How Democrats Can Win 2010 Elections: Step 7: Re-commit to Step 3 – Debate the Economy and Win

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on October 22, 2010

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Since we started this series in mid-September, something seems to be going terribly wrong with the Democratic message machine.  To say we are off message is charitable, when a more accurate reading is that we are trying every message at once, which is another way of saying we are not committed to any message at all.

Part of the problem is that Democrats have been distracting themselves away from the core economic message by talking about other issues like the extension of the Bush tax cuts, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and foreign money funding independent political attack ads.  This is a significant error because the Republican economic message has a great deal of surface appeal but no coherence or depth.  As E. J. Dionne notes this week, Democrats are letting Republicans get away with a message that promises tax cuts and smaller deficits.

If Democratic leaders put clear and consistent attention on the lack of coherent Republican economic proposals, the press, and then the public would be led to question the simple logic driving this election: that Democrats are in control and times are bad, so changing who is in control would make things better.  If we choose not to engage this debate, the default position leads to a change in power.  This is not a battle we can sidestep and expect a good result.

For a short while it seemed our leaders got it.

Democrats spent a week or two looking like they had a strategy to nationalize the election, make John Boehner famous, make Boehner defend the Republican economic plan (if he could) and set up this election as a choice of directions on the economy.  Looking forward, which party has a better plan to create jobs and get the economy moving, the Democrats or the Republicans?  That is the real question on voters’ minds, and it is a question that gives Democrats an advantage.

And then we stopped doing that and started talking about Social Security, the Bush tax cuts, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and criticizing the Chamber of Commerce’s advertisement funding.  What happened?

It seems from press accounts and exchanges of public strategy memos that in the thinking of many Democratic pollsters and strategists the core economic comparison message has become closely linked to a forward versus backward to Bush frame that has not been testing well in polls, so Democrats suggesting other message frames often have poll results showing the alternate message beating forward vs. backward versions of the head-to-head economic comparison.

To be clear, CenteredPolitics has suggested versions of the forward vs. backward frame in the past, but based on the available polling we would modify the comparison to forward versus no plan to move forward.  The only thing voters should care about is who has the best plan to move forward, and our advantage is we have a plan and the Republicans don’t.  The best evidence that we have a plan is all the statements by the other side that we have been doing too much.  The best evidence that the Republicans don’t is their inability to point to any economic ideas that are new and different from Bush’s ideas.

Let’s look at how our message developed and how we can get it back on track.

Democrats are always getting a lot of advice from our pollsters, strategists, pundits and commentators who are competing for attention and influence.  Perhaps we at CenteredPolitics are as guilty of this as anyone, even if we are less influential than many.  One of the more influential voices seems to have been that of the Democratic centrist group, The Third Way which released a memo in July using polling from one of Obama’s pollsters, Joel Benenson, to argue for framing this election as a choice between moving forward versus moving backward to the economic policies of George W. Bush.

In September, Stan Greenberg, James Carville and the Democracy Corps wrote a memo rebutting this advice.  The September 20 Democracy Corps memo based on a series of on-line message testing polls challenged the effectiveness of the “forward-backward” argument.  From the Democracy Corps memo: “The weakest messages assert we should ‘go forward, not back.’…After hearing this battle of Republican and Democratic messages, 8 percent shift their vote to support the Republican, while only 5 percent move to the Democrats.  We lose ground.  These messages are helping the Republicans.”

The problem is the forward-backward message was the closest in the survey to a head to head economic comparison message.  This could be an unfortunate case of bathwater, baby.

The Democracy Corps series of polls and memos produces a lot of valuable insights, including the importance of focusing on the issues facing middle class families and the importance of connecting with individual voters’ economic pain, fear, and uncertainty.  It may well not have been the Democracy Corps’ intention to divert attention away from the core economic comparison message.  But it seems it may have been the effect so it is worth looking closely at the messages themselves.

One of the two “forward-backward” messages in the Democracy Corps on-line panel poll reads as follows:

“The Republicans in Washington want to go back to the same Bush policies that took us down. I support common sense policies to help states keep critical employees and to help the unemployed with benefits and health care. To move forward, I’ve helped win permanent tax cuts for the middle class, small businesses and new industries so they can hire and create jobs. The economy is showing signs of progress. But the Republicans say no to score political points –no to unemployment benefits, to cracking down on Wall Street, and to stopping outsourcing. We must go forward, not back to the same old Bush policies that cost 8 million jobs.”

So is it a surprise that this message tested poorly?  Is this the best version of the Democrats’ core economic message?  Do the Republicans “want” to go back to Bush policies or is it that they have no choice because they haven’t got any new economic ideas?   Does the phrase “took us down” mean anything?  Are state “critical employees” the most compelling examples of common sense policies rather than perhaps, “teachers, police and firefighters?”  Or as we suspect is most likely, did this message do poorly simply because it includes the phrase “The economy is showing signs of progress?”

Voters are emphatically not seeing signs of progress and as Greenberg himself points out, this in no way should be part of the Democratic message. It cements the view that whoever would say such a thing is out of touch with the voters’ current reality.  But there is the statement in both versions of the economic messages Greenberg labeled as “forward-backward” that tested so poorly.  No wonder more survey panelists shifted support to the Republican.

There is always a danger in setting political strategy based on poll findings, especially when the findings are based on voters’ responses to stimuli as long and complex as the messages tested in this on-line survey.  But it is possible that many of our Democratic leaders were influenced away from challenging the Republicans in a head-to-head fight over economic policy because the closest thing to a core economic message in this poll was burdened by the harmful assertion that the economy is showing positive signs.

All of this leads us to Step 7.

Steps 1-3 are here.  Step 4 is here.  Step 5 is here. Step 6 is here.

Our basic take on the Democrats’ economic message is here.

Step 7: Re-commit to Step 3: Win the Debate on the Economy

It is basic strategic doctrine, as taught by the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz who literally wrote the book, “On War” that the key to winning is to concentrate all of your forces in the weakest point of the enemy’s strength, or their “center of gravity.”  In this contest, the Republican’s strength is the public’s singular focus on the economy and jobs.  The weakness in this strength is that they do not have any new proposals to do anything about the economy or jobs.

The Republicans seem to employ this strategy with regularity and confidence.   They routinely get all of their fire power on a single target, that is why their message for this election can be boiled down to just a handful of words.  They do not swing at targets because they are easy, or shy away from targets because they are hard.

When Obama was riding high in the polls right after his inauguration, voters rejected the notion that he is a typical Democrat, and part of the Washington establishment.  At that time Nancy Pelosi was not the target of public ire.  But Republicans and their echo chamber at Fox News, etc, started repeating the mantras that seemed strange and at odds with the public mood then and yet are so familiar now that voters believe these are their own thoughts.

Democrats will never match this discipline, but the idea that we would turn away from repeating the simple message that Republicans do not have any policies to move the economy forward that are different from the policies they held before the economy suffered a meltdown, based on learning that the public does not believe it today, or that it tested poorly in a poll when burdened by message errors, just shows how little confidence we have in our own policies and messages.

The good news is there is still time to get back on track.  We have nearly two weeks, to make one question THE question of this election:  Which party has a better plan to move the economy forward and create good jobs — the party that some people worry is trying to do too much to get the economy going, or the party that has no new ideas at all?

If we get all of our fire power on this question – including the President and Michelle Obama, the Congressional Leadership, Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and Oprah Winfrey — this is still a fight we can win.

One more idea:  St. Crispin’s Day is Monday October 25th.  For inspiration, our party’s speech-writers should take a look at how Old Bill Shakespeare wrote a speech to fire up the base.

Steps 1-3 are here.  Step 4 is here.  Step 5 is here. Step 6 is here.

Our basic take on the Democrats’ economic message is here.

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