Dems Need to Get in the Ring With MAGA. Take It From Voters

Watching focus groups isn’t a good way to make yourself feel better about America, especially when their participants assert inconvenient truths. I know this first hand because for the last four years, I have acted as Senior Adviser to the Research Collaborative, which has done 25 focus groups and frequent surveys this year alone, zeroing in on different demographics in two critical voting blocks across six battleground states: disaffected Democrats, who previously voted for Biden and are now considering sitting it out, skipping the top of the ticket, or voting third party; and disaffected swing voters, who vote across party lines when they vote at all.

If my colleagues and I took a shot everytime someone in these groups decried the Democrats as doing nothing on the fascism front, we’d have cirrhosis.

As one disaffected Democratic white woman from Arizona said in April, “I don’t think any of them care really. Even if Democrats won the House, the Senate, the presidency, they’ve had it before — didn’t do anything then.”

Last month, a disaffected white Democratic man in Pittsburgh pointed out that “Biden ran in part on protecting Roe v. Wade,” and noted that Democrats stalled for weeks on legislation codifying federal protections for abortion, despite the early leak of a draft Dobbs decision overturning the landmark high court decision. “Not that I have a womb,” he went on to say, “but materially for me as an individual and as a voter, it doesn’t really matter whether the Republicans are actively taking the rights away or the Democrats are allowing them to be taken away because they’re being corroded regardless.”

On June 11, a multi-state online swing Latinas focus group similarly found the Democratic response to Dobbs frustrating. As one participant put it, “Democrats need to get it together. Yesterday, actually. The fact that there are women suffering through this … Republicans are being loud, they’re standing up.”

Democrats may gnash their teeth at what feels unfair — these voters don’t understand the filibuster, state laws are not under Biden’s purview — but the general lament that a right-wing rampage is happening on Democrats’ watch is not temporally wrong. Nationwide legal protection for abortion did indeed come undone under Biden. Voter suppression — from prohibitions on handing out water, to polling place closures, to license to baselessly challenge people’s votes — went into overdrive in red and purple states during the Biden years.

The higher-information folks in these conversations offer up details about how Dems’ milquetoast approaches have failed, from allowing Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to deny Merrick Garland a Supreme Court seat, to not insisting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg retire and therefore making room for Amy Coney Barrett on the bench. They note how Democrats had a governing trifecta for two years and failed to codify Roe or pass voting rights legislation that would have combated state-based efforts to seize people’s most fundamental freedoms over our bodies and our ballots.

Democrats did not just fail to protect voters from MAGA’s efforts to drag red state residents back a century. They did not try very hard — and to many voters, that still appears to be the case. See: the initial response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Biden and other Democrats have since lost their aversion to speaking about what was once called the “a-word.” But many disaffected voters believe actions speak louder than words, and they are disappointed on this front.

The same goes for the tepid approach to pushing through the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Acts. To be sure, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema cosplaying as Democrats while sucking up donor dollars were absolutely impediments to passage. But Democratic leaders in the Senate and the White House rarely spoke about Manchin and Sinema’s roles in shutting down these critical bills — and chose not to put public pressure on these senators to pass them. Since Authoritarianism 101 rests on undermining the electoral process, as MAGA knows, Biden’s reelection campaign could help spotlight the threat and demonstrate their commitment to tackling it by continuing to tout plans to pass legislation for voting rights and ensuring free and fair elections.

More recently, despite recordings and reports of corruption and conflicts of interest among Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court, the response from Senate Democrats has been fairly limited, even as justices push the nation’s laws far to the right, overturn key parts of the Biden agenda, and consider giving Donald Trump a license to commit crimes with a lifetime immunity shield.

Voters are increasingly aware of and incensed about these supremely obvious examples of justice being a pay-to-play proposition. And while anger is directed at Supreme Court justices, there’s spillover onto Democrats who appear to be doing nothing about it.

We posed this forced choice to a sample of 1,216 likely voters May 31-June 1: “Thinking about Justices Thomas and Alito accepting gifts from billionaires, Thomas’s wife’s role in January 6 and Alito’s flags, which of the following more closely represents your view?”

Despite the clear partisan priming, voters favored a statement saying that “Senate Democrats must pursue investigations into potential conflict of interest and wrongdoing by Supreme Court Justices, especially as they are currently considering whether or not Donald Trump is immune from facing criminal trial for his alleged role in the attempted overthrow of the 2020 election” by 12 points over the argument that “Senate Democrats must allow the Supreme Court to remain independent and should not interfere in the actions of this separate branch of government.”

Unsurprisingly, this split was much larger among Democratic voters, who favor action over allegiance to norms that no longer exist by 81 percent to 19 percent. Undecided voters also demonstrated a serious preference for oversight — 63 percent to 37 percent.

Reflecting on whether this election represents a fork in the road between contrasting futures, a different white man in the aforementioned Pittsburgh group offered us this analogy: “I put it as if you were driving towards a lake, but you were going to head into the lake, and that one choice feels like you’re speeding towards the lake and the other feels like you’re driving downhill and then the brakes fail. But ultimately, you’ll both end up in the lake the same way, just at a different speed and a different sort of intensity.” Answering this same question this month, a South Philadelphia white woman quipped, “I think it’s more like a fork in the electrical outlet. I think we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.”

Is it any wonder there’s a lack of belief in the efficacy of voting, especially among disaffected Dems, who feel that they were told to turn out in 2020 to stop terrible things from happening, only to see those terrible things happen anyway? It’s challenging to sell voters on the same premise this year.

Though swing voters offer oddly rosy recollections of Trump’s purported economic prowess or assert that under his tenure the world wasn’t at war, the voters in our groups aren’t actively championing him. And the disaffected Dems are repulsed by him and MAGA Republicans more generally. However, both swing voters and disaffected Democrats voice constant frustrations about a continuation of the status quo.

So, if folks aren’t keen on four more years of the present, what does that leave us? Painting for voters the hellscape that awaits them under MAGA Republican rule. Handily, Republicans have typed it up in over 900 Heritage Foundation-authored pages. It’s called Project 2025 and offers such choice delights as purging the civil service of anyone unloyal to the regime, restricting contraception, dismantling the Department of Education, eliminating labor and environmental protections — and those are just some highlights!

When we test out elements of Project 2025 or show voters direct quotations from Trump, they respond with swift and widespread disapproval. Turns out, Americans like porn and they don’t want anyone trying to have it outlawed and its purveyors imprisoned — as Project 2025 claims it will do. People outside the cult of Trump aren’t so hot on a MAGA dictatorship.

Where we run into problems is that when voters learn for the first time of these horrors, many wonder why Democrats don’t seem to be speaking out about them or fighting back. In an online group across battleground states on June 11, one swing Latina participant summed up these sentiments, saying that “the Democrats have to step it up. Where is the counter agenda?” More darkly, Asian-American disaffected swing men the same night didn’t like MAGA’s plan but noted that at least they have one.

Still, others don’t believe that Trump and MAGA will pass this agenda. From May 17-19, we asked a sample of 1,213 likely voters, “As part of an effort called Project 2025, right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation researched, developed, and released a 920-page agenda that sets out Republican plans for every aspect of Americans’ lives, from elections to education and from health care to religion. It includes banning abortion and contraception, eliminating corporate regulations, and increasing presidential power. Which of the following do you feel is most likely to occur if Republicans regain control of the government in November?” A mere 21 percent of voters selected “Republicans would succeed in implementing this agenda.”

Flipping this question on its head, we asked the following of 1,216 likely voters from May 31-June 1: “Republicans have outlined a comprehensive agenda for Donald Trump’s second term. This agenda includes restricting access to contraception and abortion, removing checks on the power of the president, and making cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Regardless of how you feel about it, which of the following best describes why Republicans will succeed in enacting their agenda if they regain power in November?” Given a list of arguments for why Republicans could enact their will, 26 percent of voters maintained incredulity.

What’s most striking is that members of this unbelieving lot are 9 points lower in their support for Biden today than they were in 2020, whereas the rest of the sample’s support for the president remains unchanged. This fits with a pattern noted by New York Times chief political analyst Nate Cohn: The less tuned in voters are to Trump’s recent statements and plans, the more their support for Biden has eroded.

The widely reported fact of Biden bleeding support from key 2020 constituencies including young people and people of color merits a cold hard look at causation. Pundits pounced to attribute these drops to some sudden onset of Trump-attraction and insist Biden has to moderate. But in reality, most of those moving away from Biden are either utterly unaware of or refuse to credit MAGA’s well-laid plans to control our lives and our livelihoods. The erosion in support isn’t driven by the lure of Trump and cannot be cured by Biden adopting lite versions of his policies. It stems from lack of awareness of what Trump and the rest of the MAGA mob say and intend; thus the only way forward is to ensure voters hear the alarm bells and believe the emergency is real.

It’s both accurate and entirely fair to lay much of public ignorance and incredulity at the media’s door. But we cannot expect voters to believe that the house is indeed on fire, that the threat of fascism is nigh, if the firefighters, that is our current leaders, aren’t attempting to put out the blaze.

​​Anat Shenker-Osorio is a political strategist and communications researcher for progressive campaigns. 

More from Rolling Stone

Best of Rolling Stone