Rachel Bitecofer's tough-love lesson for Democrats: Time to fight dirty

Political scientist turned strategist sees a winning strategy: Paint the GOP as murderous, delusional fascists

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published February 17, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Fight Over The Ballot Box (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Fight Over The Ballot Box (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

America’s future — as a multiracial democracy or an ethno-nationalist authoritarian state — is very much on the ballot this year, as a wide range of observers have noted. But you’d be hard-pressed to see that reality reflected in the mainstream media, much less from the mouths of the randomly-selected potential voters interviewed on the ground, the folks who will supposedly determine the outcome in November. It’s a dire situation that political scientist turned election strategist Rachel Bitecofer tackles head-on in her new book, "Hit 'Em Where It Hurts: How to Save Democracy by Beating Republicans at Their Own Game." She describes it as “a battle-tested self-help book for America’s fragile democracy.”

Back in 2019 I first noted Bitecofer’s acumen for election predictions, shown in her forecast of Democrats' big 2017 gains in the Virginia legislature and then her spot-on prediction of the 2018 blue wave, based on fundamental voter demographics and her perception of partisan polarization and negative partisanship, rather than following the polls. In 2021, I interviewed Bitecofer about her evolution from academic into brand messenger, as she put those methods to work in fighting to counter the expected "red tsunami" of 2022. The Supreme Court's Dobbs decision and its aftermath helped shift a substantial number of campaigns along the lines she predicted, as she lays out in the book, drawing on insights from decades of political science research.

Bitecofer's most basic point is simple: Democrats as a whole — despite their “reality-based” self-image — have been unable or unwilling “to accept that the American voter is, at best, rough clay,” and to work with it accordingly. On the other hand, she writes, “Republicans have long understood this and have built an electioneering system that shapes the electorate and meets voters where they actually are.” The point of "Hit 'Em Where It Hurts" is to convince Democrats to change their strategic approach while there’s still time to rescue democracy, and to focus relentlessly on the threat posed by Republicans in terms that hit voters where they are. 

The good news is that some Democrats have already made that shift, while others are groping their way towards it. But to be effective, this needs to be comprehensive, bottom-to-top systemic change, Bitecofer believes, and that hasn't happened yet. She also discusses the effects of the right-wing media ecosystem, and the think-tank and donor infrastructures that underlie it, to paint a fuller picture of America's perilous political situation. But in fact, she argues, Democrats and their allies can turn the tide by focusing on low-hanging fruit — the things that are easiest to change. Salon interviewed her with a particular focus on those most immediate concerns and the 2024 election. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

In your introduction, you write about the 2022 midterms, how the Democrats beat the midterm effect and how they need to keep doing that to save democracy. But while Democrats won big in places like Michigan, they also lost key Senate races in Ohio, Florida and elsewhere. What's your explanation — first, for what worked?

In the book I lay out where the negative partisanship strategy was so effective in helping to thwart the Republican Party's red wave in 2022, and I walk through the places — Arizona and Michigan — where Democrats leaned heavily into negative partisanship, and defined their opponents as extremists. In the Arizona secretary of state race, in particular, Adrian Fontes ran on a "protect democracy from insurrectionists" theme — his opponent was an actual insurrectionist. In Michigan, it was about the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, from day one, went into her election with the strategy of ‘Let’s make sure voters know Tudor Dixon is an extremist, especially on the issue of abortion." Being able to define the opponents was so critical. 

And what didn't work? 

We ran the old strategy in a lot of House races, and in the Senate races in Ohio, North Carolina and Florida. What is the old strategy? Persuasion on policy — find things people like, tell them you're going to give them that — and then appeal on your character, your biography, your qualifications for office.

Why do you call that "the old strategy"? 

In the beginning of the book I lay that out. In 2004, Republicans did a pivot. That was the first time Republicans said, "Let's do persuasion differently." They realized they had an advantage on gay marriage. That may sound weird to your readers now, but when Republicans put up same-sex marriage bans to help re-elect George W. Bush, they passed in all 11 states. That even passed in Oregon. 

So the heart of Bush's argument to swing voters wasn't, "Hey, vote for George Bush — he's a great guy, he's moderate, he's bipartisan!" It was, "Vote for George Bush — Democrats want to make marriage between gay people legal!" It was persuading swing voters not to vote for Democrats. They did the same thing with those John Kerry Swiftboat ads. They weren't about persuading voters about how great Bush was. They were about making sure they tarnished Kerry's brand, and persuaded swing voters away from him.

OK, that’s how it started. What then?

Over the years Republicans realized how valuable that was, but it really crystallized with [former RNC chair] Michael Steele's "Fire Pelosi" bus tour, and the entire 2010 congressional cycle on Obamacare. What I say in the book is that all politics is not local — that's quaint — it's national. And it became national with that "Fire Pelosi" strategy, where they defined the 2010 midterm as a referendum on Obama and Obamacare, aka, in their minds, government overreach. And it worked very well. 

"The heart of George W. Bush's argument to swing voters wasn't, 'Hey, vote for George Bush — he's a great guy, he's moderate, he's bipartisan! It was, 'Vote for George Bush — Democrats want to make marriage between gay people legal!'"

The Republican Party in the decade previous had let 9/11 happen, invaded Iraq and gotten us in a total clusterf**k, and then blew up the economy in 2008. There was a fear within the Republican party in 2009 that they were going to be out in the wilderness electorally for maybe a couple of decades, like they were after they caused the Great Depression. Yet within a year, they were picking up 63 seats in the House of Representatives. That's the thing that started to make me think about election options. Because I remember thinking, "How could they blow up the economy, thinking they're out in the wilderness, and then suddenly start winning?" So I really started paying attention to voter behavior and strategy at that point.

So how does that relate to what happened in 2022?

Think about what happened in Ohio, North Carolina and Florida. Democrats ran the same strategy they've been running since 1990, where they tried to sell [Ohio candidate] Tim Ryan as a moderate: He's bipartisan! He's not one of those Democrats! I talk in the book about how absolutely devastating a frame that is, to go into a swing race. Because the opponent's argument is, "Don't vote for Tim Ryan. Tim Ryan is a Democrat and all Democrats are bad." And Tim Ryan's argument ends up affirming that allegation by saying, "Well, yeah, but I'm not one of those Democrats."

But political scientists like myself will tell you elections are almost completely determined by partisan preference, including for most independents. If you're not riding for the brand, if you're not selling your brand — Democrats good! — and pushing voters away from the other brand — Republicans bad! — you're going to lose. And that's why we see, in races where [Republican] extremists went up against bipartisan moderate Dems, they always win the swing vote. How can that be, if they're extremists? J.D. Vance is an extremist. There is no kinder word I could use — I could actually call him a fascist — and the Ohio electorate never, ever heard about it.  Where people did not define the Republican Party as an extremist threat to people's health, wealth, freedom and safety, they all lost. 

You write that "with democracy on its deathbed" one thing we can do is "start by picking the lowest-hanging fruit, which is improving Democratic messaging." You lay out seven steps, which I'd like to go through. Step 1 is "Ride for the brand," which you just referenced. What does that mean, and what do Democrats need to learn about doing it?

I don't have to know a damn thing about a voter — I don't know if it's a man, it's a woman, I don't know if they live in the South, the North, is old or young, is college-educated or not, doesn't matter. The only thing I need to know, to be right nine out of 10 times about who they're going to vote for, is do they have a party preference? And that includes leaners. We see that election after election. The voters walking into the ballot box, they don't need to know anything else about the candidate other than that party heuristic, that D or that R on the ballot. 

"I don't have to know a damn thing about a voter — if it's a man or a woman, if they live in the South or the North, if they're old or young, college-educated or not. The only thing I need to know, to be right nine out of 10 times, is do they have a party preference?"

So you can be Tim Ryan, you can pretend you're not a real Democrat, you can talk about all your bipartisanship. But unless you sell the brand D, people aren't voting for it, dude! At the end of the day, that D is going to be on the ballot. So when I talk about riding for the brand, it's recognizing, as Republicans did a decade ago, that we all go down or rise together. It's about saving that brand, defining the Democratic brand as good and defining the Republican brand as bad. And the campaigns themselves, which are the most important instruments of message distribution, have to be pounding that theme. 

That leads us into step 2, "Rebrand both parties with F-words." What does that mean, and how should Democrats set about doing it?

So there are two F-words: freedom and fascism. We have to get people talking about fascism. And this idea that we shouldn't use the word "fascism" because people don't know what fascism is? Well, no one knows what socialism is. But when we poll people and ask them, what's the first word that pops into your mind when you hear the word "Democrat," guess what the plurality response is? "Socialist"!  It's not a liability when people don't know what it is — it's an asset, because then they define whatever the scary thing is into a customized fear category. 

So we've got the president saying the F-word, and we need all the swing House and swing Senate candidates also talking about what fascism is, the historical reality that, just like with the communist movement, we had a robust fascist movement in this country that only fell apart because of Pearl Harbor and World War II. We have never, ever told America: Hey, there's two ideologies. The left has communism and socialism as its evil-empire problem, and the right has one too, motherf***ers. It's called fascism, and it's percolating all across the world right now, and here in the U.S. 

There are many elements of the Republican Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation's 1,000-page transition manual, that will take America from a democracy to a dictatorship under the next Republican administration. It is very, very important that every candidate that's getting a lot of paid media budget is talking about the threat of losing democracy, what it would be like to have a fascist in charge, and defining — all they have to do for voters is say, "Trump, fascism, bad!" They don't have to rely on voters to understand what that means. But they have to make sure voters associate Trump with fascism the way they associate Biden with socialism, which is definitely a much more ridiculous claim.

So your step 3 is "Less defense, more counter-offense." What's the difference between those things, and what's an example? 

I'm in the special election district in New York right now, where [Democrat] Tom Suozzi is running. I walked into my hotel in New York and almost the first thing I saw was an ad, an attack on him about migrant violence, really dark and despotic shit, and then I saw his defense, right? "Well. here's my real record, da-da-da-da-da." That is not a counter-offense. [Suozzi won the special election on Feb. 13 to fill the seat left vacant after George Santos' expulsion from Congress.]

Counter-offense doesn't even mean responding on the same topic. In 2021, for example, Republicans defined their entire theme by saying [the attack on critical race theory] was about protecting kids. How could we let them, with a straight face, spend three months talking about how they want to protect children in schools without attacking them for letting them get slaughtered on a daily basis with weapons of war? When I say, "Less defense, more counter-offense," that's what I mean. 

We let them legitimize CRT, which is not real, by explaining for months: "It's not real, it's a legal theory, da-da-da-da." What we should have been doing is pounding the Republican brand on guns and making sure people are afraid to leave Republicans in charge of their children's lives.

Step 4 is "Take credit, give blame." Here you point out how Democrats have largely failed to do that with their major accomplishments. What's an example of what they should have been doing, and why don't we see them doing it?  

They're starting to get better at this, some of them. But there was a senator who tweeted out, after the insulin package, how Congress had passed $35 insulin and it was going to save seniors all this money. And every f***ing Republican voted against it, dude! So why is this person not saying in the tweet, 'Democrats'? It's got to be Democrats. Assign credit. And the contrast has to be: Republicans take away, Republicans block, Republicans refuse, whatever it is.

"Democrats have to make sure voters associate Trump with fascism the way they associate Biden with socialism, which is definitely a much more ridiculous claim."

They're getting away with this obstruction strategy that's been working since 2010 and it's the key — it's what killed the border reform bill. I watched voters on the stump last night. They interviewed a swing voter who said, "Oh well, Biden had all these promises on immigration and he's just utterly failed to deliver them." Why hasn't Biden passed immigration reform? Because f***ing Republicans blocked the bill, dude! We have to understand that voters don't know that, will never know that and will blame Biden for the lack of progress unless we tell them, "Hey, Democrats are trying to do this and Republicans are blocking it!”

Step 5 is "Own our issues, then own theirs." Here you note that Republicans are seen as better on the economy — it's an issue they've owned for decades — even though Democrats are actually better for the economy across a broad range of metrics. So what should they do about it?

This comes from a political science area called "issue ownership." There are certain issues that are attached to the party brand. For Democrats, it's health care and education. Among low-information voters, who hardly follow politics aside from the presidential year and the last couple of weeks before the election, what is their broad, top-of-mind understanding of what the two parties stand for? In poll after poll you'll see this, and you'll see this in Trump versus Biden on the economy. When they think about Republicans, voters think: low taxes, good on the economy, good on national defense. Those are the three issues they own.

Yet as we both know, especially over the last 20 years — but I would argue, now that we're 50 years into Reaganomics, over the last 50 years — Democratic economic theory actually outperforms Reaganomics, starve-the-beast, trickle-down economics. So we need to start talking about that. We need to get the electorate to understand that the economy as they know it began after the Great Depression and World War II, and it was f**king humming, and the Republicans come in in 1980 and steal all our tax revenue to put us into a permanent cycle of deficit spending, and because of that divestment from our growth, our future, our infrastructure, our education systems, all these other things that in 1950 or 1960 we led the world on, we've been surpassed by the EU, by Canada. It's time for us to tell the story of what happened to the American economy, and to make sure people understand what happened to it was the Republican Party.

Step 6 is "Stick to a single villain." Here you note that after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, President Biden said, “As a nation, we have to ask: When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” What's wrong with that? How is it typical? And what should Democrats say instead?

"It's time for us to tell the story of what happened to the American economy, and to make sure people understand what happened to it was the Republican Party."

Because if it wasn't for Republicans we would have passed gun legislation after Columbine. The reason we don't have gun legislation isn't because people don't want to stand up or because Congress refuses to act or the NRA says we can't. It's because Republicans are blocking action in the Senate and the House. They will never side with our kids over their killers, until and unless we remove that obstacle electorally by electing Democrats to replace them. So if we want to solve guns, we have to make sure the voters know who the problem is. It's not the NRA. It's not Congress. The reason we can't have gun safety in this country is because the Republican Party tells us that we should just go die. 

Finally, step 7 is "Say it again. And again. And again." That's pretty obvious, but why is it so important? 

Because nobody pays attention to news and politics. It is very important for people to understand, out there in the world — especially because of the internet and all the divergent tech we have, which is completely different than the '80s and '90s — many people are hearing absolutely nothing, ever, about politics. So the only way for us to get through to them is to pick something like the Roe repeal and wedge the sh** out of it, over and over and over, so there's repetition throughout the system, from the state legislative level up to governors, Senate races, the presidential race, with all these candidates talking about it, making the media cover it, just like CRT, so they can put that into the mind of the voter.

But it definitely takes what I call a "sniper strategy," not a shotgun strategy. You cannot get a successful media narrative built if you're talking about three or four different things. You have to focus on one or two things and really pound the sand about them. 

In Chapter 9, "How to Land Punches," you talk about the power of mockery. Why is that important? 

The most important thing about strategic mockery is this. In Republican world — Earth Two — there are some truths that they find to be self-evident. No. 1, the Democrats stole the election in 2020, and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. No. 2, there was no insurrection, Trump has never committed a crime of any type and he's just an innocent guy that we've been hounding. No. 3, the COVID vaccine is the biggest scandal ever. The COVID vaccine is far more deadly than COVID itself, and anyone who got it has tainted blood — I'm not making this up! This is Republican reality. Democrats are pedophiles, Democrats support the genital mutilation of children. This is the rhetoric that has now, after 10 years of radicalization, become the mainstream platform, the reality-anchoring world of MAGA and the majority of the Republican Party. 

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So it's very important for people to understand that's what we're running up against. What strategic mockery means is, don't legitimate their Earth Two reality. Make fun of it! Make them seem as absolutely ridiculous as these Earth Two claims are, because there is verifiable reality, and they're not living in it. As soon as we legitimize their reality, we're losing. So right out of the gate, I'm very pleased that the House Democrats have done such a great job in their committees. We have an Oversight Committee being run by an insurrectionist, with 11 insurrectionists on the committee, pretending that they're investigating the "weaponization of government" while they weaponize government, trying to interfere in criminal prosecutions they have nothing to do with, all their other things. So we must, at all times, be mocking the premise of Earth Two claims. 

You go on to explain how mockery relates to the messaging formula Republicans have long used, which Democrats need to learn as well. What’s the lesson here?

It's trying to teach Democrats strategic comms. When you get an opportunity to go on "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation," there's no better framing opportunity. Republicans get that. So if they're invited onto a Sunday show, they have a strategic narrative, and they're going to shape all their comments around achieving it. We go because we think, let's have a legitimate, substantive discussion about the merits of the border bill or whatever. So when a reporter asks, "What about the Democrats?' we end up explaining, da-da-da-da-da, and the Republicans are there spitting out their messaging talking points against us. 

"What strategic mockery means is, don't legitimate their Earth Two reality. Make fun of it! Make them seem as absolutely ridiculous as their claims are, because there is verifiable reality, and they're not living in it."

So it's about getting Democrats to understand: Yes, we love policy, and we got into it because we love government, but we've got to stop. We've got to stop, especially in earned media appearances, and make sure we’re using those as the only opportunity to hit eyeballs and to create a narrative. Make sure that we are not taking what the moderator gives us and turning it into a real conversation. Instead, we're using it as a narrative-setting device, like Republicans have been doing for two decades. 

Sometimes that involves the pivot and attack. So if you get asked a tough question about Biden and Gaza or whatever, you respond: "What's the Republican policy in Gaza? It'd be to napalm Gaza and erect a Trump Tower." Not saying that to the audience, not pivoting and attacking — yeah, Gaza's bad for Biden, but it's worse for Republicans — is unforgivable. 

So, pivot and attack. Again, I talked about protecting kids. Republicans wanted to run, and did run, in 2021 and 2022 talking about protecting children. Well, if I'm on a show with a Republican and I get asked about gender mutilation or books in schools or whatever, if the words "protect children" come up, I'm going to stop and I'm going to say, "Oh, I think it's great you want to talk about protecting children in schools. Let's talk about Republicans blocking gun legislation for decades and letting our kids get slaughtered at school by weapons of war."

You'll notice these words are all hyperbolic, they're emotive, they're designed to create the image. It's not "protect our kids in school." It's "protect our children from getting slaughtered at school by weapons of war." In that process, suddenly the debate switches from whether the schools were closed too long for COVID to why Republicans are letting our children die. It puts them on defense and you can belittle them, like, "How can you offer thoughts and prayers when your inaction got those kids killed?"

In Chapter 10, "How to Give Wedgies," you describe wedging as a messaging tactic, using a political issue to divide the opposition and the electorate, and to frame the opposition party as a threat. You describe the workings of "the GOP’s two most effective wedgies," abortion and gun ownership. What's your advice on how Democrats can do the same? 

Obviously abortion is the main issue for this cycle. Abortion politics have long favored Republicans. They're better at messaging, so we defined abortion as a choice, like going through a drive-through and getting a cup of coffee, and they defined it as life and murder. You can see in that frame who's got the rhetorical advantage. Also, they have always benefited from the reality of legal abortion being in place. 

So the abortion debate has always centered, in terms of morality, on the claim that these unborn, innocent children are being murdered by selfish women who got irresponsibly pregnant and then used abortion as a quick fix. Then, after Roe was repealed, the morality becomes not about hypothetical unborn babies. It becomes about real, live women being tortured and eventually someone's going to die.

"If we're dealing with an electorate that knows nothing, we have to make sure it learns one thing: The Republican Party is a fascist cult that's coming to steal your health, your wealth, your freedom and your safety."

We're almost two years out from Roe repeal now. We have the 2022 midterms, the 2023 Virginia cycle and all the special initiatives that have happened since then, and they all tell us the exact same thing. The Roe effect has basically bought the Democrats, on average, about eight points improved performance in all of the various contested partisan elections they've run in. That includes swing races and all races. 

I was telling people to run on the threat of MAGA extremism, and the Roe repeal allowed them to take that abstract claim and put it into something very tangible. So it's very, very concrete in that regard. It proves that Republicans will lie to you about your freedom. They've been on record for decades, all these justices saying, "Oh, the precedent is all settled," right? And the second they got a chance it was, "You have no constitutional right." So getting people to run on that frame, defining the Republicans as an extremist threat, was helped incredibly by the Roe repeal.

I’ve only focused on a few key chapters in your book, so I know you’ll have an answer to my last question. I always ask, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what’s the answer? 

That is definitely the "why." Why does Republican messaging work better than ours? Why doesn't our wonky cerebral messaging, fact-checking and explaining the truth, being more accurate, seem to yield us dividends? And in the front half of the book is where I make the case as to why. The main lesson from that, folks, is this: Normal Americans, almost half of them did not vote in 2020. They're so tuned out of American politics that an election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the middle of an apocalypse didn't catch their interest.  

And then, in the 60 percent who bothered to show up in the most consequential election in American history since the Civil War, they know a great deal about deflate-gate if they're football fans, or about NASCAR or Taylor Swift or all the sh** that people are interested in, but if you ask them about politics, they don't know.  

So the book is designed to fix the foundation that we're built on. Our electioneering foundation has been built on a flawed assumption. The American people are plenty smart when it comes to IQ. That doesn't mean they're civically smart. The reason is disinterest. People don't follow politics because they don't care, and I show you guys in survey data: Not only do they not care, they're kind of proud about not caring. We have to meet the clay, the rough clay, where it is. If we're dealing with an electorate that knows nothing, then we have to make sure it at least learns one thing: The modern Republican Party is a fascist cult that's coming to steal your health, your wealth, your freedom and your safety. 

By Paul Rosenberg

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

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