A group of Democratic operatives and top pollsters are trying to answer a question ahead of the midterm elections that perplexed the most seasoned minds in politics in 2016: How can Democrats break through the Donald Trump-dominated conversation?
The Navigator Research project launched on Wednesday to determine not only what issues Democratic candidates and operatives should talk about in their races, but also how Democrats should frame and cast the issues with persuadable voters.
Democrats, eager to bounce back from a demoralizing 2016 election, have benefited from a wave of new energy and anti-Trump fervor. But, hoping not to overplay their hand, some operatives have cautioned candidates about focusing too heavily on the President and, instead, encouraged them to talk about how his chaotic presidency has impacted everyday life for voters.
Republicans hope to run on a growing economy and the tax law they passed late last year. But facing skeptical independents, top GOP operatives are bracing for a tough year.
Enter Trump, who throughout his relatively short political career has dominated the entire conversation, knocking candidates off message with tweets and commanding attention whenever and wherever he talks.
Now that he is the President, Democrats have struggled to figure out how to break through that messaging dominance. A number of top operatives believe they know the best issues to talk about in the midterms -- namely health care, tax reform and corruption -- but few have figured out the best frames and language to use to break through the Trump vortex.
Navigator Research, along with representatives from the AFL-CIO, the Center for American Progress, Emily's List, the Latino Victory Project and the Roosevelt Institute, plans to do monthly analysis on Democratic messaging, testing everything from what issues to address to how those issues should be framed. This month the group analyzed three issues: the economy, the sense of corruption in Washington, D.C. and Trump's conduct.
The group, which includes alumni from the 2016 campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, found that on Trump's conduct, Democrats focus more on the general chaos around the White House, not on more ancillary issues like the way Trump uses his time.
For example, Jefrey Pollock, the president of Global Strategy Group, said voters in focus groups generally didn't seem to care about "Donald Trump's golf game and how much he pays."
Instead, the group found that the general sense of unease and disarray around the White House is fertile ground for Democrats. Navigator Research asked their online focus group participants, for example, to pick photos that describe the President's White House.
Among the pictures people picked: a circus big top tent, the "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" monkeys and a woman with her head in her hands.
"I think that the current situation is a circus," a female voter told the group, "and Donald Trump is the Ringmaster."
Pollock, one of the lead pollsters on the project, said that the effort is looking to "figure out better ways for progressives to talk about" key issues.
"There is a vacuum for the right language and the best way to talk about these things," Pollock said. "In an environment where the narrative is as short of a tweet, you really got to get your words right."
Expecting Republicans will focus on the economy this year, Democrats have been pressed to determine a way to talk about the issue when most voters feel like things are getting better.
Pollster Margie Omero, a principal at GBA Strategies, said that while voters feel like the economy is strong, they also sense "there is fragility in their own economic situation."
"I am one ER trip from being broke," Omero said, recalling what they heard in their online focus groups.
The group's advice to Democrats is to focus their messaging not on what is going on right now -- something Trump will surely talk about on the campaign trail -- but play into the sense that it is "Americans at the top of the pyramid who are benefiting the most while regular Americans are not," Pollock said.
On corruption, the group found that persuadable voters think corruption is endemic to both Democrats and Republicans, but that the main concern voters have is how donors are benefiting from the Trump administration.
"People are worried about donors, donors, donors," Pollock said. "They are concerned about the influence of donors and they overwhelming believe that it is the Republicans and the Republican politicians" who use their offices to benefit donors.
Navin Nayak, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, added it's more than the daily swirl of controversy around Trump's cabinet, too.
"The real challenge for Republicans right now is how the American people are perceiving their congressional agenda over the last 15 months," Nayak said.
This is where the GOP-backed tax plan comes in. Instead of focusing on the broader plan, the group said, it's important for Democrats to focus their messaging on the idea that "the tax plan was passed in order to help wealthy individuals and corporations who regularly support Republican campaigns."