Bruce Lear: Iowa Democrats trying to appeal to independent voters fell victim to messaging from safe Democratic districts, where slogans only have to appeal to one party. -promoted by Laura Belin
Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Democratic strategists should read and re-read this quote before every campaign.
The election corpse isn’t cold and the autopsy knives are sharpened and poised to attack. What happened in Iowa? I’ve no ambitions to become a full-time paid pundit, but here are some thoughts.
Was it that the Democratic candidate for Senate was from Des Moines? Maybe Democrats didn’t pick up the Iowa House because they didn’t do the usual door knocking because of COVID-19. Maybe President Donald Trump’s momentum in the state provided enough draft for one or perhaps two Congressional districts, and still enough to save a wounded U.S. Senate incumbent.
There is certainly no one reason for the red wedding in Iowa, but there may be one cautionary tale.
Republicans defined Democrats and forced them to play defense the entire game.
Words matter, and the timing of messaging matters even more. For Iowans, the message fumble has two giant consequences. It allows an unfettered legislature to claim a mandate to finish the right-wing dream begun in 2017. It also allows Governor Kim Reynolds to brag that the voters vindicated her hands off, Trump like approach to the pandemic.
If we thought 2020 was scary, welcome to a possible political horror show in 2021.
Iowa Democrats trying to appeal to independent voters fell victim to messaging from safe Democratic districts, where slogans only have to appeal to one party. For example, a majority of people in middle America supported the legitimate, peaceful protests, about the murder of unarmed Black people, but got scared by the vandalism and looting after the peaceful protesters were tucked in bed.
Frankly, Democrats were slow to condemn the violence while upholding the legitimate meaningful protest. That position needed to be made loud and clear during the Democratic National Convention, where Democrats had a huge audience.
I also completely understand why Black Lives Matter used, “Defund the police” as a rallying cry. It provokes and incites. After all, it’s hard to fire up a crowd that’s enraged by saying “Let’s repurpose the police so they can do their jobs professionally, safely, and legally, while funding mental health people and social workers to take non law enforcement duties off their plates.”
It just won’t fit on a sign or even on a street.
In districts where the goal is not to provoke but persuade independent voters, Democrats were immediately playing defense. It forced them to answer questions like, “Do you want to call social workers when your house is robbed? “Do you believe police officers are all racist?
As a result, the defund rallying cry was used unfairly against every Democrat from county supervisor candidates to candidates for Congress and the U.S, Senate and every office in between. The most visible messaging was in Iowa’s Senate race. Joni Ernst was able to define Theresa Greenfield as the candidate of the angry mob. I thought her ads were nonsense that no one would believe, but never discount fear as a motivator.
Systemic racism is real and it needs to be discussed openly. But this powerful and emotional topic doesn’t lend itself to a 30 second sound bite or a 2-minute rebuttal in a debate. Like climate change, most Republican politicians refuse to recognize racism’s deep roots in American institutions. For that reason, the topic became weaponized in this political campaign.
Another messaging problem was the “Green New Deal.” The “Green New Deal” is layered and means different things to different people. It’s more of a concept than a specific set of programs. As a result, Republicans like Ernst were able to morph it into something it isn’t and used it to scare people.
It also forced Congressional candidates like J.D. Scholten, running in the heavily Republican fourth Congressional district, to explain why he supported part of the concept and rejected other parts. Again, the messaging was too nuanced for a quick rebuttal against a misleading attack from his opponent. Certainly not the only reason Scholten lost, but it contributed.
Iowans support renewable energy–otherwise you wouldn’t see all the huge wind turbines across the state. They also support clean water and soil conservation. But the Republican definition of the “Green New Deal” spooked some independents.
There were certainly other messaging problems, including no pat response when the term socialist was thrown around. I wonder what would have happened if a Democratic candidate had turned to his/her opponent and said, “Please define socialist, and give at least one example of how I fit that description. I’ll wait.” My guess is it would have sounded a lot like Ernst trying to remember the price of beans.
For me it’s a lot like when your significant other asks how they look. If you wait four or five minutes to answer and then say, “I guess you look fine,” you’ve been defined by the message and not in a positive way. Messaging matters, and timing matters more.
Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association for 27 years until retirement.