Lis Smith on What Democrats Do Wrong
Yascha Mounk and Lis Smith discuss why some Democrats stumble with messaging and how to improve it.
Lis Smith is a veteran political strategist affiliated with the Democratic Party. Most recently, she was senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg in his 2020 presidential campaign. Her memoir is Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Lis Smith discuss what she looks for in a successful candidate; the lessons she takes from years of courting independents and voters from across the aisle; and why she believes that Biden should run for reelection.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: What are the main things political candidates should be doing, but aren't? And what are the main things that they shouldn't be doing, but are?
Lis Smith: The number one piece of advice that I give to candidates—and it shouldn't be this complicated—is to just be normal: talk like a normal person, communicate in simple ways and with simple concepts. That's a lot harder for a lot of political candidates than it should be. I worked for Pete Buttigieg, a Rhodes Scholar, but he was someone who, like Bill Clinton, another Rhodes Scholar, had a gift for taking really complex ideas and reducing them to points that everyone could understand—whether he was on CNN, at a think tank, or in front of a crowd in rural Iowa. It's really important to act and speak like a normal person, and it's something politicians don't do enough. We get into a sort of wonky speak, or as James Carville says, “faculty lounge” speak. Speaking in front of a camera, or to a crowd, is really daunting to a lot of people. If they were just talking to friends around a dinner table, or at a bar, they would speak one way; but the second a camera turns on, they feel the need to speak in this stilted way. Or they're just terrified of making a gaffe, so they end up speaking in this political gobbledygook.
You have a lot of political candidates who maybe watched too much of The West Wing or had advisors who watched too much of it. But unless you're a poet, you should not engage in any poetry. If you're not John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama, don't try to speak like them. Look: like a lot of Democratic operatives, I went to an Ivy League college. I grew up in Bronxville, New York. But the difference between me and a lot of other Democratic operatives is that I cut my teeth in red states, places like South Dakota, Missouri, Ohio, and Kentucky. And so I understand how to speak to voters in a way that is not rooted in SAT words or advocacy group language.
I wrote an Op-Ed for The Washington Post about this recently, because I was seeing these special interest groups put out things saying that “pro-choice” is harmful language; you need to say “pro-decision.” But no-one has ever heard anyone describe themselves as “pro-decision.” And so, you do see staffers who come out of this advocacy world, who have surrounded themselves with people who only share their worldviews—who think like them, talk like them, and live in bubbles where they don't communicate with normal people. I think that distorts how politicians talk.
Mounk: What are some of the big mistakes that candidates make?
Smith: Candidates should really limit how much time they spend on social media. It's a good thing that younger candidates are more fluent in social media and modern technology. But there are some downsides. There is a distortionary effect that happens on social media, including really toxic group-think: e.g. the idea that unless you embrace the position that is popular online (which is oftentimes the most far-left position), you're a Republican in disguise and you can't be trusted. And if you take your cues from the online group, you’re going to be extremely out of touch with voters.
We saw that when some prominent Democrats and Democratic groups embraced absolutely toxic, nonsensical slogans like “defund the police.” There was a time when, if you went online and said, “defund the police is a really bad slogan and it’s going to backfire on Democrats,” you would have gotten absolutely piled on. Now, I think people have come to realize this. After seeing the millions and millions of dollars that were spent against Democrats—even ones who had never even embraced that, just because certain Democrats had gone out there and embraced it—they understand that it was stupid.
But that's a problem that every campaign is gonna have to deal with. And it's not just the candidates, it's also the staff. A twenty-something year old staffer is not going to have the wherewithal to understand that just because some Twitter accounts are saying these things, it doesn't mean that those views are held by the majority of voters. What's really important is to get out and talk to the voters you're trying to appeal to. If winning Twitter is your goal, you're probably not going to win an election.
Mounk: Why is it that when Donald Trump goes around the country saying whatever comes to his mind—not moderating his message in any way, saying many unpopular things—he's electorally viable? Whereas when Democrats go around and give red meat to the base, saying things that are not popular among the general population, they lose elections? Or do you think that moderation pays on both sides of the political spectrum?
Smith: I think it does pay on both sides of the political spectrum. Trump has a unique bond with his base, right? There is a little bit of a cult of personality going on. He's got a vise-like grip on his base. But if you look at the best two recent cycles for Democrats, they were—in very different ways—2018 and 2020. If you look at the ads that the Democrats who picked up Republican seats ran, whether it's Colin Allred in Texas, or Abigail Spanberger, or Lauren Underwood, or Elissa Slotkin or Mikie Sherrill—they didn’t go out and run on “Medicare for All” or the “Green New Deal.” They talked about how they wanted to protect Obamacare, how they wanted to create jobs. It's not a social media message. But it resonated with people. They made it a choice: “We're trying to do these good things for you that will put more money in your pocket, and the Republicans are trying to take away your health care.”
In 2020, similarly, Joe Biden was the embodiment of the more moderate, reasonable wing of the Democratic Party. And I think that is why he was able to get a lot of swing voters, a lot of independents, a lot of people in the suburbs who otherwise would think about voting for a Republican. So for Democrats, we've got to look at what has worked for us. When we embrace more moderate candidates, we tend to do better.
See also: James Carville on How Democrats Self-Sabotage
Mounk: So you've run many campaigns, and been involved in even more campaigns. But you're most famous for having run Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, in which he went from being the mayor of a reasonably small town to being a very serious presidential contender. When you sat down at the very beginning of this and thought, “Look, I have a candidate here who's really eloquent and really smart, but who doesn't have all that much name-recognition, and who seems like a longshot candidate”—what strategy did you come up with?
Smith: When I first met him, it was over the phone in December 2016. He was thinking about running for DNC chair, and that was a longshot race for him. And one thing that was immediately clear to me was that he was a very unique communicator, and very different from other Democrats at the time. December 2016 is when the Democratic Party, sort of rightly so, was in full freakout mode, because no one could believe that we had lost to Donald Trump. And the media was in full freakout mode too because so few people had predicted this. All the polls were wrong. And Donald Trump seemed to fly in the face of everything that we thought America is and was. Yet he was able to prevail. So, Democrats sort of over-corrected—overreacted I think—at that moment. In the weeks afterwards, certainly in the years afterwards, you had Democrats going out there and saying, “To beat Trump, we have to be like Trump, and we gotta yell, we gotta scream. When they go low, we go lower. We kick them in the teeth.” But David Axelrod always talks about the theory of opposites, which is that in presidential races, voters tend to go between people who are complete opposites. You go from Bill Clinton—who, yes, he can be an everyman, but he was also a very cerebral guy—to George W. Bush, who was more a shoot-from-the-hip cowboy. No one would say that he was particularly intellectual. Then you go back to Barack Obama, a very cerebral guy, brilliant orator…then you go to Donald Trump.
What Pete understood was that you have to offer counterprogramming. Even when he was just running for DNC chair, he approached Trump very differently from other Democrats. He understood that it’s important not to play Trump's game—which is to say something outrageous, watch people's heads explode, dominate the news cycle for days, and then rinse and repeat. I'm sort of seeing the same thing happening with Ron DeSantis. He's picking these fights, he's saying and doing abhorrent things. And all the same characters—whether in the media, Democratic politics, the punditry class, whatever it is—have the same freak out. Then everything revolves around Ron. He's setting the debate, and he's setting the debate around an issue where Democrats are probably weakest right now with voters: immigration.
Pete understood that the best counterprogramming to Trump was to be the antidote to him in terms of style presentation, how he talked—but also in terms of policy. Pete was a guy who served his country, an eminently decent guy of faith. He's a loving husband. He is a well-educated intellectual who speaks seven languages and does not hide from that. When John Kerry spoke French, the Republicans attacked it. Candidates wouldn't speak foreign languages in public. But Pete sort of embraced that, while, as I mentioned before, being really brilliant at taking very complex ideas and communicating them in simple ways for voters. So, although we had no name recognition and no national fundraising base, the one thing we did have access to was the media. And because he was such a good communicator, we essentially just put him out there as much as possible.
During the presidential campaign, a prominent Democratic consultant contacted me after one of the debates and said, “Could you tell him to pause before he gives an answer? Because it's almost robotic, what a perfect answer he's giving. It almost sounds rehearsed.” When Pete was asked, “Well, you're gay. How do you eat Chick-Fil-A?” He replied, “I do not approve of their politics, but I kinda approve of their chicken.” He was extremely comfortable in his skin and his values. He could always bring things back to basics like freedom, fairness, faith, and family. He is someone who is unabashedly patriotic, and will talk about how Democrats need to really be the patriotic party. It made it a lot easier for voters—including those who didn’t necessarily identify with the Democratic Party—to understand and to identify with him.
Mounk: So, how do you build a campaign from there?
Smith: When he finally got to the CNN town hall—that's the first time you get 45 minutes. It’s a national platform. And of course, not everyone wants to do cable news. Ratings are what they are. Most people don't watch cable news. But if you have a viral moment, if you have a great performance, then what happens on CNN doesn't just stay on CNN. It's gonna get picked up everywhere. That was the moment that everything changed. His fundraising exploded. We'd set a modest—frankly, sort of sad—goal of raising a million dollars in the first fundraising quarter. But within a couple of weeks, we raised $7 million. In the next quarter, we raised $24 million. And once you're able to raise that sort of money, then you're able to put together a good team, and a great operation. We put together what I think was the best Iowa operation, while continuing to do things sort of differently. It was always very important to him to never change who he was because of what the staff said or what people online were saying. There was a big disconnect oftentimes between the online discourse—and the discourse among political reporters in the bubble—and voters on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire.
We really saw that in October, November, and December of 2019, when he started to draw contrasts with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on Medicare for All, among other issues. Online, of course, if you read the reaction, you would have thought the guy kicked a puppy on live TV. But then the reporters who actually went and spent time with voters on the ground were like, “What the hell? Every voter I'm talking to is saying that Pete Buttigieg is either their first or second choice.” If you know who you are, know what your values are, and are willing to stand by them and understand that they are rooted in common sense, and are in line with where the voters are—that's your path to success. That's one of the reasons why, despite the fact that he was the youngest candidate, he was able to do so well.
Mounk: What do Democrats need to do to win in 2024?
Smith: Well, first, we have to win in 2022. And to win in 2022, we've got to stay focused. I'm getting a little nervous. All this immigration stuff recently has made me very, very nervous. And yes, there is inflation, and that is going to be a problem going into the election. But at least the Democrats are trying to offer financial relief to the American people, whether it's allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices, or capping the price of insulin for seniors (all the stuff that was in the Inflation Reduction Act). And we could say, “What is the Republican agenda to lower your costs? It is nothing, it is zero. They want your cost to go up as much as possible, because they think it will help them win the election.”
There's no doubt that the biggest game-changer in this election was the Dobbs decision. It lit a fire under the Democratic base. If you look at Kansas, a majority of the voters who turned out were Republicans, but the abortion measure failed by a lot. That means that a lot of Republicans voted to protect a woman's right to choose. So, Republicans have been blocking all economic relief, while Democrats have been campaigning effectively on abortion and using it as a cudgel against Republicans. That was very favorable terrain for Democrats. And you really saw that in the polls.
But I'm very nervous now. After seeing immigration dominate the news, it speaks to why Democrats just cannot take the bait all the time from Republicans. We cannot let them define what the national debate is. Because if we go into 2022 with immigration as the top issue, we're screwed. Voters give Republicans a massive, massive advantage in terms of how they handle immigration—which I understand is not rational, because it is Republicans who blocked immigration reform, and who are partially to blame for this crisis; but voters aren't always rational.
We've got to stop taking their bait; we've got to focus on talking to people about how we're making their lives better, how the Republicans are out of touch on issues like abortion, and how they want to take away your democratic rights. In states across the country, we have candidates running for state legislatures, running for governor, running for secretary of state, running for attorney general, who are essentially saying that they will not accept the election results if their states elect Democrats in the future. And even if they lose their elections, they're not going to accept the election results.
I understand democracy is not at the top of the priority list for voters. But we can simplify the message, and make it clear that this isn't just about January 6, this isn't just about 2020—this is about your future rights as a voter.
Mounk: But how do you effectively change the topic in politics? Because I often hear this advice. If the dominant topic is immigration, that really gives an advantage to Republicans. If you're a Democrat or a Democratic adviser, then you really want to change the topic to something like abortion, education, or economic issues. My skepticism about that advice is that if voters perceive you as being out of touch on some issue that is important to them, and then you simply change the topic, they won't trust anything else you say. If you change the topic before you play defense on the issue on which you're weak, you just lose permission to speak about anything else.
Smith: I think the response to Ron DeSantis from most Democrats has not been effective. They've played his game. And Pete would always talk about this in the 2020 campaign. With Donald Trump, if you get into a back and forth with him, then you give him oxygen. It's like when you're a kid and you're playing with a finger trap—the harder you pull, the more stuck you’re gonna get. And I feel like it’s the same with DeSantis: if you're just yelling, screaming, huffing and puffing and hyperventilating, then you're giving him all the attention that he wants, and you're not addressing the underlying problem, which is that voters don't trust Democrats to effectively handle immigration and the border. That’s the reality—and I deal in reality.
What makes more sense is for Democrats to acknowledge that things are not great; that we have way too many people coming over the border every day; that our border towns are being thrown into chaos, and they don't have the resources to handle this. We need to acknowledge that frustration, and we need to have solutions that address that. You can pivot to: Democrats are the ones who've been trying to address this for years, and Republicans haven't lifted a freaking finger to reform our immigration system. Part of the reason why we have this crisis at the border is because of the Republican Party and Republican leaders. Jake Auchincloss was on Fox the other day and he did a really good job of answering this. He began by acknowledging that these frustrations are real, and that Democrats cannot ignore them. Then he pivoted into, “And here’s the way that I would handle this.” You have to establish some credibility on the issue before you move on. You can't just yell and scream in incomprehensible grunts and then just say abortion and think that you're going to change the topic of conversation. You've got to acknowledge the frustration, the reality, before you move on. I would like to see a little bit more of that from Democrats, and a little less hyperventilation.
Mounk: Let's say we get through these midterms: perhaps Democrats managed to hold the Senate, perhaps Republicans take the House. Do you think Joe Biden should run again? And if Joe Biden doesn't run, what should people look for in a candidate who can beat Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, or somebody else in 2024?
Smith: I think Joe Biden is going to be the nominee. It would be completely ahistorical for him not to be the nominee. I understand that his numbers are still underwater right now. But look at Barack Obama's numbers in 2010—they were in a similar place and at some points got worse. I worked for him in 2012. He was able to come back and win pretty handily. But at this point in 2010, there were editorials saying Barack Obama should not run for reelection, and instead, Hillary Clinton should take his place, which is really funny in retrospect. But Barack Obama was able to successfully rehabilitate his numbers, and part of that was turning the election from a referendum into a choice. Democrats have done a better job in 2022 than they did in 2010 in making this more of a choice election, versus a referendum.
I think Biden is looking back at history. He's looking at Obama, Clinton, and Reagan's numbers, and seeing that presidents after the first couple years of their term sort of suck. He's looking at history and seeing that you can bounce back. And just because the numbers right now aren't great, it doesn't mean that he won't be able to win the election.
One of the arguments I hear the most is that he's too old. I think age matters if it affects your ability to get things done. But if that is what matters most about age, then I don't really think that applies here with Biden. He has been very, very prolific in recent months and has signed into law a lot of important legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS. He's had some foreign policy wins, killed the head of al-Qaeda, all of that. His age clearly isn't impacting his effectiveness. And I do hear people say, “Well, he's not a great communicator.” I don't know where the rest of these people were throughout Joe Biden's career, but I remember in 2012, when he was out there as a surrogate for President Obama, and he was making the same gaffes, mixing up the states he was in. But that's part of Joe Biden's appeal. He doesn't speak in perfect paragraphs like Pete, and he doesn't give these beautiful oratorical speeches like Barack Obama. But guess what? 99.9% of people don't. He speaks like a regular person. In 2008, he would say, “Good morning, Ohio!” when he was in Pennsylvania. He would mix up senators' names. I think that's just part of who he is. He was never a super smooth communicator. And to some people, it's an endearing quality. It's like the “Uncle Joe” part of it.
I haven't seen a compelling argument yet for why he wouldn't be the strongest candidate for 2024, especially when we know that incumbency gives you a lot of advantages.
Mounk: It’s interesting that when you look at the FiveThirtyEight averages today, you see that Joe Biden is underperforming Barack Obama and George W. Bush (who was very popular at the time because 9/11 was recent), and George H.W. Bush. But you also see that he is overperforming Donald Trump, he's exactly even with Bill Clinton, and he is overperforming Ronald Reagan. And one of the things that's interesting about this is that the numbers at this point in a term don't seem to bear any particular correlation with who gets reelected.
I think it's always tempting to make your views about policy align with your views about who the best candidate is. What are your instincts on this?
Smith: When I look at some of the candidates who are doing best and who are overperforming, it's people like Mark Kelly in Arizona, people like Raphael Warnock in Georgia. As a political consultant, sometimes you do want your candidates to go out there and just rip their opponent a new asshole and light the world on fire, and break out the red meat. But part of the reason why some of these candidates are able to succeed is because they don't do that. And it's not the sexiest thing in the world. But sometimes voters reward candidates who are sort of boring, who don't embrace conflict, who don't try to be flashy on TV and don't try to give speeches to rival Barack Obama. They’re workhorses, and they're not talking about the flashiest issues, they're not taking the bait on the immigration stuff. They're going out and building “Republicans for Warnock” groups, and just talking about healthcare costs and jobs, and things like that—the least sexy things in the world. And I think sometimes we have to understand that boring plays in politics, and voters reward just simple common decency. Both Warnock and Kelly are able to get crossover voters because they don't think that any everyone who voted for Trump is inherently evil or stupid. And they don't talk to people that way. They don't run around with their hair on fire, embracing radical policies.
Sometimes you do want to have candidates who give you that thrill up your leg. But that's not always who's going to play the best with voters. We need to meet voters where they are. And sometimes that’s not going to get a lot of retweets. It's not gonna get you booked on cable news. It's not gonna get you named a hero in liberal publications and invited to give keynote speeches at dinners. But God damn it, it's going to help you win. And that's how we change the trajectory of this country.
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