With less than three weeks to go until the midterms, the Republicans are gaining traction in many individual Senate races, and taking a small lead in the generic congressional polling. As The New York Times reported on Monday, “Republicans enter the final weeks of the contest for control of Congress with a narrow but distinct advantage as the economy and inflation have surged as the dominant concerns, giving the party momentum to take back power from Democrats in next month’s midterm elections, a New York Times/Siena College poll has found.”
The poll provided striking evidence that the midterms will be decided by the economy. As the Times added, “With inflation unrelenting and the stock market steadily on the decline, the share of likely voters who said economic concerns were the most important issues facing America has leaped since July, to 44 percent from 36 percent—far higher than any other issue. And voters most concerned with the economy favored Republicans overwhelmingly, by more than a two-to-one margin.” The Times poll can be dismissed as just one poll, and perhaps a flawed one (as my Nation colleague Joan Walsh argues). But we also have aggregates of polls, such as the one provided by 538.com. These show a consistent story of dwindling Democratic odds in the Senate and in the House.
This latest poll comes at a time when Democrats are divided about whether their closing election message should focus on the economy. Over the past few months, Democrats seemed to be having success emphasizing messages like the threat to reproductive freedom and the extremism of MAGA Republicans. These issues have kept the Democrats competitive—but they have not been sufficient to close the deal. To win over the crucial body of wavering voters, an economic message is necessary.
Some leading Democrats are reluctant to even acknowledge that economic problems might be decisive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Punchbowl News,
“Inflation’s an issue, but it’s global. It’s global. What’s [the Republicans’] plan? They ain’t got nothing. When you bring down unemployment, inflation goes up. So in any case, [President Joe Biden] brought unemployment [down], cut it in half. Inflation is there but it’s global and not as bad as it is in some countries. We’ll have to message it better in the next three weeks ahead. I think we’re in great shape. Other people don’t want to believe that.”
While Pelosi is at least urging fellow Democrats to take up inflation as an issue, the thrust of her comments suggests complacency: Other countries have it worse; unemployment is down; the GOP has no alternative; we’re doing great. It calls to mind the ill-fated “America is already great” message the Democrats ran on in 2016.
Bernie Sanders, as is his wont, has been more blunt and more strident about the need for Democrats to make a core economic argument, one that speaks about how the party will fight corporate powers who are profiteering from the economic crisis. In an essay for The Guardian, Sanders argued that, “while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered.”
This point that their opponents’ arguments must not go unanswered is crucial. We see an example in England, where Liz Truss has resigned as prime minister after a disastrous attempt to launch tax cuts. Because the rival Labour Party is content to see Truss fall, it hasn’t tried to own the narrative of her political defeat. So the mainstream press is able to draw the lesson that Truss proved you shouldn’t anger the bond market—rather than the more accurate conclusion that neoliberalism offers no solution for the current moment.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the Democrats are listening to Bernie Sanders. Just like the Labour Party, the Democrats have surrendered on the field of economic debate, letting their opponents win by default. Writing in The Lever, Andrew Perez and David Sirota report,
Republican candidates and political groups have spent $44 million on TV ads focused on the economy and inflation since Labor Day, according to a tally from AdImpact, which tracks campaign spending throughout the country. In the same period, Democrats have spotlighted these issues in just $12 million worth of ads, less than 7 percent of the party’s total ad spending during that time. The party has put another $18 million into ads mentioning jobs and infrastructure—but overall, Republicans are significantly outspending them on messaging around economic issues.
The ads dealing with jobs and infrastructure are likely to be ineffective, because they point to past achievements rather than offer solutions to future problems. In other words, they are in keeping with the standard “America is already great” message. As Perez and Sirota conclude, Republicans “have spent nearly four times as much as Democrats on ads about the economy and inflation.” The problem, Perez and Sirota contend, is that Democrats are unwilling to ruffle the feathers of big donors, who’d be offended by economic populism: “Caught between a bad economy and not wanting to offend big donors, Democrats have not aired a unified populist message hammering the business profiteering fueling inflation.”
This analysis rings true, although the authors note that individual Democratic candidates like Pennsylvania Senate hopeful John Fetterman and incumbent Colorado Senator Michael Bennet are making economic arguments.
If Democrats wanted to, they could as a party embrace the message Fetterman and Bennet are pushing: one that blames corporations for profiting from, and driving, inflation. They could also highlight GOP extremism on economic issues, including repeated calls from top-level Republicans to slash Social Security and Medicare.
If Democrats are to win in November, they are going to need multiple messages that address the concern of voters over reproductive freedom, right-wing extremism, and economic distress.
As former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer asserted in his newsletter,
The focus on abortion and MAGA extremism over the summer closed the initial gap and put Democrats in a position to upend history and the political environment. However, this is the moment in the election cycle when campaigns settle on their closing argument. I now believe Democrats’ closing argument needs to include a strong, populist attack on extremist GOP economic policies.
To date, Democrats have managed to stay competitive by hammering home the importance of reproductive rights and the threat of MAGA Republicans. But these arguments just bloodied the GOP. They didn’t offer a knockout blow.