Sarah Longwell is a Republican political strategist and publisher of The Bulwark. She is also host of the Bulwark podcast The Focus Group, which presents the broad takeaways from hundreds of hours of voter opinion focus groups across both the country and the political spectrum.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Sarah Longwell discuss which candidates from either party have a chance to break out in 2024; why neither Joe Biden nor Kamala Harris is the Democrats’ best choice; and how Democratic messaging can balance the existential stakes of the 2024 election with a positive vision of our economic future.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You've been speaking with many focus groups over the last weeks and months about Donald Trump and the January 6th Committee hearings. Do you think that the hearings are having an impact on how Americans view him? And more broadly, how do most Americans now feel about Donald Trump?
Sarah Longwell: It's not that they're breaking through so much as they're seeping in. Changing minds is really hard, but giving people a little psychic permission to move on is something that can be done. I've done nine focus groups since the hearings began, all with Trump 2020 voters. And the most stunning thing that has happened is that in four of the groups, zero of the respondents wanted to see Trump run again in 2024. About 15% of the nine groups wanted to see him run again.
That’s only significant because prior to the hearings, we had done dozens and dozens of focus groups with Trump voters since January 6th, and half or more of the group always wanted him to run again. It rarely fell below half of the group. But people are very worried that Donald Trump can't win in 2024. They have real doubts about his electability, and this is where I think the hearings have really made a difference. Joe Biden was nominated and elected by the Democrats, not necessarily because he was everybody's top choice, but because he was the one everybody thought other people would vote for and that he could win and beat Donald Trump. These Republicans are starting to doubt that Trump is the person who can win in 2024. They still like him, to be clear. But they think he might have too much baggage: “We really need to win in 2024 and I think there are better people.”
One thing that sort of happened at the same time as the January 6th Committee was the Ron DeSantis boomlet. His name comes up all the time in the focus groups. They think Trump is great: “He did great things for the country. He was a great president. But I think maybe we need some new blood. We got a lot of stars. I really like Ron DeSantis. I like Kristi Noem, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz…” They have a bunch of people that they're interested in that are fresh. But they're all from the America First wing of the party. Nobody wants Mike Pence or Nikki Haley.
The thing that I keep trying to impress upon people is that even if Trump wanes in the imaginations of people, they have decided that they love his particular combative style of politics. They crave it. They want it, which is why there's no going back to the old guard. There's a reason that all of the candidates in 2022 look like little mini-Trumps, running around talking about the election being stolen and critical race theory and a lot of vague gesturing at QAnon candidates—they're gonna go "RINO hunting," posing with guns. Trump has unleashed a force that has changed what the Republican Party looks like, and what the voters want out of their elected officials.
Mounk: Let's talk for a moment about the 2024 primary. You're saying that Ron DeSantis comes up a lot. That's interesting to me, because I had thought of him as a right-wing media phenomenon, someone they view as more respectable and less personally unhinged than Trump. It always seemed to me that DeSantis is lacking in charisma in a way that would make it very hard for him to beat Trump.
But it sounds like what you're hearing is some genuine enthusiasm for DeSantis among the base. What do you think is the likelihood of somebody like DeSantis, or someone else, beating Trump in the Republican primaries?
Longwell: You're right that Ron DeSantis is a media phenomenon, but not in the way that you think. It is not because the more respectable corners of right wing media are pushing Ron DeSantis—it's the opposite. It is the extent to which the mainstream media has been attacking Ron DeSantis, especially around COVID. They have elevated his brand and name recognition, and that has allowed him to become a kind of media lightning rod. To have a bunch of normie Republican voters in Ohio know the governor of Florida is actually remarkable. And it's because he's picked this fight with the media that so many people know him and like him. They think he has the right enemies, because that is how people define this stuff now.
But we have not seen Ron DeSantis outside of Florida. We don't know what he looks like “mano-a-mano” with Trump. I don't know if you remember when he launched his campaign, but I will never forget it. When I first met Ron DeSantis, it was through his opening campaign ad, which was him billing himself as a mini-Trump. He was with his kids. He was playing with building blocks saying, “build the wall.” He was reading The Art of the Deal to his baby. Now, I don't know that Donald Trump will debate anybody on a stage, but the question is, once it's a split screen and they’re facing off, how does that work? When Trump is attacking you, he has no bottom, no parameters. And so when you're in a dogfight with Trump, what happens? One thing that is to Trump's advantage, I think, is that he really does have this hardcore base. If you get a split field, Trump can be out here with his 35% or 40% plurality and still win. He doesn't need a majority of the party. It'll be interesting to see how those dynamics shift as we go forward. Trump can lose, but I would still not count him out.
Mounk: Why don't you walk us through how you see the situation? Do you think that Joe Biden could beat Trump or DeSantis in 2024? If Biden does not run, do you think that Kamala Harris could beat one of those two?
Longwell: There's a million dynamics that I can't predict that would make my analysis potentially different in the face of these things. But I would just say, Joe Biden, in my estimation, should not run again. One of the main differences in the focus groups that I see between the two parties is that when you ask Republicans if Donald Trump should run again, prior to the hearings, groups would say that they’d like to see Trump running in 2024. And then you say, “Well, if Trump doesn't run, who do you want to see?” You got a ton of people: Kristi Noem, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Tucker Carlson, a bunch of scary people on the list.
If you ask a Democratic focus group, “do you want to see Joe Biden run again?” They say, “No, I do not. He’s too old.” They don't think he's a bad guy, but they do not think he should run again. But when I ask, “who would you like to see run if Joe Biden doesn't run?” they just stare at me. That can be chalked up to the fact that Democrats are in the White House, so people aren't out there scanning for other people at the moment. But then they argue themselves out of it—people will say, maybe Pete Buttigieg, but they don't know if America will vote for a gay guy; Elizabeth Warren, but they just don't think she can do it; Bernie Sanders is too old; inevitably, somebody says AOC, and everybody else in the room groans. There's nobody on the Democratic side who has risen to a place where there's an obvious circling.
Mounk: Could it be that the Democratic politicians who really say what they think are ones that are far outside what most people believe? I have a number of criticisms of AOC, but she's an authentic politician who says what she thinks. Those positions just aren’t very popular among the American populace or even Democratic voters at large. Whereas the politicians within the Democratic Party who are much closer to where the party actually is never sound authentic, because they're always worried about whether what they tell you over lunch will get them canceled on Twitter.
That's my pet theory of why Democrats are not only seen as being outside the cultural mainstream, but also have a short bench. People look at Democratic politicians and say, “I don’t trust you to say what you think, so I don't know that I should trust you to run the country.” Do you feel that's fair?
Longwell: Like any other issue, it's a combination of a bunch of these things. A lot of the best politicians, I think, are two cycles into their congressional careers. There's this whole group of Democratic women who were elected as moderates: Mikie Sherrill was a helicopter pilot, Abigail Spanberger, a CIA analyst; Elissa Slotkin from Michigan, who is going to be in a tough reelection cycle because she's in a Trump +5 district now—there's a bunch of cool people who care about policy, and are workhorses for their constituents, but they just don't get any attention. The show horses get all the attention, the workhorses get very little.
Mounk: Is this in part a problem of Democratic-aligned media? For example, in 2018, during a big Democratic wave, The Squad was on the cover of every big magazine in the country. At the same time, we had someone like Sharice Davids, a Native American representative from Kansas who has a very interesting life story—she used to be a mixed martial arts combatant and is very accomplished—but she was a moderate. So, the party did not pay any attention to her and most people listening to this podcast have probably never heard her name.
Longwell: I haven't even heard her name, and I'm following who the good moderates are that could potentially be part of a future generation of moderate Democrats. I think it's partly the Democratic-aligned media: the fact that Democratic moderates are a little less likely to go seeking the spotlight in part because they're not out there fighting the big progressive fights that get you a lot of on Twitter, and Twitter's where the media lives. There's this constant false frame about who's getting all the love in these races.
When Trump was President, he built this Trump Cinematic Universe in which there were lots of little Avenger mini-Trumps who now are stars: Mike Pompeo, Tucker Carlson, Ron DeSantis. But there's not a big group of Democrats who are out there trying to help Joe Biden advance his agenda. A couple months back, the big narrative was how bad Democrats’ messaging was, and I was one of the people really pounding on that, because I was listening to my focus group participants saying, “I never hear from Joe Biden, I never hear from Kamala Harris” when they talked about Build Back Better or any other legislation. They only knew the price tag; they didn't know what was in it. If Joe Biden's not a very good communicator, send out the troops. Build a bench of surrogates, have people on TV, identify breakout stars: who's good at selling an agenda, who's good at talking about policy, who's good at arguing about the politics. But the Democratic Party hasn’t done that.
I think that Democrats are just different on the inside than Republicans. I don't know quite how to formulate this, but I feel like they're scared of their own shadows. They say, “Joe Biden's policy is not popular, so I don't want to go out and do it.” Donald Trump was passing nothing, and Republicans would go out there—Jim Jordan or any Trump acolyte—saying, “We moved the embassy to Jerusalem! We did an executive order on this or that!” They would tick through five things and they would all say the exact same things. Democrats cannot get that discipline. They seem unwilling to go out and be the person to carry the water. Republicans close ranks, they go out and push the message. The fear that's in Democrats on messaging and communications is weird to me.
Mounk: There have been a number of Democratic groups who are pushing Trumpist candidates, where they run ads in the most conservative parts of a state, saying that the most election-denying candidates for really important offices, like Governor or Secretary of State, are “too conservative.”
It's a very obvious attempt to elevate MAGA-aligned candidates on the Republican side in the expectation they will be easier to beat. While it may be true that your chance of beating the MAGA-aligned candidate is a little bit higher than your chance of beating a moderate Republican (who actually would administer a fair election), it is an utterly irresponsible thing to do. If Democrats try and do that in 2024, and think, “let's somehow contrive to make sure that Trump is the candidate again in order to be able to beat him more easily than we might someone like Glenn Youngkin” that is moral and political malpractice.
Longwell: Absolutely. It's insane. They've got to stop this. Right now, they're trying to help the primary candidate against Peter Meijer in Michigan so that Democrats can try to pick up that seat. [Editor’s Note: In the week since this podcast was recorded, Meijer lost his bid for re-election to a former Trump administration official during the Republican primary in Michigan’s 3rd congressional district.]
Peter Meijer was one of 10 people who voted for impeachment and put his career on the line, and those are exactly the people I'm trying to save. They are the last vestige of any hope of having reasonable voices in the Republican party. Democrats boosting these MAGA candidates is so frustrating and so irresponsible. And it’s playing with fire, because inflation is at 8% and gas is five bucks. The national mood is against you, and these MAGA people could all be swept into office. People should have an understanding of just how insane Republican candidates are across the 2022 field—how many of them are election deniers, or people who were at January 6th, or QAnon-curious. The number of cranks who could be in Congress, in governor’s mansions, and in the Senate, is appalling. Republican politics could look way worse, and Democrats are in a very weak position to be playing with this fire because they could lose. Maybe they're easier to beat. But that doesn't mean they're going to be easy to beat in this environment.
To your point, Kamala Harris isn’t going to beat anybody. Oh, man—the Democrats in the focus groups disliked her so much. They're very disappointed. Many said she had a lot of potential, but she's gone nowhere. I think this is actually, to some degree, not her fault. As best I can tell, the Biden administration has tried to keep her under wraps. It’s a cycle: people don't like her, so they try to keep her under wraps, and then when she does come out, she's not very practiced, and people dislike her more. They also don't think that she can win. Swing voters don't like her and Republicans really dislike her. Her approval rating is even lower than Biden's, and his is catastrophically low. He's at or below Trump levels, and Trump is one of the most unpopular presidents in history.
I think Democrats would be wise to start grooming some governors to get out there on the national stage. If Gretchen Whitmer wins by five or seven points, I think she jumps to the front of the pack—or Jared Polis, who had good COVID policies and is very popular in his state. But part of the problem is that Biden says he's running. Will anyone put themselves out there while Joe Biden is still the president? Probably not. They would also have to leapfrog the first African American female vice president. They don't think that's a good look either. It's just not easy to see the mechanics of how Democrats start to coalesce around a candidate unless Joe Biden says, “I'm not going to run again, and I'm not going to endorse anybody, and you guys have at it.”
I'll try to pick three who might emerge. I think that if Gretchen Whitmer—who I have not watched perform a ton nationally—comes out really strong against [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Tudor Dixon, I think she jumps to the front. I think Pete Buttigieg is objectively the best candidate from a performance standpoint. This is a guy who has a once-in-a-generation political talent, and once-in-a-generation political talents tend to be Democrats’ best paths. The problem is that “new” is the coin of the realm at the moment, and people have seen Pete. I also think that he's got real difficulty with black and brown voters. One of his other liabilities is that people are worried that other people in the Democratic coalition won't vote for Pete. But he is still one of my personal favorites. Mitch Landrieu is maybe my favorite in that field. He was the mayor of New Orleans, and has a real constituency among black voters and a real connection to black voters, which I think is extremely important for a Democratic candidate. He is also kind of a moderate. He's some czar within the Biden administration, but he's not visible. Again, you run into this problem of possible candidates not being visible.
Mounk: I think I want to know more from you about the messaging and Democratic side. When you're listening to Democratic focus groups and focus groups of independent voters, what kind of Democratic arguments have pull, and where do people start to say, “I don't trust the Dems?” For all kinds of reasons at the moment, including inflation, people aren't feeling great about the state of a country. Is there something about the way Democrats present themselves that they could fix to put themselves into a stronger position in 2024?
Longwell: I just want to say up front, before I give this advice, that I come from the center-right. I get accused of wanting Democrats to sound like Republicans. This does not compromise me; if I was gonna give what I personally wanted, it would sound very different from this advice. This advice comes from listening both to swing voters—people who voted for Trump in ‘16 and Biden in ‘20—and the people who are on the fence about Trump.
Here's the thing: Democrats have a massive branding problem. People have a sense that Republicans are generally better on the economy. This is like Carville, when he said, “it's the economy, stupid.” It wasn't until I started doing the focus groups where I was like “oh, yeah, it's the economy, stupid.” You ask people, “what do you care about?,” and they will tell you, from their hearts, that they want to work, they want jobs, they want to be able to take care of their kids, they want to be able to pay to go on vacation. They do not want things handed to them. They do not like big omnibus spending bills. They do not like the way Democrats approach the world of policy by saying, “we're going to push more money into this and more money into this.”
I think Democrats are suffering a bit among voters, especially white working-class voters, thinking they're not as patriotic, that they're not as focused on America, that they're not as focused on the working man and the average problems. They will simultaneously be motivated by things that the average voter thinks is insane, like the idea of a biological male being able to swim competitively in a women's race. Imagine you're like the median voter—a 50 year-old, white working-class male—who Republicans can get riled up by that. And at the same time, voters will be frustrated when Democrats engage on it, because they want to hear people talk about the economy and jobs. Dems are backed into this place where Republicans can go on offense on a lot of these cultural issues. But if Democrats play defense on those issues, or engage in them, they also lose ground, because people want to hear about jobs and inflation from policymakers.
Mounk: What do you think is the right strategy here? It seems to me that Democrats don’t have credibility to speak on the economy in other issues, if people don't trust them on gut-feeling cultural stuff. So I think that in order to gain the trust of people, you have to say something that makes them trust in culture, and then you can pivot. I'm in favor of left-leaning parties pivoting and being the party of people who believe in economic growth, but also ensure people that they get a fair shake, that their lives are going to be better than their parents’ and their kids are going to be better off than them. I think all of that needs to be core to a successful left-wing message. But I just don't think we can talk about the economy without addressing the vulnerability of culture.
So what is the way to address vulnerability on culture, to defend the things in which most people believe in but also to very clearly distance yourself from the things in which a lot of people very reasonably do not stand behind, and then pivot? Is that a jujitsu move that is just too hard to pull off?
Longwell: It's not a jujitsu move that's too hard to pull off. When somebody was accusing Joe Biden of being a socialist, his response was, “Do I look like a socialist?” That was all he needed to say, because the thing is, he doesn't. He doesn't sound like a socialist either. And if somebody tried to accuse John Fetterman, who is actually fairly progressive, of being a socialist, it would be enough for people that he looks like a WWE superstar and talks authentically about this Hollywood dope from New Jersey. They think Fetterman is a visual embodiment of Pennsylvania, in his hoodie and his cargo shorts. So it can't be just what you talk about, it's everything that you embody. If you're talking about women, don't say “pregnant person” or “chest-feeding.” You just have to feel to Americans like you are authentically speaking to them and care about them. And you can have Sister Souljah moments where you push back against the progressive left. I think it is beneficial to do so. But I actually think that it’s much more about how you carry yourself than it is about what you choose to talk about. People will trust you if you are authentically yourself. Then you can push on the economy and jobs.
There's another piece, which is some sort of patriotism. People don't trust Democrats on loving America and wanting the best for Americans. I don't think you've got to come out on stage in a flag tuxedo or anything like that, but I do think a healthy sense of “America is the greatest place on earth,” and not the pitfall of doing the academic left thing of, “Well, in America, we've really missed the mark on all these things…”—no, look to the future. Clinton is not a great character model, but he is a great political model: “Whatever is wrong with America can be solved by what is right with America.” Lean into what makes us good. People want to be told a good story about themselves. And Democrats need to give people hope for the future on jobs and the economy and make them feel good about themselves and who they are, which I think Republicans do a much better job of right now than Democrats.
Mounk: Barack Obama, by the way, was excellent at that. Nobody can credibly accuse Barack Obama of soft-pedaling the dark elements of American history. He spoke about those frequently and movingly. But he also subsumed that into a narrative of how the country can become a better place and what there is to love about this country. That feels to me very clearly like the place where you're telling the truth, but you're also politically viable.
We began by discussing the January 6th hearings and how they appear to be sinking in. To me, as a political scientist who first came to have a public presence by warning about the rise of populism, fragile democracy is a big story. To most voters it’s not; to most voters, inflation is a big story. How should candidates and, to some extent, the media talk about this threat in a way that feels true to the stakes of the moment? How can they ensure that people don’t vote for candidates who are a threat in those kinds of ways?
Longwell: Republicans are concerned about democracy because they think an election was stolen from them. They’re more concerned about it than the Democrats. But I think we have to be very clear that what happened on January 6th was a coup attempt—a clown coup attempt, but a coup attempt. And people should be clear-eyed, I think, as Liz Cheney has been. We need to be clear-eyed about the threat Donald Trump presents to democracy and the erosion of our institutions. People should tell that story.
But I listen to Trump voters in the focus groups all the time, and they talk about rationing their gas and being fearful about what they can pay for—you have to be aware that democracy is an amorphous thing, and so the immediate economic, and even cultural, concerns are very likely going to trump democracy in the average voter's mind. I just think you can do both: have reasonable expectations of what is really going to drive voters’ motivations, while also being incredibly clear-eyed about what the threats are in front of us.
I'll tell you, one of the most precarious places we could leave democracy is if the only way for the non-authoritarian party to win is if they go up against the worst possible candidate. Democrats have to win to some degree on the idea that they can govern—something affirmative, and that's a “show, don't tell.”
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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