With the closely watched U.S. midterm elections less than a week away, I spoke with Daniel Lippman, reporter and co-author of Politico Playbook, for an inside look at the candidates, their campaigns and the media.
Q: How is the 2018 midterm election cycle shaping up to be different than 2014? How is the ‘Trump factor’ playing out in this election?
Lippman: This has become an election cycle strongly focused on President Trump’s performance in office instead of other traditional factors, such as healthcare and the economy. Since the economy is doing so well, Democrats can’t use that issue as effectively in their ads. What some Democrats are trying to do instead is nationalize the midterms into a referendum on Trump. What I find interesting is that some red-state Democrats are running ads where they try to ally with Trump on certain issues. If Republicans don’t do well on Tuesday, sources have also told us that Trump views 2020 as “the real election” so he can avoid taking the blame.
Q: What are the implications for either chamber flipping, and how could the outcome influence the 2020 presidential race?
Lippman: If Democrats flip the House, or less likely the Senate, it would be an earthquake in Washington, since Democrats would have oversight and subpoena power that they would vociferously use to investigate Trump and his administration and cabinet. They will push as hard as possible to get Trump’s tax returns released. As my colleague Nancy Cook reported, we may also see as many as six cabinet members depart in the next few months as well. If Democrats do very well next week, they will be very optimistic that they can also take down Trump in 2020.
Q: How has media — $5 billion in paid, earned and social — influenced this election cycle? In particular, what are its effects on the incivility of the national dialogue?
Lippman: Some Republican candidates are trying to act Trump-like in how they use social media and are creating snappy nicknames to criticize their opponents. They’re also increasingly using social media to bypass the media and go straight to the people. Much of the tremendous amount of money Democrats have raised is being spent on TV ads, but more and more is being channeled into digital platforms. The national dialogue is definitely coarsened by all of these negative TV ads, but this is a longstanding trend. What’s also noteworthy is that many people are excited about individual House candidates even in districts they don’t even live in, which is not usually the case. And many Democrats are outspending their Republican opponents with record sums raised, including Beto O’Rourke in Texas (who’s challenging Senator Ted Cruz).
Q: Are you seeing the “fake news” shape campaign communications?
Lippman: I think this cycle has been worse in terms of false attacks. My colleague Rachael Bade recently had a great piece about this and the headline says it all: “House Republicans distort and dissemble in slashing TV ads: In one spot, a former CIA operative is accused of harboring terrorist sympathies. In others, military vets are said to be anti-American.” Many Democrats are making their first run for political office; since they don’t have voting records to pick apart, their opponents try to find things in their past that they can criticize.
Q: What’s the impact of the dichotomy of national messages (Russia/China, trade agreements, immigration) compared to local and race-by-race ones, including healthcare and the economy (jobs)?
Lippman: The issue of Russia is not high on the list for many voters because it’s hard for candidates to connect the specific details of the investigations to voters’ real lives. Immigration is a hot-button issue, and Republicans are trying their best to use the issue to help get their voters out to the polls during an off-year. They’re setting the narrative on the issue; for example, you don’t see a ton of Democrats get a lot of attention for proposals to legalize undocumented immigrants.
*The opinions expressed in this article are Daniel Lippman’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Powell Tate or Weber Shandwick.
Interview by John Files, Senior Vice President, Management Supervisor at Powell Tate & Weber Shandwick in Washington, DC.
Edited by Helen McCarthy, Emily Vander Weele and Jim Meszaros