She predicted the blue wave — now she's trying to prevent a big red one

Rachel Bitecofer forecast Democrats' big wins in 2018. Now she's trying to stop them from losing it all in 2022

Published June 26, 2021 12:31PM (EDT)

Rachel Bitecofer (Brad Barket/Getty Images for Fast Company)
Rachel Bitecofer (Brad Barket/Getty Images for Fast Company)

Political scientist Rachel Bitecofer made a name for herself as an election analyst who saw the 2018 blue wave coming long before anyone else. On July 1 of that year, she presciently predicted a 42-seat gain for Democrats — a near-perfect call, when others still envisioned smaller gains. At the same time, she warned that the landscape would be very difficult for Democrats in 2022, based on the same understanding of negative partisanship and the ways the electorate has changed. The 2018 midterms were a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency more than it was about individual candidates and individual races, she argued, foreseeing that aggrieved Republicans would be similarly motivated in 2022.

Salon's 2019 interview with Bitecofer helped her gain the recognition she deserved, leading to her first appearance on MSNBC's "The Last Word." In that interview, she told Salon

Under my model, Democrats win the White House in 2020, and then in 2022 they're going to have a very tough electoral cycle, because turnout for Democrats will go back to normal. And because Democrats have poor electoral strategy, they're going to compound that problem, probably by not appealing to Democrats to get them to the polls. 

For all the attention Bitecofer gained since that interview, that basic message still hasn't penetrated the Democratic establishment as a whole. So rather than fruitlessly try to change their thinking, Bitecofer has decided to go around them, leaving the academic world and creating her own super PAC — Strike PAC — to do the kind of messaging her research suggests is key to winning elections with today's electorate. There are no big-money donors involved. She's counting on grassroots support to deliver a grassroots message. The first batch of ads she's released paint a clear picture of the threat to democracy the Republican Party now presents, and an equally clear picture of how Democrats should respond. 

Salon spoke with Bitecofer about her PAC, this new wave of advertising and the thinking behind them — and of course how she sees next year's critical midterm elections. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

On "Morning Joe," you said your new PAC "is about bringing a brand offensive against the whole Republican Party. It's not just about Donald Trump, but it definitely includes him." Three things struck me about that. First, that seemed to be exemplified by your ad, "Fuse." Tell me about that one. Why is it shaped the way it is, and why now? 

All four of our launch-packet ads are targeted toward different aspects of this branding offensive. "Fuse" is geared towards a national audience. In political advertising, the conventional two types are what we call "persuasion" — which is trying to get voters who don't have a firm vote to come over and vote for you — and the other type is "mobilization," making sure your core voters will show up. 

What Strike PAC is doing is not within those two buckets. It certainly has overlap — it's performing both persuasion and mobilization. But what it's arguing is, "Look, the GOP doesn't really run anything except a marketing/branding op and it's predominantly a branding offensive against the left." They don't spend a lot of time on their own brand, but they do spend a lot of time in their messaging on discounting, discrediting and debasing our brand. That will go from everything from economics to the "woke" war, so it's always about showing us as unattractively to voters as possible. We've never answered that.

Democrats, up until now, have been told by their consultants, "Don't worry about it," or "Don't push back on 'socialism' or 'defund the police.'" To their credit, candidates are starting to understand when somebody is lobbing missiles at you, you can't just stand there and pretend it's not hitting. They are starting to try to put forward a response. But the it's a defensive mechanism, it's not offensive. The GOP is saying, "We're going to have a debate about these topics," and when you enter into that field, you are basically on the defense the whole time because you're having a conversation that's been structured by the opposition party. 

So that's what "Fuse" is trying to change?

It's flipping that GOP tactic over to our side. It's attacking the Republicans to make a conversation about their anti-democratic power grab, that goes back from contesting the results of 2020, an armed insurrection, Trump actually trying to use the Justice Department to stage a coup, and the Republican Party's wholesale embrace of that. 

It's not like Trump did these things and the Republican Party stood against him. They have slowly but surely normalized this anti-democratic behavior. In fact, they have doubled down on it by going into these state legislative sessions trying to restrict voter access for progressive parts of the electorate, even going so far as to put provisions that take the certification process away from nonpartisan actors and into their partisan hands. 

That conversation is something you might see if you're me or you, if you're very political, but for the broader electorate it's happening completely invisibly. There's very little media coverage — certainly not saturation coverage like you would see for Clinton's emails — about this power grab, what that means for democracy and what it means for Democrats in the next cycle. 

So "Fuse" is about fixing that problem, putting the stakes of 2022 in clear-eyed focus for the other half of the electorate. Because the Republican electorate has been told now for a while that the other side is coming after democracy, right? So it's their belief in a Democratic Party that has been articulated by the GOP. It's completely out of whack of reality, but Republican voters believe that Democrats are trying to "destroy democracy," and what they're doing is saving it. It's not like they don't have a motivation. So we really need this side of the electorate to realize that this meta-conversation about American democracy is on the ballot in 2022. 

To me, "bringing a brand offensive" pretty much describes how Republicans have run the vast majority of their national campaigns at least since Ronald Reagan, if not Richard Nixon. Democrats have virtually never done so—not even when Trump first ran in 2016. Why do you think that is?

That's exactly right. You could believe it's a problem that began when polarization really began to take off in the mid-2000s when asymmetry appears, and to some extent that's true, because Republicans developed this technique of making every election a referendum on the Democratic brand. But you're right, it does have its roots back in the 80s. 

That said, we really do see a distinct version of the modern GOP that has its origins in that 2004 Bush re-election campaign with Karl Rove, to use the gay marriage issues to turn out on their side, but also to talk about politics — including Senate and House races that might have otherwise been more local — with the intention of making them about the national party, about the national political climate and the national brand. That really starts to solidify with the 2010 midterms. They made it a referendum on Obamacare and Nancy Pelosi, and tied every candidate to that as tightly as they could. So every candidate really didn't stand for re-election on their own performance in office or voting record, things that people think traditionally mattered. Instead, it was all about whether they were a Democrat. 

We never made that adjustment at all. In fact, it seems like we don't even really recognize how distinctly different voter behavior in the two coalitions are and how hyper-partisanship has changed things. Whether or not we want that change, it's there, right? We've been grasping for this old-school model of electioneering, it's like when Sega was replaced by Nintendo. 

The GOP is running this very strategic, very intentional branding campaign, and we're still talking about politics in terms of policies and things like that. We're arguing that we are making a huge mistake when we're tinkering around in the branches of electioneering infrastructure on the left, because our real problem lies at that root level, where we are not engaged in a campaign technique that matches the moment.

That segues to the third thing I wanted to ask about. "Bringing a brand offensive" sounds like a logical outgrowth of your election analysis in terms of the hyper-polarization driven by negative partisan. So, how did the idea of Strike PAC develop out of your earlier work?

You could say it had its genesis on election night 2020. Around 7 o'clock it was clear that Biden was going to win the presidency — at least to me — with the Midwest swinging back to the Democrats. But it was also becoming increasingly apparent that Democrats had delivered a tremendous underperformance down-ballot. I understood exactly why those two things were, the most important factor being the asymmetry in terms of how they do politicking, how they do campaigns and elections at that messaging and strategic level. 

The way that you would nationalize the 2020 campaign down-ballot is that instead of Biden running against Trump, the party should have run against Trump and the Republican brand. You don't make it about one guy, you make it about the whole party embracing and covering for him and staying next to him. But you also make it about economics. Reaganomics has now got a 40-year track record, and it's a total shitshow. It should be easy to eviscerate. In 2020, for example, Democrats could have made the economic argument for the HEROES Act.  The HEROES Act was introduced in July and then blocked by Mitch McConnell in the Senate. The Democrats should have been from top to bottom, even at the state legislative level, hammering the Republicans for denying economic aid in a crisis. And that did not happen.  

I also saw many things that I assumed would get fixed after 2016 go completely unaddressed. It was dramatically underwhelming in terms of what changed. And then there was suspension of field operations [by Democratic campaigns]. That was a huge mistake. Yes, I understand that, ethically, you do not want people knocking on doors in a pandemic. But when the opposition party is doing it and it is the only thing that really ever shows a measurable effect — at least if you're doing it to mobilize people, not persuade them — then you have to find a way, right? 

So I was watching that and I was deeply concerned. At that point I wasn't even sure if Democrats would hold onto the House. It's just unbelievable, they had the best fundamentals you could ever hope for in 2020. You've got a man who's mismanaging this pandemic, completely incompetent. At that point his negligence had led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and you don't make that a central theme? Like, "Hey! These people can't do government!" So I realized these things were not going to change unless I found a way to do it myself.

While "Fuse" exemplifies the idea of a brand offensive against the GOP, you have another ad that does that as well, "Hold the Republican Party Accountable," which starts with Donald Trump saying, "Part of the problem is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore. You'll never get back our country with weakness." Tell me about this ad. 

It's not one that we necessarily would show in its entirety to target voters, because it's a little long. But this ad is about trying to get people to understand that we seem to have two conversations in America. We have the right talking about how extreme and crazy the Democrats are. Then we have Democrats bitching about that, bitching about "woke" culture and self-inflicting. It's like, the Republican Party makes a critique, and then Democrats jump in and start having that conversation too, just amplifying it. 

We don't have any conversation on this side about a party that literally is extreme, has an extremism problem which has been quantified throughout dozens of political science articles, and Democrats just assume, "Well everyone knows the Republican Party is extreme." 

Actually, the average person on the street, if they're not one of the 10% of people like us and your readers, you ask them about the Republican Party and they are apt to say, "Low taxes, right?" 

There's no media ecosystem that's focused on how crazy the Republican Party is. The assumption is that the mainstream press has a liberal bias, but left-wing topics are not centralized in the way that right-wing topics become. There's no intensive conversation about what the Republican Party has been doing for the last five years as it has progressively fallen down the pathway towards fascism. So that ad is about telling that story and tying those disparate events into a cohesive story.

Your website says, "We modernize electioneering strategy. STRIKE PAC's electioneering model revolutionizes how Democrats campaign from top to bottom." More specifically, you promise "Messaging that creates a 'reverse' referendum on the GOP by putting them on the defense" and implementing "high-stakes, nationalized messaging maximizing coalitional turnout and conversion." You have two state-level ads that seem to embody these points. Let's talk about the Virginia ad first. 

Virginia's important because it's an off-off-year election — its state-level elections are not on the regular calendar. Two states do that, New Jersey and Virginia. New Jersey would be more interesting if it spent more time in political competition, but it doesn't. So Virginia has long been seen as a temperature check for the newly-elected president. There was a long history of breaking against the new party in power that really only started to fall off in the 2013 election, when [Democrat] Terry McAuliffe won the governorship even though Obama had won the White House the year before.

Nevertheless, political conversations will center very much around the narrative that comes out of Virginia's 2021 election. Whoever wins in that cycle will go into 2022 with the political media giving them a more positive narrative. That's incredibly important for Democrats in particular because they're expected to do well now in Virginia, and expectations matter. And No. 2 because any political scientist will tell you that one of the most striking and robust patterns is the midterm effect, where the president's party loses seats in the Congress in the subsequent midterm election. So when we talk about Democrats facing tough fundamentals, that's one part. 

So what they need to do is they need to hold onto their trifecta in Virginia [the governorship and both houses of the state legislature], so the media narrative is positive. In terms of Virginia, the worry is because the messaging from the Democratic Party and allied organizations doesn't focus on coalitional turnout and doesn't nationalize and  speak plain messaging, that turnout might decline enough where you could even have McAuliffe win the governorship, but because of that ballot drop-off problem we saw in 2020, Democrats maybe lose the [legislative] majority, and the narrative then becomes mixed.

So that's the problem. What's the solution?

What we're doing in Virginia is going to be heavily focused on stake-framing, and just really napalming the GOP brand, getting people exposed for the first time to a message that argues that the Republican Party has been a shitshow for the economy and for you, personally and economically. All of these credit-claiming things we see from Democrats is a step in the right direction, but credit claiming is not as good as telling them other people are coming to take things away. You really want a sophisticated messaging. 

In the case of our first ad, we chose to focus on the issue of the voting laws, because I could see the Democrats having this wonky policy conversation like they normally do, calling it voter suppression and access. It'd be great if we had that electorate, but we do not. We do not have those voters. We have the ones that the GOP talks to more effectively and so we must make it clear to people: This is a power grab. They're coming to steal your vote. If they can take power in Virginia, they're going to pass a law like they did in these other places. Those laws aren't about "voter access," they're about election rigging.

You also have an ad about the California recall targeting Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. How does that embody your strategy? And how does that contrast with the Democrats' ineffectual response to the 2003 recall of Gray Davis?

Yes, exactly. You hear that the electorate is much more Democratic than it was in 2003 and that is verifiably true, OK? But that doesn't mean that California isn't still at risk of having a repeat of 2003. In the recall in 2003, the turnout was in the 30% range, and when you're talking about only 30% of California, there's a very motivated Republican Party versus a complacent Democratic one. Because Newsom will probably poll pretty decently and [folks will say] "Oh, this is in the bag. It doesn't really matter. I'm not worried about it." 

We're doing a couple things with this ad. Again, we're doing the nationalization component that's lacking in Democratic messaging, and is the bread and butter of the GOP. But it's also innovating — I wanted to show an example of something that other people might want to copy, which is to make the frame of the recall not about Newsom. Because if it's about Newsom, then you're going to have this conversation about whether he shut down too long, or too little and blah blah blah. You're just playing right into their hands. That's the conversation they want to have. 

Instead, you want to personalize the stakes of the recall to the electorate, so that they feel the connection, and you want to paint to them a picture: "It's not about Newsom or the Democrats, it's about you controlling California and turning it into a liberal wonderland. And they're coming for it!" You want to make voters feel motivated about the recall, and also attacked. Their identity is being attacked. That's how the Republicans would approach it. That's how they defended Scott Walker, which is what I'm modeling this on. 

Another key aspect of your modernization strategy is "Building a positive, values-driven firewall Democratic brand." You've released another ad called "This is What Democracy Looks Like" that starts with John Lewis saying, "We may have come here on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now," and proceeds with short clips from a wide range of notable Democrats—from Sherrod Brown to Katie Porter, AOC, Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock. What was the thinking here?

That ad in particular is again a movie-style ad. It's aimed specifically at Democrats, but ultimately the same methodology will be adapted to go after young people, especially voters of color. Latinos are a huge persuasion target for conversion right now and even young Black voters, but younger white voters in particular. The GOP, in my opinion, still over-performs with white young people, people under age 30, relative to what the Republican platform, and their embrace of racism and fascism, should warrant. When you've got one party that is constantly taunting the Democrats — "They support Hamas, and they're socialists, yada yada yada," you want to create an image for those younger voters: "No, this is what the Democratic Party really is." 

Another aspect of your modernization strategy is "Undermining the Republican brand and areas of perceived dominance, like the economy." You did this in an ad you showed on "Morning Joe" [at 9:25] comparing Democrats' and Republicans' record on the economy since 1933, on GDP growth, job creation and the stock market, using sports imagery from football, basketball and baseball to drive home the point that Democrats do much better on all these key indicators. The difference is stark, but Democrats never talk about it. 

That's exactly right. If you ask the average voter, the GOP often wins or at least breaks even on the question of which party is good for the economy, although the facts bear out a completely different story. But instead of making an affirmative case for ourselves, especially as we move through Reaganomics — and even by the early 2000s the failures of that economic philosophy were already legion — instead of running on that, saying "The GOP tried this thing and it totally destroyed our infrastructure, it destroyed our K-12 education system," and going on what I've called a brand offensive, you see Democrats try to align themselves rhetorically with their opponents, saying "I'm a fiscal conservative." 

The economy tends to be the most salient issue, or second-most salient, every election cycle. So why would we concede on an issue that's that important to so many people? Especially when we're better at it? So that's why we're going after that, and the other sacred cows for the GOP, national security. I'm going to go after national security as well because the performance of the Republican Party over the last 20 years on foreign policy and national security is terrible. 

That's good to hear, because I was going to ask about what's to come. Could you say a bit more about that? 

What's to come will depend on you — I mean you, the readers, the listeners and the people who support this idea — understanding that we lose winnable elections and want to stop. Because never before been has a super PAC been raised from such humble roots as someone like me. I don't come from the electioneering world. I don't come from money. I don't have a good Rolodex to start this from. So, this is what I consider to be a people PAC. How far I'm able to get with my creative concepts and my strategy is going to depend on how successful we are. If my goal was to become personally famous in political nerd circles, I'm on a fine trajectory for that. But if my goal is to win as many races as possible and to disrupt what might be the collapse of American democracy in 2022. I need to be able to deploy all this creative energy in a sophisticated way to where it needs to go and how it needs to go. 

The playbook I intend to run in electioneering doesn't come from any established playbook. It's kind of like Space-X is to space and to NASA. NASA is focused on space, but Space-X was able to start their program by looking at how that other one was shaped and made and being able to understand what the strengths and weaknesses of that old system were and design one completely to the realities of space travel.

There are two other aspects of your strategy I'd like you to discuss. First, "Innovative persuasion and mobilization messaging and micro-targeting strategies." We can see some of that in the state ads we just talked about, but what else do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I can't speak with specificity about all of the things I have cooking. I'm trying to build an organization. But I will say that what people see from this launch is just the tip of the iceberg as to what I have planned in deploying messaging in ways where people are forced to see it. The old Democratic model was TV-reliant, it had an old playbook. The direct mail system runs on this basically phoned-in template. My vision and plan is to build this organization so I can come in and redo how we talk to voters and how we work on winning elections, in all of those spheres and more. 

The second aspect is about "unleashing the power, scalability and scope of digital for year-round party branding" Same question: The seeds of that are clearly present in the ad we talked about before — showing young voters what the party really is — but do you have future examples in mind?

Here's one thing I will tell you. The status quo of electioneering on the left is "Oh, we're innovating now. We're telling people what we're doing," which is fine and dandy. But if you're assuming that telling people "I'm doing this stuff for you" is good enough to get people to actually show up to vote, that's a mistake. And then a lot of the innovation is focused on how we go back and get these white working-class voters to vote for us. 

If you don't understand that realignment is moving in one direction and one direction only, and that what we should be doing is leaning into our own realignment — which is especially white-collar, educated voters, especially as the newer ones that are moving in party politics, who maybe have been voting Republican because their parents were Republican — we should be working on breaking their party brand loyalty. Kind of like Coke vs. Pepsi. 

You want people to see what the Republican Party is actually doing and hear about what it's up to — but not in ways that are focused on "Think of how this will hurt some nameless, faceless other," which is how all of our messaging is structured on the left. Instead, we have to make it highly personal to the particular voter and really target that hard. 

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

You didn't ask what the URL is for people to donate to Strike PAC!

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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