These poll numbers are different in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, states where the candidates are spending their time and money, and where voters are paying closer attention to the early stages of the race. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will obviously see their Name I.D. grow with time. But at the moment, Democrats other than Biden and Sanders are facing down a massive attentional gulf versus Trump. “Right now there are just too many of them,” said Jessica from Milwaukee. “I’m not watching the Democratic debates. I mean, this is like The Bachelor. You don’t watch on week one. There’s too many. Like, I’ll tune in when there’s two weeks left and we’ve narrowed down the population. But I don’t care enough right now. I want to see the number down to three roses, then I’ll vote.”
In the meantime, the views of these lesser-engaged Democrats are complex and don’t fall neatly into the ideological buckets often discussed in the media. They mostly liked the idea of Medicare for All, but also doubted how the government could possibly pay for it. They brought up a wide variety of issues as their top concerns—poverty, opioids, prison reform, Medicaid, college affordability, guns, LGBTQ rights, drug prices, taxes—but few could say what the federal government had done to help. “No one could remember the last thing the government had actually done to improve their lives, except one woman in Miami who brought up the Affordable Care Act,” Favreau said. In Milwaukee, where all the panelists had voted in the 2018 midterms, they were often more knowledgeable about state politics than national. “That’s the stuff that has a direct impact on us, right?” said Carol, a mother of two from suburban Waukesha County. “The stuff in Washington is all, like, at the top level. But day to day, I feel like that’s where we have more impact, where we feel, or can convince ourselves, anyway, that we have more impact to effect change.” All of them expressed clashing opinions that frequently surface in polls of Democratic voters: They wanted a nominee who would fight and not compromise on principles, but also someone who would work with the other side and heal the country.
Favreau asked each of the focus groups how they consumed their news. Most cautioned that they tune out political news, before naming Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, BBC, and “local news.” But even as the participants identified their own news sources, every focus group participant said they didn’t trust them for information about politics. All of the cable networks were viewed as agenda-driven and produced to stoke outrage and ratings rather than inform viewers. “You only get what they want you to have. There’s no solid form of receiving news that isn’t biased or that isn’t, you know, structured and formulated and produced for the masses,” said Don, the father from Philadelphia. “You only get what they want you to have.” In Miami, George, the Ecuadorean immigrant, said TV news treats politics like entertainment, at the expense of more serious news. “The way they report, it seems like it’s more like a joke, so people don’t believe anything,” he said. Another Miami voter named Paul lamented the panel-style debates that have come to dominate the cable channels. “You have one side against the other,” he said. “They talked for two minutes. Nothing gets solved and you move on to the next topic. There’s no compromise anymore. There’s no smart talk.”
“They don’t trust CNN or Fox, see them as two sides of the same coin,” said Favreau. “They don’t even trust what they read on Facebook anymore, which is probably a very good thing, but the result is that they don’t know what to believe, and so they just largely tune out.” The focus groups crystallized the imperative for Democrats to find new ways to reach the irregular voters they need, with tactics and innovations that slice through the confusion of the media landscape. It’s more than that, though: The Democratic nominee must feel, for lack of a better phrase, bigger and more relevant than politics. “Twitter isn’t real life” has become a common refrain for critics who want the press and campaigns to keep their sights on voters who don’t spend their days yelling about politics online. But for many of the people in Favreau’s focus groups, politics isn’t real life, either. The eventual Democratic nominee, he said, is duty-bound to fix that. He pointed to an interview with former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, also airing on this season of The Wilderness: “What I think we all have to hold to, is that our ambitions have to be met with our capacity to deliver,” Abrams told him. “Because for the people who are the most easily dissuaded from participation, it’s when you promise them the moon and can‘t deliver a single grain of sand.”
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