The Iowa Democrats Need a Brand Makeover

Market research and polling expert Kent Kroeger argues that without a major re-branding effort, the national and Iowa Democratic Party will not build a durable electoral majority anytime soon. -promoted by desmoinesdem

The Democrats’ brand, nationally and here in Iowa, is in desperate need of a reboot. The once growing assumption that the Donald Trump presidency will soon implode ended with his speech to Congress last Tuesday.

Following the speech, many Democrats finally reached Kübler-Ross’ final stage of grief over the 2016 general election: acceptance.

If CNN’s Van Jones reaction to Trump’s honoring the widow of slain Navy Seal Ryan Owens is an indication, some Democrats may have entered the political version of the Stockholm syndrome. “He became President of the United States in that moment, period,” said Jones in a post-speech analysis on Anderson Cooper 360°. “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics.”

His reaction wasn’t isolated. A CNN poll of speech viewers found 70 percent of them feeling more optimistic about the Trump presidency because of the speech. As Democrats, it simply won’t be enough to obstruct this president. The Republicans could afford to obstruct President Obama. They controlled all the other levels of government. Currently, the Democrats don’t have that advantage. And we can’t all move to California.

The Trump speech also brings to the fore why winning the presidency is so important. No other political actor in this country can change the national conversation like a president. In a single speech, even a single moment, the political landscape can be redrawn.

The national Democratic Party has no national leader right now. The recent election of Tom Perez, the former U.S. Labor Secretary, as the new Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair is not going change that problem. California Rep. Nancy Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer are mere placeholders until a national leader emerges.

As the national party tries to regain its footing, the Iowa Democrats are facing a Battle of Dunkirk-like siege of their own. Sweeping changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining law have already been signed by Governor Terry Branstad. The remainder of the 2017 legislative session will see the Democrats fighting to save Iowa’s public schools from inadequate funding and a voucher system that will divert taxpayer money into private schools. State money to Planned Parenthood may end. A Voter ID law is advancing in the Iowa House. As a pro-life Democrat, even I recognize the negative consequences of a ‘life at conception’ bill that just passed out of an Iowa Senate subcommittee. A since when did the “Bottle Bill” become a Republican poster-child for big government overreach? Perhaps the most troubling bill in the Iowa legislature, however, is a bill that would remove anti-discrimination language from city codes banning landlords from refusing housing if someone receives income from welfare or Veterans Administration (VA) benefits.

Is that what Iowans wanted when they gave the Republicans trifecta control of the government? Probably not, but that fact won’t help Iowa Democrats much in the present. Newly-elected Iowa Democratic Party Chair, Derek Eadon, has a lot on his plate. Where does he begin?

Along with the challenges facing the legislative Democrats, there is a caucus-system that failed in 2016. In my precinct, were it not for Attorney General Tom Miller intervening to avoid an impending caucus meltdown, the Clinton and Sanders precinct captains would still be counting heads in the auditorium at Des Moines Central Campus. I’m 99 percent sure my 10-year-old son was counted as a Martin O’Malley caucus voter.

Yet, the IDP stubbornly defends a caucus system that no longer helps the Democrats in their party-building efforts, undermines Iowa’s national reputation, and will always remain prone to significant mistakes, if not out-right fraud. I understand the money this state would lose if we became a primary state and lost our first-in-nation status. I was once told by a Pizza Ranch manager that the state of Iowa sells $6 million more in pizza in the year prior to an Iowa caucus. I’m skeptical, but I don’t doubt that a lot of money comes into the state. But it would be nice if the IDP (along with the Republicans) could be honest about it when they periodically issue their tired rationales for why Iowa should keep the caucus system.

But those problems are easy for Eadon and the IDP to address compared to the bigger problem. The Democratic brand is old, tired and no longer viable in today’s political culture.

I’ve spent 25 of my professional years measuring and analyzing public opinion. While the national Democratic party could still get a nice favorability bump in response to some foul miasma the Trump administration is always capable of creating in a moment’s notice, this improvement will be temporary rather than substantive. From what my firm, The Olson Kroeger Company, has found in its in-depth interviews with Iowa’s Democrat and “independent” Trump voters, they still want to give Trump a chance and remain resistant to the Democrats’ obstructionist message.

One of the little understood secrets about “independent” voters is that most are strong partisans. That is, they tend to be very loyal to one party even though they claim to be “independent.” Its a social desirability effect and it tends to muddle a lot of mainstream analysis of the national political landscape. For those interested, I recommend a recent Pew Research Center study on independent voters: Click Here.

Nationally, only about five percent of the voting population are true independent (or “swing”) voters, according to the Pew Research Center. In Iowa, we estimate that number to be closer to 10 percent. What our research is also telling us, just over a month into the Trump administration and the new Republican-controlled Iowa legislature, the Democrats have a lot of work to do if they are going to win over these voters.

For the national Democrats, suffering from a nearly 40-year decline within the nation’s state legislatures, attention must start at the macro-level (see the graph below).

Graph for Kent Kroeger post photo image1_zpsexzkftmy.png

It was disheartening to hear Tom Perez say after his election to the DNC Chair position that the party’s problems are not with its policy stances, but with its management and organizational processes. “Organize. Organize. Organize,” is his mantra. He couldn’t be more wrong.

The number of Democratic state legislators has been in a near straight-line decline since 1980. Only a brief uptick in 2008 (with the election of a transcendent candidate in Barack Obama) has interrupted that secular trend. That cannot be due to “management and organizational” problems. The Democrats’ state legislative decline is the market trend profile of a weak brand.

In my opinion, state legislative seats are the best indicator of a party’s organic strength, as opposed to U.S. congressional seats or the presidency, because the higher you go up on the political food chain, the more idiosyncratic factors can determine election outcomes. At the state legislature-level, voters often know very little about the candidates except their party affiliation. So, even if some voters split their ticket at the top of the ballot, when they go down ballot, they are more likely to vote based simply on their overall party preference.

Since 1980, the Republican candidates win on that decision rule more often than do Democratic candidates. Until that voter dynamic changes, the Democrats in Iowa and nationally will find it difficult to build a durable electoral majority. Even with the growing demographic advantages the Democrats will see going forward, to assume future voter allegiances will be defined largely by demographic group identities assumes we live in a static political environment. We do not.

So, when I see the graph above showing the Democrats losing almost 2,000 legislative seats between 1980 and the present, I see a long-term brand strategy problem, not a tactical problem that a little management or organizational process tweaking can solve.

It is not a coincidence that the decline in Democratic state legislators began in 1980. That was the year the Republicans underwent a major re-branding effort. The Ronald Reagan brand of limited government, free markets, a strong national defense, and an emphasis on personal responsibility started with his presidency and remained the party’s dominant brand until Trump. In response, the Democrats underwent one major re-branding effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the leadership of the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton — and that did not prove very durable as the Democrats’ decline in state legislatures accelerated during the Clinton administration.

Under Obama, the Democrats had a chance to re-brand and create a sustainable governing majority…but they chose an “elections have consequences” hubris instead strategically aligning the party brand with American public opinion. And all of the Democrats’ 2008 gains in state legislative seats disappeared (and more) during Obama’s last six years in office.

Re-branding requires a deep understanding of the American people and that requires research and data. While marching and protesting can make all of us feel involved and a little better about the 2016 election catastrophe, the Democrat’s cannot let the anger and apoplectic frothing on display at many of these rallies become their new branding strategy. The 1960s anti-War marches gave us two Nixon presidential terms. The 1980s anti-Nuke marches didn’t prevent a 1984 Reagan landslide. Did the previous decade’s Occupy Wall Street movement change anything?

“Clicktivism and slacktivism create a feel-good illusion that undermines the activism that effects change,” wrote journalist Moisés Naím of modern street protests mobilized through Twitter and Facebook. “Behind massive street demonstrations there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government.”

Given Naím’s observation, I am especially optimistic about Derek Eadon as the new chair of the IDP. Eadon is a competent, high-energy Democratic operative with deep organizational ties across the state having been President Obama’s Iowa election manager in 2012. As a progressive with significant support from the party’s establishment wing, he appears to be a unifier.

More importantly, Eadon appears to understand that marches alone won’t change the Democrats’ fortunes in Iowa.

Instead, Eadon talks about giving the county parties and individual candidates “the tools and resources they need to be successful.” In my recent experience managing my brother’s 2016 Iowa House campaign against Republican incumbent Walt Rogers, our campaign was starved for resources and guidance from the IDP. And don’t get me started about the lack of quantitative research made available to Iowa House and Senate candidates by the IDP. Forcing new candidates to fly blind, as was my experience with the IDP, is electoral malpractice. I am confident Eadon understands the importance of the wide distribution of hard data to all Democratic candidates.

For two Iowa House candidates in 2016, my firm conducted polls within a week of the election that accurately predicted the final vote outcomes within two percentage points. Using a hybrid of interactive voice recognition out-calls and live telephone interviewers, each of our polls cost less than $200 to field. That is a cost most Iowa House candidates could shoulder more than once in a campaign. That kind of thinking was lacking in the IDP during the last election. My brother’s Iowa House opponent used this method more than once during the 2016 campaign.

But, as Eadon correctly acknowledges, the IDP needs to do far more than just allocate electoral resources and tools better.

“We need to refocus our message and create a new plan for moving forward,” said Eadon before his election as the IDP chair in January. “The focus on the donor class to drive the party has left the majority of people, people whose support we need, behind.” Amen.

Yet, for the Democrats to regain political dominance they need to talk relevantly about jobs and the economy, particularly to swing voters. Polls consistently show these issues as most important to Americans. Yet, in this past election, the Democrats were tone deaf to the populist sentiment spreading throughout this country.

And it’s not that Democrats avoid talking about jobs and the economy, it’s that they don’t know how to talk about these subjects anymore. Instead, we get 1950s union hall rhetoric like this gem from Hillary Clinton: “I will stand up for families against powerful interests, against corporations!”

Ugh. That could have been an Eugene V. Debs applause line in 1904. If this were show business, we’d say the Democrats’ act has gone stale. And to the ears of the swing voters we talked to here in Iowa, that style of rhetoric falls on deaf ears.

Put aside the fact that most voters work for private businesses and understand that most jobs in America are created by the private sector. The problem is that the Democrats’ rhetoric has lost its emotional appeal. It’s soulless. For swing voters, in particular, who often vote based more on a general feeling than any preferred policy platform, this anti-business approach just doesn’t persuade them to vote for Democrats. The swing voters we talked to wanted to hear more about healthcare and how to grow the Iowa economy without adding more regulatory or tax burdens on Iowans and Iowa businesses. Here is the kicker: The majority of these swing voters voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Democrats can win these voters, if you learn how to talk about the issues most important to them (jobs, taxes, healthcare).

Columnist Thomas Friedman once said voters listen, not with their ears, but with their gut. If politicians fail to connect on a gut-level, he says, all the facts in the world won’t gain voters’ support.

What Friedman describes is the basic requirements of a strong brand — and why it is so hard to build one and even more difficult to save one once it is in decline. You can’t blame Barack Obama’s poor administration of the party for that decline. You can’t blame Hillary Clinton. And you certainly can’t blame the Russians, James Comey, or Fox News. This decline started when the Republicans significantly updated their brand under Reagan’s leadership and the Democrats failed to respond effectively.

“America itself remains a fundamentally center-right nation,” Democratic pollster Doug Schoen recently wrote. “A fundamental belief in national sovereignty and individual responsibility, married to cautious skepticism of government and deeply held moral convictions, continues to govern how most Americans think about politics.” I would only add that Iowans are even a bit more to the right of Schoen’s description of the national electorate.

Eadon and the next DNC chair will be looking at a tired brand as they spend the next year preparing for the 2018 midterm elections. Their party needs a major update. Tweaking the message or employing better micro-targeting methods are too tactical to rectify a strategic problem. Yet, when I hear Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison or DNC Chair Tom Perez talk about the party’s future, I hear way too much about tactical changes. “Better grassroots organizing!” yelled Perez at the DNC’s Detroit forum in early February. “Organize. Organize. Organize.”

But organize what? If you don’t have the right message for the majority of voters, a strong grassroots organization won’t be enough to consistently win elections from year-to-year. We know now, the Obama effect was transitory. You can’t build a party on one man’s charm and likability alone.

As a Democrat, I am hopeful DNC Chair Perez and IDP Chair Eadon will be ready to once again make the Democrats the dominant party in this country and in Iowa. Both have a tough a job ahead of them.

– Kent Kroeger, The Olson Kroeger Company, Des Moines, Iowa.

Kent R. Kroeger is the co-founder of The Olson Kroeger Company, a polling firm based in Des Moines, Iowa that specializes in public policy polling and analysis. Mr. Kroeger has worked in market research and public opinion polling for over 25 years.

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.

  • Struggling to follow yr logic here...

    A couple of thoughts about this piece….

    1. Anti-corporate, pro-working class rhetoric was the hallmark of the Sanders campaign and the crux of what many Bernie supporters said was what brought them to his campaign. I’m at a loss for why this is a failing message when Hillary Clinton says it but not when Bernie or Derek Eadon say it. This strikes me as a distinction without a difference. Which is which?

    2. Are you talking about the Iowa party or the national party here? Your header says Iowa; your data is national and almost all rhetorical comments about brand are based on DNC. Are we talking about Trump or Branstad? The US or Iowa? This repeats arguments made elsewhere about the issue of national party stuff, but doesn’t provide insight into the specifics that Iowa Dems are facing.

    3. We’re waiting for a national leader to emerge (so we… need one?) but we know a national leader can’t galvanize the party. Which is it?

    4. The lack of historical context here is baffling. We can certainly trace threads of the current situation back through Bush, Reagan, and Nixon, but they are not perfectly parallel. Obama was president during the Wall Street crash; you can’t account for that with a dissociated ‘brand’ argument. Additionally, Trump is not analogous to any of those Presidents with the possible exception of Nixon, who was obsessed with amassing executive power and excluding the media. Trump is not the same. This is not the same. Boiling it down to branding dramatically oversimplifies.

    It also does a disservice to write off *all* protestors as disrespectful extremists acting like pissy children. First of all, civil disobedience is, has been, and always will be a factor of political change in this nation. Second of all, it overgeneralizes and lends credence to the GOP talking point that this is a loud minority. Have you attended one of these town halls? Have you listened or spoken to the people there? And is anger not a legitimate reaction to the kinds of extreme measures being taken by the federal *and* state administrations? Damned if we do, damned if we don’t: folks begin to boldly press for a vision of a state and nation where civil liberties and rights are protected, the environment protected, public education valued (etc), and we’re labeled strident and “frothing.” Soften that and we become weak and aimless.

    Protestors are voters. Grassroots organizers are voters. We organize voters. That’s how we win elections. Occupy is not an analogous political movement. It was a movement, there is value overlap, but their strategy was not the same and this WORLD is not the same as the one in which Occupy worked.

    5. Why can’t a party who won the majority vote “afford” to strongly resist an extremist agenda?

    I organize with Indivisible Iowa. What I see is a powerful group of citizens — many who are older, white, rural–galvanized by their belief in civil rights, education, and protecting the working class, and motivated by deep patriotism. A love for our Constitution and an abiding belief that “government, no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come, for that matter, government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind. No one gets left behind. An instrument of good.”

    So… don’t collapse the lack of a strong emergent ‘brand’ or ‘message’ with a lack of shared values and compelling belief that can be, and is, persuasive to many. What’s happening in Iowa is extraordinary right now. We can feel good about it. Let’s take it and put that into words and then we have our message. Being a prophet of doom helps no one but oppressors and gives cheer to no one but the Republicans who are waiting for Democrat infighting. Talk to the people who are doing this work and *help us* craft a message.

  • Forget Branding

    Political parties are not brands. They are a reflection of the people. Party leadership’s attempts to put a brand on their candidates is why I have struggled in recent elections to support and to vote for the Democrat. Listening to my elected representatives, regardless of party, echo the same wording as every other member of that party, is why I feel disenfranchised. Why contact Sen. Grassley when he makes up his mind in support of a Republican position before his constituents have even had time to process the issue? Why contact my Democratic state representative when he responds by repeating the party-approved language for a given issue? That is what branding does. Instead, I want to know my elected officials, and candidates seeking my vote, are going to listen and consider constituent opinions and suggestions. I want to know that when I give my time, money, and vote to support a candidate or to participate in this representative democracy as a constituent that I am going to help influence the debate and the legislation, not just be counted as a yes or no vote on a brand.