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Rachel Bitecofer: Creating a "War Machine" to Protect Democracy
Don't Let Republicans Drive the Narrative.
I am pleased to bring you this interview with Rachel Bitecofer, who is co-founder and chief strategist of Strike PAC, which aims to modernize Democratic election messaging and address the Republican threat to democracy head-on. Rachel is a political scientist and author of the 2017 book The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election. In 2019 she predicted that Donald Trump would lose the 2020 election. Our conversation took place on August 11, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Strike Pac stands out for being hard hitting and proactive with respect to a lot of other Democratic messaging, and in fact you describe it as "a war machine." What needs fixing in Democratic approaches to communication?
Rachel Bitecofer (RB): Democrats have an idealized view of the voter and the electorate. They assume that issues and positions and policies and all of these things are extremely motivating to the electorate. But political scientists have been showing us now for 20 years, even before we moved into our current hyper-polarized environment, that for most people vote choices are set in stone before you have candidates, because they are choices based on party identification.
And that includes almost all of the pool of people that call themselves independents, because Independents mostly lean to the left or the right. And the data is unequivocal that they'd be almost as loyal to parties as people who would admit to being partisan. So we're really talking about in any given election contest, say, one of these competitive House or Senate races or a presidential race, about between 10% and 15% of people who have fluid vote choices.
Many of these people follow very little news. Most of them are civically disengaged in terms of the issues. The Republican party's election system is built to deal with that. It is a branding operation that attacks the opposition party, defining it as a threat, and appeals to right-leaning Independents to show up to vote in these competitive races. Meanwhile, on the left, we think that if Biden and the Democrats just pass infrastructure and do well with the economy, then of course people are going to show up and things will resolve in favor of Democrats. That's not how our elections work.
Strike Pac is about bringing a branding offensive to the table. And defining Republicans as a party of extremists, a party that has destroyed America, the American middle-class, the American economy, the American infrastructure, America's standing in the world. It's about really taking a punch at them and forcing them to play defense on the issues they don't want to talk about, like the Jan. 6 insurrection and their inability to effectively govern at all now, because the party leadership is staffed by extremists.
RBG: Too often, Republicans are able to set the agenda and drive the narrative day to day, whereas Democrat strategy is still oriented to the long term, with policies like infrastructure improvement that will pay off over time. While the country needs such policies, Democrats also need talking points to counter the immediate effects of the Republicans’ politics of shock and grievance.
Your launch video, “Fuse,” creates an atmosphere of tension and dread that communicates the stakes of the struggle. Talk about how this kind of messaging can be more effective than current Democratic methods to get Independents to vote and also to reel in new voters and habitual non-voters.
RB: That's right. It's also to address people who change parties. Think about the Obama to Trump vote in 2016 and 2020. Those people are going to go Trump again, or whomever becomes the GOP nominee, because these are former Democrats now realigning to the other party.
RBG: Yes, there is also the phenomenon of Latino voters turning away from Democrats in places like Texas.
RB: And one way to undercut this is by disqualifying their other option. Make sure people cannot envision voting for Republicans. It's about getting people to understand we are facing serious stakes and your vote is critical to staving off a potential collapse, including a political collapse into fascism. There's certainly messaging material, from GOP governors literally killing Americans with their negligent pandemic response; a Republican party blocking a bill for economic relief named the HEROES Act, and much more.
RBG: And all of this is bad for business. Throughout history, business and financial elites have backed authoritarians and then regretted it. Look what's happening in Russia and Turkey now, with the government seizing businesses and other economic assets. The cost of Republican destruction should be a messaging point, because there are a lot of people who might not care about human rights and saving lives, but they do care about making money. How can we reach those people?
RB: That's a really great question. No one's ever asked me that before in a public interview. The reality is that for the business community, images stick, like the Republican party being good for the economy. If we were to ask some people why they voted for Trump, they tell us, well, he's a great businessman. And the party is good for the economy. Neither of those two things is true, but nobody is out there aggressively correcting that with messaging.
You would think that the Republican party's use of the legislature and the governorship in Georgia to bully Delta Airlines and other companies by taking away their tax subsidies would freak out the business community. If I had the resources, I would be micro-targeting business elites with that kind of message. We also need to get the business community fiscally engaged in terms of donating. There's a huge donation gap with respect to Republicans. How do we get them to recognize the threat?
RBG: You're involved in an intense and prolonged political fight. What do you do to relax and stay energized?
RB: A lot of people think I'm a workaholic and I don't take any personal time. I'm a mom and I don't have a wife, so I don't have much time for relaxing. I'm dealing with mom stuff, cleaning the house, doing laundry and things like that, and hanging out with my kid and my puppy.
In terms of work, I really do a tortoise strategy, steadily pounding seven days a week. I find that more efficient because you're always turning out work.
Democracy won't die with a bang, and a lot of people might not even notice when it does. I can't feel good right now if I'm not actively doing everything I can do every single day to head off what I see coming.