How Democrats Can Win 2010 Elections

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on September 13, 2010

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Less than two years after the euphoric victory in 2008, Democrats are divided and demoralized. The economy did not find the hoped for solid footing over the “Recovery Summer” and some polls now show even highly flawed Republican candidates holding substantial leads. Every part of the party seems to have a different analysis of how we got into this position and their own way of expressing their disappointment at the lost opportunity the past two years represent, contributing to a measurable enthusiasm gap with Republicans who smell blood. But bad polls two months ahead of an election are only a problem if you believe nothing can be done to change them. We believe Democrats can win elections in 2010 — at least some of them — and so we offer a pathway to victory in three simple steps.

Step 1: Take a few deep breaths

Listening to the latest polls and predictions, we know there are Democrats who are growing increasingly forlorn, fearful, and frustrated. Forlorn because it is a lot more fun to be winning like the party we had in 2008 than losing as the pundits say we must expect in November. Fearful because we believe we know what 2011 will be like, at least those of us who are old enough to remember 1994 and the crowing Republicans like Newt Gingrich. And we are frustrated because each of us has a theory about how this situation could have been avoided “if only….”

A little fear is not necessarily a bad thing if it stimulates people to action, but an excess of fear is bad if it leads to paralysis and inaction. The truth is we do not yet know what the storyline of this election will be. Early September polls are poor predictors of November results. John McCain held a 10 point lead over Barack Obama among likely voters in the USA Today Gallup Poll taken September 5th to 7th 2008, and held smaller leads in most of the polls taken that week. In 1994, the two parties were tied in the Gallup generic ballot question in August.

The generic ballot is particularly unstable in the late summer, highlighted by the fact that Gallup’s September 7 generic ballot snapped back to even at 46% Democrat, 46% Republican after showing an historic 10 point Republican advantage (41% to 51%) in the last week in August. It’s true that a tied generic ballot is generally interpreted as an advantage for Republicans because greater numbers of Democrats fail to follow through and vote, but it is a lot better to be even than behind by 10 points.

We are not trying to sugarcoat the polls, Democrats will surely lose seats in November, but total Armageddon, loss of majorities in both the House and Senate is in no way a certainty. The most important point to understand is that each and every race matters this year. The fight for majority control of both the House and the Senate means every race matters, and with this being the last election before new congressional district lines are drawn after the National Census, the Governors races all have the potential to effect national policy as well.

But the real reason every race matters is because Republicans have made a significant error by allowing their aspirations to set such a high bar for their “success” in this election. They could have an incredible string of victories, but still come up short of winning control of the House. And actually, even with all those dire predictions, losing control of both the Senate and House is a possibility rather than a probability. If Democrats get to work at the local level and win a few of the elections Republicans need to win in order to run the table, the other side will be denied a public mandate to reverse course. If you are not enthusiastic because you believe we can’t win, it is time to get enthusiastic and get to work trying to help us win some of these elections.

Step 2: If you want to send a message, write a blog post – then vote

We know there are some progressives who are so frustrated with the Democrats’ rule over the past nearly two years and that they do not care if Democrats lose some contests this fall. All of us can understand this view to some degree, because just about everyone had their own definition of what “Change You Can Believe In” really meant, and so everyone has had their own idea of what the Democrats should have been doing over the past two years.

But if you think that by not voting you can send a message that will cause President Obama and the rest of the Democratic leadership to change and become exactly as you want them to be – perhaps you should think again.

The one thing we do know is there is not one single progressive cause that will benefit from Democrats getting defeated in the fall. Everyone who thinks about staying home from this election to “send a message” has a very distorted view about how messages are sent and received following elections. Only winners get to define what the message of an election was, and even then, only for a short period of time, and through the noise of others spinning alternative explanations.

People rarely learn from elections. If the Democrats win, lose, or draw in the next election, the liberal wing will “learn” that the party should have been more liberal, and centrist wing will “learn” that the party should have been more centrist. Women’s groups, Hispanic groups, unions, environmentalists, and the anti-corporate left all have legitimate reasons to be disappointed based on the events (or lack thereof) over the past 18 months, the broken promises, political slights, and other mistakes, but none will see the prospects for their legislative goals or their constituents’ lives improved if Republicans win control of one or more chamber of Congress or the State Houses in advance of redistricting.

It took all of the elements of the Democratic party coming together to win in 2008, and if Democrats lose big in 2010, all of us lose: the liberals, progressives, moderates, women, environmentalists, people of color, unions, etc., etc. If Democrats lose big, the message of the election will be, to paraphrase Bob Roberts, “America is Changing – Back!”

If you think your message will be delivered in this kind of environment through your inaction, we think you are likely to find your cause in a better position by changing the environment through your action.

Step 3: Win the Debate on the Economy:

The biggest challenge facing the Democrats is our lack of self confidence when it comes to our positions on the issues. Well there is only one issue in this election, jobs, jobs, jobs, and despite the self doubt and the economic statistics, Democrats have all the strategic advantages they need to win the debate over jobs and the economy.

We have been writing for two years that the Republicans have no economic proposals other than George W. Bush’s failed policies, and the response we get from Republicans usually contains a link to Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposals. We have been nearly ignoring this response because we didn’t think the other side would be willing to go into an election defending the privatization of Social Security. But it seems we were at least partially wrong about this.

The Republicans are in a box because they either have no ideas or they have worse ideas. In the last week in August, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), tried to fill in the blanks of theRepublican economic plan, and he mentioned Ryan’s plan that he said “identified $1.3 trillion in specific spending cuts that could be implemented immediately.” He didn’t mention that this plan gets most of its deficit reduction by partially privatizing and cutting Social Security for all workers under age 55. But the headline form the speech was Boehner’s suggestion to essentially re-adopt the 2008 budget, and freeze taxes at current levels. So to be clear, Boehner is suggesting going back to George W. Bush’s last budget, and retaining George W. Bush tax policy, but he denies that electing Republicans is a vote for going back to George W. Bush’s failed economic policies.

The public got a key question wrong in the most recent NBC Wall Street Journal Poll when a 58 percent majority said they believed if Republicans win control of Congress in November they will have different ideas for how to deal with the economy, and just 35 percent said Republicans would return to the economic policies of George W. Bush.

The truth is the majority is wrong about this. Republicans in 2010 support lower taxes and less government regulation just like George Bush did, and they have not come up with a single policy innovation since these policies cost the US economy eight million jobs and required government bailouts to avoid a global depression. If Democrats can focus their efforts on this one issue, challenging Republicans to offer a direction for the economy other than backward, they can win this argument.

By saying, “the medicine is not working, let’s try apricot pits,” the Republicans are underestimating the intelligence of the American public. We are tough people who have lived through challenges before. We have struggled to find jobs, lost businesses, dealt with serious family illnesses. It is not in the American nature to respond to a difficult challenge by changing course.

With Congress still in session and President Obama out on the campaign trail, the specific issues of contention will ebb and flow, perhaps agreement can be reached over what to do about the Bush tax cuts or perhaps it will have to wait until after the election, but the big question will remain – does the public believe the Obama approach to the economy should be reversed by going back to the George Bush approach to the economy?

If you think we can’t win elections because the unemployment rate is too high it is time to get to work making sure voters understand the choice in this election. The Democratic medicine may be working slower than people want but the Republicans are going into an election about the economy without an economic plan, and that should cost them more than a few contests.

 

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