The Good Fight
Matt Bennett on The Democrats’ Image Problem

Matt Bennett on The Democrats’ Image Problem

Yascha Mounk and Matt Bennett discuss how perception of the Democratic Party has fallen out of sync with its stated positions.

Matt Bennett is co-founder of the center-left think tank Third Way. Bennett served in the administration of President Bill Clinton and is a veteran of Democratic politics, having acted as an advisor to the presidential campaigns of Clinton, Al Gore, and Wesley Clark.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Matt Bennett discuss why it’s hard for moderate candidates to outcompete extremists for national audiences; the false dichotomy of base mobilization versus courting swing voters (and why you need both); and why Joe Biden remains the strongest Democratic candidate for President heading into 2024.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You were quite pessimistic about the Democrats’ chances in the midterms, and many people were predicting a “red wave.” 

Why did the red wave fail to materialize, and what does that tell us about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Republican and Democratic parties?

Matt Bennett: The fact is that nobody in politics can predict anything anymore. Occasionally, people are right, but mostly they are wrong. In part, that's because these elections were so close. When you're talking about elections that are within the margin of error, which many of these were. The results ended up within three or four points, which is the margin for most of these polls. There's no way to use these polls to predict the outcome, certainly, in ways that we thought were as clear as everyone believed.

Mounk: You have response rates of 1% or below for most telephonic polls, and what is the definition of a weirdo? It's somebody who does something that less than 1% of the population does. By definition, when you pick up the phone to answer a political poll, you are a weirdo (I'm probably one of those weirdos), but the behavior that you're going to engage in is going to vary systematically from the rest of the population. It seems that no matter how much you do the demographic adjustments, the likelihood of a miss is going to be high, especially when it's a question of only a few percentage points.

Bennett: It is. But in defense of my friends in the polling industry, they did pretty well. It's very tough to get these things completed. To some extent, they're using text-based polling or online polling, and that has proven to be reasonably good at predicting things. The polling industry did okay, and they certainly can't be blamed for Republican disappointment (or Democratic joy) about over- or underperforming expectations, because I think some of these things were too close. 

Fundamentally, the reason that the red wave didn't materialize was because, in almost every case of a swing district or state, the mainstream candidate beat the extreme candidate—or candidates that were perceived to be mainstream beat those perceived to be extreme. Again, it didn't hold everywhere. There are plenty of exceptions. But on the whole, broadly speaking, that's where people went. They were extreme and we weren't.

Mounk: There are many people out there saying that persuasion isn't important anymore—swing voters aren't important anymore; this is all about base mobilization, and trying to nominate these moderate candidates who are going to appeal to the other side is a waste of effort. 

What's your evidence that moderate Democrats are better than less moderate Democrats and that moderate Republicans are better than less moderate Republicans?

Bennett: All of the evidence is on my side of that debate. All of it. If you look at where people split their vote in major statewide races, in Wisconsin for example, where Governor Evers, running as a down-the-middle, mainstream Democrat, beat his more extreme opponent (the guy wasn't quite as bad as Kari Lake or others). And on the very same ballot, Mandela Barnes lost to Ron Johnson. Now, I would argue that Barnes wasn't fairly characterized as an extremist. But that label was attached to him successfully, because he didn't do enough to push himself away from the far left on issues like crime. And Johnson was able to capitalize on that, so people split their ticket by six to eight percentage points. In Georgia, you saw Governor Kemp beat Stacey Abrams soundly on the same ballot that Warnock won—or at least won a plurality and got to the runoff, and then won. Warnock very explicitly ran as a moderate, in fact, his campaign manager said, “We could have followed the crowd and run to the left and we chose not to do that, and that's the reason we won.”

Mounk: Stacey Abrams has been lionized over the last years as this great model for how to win elections, so it's really striking that she twice failed to win in Georgia, even as another Democrat, Reverend Warnock, was able to win. Now, to be fair, Brian Kemp has managed to win some amount of bipartisan credentials by going up against Donald Trump in the Electoral College in 2020, though he is quite a conservative Republican. And of course, Herschel Walker is very easy to characterize as extreme, because he is. But I think there are also some differences between how Abrams ran and how Warnock ran. What are those differences and what's the evidence that those differences matter?

Bennett: Stacey Abrams deserves an enormous amount of credit for building a turnout machine in Georgia that won the two Senate races in 2020, and was enormously important to helping Warnock get to and then win the runoff. There is no doubt that you have to do both. To some extent, this debate is silly, because you have to turn out your base in politics and you also have to win the war of persuasion. But the idea that there is no such thing as a swing voter, that it's all about base mobilization, is just baloney. It’s been disproven again and again. Stacey ran as a more down-the-line progressive, and she was running against, to your point, a popular governor who had successfully distanced himself from Trump and the most important thing to Trump, which was the denial of 2020. There are plenty of other cases in which people who had been perceived as very progressive had changed their perception in the general election. The best example is John Fetterman. In Pennsylvania, he had been one of Bernie Sanders' co-chairs on his presidential campaign. But he made it very clear, both in the primary and even more in the general election, that he was running as a mainstream Pennsylvania guy. And that, to the extent there was a weirdo in that race, it was this rich freak from New Jersey, who was a quack doctor who had a bunch of houses. Fetterman won that struggle to be the mainstream candidate, and I think that was the ballgame in so many of these races.

Mounk: How good a piece of news for American democracy is the rejection of the Kari Lakes in Arizona, the Doug Mastrianos in Pennsylvania—that sort of election denier and ultra-MAGA candidates in purple states. How reassuring is the lack of appetite that the average American seems to have for Donald Trump and his acolytes as we look forward to 2024?

Bennett: I think it saved American democracy. It couldn't be better news. I think the fact that election deniers lost every single race in swing presidential states that mattered—every single one for Secretary of State and Governor, some for Attorney General—is enormously reassuring. However, Kari Lake—who is the worst of the deniers (she is still denying her own loss to this day, showing up at Mar-a-Lago every other day to yell and scream about it)—lost by less than one point. She came very, very close to beating Katie Hobbs. Now, Katie Hobbs did not run a fantastic campaign, as many have noted. She refused to debate. She's somewhat lackluster in her presentation, but she's a very smart and capable Secretary of State and was a very credible candidate. The fact that it was so close is frightening, because Kari Lake would be a horrible, dystopian catastrophe if she became governor, and she got very close to getting there. It is now virtually impossible for MAGA-allied forces to steal the presidential election in 2024, which they were very much planning to try to do. That threat has been taken off the table. But the threat from anti-democratic forces aligned with Trump and Trumpism is still very much alive. Not everywhere—in Michigan, for example, they were soundly defeated, and they're probably gone. But in other places like Arizona, they remain a serious problem.

Mounk: What does this tell us about the state of the Democratic Party? There was a set of polls, including one published by Third Way, showing that the Democratic Party brand was really in trouble in the run-up to the midterms, that people feel that it is too extreme and far away from their own political positions, and so on. 

On the other hand, the Democratic Party seems to have prevailed against Republicans in some key races in part because, actually, people perceived a lot of Democratic candidates as being relatively moderate. How do we square these two things?

Bennett: I think we should be very, very worried about the state of the Democratic brand. And if you look for one thing from the outcome of the midterms, to your point, they were excellent. On the other hand, we were running against horrendously terrible candidates and almost lost. I mean, Herschel Walker can barely string sentences together, is credibly accused of horrific acts of domestic violence, is an outrageous hypocrite on the core conservative issue of abortion, and he damn near beat a guy with multiple advanced degrees, who is the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and is a sitting Senator. Raphael Warnock should have wiped the floor with Herschel Walker, and the reason that he didn't has nothing to do with Warnock. He ran a very, very good race and has a very good record as a Senator. It has everything to do with the fact that even in a state that is starting to look kind of purple, the Democratic brand is in awful shape. And we suffered losses elsewhere. Tim Ryan ran a perfect Senate race in Ohio. He was running against J. D. Vance, who was a fraud in just about every way imaginable. But Vance was credible enough to not be labeled as an extremist and was able to beat him fairly comfortably, again, entirely because the ‘D’ next to Tim's name means death in a state like Ohio. 

The problem that we identified with the brand in the polling that we put out on the day before the election really boils down to two things. And you touched on one, which is when you ask voters to put themselves on an ideological spectrum—“zero” being very liberal, “nine” being very conservative—they put themselves slightly to the right of five, just slightly to the center-right. We've always kind of known that this is a slightly center-right country. They put the two parties and their two leaders, Trump and Biden, roughly in the same position, a couple of points away from center on the left and the right. The problem is they put themselves closer to Trump and the Republicans on that scale than they do to Biden and the Democrats. The second problem we identified was that even in an age in which Republicans have become more extreme than I could possibly have imagined at the time that Newt Gingrich led the takeover of Congress in 1994 (they are credibly called fascists in some respects), when you ask people which party is more extreme, they basically say it’s a tie. They said the Democrats and Republicans are equally extreme. To a partisan like me, that's insane. But it is also evidence that our brand is in very bad shape, and we gotta do something about it.

Mounk: You and I both agree that the parties are not equally extreme. But why is that the popular perception? What is it that Democrats do wrong so as to allow that perception to stand; to allow a lot of Americans to say, “Republicans are extreme, and I don't like them. I don't trust them. But you know what? Democrats are just as extreme.”

Bennett: I think there are a couple of things. One is something Democrats do and the other something Republicans do. Democrats have an extreme faction in our party which hold office; there are six or arguably seven members of the House in the so-called “Squad,” and there's Bernie Sanders in the Senate, who literally call themselves “socialists”—and that that term, whether you capitalize it or not, has become a signal to voters that they are extreme, out of touch with everyday Americans and with mainstream thought—and who embrace that term and all that comes with it, including ideas that are incredibly unpopular like “defund the police” and “abolish ICE.” Those kinds of things really have attached to the Democratic brand, because those members have very powerful megaphones. They're extraordinarily gifted at using social media and mainstream media to amplify their message, so that voters hear them louder than they hear Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, or Chuck Schumer, and it didn't used to be this way. This is the power of social media. In the old days, there were always cranks or extremists in both parties, and they would go down to the floor of the House, and they would yell into the C-SPAN microphones for a minute every day, and no one would pay them the least bit of attention. But now, with millions of social media followers, they have become the face and the voice of the Democratic brand. 

Mounk: What can Democrats actually do to control that problem? Because part of it is about social media and who has the best zinger on social media and all of that. But part of it is also about mainstream media. What I'm really impressed by is the way in which, in 2018, every mainstream media outlet put AOC and a bunch of other people in the Squad on the cover of Vanity Fair and all of these kinds of publications. And there were other very interesting first-time Congresspeople elected in that election, including a lesbian Native American from a mostly red state, who didn't get any kind of attention from the mainstream media. The agency of who is profiled in that kind of way seems to be out of the hands of the mainstream Democratic Party. 

And that socialist label is, I think, toxic in the United States in the way you point out, but some people have made the argument—I've heard Pete Buttigieg say this on the campaign trail, too—that whoever we run, they're going to portray as socialist. Barack Obama was portrayed as a socialist, so what does it matter if you call yourself that? What's your response to that point?

Bennett: Let me start with the second question: what you have to do if you're a presidential candidate is do exactly what Biden did in 2020, which is to say, “Do I look like a socialist? Me? You think I am a socialist?” Biden's brand was powerful enough from his 40 years in public life and his billion-dollar presidential campaign that he was able to escape that quite easily. People did not feel that it was credible to charge that Joe Biden is a socialist.

And if we nominate mainstream candidates for president, it isn't going to attach to them, because they have the wherewithal to push away. However, look at what happened in 2020: on the same ballot that Joe Biden won, we lost a net of 14 House seats. That is not supposed to happen, and some of those we lost because they were accused of wanting to do things like defund the police. My friend Anthony Brindisi, from Utica, New York—he was a freshman member of Congress and lost his seat in 2020 by 190 votes. It was a lie, but he was attacked relentlessly as wanting to defund the police. It wasn't true but it was very powerful. That happened all over the place. It happened in South Florida to people like Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, also a first-term member of Congress, with very low name recognition in her own district. She'd only been there for two years. When she was accused of being a socialist, despite the fact that her family had fled socialism when she was a kid, that really stuck to her in a district in which socialism is a four-letter word. I think Democrats need to be very mindful that they have to push back strongly when they're accused of this and it's much easier to do when you're at the top of the ticket than when you're down the ballot. 

You noted that when the Squad, AOC, and others came into Congress in 2018, they got all of the attention. But on the same ballot that brought them to Congress, we had Sharice Davids, to your point, this Native American from Oklahoma, who had just won a tough race. And we had people like Xochitl Torres Small, a young telegenic Latina like AOC. She represented southern New Mexico. But unlike AOC, she was mainstream in her views, a member of the New Democrats, and didn't garner the kind of fawning media attention that others got. There were people in Xochitl’s district who thought that their member of Congress was AOC. I mean, that's the power that these folks have with their social media and mainstream media presence. That's a real problem for us.

Mounk: America is a huge place, and there are a lot of very safe blue districts. The people who have managed to win nomination battles in those districts are extremely unlikely to ever lose the general election, so that wing of Democratic Party is going to continue to be there. It feels for now as though that social media attention is going to stay too. The mainstream media itself is often staffed by journalists who have some of the socioeconomic attributes of progressive America. Are Democrats stuck with that brand? How can they get out of it without any sort of internal civil war?

Bennett: To some extent, there's nothing we can do about some of those things. It is impossible, for example, to book House New Democrats, the mainstream moderates, on television. Cable bookers do not find them interesting, because they're saying mainstream things, whereas it's very interesting to book extremists. Vanity Fair is not going to put Suzan DelBene on their cover. That is just not happening. However, there is a lot that Democrats can do to escape the trap. And remember that we don't have to do it everywhere or with everyone. In the Presidential election, we're not going to compete in most states. We're going to win easily in some and lose big in others. We're going to compete in about ten states. Obviously, that's true in Senate, House, and governor's races as well. We don't have to convince deep red conservative base voters that we're not a bunch of socialists. We have to convince swing voters, who are the ones that are going to decide elections in this very closely divided electorate, that we can be trusted; that we are a safe pair of hands. We did that successfully, to some extent, in 2022. We missed a few other places. We have to do that more consistently.

Mounk: Let me ask you the biggest question of 2024. Joe Biden ran a very effective campaign in 2020 helping us do something which few countries around the world have achieved, which is to push a far-right populist out of office at the first opportunity. To his credit, he has accomplished quite a lot legislatively in the first two years. At the same time, he's very unpopular, and his age is showing. He's 80 years old, and he will be 86 by the time that he finishes a second presidential term. It is unclear how vigorously he could campaign in 2024, especially when it's not a Zoom election campaign. Is he the right candidate for 2024 despite those concerns?

Bennett: I think he is. On the day that you and I met in 2017, it was at a small conference and you gave a talk, and you said, just after Trump had been inaugurated, that the danger to America is greatest if Trump is replaced by a more mainstream candidate, and then that candidate loses the next election and there is a snap-back to an authoritarian after that. I think about that all the time, because that snap-back could be to Trump or another authoritarian figure like DeSantis. The stakes are enormous for America and for the world. For that reason, I think it is very important that President Biden chooses to run again, and I hope he does. And if he does, the Democratic Party needs to line up behind him immediately. He would be the strongest candidate—notwithstanding his age, which is the only factor in the negative column. Recognizing that the dataset is small, American presidents tend to get reelected, especially if they don't face primaries from their own party. Jimmy Carter faced a very strong primary from Ted Kennedy, George H. W. Bush faced one from Pat Buchanan. Both of them lost. The only other modern president to lose reelection is Trump—and he was the worst president in American history—in the middle of a pandemic that he was badly mishandling. The evidence is pretty clear that the power of incumbency is very, very strong. Biden has amassed a very impressive record legislatively and on the world stage. He would be our strongest candidate without question.

Do I wish that Joe Biden were 20 years younger? I very much do. But there’s nothing that anyone can do about that. And it's been reported recently that he says to people, “Do you think I don't know how fucking old I am?” He knows, and Jill knows, and everyone around him knows precisely what his age means for his ability to execute that job. All of those people are deeply responsible patriots, and none of them would tell him that he should run for reelection if they truly believed that he couldn't do the job. So far, the evidence is that Joe Biden can do this job.

Mounk: Let's assume that Joe Biden decides to step down, as he might. What do you think happens next? Is it obvious that Kamala Harris would become the Democratic Party nominee? And if so, what do you think her electoral chances would be against Donald Trump or perhaps against Ron DeSantis?

Bennett: The only thing that's obvious if Biden doesn't run is that we will have a contested primary. I don't think it is going to be a coronation for Kamala Harris. There's very little doubt that she would be the leading contender going into the primary. The Democrats have never denied the nomination to a sitting or former vice president since 1952. She's the front runner, and she has the power of incumbency. She's got Air Force Two, and when I worked for Al Gore, I saw the power of that up close. We rolled over Bill Bradley fairly easily. However, I don't think that will deter others from running against her and I hope it doesn't, not because I don't think Harris could be a strong nominee, but because I think she, or anyone, is a much stronger nominee if she comes through a vigorous primary process. Every president elected for the first time has come through a tough primary campaign where they had to give and receive punches, face opposition research, and where they learned the craft of running for president. Those who don't have tough campaigns tend to do worse than those who do. Gore probably would have been better off if there'd been a bigger field running against him in 2000. While Hillary had a tough race against Obama, it was one-on-one, and it was basically a coronation for her to lose. I hope that instead of that we have a real contest. If Harris comes out on top, she'd have a lot of wind at her back and would be a stronger candidate than people give her credit for now.

Mounk: Who are some of the candidates who you would be excited for in 2024 if Joe Biden doesn't run and if it doesn't end up being Kamala Harris? 

Bennett: Well, let me start by saying that I do think that Vice President Harris would be a strong candidate if she wins the nomination. I don't think she'd be a strong candidate if the nomination is simply handed to her. There are plenty of others out there. Pete Buttigieg is probably the best political communicator in the Democratic Party right now. I don't think anyone else is really close. Gretchen Whitmer has won twice in a key [swing] state. She cleaned the clock of her primary opponent, and she’s won decisively twice in general elections, and she's run the state very capably. Jared Polis is an enormously popular governor in Colorado (it would be interesting to have two married gay men in the race). And there are plenty of others. Raphael Warnock—you can't discount him. He is kind of in the “Obama slot” right now and has run four extraordinarily impressive races in a very, very tough state. There's a bunch of people out there that could be interesting.

Mounk: Tell me a little bit about the state of the Republican Party and the Republican primaries. I'm very confused about how to think about Donald Trump's prospects for winning the 2024 primaries. I think he is fading as we speak. There are a lot of establishment Republicans, including a lot of established Republicans who belong to the new MAGA establishment, who are skeptical about putting him on the ballot again. They have seen him lose elections in 2018, 2020, and 2022. They see his deep and in some ways still-increasing personal irresponsibility. At the same time, he seems to have a pretty strong hold on 15 to 20% of the US population, and given our screwed up primary system, that may be enough to push him through.

Do you think Trump is going to emerge as the winner of this primary election? If not, is it likely to be Ron DeSantis? What can we expect?

Bennett: The one thing we've learned about the Republican Party in the last decade or so is that making predictions about who's next no longer works. It worked for a long time. The Republicans nominated the next guy up every time: it was H. W. Bush, and then it was Dole and then it was George W. Bush. They were very consistent. McCain, then Romney. And then it all went to hell in 2016 when Jeb was supposed to be the next guy up and lost, obviously, to Trump. The establishment has no control over Republican primary voters. If they did, Mitch McConnell would have had a much different group of Senate nominees in 2022, and he probably would be majority leader right now. Their primary system is quite different from the Democratic system. The Democratic system is proportional. Republican primaries are winner-take-all, and that's what made Trump the nominee in 2016. He won pluralities in virtually every state and came away with a huge delegate lead by the time they got to the convention. That could happen again, especially if the anti-Trump forces do not coalesce behind DeSantis, which it appears they are not going to do. There's a whole bunch of candidates out there, not least Mike Pence, and a bunch of others who are getting ready to run. That could result in the same thing we saw in 2016. That lack of control by the establishment in their system could give us Trump again as their nominee.

Mounk: Leave us with one thing we should be really worried about over the next years, and one thing that should give us hope about the state of American democracy as we slowly approach the 2024 elections and look beyond that.

Bennett: Well, the thing that I'm the most worried about is that—notwithstanding the fact that there is no moral equivalence between the extremists on the far left and extremists on the far right—they're basically viewed as equally in control of their parties and equally dangerous by voters in the middle. That is a very, very serious problem. Bernie Sanders and AOC, in my view, have some bad ideas, but they are not dangerous to American democracy in the way that many on the far right are. And yet, that's just not how voters are perceiving it. I think that's a very dangerous situation for us. The thing to be hopeful about, however, is that the overwhelming verdict from the 2022 race is that mainstream beats extreme. If we can hold on to that going into 2024, we might see the 2020-Joe Biden coming back on the campaign trail, and that's a pretty attractive Biden. That could help move the party brand significantly enough so that we could prevail, possibly get the House back and certainly win the White House.

Please do listen and spread the word about The Good Fight.

If you have not yet signed up for our podcast, please do so now by following this link on your phone.


Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

Connect with us!

Spotify | Apple | Google

Twitter: @Yascha_Mounk & @JoinPersuasion

YouTube: Yascha Mounk, Persuasion

LinkedIn: Persuasion Community

The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.