Supporters of President Donald Trump walk down the stairs outside the Senate Chamber in the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Not only did President Joe Biden say that “democracy is on the ballot this year” during his Union Station address last week, he added that “an overwhelming majority of Americans [are] deeply concerned about it.” Democrats are betting that’s true. “Democracy is on the ballot” appears to be the closest thing Democrats have to a closing message in the midterm campaign.

Barack Obama is repeating Biden’s mantra on his battleground state tour. “There should be consequences for people who undermine our democracy and peddle the Big Lie,” said Nevada’s incumbent Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, at a press conference timed for the start of early voting. More recently, Cortez Masto tweeted a cutting video from the comedian Jimmy Kimmel, saying of Laxalt, “The guy supports a QAnon wacko for secretary of state.” Arizona’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Katie Hobbs, frames her race against Republican Kari Lake as “a choice between sanity and chaos” and calls Lake “an election denier.” 

In Virginia’s closely watched 2nd Congressional District, a swingy Trump-to-Biden district, the incumbent, Representative Elaine Luria, serves on the January 6 Committee, and her Republican opponent, Jen Kiggans, was one of only four Virginia state senators who voted for a $70 million audit of the 2020 election results. Kiggans often dodges questions about whether she believes 2020 was fair and square. In Luria’s final ad, she says, “Iif you believe the 2020 election was stolen, I’m definitely not your candidate.”

Not every Democrat is closing the same way. Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman is trying to flip the script on inflation. Ohio’s Tim Ryan is portraying himself as a representative of the “exhausted majority,” which rejects extremism and wants to blend “progressive solutions” with others that are “more conservative.” Democratic super PACs are running attack ads in several races accusing Republican candidates of gearing up to privatize Social Security. But as Democrats are driving a national message, it’s the threat to democracy posed by Trump loyalists.

Will it work? Biden said most Americans are “deeply concerned” about the state of our democracy. But even if that’s true, for their concern to impact the midterms, they must prioritize the issue above the other concerns weighing Democrats down—chiefly inflation, but also crime. And voters have to believe that to neutralize the threat to democracy, they should elect Democrats over Republicans.

What does the data say? The final CBS News/YouGov poll bluntly asked, “If you had to choose, which is the bigger concern for you right now? Are you most concerned about whether the U.S. will have a functioning democracy or not, or have a strong economy or not?” Perhaps surprisingly, “functioning democracy” won 56 to 44 percent. But that top-line number alone can’t tell us if concerns about democracy are persuading swing voters to swing left. Some of that 56 percent includes Republicans (though Democrats and independents were far more likely to pick “functioning democracy”). Perhaps some of those Republicans are fed-up Trump critics, but some may be election deniers with a warped interpretation of what constitutes a threat to democracy.

Other recent polls that ask variations of the question “What is your most important issue?” rank threats to democracy high, as well as threats to our wallets. In the latest NBC News poll, “threats to democracy” tops the list, with 23 percent. But that poll separated “jobs and the economy” (20 percent) and “cost of living” (17 percent). Put those two financial concerns together, and you have a plurality of 37 percent primarily thinking about their pocketbook. (Abortion was picked by 9 percent and crime by 6 percent.)

The Democratic strategist Celinda Lake has conducted focus groups to better understand voter concerns. As reported by The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “Swing voters aren’t moved by these topics, Lake says, because they see both parties in a similar light: They think both manipulate democracy to their advantage, and they see the 2020 urban unrest amid police protests as akin to January 6 … This is particularly pronounced among White swing voters, she says, though some college-educated White swing voters are more troubled by GOP conduct.” At the same time, Lake said the issue does “mobilize the Democratic base.”

While success is hardly guaranteed, stoking fear about the fragility of our election system is a logical Hail Mary play. Allowing the campaign conversation to be dominated by inflation and crime would have been disastrous for Democrats.

As the pollster Stanley Greenberg observed in The American Prospect, strategic errors months ago fed a perception of Democratic “indifference to community safety.” Despite my suggestion in August, Democrats didn’t forthrightly lay out a plan to tackle inflation in the short run, instead leaning on the “Inflation Reduction Act,” which is not being immediately implemented and only provides modest relief on prices in the long run. Crime, as polls indicate, may be a secondary concern. But a rise in both prices and crime is a powerful one-two punch, staggering the electorate and breeding uncertainty about the future.

Arguably, the only way for Democrats to overcome those blows is to point out that an empowered, Trump-dominated Republican Party would really destabilize our democracy. It may not work. Inflation is felt by everybody every day. January 6, horrible as it was, was one day. The “Democracy is on the ballot” message has one thing going for it: It’s true.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.