In This Episode
What will it take to save democracy in 2022 and beyond? The MAGA movement is one of the greatest threats to American democracy. But one of the greatest divides in American politics is between the minority of voters who follow politics closely and the vast majority who don’t. In order to win the midterms, Democrats will have to reach that majority.
If you want to learn more about how you can take action in the fight for our democracy, head over to https://votesaveamerica.com/midterm-madness/
Jon Favreau: I’ll admit, there was a brief moment where I didn’t think we’d need another season of The Wilderness.
[news clip]: After four long tense days, we can now project the winner of the presidential race.
[various voices]: Joe Biden. Joe Biden. Joe Biden. President elect Joe Biden.
[clip of President Biden]: Tonight, we’re seeing all over this nation, all cities in all parts of this country, an outpouring of joy… of hope … renewed faith in tomorrow to bring a better day.
[news clip]: Black voters turned out in Georgia in record numbers to vote for Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, giving Democrats a majority in the senate.
Jon Favreau: Remember that feeling? I think it lasted about…a day?
[various voices]: Hang Mike Pence!
[clip of Rioter 1]: they’ve got the gallows outside this capitol building, it’s time to start fucking using them.
[clip of Rioter 2]: Start hunting them down, one by one…
Jon Favreau: Two years later, I think it’s fair to say that things haven’t settled down all that much.
[news clip]: Former president Trump’s baseless claims about his 2020 election defeat are trickling down to the next cycle of Senate races.
[clip of Kari Lake]: That election was rotten to the core. We all know it. Right. You know that right.
[clip of Doug Mastriano]: Our attorney general, you know, declared a winner before one vote was counted. And so the whole process has been corrupted.
[clip of President Trump]: This is the year we’re going to take back the house. We’re going to take back the Senate. We’re going to take back America. And in 2024. We are going to take back that beautiful, beautiful house that happens to be white.
Michael Podhorzer: MAGA is a threat to our country, not the democratic party.
Jon Favreau: That’s Democratic political strategist Michael Podhorzer, a senior advisor to the AFL-CIO who TIME Magazine called the “architect of a shadow campaign that saved the 2020 Election.” Basically, he was part of a team of strategists and legal experts who saw Trump’s coup coming and helped make sure it didn’t succeed.
Michael Podhorzer: This is deadly serious. You see Pinochet, you see Berlusconi, you see Mussolini, you see Hitler, right?
Jon Favreau: There are times over the last several years – even in the days after Trump refused to concede – when I’ve wanted to just dismiss comparisons like Michael’s as overly alarmist. Part of it may have been a stubborn faith in the American experiment that comes from my years of writing speeches with Barack Obama – big hope guy, if you recall. It also may have just been naïve wishful thinking on my part – who really wants to wake up every morning, take a quick scroll through the news, and wonder if today’s the day democracy falls apart? But it’s become clear that American politics is now operating in two entirely different realities. In one reality, we have President Joe Biden, Democratic politicians, and a few Republicans. Like most politicians since forever, they are flawed. They make mistakes. Sometimes they take bad votes. Sometimes they’re just annoying. But it’s hard to deny that at least lately, the Democrats have been on a roll.
[news clip]: History was made today when Congress sent to President Biden’s desk, the first major new gun control legislation in nearly 30 years
[news clip]: With a major victory for President Biden and the Democrats, the Senate passage of a landmark 740 billion economic package.
[news clip]: The package will make the single biggest investment in clean energy in the nation’s history, set a $2,000 annual cap on drug costs for seniors and lock in a minimum corporate tax rate of 15%.
[clip of President Biden]: In my campaign for president I made a commitment… that we’d provide student debt relief. And I’m honoring that commitment today.
Jon Favreau: Of course, we’re also living through another reality. The MAGA reality.
[clip of President Trump]: We’re gonna walk down to the capitol because you’ll never take back our country with weakness.
[news clip]: An armed man tried to enter a field office in Cincinnati with a nail gun and a rifle—
[news clip]: We begin tonight in Buffalo, New York, after a gunman wearing tactical gear and a live streaming camera killed 10 people in a racially motivated shooting rampage—
[news clip]: An alleged plot to overthrow Michigan state government and kidnap the governor—
[clip of Lauren Boebart]: This is just another con game by the democrats calling something one thing …
[news clip]: Tonight, outrages from right wing groups and Trump aligned Republicans after federal agents searched the former president’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.
Nsé Ufot: There was a failed murder plot to kill the Vice President of the United States. Folks died. January 6th insurrection running for Congress and who will be the ones who have to certify the 2024 Presidential Election. Like we are participating in this fiction as if everything is normal – as if conventional political wisdom applies here!
Jon Favreau: That’s Nsé Ufot, one of the organizers who’s most responsible for the record turnout that flipped Georgia and helped save democracy in 2020. She’s acutely aware of what’s now at stake in 2022 because she’s been on the frontlines in one of the country’s fiercest battlegrounds. She’s seen how far the other side is willing to go to tear down democracy. She’s been on the receiving end of their threats. And she knows what’s most alarming is that despite all of this, November’s midterm election – and likely the 2024 presidential – will be extremely close. This probably alarms you, too. I wouldn’t say I’m all that chill about it myself. It’s terrifying. And overwhelming. And exhausting. I’m sure a lot of you are still burnt out from the last few elections – especially if you did more than just vote; if you donated to candidates and registered voters and volunteered for phone banks and text banks. Maybe you thought that beating Donald Trump would be enough to beat Trumpism – that electing even the narrowest Democratic majority would be enough to save democracy. But it wasn’t. And I get why that might leave you feeling a little frustrated, or angry, or even a little hopeless. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have feel the same way from time to time.
[clip of Adam Schiff]: Good afternoon, Ms. Moss, thank you for being here.
Jon Favreau: Back in June, when the Supreme Court was in the middle of ruining our summer, I was watching one of the January 6th hearings.
[clip of Adam Schiff]: Uh, I understand that you were employed by the Fulton county registration and elections department, uh, for more than 10 years.… Uh, please tell us what made you so fond of the work that you-
Jon Favreau: It was the one where the Committee heard testimony from Shaye Moss, an election worker from Georgia who had processed ballots in 2020 for the Fulton County elections board with her mother, Ruby Freeman.
[clip of Shaye Moss]: I’ve always, um, been told by my grandmother how important it is to vote and how … older people in my family did not have that. So what I loved most. Um, about my job. We’re the older voters. They like to know that every election I’m here I was excited, always about sending out all the absentee ballots for the elderly, disabled people. I even remember driving to a hospital to give someone her absentee application. That’s, that’s what I love the most.
Jon Favreau: Donald Trump and the MAGA media spread a conspiracy that the two women had planted 18,000 fake ballots for Joe Biden. It was quickly proven to be a complete lie, but for nearly two years, Shaye and her mother were harassed and threatened to the point where Ruby had to leave her home of over twenty years.
[clip of Shaye Moss]: A lot of threats, wishing death upon me, telling me that I’ll be in jail with my mother, and saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920’…. A lot of them were racist. A lot of them were just hateful… it’s affected my life in a major way, in every way. All because of lies. I, I just felt bad for my mom. And I felt horrible for picking this job and being the one that always wants to help. And always there never missing not one election. I just felt like it was, it was my fault for putting my family in this situation.
[clip of Adam Schiff]: Well, it wasn’t your fault.
Jon Favreau: It was the angriest I had been since Donald Trump tried to steal the election. These two women were just trying to be good citizens. They didn’t want to just vote in the election, they wanted to make sure the election was fair for everyone else, no matter which party they voted for. And maybe that work was important to Shaye and Ruby because their parents and grandparents didn’t have the right to vote and were part of a generation that marched and fought and refused to give up until they won that right. And now, all these years later, Trump and his gang of D-list hacks and criminals tried to scare these two women away from simply trying to make their democracy work.
[clip of Adam Schiff]: And did you end up leaving your, leaving your position as well?
[clip of Shaye Moss]: Yes, I left-
Jon Favreau: So yeah, I get why politics feels awful right now. I get why people might be ready to give up. But that’s exactly what they want us to do. They want us to quit. They want us to walk away. They’re counting on our cynicism – because that’s how they win. That’s how they beat us. That’s how they take power for good. And you know what? I don’t think we should make it that easy for them. From now on, it’s not just the Democratic Party we need to keep out of the wilderness, but democracy itself. And that’s not just a job for Democratic politicians or strategists, but for all of us – as voters, activists, organizers, and citizens. If we want to defeat the MAGA threat, our coalition in 2022 and beyond has to be as broad and diverse as it was in 2020 – and maybe even bigger.
Michael Podhorzer: The left has never been able to stop a determined, fascist push. If it isn’t aligned with the rest of the country.
Jon Favreau: That might be the single most important observation about the moment we’re in right now. Here’s why. In 2020, Joe Biden won 81 million votes – more votes than any presidential candidate ever, in an election that saw the highest turnout in the 21st century. And yet, out of more than 155 million votes that were cast, Biden’s total margin in the three closest swing states that actually got him to 270 – Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia – was just about 43,000 votes. 43,000 votes. The pro-democracy coalition that showed up to defeat Donald Trump in 2020 was the biggest and most diverse in American history. They were people who cast votes for AOC and Bernie Sanders. They were people who voted for Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. They were even people who had once supported Donald Trump. They were people of color and young people who turned out in record numbers. They were extremely online political junkies and people who barely watch the news but decided to vote for the very first time in their lives. Here’s the challenge, though. We had a coalition of every age, people from every background, from every corner of the country – and even in an election that shattered turnout records, it was a coalition that still just barely stopped the determined, fascist push that Michael Podhorzer talked about. But we did stop it. We won. Even in the face of voter suppression, gerrymandered districts, the Electoral College, a raging pandemic, and a deranged incumbent who used the full power of the presidency to attempt a coup, we won. And, according to Democratic messaging expert Anat Shenker Osorio, we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of that victory.
[clip of Anat Shenker-Osorio]: We have dealt a critical blow to fascism at the ballot box. And that is the only time that fascism has been again, not knocked out. We see what’s happening. I am not naive. I live it like I’m very aware, but we, we put a check on fascism at the ballot box. The only other way that fascism has ever been checked before is through an army.
Jon Favreau: Even Michael Podhorzer has some optimism.
Michael Podhorzer: I think the thing that Democrats just are making themselves miserable over is that they forget that there are 81 million people in America who less than two years ago said they don’t want four more years of Trump. They don’t want him back. And that’s how you win. Right? If America thinks that it’s another MAGA versus whatever, we’re going to call the alternative, then we win that election because we have that majority. I’m never going to say ‘oh, don’t worry. Democrats are gonna win,’ but there is a road here.
Jon Favreau: There is a road here. And we’re going to find it, together. I’m Jon Favreau, welcome back to The Wilderness.
Jon Favreau: The question for this season is this: how do we keep our fragile, unwieldy, pro-democracy coalition together – in 2022, 2024, and beyond? Maybe even more important is the question: how do we grow this coalition, so that we’re not just narrowly averting disaster, but making real progress? It won’t be easy. Even in an ideal political environment – which, let’s be honest, this is not – midterm elections are almost always challenging for the party that controls the White House.
Sean McElwee: There are very powerful structural forces that sort of dictate American politics.
Jon Favreau: Sean McElwee is the founder of Data for Progress – a progressive think tank that uses polling to figure out the most effective way to message progressive policies. Sean’s one of the biggest political nerds I know, and I mean that as a huge compliment.
Sean McElwee: Every president with the exception of Bush – uh, W. Bush – has lost seats in the midterms, after their first two years. And the reason…is that once you’ve won an election your voters sort of start to disengage a bit from politics.
Jon Favreau: Remember 2018?
[news clip]: A historic accomplishment, the Democrats will win the majority in the US House of Representatives.
[news clip]: All this talk of a blue wave.
[news clip]: A Huge Blue Wave!
Sean McElwee: We don’t have to think too hard to imagine that that’s what Republicans feel like right now. They are very frustrated. They want to make their voices heard. They’re going to make sure that they turn out in this election.
Jon Favreau: In the first big races after 2020, we saw hints of that Republican enthusiasm.
[news clip]: Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin has emerged triumphant.
[clip of Glenn Youngkin]: Alrighty, Virginia, we won this thing! [applause]
[news clip]: He was able to win because he was able to tap into this magic that existed, and ended up driving that record turnout on their side.
[news clip]: Governor Murphy holding that slim lead over Republican Jack Ciattarelli. Even experts are saying this is closer than they expected. Less than 20,000 votes.
Michael Podhorzer: The number of Republican groups that were registering to vote was crazy high.
Jon Favreau: So, even if Democrats weren’t facing an electorate that isn’t feeling too hot about the economy, the direction of the country, or the Democratic president, they’d still be dealing with a relatively normal political dynamic where the party in power almost always turns in a less than stellar midterm performance.
[clip of President Obama]: I’m not recommending to every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night…
Jon Favreau: But this, of course, is 2022. We left normal behind like six years ago. And there’s now growing evidence that this midterm election could – and I emphasize the word could – be different.
Sarah Longwell: The candidates that are running in 2022 are extremely Trumpy candidates. They feel Trumpy to people. They feel extreme to people.
Jon Favreau: Political strategist Sarah Longwell is the publisher of the Bulwark, a media organization made up of mostly Republicans that was founded in opposition to the MAGA movement. Sarah also spends a lot of time conducting focus groups, so she has a better sense than most about how voters think.
Sarah Longwell: These are crazy people. Um, these are extreme people. Like, let me introduce you to Kari Lake.
[clip of Kari Lake]: Govornor Ron Desantis – He’s got BDE. Does anybody know what that means? He’s got the same kind of BDE that President Trump has.
Sarah Longwell: She is an anti-vaccine my pillow guy endorsed. I’m not going to certify the election when I’m governor. And like, if you add Kari Lake to Doug Mastriano—
[clip of Doug Mastriano]: Yes, I was there to hear my president speak on January 6th.
Sarah Longwell: —to Herschel Walker—
[clip of Herschel Walker]: Our good air decided to float over to China.
Sarah Longwell: —you look at the Republican party and think WHAT is going on with this crowd?
Jon Favreau: But it’s not just the MAGA candidates that feel so extreme to people. It’s their agenda. It’s what they’re trying to do to the country.
[news clip]: A group of lawmakers who are working to pass laws that would stop people from crossing state lines to get abortions.
[clip of Herschel Walker]: There’s not a national ban on abortion right now, and I think that’s a problem.
[news clip]: If this supreme court can rewrite history with abortion, then there is a fear that gay marriage could be one of the several other cases the court will overturn.
[news clip]: The American Library Association has tracked more than 230 book challenges nationwide.
[clip of Blake Masters]: Maybe we should privatize social security. Right? Private retirement accounts. Get the government out of it.
[clip of Jacky Eubanks]: Birth control gives people the false sense of security, but if there is no such thing as consequence-free sex, people are going to be more likely to practice chastity.
Jon Favreau: None of these positions are even close to popular with the vast majority of voters. And if you’re skeptical of what the polls say – which, why wouldn’t you be – think about what actual voters have done in the months since the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion in the Dobbs decision. In five special elections that have been held to fill Congressional seats in Nebraska, Minnesota, New York, and even Alaska, the Democratic candidates haven’t just performed as well as Joe Biden did in 2020 – they’ve performed better, by anywhere from a few points to double digits. Then there’s Kansas. In a deep red state where Republicans put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that could’ve outlawed abortion, the measure failed by an overwhelming margin thanks to record turnout among Democrats, independents, and Republicans.
[news clip]: I am super proud to be from Kansas tonight and I feel like my state just showed up and boldly told me that they are going to take care of me, and my female friends, and everyone who can get pregnant in the state of Kansas. We are protected tonight.
Jon Favreau: I think there are two lessons here: One, MAGA Republicans have overreached. They’ve nominated extreme candidates with extreme views that put them out of step with even more conservative voters in conservative parts of the country. Two, it’s up to all of us to make sure that the rest of the country knows that. – especially since the voters who tend to show up in primaries and special elections tend to be people who already follow politics pretty closely. And that crew probably isn’t enough for Democrats to win a midterm election where a lot of voters show up who aren’t as politically partisan, opinionated, or engaged. That’s one reason why the pro-choice movement was on the ground in Kansas organizing for months around that ballot measure – because they wanted to reach people who don’t usually show up to vote in an August primary. The same is true for everyone who pushed and pushed and never gave up until President Biden forgave student debt and worked with Democrats in Congress to pass the most sweeping climate bill in history. Activists and organizers didn’t just leave that fight in the hands of politicians. They took matters into their own hands. They tried to connect with people who don’t normally participate in politics. That’s what needs to happen everywhere, in every race, from now until November. Right now, the only thing standing between America and the end of democracy as we know it is the Democratic Party. And yes, I realize that statement may not always inspire all that much confidence. But the truth is, we don’t have to treat the Democratic Party as some far-off institution that we have no control over. We don’t have to just blindly accept all the decisions, positions, and advice that comes from the party’s leaders. We have agency here. We can support candidates we believe in. And if there aren’t enough of those candidates, we can help recruit more. And if we can’t recruit enough, we can run ourselves.
Amanda Litman: There are this year about 2,000 or so races on the ballot across 26 states that touch local election administration. And they are of critical importance. When you think about the long-term health and safety of democracy.
Jon Favreau: Amanda Litman is the co-founder of Run for Something, an organization that supports young, progressive candidates running in their first election. She’s seen plenty of people who were so worried about the MAGA movement, and so dispirited by the current crop of elected officials, that they decided to run themselves – especially in local and state races that can have a huge impact on our elections. In fact, that’s exactly the strategy that Republicans have been following for years.
Amanda Litman: The Republicans did not get here overnight, even though it feels that way. They got here to a place where it’s basically minority rule and we feel gaslit all the time. But like why isn’t the thing that we want? The thing that is popular, why isn’t that happening is because the Republican party and the ecosystem of mega-donors on the far right. And the extremists and the, the white nationalists and the evangelical movement has invested for decades. They’ve won school boards. They’ve won county commissions; they’ve won city councils. They won state legislatures, and they created the structure that allows them to win even when their ideas and our politicians are not more popular. So when we think about what it will take to fight back and what it will take to win, we have to have the same kind of long-term vision.
Jon Favreau: Of course, not all of us are the type to run for office. That’s ok. Each of us still has the ability to shape the Democratic Party’s message – to be the Democratic Party’s messengers. When we talk to friends and family about the election. When we call and text voters. When we knock on doors. When we post and tweet. So, what do we say? How do we persuade enough people to join a coalition that’s as big as it was in 2020 – and hopefully, even bigger? Because if Democrats hold the House and add two more Democratic Senators who are willing to get rid of the filibuster, we can get some even bigger things done. But again, I’ll go back to Michael Podhorzer’s warning:
Michael Podhorzer: The left has never been able to stop a determined, fascist push. If it isn’t aligned with the rest of the country.
Jon Favreau: Being aligned with the rest of the country doesn’t require everyone to hold all the same positions or beliefs. But it does require understanding other people’s positions and beliefs. It requires meeting people where they are – especially the 81 million Americans who already came out to defeat Trump in 2020. What do they think about politics right now? What do they care about? What are they angry about? What are their concerns, their fears, their hopes? How do we make sure they don’t vote Republican in November, and how do we make sure they don’t stay home? These are the questions we’ll try to answer this season. But before we dive in, there’s something important to know about these 81 million voters. The overwhelming majority are not like you and me in one very significant way: they just don’t follow politics that closely. In fact, one of the biggest divides in American politics –
Ezra Klein: Is whether or not you’re interested in political media in the first place.
Jon Favreau: You, being someone who follows politics at least somewhat closely, might recognize that voice as Ezra Klein’s, who now hosts a podcast and writes a column for the New York Times.
Ezra Klein: I think this is the thing people really, really miss that they’re so often thinking about media bias and they forget that the people they need to reach are not either ideologue like them in politics or the ideologues, unlike them, who they also relatively well understood, like a hardcore liberal kind of understands a hardcore conservative. What neither of them understands is somebody who thinks that they are both unbelievably dull and would sooner get a root canal than watch an hour of cable news.
Jon Favreau: I can certainly attest to that based on the voters I talked to for this season.
[clip of Voter 1]: I just can’t watch the news. I stay out of it-
[clip of Voter 2]: I don’t know anyone in Congress.
[clip of Voter 3]: I always just say that politics divides people-
[clip of Voter 4]: It gets way too confusing way too quick.
Jon Favreau: On a scale of one to ten, how important would you say are politics in your life?
[clip of Voter 6]: I want to say zero, but I’m afraid. So, I’ll say 2.
Jon Favreau: How many of you are planning on voting in the midterm elections this November?
[clip of Voter 2]: What’s that?
Jon Favreau: Again, these are all people who actually voted in 2020. They’re part of the 81 million who came out to stop Trump. And they’re by no means unique in their attitude towards politics. They’re the majority.
Yanna Krupnikov: We would say that 20% of people are deeply involved and 80% are not.
Jon Favreau: After the break, political scientist Yanna Krupnikov introduces us to those 80 percent.
Jon Favreau: If you’re surprised that 80 percent of America isn’t paying that much attention to politics, you’re not alone. When Yanna Krupnikov studied this for her book, The Other Divide, she was surprised too.
Yanna Krupnikov: We look at how this divide affects how people feel about political candidates and political parties, how people are willing to talk about politics, whether they post on social media, what they post on social media. But then we also think about the implications of this divide more broadly, and the implications of this divide for whose voices we hear in politics. And we suggest that oftentimes when journalists cover politics, they are actually sometimes inadvertently getting the voices of those who are heavily, heavily involved in politics.
Jon Favreau: I know what some of you may be thinking. Democracy is hanging by a thread. How could so many people not be paying more attention to politics? Don’t they care about the country? The planet? Can’t they see what’s going on out there? The answer is, yes. And no. And kind of.
Yanna Krupnikov: The first thing I wanna say about the 80% is that I definitely don’t wanna characterize them as politically inattentive. Within that 80% certainly are gonna be people who are paying basically no attention, but there are going to be people there who actually know big political things that are happening. This is not the same as saying 80% of people are checked out. That is not at all the case. The difference is really how important is following politics to your daily life. And that’s that idea of deep involvement. There’s another kind of possibility at hand here, which is that to be deeply involved in the sense where you’re literally checking in on politics regularly throughout the day, almost hourly, you have to have the flexibility of a job that allows you to do that. And so, I think income is here really correlated with the time that you are spending on politics.
Jon Favreau: Even though Yanna herself is a political science nerd, she’s at times found herself in this 80 percent. Maybe you have too.
Yanna Krupnikov: What sort of drove this idea of attention home for me in kind of a really kind of personal way is that my daughter who, was really, really young at the time, I think she was just about two got hospitalized for a virus that affected her breathing. And so, she is in the hospital for a week. Here’s this tiny kid. She has to have oxygen. She’s super sad and super sick. And during this week, I have no idea what is happening outside of this kid’s hospital room. I remember absolutely, absolutely nothing because even the days after getting out of the hospital, I just remember watching this kid and like counting her breaths. And that was my, my dominant focus. And so after I merge from this and she’s. Absolutely fine now. Um, you realize that a bunch of things happen that you don’t know about … you just don’t have the capacity to follow up on the news or follow on those things. And I think that is often something that as people who are really engaged in politics, we do in a sense forget. And so I think it’s important to constantly acknowledge that in a person’s day they have a finite amount of attention and a lot of this attention is going basically to just figuring out how to live their lives often in, in, during really difficult circumstances.
Jon Favreau: Democratic pollster Margie Omero has moderated over two thousand focus groups in her life. She’s heard it over and over –
Margie Omero: I think what people feel fatigued about that is important is, you know, they just, they feel broadly fatigued that, you know, the political climate doesn’t feel like it’s improving that, you know, we had, we obviously had tension under Trump to put it, you know, Briefly um, and you know, people don’t, you know, people feel that there’s still these tensions in daily life. And in a way where, you know, people feel concerned about where we’re headed as a country next.
Yanna Krupnikov: So I think one thing to think about for people who are deeply involved is that when politics seems to come out of everywhere. And oftentimes what we learn about politics is utterly terrifying. A tendency for some people is going to be really to disengage. This is an important point. Even if you want to pay more attention to politics, the coverage can be…pretty terrible. When former Vox editor-in-chief Lauren Williams was leading a newsroom through the Trump years, she realized that politics in America is treated like…
Lauren Williams: A sport and not something that is about people’s lives and that it is covered like a sport. It is tackled like a sport. And for many consumers it’s, it’s consumed like a sport. but as we see lives, hang in the balance.
Jon Favreau: When the vast majority of voters feel disconnected from politics and the way it’s covered, they will inevitably feel disconnected from many of the debates that rage on Twitter or cable news; from much of the language used by pundits and activists; from the appeals that politicians and political organizations use to get their attention.
Yanna Krupnikov: When I see something happening on Twitter, I now take a pause and I say, okay, but who knows about this? Is this a big thing currently on social media or is this a big thing for people who are not on social media? Or is this going to translate to people who are not necessarily, uh, deeply, deeply involved in politics?
Jon Favreau: This disconnected majority isn’t necessarily who you think they are, either. I realize that media and political types have contributed to a certain stereotype of a typical swing voter. It’s the working-class white guy who The New York Times interviews in a Pennsylvania diner or a suburban soccer mom who some pundit tells us has the power to sway an entire election. But the number of people who don’t vote along party lines or don’t vote in every election is much larger and more diverse than you may think. They’re Americans at the edges of the coalition that stopped Trump in 2020, and while they’re different in so many ways, these voters tend to be united by one thing: they feel disconnected from a political system that doesn’t seem responsive to their most urgent concerns.
Alex Wallach Hansen: There’s a real disconnect between what politically savvy media experts or what politicians believe to be the way people experience life, and the way that everyday people actually experience the world.
Jon Favreau: Alex Wallach Hansen organizes working-class voters of all races in Pennsylvania.
Alex Wallach Hansen: That same groups of people are exactly the ones who are left behind by our current political system are, who are left behind by our economic system, and who are disconnected from organizations and institutions, and who we need to bring into the political process in order to win.
Jon Favreau: Like Alex, Tram Nguyen organizes working-class voters in Virginia. She’s seen this disconnect firsthand.
Tram Nguyen: It drives me crazy when campaigns purely focus on turnout. People are not light switches that can be turned on and off. We actually have to persuade people and have real conversations with people about what they care about
Jon Favreau: Tram is right. If you really want to figure out what people care about and what they think about politics, you need to have real conversations. And you can’t do that with just a poll, which is why campaigns, political organizations, and some media outlets conduct focus groups in addition to polling surveys.
Margie Omero: It’s the opposite of a survey because the survey you’re making decisions about what you leave in and what you cut to get to the survey length that respondents can handle. You’re making decisions about question-wording. You’re making decisions about answer categories. So in a focus group, you’re not making those same kinds of decisions. You are asking open-ended questions.
Jon Favreau: Now, some of you might be thinking, how can a group of eight or ten people sitting around a table tell you what the rest of the country thinks? Fair point. They can’t. But focus groups aren’t random. They’re representative. There’s social and political science that goes into organizing them. People are screened and recruited so that you’re talking to a set of voters with certain backgrounds and characteristics. In our case, we recruited voters for this season of the Wilderness who mostly cast their ballots for Joe Biden in 2020, but aren’t entirely sure what they’ll do in 2022 – voters who we know from polls and other data might decide to either vote Republican or not vote at all. I conducted these focus groups in some of the most competitive midterm battlegrounds – places that have turned into what Michael Podhorzer calls, civil war states.
Michael Podhorzer: Because you’re close enough to 50/50 that both sides think that they can win each election. And so everything becomes existential. You get Republicans doing all the anti-democratic things and all of that.
Jon Favreau: Places like Virginia.
[news clip]: The race is being closely watched on a national level—
Jon Favreau: Pennsylvania.
[news clip]: The battleground state of Pennsylvania in focus—
Jon Favreau: Orange County.
[news clip]: Orange County California, one of the key battlegrounds that could determine who controls congress—
Jon Favreau: Nevada.
[news clip]: Democrats are divided in Nevada at a time where the party desperately needs to come together—
Jon Favreau: And Georgia …
[news clip]: One of the most critical battleground states.
Jon Favreau: … where the stakes are high, and it could be anyone’s race. Everywhere we go, I’ll try to better understand what these disconnected voters are thinking, why they feel disconnected in the first place, and how we can motivate them to show up again in 2022. Some of these voters don’t feel like anyone in power has their best interests at heart.
[clip of Voter 1]: There are the career politicians that they just want to make sure they’ve got their job.
[clip of Voter 2]: When people choose to not vote, it is because they don’t see somebody who wants to fight for them.
Jon Favreau: Others we just aren’t reaching.
Sarah Longwell: These swing voters think Democrats sound like aliens.
Jon Favreau: Then there are voters who’ve just about given up.
[clip of Voter 3]: I think people are exhausted in terms of things in their daily life that Government is not helping with.
Jon Favreau: And people who feel like politicians have given up on them..
[clip of Voter 4]: I feel like I’m drowning.
Jon Favreau: Some don’t have the luxury of time.
[clip of Voter 5]: The average non-Pod Save America person is thinking about how their families are going to get by. And politics is last, not first.
Jon Favreau: And then there are people who don’t even know where to begin.
[clip of Voter 7]: I filled out a ballot like a couple weeks ago. Was that for the November election. I don’t even know.
Jon Favreau: After each group, I asked a panel of experts to listen to what these voters had to say, and offer some advice about what campaigns and organizers could do to reach them. People like …
John Della Volpe: John Della Volpe. Biden pollster in the 2020 campaign.
Katie Porter: I’m Katie Porter, I’m a congresswoman from Orange County California.
Faiz Shakir: Faiz Shakir, I was Bernie Sander’s campaign manager.
Symone Sanders Townsand: Symone Sanders Townsand and I am a host on MSNBC of my own show, Symone.
Jon Favreau: These conversations with voters and strategists and organizers aren’t meant to give you a sense of how well Democrats will do in the midterms. I’m also not trying to give you the message that will lead the party to victory. And that’s because I don’t think there is one perfect, bumper sticker slogan that will do the trick for every candidate in every race. Voters are complicated. Humans are complicated. For those of us who follow politics closely, it can seem black and white – why wouldn’t it, when we’re mainly exposed to the voices of people who think just like we do and people who think nothing like we do. That’s not to say that everyone else is centrist, moderate, apolitical, or apathetic. Far from it. As you’ll hear from these voters, many people who are disconnected from politics still have strong political views – and some of those views are conflicting, surprising, or just plain weird. Again, people are complicated. But the fundamental promise of American democracy is that a diverse, flawed, complicated country of more than 300 million people can somehow figure out a way to live together in relative peace and prosperity. That promise is now at greater risk than at any time since the Civil War – and just like then, it’s at risk from forces within. But what we know for a fact is that throughout our history, and just two years ago, we were able to hold this democracy together in the face of those who tried to pull it apart. And we did that by talking to each other. Listening to each other. Persuading each other to find the common threads that still connect us as Americans. And that’s what we have to do again. In 2022. In 2024. In all the days in between, and all the days after. It’s a tough and frustrating slog, but the good news is, the outcome is in our hands. We have agency here. We get to be the messengers. So I hope these conversations can help inform and inspire your own activism in the days and months to come. Let’s dive in. 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 votesaveamerica.com/midterms.