Did Democrats Just Waste $88 Million? Or Is the Real Problem That They Are Relying On A “Magical Message Unicorn” To Reach Voters? 

In Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race in November, Democratic candidate Marquita Bradshaw, a black woman who supports Medicare for All and the Green Deal, lost by about 27 points to her GOP opponent. Tennessee is pretty Republican--Joe Biden lost there by 23 points. Here in Kentucky, Biden lost by 26 points. For the U.S. Senate seat here, the national Democratic Party pushed forward Amy McGrath, a white woman who ran on a centrist platform, eschewing ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She likely beat out Charles Booker in the Democratic primary in part because some Kentucky Democrats viewed Booker as unelectable in the general election, both because he is black and fairly progressive. (He supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.) 

McGrath lost by 20. So she did better than Biden in Kentucky (and Bradshaw did worse than Biden in Tennessee.) So maybe running a centrist white candidate was the right bet--even if McGrath still lost by a lot. 

But let me complicate that story a bit. According to the most recent campaign finance reports (which cover spending through the middle of October), Bradshaw had raised about $1.2 million for her race and spent about $400,000. McGrath, as of mid-October, had raised $88 million and spent $73 million. In other words, Democrats likely spent less than $2 million in Tennessee to win 35 percent of the vote and McGrath spent at least $73 million to win 38 percent in Kentucky. Could Bradshaw have gotten to 38 percent with $70 million more dollars? We will never know. 

So was $88 million dollars, a huge, huge amount of money in a fairly-small state like Kentucky, basically just lit on fire? Was that money totally wasted on McGrath, who not only didn’t come close to winning but effectively blocked out Booker, who would have been one of the few black candidates ever to run statewide here and could have used the platform of running against Mitch McConnell to be a major figure in the national discussion about race and policing that is happening in America right now? 

You might think the answers to these questions is obviously yes---the spending on McGrath was wasteful. But Lara Putnam has a more complicated take on what happened here in Kentucky and nationally, and one that I think is worth grappling with. Putnam doesn’t live in Kentucky and isn’t a campaign strategist. She studies race, gender and migration in North and South America in her job as a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. But over the last four years, she has been engaged in two very present-day, electorally-focused projects. First, she has been writing, along with a few other scholars, a series of articles that are essentially a history-in-the-moment of the Democratic “Resistance”--the people who created anti-Trump groups in their local communities after he was elected in 2016 and spent the last four years organizing to defeat the GOP in the midterms and then prevent Trump from winning a second term. And secondly, Putnam has been going to protests, knocking on doors and otherwise participating in the movement herself. Biden won in Pennsylvania in part because he did better than Hillary Clinton in the suburban areas around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia where Putnam and other activists have been organizing. 

In Putnam’s view, while pundits like me obsess over whether Biden or Elizabeth Warren is most electable or if McGrath had the right message in response to the “Defund the Police” movement, voters are making political choices that are shaped by other factors: what shows up in their Facebook feeds; the political views of people they meet in non-political contexts in their life; and other factors that aren’t usually focused on by pundits. We talked recently about her view of politics in America today and her particular annoyance with what she calls the “Magical Message Unicorn” theory. Here’s a lightly-edited transcript of that conversation: 

I know you don't live in Kentucky and probably didn't follow Amy McGrath's race closely. But the view of a lot of people here is that $88 million was basically just lit on fire. She raised a ton of money and got blown out, while running tons of generic, boring ads, like a lot of losing Democratic candidates across the country did. What do you think about that line of thinking? Are a lot of campaigns, particularly on the Democratic side, not spending their money in optimal ways? 

I think there is important work to be done looking at particular down-ballot campaigns from 2020, and comparing results to 2018 as well, and asking what seems to have been more or less impactful.  It's hard though, because the 2020 elections saw the kitchen sink thrown at Democratic campaign after campaign: unprecedented tv ad spending, unprecedented postcards to voters, unprecedented text and phone banking. And, in most places, an unprecedented-in-recent-years *drop* in face-to-face voter registration, and in face-to-face persuasion/GOVT outreach. [Basically, campaigns, particularly on the Democratic side, didn’t knock on people’s doors much during this campaign because of COVID-19.] 

 So one question to try to answer is: can we find meaningful comparisons that allow us to disentangle all those big shifts, and see which were more or less impactful?

But a different way of approaching the question, which I hope other analysts take up, is to ask not just how different campaign tactics impacted, or didn't impact, vote results in November 2020, but, “which kinds of resource allocation build things with a longer horizon? “ A different way of asking the same question is, “what's the opportunity cost of all that money going into TV advertising rather than building longer-term communications infrastructure more fundamentally?” Is there a way the Dems/progressives can channel resources into, say, building alternatives to right-wing talk radio stations in rural areas, rather than just paying for ads once every 2 or 4 years? Is there a way they can do campaign-season voter outreach that *also* builds relationships and organizational infrastructure that will endure even after November has come and gone?

So when we talked a few months ago, I asked you something along the lines of, "if you were a left-leaning billionaire like Michael Bloomberg who wanted to impact politics, what would you do?" And you said you would invest in creating new media outlets and more community colleges. Can you unpack that a bit? What do you mean in terms of schools, in terms of media and why would that matter? 

In part I'm reacting to thoughtful work like Jennifer Silva's brilliant political ethnography “We're Still Here,” which makes it clear how much damage is done in the particular and attenuated form of access to higher education that's most prevalent in disadvantaged rural areas, which is, generally, for-profit institutions offering degrees people rarely even are able to finish, leaving them with debt and more reason to be cynical and disengaged than ever before.  Tressie McMillan Cottom's “Lower Ed” is another crucial reference here. 

There's a broader way of thinking about this, and it is integral to the question of the surge of disinformation we are seeing, which became especially intense as the coronavirus pandemic surged, and now of course has shaped the aftermath of the November election with flatly inaccurate claims about voter fraud circulating and being promoted by GOP officials (not all of them, but way too many of them) from the president on down. 

Part of what we're seeing is the result of the de-centering and decline of trust in traditional sources of verification and empirical judgment, which has gotten to the point of generating a deeply-fragmented public sphere, within which even agreement is increasingly impossible about very fundamental facts, like “how many people are dying of COVID-19?” and “is it a hoax intentionally perpetrated by Bill Gates and allies in Big Pharma?”

There are multiple short and long term causes of this decline of trust-- large scale socio-political, more recent impacts of digital information flows and their characteristics, etc. But what's becoming increasingly urgent is the ways that this trend is shifting the possibilities, and incentive structures, for politicians on the right in particular. How are they going to swear off the sugar-high added to their voter mobilization by the kind of conspiracy theories that have become, in this new ecosystem, quite easy to stoke?

Let me zone in on the solution though. We already have a ton of media outlets and colleges in America. What are you suggesting specifically in terms of how those would be different than what we have now? You are saying more schools in rural areas, I assume. Like I understand the problem. Why these particular solutions? 

The argument would be that building up media/communications infrastructure and education infrastructure *closer to home* really matters. So that "the mainstream media" is represented for high school students in a rural community not as some distant bogeyman version of the "failing New York Times" (to quote Trump) but by a local paper in the town next door where someone they know is working in a paid internship program right now. Having the possibility of building higher education opportunity and news media back into the local socio-organizational structure of communities where they are increasingly absent -- rural, yes, but in some urban communities for sure as well -- has effects that go beyond the individual degrees attained and news stories read. 

Tying this back to McGrath and some other things I have heard you say. Lots of people will say that Candidate X has a bad/flawed message. Your basic argument is, "Sure, the candidate might have had a bad message, but even a good message from the candidate might not have reached the voters, at least in the way that message was designed by the candidate to be heard by the voters. We are too focused on candidates and their messages and ads and insufficiently focused on the broader information environments in which American politics is conducted.” Is that basically it? 

Absolutely. I think I have referred in tweets to the implicit "Magical Message Unicorn" that seems to lurking within a lot of punditry about which policies **or which messages** Democrat politicians should embrace.

Like, Bill Pundit says, "Dems should embrace this popular policy and it will win them votes!" and Dave Pundit says, "Dems should stick with this popular message and it will win them votes.” But the unaddressed question is: “How on Earth is news about that policy, or that smart rhetorical frame, actually going to *reach* its intended audience?” Is a unicorn going to carry it there?” 

Because Republican funders have spent decades building up a whole communications infrastructure, and establishing trusted intermediaries within it, and Dems have nothing similar.  And maybe, nor should they!  I think there's a strong argument to be made that there's a baked-in asymmetry here. But regardless of whether it could be different, it *isn't* currently different. And this is the real world we live in, and need to navigate. 

You have been one of the biggest chronicles of this anti-Trump resistance movement, from the 2017 women's marches forward. In the clearest terms possible, 1. Who are the resisters, in terms of demographics 2. What are the values that kind of define why they have been mobilized to resist Trump (unlike George W. Bush or whatever Republican governor was in their state) 3. Are they going to "go back to brunch" now that Trump is going to be out of office? 

1. Middle-aged to retirement-age women with college degrees (and often post college degrees). In their majority, white women living in majority-white communities, many of them suburban.

2. Donald Trump's 2016 election for women of this demographic came as a shock. Person after person within the new grassroots will say something like: "I never imagined that this was the country we lived in,” or "This isn't the America I want to leave to my grandchildren." You can see that shock as naive, as coming from a place of personal privilege, and you wouldn't be wrong. And you can also underline how very powerfully motivating angry shock to injured privilege can be, and that would be correct too.

The values, as participants would describe them: tolerance and embrace of diversity; respect for others across differences of gender and sexuality; democratic participation and the importance of broad and full access to the democratic process through voting; civil rights with real protections in place. 

3. I do not expect the core activists who have remained active from 2017 to 2020 to "go back to brunch" -- they've already been involved in so much more than just national action to oppose Donald Trump and (now) vote him out of office.

They've been involved in school board races, down-ballot state legislative races. They've in many cases stepped in to revitalize their local Democratic committees.  Or they've become involved in progressive non-party organizing, linked to 501c3/4s or other groups.  And they've made a lot of new friends among the people in their communities doing these things alongside them. 

Last question. Bernie Sanders in particular ran on trying to create essentially a cross-racial coalition of the working class. You could see what policies would lead out of that (higher minimum wage, Medicare for All.) Biden has won with the traditional Democratic coalition, so a lot of working-class people of color, but combined that with a big suburban white upper-income contingent, including some ex-Republicans. What are the policies that will excite both blocs in that coalition? "Don't say racist things” is something Biden will accomplish on Jan 20. What else will excite both the 1. working class people of color and 2. the white suburbanites who are Biden's two bases? 

I cannot speak to what policies will engage working class people of color. But I do think that there are multiple different slices of the upscale suburban contingent, who are up for coalition building along different dimensions. 

So for instance, it's pretty clear that the youngest generation of white people -- those in their late teens and twenties, including in big towns in rural areas as well as upscale suburbs--are waaay more progressive on issues of racial justice than their parents and grandparents, and give issues around race and justice a far higher place in their political priorities

And it also seems like on certain economic issues -- let's say, raising the minimum wage, and some discrete kinds of redistribution -- the older generation of moderate-to-progressive white people in the suburbs are open to policies that are more economically progressive than they themselves might have been down for 10-15 years ago. 

But again, now we're risking getting up in the territory of Jim Pundit, Dave Pundit, and their Magical Message Unicorn. I guess the last point I want to leave you with is this. Absolutely, coalitions that can come together around important policy directions are *possible*. But are we going to *get* to the formation of those coalitions?  Are they going to find each other?  That's going to depend in part on the health of local and regional socio-organizational infrastructure for center-to-left political engagement. So time to head out and do some building. 

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