Chapter 2: Party Switchers in Virginia | Crooked Media
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September 19, 2022
The Wilderness
Chapter 2: Party Switchers in Virginia

In This Episode

Why would Biden voters support Republicans? We hear from party switchers in Loudoun County who turned Virginia red in 2021 by voting for Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin. Communications expert Anat Shenker Osorio, organizer Tram Nguyen, and Sarah Longwell of The Bulwark join Jon to discuss.

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Michael Podhorzer: You have a kind of Blue America… that is about 42% of the country and you have Red America, that’s like 38% pro-Trump. And, and you have the seven-ish states that are in the middle. And that’s where America looks like civil war.


Jon Favreau: When Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 points in 2020, I thought there was a chance it would stop being one of those civil war states Michael Podhorzer talks about. Biden beat Trump there by nearly twice as much as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. In 2017, Democrats won the governor’s race by the largest margin in decades. 2018’s blue wave gave Virginia Democrats a record number of seats in Congress and the state legislature – a reflection of an electorate that had become more diverse in a state where a lot of highly-educated suburbanites had drifted away from a Republican Party they viewed as too extreme. By the time 2020 rolled around, neither presidential campaign saw Virginia as much of a battleground. Then came 2021.


[news clip]: What had been planned as a typical school board meeting in Virginia’s Wealthy Loudoun County, devolved into pandemonium …


[clip of Lauren Bordeaux]: The LCPS school board has managed to turn our once prestigious public schools into mediocre, publicly funded, politically motivated private schools.


[clip of Michelle Lane-Smithwick]: Critical race theory.


[clip of Shelly Slebrch]: Critical race theory.


[clip of Brian Davidson]: Marxist CRT ideology.


[clip of Michelle Lane-Smithwick]: Authoritarian regime.


[clip of Dick Black]: It’s absurd and immoral for teachers to call boys girls. And girls, boys.


[clip of Colin Wood]: White children are being told untruthfully that all the problems in this country were their fault. If you believe in Christ, if you believe in the constitution and if you believe in America do not let this country fall.


[news clip]: Things got so heated that the board members eventually walked out, leaving the police to deal with the unruly crowd. Two people left in handcuffs.


Ian Serotkin: A lot of things that have happened in the last two years are just beyond comprehension beyond what I had considered was even in the realm of possible.


Jon Favreau: This is Ian Serotkin, who became the co-chair of the Loudoun County School Board in January of 2020 – a wealthy district just an hour outside Washington, DC that unexpectedly became ground zero for America’s culture war over schools.


Ian Serotkin: We’ve had death threats; we’ve had things that are even worse than death threats. I had to shut down my social media presence for a while when I had people saying, ‘Oh my daughter should be raped so I know what it felt like.’ None of this is what my family should have had to bear and had to deal with over the last few years… None of this is why I ran for the job.


Jon Favreau: America has always grappled with the threat of political violence, but it’s clearly gotten worse in the Trump Era – especially since the MAGA movement has waged battles over issues of race, gender, political identity, and democracy itself. In Virginia, the fight was about everything from critical race theory to transgender rights to COVID restrictions. Right-wing activists – many from out of state – targeted teachers and school administrators. But their real audience was parents who – after more than a year of school closures and Zoom classes, were pretty tired and pretty pissed. So of course this became an issue in the governor’s race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.


[news clip]: One lightning rod issue has emerged, public schools.


[clip of Glenn Youngkin]: There is a revolt against the way our school has been managed. And critical race theory is a big part of it. I will issue an order BANNING the teaching of critical race theory in schools.


[news clip]: Democrat McAuliffe, a former governor, vows to raise teacher pay and expand pre-K program, but something else he said about education, at a debate, has haunted him.


[clip of Terry McAuliffe]: I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.


Jon Favreau: Youngkin went on to defeat McAuliffe – the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia since 2009, a swing of 12 points from Biden’s victory in 2020. So what happened to all those Virginians who voted for Joe Biden just one year earlier? Did they stay home, or did they vote for Glenn Youngkin? Civis Analytics, a data firm whose founders helped Barack Obama win two presidential campaigns, ran a detailed analysis of the race based on census info and vote history. They found that while many Biden voters did stay home – particularly younger voters and voters of color – 80% of the shift away from the Democrats between 2020 and 2021 was because of voters who switched parties. People who voted for Joe Biden decided to cast their ballot for Glenn Youngkin. The big question is, why? Certainly, the media took interest in the culture war narrative.


[clip of Joe Scarborough]: The Democrats are gonna have to come face to face with this issue of wokeism.


[news clip]: Tonight is a victory for critical race theory.


[clip of Jeff Roe]: Their radical progressive left has really taken over their party.


[clip of Mehdi Hasan]: Politico reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee has internal polling that shows Republican culture wars attacks are working.

Jon Favreau: But is that what really happened? Are MAGA Republicans winning the culture wars? Did they persuade enough Biden voters in Virginia that Democrats are just too woke – too out of step with the values of most Americans? And if they run the same play in the midterms, will it work? Tram Nguyen, an organizer from Virginia who spent the campaign knocking on doors and talking to voters, isn’t so sure.


Tram Nguyen: It only takes, you know, one journalist to cover one aspect of the election and others pick up on it. And that becomes what the race is about, even though that’s not the reality that those of us on the ground are experiencing.


Jon Favreau: I wanted to learn a little bit more about that reality for a few reasons. First, the Virginia gubernatorial was the country’s biggest and most competitive election between 2020 and the upcoming midterms. That doesn’t mean the results are predictive of what will happen in November – but they certainly represent a larger and more definitive sample size than any poll. Second, if we want to keep 2020’s pro-democracy coalition together, we have to figure out how to prevent Biden voters from casting their ballot for Republicans like Glenn Youngkin. Don’t get me wrong – we also have to prevent Biden voters from just staying home, which we’ll focus on in the next few episodes. But when you look at Virginia and see that 80% of the shift away from Democrats came from Biden-Youngkin voters, the math is clear: if that level of party-switching happens in the midterms, Republicans will win. For our first focus group, I talked to nine voters in Virginia – some who switched parties in the last election, and others who might switch in the future. Five were Biden-Youngkin voters. Four were Biden-McAuliffe voters, but only one person in the group identified themselves as a strong Democrat. The rest said they were weak Democrats, independents, or weak Republicans. I also got together with a group of campaign strategists and organizers to chat about what we heard from these voters, why they voted the way they did, and what Democrats can do to win over people like them.


Anat Shenker-Osorio: I’m Anat Shenker-Osorio. I’m a researcher and communication strategist. I’m based in Oakland and I’m the principal of ASO community.


Sarah Longwell: I’m Sarah Longwell, friendly never Trumper. I am the publisher of The Bulwark and I also run a C4 called defending democracy together. Uh, notably our biggest project is the Republican accountability project.


Tram Nguyen: I’m Tram Nguyen, when I’m co-executive director of new Virginia majority, lifelong Virginia been doing politics here for what seems like a lifetime.


Jon Favreau: After the break, we’ll hear from Anat, Sarah, Tram, and nine Virginia voters.




Jon Favreau: Testing one, two, three… I think we’re all ready to go! Virginia was my first focus group – and since I did it during a period last spring when everyone seemed to be getting Covid, including me, it was the only group I conducted via Zoom. This did not stop everyone from talking a lot. In fact, this was one of the more talkative, politically opinionated groups – maybe because some of them lived in the DC suburbs and couldn’t escape politics, even if they didn’t follow all that closely. A week or so later, I got together with Anat, Sarah, and Tram to talk about what we heard.


Jon Favreau: I’ll play some clips from the focus group in a bit, but I wanted to start with a question for each of you: what are some of your best guesses as to why Biden voters in Virginia decided to support Glenn Youngkin? Uh Tram, you worked on this race as a grassroots organizer. What do you think?


Tram Nguyen: I think while a lot of folks nationally think Virginia is a solidly blue state, for those of us who live in Virginia, I think we have a different reality, right? Um, it has always been a little bit of a purpley swing state, and we don’t ever take our elections for granted. So I’m actually not surprised that there were Biden voters voted for Youngkin.


Jon Favreau: Sarah, you do focus groups with swing voters all the time. Uh, what’s your sense?


Sarah Longwell: Yeah. So I’m cheating on this one a little bit. Cause I focus group the heck out of that race. And, uh, I’ll tell you what I, what I heard at the time, a lot of it. And kids not being in school like that. there was this big ball of kind of wokeness that people sort of identified, but it was mainly, especially with these backsliding Biden voters around my kids were not in school. Terry McAuliffe said, parents shouldn’t be involved in school. I have been homeschooling my kids, you know, for, for almost two years, the difference between Republicans who could not wait to go out and vote for any living, breathing Republican, uh, versus the democratic coalition, which I would describe scientifically as feeling incredibly blah, in that moment. Um, I think led to a perfect storm that saw a 12-point swing.


Jon Favreau: Anat what do you think.


Anat Shenker-Osorio: Uh, I can do better than guess I actually ran a field experiment in Virginia and here, I’m echoing, Sarah’s very scientific description of blah. I think that what McAuliffe attempted to do was make this a further repudiation of Trump. And I think on the heels of what had happened, not just in November, but in the prolonged horrible period that ended with the insurrection and then eventually the swearing-in of Biden. I don’t think people wanted to hear that. And so I don’t think that he drew the contrast he needed to with his actual opponent who was Youngkin.


Jon Favreau: All right. Let’s hear from some of the Biden, young voters in our group about why they chose Glenn Youngkin.


[clip of Voter 1]: Let’s face it. I think we had bad choices in Virginia per governor. I, I didn’t like either of them, but I, I thought Youngkin was the lesser of two evils.


[clip of Voter 2]: When I took a look at both of the candidates that I had for options, which I didn’t feel either one of them was all that outstanding. I just went towards Younkin because there was some things that the McCaulliffe had done that I thought were not the best choices.


[clip of Voter 3]: When Terry was here. He didn’t do anything that was worthwhile in my opinion. So I did not like him as a candidate. He didn’t do a great job the first time. So why am I going elect him again?


[clip of Voter 4]: I think I’ve kind of a simplistic view. Where if one party gets power all the time or has too much power, they’re going to get kind of full of themselves and they’re going to do whatever they want. I kind of like to have a balance, I guess. So, I voted for Youngkin. He seemed like he was going to be kind of. Um, it doesn’t seem like he’s actually that moderate.


[clip of Voter 1]: Well, my primary reason was her appealed. The grocery tax which I noticed hasn’t happened yet. You know, because Virginia is one of the few states that taxes groceries.


[clip of Voter 5]: I voted for Glenn Youngkin and I primarily vote democratic. Most cases, but in this situation, there was no way I could go with the policies of the Democrats that they were following here in Virginia, the previous administration Northam and all were not handling things well, uh, when it came to his lack of support for police departments and what he put a lot of those officers through… And I had voted for Terry McAuliffe previously.


Jon Favreau: Do you all think there are larger lessons Democrats can learn from these kinds of voters ahead of the 2022 midterms? Or was this just an off-year election about these specific candidates and this state specific issues? Uh, Anat let’s start with you on this one.


Anat Shenker-Osorio: What I hear from those voters is first of all, the judgment about, not an immediate incumbent, but a person who had been governor before and a feeling of sort of the devil, you know, versus the devil you don’t know. And some amount of belief that Youngkin was this different kind of Republican that he was going to be more moderate. I think that that just underscores a failure of properly contrasting McAuliffe with what he was actually confronting. It needs to be clear to people exactly how extreme and exactly how out of touch and exactly how much this essentially authoritarian faction of Trump Republicans, not all Republicans, very specifically Trump Republican. Are hell bent on taking away our freedoms in every dimension.


Jon Favreau: Tram, what did you think, hearing from those voters? Did that sound familiar to you at all from, from your time on the ground in Virginia?


Tram Nguyen: I mean, I agree with Anat, right. Terry ran a Donald Trump like referendum campaign.


[clip of Terry McAuliffe]: He’s a total wannabe Donald Trump he said so much of the reason he’s running for governor, his quote is because of Donald Trump. He has bought and paid for by Donald Trump. He wants to bring Donald Trump style politics to Virginia. He is a Trumper, he’s been endorsed seven times. That’s what you get with Glenn Trumpkin!


Tram Nguyen: And The voters that we spoke to when we were on the doors, on the phones, the contrast that we drew wasn’t about necessarily Terry McAuliffe as governor and what he did in his first term. Cause like let’s be real. There wasn’t a whole lot that was achieved in that first term, you know, there was no trifecta, there was a Republican-held legislature. They blocked all of these things that we were trying to make progress on. However, Democrats did make progress on Medicaid expansion and on criminal justice reform and on immigrant rights and environmental justice and all of these things that Terry didn’t even talk about in that race. Right. And so the media actually defined that race around police, and to defunding, the police ended up being a thing. And then the grocery tax, because Youngkin ran a lot of ads around that. And that hits at people’s like bread-and-butter issues, right. That their pocketbook and they were hurting.


Jon Favreau: Sarah, any lessons from Democrats can learn from these. Or other swing voters that you you’ve talked to in Virginia?


Sarah Longwell: Yeah. I mean, look, I think that you shouldn’t run the same person again. If the vibe is why is this guy getting another term, then that’s bad for you. Because McAuliffe did go so hard on the, I’m going to tie Youngkin to Trump. I had a bunch of swing voters who ultimately voted for Youngkin. Um, but who were Biden voters say when I heard. I was not going to vote for Youngkin. But then I started to look at Younkin and I saw him in the debates and he didn’t seem like Trump at all. And I actually think, that the candidates that are running in 2022 are extremely Trumpy candidates. That is different than Youngkin. Youngkin was a nice dad in a zip-up tech vest who looked not Trumpy at all and kept Trump at arms length. And I think that a referendum on Trump is not a bad thing to do, tying the national party to Trump, not a bad thing to do. It will not work on certain candidates and Youngkin is one of those candidates.


Jon Favreau: Yeah. So it’s important not to overlearn the lessons of, uh, uh, Glenn Youngkin race who maybe seemed a little bit more like Mitt Romney than Donald Trump. I wanted to find out what issues these voters were most concerned about. Obviously, we heard a lot about education in the Virginia race, particularly Glenn Youngkin’s complaint that critical race theory was being taught in public schools. These voters actually weren’t buying it. Even the ones who voted for Youngkin.


[clip of Voter 4]: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think they’re teaching critical race theory. But, I mean, it’s just a, it’s an easy thing to latch on to.


[clip of Voter 6]: There was a math book banned because it had illustrations of black and white children. Now it’s a math book, but because they had black children in there, they were trying to say that we were trying to teach critical race theory through a math book. That’s crazy to me.


Jon Favreau: A lot of these voters did say that education was an important issue to them, but their problem wasn’t critical race theory. This is what I heard from two Youngkin voters.


[clip of Voter 5]: I meant to say this earlier when we were on Glenn Youngkin, as far as his, uh, views on education. Um, definitely concerned with that. And I was before I voted for him too, and my wife’s a teacher and then I’ve been an educator myself. So, I’m well aware of the problems and education system. And. That individual teachers have to deal with the low pay and so forth below funding for resources. Uh, it’s a very big problem.


[clip of Voter 3]: I think generally there needs to be a lot more focused on education. We’ve always put a lot of money in defense, into international affairs and the pandemic was obviously something that took up a lot of money. So, it would be great if we can just sort of invest in, in, education as a change.


Jon Favreau: Sarah, how much? And what have you heard from swing voters about critical race theory?


Sarah Longwell: Yeah, the swing voters don’t care about it so much. It is a base Trump play… But the thing that Glenn Younkin did, there’s, uh, an important strategy. The Republicans are employing. I call it the parallel universe strategy where you could talk about CRT to Trump base voters. And you can talk about education broadly speaking to swing voters and sort of normy voters. And you could hear people want education to be top of mind, it mattered to them both because their kids had been not in school because people were trying to get the schools to do different things around COVID. Um, but also because people care about education, big issue for people. And so as a result, Glenn Younkin is able to talk about CRT with the base, but then have the normies kind of just hear education, education, education. I care about education, and what they heard was Terry McAuliffe saying parents don’t belong in the decision-making process around schools.


Jon Favreau: Tram where your organizers hearing this, uh, when they went door to door?


Tram Nguyen: The two issues that we kept hearing on the doors let’s healthcare and education, but critical race theory did not come up. Right. And. It was really more about what parents were hearing, and the issues around like parental anxiety. And when it came to education, kids were at home, they were homeschooling. And then when school is open, back up, like are like, are my kids going to be safe? Mask policies, like all of these things, it’s a lot of parents that we spoke to who had education as their number one issue that I know critical race theory, isn’t taught in the schools. And I don’t actually have a problem with that, but. If this candidate is going to actually, you know, give lip service and give some airtime to this bogus issue, then my legitimate issues, right. May actually get some airtime too. And maybe they’ll finally address, you know, our public education crisis. Um, it really was the number one issue that voters talked about on the doors.


Jon Favreau: Anat, how do you think Democrats should handle these kinds of attacks going forward? Uh, ignore them, take them on what should they say?


Anat Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. Um, so I don’t think we have the choice to ignore them, and so the way that we deal with it is first and foremost, say what you’re for, say what you’re for, say what you’re for. So you say, no matter what we look like, where we come from or what our zip code, most of us want our kids to have the freedom to learn the truth of our history. So, they can understand our past reckoned with our present and create a better future. Then you draw the contrast naming villains, but today Glenn Youngkin or, but today, fast forward to whoever that actually is, wants to divide us from each other. Inventing lies about what is taught in our schools and attempting to silence the truth of our past, so you actually both narrate what they’re doing, and you ascribe motivation. You explain the reason that they’re peddling these false claims, the reason why they want to ban books, but allow bullets for example, is because they’re hoping that if they can feed this distraction and keep their base engaged and enraged. That we won’t notice while they vote to eliminate the funding, the resources, the programs, the stuff that all of us want. And then you encourage that widest possible coalition of voters, the swing and the democratic base to join together and vote for real leaders who believe in the freedom to learn for every one of our children.

Jon Favreau: After the break – we hear from these Virginia voters about the economy and abortion rights.


Jon Favreau: Welcome back. When we recorded this focus group back in May, we wanted to learn about the 2021 Gubernatorial race in Virginia. But we also wanted to get a sense of where these voters were at heading into this year’s election. And while a LOT has changed since May, one thing has stayed the same. People’s feelings about the economy. Education was very important to these voters. Of course, the issue that came up the most by far, uh, was the economy and especially inflation, which of course matches all the polling. Take a listen.

[clip of Voter 1]: We’ve been spending billions and billions and billions of dollars in Ukraine. I mean, you know, what are we going to do? I mean, it’s like that can’t continue forever.


[clip of Voter 2]: Um, well I would say inflation and the rising food costs because that’s huge right now. Just go into the grocery store… I found a receipt from a couple of months ago, and I couldn’t believe the difference in the cost to buy weekly groceries.


Jon Favreau: Which party do you trust more to, to handle inflation?


[clip of Voter 7]: Actually, none. I don’t think anybody can handle it. Things go up. It’s just going up at a rapidly high rates besides salaries. So even if we put Republicans in charge, they can’t do anything. And we already know putting them in charge of what it leads to. I mean, things just get stalled.


Jon Favreau: So, Sarah awhile back, Katie Porter gave this speech about inflation and afterwards she said, it felt like the first time it really sank in with some of her colleagues. One of whom came up to her and said, it’s not an issue that’s coming up in the polls. Is that even possible? [laugh]


Sarah Longwell: Not possible. So, I open every focus group with the same question. Hey, how do you think things are going in the country? And everyone’s like, inflation is really bad. Inflation is really bad, right? My salary is not keeping up with the costs. My grocery bill is going up. Like they say exactly the things you hear. In fact, I sort of play a game with myself all the time. It’s like, when could you play a section of clips and not know whether it is a Democratic group or a Republican group talking. And right now, you could do that with inflation, where if you just listened to both groups, they would sound exactly the same. They would be talking about how they can’t get into homes, how the rent is really high, just everything about costs. Also, do you need a pollster to tell you when inflation’s at 8%, that that’s a problem for people? If you want to talk to people about like the authoritarian menace of the Republican party, while they are trying to game out how far they can drive on the money that they have, like you are not having a conversation on the same frequency.


Jon Favreau: It was interesting, Anat that no one blamed Biden than the Democrats for inflation, no one was happy about it either. If you’re the party that controls Washington, what do you do about the fact that voters biggest concern is something you can probably do very little about?


Anat Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. So, the first thing, and here I’m just echoing and agreeing with Sarah is that it’s a terrible idea to attempt to argue people out of their feelings that is both a politics lesson. And that is a, if you would ever like to be in a relationship with another human being, [laugh] so what do you do when you’re the party in power? You try to shift at a frame level from why is stuff so expensive to why are you so broke? Notice, I’m not saying pretend it’s not expensive, pretend it’s not a big deal, but if you can shift their thinking and the way that you frame the conversation to, why are you so broke? Then what you can bring into that is the things that we care most about. And that costs the most childcare healthcare, higher education housing over and over. Democrats have put forward proposals to support you, to bring this to you, to help you. And a handful of Republicans have blocked the way. You can use populist anger to actually make people understand that some of this is deliberately caused and it’s deliberately caused by people who are intentionally profiting off this pandemic.


Jon Favreau: Every single person in this focus group, which again was conducted shortly after the draft SCOTUS opinion, uh, overturning Roe V. Wade leaked brought up abortion. Even the Youngkin voters. Um, and this is what they all said.


[clip of Voter 1]: I think, um, abortion rights would be a fundamental in, in my voting. I mean, abortion needs to be legal bottom line.


[clip of Voter 5]: I don’t believe the government should be getting involved and what women should be doing with their bodies.


[clip of Voter 3]: Obviously that’s a big issue for me as a woman.


[clip of Voter 2]: I have somewhat of an ethical issue. I’m Catholic. I guess I have some of my rules there and because I believe that a woman has the right. To have an abortion. That’s her choice. I don’t get to tell you as a religious person, what you do. So, I have a major issue for the, where the government would come in and try to mandate that.


Jon Favreau: Anat I’ve heard Democrats message, this issue a dozen different ways. Um, what’s the most effective frame, not only, to sort of get majority support, but also to increase the salience of the issue to voters.


Anat Shenker-Osorio: Yeah, I’m glad you asked. And I’m biased here because you know, this is part of an approach that I helped generate that we’ve started putting out is to simply say someone you love will need an abortion. Someday. It may be your sister. It may be your neighbor. It may be your colleague, your best friend. None of us can predict the future. And we don’t know the path of pregnancy will take. Someone you love will need abortion care and what will they do then? The other thing that we have to do, and this echoes, what has already been said is that this extremist position on abortion has to be roped into and painted as of a piece and part of this broader overall extremist agenda, which is about taking away our freedoms in every dimension, taking away our freedom to vote, taking away our freedom, to learn, taking away our freedom, to decide whether, and when we grow our families, that basically there is this authoritarian faction. There are these Trump Republicans or MAGA Republicans who are determined to claim and hold power, no matter what the will of the people.


Jon Favreau: It’s really about telling the story of Republican extremism is what I’m hearing both in the types of candidates they’re nominating and the positions they’ve taken in, the policies they’re proposing. Um, I also wanted to know what these 2021 swing voters thought about Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress, as we head into 2022. Here’s what they said about Biden.


[clip of Voter 1]: I liked Joe Biden a lot as a person, and I think he’s tried really hard, but I mean, it just seems like whatever he does, it just doesn’t make an improvement or makes things worse.


[clip of Voter 7]: You can’t really blame a lot on Joe because he’s cleaned up the messes of what happened the previous couple of years.


[clip of Voter 8]: I see that he’s not sitting idly by, he’s not sleepy Joe or whatever.


Jon Favreau: And here’s what both of the McAuliffe and Youngkin voters have to say about Democrats in Congress.


[clip of Voter 7]: My one word for Democrat, I think they’re trying, I just think they got people are so moderate. And just trying to be in the limelight because I think they have agendas down a lot personally, but I do see the effort and trying.


[clip of Voter 5]: The current Democrats that are in Congress. It’s kind of similar with the Republicans too. There are the career politicians they just want to make sure they’ve got their job. And then they’re the ones that actually care about issues that concern the general public. Fortunately, I believe it’s the minority that are, you know, out to serve themselves.


Jon Favreau: Sarah what do you think? What have you been hearing from voters about Biden and the Democrats?


Sarah Longwell: I actually, I get a lot, especially from the dem groups and then sort of from the swing voters, you get a kind of. You know, he’s, he’s a nice guy and he’s, he’s trying, but you know, he’s really old…. When I do Republican focus groups, I say, who do you want to run in 2024? More than half usually say Trump, we say, okay, Trump’s not running. Who do you want to run? And they say DeSantis, Tucker, Kristi Noem, uh Tim Scott. They’ve got a bunch of people that they would like to see run in 2024. If you ask a group of Democrats, would you like to see Joe Biden run again in 2024? The answer is absolutely not. They do not want to see Joe run again in 2024. If you say, who would you like to see run? They just stare at you. And there’s just like a, a blank look of, I don’t know, I’m not sure I can name anybody. I like that much. And like, usually what happens is they reach for a name that I know and they say like, AOC and then the other half of the group goes, no. There’s not this bench where people can look and say, oh, this is the future of the Democratic party. I understand where we’re going here, whereas on the right, it could, they can freak you out who they’re reaching for, but like they got a bench, they got a group of people they’ll want to see that they can get excited about.


Jon Favreau: Yeah. it’s back to what you said earlier, where it’s just like blah from Democrats. Um, so obviously, Anat, Democrats want this election to be a choice between their vision and the Republican vision. Republicans want the selection to be a referendum on Biden and the Democrats who control Congress. That’s clearly how a lot of voters think, especially in a midterm, how did Democrats answer the concerns that we just heard from those voters and sort of flip the frame?


Anat Shenker-Osorio: So, we generally tend to think that a mobilization message is some permutation of either. Here’s why Dems are great, or here’s why Republicans are terrible. There’s a third option. Which is a voter agency message. That voter agency message is some something like in 2018 and 2020, we turned out in record numbers. We voted to deliver vaccines. We voted to create infrastructure. We voted to send packing a handful of politicians who wanted to divide us against each other and there was a whole lot more work left to do. Because ultimately, we need to remember that voting is a behavior. We need people to engage in. It’s not a belief we need them to hold.


Jon Favreau: Interestingly, one member of Congress was… mentioned quite favorably by two participants. One of whom voted for Youngkin let’s listen.


[clip of Voter 1]: I would vote for somebody like Abigail Spanberger, who was a moderate Democrat with a lot of integrity. And she’s not a lawyer. I mean, she’s the best political servant that you know I’ve ever been associated with. And, um, she’s great. If all politicians where like her, there wouldn’t be an issue with Congress.


[clip of Voter 6]: I agree. Abigail is awesome. And I think there are some others that are as well.


Jon Favreau: Sarah, it seems like that the challenge has always there’s, there’s a series of moderate Democrats. Who are attractive to a lot more moderate voters who you think could, could really win that are a little drier. And then the really inspiring Democrats tend to, appeal more to the base. [laugh] I don’t know. Is this something that I’m just seeing or what do you think, you think candidates like Spanberger could go pretty far?


Sarah Longwell: Look, here’s the thing. The first time I engaged ever in my life on behalf of Democrats was in 2018. And I found myself looking around at all of these women, all these female candidates who were helicopter pilots and CIA analysts they talked about their cool jobs and being moms and their military service, and they won a won, they won and they were moderate talking about kitchen table issues. They ran on, the, the Republicans trying to repeal, certain healthcare provisions. And I thought that was the stuff. Like that for me, I was like, this is the winning formula I don’t think that the base is these progressive activists. I think the progressive activists are the ones messing everything up and telling Dems to do things that are just poisoning them, uh, with these swing voters. So if, if you were, if somebody was asking me, I would say, get your moderate females out there, elevated and, uh, get them ready for the national stage.


Jon Favreau: Anat how do we square the circle? Because I have always had like, look the coalition that one in 2020 spans from, AOC fans to Joe Manchin fans to Sarah and The Bulwark crowd, right? Like we have a very big coalition now that we actually have to have to hold together. What do you think about that? How do you sort of square that circle of candidates?

Anat Shenker-Osorio: Yeah, so many things I want to say about this. [laughter]


Jon Favreau: I figured.


Anat Shenker-Osorio: So, the first thing that I want to say is that we have been doing for the last two years, two to four focus groups a week with every kind of demographic, not hard, hard Trump outside of that demographic, but everyone else you name it. And I can tell you, actually, I welcome you to guess when the question is asked, what upsets you about Dems or what do you dislike about Dems? Guess how many times in all of these groups across two years, any person has volunteered. They are too woke or defund the police or any of these issues that supposedly are these stances. The Dems have gone off the deep end and actually taken? Spoiler alert, zero. That is never a volunteered answer in any of these. What upsets people about Dems as we have already unearthed is when we ask them for metaphors: they’re tortoises, they’re slugs, they’re snails, any kind of animal that you can think of that doesn’t move very fast and doesn’t get things done. And so, this argument around, you know, down should be more moderate or not. I find it a very slippery thing because. When it happens in broader media, there are these claims that there were these Democrats running on these extremist positions. And in point of fact, it’s not really there.


Jon Favreau: I agree though Anat, like I, I was expecting to hear some of this stuff come up in this focus group. You didn’t hear any of the woke stuff come up at all. There was one guy who said he, the reason he voted for Youngkin was partly because of Northam and the police and his position on the police. So that, that popped up here. Sarah, do you get that in your groups? The woke – quote, unquote “woke stuff”?


Sarah Longwell: You know, so I don’t hear like, woke so much as here’s, here’s the thing that I hear, especially from swing voters. But certainly from even sort of the moderate Republicans. Republican. Spend all their time, because they don’t have a ton of policy aims defining Democrats. So when you say, oh, well, nobody actually says defund the police. I’m like, well, a lot of people did say it. It didn’t have to be Joe Biden. It didn’t have to be a lot of elected officials. There’s a lot of democratic activists said it. And as a result, you know, it became this thing that was on NPR all the time. And I do think you can see it in the polls where it’s stopped a lot of the momentum for Democrats when they were winning on the George Floyd issue, they were winning on Black Lives Matter. And then it turned to defund the police and a lot of cities were getting burned down. And I think you lost a ton of that swing voter support, that was on the table. One of the things that I don’t know how to get through to people on is that these swing voters think Democrats sound like the way that they talk. They sound like aliens. It’s not woke. It’s that they’re like, what is the, what are you talking about with the trans issue? Like, what is the pronoun thing? Like, what are you talking about with this, with the race stuff? It’s not CRT, but people do have the sense of like race is being taught differently in schools than the way I was taught it. And that makes them feel weird about it. And it goes back to vibes.


Jon Favreau: Well, I get that because I mean, Anat has been giving us messages this entire time from a progressive point of view, that involve language that is very broad accessible, universal, and yet still progressive. So, there’s a way to do this. [music break] So I finally asked the group, which party would they vote for in the fall. People were a bit on the fence, but ultimately about six of the nine said they were sure, they’d go for Dems, including a few of the Youngkin converters. None of them said they were sure they’d vote for Republicans, but three Youngkin voters said they were still undecided. Here’s why.


[clip of Voter 2]: I’m just going to do what research I can and each candidate in each issue. And then go based off what I see there.


[clip of Voter 3]: Again, you know, I kind of weigh progress. So, I’m just kind of trying to see what will happen happened next.


[clip of Voter 2]: I think a lot of things can happen between now and. And that’s why I want to wait to make my decision. I mean, even just thinking of the minimal, you know, gasoline, hadn’t gotten gas in a while and I was surprised what it costs me to fill the car, you know? And it’s all those things that you don’t think about that all add up.


Jon Favreau: Tram, how did Democrats close the deal with these voters?


Tram Nguyen: Organizing 101, is you meet people where they are. Um, and so you talk to people about the shit that they care about, the things that they deeply care about, and you don’t disregard that, those thoughts and those feelings as Anat as already mentioned, right? And you, you talk to them about that and you find a path forward. I mean, it’s slow, I’m an organizer – work is hard. You build relationships, you build trust, you build political homes for people. And so the work is long and hard. I don’t know if there’s a silver bullet, folks are always looking for that silver bullet. And I just think we need to get beyond that.


Jon Favreau: Anat, what do you think?


Anat Shenker-Osorio: I would say that what we would do with folks like them, particularly because they have struck me as really, thoughtful and deliberative and not kind of prone to, or keen on one type of identity group or ideology is really to talk to them about who they are, what they believe, and what kind of future they want for their children.


Jon Favreau: Sarah, what about you? What do you think? How to close the deal?


Sarah Longwell: Uh, you need things to get substantially better in the world.


Jon Favreau: That’s a tough one.


Sarah Longwell: Candidates do matter, and they’re going to matter in ’22 and that you’re going to have a bunch of really, really bad republican candidates. And so, if you end up with a bunch of candidates like that, you can prosecute a case against them. And that is, um, you know, that’s an opportunity.


Jon Favreau: Anat Shenker-Osorio, Sarah Longwell, Tram Nguyen. Thank you guys so much for joining us and lending your insights. This was a, this was fantastic. I really appreciate it.


Anat Shenker-Osorio: Thank you.


Tram Nguyen: Thank you!


Sarah Longwell: Thanks for having me.


Jon Favreau: So why did these Biden voters switch parties? To me, it seemed like they weren’t too happy with how things were going or how their leaders were handling the issues they care about – issues like the cost of living, health care, and education. They wanted change, they didn’t think former governor Terry McAuliffe represented change, and they didn’t really buy Terry’s argument that Glenn Youngkin was a Trump clone. It may seem like there’s little for Democrats to learn from this specific race with these specific candidates – and there’s a historic pattern where the party that just won the presidency tends to perform worse in Virginia’s off-year election. It’s part of that natural backlash we talked about in the last episode. But I do think there are a few observations from these Biden-Youngkin voters worth thinking about as we head into November: The first and most important is that these voters are gettable. They have not abandoned the Democratic Party for good. They’re anxious about inflation and grumpy about politics – and really, who isn’t – but many of them plan to vote for Democrats again, and all of them are at least open to it. It’s also notable that none of these voters supported Glenn Youngkin because of his position on critical race theory. In fact, a few voted for Youngkin despite explicitly disagreeing with his position on critical race theory. As Sarah Longwell said, CRT and other right-wing obsessions tend to be base plays. They fire up MAGA voters who were already fired up, but they’re not creating a lot of new Republicans. If anything, there’s evidence that the extreme positions the right has taken on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage are now moving people away from the Republican Party – especially since the Supreme Court and Republican legislatures have made some of those positions a reality for millions. We recorded this focus group just after the leaked draft of the Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. When the Court announced its final ruling in June, and many states started to outlaw abortion, I wanted to check in with one of the Youngkin voters – a woman named Christine – who’d been on the fence about the midterms.


Christine: I would say I would be a little more swayed towards a candidate that was more towards women’s rights… My opinion. Abortion over 15 weeks, I struggle with that very much so but there are so many reasons out there why someone, a woman would need to have one… So that too, for me, for that to be taken away, um, it is very concerning to me… Cause you know, someday… I … Would want my granddaughters to at least be able to have that choice. And if it’s going to go the way, it is it’s going go the way the states… I don’t, I don’t wanna feel even at one vote responsible for voting for someone, that’s gonna take it away. Nearly all of the MAGA candidates running in these midterms want to take that choice away – and some will have the power to do so if they win. Already Glenn Youngkin has also threatened to limit abortion access in Virginia.


[clip of Glenn Youngkin]: I believe as a pro-life governor that life begins at conception. 


Jon Favreau: But it’s up to Democrats to make sure voters know that. As Terry McAuliffe found out the hard way, it’s not enough to just call these candidates Trumpy – we have to point out why they’re Trumpy, and why they’re extreme. We have to say it over and over again, and we can’t give up on people like Christine just because they once voted Republican, or because they don’t agree with Democrats on every issue. People are complicated. And remember – most of them aren’t paying attention to politics nearly as closely as we are. In fact, the Virginia group was probably the most politically informed and engaged of all the voters I spoke to for this season. If Democrats want to win, we have to reach people who are much less informed and much less engaged – people who aren’t even sure if they’re going to vote.


Anat Shenker-Osorio: I would argue where the numbers lie for us in the midterms are people who defected to the couch, not who defected parties.


[news clip]: I can’t watch the news. I stay out of it.


[news clip]: I agree, it’s exhausting.


Jon Favreau: So how do we prevent people who aren’t paying attention to politics from defecting to the couch this November?


Alex Wallach Hansen: We saw that nobody in Western Pennsylvania, from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party was actually talking to people in a day-to-day way about what their life was like.


Jon Favreau: Next week we go to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to find out.


Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Season 3 is produced by Dustlight Productions. I’m your host, Jon Favreau. From Crooked Media, our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Katie Long and me. Special thanks to Alison Falzetta and Andie Taft for production support, and to Mike Kulisheck from Benenson Strategy Group who helped us with our focus groups. From Dustlight, our executive producer is Misha Euceph. Arwen Nicks is our executive editor. Stephanie Cohn is the senior producer. Tamika Adams is the producer and Franchesca Diaz is the Assistant Producer. This episode was sound designed by Stephanie Cohn. Valentino Rivera is our senior engineer. Martin Fowler is the composer. Thanks to our development and operations coordinator at Dustlight, Rachael Garcia and to Chrissy Maron for archival legal review. If you want to learn more about how you can take action in the fight for our democracy, head over to