The following things can be true at the same time. First, the attack on the Capitol on January 6 was a dark moment in American history and one in which the former president bears responsibility. Second, the attack on the Capitol will not be a defining issue in the upcoming 2022 midterm campaign.
The 2022 midterms will be a referendum on the current president, not the former one. This is something on which Democratic and Republican strategists I've spoken with agree. At the same time, Republicans from swing states or districts who spend their time trying to re-litigate the 2020 election or defend those who attacked the Capitol are putting themselves in political peril.
For as horrible as the events of January 6 were, the fact that our constitutional guardrails held is a remarkable and impressive accomplishment. The system bent, but it did not break. But it is this very fact that makes it harder for Democrats to argue that these guardrails are faulty and fragile.
Adding to this challenge for Democrats is the fact that many of the voters Biden appealed to in 2020, don't see this same risk to democracy as he and many Democrats do. Earlier this year, I wrote about two focus groups of white swing voters. One group was more conservative-leaning (all had voted for Trump but were defined as not particularly enthusiastic about him, i.e., these are not Trump superfans ). The other group included those who voted for Biden in 2020 after voting for Trump in 2016. In other words, these are the kinds of voters that would be open to more nuanced arguments about issues. They aren't simply knee-jerk Trump or Biden voters.
My takeaway from listening to them was that both groups of voters believed that fights over voter laws were more about political gamesmanship than an attack on democracy itself. Said one of the Trump voters, "everybody just wants to win." One of the Trump-Biden voters said, "I don't trust one party more than the other on voter rules." In other words, instead of seeing a threat to the very foundation of our political system, these voters saw crass political calculations.
This cynicism isn't confined to just swing voters. When asked about the January 6th commission, one person in a focus group of "surge" (read: infrequent voting) Democrats said: "It's going to be a nice report that no one will read. And by then no one will care anymore."
Moreover, the way in which Democrats are talking about the events of January 6 fails to motivate the very people it's designed to inspire, argues Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster who specializes in survey work with Black voters, young voters and people of color. In a tweet the other day, Woodbury, a founding partner of HIT Strategies, said: "For Black voters, #January6 #insurrection was as much about White Supremacy and racism as it was about the outcome of the election. #MarekGarland and the entire January 6 commission are ignoring the role of race in politics like Dems always do. Black eye roll. But let's pretend like they just thought there were errors in vote counting. That's why they brought noose's and swastikas."
In a follow-up conversation I had with Woodbury, he argued that "Democrats need to let base voters know their values by acknowledging the white supremacy and racism aspects of January 6, which has always been obvious to Black voters. But beyond mobilizing the base, what also appalled white suburban swing voters the most after the January 6 insurrection were the racist associations to white supremacy."
In other words, Woodbury contends, by failing to center their messaging around racism and discrimination (and instead focusing solely on things like "democracy in peril" or "overturning a free and fair election,") Democrats fail not only to rally their base, but also fail to motivate the white suburban voters that many Democrats are worried will be 'turned off' by talk of race.
Most important, Americans are in the middle of any number of crises in their day-to-day lives, which they want Washington to fix first and foremost. COVID continues to take a toll on our health, economy, and psyche. Parents are struggling with frequent school/child-care closures. Companies are still struggling with clogged supply chains and worker shortages. Overall, the country is in malaise. A recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll asked respondents to describe in one word what 2021 was like for them; only 11 percent chose a positive word, the rest chose words like "terrible," "confusing," "sucked" and "challenging."
Voting rights legislation — especially legislation that will not pass Congress — fails to address American families' core challenges. Sure, Congress and the President can theoretically do two things at once; protect voting rights AND help with COVID/economy. However, at this point, most voters don't think Biden is doing a particularly good job on the economy, which also happens to be the top issue on the minds of voters. In other words, if voters were feeling more optimistic about Biden's handling of the economy, they'd likely be more willing to hear their messaging on voting rights.
For all the arguments about what will 'resonate' in 2022 and what won't, the only way for things to get better for Democrats in 2022, is for things like COVID and the economy to get better.
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