A Pollster’s Warning to Democrats: ‘We Have a Problem’

Brian Stryker, a Democratic pollster, didn’t work for Terry McAuliffe’s campaign in the Virginia governor’s race. But Mr. McAuliffe’s narrow defeat in a liberal-leaning state alarmed him and most every Democratic political professional.

That defeat also prompted a centrist group, Third Way, to have Mr. Stryker convene focus groups to examine why Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin won in a state that President Biden had carried by 10 points last year.

Mr. Stryker drafted and posted a bluntly worded memo with his analysis from the focus groups, and that memo has circulated widely in his party.

The participants hailed from the suburbs of Washington and Richmond and had the same political profile: Each supported Mr. Biden in 2020, and either voted for Mr. Youngkin in November or strongly considered supporting him.

In an interview with The Times, Mr. Stryker expanded on what he learned from the voters and the course correction he believes Democrats must take.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What was the first thing you told your partners after you got done with the groups — what was your big takeaway?

I was surprised by how dominant education was in this election. I was also struck by how much it was this place for all of these frustrations for these suburban voters, where they could take out their Covid frustrations in one place.

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.

What drives this perception that Democrats are fixated on cultural issues?

We probably haven’t been as focused on the economy as we should be. I think some of that is voters reading us talking about things that aren’t economic issues. Part of it is just a natural reaction, too: We’re in an economy they feel is tough. It’s hard for them to think we’ve solved problems when they see so many.

How do Democrats balance a commitment to core constituencies while at the same time addressing economic issues that voters are confronting every day?

The No. 1 issue for women right now is the economy, and the No. 1 issue for Black voters is the economy, and the No. 1 issue for Latino voters is the economy. I’m not advocating for us ignoring social issues, but when we think broadly about voters, they actually all want us talking about the economy and doing things to help them out economically.

So what can Democrats do going into the midterms?

A big part of the problem was that people didn’t feel they knew enough about McAuliffe and what he had done. Governors, in particular, during Covid were on TV all the time, talking to people about Covid. So it’s all anybody knows of what they’ve done. So you need to tell your story about what you’ve been doing, to the press and in paid communications, outside of Covid. And that applies to members of Congress, state legislators, everyone on down.

Is there any silver lining to be found for Democrats?

If the country is in a better place next year, we’re likely to be rewarded for that. Voters are responding to real-world frustrations; this isn’t some manufactured narrative.

I want to cite a few things from your memo that struck me, one of which was that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which became law in March, may as well not exist.

Voters don’t remember things. They have short attention spans. One bright spot, though: If we have an economy that voters feel like is starting to pick up, being able to point back and remind them, “Hey I did XYZ, and that really got things rolling.”

So you think Democrats next year should spend the bulk of their time trumpeting their legislative accomplishments from this year?

We should spend 2022 talking about things we’ve done to lower costs for working families and to get people back to work. Some of those things may be in a piece of legislation; others are things the White House did. Some are constituent services.

Voters don’t think Democrats are addressing big issues in their lives?

They just see costs going up and don’t feel like there’s any progress being made yet.

How much of that is driven by the day-to-day lived experiences of people?

A ton of it. They drive by the pump. They know what the cost of a pound of ground beef is supposed to be, or boneless skinless chicken breast. Those are the things they talk about, meat and groceries — those are the things they really see.

Let’s come back to the schools issue. How much of what drove that for Mr. Youngkin is that we’re 18 months into Covid, and voters are simply fatigued and want somebody to blame?

Voters don’t think that in general a lot of Democrats felt really bad about closing the schools or felt like it was really a negative on people. I think showing some empathy on that could go a long ways in terms of: Yes, closing schools was hard on kids and hard on parents.

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.

How much does Mr. Biden himself take the blame with these voters? Is his name invoked?

It’s Biden, Democrats — they all come together.

But it’s not like with Trump, where voters single him out?

No, and also none of these people regretted their choice and wish they had voted for Trump.

Did you ask that question?

I asked it a couple of different ways: “Do you think you made a mistake last year?” or, “If you had the choice in a year, would you change your vote?” Nobody was interested in Trump. It was not even a question for them.

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