WASHINGTON — New focus groups conducted by a prominent Democratic pollster warn that many voters "have trouble describing a clear positive vision of what the Democratic Party stands for."
The study of swing voters and liberal "surge" voters in competitive districts, led by Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners and requested by the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, indicated that the party needs to achieve more legislative victories or it could lose key voters in the midterm elections next year.
"Voters are not hearing enough about what Democrats have accomplished, what they are fighting to accomplish, and how they are standing up for voters’ values and priorities," read a Lake Research strategy memo by Celinda Lake, David Mermin and Emily Garner, summing up their findings.
"Without [former President Donald] Trump on the ballot as a clear villain or stronger definition as a party, Democrats are at risk of losing some of these new voters in 2022," the memo continued.
The findings, set to be unveiled at a Progressive Caucus meeting Tuesday, are likely to fuel an intraparty feud as it grapples with whether to continue negotiating with Republicans on a slimmed-down infrastructure bill or go it alone on a larger package to address President Joe Biden's top priority.
The Progressive Caucus is invested in passing a far-reaching bill to expand the economic safety net. Its leaders say delivering on that could help convey to voters what Democrats' values are.
"They elect us and they expect us to get something done. And if we don't, it happens at our peril," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus PAC. "If they can't define us well because of what we haven't gotten done, then we're even more in peril."
Pocan, who sat through some of the focus group discussions, said voters wanted the two parties to get along and find common ground — with a caveat.
"They did say they want us to work together, but they instantly moved on to, 'But you got to get things done,'" he said. "They're not going to give us a lot of latitude to say we couldn't get it done because of the Republicans, especially when Democrats are officially in charge of everything."
The Lake Research study said there was substantial overlap between swing voters, who oscillate between parties, and Democratic surge voters, who need some extra motivation to turn out. In particular, the memo found they are drawn to a message of "equity" — both economic and racial.
The memo disagreed with another post-election autopsy conducted by Democratic groups, which found GOP attempts to tie Democrats to "defund the police" were effective and hurt the party.
Lake Research said its focus groups found that swing voters "paid only a little attention" to defund the police and "socialism" attacks by Republicans, finding it to be "divisive fearmongering." But it added that Democrats must address divisive topics head-on as avoiding them would hurt more.
The study included six focus groups with voters from 13 swing districts, won in 2020 by Democrats and Republicans, a caucus spokesperson said.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the Progressive Caucus leader, said the study was a warning that Democrats could lose critically important voters, including young and nonwhite voters, if they don't convey that government can deliver for them.
She said the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill would not be enough in fall 2022.
"Voters who turned out and swung to Democrats in 2020 can be lost again — and potentially for a generation," she said. "We can’t assume they’ll come back and vote for us unless we’re able to deliver on the promises we made."
Asked why she believes voters don't know what the party stands for, Jayapal said Democrats have hurt themselves in the past when they had power by failing to make good on promises, like raising the minimum wage. As a result, she argued, many working-class voters decided to give Trump a chance.
"We have not, as Democrats, utilized some of the opportunities we've had over time," she said.