BALTIMORE — House Democrats are walking away from a soul-searching retreat in Baltimore without having answered the question that has loomed over them since the election: Whether the party should be content with changing its communication strategy or whether the party needs to undergo deeper changes.
“We lost, so either our programs need to be retooled or our communication needs to be retooled. Now which do you think is easier for us to focus on?” California Rep. Brad Sherman said. “I wish we could just print our message on a different color of paper and suddenly win, but I think it’s going to be harder than that."
Democrats have historically said their economic platform should be able to bridge rural and progressive voters, but the last three elections have shown that they're still struggling. The party hasn't held control of the House in six years and since Nancy Pelosi gave up her gavel, they've lost the Senate and the White House as well. Once again, members are thinking about how they can communicate more effectively, but they're coming up with few answers.
The question was at the top of many members' minds as more than 130 House Democrats, roughly two-third of their membership, came to Baltimore for a three-day "issues conference" this week, the theme of which was "Fighting For All Americans."
But some Democrats say that while the party wants to fight for every American, they're still not reaching a lot of them. Rural voters, in particular, are fleeing the party and tough losses in 2016 have some members urging the party to rethink its strategy.
"This is exactly why we lost," one frustrated Democratic member told BuzzFeed News in a text message during a presentation at the retreat in which the member said people were clearly bored. "Trump thinks in visuals and what sells. We're listening to an MIT prof give a dissertation with graphs on rumors that has no bearing in reality!"
Other Democrats challenge concerns over their 2016 losses by pointing out that they actually picked up six seats in the House. But their victories were far smaller than expected (some prognosticators had put control of the House in play) and the Senate and presidential races also showed deep flaws in the way the party has been reaching out to voters.
Rep. Tim Ryan said he worries that the party is focused too heavily on responding to the day-to-day curveballs President Donald Trump has been throwing their way, at the expense of providing a clear alternative message.
“That’s part of his M.O. is to cause a shit storm. And then get them Democrats all distracted on whatever that daily issue is, and it prevents us from sustaining a long-term brand and a long-term message," Ryan said.
Ryan, who challenged Pelosi for minority leader late last year, has joined some other Democrats in saying the party should push for a "new brand" following the 2016 election.
“I think we’ve proven that we’re bad communicators,” Ryan said. “Look where we are. Clearly we’re not good at it, and we gotta fix it.”
Among his suggestions are making more appearances on conservative radio and television shows. Ryan said by focusing on issues like laying broadband, a smart grid and green energy, Democrats can lay out an alternative for voters while maintaining a sustained message.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said that with the election over, now is the time for Democrats to change their strategy.
“I worry that we are ineffective communicators,” Lujan Grisham said. “When you’re telling a joke, and people don’t laugh, it’s either a bad joke, or you didn’t tell it right.”
Part of the problem in 2016 is that Democrats didn't know just how poorly their message was connecting with voters, particularly those in rural areas. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that a "polling reboot" is in the works in which pollsters will have to defend their methods before the party agrees to work with them for 2018. Luján said they want to make it clear that unreliable pollsters will not be invited back.
"Across the country, we saw that there was a challenge with reaching rural voters," Luján said. "We know rural voters should not be treated monolithically. It's almost as [though] these [polling] models treated people that they were going to vote the same, behave the same and that they thought the same. I think that that was a big mistake, and so that's something that has to fundamentally change."
Alongside the DCCC's self-analysis, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney led a separate review of what went wrong in 2016, known as the Democrats' "autopsy," which he presented to members alongside Luján at the retreat this week.
"What he did was, he went through and said, these are some of our assumptions that proved to be wrong," Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer told BuzzFeed News.
Maloney pitched the autopsy as a way of assessing where the party needs to improve, ultimately pointing not to a deep flaw in the party's mission, but in how Democrats sell it and try to get their message across.
"If we understand our challenges, we can keep winning in rural areas the way we have before, but we can also win in places we didn't used to think we could," Maloney said. "There's nothing in the data that says we should sell our souls or change our values or stop believing in things like equality and civil rights and fairness, but we also need to explain to people how we're going to grow this economy."
Maloney's office said that the final autopsy report will be finished in March.
Some members are calling for an even deeper change to speak to the base that has mobilized in marches, protests at congressional offices and clogged members' phone lines since President Donald Trump took office. The problem isn't just how the party sells its core mission to voters, they say, it's about identifying what that mission actually is.
"It's not about the messaging or communicating, it's about having a vision that we're going to stand for," California Rep. Ro Khanna told BuzzFeed News. "I think it's a lack of boldness, it's a lack of inspiration, it's a lack of clarity in exactly what is our economic priority."
Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, is not the only progressive lawmaker who thinks there is more to the party's problems than messaging.
"I think we're in the process of repositioning the Democratic Party as the fighting progressive party for middle-class and working class America," said Rep. Jamie Raskin. "Communications policy flows out of substantive policy decisions you make... I think that we have to be honest to recognize that we drifted from our roots in growing away from the working class, the multi-racial working class, including the white working class in states like Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin."
The real test for Democrats would come when Republicans propose something that requires cooperation from the left. Pelosi has said that the party will be willing to work with Republicans where they can they find common ground, a suggestion that some members on the left have rejected. But while there are disagreements within the party of what direction to take, Democrats have so far managed to stay united. Trump has provided the party with plenty of opportunities to uniformly oppose him.
"So far we haven’t seen anything from the administration that would justify any kind of cooperation," Pelosi said during the retreat, highlighting that Democrats should continue to provide a clear alternative to Republicans.
Meanwhile, the clock is already counting down to the next election, and Democrats know they need to reach out to the voters they have lost. Beyond appealing to the progressives who are actively protesting the Trump administration and keeping a watchful eye on Democrats, the party is well aware that it can't lose focus on rural voters either.
“I think the next presidential nominee should be someone who’s gutted a deer or in some other way demonstrates to small-town America and rural America and hunters that they’re culturally attuned," Sherman said. "And gutting a deer is one way to go."
Lissandra Villa is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Lissandra Villa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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