The Democratic Party's Consultant Factory

In a 2018 House Democratic primary, Gina Ortiz Jones fought her way through a crowded field of congressional hopefuls and emerged as the nominee to take on the vulnerable incumbent, Republican Rep. Will Hurd, in Texas’s 23rd District. She seemed like the perfect candidate, as if molded in a lab: an openly gay Iraq war vet and former intelligence officer who could neutralize Hurd’s nine years at the CIA.

In March of that cycle, the national Democratic Party celebrated her primary win in the border district. “The future is female. And Latina too! Felicidades @ginaortizjones,” the party’s account posted to Twitter. “Onward to November!”

It was an inauspicious beginning: Ortiz Jones is actually Filipina — and this misstep by the party was only the most visible symbol of its “close enough” approach to race and identity. Hurd ended up winning the sprawling West Texas district by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Not looking for a rematch, Hurd retired, and in 2020 Democrats were extremely bullish on picking up the seat. Ortiz Jones moderated her message, dropping her support for Medicare for All and swapping in calls for lower drug prices and improvements to Obamacare. Rep. Cheri Bustos, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was confident things were moving Ortiz Jones’s way. “More than anything, it’s changing demographics,” Bustos said, “and I would say over the next, you know, one, two, three cycles, that that state’s going to look very different.”

To execute its strategy in the Texas district, the party and its affiliated super PAC had turned to MVAR Media; Waterfront Strategies, a cutout of the D.C.-based giant GMMB; as well as Pescador Public Strategies, a new Hispanic political media firm. Heading into the election, Democratic consultants and pundits had been confident. Donald Trump, after all, was a toxic figure for voters of color, went the conventional wisdom, and he was also rapidly losing support among upper-middle-class white voters with a college degree, many of them situated in the nation’s ever-expanding suburbs.

The party’s polling showed that voters supported lower prescription drug prices and wanted to ban insurers from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions. Ortiz Jones leaned into it. “It was health care this, and health care that,” said Ernest Bromley, whose consulting firm, Pescador Public Strategies, worked on the campaign. “We stayed on the health care message all the way through.”

Against her, Republicans ran Navy veteran Tony Gonzales, who warned that Ortiz Jones was a socialist who was pushing a “transgender agenda,” blasting her for living in Washington, D.C., where she had claimed a homestead deduction on her taxes. The DCCC and its allied operations hit back by tying Gonzalez to Donald Trump. “Es un títere de Trump,” blared one ad from the party’s super PAC, complete with puppet strings, followed by alternating images of the faces of Trump and Gonzalez.

There was just one problem with that strategy: Trump won the district. “That’s a pretty big mess-up,” said a flummoxed Republican operative who worked on the race. “We were not running ads hitting candidates for their support of Biden in seats Biden won. That’s elemental.”

Hopes of expanding the Democratic majority were dashed as the votes rolled in on the night of November’s general election, and those voters of color gave Trump and House Republicans a significantly higher share of their votes than four years earlier. Ortiz Jones lost, this time by 12,000 votes. When the smoke cleared, the party’s 36-seat cushion had become just a nine-seat majority. Republicans flipped 14 Democratic seats — 15 counting former Rep. Katie Hill’s district, which Democrats narrowly lost in the special election following Hill’s 2019 resignation, and then lost again in November, both times to Republican Mike Garcia. In seven of the districts Democrats lost to Republicans, a majority of voters were people of color, precisely the kind of electorate Bustos had believed Democrats had on lock. The New York Times reported on Sunday that Democratic erosion among Latinos was even deeper than originally understood.

Bromley said the losses in 2020 show the party still has a lot to learn about Hispanic voters. “They did spend more money in ’20 than they did in ’18 and so forth targeting Latinos,” Bromley said. “But on the other hand, we had an interesting Trump effect that was in operation on the field. And with things like socialism, things like defund the police, things like pro-life, you know, that gets into this Catholic value thing. … And was that adequately answered? I don’t think so.”

“There’s not a whole lot of research that’s out there on the voters themselves and the role of language and values in their voting decisions,” he said.

In most industries, a failure that stark would lead to an autopsy, a round of firings, and a reformulation of strategy to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The stakes are particularly high for the 2022 midterms; next time, the same miscalculations could cost the party its thin majority, and with it the ability for the Biden administration to legislate.

Instead, according to a review of federal election records and interviews with senior party operatives, the calamity has led to promotions and expanded business opportunities for those at the top.

The stakes are particularly high for the 2022 midterms; next time, the same miscalculations could cost the party its thin majority.

Take Lucinda Guinn, the outgoing executive director at the DCCC. In July 2019, Black and Hispanic lawmakers publicly criticized the DCCC for a lack of diversity in senior positions, with particular emphasis on a lack of Latino leadership. Within days, the executive director and five other senior aides all resigned, and Guinn, who identifies as Latina, was brought in shortly after, in September, to be executive director.

The diversity-driven shakeup left Guinn and her new team with much less time to prepare for the cycle. After the disappointing results, Guinn left and was named a partner at a major consulting firm: Ralston Lapp, now Ralston Lapp Guinn, which was founded by a former executive director of the DCCC. Her move to the firm will be a boon to a company that has long done millions of dollars in business with House Democrats and the DCCC.

In her place, and without an open search, a former DCCC adviser, Tim Persico, was elevated to executive director. New operatives have also been installed to lead major Democratic committees and super PACs with no competitive, transparent hiring process. New media firms, which routinely receive some of the most lucrative contracts in the business, continue to be founded by staffers leaving top jobs. Megan Clasen, who ran the Biden campaign’s $250 million digital ad program, and Patrick McHugh, who led Priorities USA, the party’s biggest super PAC, created the media firm Gambit Strategies, poised to become a powerhouse firm.

Bromley, a former corporate consultant, is partnering with another for a major research project into Latino political attitudes, he said, hoping to finish this year in order to put the findings into the field. “All I’m doing is trying to take all these years of learning in the Hispanic consumer market to the Hispanic voter market,” he said.

The self-dealing nature of party leadership transitions has long been endemic to both parties, and for a long time it kept the most lucrative consulting positions mostly in the hands of white men. That’s now changing slightly, though the ecosystem continues to function largely as before.

In 2007, an investigation by Politico — then known as The Politico — found the Democratic Party had spent less than 1 percent of its campaign money on Black consultants, or about $4.4 million, even as Black voters made up some 20 percent of the party’s voting base. An Intercept review of FEC records finds that a revolving door of mostly white friends and colleagues at the top echelons of party politics remains nearly as dominant today as it was then, particularly in media and ad-buying.

One party operative, defending House Democrats’ commitment to working with a diverse array of firms, noted its links to Latino Decisions, a polling firm. In January, the firm’s two Latino partners split from the firm to form a new one, leaving Latino Decisions owned exclusively by brothers Mark and Andrew Rosenkranz of Pacific Market Research.

Firms that reject the corporate approach continue to be shut out, as the party’s position with working-class voters of all races continues to weaken.

The overall pipeline of consultants, however, has grown significantly more diverse. In 2016, according to figures provided by the DCCC, the committee spent almost as much on vendors of color — $4 million — as the entire party apparatus did in 2006. As the push for diversity expanded and entry-level operatives moved up in the ranks or formed their own firms, that number has grown, to $21.9 million in 2018 and $28.6 million in 2020, according to figures provided by the DCCC. In percentage terms, there remains room to grow — the committee spent more than $330 million in 2020, after all — and much of that spending went to television advertising, a sector where nonwhite consultants continue to be largely excluded.

In the 2020 cycle, the DCCC employed a chief diversity officer for the first time in its history. A layered hiring system designed to assure diversity is front of mind, similar to practices employed by today’s corporate human resources departments, and has had a real impact: 56 percent of its staff identify as people of color, compared to 38 percent in March 2019, DCCC spokesperson Chris Hayden said. In 2021, the DCCC’s independent expenditure arm is being run by a Black woman, Missayr Boker, a first for any major party committee. A walk through the DCCC headquarters in 2006 under Rahm Emanuel would reveal a dramatic improvement today strictly on the question of demographic diversity — including in the area of disability, where the DCCC has hired Hayden, the first person with a disability to fill the role of communications director.

The progress the party has made in diversifying its lower and mid-tier ranks means that it is not unrealistic to expect those operatives eventually move into the highest positions, both within the party committees and at the top-grossing firms. So far, the consulting ecosystem has absorbed these new voices with no disruption to business as usual, leaving in place a structure in which major Democratic Party firms spend part of their time working on behalf of candidates and the party, and the rest of their time working for corporate clients. Firms and operatives who reject that approach continue to be shut out, as the party’s position with working-class voters of all races continues to weaken.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, listens while Representative Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois and chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, speaks remotely during a news conference in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. President Donald Trump has once again defied polls and predictions, with a strong showing across the Sun Belt in early results appearing to significantly shrink Democratic nominee Joe Bidens path to victory. Photographer: Erin Scott/Reuters/Bloomberg via Getty Images

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi listens while Rep. Cheri Bustos, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, speaks remotely during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 3, 2020.

Photo: Erin Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The party’s campaign structure as it exists today runs in a direct line from Rahm Emanuel’s regime at the DCCC in 2006, with marriages and friendships interlacing with business and campaigning over the next 15 years.

2006: That year, the DCCC was run by John Lapp and his deputy, Ali Ward, who is now Ali Lapp. Executive Director John Lapp would go on to create the firm Ralston Lapp Media, now one of the major firms servicing the DCCC. As DCCC chair, Emanuel recruited conservative, business-friendly veterans, and managed to win back the House with the wrong strategy at the right time.

2008: In the 2008 cycle, the DCCC was helmed by Brian Wolff, a Nancy Pelosi aide who had been a deputy director under Lapp during the previous cycle. When 2009 brought full Democratic control to Washington, K Street was in need of Democrats with ties to the party leadership, and he broke the typical DCCC pattern by becoming a lobbyist, at the Edison Electric Institute, rather than a consultant. He currently sits on the board of the party’s super PAC, the House Majority PAC.

2010: For the 2010 midterms, the DCCC hired Jon Vogel as executive director. Vogel had been a DCCC deputy in 2006 and, in 2008, had run the organization’s $85 million independent expenditure. In its first cycle in business, 2010, Ralston Lapp Media billed the DCCC and House Democrats running for reelection more than $3 million for media work.

Vogel hired Robby Mook, who had served as a top operative on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 failed presidential bid, to serve as his political director. Democrats were then wiped out in the tea party wave, and Vogel left to form MVAR Media. Over the past two cycles, the DCCC and House Majority PAC have spent roughly a million dollars through MVAR Media, which boasts a slew of House candidates as clients.

2012: Vogel was replaced in the 2012 cycle by Mook. Mook then went on to manage Terry McAuliffe’s successful campaign for Virginia governor, directing millions to the consulting firm GMMB.

In April 2011, in the wake of Citizens United v. FEC, the party created its super PAC; Ali Lapp was named to run it. In the 2012 cycle, Ralston Lapp Media began billing House Majority PAC and has done more than $250,000 worth of work for it since.

2014 and 2016: In 2014, the top DCCC job finally went to a woman: Kelly Ward, now Kelly Ward Burton, a veteran operative and the spouse of Bill Burton, who was a top 2006 Democratic operative before playing a lead role on the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama. Ward had been the DCCC’s political director in 2012 and stayed for two cycles as executive director. During that time, money continued flowing to MVAR and Ralston Lapp. Ward, who broke the pattern and did not cash in by returning to consulting, now leads the party’s crucial redistricting effort.

Mook was named to run Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president and brought GMMB on as the operation’s media consultant, pumping more than $300 million through it.

2018: That gets us to the 2018 cycle, when Democrats finally reclaimed the House. Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico took over as DCCC chair. He promoted Dan Sena from a deputy executive director position to executive director. Luján and Sena, who both identify as Hispanic and are both from New Mexico, arrived at a DCCC with little in the way of minority consulting infrastructure and worked to bring new people in.

To make sure there was finally a Latino-run firm doing real business with the DCCC on the media side, they turned to Ernest Bromley. Bromley, who has a Canadian father, a Puerto Rican mother, and did high school in Mexico City, was a high-powered corporate ad executive in Texas who shied away from political work for decades, while his lead partner, a Republican, helped reshape Texas. After Trump’s election, Bromley retired from the firm and, determined to get involved in politics, teamed up with Democratic operative Laura Hernandez to create Pescador Public Strategies. Luján brought them on to begin doing work with the DCCC.

2020: After 2018, Sena left to form Sena Kozar Media. In his first post-DCCC cycle, Sena’s new firm billed the party $2.5 million, working for House candidates and the DCCC, plus Luján’s successful Senate race and the PAC for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

House Democrats relied almost exclusively on the firms owned by Bromley and Sena for their messaging to Latinos, even though both firms had expertise that extended beyond that community.

In July 2019, Black and Hispanic lawmakers publicly aired frustration at a lack of diversity at the top ranks of the DCCC and the senior staff was pushed out. Two months later, Bustos tapped Guinn, who had previously done two stints at the DCCC, along with five years at EMILY’s List, as executive director. Her most recent job had been at the consulting firm 4CM+M. Guinn, billed as the DCCC’s first Latina executive director, left after the disappointing election to join Ralston Lapp, which became Ralston Lapp Guinn. That cycle was a good one for the new firm, upping its direct take from the DCCC to just shy of $500,000.

Mook, for the 2020 cycle, became president of House Majority PAC, with Ali Lapp remaining as a senior adviser.

House Majority PAC also launched a 501(c)(4) called House Majority Forward, and its opaque tax structure leaves less visibility into its consultants and vendors, though it counts Pescador and Sena Kozar among them.

2022: This cycle, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is chair of the DCCC and tapped DCCC operative Tim Persico for the top job. Persico had previously served as Maloney’s chief of staff.

Mook remains president of the House Majority PAC, while Abby Curran Howell, a DCCC veteran, serves as executive director. Mook, a member of the Navy Reserve, will soon be deploying abroad for a year; Lapp will fill in for him, a spokesperson said.

In 2019, the DCCC finally made explicit a policy that had long been implicit: No firm could do business with the party committee if it worked for candidates taking on Democratic incumbents. The blacklist was put in place at the behest of the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus and had been a promise made by Bustos when she ran for DCCC chair. CBC leaders were concerned that the new leftist energy embodied by progressive representatives like the Squad and groups like Justice Democrats would target CBC members serving in deep-blue districts who hadn’t faced competition in decades. By entrenching not just incumbent politicians but also incumbent firms, the policy cut against the party’s efforts at diversifying the ranks of its operatives.

The DCCC recently announced it would be ending its controversial blacklist policy, but at the same time, Maloney, the current DCCC chair, has all but said the ban is still in effect. “No one should be looking for work around here if they want to go after one of our members at the same time,” he told Politico.

Atima Omara, a veteran Black strategist who started her own consulting firm in 2017, said that the blacklists, explicit and implicit, keep the ecosystem closed off.

“Because the Democratic committees have these blacklists, because they tell candidates you have to work with a certain type of consultant to get our support, already that creates a system where folks like myself have to go work with primary challengers and only in open seats,” said Omara. “So because you worked with primary challengers, or because you worked with people in unimportant races, then you’re never working with incumbents.” In effect, Omara concluded, the people who end up getting the big contracts are those who “have already been in [the] system and valued, and they tend to be white-led firms.”

Traditionally the Democratic party committees — like the DCCC, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Democratic Governors Association — look to hire campaign staffers who worked on so-called top-tier congressional or gubernatorial campaigns. A staffer will be hired out of those campaigns to go work an election cycle or two at the party committees and emerge well-positioned to get a job at one of the consulting firms they interfaced with as a staffer. And since political campaign jobs have historically not paid well, staffers often come from backgrounds where their families can subsidize rent and cushion their off-cycle employment lags. And if you’re a staffer not working on a top-tier race, Democratic veterans said, the party committees are far less likely to take your political skill set seriously.

Some of the challenges, observed one Black political consultant, are about creating the conditions where you can afford taking small risks on so-called untested firms. They said it doesn’t bother them if people want to spin off from campaigns and hire people they’ve worked with before, who they trust. “That’s how business is done, it just makes sense,” they added. “The question is, is it a ‘yes and’ conversation, are you also expanding who is at the table, making space for those other communities?” Some of the consultants spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to alienate potential clients.

“Too often the Democratic Party looks at you like you’re a person of color first, rather than as a smart, capable operative who happens to be a person of color.”

Part of diversifying the ranks of media consulting might involve splitting off work into smaller contracts and dividing up the labor, multiple consultants suggested. That’s been a challenge, one consultant observed, because no one wants to be blamed for investing in an “untested” firm that underperforms. “A lot of these entities are funded by foundations, and when they write their report at the end of the cycle, they might want to know why did you choose this vendor over another, especially if the program didn’t go well,” they said. “People worry they’ll get penalized if they use a ‘unproven’ vendor instead of the white-led firm which has been doing the work for longer.” Attraction to the familiar, he added, is how it ends up becoming a “good old boys” thing, regardless of whether that firm is performing at a consistently high level.

“We agree that it is important to have vendors who understand the communities we are trying to reach and we are constantly looking to expand the pool of consultants we work with,” said Caitlin Legacki, a spokesperson for the House Majority PAC. “There are a number of people involved in our consultant selection process, and those decisions are made based on a number of factors, including familiarity with House races, a firm’s bandwidth to take on the amount of work we have, whether they do good work and a history of effective House campaigns in the swing districts upon which a House majority relies.”

Sena, the 2018 DCCC executive director who’s now a partner at Sena Kozar, said that institutional blinders are still preventing many Democrats from seeing what they’re doing wrong. “Too often the Democratic Party looks at you like you’re a person of color first, rather than as a smart, capable operative who happens to be a person of color. That’s the biggest challenge,” he said. “The other challenge is ensuring that the work that minority firms do is representative of the total battleground, not just communities of color projects.”

Multiple consultants noted that while party committees are increasingly comfortable with putting firms led by people of color in charge of voter engagement efforts, particularly aimed at getting Black and Latino voters to the polls, there’s still far more resistance to allowing POC-led firms to head up digital, media, communications, and polling work.

And even if the party eventually reaches a point where consulting contracts are evenly distributed among white, Black, and Latino-led firms, the party will still have to contend with another demographic reality: As the Democratic voting base has become more educated, so too have its campaign operatives. Throughout much of the 20th century, campaigns lacked racial or gender diversity, but it was not uncommon for operatives, even the most senior ones, to lack a college degree. Numbers are hard to come by, but party activists agree the phenomenon is far rarer today.

The problem for Democrats is not just that a wave of college bankruptcies and a student debt crisis are making degrees harder to obtain, but that there are many, many more voters without college degrees than with them. And the party is not structured in a way to speak to them where they are.

“The notion of expecting people of color to just automatically be Democrat, that’s crazy,” Bromley, the Pescador co-founder, said. “This is something you have to earn.”

Bromley spent his career as a longtime partner in the corporate advertising firm Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar & Associates with Republican partner Lionel Sosa and former Coca-Cola executive Adolfo Aguilar. (Aguilar left Coca-Cola in the 1980s and brought the account, “Mad Men”-style, to the new firm, which focused largely on corporate work.)

“One of the things that I was struck about when it comes to Latino voters, since I’ve gotten in this game now for — I guess I’m three years working on four years into the whole political thing — is really getting a good handle on this whole notion of values,” Bromley said. “And what are the ranges of those values, because generally values don’t fluctuate a great deal, but they may have different meanings to different people in terms of what is conservative.”

Whether a person grew up going to church or were only surrounded by other people in that environment, he said, produces a much more conservative voter. “I think the folks that are within, say, the party, the longtime party operatives, they are liberal and so forth, need to come to recognize that generally Latinos — and I think this is true of African Americans as well — people of color in general skew more on the conservative side. Whether they’re liberal Blacks or liberal Latinos, they’re just not as liberal as the Anglo liberals.”

 “Compared to the corporate marketing landscape, the political landscape is in their infancy, as far as I’m concerned.”

When it came to corporate consulting, Bromley said, the task was simple — expand market share — but the resources available to accomplish the mission were substantial. “I owned and operated the largest Hispanic ad agency in the country. My largest clients were Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Anheuser-Busch, Western Union money transfers. We were close to 200 employees. So I know every nook and cranny of this country when it comes Latinos,” he said. “Compared to the corporate marketing landscape, the political landscape is in their infancy, as far as I’m concerned.”

Many of the firms who manage to get business from the party, whether white-owned, minority-owned, or a blend, may be limited by the substantial amounts of corporate work they do at the same time — work that often conflicts with Democratic voters’ priorities.

House Majority Forward, the dark-money group aligned with House Democrats, and House Majority PAC have done work with HIT Strategies, which lists Big Pharma as a client alongside progressive causes.


HIT

HIT Strategies clients.

Screenshot: The Intercept

After working on the Obama campaign in 2008 and then becoming executive director of the Democratic National Committee, Jen O’Malley Dillon co-founded Precision Strategies, which combined political work with consulting on behalf of health insurers, Silicon Valley, Bank of America, and other major corporations. In 2020, she became Joe Biden’s campaign manager after he had sewn up the nomination.

Dewey Square Group, where Minyon Moore leads both the State and Local Affairs and Multicultural Strategies practices, does work for the party as well as major corporate clients, including fighting to roll back Ohio’s renewable portfolio standards.

SKDK, formerly SKDKnickerbocker, a firm staffed by former DCCC operatives that does millions of dollars of work for the DCCC and the party, also does corporate work for clients like Gillette and American Airlines.

“SKDK is a well-known advertising and communications firm and they helped shape our advertising campaign in 2011 and 2013 to help counter the misinformation opponents of the Keystone XL proposal were spreading about TransCanada and the pipeline,” a TransCanada spokesperson told the Washington Post in 2014. “We have hired them for their communications and advertising expertise and we will continue to hire them and are proud of our association with them.”

GMMB, a DCCC mainstay that is stocked with veterans of the organization, also does corporate work. GMMB has been dealing with internal turmoil over the heavily white composition of its leadership structure.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, the DCCC’s lead polling firm, also does heavy corporate work in banking, health care, and tech, and has represented everyone from Monsanto and Verizon to Blue Cross Blue Shield and UnitedHealthcare. In 2020, the firm listed the Business Roundtable, a collection of the nation’s largest corporations, as a client. Elizabeth Sena worked for GQR, where she’s a partner, while her husband, Dan Sena, was executive director of the DCCC in the 2018 cycle. The spousal connections go higher: Stan Greenberg was the top pollster for President Bill Clinton and is married to Rep. Rosa DeLauro.

Hart Research, another DCCC polling firm, similarly does expansive work for corporate clients, including the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the powerful trade association for Big Pharma. Hart’s client list also includes Eli Lilly, the drugmaker sued for driving up the price of insulin.






HART-RESEARCH-3

A selection of Hart Research clients.

Screenshots: The Intercept

Corporate conflicts among consultants might narrow the horizons of what Democrats advocate for in the economic sphere.

In effect, the party routinely commissions polls from firms about issues that implicate companies that the consulting firms simultaneously represent. Such entanglements raise questions about the polling and focus group work conducted, and the party’s ability to follow the results of said research: Even if focus group and polling data suggested that a campaign be run against Eli Lilly’s high insulin prices, it would take a consultant with serious fortitude to recommend it, rather than suggesting, say, a broad campaign against high drug prices generally. Those corporate conflicts might narrow the horizons of what Democrats advocate for in the economic sphere, but culturally, there are no such conflicts with corporate America, as Republicans are quick to complain. That creates incentives for the party to push on the cultural front but not on economic issues, regardless of the electoral implications.

Restricting who can work for candidates or the party comes with a cost. In another Texas House race that Democrats hoped to win in 2020, the 25th Congressional District, stretching from Austin to Fort Worth, Democrat Julie Oliver had been working with the polling firm Data for Progress. But DFP was on the blacklist for its work on behalf of primary challengers, and the DCCC pressured the campaign to drop the firm after she became the nominee. DFP’s final poll, in June 2020, found Roger Williams at 53 percent and Oliver at 42, according to campaign documents provided to The Intercept. The district is roughly a quarter Black, Hispanic, and Asian American.

A DCCC poll in July suggested that Williams was much weaker, pegging the race at 45-43. A poll in December by the DCCC-approved firm EMC Research similarly found Williams up 43-41, with a third party candidate drawing eight percent.

The DFP survey turned out to be by far the closest, and Williams won with 56 percent of the vote to Oliver’s 42, with just 2 percent for the third party. Accurate polling matters in a campaign, because it shapes strategy. Given the strength of Williams, Oliver needed to move voters away from him. But the DCCC polling suggested that Williams was already weakened, in which case Oliver’s task was to raise her own name recognition and favorability. That was the approach she took, and it turned out to be the wrong one.

Chuck Rocha, who runs Nuestro PAC and Solidarity Strategies, was a senior consultant to both of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. He recently produced an autopsy of the Democratic decline among Hispanic voters, which relied on bilingual polling in Texas and Florida. Around 5 percent of respondents — though higher among some subgroups in South Florida — said that their votes were driven by the controversy over socialism, and around the same amount said they were motivated by immigration policy. Overwhelmingly, the concerns were straightforward: jobs and the economy, health care, and the debate over coronavirus relief legislation.

In another Texas race, the 10th — which runs from Austin to Houston and is 40 percent Black, Asian, and Hispanic — Democrat Mike Siegel had the support of the DCCC and was poised to flip a red seat. “Consultants, and the DCCC, they’re built around: What can we propose to you that we can actually execute? And so it’s these people that know how to produce TV ads in a quick time frame and get them placed on TV. And they can basically quote you: If you give me this many million dollars, we will run this many ads, and we can expect this percent shift in the polling — so it relates to polling,” he told The Intercept’s Deconstructed in November. And because health care always polls better than, say, unemployment, that’s what they run ads on.

In hunting for an alternative strategy, Siegel ran up against a fundamental obstacle. “There’s not like an alternate framework or ecosystem of pollsters, and consultants who are like: No, this is how you can win with a populist message. There’s not people I can hire — I asked — who know how to run a real left campaign,” he said. “And I think part of the fundamental problem is that the whole framework is: How can you raise and spend $X million in two or three months in a way that moves voters? Because that’s not how political change happens. All you are doing is playing with the margins; you’re not affecting the foundation.”

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