Data for Progress Political Director Marcela Mulholland talks Progressive polling & messaging

Since the start of the year, South Florida native Marcela Mulholland has served as political director for Data for Progress, a progressive polling firm and think-tank. Previous to this, the 2019 University of Florida graduate worked on climate issues for Data for Progress and served as a national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement.


Mulholland describes Data for Progress’s mission as “showing policy makers just how popular progressive policy ideas are with the electorate. Then we use that popularity to advocate for their passage in Congress.” She considers the current political moment as critical for Democrats. They currently enjoy a “trifecta” by controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress. Though it’s a slim majority in Congress, Mulholland believes what Democrats produce legislatively set up how the midterm elections play out.


Sacto Politico: Nationally, what are the biggest issues and trends your group is following? Which do you think might carry into the 2022 midterm elections?

Marcela Mulholland: We are keeping a really close eye out for any, what we call, “thermostatic trends” in partisan mobilization. This is essentially the idea that because Trump is out of office, Democrats could be less motivated to vote; whereas, Republicans might be more motivated now that there is a Democratic trifecta. Obviously, we need to maintain our governing majority to successfully implement Biden and Progressives’ agenda. Thus we want to make sure Democratic voters stay consistently engaged, hold the Party accountable, and continue voting in 2022.


S/P: Have you identified any early thermostatic issues so far?

Mulholland: Only time will tell, but I feel really excited by Data for Progress’s ability to keep a pulse on these issues. Just [last month] in New York, all of our polling for the mayoral race was really close to where things actually played out. I can’t speak directly to what will happen in 2022 yet, but I know we are closely tracking this, and we are in a good place to predict what will happen once we are closer to the midterms.


S/P: Republicans seem to think their playing up Critical Race Theory will be a game changer for their midterm fortunes. What does your polling show on this issue so far?

Mulholland: We actually just ran some polling questions on CRT and noticed a few trends. First, voters largely don’t know what CRT is. Additionally, polarization plays a huge role here. Democrats increasingly favor CRT, whereas Republicans increasingly oppose it on the basis of partisanship. It’s hard to tell what kind of electoral impact this will have because so few voters feel comfortable saying they know what CRT even is. Interestingly, our polling also shows that voters support students learning about the history and implications of slavery and racism in the United States. It’s similar to “Defund the Police” in that way because the term itself is polarizing, but the substantive policy is less so.


S/P: I understand your group has done a bit of work testing Democratic messaging. What insights can you share?

Mulholland: There are a few things I’d raise here. Overall when we do message testing, our goal is to find language that meets our target audience where they are in order to bring them on board with progressive policies. That can vary by issue area and constituency groups. For instance with raising the minimum wage, we tested several different ways of framing the minimum wage increase and found that emphasizing its gradual increase prompted a considerably higher margin of support from voters across the board, including conservative-leaning voters.


On climate, we find that messaging centered around job creation, innovation and environmental justice really resonates with voters. This kind of messaging speaks to the fact we live in a moment of intersecting crises. When we are able to talk about climate policy as something that will advance economic justice and racial justice by putting people to work, by reducing air and water pollution, then people can really feel and imagine how progressive climate policy will affect their day-to-day lives.


With the infrastructure package, Republicans were really hitting Democrats for saying “everything counts as infrastructure,” but our polling shows the GOP’s messaging doesn’t really resonate with voters because voters actually do recognize the need for investments in human infrastructure. There are areas like community-based health care and home health care services that we want to include in the infrastructure packages that are overwhelmingly popular with the electorate.


S/P: I would think Democrats should prize winning back working-class rural voters. This will require more than good messaging but some tangible quality-of-life improvements. But except for rural broadband in the Biden infrastructure plan, other wins for these voters aren’t in play like the $15 minimum wage, a program to re-open rural health facilities, or changing FDA opioid labeling. Are Democrats blowing a major electoral opportunity?

Mulholland: I totally agree Democrats need to prioritize policies that benefit rural voters and rural communities. Myself and many other progressives were very disappointed to see the $15 minimum wage fight play out the way as it did with the American Rescue Plan. I think it is disappointing to see members of the Democratic Caucus voting against providing a living wage to workers across the country.


That being said, I do think the Democratic Party and the White House are thinking about the needs of rural voters. For instance, broadband investments are really important for rural communities. Biden’s original American Jobs Plan and American Family Plan recognized that need. Beyond broadband, Biden proposed $3 billion for rural infrastructure projects and around $2 billion of USDA for rural development which would help housing and renters in low-income rural areas. It’s also worth mentioning last month the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, and it is headed to the House and conference. That bill would establish regional tech hubs across the country, which will bring economic stimulus and revitalization to rural communities and not just those on the coast that usually get those jobs.


S/P: Earlier this year at the C-PAC convention, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-R) said he would bet his home on Republicans taking back the U.S. House. His bravado aside, would you take the other side of that bet and expect the Democrats to hold the House?

Mulholland: [Laughs] For one, I am not a gambler. Two, the historical trends aren’t lost on me that the party in the White House usually loses seats at the midterms. I am going into 2022 with my eyes wide open. That said, given the tremendous popularity of President Biden and the Democrats’ agenda and, frankly, the incredible unpopularity of the Republican policy agenda, I think it would be a mistake to count Democrats out.


And three, what happens in 2022 will be largely determined by what Democrats are able to do in the next few months legislatively. For example, there’s one version of the 2022 midterms where Democrats can go home to their districts with a real compelling case for voters. They say, “You elected a Democratic trifecta, and this is what we did for you. We passed the American Rescue Plan. We sent you stimulus checks. We expanded support for states to address the coronavirus pandemic. We vaccinated the country and are now helping to vaccinate the world. We passed an infrastructure package that will bring jobs to your community and make sure your kids breathe clean air and drink clean water.”


Then there’s another version in which Democrats spend the next several months negotiating with Republicans, whether or not that means passing a super-watered down infrastructure package or none at all. Then they go in 2022 to their districts and say, “We had all these great ideas, but we couldn’t pass them because the Republicans wouldn’t let us.” Most voters don’t know what the filibuster is nor do they follow the day-to-day political dramas, so it’s just not compelling to hear that the Democrats had a trifecta but couldn’t do what they wanted to do because of Republicans.


S/P: Data for Progress is not without its Progressive critics. A recent New York Times profile noted the “Data for Progress approach can be controversial, criticized in some quarters as shrinking expectations and selling out a bolder vision of racial justice and economic equality to appeal to wealthier and more moderate voters.” How do you respond?

Mulholland: It is always important to listen to criticism and feedback that is given in good faith, especially in the Progressive ecosystem which we are part of. Our biggest focus is showing the popularity of Progressive policies so we can make the case to lawmakers that they should feel confident backing these policies. I don’t think any of the work we have done is necessarily meant to appeal to specific voters. We just aim to display the popularity of policies and get Progressives elected and give Progressives the tools they need to advocate for those policies.


S/P: My analysis suggests three distinct parts form the Democratic Party: pro-corporate, moderate Democrats (25%), Progressives (42%) and in between middle-of-the-road Dems (33%) who don’t like either label. But while polls show middle-of-the-roaders overwhelmingly favor most core Progressive policies, mod Dems won them with the electability argument in 2020. Six months into Biden’s presidency, how do you view this fight for the “soul of the party” – i.e., the hearts and minds of the middle-of-the-road Dems?

Mulholland: It’s an interesting question. My parents are Florida voters who are averse to any kind of political identity. For people to adopt a certain kind of political identity is complicated and brings into play a bunch of other identities and social and political dynamics. When we ask people how they identify, whether it is as a Progressive or moderate Democrat or an Independent, I find that their response is not always correlated to what those voters’ actual views on policy are.


Data for Progress polling makes it really clear that the Democratic Party is decisively moving to the left. Whether or not the Democratic base identifies as moderate or Progressive, their policy views are more progressive than they ever have been. So I think it is important to focus on the policies that move voters rather than to split them up with labels.

S/P: Polling shows campaign finance reform is by far the most popular issue among voters of all stripes. However, I noticed very little on this topic on the Data for Progress website. What’s your view of how Dems should leverage this beyond H.R. 1, which features just minimal campaign finance elements?

Mulholland: I think you are right that campaign finance reform is a critical issue. Our polling broadly shows campaign finance reform is quite popular.


S/P: Then what explains the misconnect between your overwhelming polling and the political will? Or to be frank, is the Beltway reluctant to go too strongly on any real reforms that would ultimately rob the political industry of key revenue it wants and needs?

Mulholland: There is always a concern that electeds are too responsive to donors and not to grassroots voters who cannot afford to donate millions to campaigns. So you want to make sure that elected officials aren’t being too influenced by who their donors are. But there are also a lot of big donors in the Democratic Party that are pretty ideological and quite progressive on the issues.