Democratic pollster: 'We’ve got a national branding problem that is probably deeper than a lot of people suspect'

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Last week Politico published a story about the moderate Democratic group Third Way, specifically their efforts to figure out what went wrong for Dems in Virginia’s most recent election. You may recall that story because one unnamed Democratic strategist offered a memorable assessment of House Democrats’ efforts to pass the BBB bill after the Virginia election: “Too late. We’re f**ked!”


Today, the NY Times published an interview with the democratic pollster who carried out those Virginia focus groups. His name is Bryan Stryker and his memo summing up what he learned from them has apparently spread far and wide among Democrats. He is still trying to sound the alarm as his party heads into the midterms:

So if you’re advising a Democratic client running in 2022, what do you tell them?

I would tell them that we have a problem. We’ve got a national branding problem that is probably deeper than a lot of people suspect. Our party thinks maybe some things we’re saying aren’t cutting through, but I think it’s much deeper than that.

What is that branding problem, in a nutshell?

People think we’re more focused on social issues than the economy — and the economy is the No. 1 issue right now.

As you probably remember, many Democrats’ initial takeaway from the big loss in Virginia was that Republicans has tricked voters into caring about Critical Race Theory, something they were adamant didn’t exist. But Stryker said in his memo, that’s just not what happened. The problem wasn’t CRT, it was Democrats’ being beholden to teacher’s unions over the objections of parents:

These voters were more animated talking about their dissatisfaction with their local school districts’ handling of COVID. They felt buffeted by changing and inconsistent policies and concerned about the impact on student learning loss, and there was a sense among some that Virginia was not following the science by keeping schools closed later than other states. One participant, a Biden voter, stated flat out that her vote for Youngkin “was against the party that closed the schools for so long last year.”…

This isn’t about “critical race theory” itself, and we shouldn’t dismiss that CRT isn’t real and think we’ve tackled the issue. Many swing voters knew, when pushed by more-liberal members of the group, that CRT wasn’t taught in Virginia schools. But at the same time, they felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things. They absolutely want their kids to hear the good and the bad of American history, at the same time they are worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula. We should expect this backlash to continue, especially as it plays into another way where parents and communities feel like they are losing control over their schools in addition to the basics of even being able to decide if they’re open or not.


The general message here is that Democrats can’t blame this loss on someone else. This isn’t the result of people being stupid or blaming Democrats for something that is a phantom of the right’s imagination. People are angry at what Democrats themselves have done and not done. The bad polling and the bad results are about the party’s actual behavior.

And that brings us to another message that didn’t work in Virginia: All Republicans are Trump. Stryker says that approach is a recipe for disaster.

One of the things you also said in the memo was that McAuliffe’s strategy of linking Mr. Youngkin to former President Donald Trump was ineffective. What in the conversations with your groups made that clear?

The respondents kind of laughed at that approach. They said, “Oh, these silly ads that compared Youngkin to Trump — he just doesn’t seem like that guy.” The thing that these people disliked about Trump was that they didn’t like Donald Trump the person; it wasn’t Donald Trump the constellation of policies. That may very well have been the best message that McAuliffe had, but if we are in that position again, we’re going to lose a ton of races. We’ve got to have something better.

As always, I looked at the comments and I see quite a few people agreeing with Stryker’s take on all of this and some, like the current top comment, suggesting he didn’t go far enough:


This article does not address the issue that Democrats give the appearance that they are dividing the country by race, pitting one group against another. That is an issue for a lot of voters.

A Democrat in California writes:

I am an old white man who has voted Democrat for fifty years. White voters over age fifty are more than 50% of the electorate but the Democratic Party has decided that they, and I, aren’t a “core constituency”.

From Ohio:

If you spend all you time talking about bodies, spaces, and representation without addressing the material needs of your constituents you will lose elections.

This comment from a guy in Toronto really nailed it.

“What drives this perception that Democrats are fixated on cultural issues?” Everything they do.

If you spend a year placating BLM on dubious ideas like “defund the police” and placating teacher’s unions by leaving schools closed months longer than necessary, it shouldn’t come as a shock that voters don’t think you’re listening to them. Yet somehow this is all breaking news inside the progressive bubble.

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David Strom 6:40 PM | April 18, 2024