A stethoscope sits on an examination table in an exam room at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Takoma Park, Maryland, April 8, 2015. 
Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

The Democrats’ election message is clear (and it’s not about Trump)

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) appeared on a Sunday show last month and raised a familiar complaint about politics: the parties aren’t focused on policy or problem-solving.

“There’s massive stuff happening in America,” the Nebraska Republican argued, “and these parties are really pretty content to do 24-hour news cycle screaming at each other. The main thing that the Democrats are for is being anti-Republican and anti-Trump, and the main thing Republicans are for is being anti-Democrat and anti-CNN. And neither of these things are really worth getting out of bed in the morning for.”

It’s a familiar refrain, which voters routinely raise: Republicans complain about Democrats, Democrats complain about Republicans, and campaigns end up ignoring the issues that truly affect regular folks.

The problem with the argument is that it’s plainly wrong. The Wesleyan Media Project published its latest findings yesterday after examining campaign advertising nationwide.

It’s official: the 2018 midterms are about health care. In the period between September 18 and October 15, nearly half (45.9 percent) of airings in federal races mentioned the topic while nearly a third (30.2 percent) of gubernatorial airings did the same. Although both parties are mentioning health care, the topic is most prominent in ads supporting Democrats, appearing in 54.5 percent of pro-Democratic airings.

In U.S. Senate races, 47% of Democratic advertising focused on health care, followed by 12% of ads on taxes, and another 12% on jobs. In gubernatorial races, 45% of Democratic ads were about health care, followed by 33% on education, and 23% on taxes.

And in U.S. House races, 61% of Democratic advertising focused on health care, 21% on taxes, and 20% on Medicare. (Since Medicare is obviously a health care program, it suggests a combined 81% of the House Democratic message has been about health care in one way or another.)

Those who continue to believe Dems are pushing nothing more than a hollow, anti-Trump message aren’t paying close enough attention.

In fact, by all appearances, Democratic officials decided early on that the key to success was a more policy-focused platform that had very little to do with the president.

“Our candidates don’t have to talk about him, because he’s going to talk about himself for us,” DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan (N.M.) said several weeks ago. “He’ll remind the American people of every investigation he’s involved with, of every disgusting tweet that is out there, of all the positions the Trump administration has taken.”

As for the party’s issue of choice, not long after the Affordable Care Act passed, public skepticism of “Obamacare” led Democrats to emphasize other issues. It was Republicans who pushed health care to the fore, while Dems did the opposite.

The tables have turned. The ACA is actually quite popular now; Republicans are pretending to be progressive health care advocates; and Democrats are talking far more about health care than any other issue.

Postscript: If you’re curious about the breakdown on the Republican message, the Wesleyan Media Project’s report goes into a lot more detail, but it varies a bit by the kind of race. In Senate races, GOP candidates are focused on health care, taxes, public safety, jobs, and applauding Donald Trump. In gubernatorial races, the numbers are similar, though there’s a significant anti-immigration component.