EILEEN VINCETT: This is Eileen Vincett (ph). And I'm getting ready to do a Peloton workout to celebrate my 42nd birthday over here in Switzerland. This podcast was recorded at...
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
12:16 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, November 17.
VINCETT: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but hopefully I'll be covered in sweat, eating birthday cake. That is not the visual you wanted. OK. Enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
KHALID: I will say I'm always in awe of our listeners who are so physically fit that they will do exercise routine workouts on their birthdays. Kudos to you.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: I have follow-up questions here, which are - who is her Peloton instructor, and what type of class is she doing? Because these are important details.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: I need to know about the playlist. That's all I care about.
SUMMERS: And happy birthday. Enjoy that cake.
KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
SUMMERS: I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics.
SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
KHALID: And today on the show - how Democrats are trying to counter the terrible headwinds they're facing. President Biden's approval ratings have been sinking. Voters are worried about rising prices. And Republicans are trying to argue that the economy is sputtering because Democrats are in charge. But now, Democrats are going on a nationwide public relations bonanza to convince voters otherwise.
The president launched this PR blitz yesterday with a visit to a rickety old bridge in New Hampshire. Today, he's in Michigan, selling his agenda at an electric vehicle plant. Kelsey, I get that Democrats are trying to sell this $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan to the public, but what exactly are they doing? How are they trying to frame this?
SNELL: Well, so part of what they're doing, in addition to all of these stops from the White House - and they're doing about a little over a dozen - right? - over the next couple of weeks - Democrats in the House say they're going to do a thousand events between now and the end of the year.
KHALID: That's wild.
SNELL: I know. That comes out to about five events per person. But they're trying to make the point, though, that they are really invested in this public relations campaign. They're essentially going out there and saying that they acknowledge that people may not understand what's in these bills or might not really know much beyond the headlines of Democrats have been fighting in Washington, and it is their job as politicians, not just to pass legislation, but to explain it to people and to explain to people how legislation will impact their lives. They say they're going to do this in kind of headline-grabbing, short, consumable bites, but that isn't exactly always a strong suit for Democrats.
KHALID: What does that even mean...
KHALID: ...Headline-consuming, short bites?
SNELL: I asked Hakeem Jeffries, who is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, how they're going to go about this. When he used to say back in 2017 and 2018 - he used to repeat this phrase that Republicans speak in headlines, and Democrats speak in fine print. I asked him, how is this any different a problem - right? - if they're walking into a situation where they don't believe the Democrats understand what they're talking about? And he said, basically, just that they were going to try - that they were going to reframe things, that they were going to, you know, connect the dots for people between policy and politics. But that is a very difficult task. It's hard to boil down thousands and thousands of pages of legislation into a soundbite.
SUMMERS: Kelsey, it sounds like they're trying to make this large bill really personal for people. In your conversations with Democratic leaders, do you get a sense of why they think people don't understand what's in this bill, why they think people don't yet know what this policy could do for them, how it could change their lives, if it can?
SNELL: Well, some of it is that they don't think that people really connect with legislation until it becomes law, right? So they are still fighting over the details of the bigger spending bill, the $1.75 trillion social and climate spending bill. So it's not entirely surprising that voters are not willing to engage in, like, the ins and outs of fighting inside of the Capitol, right? Like, that's hard enough for us as people who cover...
SNELL: ...Politics to follow closely. So, like, if you're a person who's going about your normal day, you aren't tracking whether or not a piece of this is sticking in the bill.
KHALID: You know, Juana, part of the challenge, though, for Democrats, in my mind, is not just about policy. It's not just about winning over those persuadable voters. It's about energizing your base. And it sounds like from some of the reporting that you've been doing, Democrats know they need to do that ahead the midterms. In fact, they're sort of desperate to do it, it seems.
SUMMERS: Yeah, Asma. There have been all of these sort of postmortems of what happened in 2020. Obviously, you know, Democrats did win the White House. They retook the Senate. They have narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress at this point. But there's been a lot of kind of soul-searching as to what went right and what didn't go so well.
And one thing that a number of postmortems pointed out is the fact that while Democrats do have an edge over their Republican counterparts when it comes to engaging and mobilizing voters of color to turn out for them, that - these postmortems point out that maybe they missed some opportunities. Republicans did make some gains, and we've seen Democrats of all kinds figuring out how to respond to that.
I actually spoke recently to Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who is the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And they gave NPR an early look at a new effort that they are launching to engage and mobilize these voters ahead of the midterms.
SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: And that means folks from the neighborhood, boots on the ground much earlier, much more meaningful engagement, not just showing up at election time and putting the resources behind it with a culturally competent, diverse team that knows what it's doing because we believe when we invest in our most reliable voters, we get a great return.
SUMMERS: The committee is investing, to start, $30 million in this plan, which they say is working on focusing on engaging Black voters, Latino voters and Asian American Pacific Islander voters in this country. But he said a couple of things there that we talk about a lot. He talked about the need to engage early. He talked about cultural competency. And those are criticisms that we have heard about Democratic outreach to communities of color for some time. And it seems like there is a sense, at least within this campaign committee, that that has to happen more rapidly this year ahead of next year's elections.
KHALID: You know, call me a bit of a skeptic, though, Juana, because we've all covered a lot of campaigns, and I have heard similar complaints to what Maloney was outlining there for just about every campaign that I have covered. You'll go into Latino communities, and they'll say the exact same thing. You'll go into African American communities saying that, you know, people parachute in here three weeks before Election Day and expect them to vote. And they don't feel like there's this level of engagement. And so I guess I hear what he's saying, but I also feel like I have heard nearly identical things from campaign activists in every campaign cycle I have covered, and I'm not sure I get what's different.
SNELL: Yeah, I have to agree.
SUMMERS: And I agree with both of you because I feel like I have those conversations after every election cycle. I think what is different here, or at least what they promise will be different, is the fact that this is a broad proposal that is undergirded by research. They're investing seven figures in researching and polling. And what Maloney told me is that part of the reason they're doing that is because they want to make sure that they intimately understand the communities that they're hoping turn out to vote for them, that they're not treated as monoliths, something that I know we have all talked about and what we see happens time and time again.
Two other really interesting things that they're doing with this money that I think are a little different than we've seen in the past - one is that they are working aggressively to combat disinformation efforts that are specifically focused on voters of color. A number of postmortems after the 2020 campaign said that Democrats were frankly too slow to move to address disinformation and to correct it, particularly in the final days of the 2020 election and in the days until the results - until the election was called.
And they're also spending a lot of money on voter protection and voter education. And this appears to be a direct response to the fact that federal voting rights legislation remains stalled on Capitol Hill, and there is this wave of laws stemming from Republican-led states that are making it more difficult to access the ballots for some people in some places.
SNELL: You know, Juana, you said something that I think is a theme here, is that stuff is stalled on Capitol Hill. And Democrats seem to be in this situation where they're trying to recover from making a whole lot of promises to voters and then spending a lot of time over this past year not actually being able to agree amongst themselves about how to get any of it passed.
SUMMERS: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I spend a lot of my time talking to activists who work with some of these constituencies that the DCCC and these other committees ostensibly want to turn out for them in November. And these activists tell me that they're frustrated because they don't have a whole lot to take back to voters in the communities that they work in to show. Now, obviously, Congress has just passed and the president has just signed this huge bill that we were just talking about. And there's other legislation making its way through the pipelines, but they feel like Democrats broadly and the president specifically promised a lot of things to communities of color.
SNELL: One other thing that I keep hearing from Democrats who are attempting to kind of frame messages for the upcoming midterms is they made a pitch to voters saying that if you deliver Democrat majorities in the House, Senate and the White House, we will get these policies through. But, like, these are historically narrow majorities, and Democrats feel like they can't now go and say, well, what we really meant was you needed to deliver us more Democrats before we can fulfill these promises.
KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break, and we'll have lots more to talk about when we get back in a minute.
And we're back. And we're talking today on the show about the challenges that Democrats are facing ahead of next year's midterm election. You know, there are a lot of reasons for Democrats to be worried politically. Midterms are historically bad for the party in power. Republicans control the bulk of map drawing for these seats. And there are lots of voting changes being passed by Republican legislatures, and Democrats don't seem to want to get rid of the filibuster to pass their own voting protections reform. So I just want to start out with a really broad question here to both of you, which is, what is the kind of central Democratic campaign strategy?
SNELL: I mean, I think that their central argument here is that they need to - heck, first of all, pass this Build Back Better bill, this $1.75 trillion in social and climate spending, because I think they'd built a lot of the backbone of their platform around the idea that they were going to come into office and they were going to use the power of having majority control in all of Washington to transform the federal government and transform the way people interact with the federal government in a way that would, you know, make federal programs a bigger part of many people's lives and, they say, for the better. Democrats say that those programs were intended to help people who had been disadvantaged in the way the economy in particular was structured even before the pandemic. But in order to, you know, run on that and to say that they delivered on that, they actually have to pass the bill.
SUMMERS: That's exactly what I was going to say. I feel like the strategy is that Democrats want to frame themselves as the party that can get stuff done and get stuff done that can make people feel politics in their daily lives, and not to feel the icky parts of politics or the bickering that can often go on in Washington between lawmakers. But to feel what the government can do for them, how it can improve their lives. They point to things like the child tax credit, the stimulus checks, things that meaningfully changed people's lives. But to Kelsey's point, again, you have to get things done in order to be the party that gets things done.
SNELL: Yeah, exactly (laughter).
KHALID: OK, so what about the opposite side, then, of this equation? What about Republican messaging, right? We've already heard lots of criticism about what Democrats have done, in their view, to the economy to date. What else do we know about what GOP messaging is going to look like ahead of the midterms?
SNELL: Well, one of the things that Republicans have been really successful at so far is kind of shifting the conversation away from the policies Democrats are trying to pass and focusing more on, you know, either culture war issues, which were successful for them, particularly in the election in Virginia, and then also reframing the way Democrats talk about the policies they're trying to pass. Democrats say that they are increasing taxes to pay for all of this spending so the spending won't cost anything, and Republicans are saying, but all of the spending will drive up inflation.
And that really speaks to fears that people have about rising prices of goods in - on things from everything like gas to milk. And Republicans are really disciplined in the way they talk about this. They're pretty unified in the way they talk about it. But I should say that's not uncommon for the minority party to be unified in an opposition message, right? Like, it's easier to do that than it is to, you know, speak about the kind of ugly, dirty process of passing legislation.
SUMMERS: The other thing I've been noticing on the political side of this is also not just what policies are being run on and what the messaging looks like, but who is running. We saw in 2020 House Republicans take a lot of cues from Democrats, quite frankly, when it came to candidate recruitment. They fielded a more diverse slate of recruits. And the National Republican Congressional Committee says this year already in 90% of its 70 target districts, there is either a woman, a veteran or a person of color already filed to run. They were pretty successful with that in 2020, when they were able to narrow Democrats' majority in the House.
And so I think that's something that we're like to see again, too. That's a response from Republicans to the changing face of what this country looks like. And it's kind of flipped the script. I can think about days when I covered Capitol Hill where just about every person that I was covering who was running on the Republican side and who was winning was white and male. And that's just no longer the case.
KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
SUMMERS: I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics.
SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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