Democrats need a plan to beat back the Big Lie at the ballot box: Trump's loss boosts GOP engagement

Dems must prepare: There are tens of millions of hardcore Trump worshipers out there — and they are ready to rumble

By Heather Digby Parton
Published May 24, 2021 9:39AM (EDT)
Supporters listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Kenosha Regional Airport on November 02, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Trump, who won Wisconsin with less than 1 percent of the vote in 2016, currently trails former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the state according to recent polls. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Supporters listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Kenosha Regional Airport on November 02, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Trump, who won Wisconsin with less than 1 percent of the vote in 2016, currently trails former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the state according to recent polls. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Last week, to very little fanfare, House Democrats released their 2020 "after action report," also known as an "autopsy." The team, led by Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., included Reps. Jim Himes D-Conn., Katie Porter D-Ca. and Nikema Williams, D-Ga., and was tasked with finding out how the House managed to lose so many seats in an election in which the Democratic nominee managed to unseat an incumbent Republican president. Working with senior staff, Democrats analyzed the voter files from the presidential election and other state and local data and compared them with 600 different House race polls in 2020.  According to this report in the Washington Post, they didn't really find anything that most observers hadn't already assumed from the results.

It turns out that Democrats underestimated the number of hardcore Trump lovers, which they surmised made the "defund the police" and "socialism" lies more potent in the swing districts. That underestimation is attributed to bad polling, which has been validated by pollsters themselves. Many Republicans just aren't responding anymore and the pollsters failed to successfully weigh their polls accordingly. (This has been going on for a while and really needs to be dealt with.) Maloney told the caucus that such faulty polling led them to spend too much time and money on "red-to-blue" districts and not enough to defend their incumbents in what turned out to be tight races.

They also finally came to terms with the fact that they spend way too much money on TV ads (which is going to make campaign consultants very sad.)

The Democrats always do this after an election and it's a smart policy. In fact, both parties used to do it routinely, particularly after a loss, so you would expect that the Republicans would have been especially curious to know what brought them low in an election in which they lost the trifecta. But as far as I can tell, the last time the GOP conducted a formal autopsy was after the 2012 election when they were delivered the bad news that they would have to stop being racist and sexist if they wanted to grow their party. Obviously, they did not take that analysis seriously.

What the GOP did do after 2018 was test drive some of their newer ideas about how to "win" when they get fewer votes and how to prevent the Democrats from governing. Recall that after the party lost 40 House seats in 2018, the states of Michigan and Wisconsin didn't decide they needed to change their message or their policies. As New York magazine's Eric Levitz wrote at the time:

Republicans' strength in rural areas — combined with heavily gerrymandered district maps — allowed the GOP to retain comfortable state legislative majorities in the midterms, despite receiving fewer votes in statewide races. In response to this outcome, the GOP's legislative majorities in both states aren't resting on their laurels, or resigning themselves to their newly limited authority. Rather, they're using their lame-duck sessions to usurp a wide variety of powers from their states' incoming Democratic governors and attorneys general.

Needless to say, among Republicans' top priorities was supercharging their existing strategy to restrict voting rights, which has now been taken up by red states all over the country, even states like Iowa which voted for Trump in 2020 by double digits.

The 2012 GOP autopsy diagnosed the problem correctly but the party decided to destroy democracy rather than change their toxic message. Donald Trump was just the guy who got the grassroots fully engaged in getting the job done.

As for the Democrats, their 2020 autopsy doesn't go into what messaging should be used going forward but so far it appears that the party is planning to run with a "Morning in America" campaign, betting on the improved economy and the end of the pandemic to allow them to beat the usual predicted mid-term losses. If President Biden can stay fairly popular and the Republicans keep cannibalizing themselves it might work. But if that's all they have in the hopper, I think they are ignoring their own data. There are tens of millions of hardcore Trump worshipers out there. And according to this latest survey by the Democratic polling outfit Democracy Corps, they are ready to rumble:

We were also surprised by how much Donald Trump's loyalist party is totally consolidated at this early point in its 2022 voting and how engaged it is. Yes, they have pulled back from historic presidential year levels: the percent scoring 10, the highest level of interest in the election, has fallen from 84 to 68 percent. But Democrats' engagement fell from 85 percent to 57 per-cent. Republicans are following their political theater much more closely than are Democrats — producing an 11-point gap.

And what are the Republicans excited about? Government spending? Dr. Seuss? Liz Cheney? Nope. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they are obsessed with The Big Lie:

The grassroots effort to punish Gov. Brian Kemp largely fizzled at key Republican meetings across the state this weekend even as record crowds of activists continued a relentless focus on former President Donald Trump's lies about Georgia's election results.

It's not just in Georgia or Arizona, both of which have Democratic senators who won special elections in 2020 and will have to secure their seats in 2022. The Washington Post reports:

The ramifications of Trump's ceaseless attacks on the 2020 election are increasingly visible throughout the country: In emails, phone calls and public meetings, his supporters are questioning how their elections are administered and pressing public officials to revisit the vote count — wrongly insisting that Trump won the presidential race.

A Georgia judge just ruled that local voters can inspect ballots from the 2020 election.

The Big Lie is now the main Republican grassroots organizing and mobilization tool. Sure they're pretending to be up in arms about Mr. Potato Head, but this is what is getting them off of their La-Z-Boys to go down to their local GOP meetings and volunteer. Their Dear Leader said that he "wouldn't be surprised if they found thousands and thousands and thousands of votes" in Arizona and he predicted they're going to Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and New Hampshire with similar audits. It's unlikely that will happen but it doesn't really matter. Trump is going to start up his rallies again next month and his followers will be fed a steady diet of the Big Lie — which is perversely reinforced if the "proof" cannot be obtained.

And in case you were wondering if the heroine of the republic is ready to step in and lead her small faction away from this hideous mutilation of the electoral process, think again:

And all this hysterical enthusiasm is supposed to be matched in 2022 by euphoric Democratic voters rushing to the polls to register their gratitude to the party for bringing back the economy and getting the vaccines distributed? I have my doubts. Let's hope they realize sooner rather than later that it's going to be metaphorical hand-to-hand combat for the foreseeable future and plan accordingly. 


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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