The Downballot: How Democrats can win on the economy (transcript)

The economy seems to be going great, but lots of voters still say they aren’t feeling it. So how should Democrats deal with this conundrum? On this week’s episode of “The Downballot,” communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio tells us that the first step is to reframe the debate, focusing not on “the economy”—an institution many feel is unjust—but rather on voters’ economic well-being. Shenker-Osorio advises Democrats to run on a populist message that emphasizes specifics, like delivering tangible kitchen-table economic benefits and protecting personal liberties, including the right to an abortion.

Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also investigate the new candidacy of rich guy Eric Hovde, the latest in a long line of GOP Senate candidates who have weak ties to the states they want to represent. Then it’s on to redistricting news in two states: Wisconsin, which will have fair legislative maps for the first time in ages, and New York, where Democrats are poised to nuke a new congressional map that no one seems to like.

Subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show. New episodes every Thursday morning!

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, Contributing Editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir: And I’m David Nir, Political Director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency; from Senate to City Council. We are super excited to celebrate two major milestones this month, “The Downballot’s” second anniversary, and our 100th episode. We could not have made it to this point without all of our incredible listeners, and we are so grateful to each and every one of you for helping spread the word about our show. We also have a special favor to ask. You can help new folks discover “The Downballot” by reviewing us on your favorite podcast app on Spotify, and on Apple Podcasts you can give us a five-star rating. And you can go one step further and leave us a written review on Apple Podcasts, which is like the New York Times bestseller list for podcasts.

Beard: And I just want to echo Nir’s thanks to our listeners. This podcast literally would not be possible without all of you tuning in and listening every week. We love to do it and we love that you listen to us, and hopefully get something good out of it. But enough navel-gazing. What are we going to be talking about this week?

Nir: Yes, let’s get right into this show. We have another Republican recruit who is running for Senate in a state that he doesn’t really seem to have strong ties to anymore. This is part of a longstanding pattern. And then in that very same state, Wisconsin, we are going to be talking about a hugely exciting development. The state will finally have fair legislative maps for the first time in decades. Also, on the redistricting front, we are discussing the new map in New York for Congress produced by the state’s redistricting commission, and why so many Democrats seem to really despise it.

Then, for our deep dive, we are talking with communications consultant Anat Schenker-Osorio, about how Democrats ought to message on one of the most important topics there is: talking, of course, about the economy. We have another fantastic episode celebrating our anniversary this week, so let’s get rolling.

We’re eight and a half months away from the general election in November of 2024. And I know that might seem like a long time, but for a Senate campaign, it’s a really short amount of time, yet it was only this week that Republicans finally managed to nail down a candidate in Wisconsin.

Beard: Yeah, it’s wild. It is not uncommon for Senate candidates to announce, say, the first quarter of the odd year before. We have announcements that early because it takes a long time if you’re not an incumbent to raise that money, to build up your name ID and everything. But in Wisconsin, Republicans have just been waiting and waiting in the hopes that somebody they think is a decent candidate would announce. And they finally have that person. The NRSC’s favorite, the establishment’s favorite, the rich businessman, Eric Hovde finally announced his campaign. One small problem with Hovde though, he’s about as connected to Wisconsin as Dave McCormick is to Pennsylvania, and Tim Sheehy is to Montana, which is to say, not very.

Nir: Or to put it in terms everyone will understand about as connected as Dr. Oz was to Pennsylvania.

Beard: Yes. You might be seeing a pattern here, which is Republican Senate candidates who like to parachute into competitive states. So Hovde, the Journal Sentinel reported in May, paid close to $7 million in 2018 for what they said, quote, “was a luxurious hillside estate in Orange County, California.” Which is pretty far away from Wisconsin. He starred in ads for his bank that were filmed in California and even featured him in Old West garb — which again, is not very close to Wisconsin. He was even designated by the Orange County Business Journal as one of the 500 most influential people in the county in 2020. Which, honestly, is not really that impressive. It’s one county and it’s 500 people. But it does go to show that he is very well known in Orange County, California, not so much in Wisconsin.

Nir: Orange County is, in fairness, a pretty big county.

Beard: I guess, yeah.

Nir: But I tend to think that these lists, you probably submit yourself. I’m not saying this is the case with this one, but for a lot of these lists, you pay to be on them. He was actually, Beard, believe it or not, he was on this list though for three years running. I mean, talk about setting down roots.

Beard: Well, yeah, I mean he’s committed to Orange County, California, right up until February of 2024 when he’s committed to the state of Wisconsin. So he said he was born in Wisconsin, raised in Wisconsin, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin. He’s even got a business in Wisconsin. So that’s his response, which isn’t really a claim to anything other than 30 years ago, or whenever it was he was growing up, he lived there, but he’s obviously spent years and years away from the state. And Wisconsin is not Nevada. Nevada is sort of the quintessential state where people don’t really care if you didn’t live there if you’re a more recent transplant. It’s a very transient state. Lots of people move into Vegas. That’s sort of what it’s known for.

There are other states that are a little more friendly to movement. A state like Wisconsin, a lot of those upper-Midwest states, sort of like Montana we’ve also talked about. These states, they care. They care that you’re there, that you have the history there in that state, and that you didn’t fly away and come back when a Senate seat opened up.

Nir: Even more amazingly, he was asked directly how much time he spends in Wisconsin, this was a little while back, and he wouldn’t answer. He wouldn’t even say, probably because he couldn’t say or because the answer sucks or both. But I mean, man, it’s not not going to come up on the campaign trail, let’s put it that way.

Beard: Yeah, it’s the game plan that Democrats ran against Dr. Oz — among other things, of course; Dr. Oz had a whole list of problems there. But among other things, the transplant issue is not going to go away. It is clearly proven to be effective. So it’s just crazy how often Republicans go to this, well, they’re so desperate for a rich guy to relieve them of their fundraising woes that they can come from anywhere and run in any state as long as they’re willing to self-fund.

Now, Hovde may not have a clean ride all the way through the primary. A couple of other Wisconsinites have… when I say Wisconsinites, these are actual Wisconsinites. They’ve also said that they may run a fellow rich guy named Scott Mayer, who said that he’s going to decide within a month. And he previewed his strategy against Hovde which is not surprising. He said, quote, “I don’t know that Wisconsin voters are keen on having a Wisconsin senator that lives in California.” Which-

Nir: Ouch.

Beard: Fair point. Fair point Republican Scott Mayer. I think that’s a very good point about Eric Hovde. And then of course we’ve also got notorious former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who’s also said that he may also run. His decision is supposedly coming within weeks. The filing deadline isn’t until June here, so we’ve got some time to see exactly how this shakes out. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hovde doesn’t have a clean path through the primary.

Nir: So obviously we got Hovde, we mentioned Dave McCormick, Dr. Oz 2.0, Tim Sheehy, Montana. But also there is former Congressman Mike Rogers from Michigan who bailed on Michigan years ago, put down roots in Florida, and only recently wound up schlepping back to Michigan to run for the Senate there. There’s Nella Domenici, she is the daughter of former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. And you’d think, okay, well, daughter of a former Senator, that’s a great connection there. Well, she owns a luxury apartment in a luxury building on 5th Avenue in New York City. And then on top of that, there is also Sam Brown, who is the NRSC’s recruit in Nevada. And he once said that it would take an act of God to get him out of Texas because Texas is the greatest state in the nation or some such nonsense like that. But the act of God thing is definitely his quote.

This is half a dozen, including almost all of their top recruits in Democratic-held seats. The amazing thing is, we were kicking this around before the show among the Daily Kos Elections team. It’s really hard to think of a Democrat who did something similar in a Senate race, and who was also a recruit of the establishment. I’m not going to swear to this, but I think you maybe have to go back to Hillary Clinton in 2000, and that was about as special a case as you can really find.

Beard: Yeah, it really comes down to candidate quality. Democrats have really consistently, in recent years, put up really good candidates who have really good roots in their states. And that is a real benefit, and Republicans keep putting up often rich guys that help them with their fundraising issues in the Trump era, and they just seem to think, oh, this isn’t going to be an issue. And of course, in really red states, it doesn’t need to be. Obviously, you can run a rich guy in some R +20 state, and that doesn’t matter if they get through the primary and the NRSC doesn’t have to care. But in these swing states like Wisconsin, you can’t get away with this. This is not going to help them. To the degree that this was going to be a competitive race. And of course, Wisconsin is a competitive state, but it’s going to be a tough road to beat Tammy Baldwin; she’s a really good senator. She’s got a strong incumbency there, so to put up this guy, I’m not impressed.

Nir: We got a lot more Wisconsin news to talk about though, David Beard. And it is some actually really amazing news. Which is that, for the first time in a very long time, the state will finally have fair legislative maps. Now, that’s assuming that the State Supreme Court approves of new districts that were proposed by Democratic Governor Tony Evers and passed by Republican lawmakers, but I think that they are very likely to stand up. And I’m sure that our old-school listeners on “The Downballot” will remember just how extreme the GOP’s gerrymanders were that Republicans rammed through after the 2010 GOP wave. And this led to the whole Scott Walker era, and the attacks on public sector unions and the recall attempts. Wisconsin has had these horrible, horrible maps for a long time even though it is always a swing state. And that’s finally, finally about to change, and I can hardly believe that.

Beard: Yeah, it’s great news. We’ve seen what fair maps can do for other Midwestern states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that were in similar situations. We’ve seen how much progress has been made in Michigan thanks to these fair maps allowing for Democrats to finally win majorities. And to be clear, they were very narrow majorities because these aren’t Democratic gerrymanders in a state like Michigan. They were fair maps and Democrats very narrowly won the election, and so very narrowly got the most seats. And that’s what we can now expect to happen in Wisconsin, which is, these two parties are going to run.

Obviously, Ron Johnson won in Wisconsin two years ago. If Republicans can win a majority of the vote, there’s every chance they’ll win a majority of the seats. But Democrats have had a good record of winning statewide in recent years in Wisconsin, so I think they really believe they can win a majority of the votes. And now with fair maps, they should be able to get a majority of the seats in the state assembly, at least in 2024, where all of the seats are up this year.

Nir: So yeah, let’s talk about those maps and what they mean. So under Evers’ Senate map, Joe Biden would’ve won an 18 to 15 majority of seats in the state Senate. Though, I’ll note that several of those are very, very close margins for Joe Biden. Donald Trump would’ve carried a majority in the state assembly just 50 to 49. And here’s the contrast, the invalid maps that the state Supreme Court struck down gave Trump a 22 to 11 edge in the state Senate and a 64 to 35 advantage in the assembly. These were some of the most extreme gerrymanders in the entire nation, and it’s why the GOP currently has a supermajority in the Senate, and they are just two seats shy in the Assembly. Even though, as I said a minute ago, Wisconsin, as everyone knows, has been a swing state for decades now.

Beard: Yeah, we’ve seen how incredibly close Wisconsin state elections have been in recent years. And the idea that that same state would have a 22 to 11 majority in its state Senate, for either party, is just absolutely crazy and just the clearest evidence of how bad these maps were.

Nir: Now, Beard, you were alluding to this moment ago. One thing to note is that only half of the Senate is up every two years. The plaintiffs in the court case had asked the court to order elections for every single seat in 2024. But the court declined to do that. So that means that half of the Senate’s members will get to continue serving next year after being elected on an illegal map. What that means in practice is that Democrats have a good shot at winning the Assembly this fall, but they likely can’t retake the Senate this year. But that doesn’t mean you can take your eyes off of the Senate because it’s a two-cycle play. It means you have to set yourself up in 2024 so that you can flip the chamber in 2026, which is definitely a possibility under these maps.

Beard: And this is a lot of seats to win back even under a fair map, and that takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of money and effort on the ground. So even if the entire Senate had been up, I’m sure they would’ve given it everything they had. But in some ways, it allows you to focus on these Senate seats in 2024 and then the second set of Senate seats in 2026 as you make this two-cycle play.

Nir: I like that silver lining, Beard. So you may be wondering: why on earth would Republicans pass maps that were drawn by Evers? Or, I doubt that Tony Evers was sitting down with Dave’s Redistricting App, though, I kind of like that image.

Beard: If only.

Nir: And actually, I mean, he seems like a pretty nerdy guy. I could picture it actually, but probably his political team. So this is how one Republican state Senator Van Wanggaard put it. And God, what a whiner. He said, “Republicans were not stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was a matter of choosing to be stabbed, shot, poisoned, or led to the guillotine. We chose to be stabbed so he can live to fight another day.” Jesus Christ, dude, you are not being guillotined. This is not the French Revolution, you maniac.

Beard: Yeah, the entitlement that Republicans in these states where they’ve had gerrymandered maps for over a decade, the entitlement that they feel to these maps and to these seats is just incredible. The idea that they would have to face the voters is so anathema to Republicans in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, which now has the title of most gerrymandered maps, woo-hoo, is just wild.

Nir: The argument Wanggaard was trying to make is that of all the plans that the state Supreme Court was considering, Republicans thought that the Evers proposals were the least bad for them. And in fact, Evers was reportedly under a lot of pressure from Democrats and progressives to veto his own maps because many folks felt that other proposals under consideration were better for any number of reasons. Vetoing your own proposals — that was probably politically unpalatable for Evers. I suspect though he never really thought Republicans would just pass them straight-up. The fact is though, Evers was not under any obligation to submit any maps to the Supreme Court in the first place. So if anyone’s unhappy with him, this is his own problem to deal with. But I really don’t think, in the end, that the differences between any of the plans, the legitimate plans that were being considered by the Supreme Court, were really all that dramatic.

The court still will very likely weigh in on these maps. Usually, that’s what happens in redistricting disputes, that if there’s no valid map and the court’s in the process of implementing a new one and then the legislature suddenly passes one. We saw this happen in Alabama, for instance, where the court still wanted to take a look at it, and there were six total plans submitted to the court. Now, two were a total joke. One was submitted by Republicans, the other by a conservative think tank, and the court’s own appointed experts dismissed those two as partisan gerrymanders.

But that left four plans. And of those plans, the court said that the submitted plans are similar on most criteria. From a social science point of view, these plans are nearly indistinguishable. So I’d be pretty surprised if the court has any objections. Maybe there could be some technical corrections, but I would expect these to be the maps or very, very close to it. And at this point, I’m sure no one wants to upset the apple cart because it’s getting close to November, like we were saying, and people want to get running.

Beard: Yeah. And the preference for courts is often for… if the legislature can come up with a compliant map, of course, in this case by the legislature, we mean passing the Evers map. But if the legislature can come up with that map and pass it and have it signed into law, they much prefer to have it happen that way as long as it meets all the criteria rather than having to implement a map; that’s pretty universal in terms of courts. So I think you’re right there. I think by and large, this will be the map and it’ll be exciting to see what Wisconsin Democrats can do.

Nir: I’m super excited, and I think it was Wisconsin Democratic Party chair, Ben Wikler, who said this. He argued that the newly competitive maps in Wisconsin should actually help up and down the ticket because Democrats just have a much greater reason to be fired up now.

Now, I have to admit, I’m always a little bit skeptical of this notion of reverse coattails, but I do feel like we are now talking about a statewide phenomenon that voters across the state, in many, many districts, will have competitive races for the legislature. There will just simply be more campaigns, more money being put into these races, more doors getting knocked, more ads getting run. And I just think the salience of Wisconsin’s elections is going to feel higher in general. And at the very least, I think this would have a neutral effect on turnout overall. But yeah, I think it’s plausible to argue that progressives and Democrats and moderate independents have been waiting for a long time to have real legitimate fair elections for the legislature. And we could see a burst of enthusiasm.

Beard: Yeah. And obviously, a ton of Democratic votes come from the Madison and Milwaukee areas, but a lot of the most competitive seats for the majority makers aren’t necessarily going to be in these really blue areas. They’re going to be in competitive areas, in the suburbs, or in the smaller towns outside of those two metro areas.

And those are the places that are going to see a lot more attention at this ground level than they would have previously because those places were gerrymandered to hell before and it was just a mishmash of Republican seats coming and pulling in little bits of the competitive areas. So I do think that that could be positive. Obviously, Wisconsin is a very high voter turnout state anyway, but certainly, as you said, I think it’s neutral at worst; positive very likely.

Nir: So there’s some other redistricting news that we have to talk about and it’s not as happy a story, but the final chapters have not yet been written. So New York’s redistricting commission just voted 9-1 in favor of a new congressional map that it was ordered to draw by the state’s highest court — that’s the Court of Appeals. But it seems that just about every Democrat hates it. So here’s the story. The new map doesn’t make deep changes to the state’s existing map, which was drawn by a court in 2022, but the changes it does make feel very scuzzy because they almost all somehow make life easier for incumbents.

Now, the aspect of the new map, that has gotten the most negative attention, is this apparent bipartisan incumbent protection gerrymander in two competitive seats in the Hudson Valley. The 18th District, represented by Democrat Pat Ryan, would get a few points bluer, while the 19th District, represented by Republican Marc Molinaro, would get a few points redder. These are two seats that should be at the top of both party’s target lists, and they would move down those lists if this map were to become law.

Now, one incumbent would get kind of screwed, and that’s Republican Brandon Williams in the 22nd District in the Syracuse area. He was already also very vulnerable. Biden won his district and his seat would get a few points bluer. But don’t feel too bad for Williams because he did get boosted in another way; the commission put Williams’ home inside of his district.

Now, as you very likely know, members of Congress are not obligated to live in their districts. The Constitution only requires that they live in their state, but the vast majority do live in their districts. Philip Bump of the Washington Post studied this very closely in 2017, and he found that only about 5% of representatives live outside their districts.

Obviously, most members of Congress would like to be able to vote for themselves. If you don’t live in your district, you have to vote for one of your colleagues or someone running against one of your colleagues. That’s just weird. Obviously, that’s not the most important thing. Much more important is that living in your district helps insulate you from attacks that you’re some kind of outsider or are unfamiliar with your constituents, that you’re not from around here. Basically, Beard, it’s the sort of thing we were talking about in relation to Eric Hovde a few minutes ago.

Beard: Yeah, exactly. Obviously, being in your district is better. It insulates you from a lot, so that is a little bit of a boost. But I’d rather have the points back if I were Brandon Williams rather than be like, “Oh, you get to be in the district, but you go a few points bluer.” That doesn’t seem good for him.

Nir: Like I said, we’re not going to really weep for Brandon Williams here. But here’s the thing, he was not the only member who had their house put back inside of their districts. In fact, four total, two from each party, saw changes made that would do the same thing. In addition to Williams, the others who got this treatment were Republican Nick Langworthy in the Buffalo suburbs, Democrat Paul Tonko in the Albany area, and none other than House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in Brooklyn.

But lest you think that the fix is in, Jeffries himself was very negative on the new map. He said, “There’s reason to be concerned with the failure of the commission to address many of the flaws in the current map, drawn by an unelected, out-of-town special master in 2022.” Still very salty about that court-drawn map. “Instead of remedying several of the substantive issues raised by good government groups related to communities of interest, the commission map ignores or exacerbates them.”

And he got even more specific. He said that the commission map breaks apart six additional counties in New York state, including one that appears gratuitously designed to impermissibly benefit an incumbent in the 19th Congressional District. That would be a clear violation of the New York State Constitution.

Now, of course, Jeffries did not mention the fact that in the 18th District where a Democrat would benefit, but the Constitution does very specifically say these were the amendments adopted by voters in the previous decade, that districts shall not be drawn to discourage competition or for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents or other particular candidates or political parties. And it sure as hell feels like this map’s changes, both big and small, are doing that.

Now, we don’t really know for sure what’s going to happen. The legislature is on a break this week and lawmakers reconvene on Monday, but I would be pretty surprised if they approve this map. I mean, when you have the House minority leader, the guy who is hoping to be speaker of the House come next year, really trashing the map pretty in harsh terms, I think that that’s a good sign that there aren’t too many Democrats who are going to really want to cross Hakeem Jeffries here.

Now, if they do reject this map, if lawmakers reject this map, then they would get a chance to draw their own. And if that happens, there’s really no telling what they do. There are a billion hypothetical plans floating out there on Twitter. I do think that Democrats probably want to avoid a really egregious or obvious-looking partisan gerrymander because we know that there are several judges on the Court of Appeals who are willing to say that partisan gerrymandering, or at least extreme partisan gerrymandering, might violate the state constitution.

But I do think that Democrats are probably going to move quickly. We’ve seen them move very quickly on redistricting in the past. And once again, like I was saying about Wisconsin, people want to get busy campaigning.

Beard: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got a couple of points on this. First, I just want to reiterate — we’ve said this many times before, but just for anybody who hasn’t been listening, of course — Democrats tried to pass a law to ban gerrymandering across the country, and Republicans stopped that from happening at the federal level.

So as a result, Democrats are forced to try and take advantage of gerrymandering in a state like New York to try to counteract Republican gerrymandering that’s continuing to go on in states like North Carolina, Texas, Florida, etc. And so lest anybody thinks that this conversation and our previous conversation with Wisconsin is hypocritical, we would love to have fair maps across the country, but given the situation we’re in, Democrats have got to try to go after this New York map to make the overall playing field fairer.

Now, having said that there is a tension here, within Democrats primarily, between obviously those, some of whom were on the commission, who are favoring a very simple incumbent-friendly map. We’ve seen that in other states where basically what they try to do is just make all the districts as friendly as possible for a bunch of the incumbents like you talked about. Moving them into their districts, cleaning up a couple to make them a little friendlier.

And Democrats, more based in D.C. obviously led by Jeffries, who want to have a more aggressive pro-Democratic map to try to make sure that we can pick up these seats. And what I suspect is that the Jeffries contingent, which wants a more aggressive map than what the commission passed, will likely win out because they care a lot more about the congressional map than folks in Albany do.

Folks in Albany care a lot about their own maps, the state legislative maps, which aren’t at issue here. And congressional maps, unless you’re going to run for Congress, that’s probably pretty low on your priority list if you’re a state senator or an assemblyperson. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeffries and that contingent try to find a map that is aggressive enough to really help Democrats, but they believe would still pass muster with the Supreme Court and have the state legislature hopefully pass that.

Nir: Beard, to your point about unilateral disarmament, how Democrats can’t afford to do that, I think there is a very stark difference between legislative redistricting and Congressional redistricting. Because it’s really hard to come up with an excuse for redistricting at the state legislative level, why gerrymandering would ever be okay? I don’t like being in the position of saying, “Well, Democrats got to gerrymander because we can’t just let Republicans tilt the national congressional map all the way to the right.” But that’s just the reality that we face.

But under what set of circumstances could you really say if Democrats win control of a swing state, “Well, they really got to gerrymander that legislature.” That seems like BS, so I think that these are two very different beasts. I definitely would not approve of New York Democrats gerrymandering the state legislature. There would also be no reason to, whatsoever. But yeah, I think we have to really view these two things as separate, legislative redistricting and congressional redistricting.

Beard: Yeah, and I think most people understand that. I’m just imagining the Twitter trolls.

Nir: Of course.

Beard: I don’t know if any trolls listen to the podcast. Hopefully. Hopefully, all the trolls listen to the podcast, but I could just imagine them being like, “Hey, you said that gerrymandering was bad, and then you’re talking about how you want to gerrymander something, so caught you.” But I’m just like, “No, no, you didn’t.”

Nir: Oh, busted. So busted.

Well, that does it for our weekly hits. Coming up on our deep dive, we are talking with communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio, about how Democrats can message on the economy. A hugely important topic. A great interview, so stick with us after the break.

Joining us on “The Downballot” this week is Anat Shenker-Osorio, who is a strategic communications consultant, the principal of ASO Communications, and a fellow podcaster who hosts Words to Win By. Anat, thank you so much for coming back on the show.

Anat Shenker-Osorio: Thanks for having me back.

Nir: So we want to dive right into things. And in December you released a study with the organization Way to Win, about how Democrats can message better on the economy. This is obviously a huge topic. This is what we want to devote this interview with you to. We would love it if you could start by giving our listeners an overview of what you found in this study.

Shenker-Osorio: Sure, I’m happy to do that. I think that the crux of it, like the nut graph if it were an op-ed, is that if you’re telling people the economy is so great, then you’re telling people the economy is so great. And what I mean by that latter thing is; this system, whereby the money that working people bring into being through their labor, gets summarily vacuumed into the hands of a few billionaires. That system that we call the economy is great. And the truth is, it’s not great. It is summarily unjust. And all of the facts and figures that we can point to about productivity and the gains that go, the 1% and the division, and the stratospheric difference between CEO pay and the average worker pay, and I could go on and on and on. I’m assuming you two know what I mean when I say it’s not a great system and that I’m not going to have to prove that to you. I can if you would like me to.

So the challenge with dominant economic messaging is that when you are saying, “Look at GDP; it’s magically fantastic. Look at Nasdaq; it’s doing so well.” And even more specific things like, we’ve added this many jobs, or here’s a graph showing you that inflation is coming down, the meta-message of that, and often it’s not even buried, literally the message is: the economy is going great, look how great the economy is. Look how great the economy is. Look how great the economy is. You can’t send that message without also endorsing or seeming to endorse, the way that the economy is structured, which is fundamentally not okay.

And so the essence of the research is that rather than speak about the economy and personify it and make it the object of our efforts, we have to actually speak about what is going well and what we are doing for people’s economic well-being. So to get specific, even something as seemingly facile as asking the question, who is better, quote, “for the economy?” In our study in Pew, in Gallup, basically any place where people do this, the majority of respondents, the majority of voters, credit Republicans. And we can gnash our teeth because that’s a bunch of bullshit and it’s not true and they’re terrible stewards of the economy. Even as measured in kind of the most right-wing Nasdaq, GDP terms, not even in terms of like, are people okay? But that’s what people think.

In contrast, when we ask, “Who is better for your economic well-being or your family’s well-being?” Democrats take that prize with the majority of voters. And so we can see just in that simple distinction of question wording, that if we’re confining ourselves to a conversation about who loves the economy best, that privileges a right-wing worldview about what government ought to be, what we ought to do.

And that right-wing worldview is a worldview that says, the way that we manage the economy well, quote-unquote, “is by shrinking government, is by not spending money, is by liberating job creators.” That’s kind of what is conjured up for people. Where when we force a conversation around, who is going to deliver for your economic well-being, who is going to make things better for your family, I’m not trying to make believe that people are like, “Democrats, I love them,” but on the margin, which is the better conversation? It’s the latter.

Nir: So Anat, you said something super fascinating just now, and I don’t want to engage in too much of a Slate-pitch here, but what you’re saying is that the idea of the economy, this concept, is itself a freighted term, and so maybe, just maybe, this may be too contrarian, but maybe Democrats actually should be glad that voters tend to rate Republicans higher as stewards of the economy, because they’re viewing Republicans as the party that is safeguarding this unjust system, or am I going too far with this?

Shenker-Osorio: I think that if we could match both our rhetoric and our actions to that, and I’ll describe what I mean by that, then that is the kernel of hope. Like that is the sort of silver lining here, in what has always been seen as really, really, really detrimental and really, really problematic, this thing that when we’re underwater in the economy, we can’t win.

Because to be honest and frank, and it’s important to do that, voters have been conditioned that they’re supposed to care about how the economy is doing, just like they’ve been conditioned to believe, many of them, that if you want less crime, you need more police. People’s underlying desire in the second example, is for safety. People want safety, they want to live and feel and be safe; obviously, that’s pretty low on Maslow’s hierarchy.

They have been conditioned to believe that safety equals police, but their desire is actually for safety. So if you can make them understand and see that, actually we achieve safety through these other means that are far more progressive, and by having a police force that acts in our interests, that respects all of us, that treats people as equals, that doesn’t do color-coded policing, et cetera, then you can sell them on your plan, right? You can move from, tough-on-crime, which is right-wing framing, to serious-about-safety, and you can have the brand advantage on that.

The same kind of dynamic is happening with the economy: people absolutely believe that it’s important that we have a robust healthy economy and that it be all the things because they have been conditioned to believe that. But they also are very aware, and this comes through not just in our data, but in all of public data right now, despite all of the right-wing efforts to get them to point their fingers in the wrong direction. When we ask them questions around, “Why are families struggling in America?” Their top picks (and this is both swing and turnout voters) are all populist, right? It’s corporations gouging our prices, it’s CEOs taking the money that our work creates, it’s billionaires getting tax kickbacks, and it’s not paying what they owe. Like all their answers are the answers we would want.

In contrast, we also offer them right-wing choices, right? Is the reason why people are struggling, because too many handouts to the undeserving poor, like we give them that option. Or is it because of too much government spending or is it because you’re being taxed too much? And I’m not saying that nobody takes those choices; I’m not saying that 0% of voters pick those options. What I’m saying is that the preponderance of people understand what’s up.

And so to take your point, I’m just sort of bringing data to bear on the conversation, we are in this space where we have to own, at least somewhat, the being ‘good’ at the economy. I think the way that we do that is by being good for your family’s economic well-being. The way that we get there is by remembering the time when being working-class meant that you voted Democratic. It’s not just that you voted Democratic; it’s that being a Democrat was core to your identity. Now, I’m talking back in the day, I’m talking FDR, right?

At that time, if you were working class, what you understood was that Democrats were for the workers and Republicans were for the bosses, and that’s how it was. And so if you were a worker and not a boss, you voted for Democrats. Once Democrats abandoned that conceit, and they got swayed into neoliberalism and said, “No, there’s no conflict between bosses and workers, right? You can be the party of Jeff Bezos and the Amazon union.” Which is bullshit, you cannot be. By definition, those two forces are in conflict. And they said, “A rising tide can lift all boats. We can simply grow the economy.”

Once they started being for the economy and not for the working class, not for the working people in opposition to the CEO class, then that is where working-class identity fractured and people began, white people in particular, to have identities based around race, to have identities based around affiliation with an evangelical church and that is where this whole problem of Democrats losing share with the working class of all races started to happen.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think we’re going to get there between now and November, but that’s the fundamental shift, that we abandon this idea that we can be for the economy and we be unabashedly populist. So this is the difference between saying, “We passed the Inflation Reduction Act,” or, even worse, “We passed the Bipartisan blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Because you get a solar panel and you get a solar panel and you get a bridge, and you get a bridge,” and whatever, to saying, “We are here to make insulin affordable, and if pharma has a problem with that, they can fight us. We are here to keep and expand Obamacare, the ACA. We are here to cancel your student debts and if Republicans have a problem with that, they can fight me.” That’s the difference, it’s the difference between saying, “We grew the economy,” to, “We want to give you these things and these motherfuckers are the reasons you don’t have them.”

Beard: Now, I want to get into the sort of specific recommendations from this study, but before you do that, I have one more question about sort of voters’ feelings at this time. Because I think if you look back, obviously, like you said, you don’t need to convince us that the American economy is unfair to the working class and has been for a very long time, but there was certainly a stretch, I think going back to the Reagan revolution, throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, where when those economic indicators were good, people tended to be happy about the economy.

You think of, like, the mid to late ‘90s, even as recently as like 2018, 2019, before the pandemic. And now it seems like that connection has been lost, and I’m wondering why that is. I think, the pandemic seems like it’s had an effect there, where people are no longer taking, “Hey, the stock market is good and unemployment is low,” as like, therefore the economy — whatever you think of as the economy — is good, that seems to have been lost.

Shenker-Osorio: Yeah, it’s a great question. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing, a lot of speculation, and a lot of discourse on social media about what this is; it even has a cute name, it’s called the Vibecession. I don’t know if you’ve come across that term.

Nir: Sure, yeah.

Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. I think that part of what’s going on, and this is what the data indicate, so part of what’s going on is that certainly presidential approval and the subset of that — which is presidential economic approval, right? The specific question — not just do you approve of President X, but do you approve of President X’s handling of the economy? That’s what I mean by economic approval, has become more or less just a “Are you a Democrat or are you a Republican” question. And we can see these wild swings where people’s assessment of how the economy is doing if they’re Democrats, they think it’s doing better if a Democrat is president, and if they’re Republicans, vice versa, irrespective of the actual economic conditions. So it’s just sort of like, “Do you like the coach of the team, even though they are or are not making the playoffs?” I should not use this analogy, I know nothing about sports. And so this is the end, this is how much I can be in this analogy.

Nir: I thought that one worked though. I thought it worked. Go on.

Shenker-Osorio: Okay. Don’t ask me for further details about that analogy, I know that I walked straight in there and that was my fault. So I think part of it is just overall negativity, I mean, it’s really kind of astonishing in the modern presidential era, so since the ‘90s. And displeasure and certainly since the 2000s, just kind of this general, “Do you think institutions are good? Do you think things are working? Do you think the country’s on the right track? Do you like who’s in charge?”

“No, no, no, no, no.” And not just within the United States, this is actually a global phenomenon. So there’s been kind of a global gloominess (if you will), and a gloominess particularly with respect to the rating of how public institutions are doing. Like, people generally feel sour on their governments, on their court systems, on their, just like whatever big public institution thing they’re asked about. And I think that a lot of that is testament to the efficacy of the right-wing project, which is ultimately to make people hate government in the first place and to feel suspicious of any kind of collective public endeavor, whether that be unions, although they’re doing remarkably well in terms of public opinion, I would argue because they had such a banner and marquee year and we see real movement over 2023 on perceptions of unions and on joining a union and all of that.

So partly this is a function of the right-wing project, which was to deliver this result, to have people lack faith in collective endeavors, whatever those be. And that is what government is, it is a collective endeavor. And then I think part of it is absolutely a product of just how astonishingly unequal our society is. And I think that even though core economic indicators like unemployment, manufacturing, GDP size — even things like stocks, and to a certain extent, the control of inflation is certainly relative to how other OECD countries fared with respect to inflation — I think it’s hard to get people to feel good about that when they feel that within their own lives, for whatever reason, they are personally struggling and the things that they wish they could take as given, like that they could see a doctor and not go bankrupt, like that they can send a child to college, like that they can have $500 in an emergency fund if, God forbid, something has happened. The percent of Americans, I mean, it’s astonishing the number of people in our country that are in, not total economic precarity, but they’re riding the line, right? They feel they have more month than check. And so I think that when your own lived experience is one of, “Man, it doesn’t matter what I do, I just cannot get ahead,” it’s hard to feel good.

Nir: So Anat, I want to get back to the study that we mentioned at the start of this segment. You talk about three pillars in this study, and I’d love for you to break down each of these and really what it is you think that Democrats will have the most success in emphasizing. So the first is, delivering tangible kitchen table economic benefits, number two, confronting powerful special interests such as big corporations and number three, pledging to protect key personal liberties and freedoms led by the right to legal abortion.

Shenker-Osorio: Yeah, so I think what it’s important to recognize is that — to paraphrase, Audre Lorde — people don’t lead single-issue lives. And I would add, that we don’t confront single-issue attacks. And so in order for “an economic message to be successful, it has to be about more than economics.” That’s another big, big finding. People are not… yes, they will always tell you in every survey of what’s your top issue: “the economy.” But I can assure you that at the proverbial kitchen table, people discuss lots of things. They discuss whether or not they’re pregnant, whether or not they can receive abortion care, whether their kid is struggling in school, if their kid is being bullied, whether or not they’re going to be able to see a doctor, what’s going on with their parents, elder care — like people discuss a lot of things at the kitchen table.

And obviously, there’s an economic dimension to all those things that I named. So I’m taking them in reverse order. The third one is really that an effective economic message has to speak to people’s whole lives; it has to speak both to where they feel that they are in this moment and that’s kind of just the rule number one of empathetic listening.

You can’t have a message to people that’s like, “But the economy is great. What are you complaining about? What are you whining about?” You’re not going to get a lot of traction out of that, people are just, at best, going to be annoyed with you. You’re not going to get a lot of traction out of taking a victory lap that’s about you and not about them. So a message that works, we shorthanded it, A Better Life, which does all three of those elements, right? It speaks to the life that people feel that they have and the life that they want to have, not just the wallet that they want to have.

It brings in these other issues of abortion and the myriad ways that MAGA Republicans are trying to take away our freedoms. It is deeply populist, it posits a villain, it doesn’t make believe that there are not sides, that this is not a fundamental conflict; it is. And it speaks to what it is people actually want for themselves and their families as opposed to, “And this is how we grow the GDP.” So what that message more or less sounds like is: we need leaders who care about our whole lives, from being able to put food on the table to being home in time to eat it, from being able to decide for ourselves whether and when we have kids, to sending them off to great schools where we’re not worried about gun violence that will not bring them home to us.

We need leaders who are ready to stand up with and for working people and tell corporations it’s long past time that you pay what you owe in wages and taxes. Today, Democrats are putting forward solutions to deliver what our families need, and at every turn and at every step, MAGA Republicans block them and try to take away our freedoms — this is a long-form extemporaneous version, this isn’t the short, tight one. But it’s basically, it has a contrast, and instead of speaking to this abstraction of like, “Look at us, we’re so good at growing the economy,” it’s really, “Look at us, we want to deliver for you, and we’re fighting them to do it.”

Beard: So I feel like one of the issues that Democrats have been running into, and obviously I don’t want to overdo it because we’ve had really good election results in 2022 and 2023, despite everyone’s sort of “the sky is falling” attitude about things. But I do feel like you run into people who are like, “Man, I voted for Joe Biden. There was a whole thing. He wasn’t really maybe my number one candidate, but I voted for him. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anything out of it.”

Well, at the same time I work in the labor movement, we like to call Joe Biden the most pro-labor president in history. He’s done a lot of things, but getting from sort of that point A of like, “Here’s all the things he’s done, or here’s what Democrats are trying to do.” Because some of those things have faltered at the filibuster or at the Supreme Court into connecting to voters with these messages that you have, even though they’re like, “I like Joe Biden; why hasn’t that helped things?” How to overcome that struggle that we see a lot with maybe a little more lower information voters?

Shenker-Osorio: Yeah, that’s a great question. The first thing I just want to say is a level-setting thing, which is that when we say these messages perform better, everything is at the margins and politics is a game not of inches but of millimeters. And so, when I say A is better than B, I mean A gets us three percentage points or four percentage points of movement on a horse race, and B gets us none or gets us one.

So, in no way do I mean to suggest that these are magical incantations and suddenly with some 100-word thing, all the voters will cast the scales off their eyes, and be awakened, and so on. That’s not a thing. You can’t do that with 100 words uttered one time. For folks listening, being like, “I don’t think that would work on my cousin Bob.” Okay, it wouldn’t. We’re talking about in the aggregate.

So, what you say to that kind of person, you have a couple of options. It depends a little bit more about who they are because there are subsets within that kind of person. One kind of a thing that you can say is when we think about every significant change that we’ve ever had in our country that has been for the good, civil rights, granting women the vote, or respecting that women had the right all along and you just didn’t feel like paying attention to that. The ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the eight-hour workday, child labor laws, other kinds of the ability to unionize, join together, et cetera.

Every single one of those advances has not been made by electing someone. 0% of those advances, none of them are achieved through electoral means. All of those advances have been achieved by agitating, organizing, using, and flexing our power through means outside the electoral system.

The purpose of the electoral system, which is to be generous, inadequate, and to be honest, a piece of shit, is to create the conditions through which we can engage in these other fights to actually get the things we want. And so, the reason why we reelect Joe Biden is that Joe Biden is the president who is going to allow us to yell at Joe Biden when we disagree with what he’s doing. He’s going to be the president in more positive terms that comes to the picket line. And more broadly, that never gets in the way of labor organizing.

I mean, never may be an exaggeration when we think about the railroad strike; I’m already ready to take that back. So, that’s one approach. One approach is to go meta and say elections are about creating a fundamental precondition. And, actually, we’ve never gotten change through elections. And to think that, that’s a thing that happens is to not understand that actually capitalism is in charge and the only way to make fundamental change is to throw sand in the wheels of capitalism. And that’s really always been the case in my opinion.

The other way of doing it is you have less time. That person is not ready to hear about the revolution, which is what I would … Generally speaking, my message is we just need a general strike, like screw the rest of it. Probably not the most effective electoral message assessment. This is me on my own time, my own time. But the message that is sort of more electorally confined is to say, “Yeah, look, I hear you. And more importantly, I see you. You’re putting in the time, you’re putting in the labor, you’re working damn hard. I see what you’re doing.”

And you and all of us deserve a fair return on our work. All of this money that we are making for these CEOs who just keep taking, yeah, we should be seeing the return on everything that we’re creating. We have a far way to go, but what we have done in this period is we have had by year’s end of 2023, in 2023 alone, I think the last count was 300 separate labor actions over the course of the year. Please feel free to correct me if it is more than that. That might be a low end.

What we have had is real gains in working people’s wages. What we had was, for example, a child tax credit that Republicans then took away from us. We know that we can change these rules, because when we exercise our power in the industries and the places where we exercise our power, we do change these rules, and the gains that we’ve made, we need to build upon them.

You point to what has been achieved by working people. Notice I never said, “Joe Biden gave you this. Joe Biden gave you that. Joe Biden gave you this. Why don’t you feel more grateful to Joe Biden?”

Nir: So, to bring this all home, of course, we just had a huge special election last week in New York’s 3rd congressional district, the race to replace George Santos. Democrat Tom Suozzi won by eight points. I think a lot of folks thought that the margin was larger than expected. Certainly, it beat what few polls we saw. I’m curious to know, Anat, what you thought of how Suozzi messaged on all of these issues centered around the economy or, as you would put it, economic well-being.

Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. So, since I’m just going full chaos Muppet on you in this interview, I’m going to challenge the premise of the question. I don’t actually think … And this is Message Lady about to say this; you ready? I don’t think this election was about a message, and I actually found all of the hot takes. They seem to be endless, that this was all about Suozzi getting tough on the border, showing his muscular bona fides and kind of doing a Republican-lite thing. Or some people said that… some people said it slightly less obnoxious. He called out Republicans for pretending to care about immigration but actually blocking the border bill, as I’m sure you both know well and have discussed, and so on.

I think that when you actually look at the dynamics of this race, and I’m happy to come back to what I think he did do and say on the economy, I just really don’t think it was about a message at all. This is a district that Biden won by eight points that then George Santos won by eight points against a person named Zimmerman.

I subjected myself — this is what I do for you; you’re welcome — to Zimmerman ads. And you know that meme from The Office where it’s like “It’s the same picture?” If you watch Zimmerman ads and you watch Suozzi ads, it’s the same. And so, all these people who are saying the reason why NY-03 was won is because milquetoast is good and moderate is good. I’m sorry, but if off-white works, why didn’t ecru work in 2022? And what was happening in 2022? 2022 was the year where there was this, obviously, giant predicted red wave. And there were 15 states that ran a decidedly anti-MAGA, “protect our freedoms” approach where turnout was at historic levels among the Democratic base and Democrats won.

And then there were states like New York that tried to run Republican-lite, typical midterm campaigns, turnout was down, and Democrats lost as was expected in all of the predicted polling. So, how is it possible that Zimmerman lost to the political juggernaut and genius that is George Santos? That’s why he lost —because George Santos, just, his political acumen was so extraordinary that, of course, Zimmerman … you can hear this article, yes, coming through.

So, the only explanation is that in 2022, Democratic voters did not turn out because the New York state party did a very poor job, while state parties in other places like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, et cetera, did a good job. And in this special election, a cardboard cutout with the label D would have won, because basically what happened to folks in NY-03 is that they had the personal experience of being under MAGA rule and not just MAGA rule, but mouth breathing, barely … the most jokey, incompetent version. And they were like, “Oh, no, absolutely not.”

So, they turned out against it and they voted early. There was a snowstorm. So, people who would have voted the day of … I really don’t think that this was about sort of what he said or what he didn’t say. I think this was really the dynamics of people having experienced something really, really repugnant and deciding to turn out to repudiate it.

Nir: Anat, this has been another fascinating conversation. Before we let you go, we’ve got to ask, where can our listeners find more about you, more about your firm, your work, and your podcast? And also, where can they find the study that we’ve been talking about this whole show?

Shenker-Osorio: Yes. Great. We make everything available open source, all of our messaging guides, studies, et cetera, My podcast is called Words to Win By. It’s in all the podcasty kinds of places. There’s also a website for it. And the last two episodes, the finales that have just come out are all about the economy. And in the show notes and on the website, you will find the study; it’s called From the Kitchen Table to the Whole House. And, yeah, those are the spots.

I’m also on the thing I refuse to call other than Twitter. I know, I know, it’s terrible. I just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with something else. I will. @anatosaurus. I try to follow my own advice, but there are definitely moments where it’s “do as I say, not as I tweet,” and I just sort of go off and get angry instead of doing good messaging.

Nir: Well, kicking the Twitter habit I think has been hard for a lot of us. We have been talking with Anat Shenker-Osorio, Strategic Communications Consultant and Principal of ASO Communications. Anat, thank you for coming onto “The Downballot” again.

Shenker-Osorio: Thanks for having me.

Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Anat Shenker-Osorio for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcast and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Drew Roderick, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.


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