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A recent focus group I attended featured Latina voters in Gwinnett County, Georgia, who voted for Joe Biden but were still undecided in the U.S. Senate runoffs. Despite being proud that Georgia went “blue,” and being concerned about racial division, the pandemic and the economy, the women in the focus group could not name one reason why they should vote for the Democrats in the runoff.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent on advertising and campaigning in Georgia, and hundreds of millions more will likely be spent before the runoff on Jan. 5. But there is a chance that even with all of that money, these women still won’t be able to name a reason. Because just like in 2020 nationally, most are not telling a compelling story on the air, at scale, to the people of Georgia about why they should vote for Democrats.
In Georgia, the pieces of the story could not be more perfectly placed. Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor who preaches to the same church community of Dr. Martin Luther King, is a warrior for social and racial justice and a charismatic figure. Jon Ossoff, a young and accomplished entrepreneur and investigative journalist, is a smart communicator with strong progressive values. They are running against two incumbent white Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, known as the “Bonnie and Clyde of corruption,” both of whom have made it their life’s mission to rig the economy for the greediest few at the expense of the people they purport to represent.
Throughout the general election in 2020 in Georgia, we saw how Democrats won the state’s electoral college votes because of both an energized and growing Democratic base — largely a result of Stacey Abrams’ and other leading state-based organizers’ efforts to register and mobilize hundreds of thousands of voters of color, women and young people — and some cross-pressured white Republicans who pulled the lever for Biden but voted GOP down-ticket. The math is clear: we must excite and animate a coalition base of Democratic voters, and lure over a portion of the middle.
Research since 2016 has consistently shown, over and over and over again, that the most effective messages to win over a multiracial coalition are ones that link together race and economics in a full story that leads with values, forms an emotional connection and makes a compelling case for cross-racial solidarity. It’s a story in which we name not only the hero, but, importantly, clearly delineate the villain. In Georgia, the core of the message would sound something like this, which could be implemented in many different ways:
Most Georgians agree that our communities want relief from the impact of COVID-19, an increase in the minimum wage, and the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have blocked the support our families need from passing in Congress in order to hand more to big corporations profiting from the pandemic. They try to divide us by race and by place to distract from their failures to deliver on our priorities — because they want to keep cashing in. Georgia voters just came together — across our differences, the shades of our skin and the traditions we celebrate — to elect Joe Biden. In this runoff, we have the chance to do it again, to elect Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock. They will partner with the new President and other Democrats in Congress to fight for the ideas we need to heal Georgia — addressing this pandemic, shoring up our economic well-being and making this a place of liberty and justice for all, no exceptions.
A review of the paid advertising for the Democrats so far in the runoff election reveals that while they typically convey portions of that story, they almost never tell the whole tale. Leaving parts off is not as effective. It ends up being either a race-blind message about benefits that will come to Georgians if Ossoff and Warnock are elected (while the other side is invoking racial fear), or a message only about race that doesn’t address people’s very real economic struggles. While there are a lot of attack ads pointing out Loeffer’s insider trading or her wealth as the owner of the New York Stock Exchange, and some light-hearted and effective ads from Warnock pushing back on her relentless and unfair attacks on him, there have not been enough ads that link elements of the whole story together: Both Loeffler and Perdue are blocking real relief for everyday Georgians because they are protecting the very wealthy, like themselves, and they are using race as a tool to divide and distract. Even voters in Georgia who voted for Biden are confused about who is who in the Senate runoff, so spelling out the whole story and naming names will be key.
If we are going to recover from the last four years of Trump, and build a sustained multiracial coalition, we must get better at telling our own story. So many voters just want to know what to make of Democratic politics, and without a story that links race and class together, we will continue to leave power on the table.
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona is Vice President of Political & Narrative Strategy at Way to Win.