their own ranks, saying that activist slogans like “defund the police,” or policies like the Green New Deal were an anchor around the necks of Democratic candidates in swing districts.
But the party’s progressive wing largely persevered through this election, winning in left-leaning districts as well as purple districts.
Republicans, establishment Dems said, hammered them in swing districts by tying them to these supposed lefty albatrosses, and these establishment candidates were allegedly powerless to overcome it.
However, I’m not really buying that argument. Democrats built a huge fundraising apparatus this cycle, burying Republican after Republican under an avalanche of small-donor dollars. Conservatives were constantly fretting over their money disadvantage in the lead up to the election.
It feels hard to believe that that money gap left Democrats, left-wing and centrist alike, unable to overcome a few negative ads on Facebook.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pinned Dem establishment losses not on policy differences, or messaging, but a lack of commitment to digital organizing in an interview with the New York Times, a claim that’s been disputed by many of the party’s centrists.
But here’s the thing: Democrats as a party didn’t support defunding the police, opting instead for a muddled message that attempted to avoid alienating their base of Black voters who spent all summer protesting against police violence while also seeking to placate independents and moderates.
If moderate Dems were hammered over positions they themselves didn’t have, that’s not really on the party’s left-wing, that’s on themselves for allowing Republicans to control the message even with a fundraising disadvantage.
The deeper problem at play here that no one is talking about is the deeper failure of the Democratic campaign structure. To identify it, you have to follow the money.
A good portion of those campaign contributions from hardworking Democrats: teachers, union members, and gig economy workers; ended up in the pockets of high-priced campaign consultants.
My own experience with these consultants and with the Democratic party is that they’re obsessed with polling. They won’t commit to any decisions without consulting polling, no matter the conclusions drawn. This sometimes works. In 2018, Democrats rode a blue wave in the House on the back of a strong message on health care after Republicans tried and failed to repeal Obamacare.
But they tried the same message again this year, after GOP lawmakers stopped trying to repeal the law in Congress (instead pursuing a lawsuit that was just recently argued in front of the Supreme Court).
But lawsuits don’t penetrate the public consciousness like recent legislative votes do. These weren’t actions done recently by the conservatives they were running against, there is a layer between them and the lawyers arguing the case.
But the laser focus on the attack on Obamacare by far off GOP state attorneys general left establishment Dems open to attack on the flank, where Republicans took advantage of mealy-mouthed both-sides arguments made by centrists.
If a voter is presented with the option of voting for a Republican or a Republican-lite, they’ll choose the real thing. It’s like Coca-Cola Classic vs New Coke. You can’t just run as a slightly less harmful conservative and expect to win.
Your base wants what it wants and if your base doesn’t turn out, you’re going to lose the election no matter what a consultant’s poll might show.
It’s time for Democrats to learn how to make an argument for something rather than running as “not Republicans.” That won’t be a message that consultants hoping you’ll hire them to lose again next cycle will be eager to share.
Democrats, stand for something. Make an argument. Voters appreciate that sort of thing.