Why The Dems Got Crushed

Wednesday morning quarterbacking has grown into a popular sport among PR, media and political pundits in the aftermath of a national election. Who hasn’t weighed in on the reasons The Dems got crushed in the mid-terms? This New York Times piece on L.I. Congressman Steve Israel, whose job it was to shore up the House for his party, pretty much sums it up: he failed.



Truth be told: the Democrats stink in PR. I first learned this in 1984 when I took a leave of absence from Hill and Knowlton to volunteer for the Gary Hart campaign in New York State. (Legendary actor Jack Gifford’s daughter, a Coloradoan, recommended me.)  Sen. Hart was up against Walter Mondale to secure the Democratic nomination for President. Talk about disorganization and flakey operatives coming out of the woodwork! Following that experience, I swore I’d never work for a non-incumbent Democratic candidate again.

Sen. Gary Hart (D- CO) circa 1980 WIkimedia
Sen. Gary Hart (D- CO) circa 1980 Wikimedia

Eighteen months ago, I again succumbed to the allure of politics by attending a small, private gathering hosted by L.I. Congressman Steve Israel during which I asked him how he intended to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 2010 mid-terms? He discreetly outlined a strategy wherein the Dems would position themselves as the party of co-operation and conciliation with the GOP. Huh!?

Six months ago I mentioned this meeting (and that strategy) to a member of President Obama’s inner circle and his chief pollster who spoke at a small breakfast in a private home on Manhattan’s UES. He expressed some surprise and, without skipping a beat, told the group that this is “no longer the case.” I read this as the Democrats would stop acquiescing to the GOP’s heavy-handed tactics.

Anyway, assessing this week’s election through a PR lens, there are a number of delimiting factors over which the Democrats had little control. Among them:

  • State-level GOP gerrymandering of voting districts to uneven the playing field
  • New, stringent voter ID requirements that disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of (mostly Democratic) voters.
  • A GOP surge of tens if not hundreds of millions of “murky” dark money that poured into hotly contested contests in the final days before voting
  • A TV industry that sold its soul for the sake of raking in unprecedented revenue from dubious if not blatantly inaccurate political ads
  • The orchestrated effort by GOP leadership and operatives, and the media that serve them, to fabricate phony scandals and lay them at the feet of this Administration

While these alone may be insurmountable, the Democrats still could have gotten their PR act so much more together. Granted, I wasn’t in the room when communications strategies were developed, though I did offer my counsel gratis to Amy Dacey of the DNC and others.  Here are six pieces of PR advice they might have considered:

  •  The Narrative: The messaging was all over the place. Sure, certain narratives appeal to some geographies and demographics while others don’t. Even so, the disparity between what this President has irrefutably achieved and the misinformed impressions thereof is startling.  The video below, released on the weekend before the elections, FINALLY captures that success, albeit too late. Conversely, the Dems failed to effectively expose some of the particularly retrogressive (i.e., scary) policies proposed by a growing number of GOP Congressmen.


  • Graphics: It’s one thing for President Obama to stand before the White House press corps or the American people and spout off the hard data showing substantial progress being made across all corners of the economy — from housing to jobs to the deficit to the stock market.  Still, without charts and graphs, the words will invariably fall on deaf ears (and they did).
  • Media Surrogates – During that breakfast meeting in Manhattan, I asked Mr. Obama’s advisor why the GOP so thoroughly dominated the national Sunday and cable TV talk show circuit. It sometimes seems that POTUS is the only Democrat out there vigorously defending the party’s policies and progress. He explained that they once tried to coalesce a narrative among a number of Congressmen on a particular piece of legislation.  None, he said, followed the directive. Even so, there must be some presentable, articulate and passionate advocates within the Democratic Party besides Debbie Wasserman? (I love Harry Reid, but he’s not exactly getting anyone fired up.)
  • Event Strategy – Who hasn’t seen the myriad TV segments and print coverage of Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Dick Cheney, and even Mitt Romney speaking at some NRA or GOP Governors event. This resulting national media coverage doesn’t happen accidentally.  The event hosts, and their PR teams, work very hard to make sure that journalists attend, and event luminaries’ speeches are easily accessed far and wide.  When was the last time you saw something comparable emanating from a Democrat or progressive-hosted event, other than the DNC?
  • The Base – In 2012, I (dumbly) donated $50 to the Presidential re-election committee.  As a result, I’ve been on the receiving end of two, three, sometimes four or five emails a day begging for more money.  Shouldn’t the Democratic leadership be FIRING UP versus HITTING UP its base of supporters? I would have probably given more had I been made even slightly aware how that money was being spent.
  • Activating the Base – The Democrats have built and have access to an enviable database of millions of followers, most of whom I bet would be delighted to help advance the cause.  Yet, again, all they get are dramatic pleas for money.  I wasn’t sent a single, inspiring message or initiative that I could share with my 7000+ Twitter followers and large networks on Facebook, Linked, and Pinterest. Rather than fundraise off this group multiple times daily, give them ammunition they’d be proud to share with their friends, family and followers.


  1. Keep preaching Peter. It’s painful to see the Democrats fumble PR over and over and over again.

    And, yes, if we’re all idealistic, we’d have a Congress that functions in a bi-partisan way. We don’t, and I’d argue we haven’t since Gingrich’s revolt and the acrimonious, bitter politicking that he ushered in.

    So, if we look realistically at the political landscape, Democrats can’t allow themselves to be pushed around and made to look weak. With a great, crisp, concise PR strategy, the Democrats could be using some of the same Frank Luntz language tactics to turn the tables on Republicans.

    But it never seems to happen.

  2. Hey Peter,

    Thanks for sharing.

    I agree that the narrative of 6 years of phenomenal success — and indisputable results — got buried. The shame of it is that we let it get buried. That’s insane — scandalous, in fact. It’s as if we threw or forfeited the game, when we had the winning hand going in. This should have been ours.

    But I take issue with your assessment that we had little control over the factors working against us. We abdicated control. That’s on us. We need to fight for Dem values & leadership all the way down the line — from pushing back on redistricting to packing state houses to putting up more progressives for lower court appointments to blocking outrageous voter suppression laws.

    If we continue to cede that ground, we’ll never climb out of this ditch.

    1. Good points, Jonathan. Not sure how we can combat entrenched GOP state houses and a judiciary hell bent on gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement. Obviously, ratcheting up PR at the state-level to expose this behavior to the electorate is one way, but easier said than done.

      Appreciate your POV (as always),


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