Consultant Hal Malchow: Dems can still win, but they're "spectators in a world of opportunity"

Malchow says the "swing voter" is dying out — but party ID matters more than ever, and one party has lost its mind

Published October 16, 2021 12:13PM (EDT)

Republican Elephant VS Democratic Donkey (Composite illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Keith Bishop/tintin75)
Republican Elephant VS Democratic Donkey (Composite illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Keith Bishop/tintin75)

Democrats are struggling to try to pass Joe Biden's domestic spending agenda, which enjoys double-digit support, even after months of mostly negative, misleading and defeatist media coverage. The disconnect between how popular Democrats' policies are and how hamstrung they are politically couldn't be clearer. But what's far less clear is what to do about it — and how that disconnect can be overcome. On the flipside, we see almost a mirror image: Republicans have largely abandoned any sort of policy agenda, aside from sabotaging democracy (and soothing one man's injured ego), while spreading COVID denialism that's killing their base by a thousand or more people every day while seemingly suffering no consequences as a result. We know that our politics have become extremely dysfunctional, but we're flummoxed about how to fix it. 

In a recent op-ed for The Hill, "How the Democratic Party's campaign strategy is failing America," Democratic consultant Hal Malchow presented a compelling argument that echoed some of the analysis I've written about before, from the likes of Alan Abramowitz and Rachel Bitecofer, but with his own distinctive twist. Like both of them, Malchow sees the sharp shrinkage of the persuadable voter population — i.e., the "swing voter" — as a fundamental point of departure, and like Bitecofer, he sees party brand identification as something Democrats need to focus on much more clearly. Both the similarities and the differences intrigued me, along with the echoes of other experts I've interviewed who are engaged with different aspects of partisan identity. 

Malchow is in the American Association of Political Consultants Hall of Fame, and is recognized as "the first political consultant to regularly use statistical modeling to target voter communications and fundraising mail." So he has experience on the cutting edge, and a track record that suggests he's worth listening to. This interview has been edited for clarity and length, as usual.

In your recent op-ed for The Hill, you wrote about two developments you said "represent the most unnoticed earthquake in the history of American campaigns." What are those two developments? 

The first development is the diminishment, almost disappearance, of the swing voter. There's a Republican pollster, Public Opinion Strategies, and every two years they poll the percentage of the electorate that actually casts ballots for candidates. In 2000, the percentage of ticket-splitters was 36% of the electorate. At that level, they decide almost every election. But the 2020 number was 11%. So basically, nine out of 10 voters are choosing parties and not candidates. This is a big deal, because the entire campaign structure is built around influencing the choice of candidates. So the terrain has shifted, but no one's reacted to it. That's No. 1.

The second development is the fact that political advertising is really not working — or is working at a minute level. I've been on the board of The Analyst Institute, and our job is to measure campaign methods and determine what works, how much it works and how much it costs to get a vote, using various techniques. In a 2017 study of 49 control group experiments measuring the effectiveness of political mail, mailings that were sent in primary elections and ballot referendums showed statistically significant effects. Mailings sent to support candidates in general elections, with the parties on the ballot, showed no effects at all.

So the lessons you drew from those developments had to do with campaign focus and timing. I'd like to ask about focus first: your suggestion to shift from candidate-focused to party-focused advertising.  You write, "Can advertising affect party affiliation? No one knows. It has never been tested." But you go on to make two further points. First, that the benefits of doing that could be huge. 

If 90% of the voters are voting straight party tickets and you convert someone from being an independent to being a Democrat, and they go, "All right, I'm in," a fair assumption, an empirically-supported assumption, is that this new Democrat is going to vote straight tickets. So in converting someone from an independent to a Democrat, you affect not just one race that you were previously spending all your advertising dollars on, you are getting votes up and down the ticket. 

But here's the kicker. The data on party registration in states where you register by party indicates that the length of a decision about party registration lasts in excess of 30 years, that the turnover is about 2.5% a year. So if that's the case, and you get the whole ticket, plus you get some portion of the next 30 years, how many elections are you affecting, compared to spending your money on one candidate? And so the question is, can you move party affiliation? 

That takes us to a second thing you said, which is that it's already happening. You write that "it is not correct to ask whether advertising can move party affiliation. The more appropriate question is can highly targeted advertising accelerate the movement that is already taking place."  

That's correct. Gallup does the most regular party affiliation polls. Their fourth-quarter poll for 2020 had the Democrats and Republicans, with leaners, dead even. At the end of the first quarter of 2021, the Democrats had a nine-point advantage, and this was after the Jan. 6 insurrection, after Republicans spreading the Big Lie and voting to overturn the election, after Republicans voted unanimously, at least in the Senate, against the stimulus package, which sent $1,400 checks to 85% of our households. Their misconduct fueled a fairly major movement in party affiliation, without any advertising or any reinforcement of their sins. 

I think one of the things you have to think about is: What is the information voters are getting? What we need to use our advertising for is not to try to make a particular candidate into Satan and describe all their bad deeds, because no one believes that. What we need to do is enter into the news cycle and enhance or amplify news that is good for us, but also elaborate on that division, with key information that is often left out on television news. For instance, key information on the certification of the election was that 80% of Republicans in the House voted to overturn the election, when 70% of Americans believed the election was fairly decided. That's pretty powerful news, but it didn't get out. It wasn't the lead of the story. So voters weren't seeing that. 

If we're in the news cycle and we're amplifying or enhancing news that is taking place — if CNN or NBC or any of the major news outlets are talking about something, then you insert yourself into the conversation. That's a much more believable delivery of information, because it's validated by what the mainstream news outlets are saying. We shouldn't try to create a message. We should take the messages that are out there, amplify them and enhance them with the information that is particularly favorable to us.

You also note that there are examples of such shifts going on long-term, and one of those you look at is about younger voters. What's most significant about them? 

With younger voters, there's a couple of things to keep in mind. They tend to be more independent than other age groups, they are less affiliated. Generally, it's fair to say younger people have less information about politics than older people do. So, frankly, they're a little more malleable. And this shows up in the study the Democracy Fund did, I thinkin 2017. About 30% of the younger voters changed their party affiliation in states where you register by party, and most of the movement was from Republican to independent, but there was some movement to Democrats. 

I think we have excellent messages for younger people. We are on one side of climate change, Republicans are on the other side. Biden, to my knowledge, has not done student loan forgiveness but has come out for it, and Democrats have been talking about reducing the cost of college, which is something you don't hear from Republicans. So you have that contrast, and of course generally young people are a more liberal audience. 

Young voters weren't the group that moved most, though, right?

The group that moved most into the Democratic column in the 2017 study was Asian-Americans. I don't doubt that they're feeling more afraid of Republicans now than they were in 2017, with all the violence that has taken place. They've been sort of a quiet minority, but now they've gotten a lot of attention in threatening ways. So this is an opportunity. 

In targeting the people that you want to move, you have all the data you need to do a great model. All you have to do is look at the voter lists, look at the people who move toward the Democrats, and construct a model that includes age, includes ethnicity, includes education, includes gender, marital status, all sorts of things that may be predictive of someone moving. It's an easy problem. Targeting is the easiest problem to solve. 

So the second big lesson had to do with timing, with what's wrong with the current timing of campaign spending and what might work better. Could you explain? 

Let me start with some background on that. I forget what year it was, but when Rick Perry was running for governor of Texas, he brought Don Green from Yale down — the shocking scandal in all of this is that the measurement of political tactics started the academic community, and not within the industry itself. He went down and worked with Rick Perry, and they discovered that TV could move votes, but they also showed that the effect tended to diminish. And since then, everyone has kind of packed the advertising into September and October of the election year. If they have a plethora of money, they might back it up into June or whatever. But here's the thing: There has to be a balance. 

So if I sent a mailing in September of 2022 and say, "Whoa! The Republicans all voted against your stimulus check, $1,400!" That's a big deal, but it's two years ago. People have already spent the money. If we run it at the time when they're actually receiving the check, the initial impact is going to be much greater. And if the initial impact is much greater, even if there's some diminishment you'll end up with more. All the advertising has gotten so difficult. It's hard to move these voters, and the best way to move them is when they are being personally affected by an issue, when the issue is current and in front of them. 

Not many voters probably know that 80% of the Republicans in the House voted to overturn the election. If we had put that out and it was widely known, maybe it wouldn't have been a nine-point shift, maybe it would have been an 11-point shift. I believe in being opportunistic and talking to voters and delivering messages at the point in time when they are feeling the issues most strongly.

Let me give you another example. Portland, Oregon, had temperatures of 112 this last year. Why are we not, in the midst of this, running ads showing Republicans talking about how climate change is a hoax? Politics is not about reason. There's a great political scientist, Drew Weston, he was at Emory, who wrote a book called "The Political Brain." He put sensors on people's heads to determine when they were processing information, and where the information went. Well, it didn't go to the frontal cortex, where reasoning and advanced thinking takes place. It went to the most primitive part of the brain, which was there before we could speak, before we could do anything but be scared, be excited, be sad and be happy. 

Politics is about emotion. Your messages need to be about emotion, and if you can hit the voter at the time that the voter is emotional, that's how you have the greatest effect. 

You just gave some examples of things earlier this year that Democrats could have messaged about. What are some examples right now?

Well, right now the Republicans just voted to shut down the government and default on the American debt. And I think the only reason they did that was because they knew the Democrats would have the votes to raise the debt ceiling. But you could quote the Wall Street Journal a big Republican paper — and they would say it is catastrophic, it would wreck the economy, it would raise interest rates. You just put a list out there of all the things that would happen if the Republican vote prevailed. It's frightening. And it's not fake-frightening, it's real-frightening. But who is explaining this to the voters? Not the goddamn Democrats. They're spectators now, the Democratic Party. They're spectators in a world of rich opportunity. 

Now that world of rich opportunity may be passing, because the Democrats can't get their stuff together to pass anything and they're all fighting amongst themselves, and Biden has had a bad several months. So what opportunities lie ahead is another question. But we have had a treasure trove of opportunities to diminish their credibility as a responsible political party in this country, and we haven't done anything about it.

You've also suggested a proactive proposal about advancing proposals to exploit the gap between politically popular measures and the position of the GOP base. So how would that work? 

The Republican Party has a problem. And the problem is that their base has become so extreme and so Trumpified that it's hard for them to move to the middle, to offer moderate proposals, which leaves them in a trap. A couple of things I've mentioned: One is QAnon. Here's this group, this internet group that believes the "deep state" is run by a cabal of pedophiles who are kidnapping children and emptying their adrenal glands in order to get some hormone that helps them live longer. They said the election was stolen, but there's going to be a great wave that's going to sweep all the new leaders out and replace them with their rightful leader. This is an organization of extreme nonsense. How any large, substantial segment of the population can believe all this is baffling to me. But they represent, according to one poll, 25% of the Republican base, and in addition to that you've got another 50% of Republicans who are not rejecting QAnon completely. They're a little skeptical, but they are kind of interested. 

So let's say in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi decides that we need a congressional resolution condemning QAnon. Well, this puts the Republicans in a bad spot. Because they either have to do something that's going to really anger 25% of their base, or they've got to accept that they're creating an issue in the general election campaign, because their Democratic opponent can say, "Look, this person voted against condemning an organization that says America's governed by pedophiles," and all these strange, untenable beliefs. You could do that with the Proud Boys, and I think many Republicans, in fact most, would find it very difficult to condemn these groups, because they've become an important part of the party's base. 

You also suggest some things that can be done to cause problems with the Republican donor base.

Yeah. Some of that was actually done. A number of them said they would not support candidates who voted to overturn the election, but there has been some movement from those positions. That sort of happened as a natural development.

You also suggest taking votes on different kinds of tax proposals, where Republicans either have to go with their donors or go with the vast majority of the American people.

Well, I think the tax issue was a big opportunity for us, but it was not done in the most effective form. So you had this big infrastructure bill and you had tax proposals to pay for it. The tax proposals basically increased the corporate tax a little bit, nothing like what it was, but also raised taxes on Americans who make more than $400,000 a year. Excuse me! How many Americans believe that people who are making $400,000 a year are paying their fair share of taxes? 

This was so ripe, if instead of putting this infrastructure thing into one big package, we had put the tax proposals first — how we're going to pay for it, which makes us look very responsible, right? — and made them vote against raising taxes on Americans making $400,000 a year. I haven't seen a poll on that, but I would be shocked if support for that tax increase is not overwhelming. Then you've got it paid for, and that makes it easier to pass. People can't go around saying, "Oh, this is reckless spending." No! We already paid for it. And virtually every Republican in Congress has signed a no-tax-increase pledge. There would be a lot of squirming over that one. 

You also talk about things I would call splitting the base of GOP supporters, who see anything Democratic as evil. You put it in terms of Mitch McConnell's intransigence, his refusal to support anything in the Biden agenda. But it's not just McConnell and not just in Congress. We also see it in governors and state legislatures fighting against masking and vaccines, for example. What about that?

That's another big issue, the vaccine mandate. That one is a little complicated, because you've got people going a lot of different ways. I think people who got their vaccines are resentful toward the people who haven't gotten them. That's an issue, and you've got places like Florida, where it could be a bigger issue, although I think most of the news cycle is putting out the information about DeSantis and it has hurt him, but not hurt him at the level you might expect. 

I asked before about shifts favoring the Democrats but I'd like to ask about the opposite, shifts away from the Democratic Party where there are people working against the grain. With rural voters, for example, Nebraska Democrats have had significant success mostly below the level of national awareness. Party chair Jane Kleeb has written a book, "Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America" (Salon interview here). She notes the success of progressive initiative campaigns for medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion. There was also the 2018 teachers' strike wave, set off in West Virginia and heavily concentrated in red states. These are examples of issues in the news cycle Democrats could take advantage of, to counter if not reverse that pro-GOP shift. 

I think rural voters are a tough nut. I think oftentimes there more votes to harvest where you're doing well than where you're doing poorly. If you look at the voters supporting Trump, the majority of them are white, they're not college-educated, they are struggling financially and really all the programs of the Democrats are favorable to them, particularly compared to the sort of things the Republicans advocate. 

But it's a cultural problem. The people who support Trump feel looked down upon by Democrats and the liberal elites and the people who live in New York City and Philadelphia and Denver. And even though all economic arguments would cause them to vote for a Democrat, they feel so resentful about their place in the world, the fact that they feel looked down upon, that I think they ignore the economic issues and just want to give the elites the finger. 

I guess what I'm saying is that your suggestions seem to point to a way to work against that, or at least to make a difference on the margins, especially where you've got dedicated grassroots people working in the community on an everyday basis. It can help create opportunities that wouldn't be there otherwise. 

I think that's right. If you can move some of these counties that gave 20% to Biden up to 30%, that would would be a good thing. I think our opportunity at the current time is just the irresponsible behavior of the Republican Party and their domination by Trump in a way that forces them. You know, Adam Kinzinger from Illinois said there are only 10 House Republicans who are dumb enough to believe the election was stolen. But all the rest of them are afraid that if they stand up to Trump they'll get a primary and they won't be in Congress anymore.  And that's a bad spot to be in, although the tolerance of voters for misconduct surprises me every day.  

The greatest barrier I see to the kinds of changes you're proposing is the existing set of institutions dedicated to doing things the way they've always been done. But there clearly are a lot of people who see that current practices just aren't working. So who might step up and support the changes you're suggesting? 

After the article came out, I got a ton of emails from people who said, "Yes! This is spot on! This is right, we need to do this!" But they weren't from anybody who actually made these decisions. 

You know, I've been through this twice. Once in the early '90s, when I started campaigning for using advanced statistical analysis to gather voter target data. And you would think, oh, that's easy. Why would you target a precinct when you can target an individual, and you know whether or not they're voting, what their registration is and all this individual stuff. It took 12 years to get the party to finally move. It was 12 years on issues it really should have been able to settle with a 30-second conversation. 

What happens is people are making money doing things a certain way. They're at a table in the campaign and you know there's a pollster and a media consultant, a direct-mail consultant, a research and internet guy, and they all have their piece of the pie, and anything that threatens to mix that up is likely to get opposition. People will protect their turf. The way we're doing things is the same way we've been doing them for 70 years, and now the idea that we would have to change is jolting. 

And there's another aspect to this that should be mentioned. A campaign can be the best-run campaign ever run, and still lose. Or it can be the worst-run campaign ever, and still win. There's so many factors involved in this. But the campaign manager, in either case, is held accountable. So if you're a campaign manager and sort of know how all this works, you don't want to do anything new, because if you do something new, something different, and you lose, you'll get blamed.

So actual campaigns aren't the ones who would implement this. The campaigns raise their own candidate money, they're going to spend that money on the candidates. The groups that could change this are the three Democratic committees, their big super PACs like Priorities USA, and other groups. In particular, I think the super PACs that have a lot of money are the ones that could step in and really do this, and make a difference. 

One of the first things we've got to do is get messages out there and test how they affect voters. But I'll tell you, you don't have to affect voters very much to make this worthwhile if it affects everyrace on the ballot, and it goes on for 20 years. Just a tiny piece of movement is a big deal over time. 

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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