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Failure to Communicate: Democrats Say They Must Improve Their Message For '16

A month after their drubbing in the midterm elections, Democrats and liberal commentators have debated the path the party should take as it heads into the 2016 presidential contest.

A month after their drubbing in the midterm elections, Democrats and liberal commentators have debated the path the party should take as it heads into the 2016 presidential contest.

Should it craft a more populist (and anti-Wall Street) position?

Should it focus more on white working-class voters, or double down on President Barack Obama’s base of young and minority voters?

Should the party write off the Deep South?

Or should it change little – because the 2016 map and electorate are much more favorable than they were in 2014?

This debate comes as the Democratic National Committee has appointed a “task force” to study what the party can improve on in the next election cycle.

But there is one way forward that almost all Democrats agree the party should take: They need a better message than they had in 2014, when so many other subjects – Ebola, ISIS or the president’s low approval ratings – dominated the national conversation.

“It’s not about changing what we stand for or the issues,” said Democratic communications strategist Karen Finney. “We have to do a better job of making our case.”

For some Democrats, that improvement starts with the bully pulpit in the White House.

“You know, this is a president who's presided over explosive growth in corporate profits, in stock market returns, employment that's come back strong after the worst economic collapse in a generation or two. Universal healthcare, bin Laden's removal and the end of two wars, and on and on and on,” Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said on “Meet the Press” last month.

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Patrick added, “And one problem, I think, that the president has is that he doesn't tell that story very well or very regularly. You know, the importance of repetition is something I had to learn.”

Stephanie Schriock, president of the Democratic group EMILY’s List, contends that Democrats must make the case to voters how their economic agenda can benefit them.

“We need to connect our issues more clearly to job creation for voters – they’re with us on the minimum wage, paid sick leave, equal pay,” she said.

Jesse Ferguson, who is leaving the Democrats’ House campaign arm after running its independent expenditure team in the 2014 midterms, explains that it’s much easier for the opposition to mount a united, consistent message against the party controlling White House in a midterm election.

“That doesn’t mean we can get away without drawing our own economic contrast,” Ferguson said.

Other Democrats argue that the party can’t rely on localizing races to duck the national conversation, like it did in Senate races in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.

We would be remiss if we didn’t study how it played out and get better from it

“All politics is not local anymore,” said a Democratic strategist who wished to remain anonymous. “[Republicans] had a powerful national message, and we didn’t have one to counter it. You can’t beat something with nothing.”

And, they say, it was a fundamental mistake for Democrats to distance themselves from President Obama, even with approval ratings in the low 40s.

The reason: The party and president’s fortunes swim or sink together. And any distance between them creates a negative feedback loop.

“Running away from the president is always a bad idea,” adds Finney.

More than the message?

Yet others say the 2014 midterm results revealed more than a lacking message. And they’re also divided over what the message should be.

Matt Bennett, senior vice president and co-founder of the Democratic centrist group Third Way, argues that the party must appeal to more than the demographic groups – minority and younger voters – who propelled Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012.

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“It’s pretty clear that the Obama coalition isn’t durable,” especially when he’s not on the ballot, Bennett says. “We need to do more than sit back and wait for our voters.”

And what Democrats need to do – in 2016 and beyond – is craft a message and platform speaking to the anxiety about the future that so many middle-class Americans have.

“What Democrats need to offer is a vision for the future,” said Bennett.

Other Democrats contend that Democrats should take on Wall Street, fight trade agreements and protect entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

“The message I heard from [fellow Ohio Democrats] was: “The Democratic Party should fight for the little guy,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told the New York Times last month.

Danger in overreacting

Yet others emphasize that Democrats would be making a fundamental mistake if they overreacted to last month’s midterm losses – given the unfavorable map and the history of a rocky midterm result when a party holds the White House.

“2010 didn’t have a bad effect on Democrats in 2012 at all,” EMILY’s List’s Schriock says, referring to the party’s losses in the 2010 midterms and its victories two years later.

“But we would be remiss if we didn’t study how it played out and get better from it,” she adds.