On the eve of the midterm elections last fall, President Biden delivered a speech in which he argued that the central issue for 2022 was the threat to our democracy. Many pundits, and even some high-profile Democrats, criticized Biden's messaging. After all, poll after poll showed that the economy and inflation were the most critical concerns for voters, while "protecting democracy" registered in the single digits.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, told USA Today that Biden's focus on protecting democracy was a "mistake", and argued that he should be focused on drawing a contrast with Republicans about the economy instead. "I've been saying for months that we need to frame this election as an economic choice," Khanna said.
The day after the midterms, however, it was Biden who had the last laugh. "Our democracy has been tested in recent years, but with their votes, the American people have spoken and proven once again that democracy is who we are."
The progressive group End Citizens United, agreed wholeheartedly with Biden's assessment.
"The results of the 2022 election, where election deniers across the country were defeated, coupled with an abundance of research prior to and following the elections, clearly demonstrates that voters care about democracy," ECU President Tiffany Muller told me. "It was a motivating factor in their vote and they rejected extremists who threatened our democracy."
This is not a surprising conclusion coming from a group whose mission statement promises to "fix democracy by getting big money out of politics and protecting the right to vote" and ending "our rigged political system." In other words, ECU was not a passive bystander in the economy vs. democracy messaging wars.
To get a better sense of how swing voters processed the threat to democracy issue in 2022, and how they are thinking about the issue going forward, ECU conducted a series of focus groups with key swing voters. I was able to listen in on three of them. One featured white, non-college women, one was with white, college men and the final group was Latino men. Impact, a Democratic polling firm, moderated the groups.
With the all-important caveat that the views of 18 voters do not represent the full breadth and depth of each of these demographic groups, here are my initial conclusions:
When asked to choose their top voting issue in 2022, almost all of the white, college men chose "threats to democracy."
"I voted more left than I normally do," said one of the men, "to prevent election deniers from getting into office.
Meanwhile none of the Latino men and only one of the non-college white women chose the threat to democracy as a top issue. Instead, a majority of those voters said that "economy and inflation" were the most salient for them in 2022.
In that sense, the criticism about Biden's focus on anti-MAGA messaging was correct: it motivated elites, but not swing voters of color or working-class voters.
However, many of those women and Latino men saw issues like the overturning of Roe v. Wade and laws that disproportionately impact people of color as threats to democracy. In other words, what constitutes a threat to democracy goes beyond what happens at the literal ballot box.
"If we can't make decisions for our own bodies and someone else does," said one of the non-college white females, "there goes our democracy."
"Taking away a right for what someone does with their body," said a younger Latino man, "you are taking away freedom."
"In Arizona, you can get pulled over for being brown," said another Latino man. "Someone is making that decision. That's a threat to democracy."
"The big problem is when someone can stand there and say it's ok to deny other people the right to vote because they aren't in your party," said an older white, non-college woman. "That's a threat to democracy."
"What will the Supreme Court overrule going forward?" Asked a white college man.
When asked by the moderator if special interest or dark money could be considered a threat to democracy (a key talking point for ECU), most of the Latino men agreed.
"People aren't voting for a candidate," said one of the men. "They are voting for special interests backing that candidate. Special interests can be Silicon Valley. Big oil. Unions. Big banks."
In other words, the concept of 'protecting' democracy can remain a potent message even if there aren't so-called 'election deniers' on the ballot.
Much of the conversation on the left about threats to democracy centers on access to voting and GOP attempts to make it harder for minority communities to cast their ballot.
While the majority of the Latino men agreed with the statement that "American democracy today is under threat," all found the voting process to be accessible. All six were from Arizona or Nevada.
"In Nevada," said one of the younger Latino men, "the voting process was simple."
Another one of the Latino men said that voting has "become easier. Employers are now giving time to go and vote."
Another Latino man from Arizona said voting is "easier now because you don't have to wait in line. You can do early ballots via the mail."
Even as many of these men admitted they were worried about the prospect of another January 6th type of event, they seemed less worried that another candidate could cause a similar level of threat to democracy as the former president.
"I think if Trump was a candidate in 2024," said one of the men, "he would deny the results." But, if another Republican nominee lost, he said, "they wouldn't deny the election."
Another one of the men agreed, saying that "election denial is far less likely to happen," if Trump is not on the ballot next year.
While another "stop the steal" type of event could happen, said another man, it would be on a smaller scale and "I hope would never again be encouraged by a person at such a high level of office."
These voters don't minimize the attacks on the Capitol. In fact, said one man, "January 6th is the reason I left the GOP party." Election denialism is a deal breaker for them.
However, they also seem to be willing to accept that the GOP can nominate a candidate who would act differently than Trump. In other words, while Trump has left a significant stain on the party when it comes to election denialism, it may not be permanent.
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