Their focus-group-approved tips urge surrogates, consultants and pro-Biden influencers to talk about the practical benefits of Biden’s agenda, warning that many Americans are not familiar with it. That gap in knowledge could prove problematic — particularly as Republicans have been trying to define Democrats as tax-and-spend socialists out to remake the country’s relationship with government.
“Americans of all political stripes support these economic policies [but] current polling tells us that voters know little about them,” according to a July 20 memo from the group. “To build support for the Build Back Better agenda, it is imperative to talk to voters directly about the best-testing aspects of the plans.”
To remedy the situation and get the word out about Biden’s agenda, Democrats are encouraged to focus on his attempts to usher in better jobs and lower health-care and education costs.
“Don’t forget: always talk about how the plans are paid for,” the document says, reiterating that Biden has pledged not to increase the tax burden on anyone making less than $400,000 and that taxes on corporations and the ultrawealthy will foot this bill. “Messaging that includes language about pay-fors consistently outperforms in testing.”
Some Democratic moderates have worried that the scale and ambition of Biden’s legislative agenda could turn off voters in the suburbs, where higher taxes are generally frowned upon.
Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who led the 2018 effort to take back the House, said voters knowing how things will be paid for and by whom is important, since front-line members need to find a way to reframe the Republican attacks on tax increases.
“You have got to get proactive about it. You have got to have some way to get ahead of it,” he said.
One Democratic member of Congress from a challenging district, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations among colleagues, said there had been concern in the caucus about the size of the spending and tax package that is being drafted to accompany the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“I don’t agree with the thesis that the American public loves taxes and spending, and I think we have to be very careful on both fronts,” this person said, citing the concern of voters that they will ultimately be stuck with the bill. “I generally believe that people think that it will eventually get to them. I am not sure that I subscribe to the view that it is just the other guys who gets hit with new taxes.”
This member and others anticipate an intraparty negotiation over the coming months about the size and scope of the package, in which these divisions will be forced to the fore. One group of Democrats from high-tax states is expected to push hard for a reinstatement of the state and local tax deduction that Republicans limited in 2017. Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has indicated that reinstating the deduction, which mostly benefits wealthier families, will be important for many battleground districts, largely in suburban areas.
Republicans previewed the message that they will use against Democrats. “House Democrats have adopted a plan for electoral disaster,” said Michael McAdams, the National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman. “Embracing massive tax hikes and causing inflation to skyrocket.”
Democrats recognize that a focus on inflation poses problems.
“The NRCC produced one of the first inflation spots we’ve seen and it was one of the most powerful Republican ads to date,” according to the Democratic memo. “Notably, they did more damage with this ad than nearly any other conservative ad tested and they were able to do it in [15 seconds] instead of a typical [30 seconds].”
The group linked to an ad that was run against Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa). “Burgers, buns, propane, gas — this year your Fourth of July is more expensive because Democrats’ harmful economic policies are making everyday goods cost more,” says a narrator, who then urges viewers to call Axne and tell her: “We can’t afford this.”
The Biden team has acknowledged that prices have increased. And it is blaming higher costs on a combination of an unexpected chip shortage that is causing a major increase in the cost of vehicles and the temporary effect of prices in categories such as hotels and travel moving back to normal ranges after being depressed last year.
“The vast majority of the experts, including Wall Street, are suggesting that it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to be long-term inflation that’s going to get out of hand,” Biden said this month. “There will be near-term inflation because everything is now trying to be picked back up.”
“When billionaires are blasting themselves into space and paying little or no taxes, and their companies are paying no taxes, then we should make them pay their fair share,” Maloney said, offering a rejoinder for the GOP attacks that his colleagues will probably mimic. “If Republicans think billionaires should pay no taxes, then they should make that argument to the American people.”
The group also offered some hint that Biden’s image can drive voters to partisan corners. One of his major strengths during the election was that even those who disagreed with him were not particularly offended by him.
“Consider using Biden’s voice or clips, but polarization is a real risk,” the memo warned. “So also consider testimonials and descriptive norms (e.g. 70 percent of Republicans agree).”
But if Biden’s likeness is going to be used, the Democratic group highlighted photos and footage of Biden that test well with voters, singling out Biden’s trip to Michigan in May when he toured a Ford plant and did a test drive of an electric Ford F-150.
“The imagery of Biden at the Ford plant in Michigan appears to tap into voters’ appreciation of the President’s focus on jobs and the economy,” according to the memo.
On Wednesday, Biden flew to Pennsylvania for a similar event — this time at a plant that makes Mack trucks. He stood at a lectern flanked by two red “Made In America” signs, and he kicked off his remarks with a quip that he was just there to drive a truck.
“I’m not sure which one I want to drive — that one back in the corner,” Biden said, pointing to a hulking vehicle parked behind him. “You see, it’s the biggest damn pickup truck you ever saw in your life.”
Not everyone at the White House is taking talking points from the group. In a fact sheet the White House issued Wednesday about the bipartisan infrastructure deal, it used the non-optimized b-word to describe the Biden administration’s efforts to widen access to fast Internet.
“Broadband internet is necessary for Americans to do their jobs,” according to that White House memo outlining the deal.
Another key piece of communications advice — and not a bad tidbit for anyone pitching anything — is to provide some solutions. In a box outlining “Dos and Don’ts” was this bit of wisdom:
“Connect plans/policy proposals to Administration and Congressional leadership. Otherwise, viewers will wonder why those in charge are not solving the problems.”