Epicenter mostly focuses on New York City politics but today we begin occasionally zooming out at the national picture, given upcoming midterm elections.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Democrats are facing a pretty bleak picture going into the midterms. In general, the party of the president in office tends to face headwinds at the midpoint of his term, if only because voters tend to place anything bad that’s happened in the interim directly at his feet.
In this case, there is plenty to draw from. Inflation has battered working- and middle-class families’ finances and planning, compounded by a national baby formula shortage that has highlighted the risks in monopolizing the production of a critical good. Extremist attacks, like the one in Buffalo last week, are on the rise. Congressional Democrats have failed utterly to act to codify a national right to abortion despite its overwhelming popularity and even in the wake of outrage fueled by a leaked draft Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Even on their successes, they’ve managed to lose control of public narratives. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law late last year was a historic investment into public infrastructure and jobs that their GOP counterparts had basically allowed to decay in a way that caused real negative impact to Americans’ lives, yet it’s also disappeared from the national political discourse in favor of tired talk about a border crisis or inflation.
One strategy here could be to lean on the energization of youth voters, but the GenForward poll, which tracks the preferences of politically engaged young adults ages 18-36, makes clear that this is a tall order. In terms of party preference, it found that 53 percent of respondents had somewhat or very unfavorable views of the Republicans, which seems like good news for the incumbents. Yet, the Democrats didn’t exactly fare incredibly, with 42 percent similarly having very or somewhat unfavorable views of the party. Only about 18 percent had very favorable views, despite the fact that, out of the poll’s roughly 2,000 respondents, self-identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans over 2-to-1.
What can we make of this? It’s no doubt a confluence of factors, but the rest of the polling provides one relatively concise answer: young voters are disillusioned with the system writ large. When naming the issue of most importance to them, tied for first at 9 percent, were economic growth and income inequality, followed closely by environment and climate change at 8 percent. Collectively, that’s over a quarter of respondents whose main priority had to do with the increasingly distant prospect of a viable economic and sustainable future, neatly crushing the frequent complaints that they only care about thought policing or whatever.
These are people who want evidence that the political system is going to deliver some modicum of stability and wealth, the sort that has been slowly stripped away by the cratering labor movement, the financialization of the economy, the hegemony of private equity and its predatory impulses, and all the other collapse of personal financial safeguards engineered since the late 70s. It culminated in a moment where many thousands of these young voters have more debt than assets and little prospect for anything else, and they’re signaling, very concretely, that they want more.
This doesn’t need to be frightening for the Democrats, as it’s fundamentally a battle they can win, but only if they can match the messaging to reality. One approach, as policy researcher Will Stancil wrote recently in Politico, is to better understand the role of emotional connection in electoral politics. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman recently crushed his establishment-backed competition in a Democratic Senate primary by, very basically, seeming relatable and unterrified of plain and not-focus-grouped messaging. For many younger voters, it might be as simple as a candidate who can say “I’ve got your back” in a way that seems halfway genuine. The alternative is Democrats get wiped out in November, and forget about anything else getting done for the remainder of Biden’s term.