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New Jersey Democrats’ Failure to Communicate

by Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on September 10, 2023.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

The famous line from Cool Hand Luke is addressed to a prison gang, but it could also be directed at New Jersey Democrats right now.

The party has been put on the back foot on a couple of hot button issues recently, including one that was a bipartisan slam dunk just a few years ago. The issues – parental notification around gender identity and offshore wind energy – are seemingly unrelated, but both demonstrate how the right has outflanked the left on messaging.

On wind energy, Democrats ignored the initial rumblings from anti-wind groups who latched onto the recent spate of beached whales. The failure to engage could have been due to complacency after years of polling, including from Monmouth University, that consistently showed broad-based bipartisan support for offshore wind energy. There did not seem to be a cohesive communication strategy to counter the visceral images of dead whales other than a cursory, “There’s no connection.”

Over time, we learned – in drips and drabs – that baleen whales do not use echolocation and wouldn’t be affected by sonar sweeps. And the fact that there are simply more whales overall now feeding in the busy, and hazardous, shipping lanes off our coast. And the connection between the supposedly pro-whale groups and interests that want to drill for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean.

It took Democrats and wind advocates a while to cobble together some sort of unified messaging, by which time it was too late. The forces on the right had already framed the debate, which enabled them to push public concerns about wind energy into other areas, such as the potential impact on summer tourism. The ultimate irony may be that about half of those same folks who claim that offshore wind energy will hurt the Jersey Shore’s tourism economy have no problem with drilling for oil off our coast. The more we dig into public opinion about this, the more it seems the wind energy debate is ultimately about adhering to partisan orthodoxy rather than deliberating the actual pros and cons of the policy.

The success of debate framing by the right has also been a significant factor in public opinion on how schools deal with gender identity questions. On this issue, it was uncertainty rather than overconfidence that seems to have kept Democrats from developing a clear message. That’s because the starting point for public opinion on gender identity is not clear. About one-third of state residents agree that someone’s gender can be different than what is on their birth record, which is in line with national opinion. Most however, do not believe that transgender is an identity that someone can have.

Take this ambiguity down to the school level and it becomes easy to push opinion one way or the other depending on the strength of framing. A recent Monmouth University Poll illustrates that comfort with having gender identity discussions in public schools varies by grade level. And while a majority of the public supports certain accommodations for transgender students, they are uneasy about recognizing that identity in sex-segregated activities, such as sports.

Groups on the right have focused their attention on areas that elicit the greatest discomfort – such as introducing gender identity in the early elementary grades and making the issue about parental rights. Polling suggests that the strategy has been successful.  When asked a straightforward question about parental notification, the vast majority of New Jerseyans, including Democrats, say schools should be required to notify parents if their child has requested to be identified as transgender.

One Democratic strategist suggested the poll results would be different if the question ended with “…regardless of the health and safety of the child.”  He’s probably right, but it’s not because the question left out something people are thinking about. It’s specifically because this aspect of the issue has not been prominent in the public debate, and thus it does not factor into how most people think about parental notification, that the poll results are what they are.

In fact, a follow-up question in the poll, shows lower – although still majority – support of schools informing parents even if there is no legal requirement to do so. This suggests that reframing the debate away from “parental rights” to something like “family privacy” may lead some to start factoring in those dynamics, but that requires stronger messaging by advocates.

Wind energy and transgender identity. These unrelated issues have one thing in common. Their supporters have not been successful in anticipating and blunting the opposition’s messages. In other words, there has been a failure to communicate.