Opinion

Will Georgia show Democrats ran the wrong campaign against Trump?

If your opponent is a corrupt Republican billionaire, maybe you should talk about it

"It's time for [Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler] to answer for this pattern of self-dealing and corruption," Democratic Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock demanded Saturday, along with a clip of his opponent dissembling in their recent debate.

"Happy Sunday," his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff greeted supporters, "Why hasn't David Perdue put his stocks in a blind trust yet?"

The double runoff in Georgia to determine control of the United States Senate is a rare election where a significant change in campaign message can be truly tested in the same cycle. Did the Biden campaign, and the Democratic Party as whole, make a mistake by not focusing aggressively on Donald Trump and other top Republicans? Were the party's failure to capture the Senate and disappointing House results simply products of running the wrong campaign?

What voters did hear from the Biden campaign this year was primarily about health care, national unity, and COVID-19. The Democratic candidate's pitch was a mostly positive message of restoring dignity to the office, protecting the Affordable Care Act, and competently handling the pandemic. What was mostly absent was talk of Trump's corruption. For example, in the final week before the election, Biden tweeted about health care and defending the Affordable Care Act 10 times, the COVID-19 pandemic 15 times, but only once about Trump's corruption. Biden's so-called "closing argument" television ads reflected similar themes, and this was a pattern throughout the entire campaign.

These messages didn't seem to resonate strongly in swing states, though. Both Fox News and CNN exit polls found Trump with a slight edge in those states on the question of who would better handle COVID-19, and the Fox poll found slightly more support for repealing at least part of the Affordable Care Act than there was for keeping it.

Meanwhile, Democrats went easy on the Trump administration throughout his time in office. House Democrats could have gotten Trump's tax returns from New York state before the election but didn't push for them because they worried it would appear too partisan. Numerous scandals by Trump cabinet officials didn't receive full hearings or threats of impeachment. Even when House Democrats did impeach President Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to go for a "narrow" impeachment focused only on the election interference issue. Then that impeachment was barely mentioned by Biden or any other Democrats during the campaign.

By comparison, when House Republicans knew they would likely face Hillary Clinton in 2016, over the course of more than two years they spent $7 million holding 33 hearings to produce an 800-page report on just the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi. It was a relentless effort that, despite its thin factual premise, laid the groundwork for much of the prolonged controversy over Clinton's use of a private email server which undoubtedly drove down Clinton's favorable numbers and eventually her turnout.

While some might argue that 2016 Trump voters didn't seem to care about his self-dealings, Democrats didn't need to convert those 2016 voters, they just needed to stop Trump from growing his base. A four-year long focus on doggedly pursuing Trump's many scandals and flagrant corruption would have made it harder for Trump to win over new supporters, and could have convinced infrequent, Republican-leaning voters that they might as well stay home. If Trump had only gotten the same number of votes he did in 2016, Biden would have easily won Florida, Texas, and North Carolina. Instead, Trump's approval rating barely moved during his presidency, and he increased his popular vote total by 11 million. That increased Republican turnout was also the primary difference between the Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms and the Democrats' anemic House and Senate results this year.

This is what makes the Georgia runoff elections a perfect test case. Now, Democrats are running the corruption-focused campaign they didn't run against Trump, heavily highlighting Republican senators' well-timed stock trades after receiving nonpublic information. Over one week in early December, Ossoff tweeted 14 times about Republican Sen. David Perdue's "corruption" and questionable stock trades. Similarly, 10 of Warnock's tweets were about Loeffler "personally profiting off the pandemic" after getting a secret briefing on COVID-19. This message is also featured heavily in the ads currently saturating the state.

Democrats entered these runoffs behind. In the November election, Perdue led Ossoff 49.73 percent to 47.95 percent. And while Warnock technically led Loeffler 32.9 percent to 25.91 percent, that special election was effectively an open primary, with all the Republican candidates collectively winning 50.5 percent of the two-party vote to Democrats' 49.5 percent. The Democratic party needs to make up significant ground, and a corruption argument could be what does it.

According to Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, his message testing in 2016 and 2018 showed a strong positive response to calling out corrupt political deals. If Democrats manage to pull off a double win in Georgia, it would be more strong evidence that a campaign that attacks incumbents' perceived corruption can move voters, or at least convince the incumbents' potential supporters to stay home. It would imply the Democrats missed a golden opportunity to make even larger gains this November by not putting Trump's misdeeds at the very center of their message.

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