The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans really hate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There’s a lesson there for 2020.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). (Michael Reynolds/EPA/Shutterstock)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is the breakout star of the House freshman class, a charismatic, media-savvy politician equally at home interrogating witnesses in committee hearings and communicating with the public on Instagram. But guess what? She’s unpopular!

Or so some new polling data from Gallup might lead you to believe. The truth, however, is that this is an excellent case study in the vilification power of conservative media, one that has implications for the upcoming presidential campaign and a lot else besides.

Here's Gallup's top line:

Two months into her new job on Capitol Hill, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a much more recognizable figure to Americans. Half of U.S. adults were unfamiliar with or had no opinion of her in September after her seismic primary win over the summer, but that figure has shrunk to 29% today. But the increased visibility has not improved her overall standing with Americans. Whereas the public had mixed views of Ocasio-Cortez in September, her image now tilts slightly negative, with 31% viewing her favorably and 41% unfavorably.

There aren’t that many members of the House about whom 72 percent of Americans have opinions, but let’s go a little deeper. If you suspected that it’s mostly Republicans who dislike her, you would be right.

Ocasio-Cortez's favorability rating among Republicans has gone from a net rating of -47 in September after she won her surprising primary victory to -68 now. Only five percent of Republicans like her, while 73 percent dislike her (and only 15 percent say they haven't heard of her). Fewer Democrats have opinions about her; among them, she rates 56 percent favorable and 15 percent unfavorable.

So why might that be? If you have to ask, it means you aren't a Fox News viewer. Or a conservative talk radio listener, or a conservative website reader. Because conservative media are almost obsessed with Ocasio-Cortez and what a villain she is.

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A lot of the talk is about her policy positions — after all, she calls herself a socialist! — but it goes way farther. They investigate her boyfriend. They go after her name, or her childhood home, or her clothes. They offer her money to debate them. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, one speaker after another criticized her. They talk about her and talk about her and talk about her.

Now it’s possible that in some subconscious way, conservatives are both drawn to and repelled by Ocasio-Cortez, even when they aren’t literally following her around to take creepshots of her. After all, she’s a compelling young woman in a town full of bland old white guys in charcoal suits. It kind of reminds me of the time Sean Hannity did an entire week’s worth of segments devoted to “investigating” the deplorable debauchery of spring break in Florida, a moral outrage that just happened to require endless shots of attractive young women in bikinis.

Of course, there are substantive reasons why conservatives wouldn’t like Ocasio-Cortez, because she proposes a set of policies that would significantly enhance government provision of services and increase taxes on the wealthy, the latter being the single idea most likely to make Republicans break out in hives. But so do plenty of other Democrats who haven’t garnered as much attention.

So with AOC in heavy rotation on conservative media, it didn't take long before the audiences for those programs learned that this is the person they're supposed to hate. Which in and of itself is fine, I suppose. But it's a reminder that the right is in possession of a very effective machine that can be used to shape the beliefs of a substantial portion of the country. That machine can be activated quickly, as it will for whoever the Democratic presidential nominee is in 2020.

For instance, you might not recall this, but there was a period in 2007 and early 2008 when conservatives were over the moon for Barack Obama, both because he was giving Hillary Clinton a hard time and because they thought he was the non-threatening black candidate they had been waiting for. “He never brings race into it. He never plays the race card,” William Bennett gushed. “He has taught the black community you don’t have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don’t have to act like Al Sharpton.”

But once it became clear that Obama could actually become the Democratic nominee, they turned on a dime and decided he was some kind of black nationalist revolutionary out to seek vengeance on white people. “You start getting some sense of who he is, and it’s not the Obama you thought. He’s not the Tiger Woods of politics,” GOP consultant Alex Castellanos said just a couple of months later. Eventually, nearly every Republican in America was taught to hate Obama with an incandescent fire.

The lesson in that story is that it doesn’t matter which of the Democratic candidates for president now looks as though they might be able to appeal to Republicans, because none of them will. It won’t matter who they are or where they come from or what kind of talent they have. Once they’re run through the conservative media wringer, everyone on the right will despise them.

Which suggests that Democrats should do something radical and pick the candidate they like the best, not the candidate they think other people will like. Most Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez, so they shouldn’t be worried if Republicans hate her. Likewise, they shouldn’t freak out when Fox News and the rest of the conservative media start going to town on their nominee and whatever negligible approval that person has among Republicans disappears. It’s inevitable.

And don’t forget: All the vilification of Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was supposed to help Republicans stave off disaster in 2018, but it didn’t work because Democrats were too energized. The same thing could happen in 2020.

Read more:

Alexandra Petri: I am sick of hearing about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from myself, talking about her

Marc A. Thiessen: If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were a conservative

Christine Emba: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a troll. The good kind.

Marc A. Thiessen: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accidentally exposes the left’s big lie

Marc A. Thiessen: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an economic illiterate — and that’s a danger to America