With polls, private meetings, GOP crafts messaging to paint Democrats as extreme
WASHINGTON – Republican leaders are sharpening and poll-testing lines of attack that portray Democratic policies on health care, the environment and abortion as far outside the norm, in hopes of arming President Trump with hyperbolic sound bites – some of them false – asserting that Democrats would cause long waits for doctors or make killing babies after birth legal.
The blunt messaging underscores one of the biggest challenges facing Democrats as they try to defeat the incumbent president: the need to define themselves and their ideas before Trump and his conservative allies do it for them.
The Republican National Committee has already begun polling in 16 states to assess ways to discredit ideas like “Medicare for all,” which Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed in a bill this week, and build on the party’s broader argument that Democratic candidates like Sanders are promoting an extreme socialist agenda. Social conservative leaders have met with White House officials to discuss calling attention to Democratic-sponsored legislation to loosen restrictions on abortion in the second and third trimesters, like one that passed recently in New York.
The recent focus on health care and abortion follows well-coordinated attacks on policies like the Green New Deal, which reduced the far-reaching climate change proposal to a punch line with jokes about cow flatulence and putting farms out of business.
Some Democratic strategists said they have been taken aback recently by how successful Trump and Republicans have been at setting the terms of the debate around liberal policy ideas. And they are encouraging their party to be more nimble and deliver a more concise and accessible message.
In a fight with Trump, they say, nuance is not usually the Democrats’ best weapon.
“What our side has to understand is that to fight Trump, it’s a battle for definition,” said Celinda Lake, a top Democratic pollster who has been working with left-of-center groups on a strategy to counter the messaging campaign from the right.
“The Democrats will issue a 61-page white paper that nobody in their right mind will pass on to their friends,” she added. “He uses a one-sentence slogan, and his voters feel emboldened to share it, pass it on.”
It is not clear whether any of the Republican messaging is having an impact on voters outside of the president’s so far unmovable base. But Lake said that as she surveyed likely 2020 swing voters, she was surprised to hear people in focus groups repeat false assertions made by the president and his allies – that Democrats would end air travel in the United States and shut down dairy farms and beef production because of greenhouse-gas emissions from cows.
“It’s amazing the number of people who would volunteer that,” she said. The actual language in the proposal calls for cleaner transportation and agriculture “as much as is technologically feasible.” The misperception about cows and airplanes originated with a now-retracted fact sheet published by Rep. Alexandria OcasioCortez’s office that contained an ironic aside about getting rid of “farting cows and airplanes.”
Republicans said they also saw “Medicare for all”-type proposals as a way to give their rallying cries on socialism more substance and potency. Some plans, like the one put forward by Sanders, would largely eliminate private insurance plans, which Republicans have found is overwhelmingly unpopular with the kinds of voters they need to win back.
“The debate that’s going to play out in suburbs across the country is a choice between capitalism versus socialism,” said Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. “When Democrats talk about abolishing private health insurance, for example, most of my friends are on private insurance plans through their jobs or their husbands’ jobs. They don’t want to lose that. They don’t want to wait in line to get to the pediatrician.”
“Whichever Democrat wins the nomination will have to own their party’s socialist agenda,” she added. “That’s a debate that President Trump is eager to have and knows he can win.”
The Republicans’ data on voters from the 2018 midterms showed that coverage of pre-existing medical conditions was the top issue of concern. But here they face a serious disadvantage: They have no health care plan of their own. But they have been testing messaging on health care with likely voters in the 16 states they believe will be the most competitive in 2020. These include ones Trump narrowly won like Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida, as well as those he won by larger margins but have tilted more Democratic lately, like Arizona and North Carolina. The RNC found that when voters were told that “Medicare for all” would eliminate private insurance and create a government-run system paid for by higher taxes, independents, married women and union members disliked the idea by wide margins. Among married women alone, nearly 60 percent disapproved.
Trump has occasionally made graphic and false claims that Democrats support legislation that would allow “executing babies AFTER birth,” as he said in a recent tweet. During a meeting at the White House before his State of the Union address that included some conservative activists, Trump expressed amazement at comments by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who had to clarify his defense of abortion in later stages of pregnancy after activists accused him of saying doctors should be able to kill a baby born alive during the procedure.
“Can you believe this governor?” the president said, according to two people at the meeting, who said that he was surprisingly animated about the subject and vowed to keep mentioning it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says such late-term abortions are extremely rare. Only about 1.3 percent of abortions in the United States in 2015 were performed in or after the 21st week of pregnancy, the agency reported.
But anti-abortion activists said the efforts in some states like New York and Virginia to remove certain barriers to second and third trimester abortions allowed them to present the issue to voters in a new and graphic light. Democrats have struggled to defend the new legislation; privately some say they are not being persuasive in explaining the health situations the bills address while the other side accuses them of condoning infanticide.
While polls show that Americans support allowing abortion in the first three months by wide margins, that support drops sharply when people are asked in general about the second and third trimesters. (They overwhelmingly support exceptions if the mother’s life is endangered.)
Democrats say they cannot let Trump and other Republicans go unanswered as they try to link the party to socialism – a term that Americans view negatively overall – and to extremism in a broader sense. That has been the motivation behind Republicans’ intense focus on two young, freshman members of Congress: Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who calls herself a democratic socialist; and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, whose criticism of Israel led the president and others to condemn her as an anti-Semite. Some of Omar’s most vocal defenders have been self-described democratic socialists.
Even if Americans say they like policies that are derivative of socialism, like Social Security, the term “connotes very clear imagery to people in a very dog whistle kind of way,” said Jefrey Pollock, president of the Global Strategy group, which advises Democrats on messaging. “Then they attach faces to it,” he added, “and I think it can have resonance, and it has had resonance.”
The effort on the right to elevate Ocasio-Cortez, 29, as the most prominent socialist foil is something Democrats are watching, Pollock said. “She is, of course, six years away from being able to run for president. But they are still trying to make her the face of the party.”
President Trump in Crosby, Texas, Wednesday. Republicans are poll-testing ways to portray Democrats as too extreme on issues like health care, abortion and the environment. Democrats worry the messaging is working.