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Hit ‘em Where It Hurts: Rachel Bitecofer on How to Stop Trump, MAGA — and Save Democracy

by Art Levine

Mar 15, 2024 | Election 2024


Despite a surprisingly good showing by many Democrats in 2022 and recent special elections — due in part to the backlash against the Supreme Court’s 2022 abortion ruling and extremist GOP candidates — there are good reasons to fear the very real possibility of a Trump victory in November. Just look at Trump’s lead in polling in seven swing states as just one sign of the trouble the incumbent President is facing – and the wishful thinking of some pundits like Ezra Klein and nearly half the electorate that Biden should leave the race. That sentiment, at least for now, has lost some of its momentum after last week’s robust State of the Union speech.

Even so, Democrats are still struggling to respond to negative views of Joe Biden’s memory and age. This was heightened by the gratuitous smears about the President’s memory in the investigation filed by special counsel Robert Hur into Hunter Biden’s business activities, which recommended that no charges be brought against either father or son. These findings were notable in part because Hur had been nominated in 2017 by then president Trump to serve as US Attorney for the District of Maryland.

Underlying all this political skirmishing are decades of generally feckless, wonky Democratic responses to effective, emotional Republican messaging which has persistently branded Democrats as dangerous, big-spending, soft-on-crime socialists. More recently, as the prescient political scientist and strategist Rachel Bitecofer has observed, GOP labeling has been updated to include a new emphasis: “Democrats are pedophiles and are going to turn your male children into girls.”

In her important new book, Hit ‘Em Where it Hurts: How to Save Democracy By Beating Republicans At Their Own Game, Bitecofer argues for a no-holds-barred counter-offensive in election races at all levels, painting in stark terms the Democrats as the party of freedom and the Republicans as the party of, yes, fascism. “If everybody is pounding the theme of waking America up to the threat that is the modern Republican party, then Democrats should be able to survive. And if we survive, that means democracy can survive,” she told The Washington Spectator in a recent interview. (You can hear an audio of our conversation here.)

Her model for much of this strategy? The Republican Party itself, minus the brazen lies and nutty conspiracy theories.

For example, she recommends that the Biden-Harris campaign get out of its weak defensive crouch over age-related issues. Instead, she says, go after Trump and undermine the negative portrayals with ad buys, more close-up news appearances and targeted counter-attacks. “Rather than defending Biden’s age, other than the jokes he makes about it, what they should be doing is spending money making sure America sees how deranged Donald Trump is,” she argues. Here’s the tactic that should be deployed: “You have to pivot and attack and make them regret bringing up mental fitness every time they mention it because then they get barraged with Trump’s rantings.” (A step in that direction was taken last week when the Biden campaign’s X account posted video snippets of Trump’s chaotic verbal stumbles. And Biden in his State of the Union remarks was credited with repeated attacks on his “predecessor” that painted Trump and the GOP as threats to democracy and freedom, while undermining their arguments that he was too impaired to serve as president.)

Bitecofer is not just another progressive pundit wringing her hands and hoping that the Democrats get tougher. She has earned her reputation as “The Election Whisperer,” in large part because of her eerily accurate prediction of the Blue Wave in the 2018 mid-terms after Trump’s first years in office. She forecast a 42-seat gain, very close to the final Democratic pick-up of 40 seats. She beat virtually all conventional pollsters with a prediction made four months before that November’s election.

Bitecofer’s forecasts and prescriptions are shaped by a deep study of actual voting behavior. For example, she punctures the myth that large swaths of the public are truly independent, follow politics and are open to persuasion across party lines.

“What dictates voter choice is partisanship,” she notes. “All I need to know: Are you a Democrat or do you lean to the Democratic party or are you a Republican or do you lean to the Republican party? You take away those people who nine out of 10 times are going to vote for the party that they lean towards or are in — and once you take them out of the pool, you’re talking about 15% of the electorate that is kind of really persuadable.”

“Based on your views of the two parties, she says, “I will be able to predict your vote choice a year away from the next election.”

Those outcomes and voter beliefs are shaped largely by how each party is branded nationally, she argues, affecting races at all levels of government. And by that measure, Republicans, until the relatively recent and modest backlash against Trumpism, have been cleaning the clocks of Democrats for years.

In response, her precise forecasts in 2018 and subsequent experience consulting with Democratic-affiliated groups have led her to develop practical advice on shaping unified, emotionally resonant “negative partisanship” messages. Her goal is to appeal to both the Democratic base and the small fraction of genuinely independent voters with a unified message to stir fear and anger towards Republicans. She explains, “It’s not just negativity in the traditional sense, it’s designed to tap into negative partisanship — which is the fear or threat that one feels relative to their own partisanship when the opposition party has power over them.”

Basically, that’s what Republicans and their media allies have been doing ever more bluntly for years: “Democrats are socialists who want to defund the police and let you get killed,” as Bitecofer puts it.

This time around, the Biden-Harris campaign, she contends, is aptly “framing the stakes” in running on the threat the MAGA movement and Trump pose to democracy. “He’s going to be running on freedom: individual rights, the threat Republicans and MAGA Republicans are posing to various people — especially women with the [anti-]abortion regimes that they’re running. So that is the messaging frame that we need to be on,” she says.

But too many other Democrats are lagging behind in adopting what she sees as the Democrats’ most effective strategic approach. Only some Democrats in 2022 – most noticeably in Arizona and Michigan — began picking up lessons from the Republican playbook, while in several other states they still relied on conventional good-guy messaging that cluelessly aimed to win over independents while rallying the base. “The traditional strategy of trying the appeal to swing voters on candidate biography, and ‘I’m going to work across the aisle’ kind of advertising utterly failed again,” she points out.

The Ohio Senate race exemplified this near-useless approach in a polarized and hyper-partisan era. Ten-term, moderate Ohio congressman Tim Ryan faced off against Hillbilly Elegy author and tech investor J.D. Vance-turned-MAGA extremist. Even though Ryan outspent Vance on TV ads, the spots remained silent on abortion even after the June 2022 Dobbs decision. In fact, she points out, “Tim Ryan ran against his own party, which affirms the Republican message: All Democrats are bad,” scary socialists who are pro-crime. But because Tim Ryan said essentially, “I’m not one of those Democrats,” Bitecofer notes,” it affirms the attack, right? So you’ve basically done the opponents’ work for them.“

She blames in large part hidebound Democratic consultants and media strategists who aren’t adapting to the new political realities.

“Tim Ryan ran a very traditional campaign. It lost in 2010. It lost us in 2014. It lost us in 2016. It lost us in 2020. The only time it doesn’t really kill us is when we’re out of power and we have the enthusiasm on our side, “she says. “So when the media was swooning over Tim Ryan — he’s distancing himself from the national party and the brand! — they were all mooning over that. I absolutely knew it would fail and I wasn’t wrong.”

She adds, “We probably should have told the voters: your opponent is a MAGA extremist who is going to vote for a national abortion ban.” She emphasizes that Democrats can’t rely on conventional institutions – such as a mainstream media addicted to horserace coverage — to convey such harsh realities. “There’s no one else that’s going to do that for you.”

(It’s all worsened by the near-universal failure so far of mainstream media, political leaders and Democrats to successfully drive home to voters that their democracy is on the line in November, as Georgetown University historian Thomas Zimmer points out.)

Bitecofer similarly looks askance at two other failed, biography-driven centrist Senate campaigns: The crime-fighting former Orlando sheriff Rep. Val Demings in Florida and polite bipartisan moderate Cheri Beasley in North Carolina, who also faced uphill battles because they were black women. Demings did hit Sen. Marco Rubio on abortion in one (1) TV ad three months after the Dobbs decision, with a spot that focused on Sen. Rubio’s desire to “criminalize abortions with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest,” but still she emphasized her role as a crime fighter. Ironically, by focusing on crime, Demings still was fighting on the Republicans’ turf: “Rubio’s campaign spent millions on TV ads hammering home the GOP branding that all Democrats love criminals,” she writes.

In Ohio and other major races, the Republicans understood branding far better than Democrats, as well as an important truth about most voters: their general ignorance about politics. That’s a legacy that still afflicts high-minded Democrats since the days of the “Swiftboating” of military veteran John Kerry in 2004 as a lying coward. They naively believed that putting out facts about his Vietnam record and rebuttal articles in The New York Times would somehow convince the average voter to reject the smears. (It’s no coincidence that one of the architects of that ruthless campaign, Chris LaCivita, is now the co-campaign manager and a top strategic advisor to Trump.)

Now Swiftboating has become centralized and weaponized up and down the ticket for Republicans, building on the profound lack of political awareness and knowledge by voters. Democrats still haven’t grasped that point.

“Unfortunately, like it or not, this is the pill you have to swallow for us to not die in November: People don’t know anything,” Bitecofer says. In fact, a new poll shows that less than a third of voters have heard much about of Trump’s explicit threats to become a “dictator for a day” or seek “termination” of sections of the Constitution or other alarming claims.

She explains that only a tiny fraction of the public are interested in politics at all, unlike, say, readers of this publication. “They’re so special they care about politics and they know a lot about it,” she says of the miniscule portion of the population that knows in-depth details about politics — such as those who have heard of Mike Johnson, the far-right speaker of the House. She draws an analogy to drive home the point: She doesn’t care about opera and couldn’t name one contemporary opera singer — and has only ever heard of one in history: the now-deceased Pavarotti. That’s like many voters: “Interest is what is the biggest difference in the gap between the voting and non-voting public, because half our adult population doesn’t vote.” A majority of Americans read at less than a sixth grade level, making them perfect marks for Trump and the Republicans’ simplistic, emotional messaging. “They’re very tuned out. And so top-level messaging, top of mind awareness stuff, a really imagistic narrative is what pushes swing voter behavior,” she observes. “For example. ‘But her emails’ — you had swing voters going into talks to Trump reporters and saying, ‘I’m voting for Donald Trump because I just can’t trust Hillary Clinton on national security.’ And Donald Trump from day one was a walking, talking, predictable disaster for national security. But yet the top-of-mind awareness in that swing bucket was all about Clinton and her threat to national security.”

She illustrates the shrewdness of Republican messaging by citing their handling of hot-button issues in contrast to Democrats’ fact-based policy appeals. Take “Stand your ground.” She notes, “They could have named those castle doctrine laws anything they wanted, but when you hear the phrase ‘stand your ground’,’ you immediately imagine yourself confronted by an assailant.”

Until the Dobbs decision gave Democrats a new weapon to justifiably scare women over losing an existing freedom, the Republicans had captured the rhetorical battleground — even if they never gained a majority for their views on abortion rights.

“You can look at the evolution of abortion messaging and it really highlights the asymmetry. Republicans have ‘pro-life’ and we for decades have been running on ‘pro-choice.’ And it doesn’t take a lot of thinking if you put these two things side by side to see which one is going to have more emotional weight to it.”

Bitecofer notes, “It’s a very interesting minimization of what you’re doing with that choice. It is life or death. It’s determining whether you can work or be economically hampered the rest of your life. It sounds like you’re going through a drive-through, though. So getting off of that and reframe abortion access as reproductive freedom, as individual liberty, as keeping government out of your body – that is really amazing. That’s probably the best example of where our asymmetry has cost us.”

The power of Republicans’ disciplined, gut-punch messaging is of course enhanced by a media ecosystem that whips the Republican base into a frenzy. At the same time, media powerhouses like Fox News, and right-wing alternatives (e.g. NewsMax) and social media rabble-rousing are shaping mainstream media coverage as well.

All of this is enhanced by top-down, artfully coordinated messaging that successfully and repetitively bashes Democrats. One recent example Bitecofer gives is how the FBI raid on Trump’s home to seize his stolen classified documents was framed everywhere by Republicans in near-identical wording across the RNC, members of Congress, Laura Ingraham et. al.: “The real target of this investigation isn’t Trump. The real target of this investigation is you,” Ingraham declared.

If all that wasn’t enough, Bitecofer says, “They also have our system where unfortunately journalistic ‘both sides’ training has created a situation where much of the modern press can perform the role of useful idiot.” Both then-AG Bill Barr’s deceptive early response in 2019 to the Mueller Report when he falsely reported it found “no collusion,” and the new Hur report on the overhyped forgetfulness of the aging Biden play into the press’s Pavlovian response to pseudo-authoritative declarations by biased Republican officials.

She was appalled by Barr’s handling of the press that led even genuine swing voters to accept the near-universal view that the Mueller report found no collusion. “They owned that,” she says, while nevertheless filled with undisguised admiration of the Republicans wizardry on this and other strategic victories.

“I’m always in awe,” she gushes. She also points to then-RNC chair Michael Steele (now a Never-Trumper) and his 2010 “Fire Pelosi” nationwide barnstorming campaign that garnered huge gains for the GOP in Congress. She recalls how it inspired her own deep dive as an academic into analyzing voter behavior, election predictions and ultimately strategic consulting.

“Sometimes the Republican Party, still, is like poetry in motion, so evil and horrible, but so good,” she says.

She argues that Democrats have to fight “fire with fire.” So her book offers a step-by-step plan for harnessing attack messages and keeping Republicans on the defensive (again, without bald-face lies). The critical first step, she says, “You have to ride the whole brand: our brand up, their brand down.”

In this case, the overarching branding and message for Democrats is, as she emphasized in the opening of her book, “The Republican Party: the most dangerous threat to our freedom, health, wealth and safety.” (Emphasis in the original.)

This framing aims to capitalize on what political scientists and psychologists call the powerful “loss aversion emotion. Ever since the days of the racist Willie Horton ad against 1988 Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, signaling that under Democrats furloughed black convicts were coming to rape your wives and daughters, you’re supposedly faced with devastation if Democrats get elected. You’ll lose your guns, your family and kids to crime and gay lib perversion, your hard-earned money to taxes and welfare cheats, and even your beloved holidays to the “war on Christmas.” And, more recently, GOP leaders say, Democrats will force you to wear masks and take dangerous COVID vaccines and cost you everything you hold dear.

Here are some ways Bitecofer aims to teach Democrats to fight back. For instance, consider an issue that plays to Democratic strengths. “If you’re talking about Social Security, they (the Republicans) want you to work till you die. They’re going to steal your Social Security money.”

She concedes, “Technically, that’s not accurate.” That’s because each taxpaying worker is paying for people who are retiring. “Voters don’t get that nuance. Republicans would never let nuance like that get in the way of a good effective message,” she says. And the precise hyperbolic and inflammatory language used in such attacks count. “It’s not ‘cut’, it’s not ‘sunset’ it’s not ‘privatized,’ whatever, it’s ‘steal,’” she says.

The savvy attack messaging she recommends also opens up the possibility of reframing the gun safety issue that has left Democrats and the public stymied in the wake of the never-ending succession of mass killings,

One of her key recommendations in the book is “stick to one villain.” As she writes, “One of the reasons Republican messaging is so effective is that it usually takes issue with a single villain: Democrats. Who causes the ‘border crisis?’ The Democratic Party! Who wants to take your guns? Democrats. Who wants to turn your boy into a girl?…”

In contrast, she points out, “Democratic messaging, on the other hand is nuanced—focused more on the unelected middlemen and the special interests funding the Republican machine.” Whether it’s climate change, drug prices or gun slaughter, Democrats are quick to blame nefarious corporate and lobbying interests, such as Big Pharma, greedy oil companies or the NRA. She labels this as “misdirect blame” aimed at nefarious but vague, elusive forces that voters can’t do anything about. “Blaming these bogeymen misses an important negative partisanship opportunity,” she declares.

“Why don’t we have strong gun safety laws on the books? Of course the NRA plays a major part, but the real answer that voters need to understand – and that we must say aloud is this: because the Republican Party won’t let us,” she writes. Her bottom-line advice: “Worry less about the middlemen and more about the biggest bogeyman there is: the Republican Party.”

It’s an open question whether most Democrats will be so willing to adopt bare-knuckled tactics and demonizing language. In a progressive and party culture that prizes fairness and facts, and with a strong, diversified left faction concerned about the proper social justice terminology, it’s not at all clear they’d be willing to pursue such rhetorical hard-ball in the face of internal or mainstream media criticism. I doubt they’d be eager to directly call their opponents “fascists” or run ads with images of kids in body bags or grieving mothers blamed on individual Republican opponents – especially if The New York Times and The Washington Post called them out for dirty, gutter politics.

And yet Bitecofer is hopeful and confident that down-ballot candidates will be fine with using the term “fascist” itself. Many Democrats are already comfortable using comparable terms to get the point across, such as “MAGA extremist” or “authoritarian.” As for the controversial “f-word,” as she jokingly calls it, Bitecofer says, “I think if Joe Biden can do it, there’s no reason these other swing candidates can’t, right? The reasons they won’t is because they are under the impression that that will hurt them electorally. And that impression, again, is what this whole book is designed to rectify.”

As part of that get-tough messaging boot camp for Democrats, she spends considerable time instructing them on using “wedge issues” in ways that Republicans do. The aim in part is to splinter their opponents’ coalitions and force them to play defense. Example: “Republicans used guns. Guns is a traditional wedge issue. How did they wedge it?  They wedged it by arguing all Democrats are coming for your guns.

“They don’t make distinctions. They don’t say ‘this gun, not that gun’: they’re coming for all your guns. And it’s been like that since the beginning when they first started using that electorally.”

In her book and interviews, she teaches Democrats about “wedging” issues almost like an elementary school teacher patiently instructing grade-schoolers about a strange new field they’ve never encountered before, such as mathematics. She explains, “When we talk about wedging something, we’re trying to say you’re intentionally making it divisive and scary and hyperbolic and over the top, the threat of it.”

Such rudiments are seemingly necessary in her lesson plan. “Democrats have not really ever wedged anything,” she admits. “We have now because of 2022” – and the explosive issue of abortion in the wake of Dobbs arrived as a political gift, along with its deadly, dangerous and intrusive impact on the lives of women. Now she’s showing how Democrats can press their political advantage on this issue even further.

As she instructs, “For example, maybe or maybe not, Republicans could pass a national abortion ban if they had the presidency and all three branches. The way Republicans would handle it [if the roles were reversed and they were pro-choice], in terms of their messaging, is they would assume that yes, we would pass such a ban and they would tell voters Democrats are going to do it. So what we should be doing is telling voters the Republican party is planning a ‘nowhere to hide’ national abortion ban. They’re coming for all of America and whether they can or can’t do it or whether one candidate in the House Republican caucus says they wouldn’t vote for it; we don’t need to worry about that. They don’t worry about it.

“And if we want to survive electorally, we can’t either. Just tell voters, my Republican opponent is a MAGA extremist that’s going to vote for a national abortion ban. That’s how you wedge an issue.”

In many ways, for the art of political attacks, she is taking a page from the self-help guidance of another artist, the great director Billy Wilder. He famously pasted an inspirational note over his typewriter when writing screenplays: “What would Lubitsch do?,” a reference to his mentor, the master of sophisticated satiric and romantic comedies, Ernest Lubitsch.                   

For Rachel Bitecofer, the question to ask is always: “What would Republicans do?”


In fact, the first half of her book is an admiring look at how effectively Republicans and their billionaire supporters have played a long game of funding organizations and developing a shrewd attack strategy. “What they do well is strategic long-term planning and investment,” she says.” I like to liken it to World War Z zombies. So in World War Z zombies, the zombies are single purpose. They’re running full speed ahead; they’re going to swarm and they’re going to eat everybody. And it’s very directional all in one direction.” Democrats, she says, operate more like the Walking Dead: “Until somebody activates them, they just stumble around running into each other.”

“What Republicans have done well is they’ve decided that chance is not good enough,” she points out. “What they do is look at places and things that could be improved with infrastructure planning and strategic maneuvering. And then they invest heavily in those things and institutionalize them.” Case in point: the nearly 50-year campaign realized through the Federalist Society and Judicial Watch to stack the federal bench with right-wing judges, spin the GOP narrative that the judiciary was packed with liberal activist judges going beyond the Constitution, and ultimately achieve the defeat of Roe v. Wade.

Her book provides an eye-opening look at the power, wealth, organizations and centralized propaganda that’s reshaped politics and put Democrats on the defensive. She examines, for instance, the role of the Heritage Foundation in pioneering a ready-made right-wing playbook designed to be adopted by the next incoming conservative administration. The partisan think-tank has produced the 2025 Project, which aims to remake the government as we know it, fire 50,000 federal employees and replace them with   extremist bureaucrats whose mission at a minimum is to roll back environmental and public health safeguards, eliminate reproductive health protections and undo the gains achieved in defense of gender and LGBTQ rights.

Bitecofer highlights a well-coordinated political infrastructure that towers over any comparable Democratic or liberal resource. This includes the little-known i-360 database that gives fine-grained personalized data that melds social media with demographics in ways to mobilize supporters and independents that is years ahead of any tools available to Democrats and progressives – as anyone who has made cold calls for Democratic candidates based on outdated, crappy voter lists can attest.

In contrast, she observes, “They have 20 billionaires. We have 500 grassroots groups working on youth voting, all of them decentralized, none of them funded, most of them volunteer.” Her book underscores a root cause of progressive weakness that’s not widely discussed: a non-profit model of groups competing against each other for short-term annual grants out of a relatively small liberal philanthropic pie.

Bitecofer knows as well as anyone that Democrats don’t have the opportunity in the eight months until the election to remake the Democratic and progressive infrastructure to match what Republicans have built in decades. Indeed, the blueprint for the corporate and right-wing domination of democracy was set in motion as early as 1971 by the notorious “Powell memo” written by a Virginia attorney, Lewis Powell, later a Supreme Cout Justice, to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In looking at the short-term and long-term challenges to Democrats and the republic, she says, “I use the climate change and wildfire analogy. What we are facing right now and into November is a massive wildfire issue. We’ve got to put the fire out and protect the presidency from this radical cult or we’re going to be in a world of hurt, right? But it’s putting out the fire, it’s not dealing with the climate change, that long term investment. So that’s why I talk about it so much in the book.”

She’s guardedly optimistic that Biden and the Democrats can pull it off in November, but she’s not swallowing any “hopium” common in liberal pundit circles. “So what I’ve been telling people is what matters is the signal,” she says – and the signal from the 2022 mid-terms, the 2023 Virginia election and special elections last year and this are positive for Democrats. “All of them are telling us that when we go to the voters, swing voters and swing races, and we tell them about what Republicans are up to, they are rejecting the Republican party,” she says.

Even so, she says, “There’s nothing I can do to make people feel better. It’s seven states that determine the electoral college. We are going to make it clear that voters have a choice in 2024: fascism, authoritarianism, the end of rule of law, the end of individual freedom, all of those things — or Joe Biden.”

She adds, “Now half of America is going to be just fine with the other option. They actually want authoritarianism, they want autocracy. We have a mass psychosis event in the opposition party. 70 percent of Republicans do not believe in reality,” citing their views on everything from Biden purportedly stealing the 2020 election to myths about COVID vaccines.

Bitecofer, the Election Whisperer, offers no easy answers or definitive predictions for arguably the most critical election in the nation’s history since the Civil War. “As I’ve said, it is going to come down to a few thousand votes in seven states. If you don’t want to fall into a fascist autocracy, this is the time to dig deep folks, because it’s going to be close and there’s nothing we can do to avoid it.”


Art Levine is a prize-winning investigative reporter and contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. He is the author of “Spaceship of Fools,” his investigation for The Washington Spectator last summer on unproven claims of alien visitations, the dissemination of false information to government agencies and the eagerness of mainstream media to embrace it. He has written for Newsweek, The American Prospect, Salon, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Mother Jones, Truthout, In These Times, AlterNet and numerous other publications. He is also the author of Mental Health, Inc: How Corruption, Lax Oversight, and Failed Reforms Endanger Our Most Vulnerable Citizens.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article! But what about Biden and Gaza genocide?

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