This week, Producer Sam Ozer-Staton spoke with Celinda Lake, one of the Democratic Party’s premier strategists and pollsters. Lake served as a lead pollster on the 2020 Biden-Harris campaign, and she has advised President Biden for decades. Her clients include dozens of members of the House and Senate, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the AFL-CIO, and Planned Parenthood. Lake talked about the Democrats’ midterms strategy, the problems with polling, and what to expect on Election Day. What follows is the transcript of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.
You advise many Democrats running in swing districts. What’s the number one most effective message that they should be communicating in this final push?
Celinda Lake: The number one most effective message is the contrast. Because we can’t afford to let this be a referendum. And a contrast both works with persuadable voters, and it works in mobilizing our base. I think there are two aspects to the contrast. There’s obviously a very vivid contrast on abortion rights and personal decision-making and the challenge to our freedoms. And there’s also, I believe, a very strong contrast on the economy. Who is it working for? Who is getting rising costs down? Who is taking that on and who is opposing that? And I think that has been less well articulated to date.
I want to drill down into both of those issues. On abortion rights, are voters just as energized as they were earlier this summer, or have we seen a dimishment there?
Celinda Lake: I don’t know that we’ve seen a diminishment. The base is just as energized. The swing voters have kind of processed the distinction, and they also tend to underestimate how extreme some of these candidates are. So, it’s red-hot with the base but it’s less hot with the swing voters. But it can still be a powerful contrast, particularly juxtaposing how far they’ve gone, because they are way, way out of the mainstream.
On the economy, it feels like inflation is a huge problem for Democrats. How are you advising your candidates to talk about inflation?
Celinda Lake: Well, the first thing that I advise them to do is to talk less about inflation — which sounds like structural economics, macroeconomics, it’s kind of a Republican [talking point] — and more about rising costs. And then I suggest that they draw a contrast on the things that we’ve done on rising costs. So, we are for protecting Social Security and have put in place the largest cost-of-living-adjustment in history because we get that families are struggling. They want to cut Social Security and revisit the whole program. We capped insulin. We want to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, just like the VA does for Medicare. They voted unanimously against that. We want to give a tax break of $600 to working and middle-class families. They have stated they will reinstate the tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy individuals — as if they need another tax break right now.
Is Biden getting credit on those economic issues?
Celinda Lake: No. And I think one of the inherent frustrations has been that people don’t know what are in these big packages. They don’t give the President enough credit, even though [the White House] has tried very, very hard to communicate this. And in some ways, I think what’s happened is they had almost too much to communicate. I think for individual candidates, they can draw a vivid contrast. And they need to draw them specific to their opponent. For example, “My opponent took $50,000 from the drug corporations. So, of course they won’t clamp down on drug prices. I refused all corporate contributions. I will.”
So, your advice is largely for candidates to make that argument independent of bringing in the President?
Celinda Lake: That’s right. I think the President did an excellent job Monday on the economy, he did an excellent job last week on choice. So, he’s trying to set the platform. But right now, I think it’s up to the candidates to draw an individual distinction. Two things to always remember: One, be sympathetic to the situation that people are in. Say that you get it. And then draw a contrast between what you did or will do, and what they did.
I’m sure you saw the New York Times/Siena poll that got a lot of attention about a week ago. And the big headline was that more than a third of independent voters said they were open to supporting candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election. There seems to be this tension between the need to talk about democratic values and the need to talk about the economy. Do you see that as a tension?
Celinda Lake: I don’t see it as a tension. And I think — you know, Barack Obama used to say this and now the President says it — but we need to walk and chew gum at the same time. The Republicans don’t ever ask themselves: “Are we going to talk about crime or taxes?” They talk about both. We need to be able to talk about more than one thing at a time. As we’re ending here, we’re facing two tasks. We’re facing a task to mobilize our base, which has gotten discouraged a little bit. They’re getting concerned. And we need to get them energized. And then we need to persuade the last swing voters, who tend to be women over 50. Those are our two goals, and we should stay relentlessly focused on both.
To the extent that Republicans are talking about the Big Lie, do you think that’s a losing message in swing states?
Celinda Lake: You mean, that they’re saying the election is illegitimate?
Celinda Lake: It’s a base strategy for them. And it’s interesting that they still feel they have to energize their base. It also gets them small-dollar contributions. So, they’re pouring money into these states at the end, in part fueled by this message. But it does not appeal to swing voters. And that’s why, case in point, their accompanying that message with crime everywhere. I mean, they’ve got “Defund the Police” up everywhere.
I want to talk about polling itself. I’m sure you’ve had to answer thousands of questions around “should we still trust polling?” But I’m interested in this notion of non-response bias. Can you explain what that is and whether you’re concerned about it?
Celinda Lake: I’m very concerned about it. I’ve been very concerned about it for a while. Frankly, when I was at the University of Michigan in graduate school, it was a big area of exploration then. The basic theory is that people don’t all respond to pollsters at the same rate. And the groups of people who respond less can bias your sample if you’re not careful. So, if you’re constantly replacing blue collar people — who tend to respond less — with college educated people, you’re going to have a distorted sample. And then you layer on that, since 2016, you have Trump actively telling his supporters not to answer polls. So, you’ve got a situation where, even the Republicans you get [in your sample], they might not be the Trump end of the party. They may be the more moderate end of the party. So, everybody is struggling right now with: What is the turnout going to be? And then, two, how do we make sure that we take into account response bias.
What goes into figuring out turnout?
Celinda Lake: Well, it’s a really good question. It’s a combination of historical patterns and the level of enthusiasm expressed in the polling. But it’s a real roll of the dice. And my own personal belief — but it’s hard to get candidates to go along with it — is that when we’re polling internally, we should be doing multiple turnout models. And what we should say is: this is what it’s coming in as, this is what it would look like if it were historical pattern, and this is what it would look like if we were as energized as the Republicans are. Because historically, our voters are less energized in off-year elections. But it’s very, very hard to get campaigns to accept that kind of analysis.
Why is it so hard? Because it costs more money to run those kinds of analyses?
Celinda Lake: It doesn’t cost that much more money. But campaigns want one answer. So, it’s got to be a very sophisticated operation that can tolerate that kind of ambiguity.
Okay, so before you go, prediction time. You may resist this, but if the election were held today, what do you think the outcome will be in the House?
Celinda Lake: I think we would lose it, but not by as many seats as people think. It was structurally against us from the get-go.
And what about the Senate?
Celinda Lake: I think the Senate is up for grabs. But I still give us the odds of holding on, because I think we’re getting some breaks in Pennsylvania, Georgia…and some of these Republican candidates who are revealing themselves for who they truly are. And we’re still competitive in some places like Ohio, more competitive than people would’ve expected in Missouri. So, it’s very, very close. It’s too close to call.
Well, that’s a good note to end on. Thank you so much for your time, Celinda.
Celinda Lake: My pleasure. Thank you.