The Weaknesses of the Democratic Narrative for 2010

The Democrats say they have settled on their message arc for the cycle, and it is clearly a bifurcated approach. Nationally, President Obama, the White House, and their water-carrying special interests are going to frame the election as a choice, not a referendum. In specific campaigns, Democratic candidates are going to run as a combination of Tip O’Neill (“all politics is local”) and Mr. Smith (“Washington? Never heard of it.” – to be honest, I just made that line up, but that IS the gist of their message).

Typically, on this blog, I tend to write about public opinion trends, or specific issues, and the impact on campaigns. Instead, in this posting, I’m going to deconstruct both Democratic messages – both the meta national message, and the local trumps national message. If you are a Democrat (after all, this blog is open to reading by all), you may want to stop reading, because you’ll be depressed.

Nationally, the Democrats say that voters will have a choice keeping the party that is making the hard decisions in driver’s seat (although spending other people’s money, or the money of future generations is always easier than not spending money) or giving the keys back to the party that acted like teenage boys who drank whiskey and drove the country into the ditch. “These folks drove the economy into a ditch, and they want the keys back,” Obama amused himself by saying at a Missouri fundraiser, “And you’ve got to say the same thing to them that you say to your teenager: You can’t take the keys back, because you don’t know how to drive yet.”

While there are a myriad of problems with Obama’s approach (which doesn’t exactly fit with his promise to transcend “politics as usual,” but for him that’s just politics as, um, usual), five are particularly telling as to why that won’t work:

As Reid Wilson pointed out in National Journal’s Hotline On Call, Obama has trotted out this message already and it failed – it failed in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts. And, the President’s approval rating was higher at the time than it is now.

Obama’s message (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it the “whiskey and car keys” attack) has echoes of the “Stay the Course” message of the 1982 Republican campaign (which to their credit the Democrats humorously parodied as “stay the curse”) when both the mood of the country and the unemployment rate were similar to what it is now. Republicans lost nearly 14% of the seats they held in the House – a similar loss for the Dems would knock them down to 220 seats, a number that would make the House ungovernable for the Dems.

And, that’s a best case scenario – the Democrats hold many seats by a tenuous thread in areas where they won because of the white Independent voter revolt against the second term of the Bush Administration, coupled with GOP overspending and scandals.

The message against Obama’s leadership on the economy is significantly stronger than the whiskey and car keys message. The well-known NPR of key congressional districts matched up the Dem message of blame the past versus the idea that Obama’s economic policies are hurting the country, and more voters in these key swing seats believe the message that Obama’s policies are making it worse by a net eight points. Plus, the message that the stimulus failed, the bailouts failed, and the health care bill will cost too much money trumps the Democratic message of blaming everything on the past. The past is passe, while the future is now.

The problem with the whiskey and car keys message is that elections ARE referendums. Voters readily decide whether to reward the party IN power (1998, 2002), punish the party in power (1992, 1994, 2006, 2008), or render a split decision (2000, 2004). In 2006, Republicans tried everything the Democrats are talking about now. None of it worked. When the electorate loses confidence in your leadership, your arguments carry little water (no matter how wonderful they sound to you). As the Washington Post poll this week showed, voters want a check and balance to President Obama even more than they want to vote for a Republican for Congress.

And, it’s not just a message problem. The troubled party in power deludes itself into believing that the electorate would love its accomplishments if only the White House were better at driving the message. How many times have you seen some variation of the following: “In 2006/2010 we Republicans/Democrats are having a difficult time getting our message out about national security/health care because the White House is allowing the liberal media/Fox News to control the message.” While it’s temporarily reassuring to believe that the problem is propaganda, not policy, there is not enough lipstick to pretty up a pig once voters believe it is a pig.

But the “whiskey and car keys” approach is just one of the two Democratic message arcs for the cycle. The other one – which is completely contradictory to the former – is to cite the famous Tip O’Neill saying that “all politics is local.” That’s fine and dandy when you represent a safe seat in Massachusetts, but it’s also been proven wrong in any change election.

In 2006, Republicans took two approaches to the “all politics is local” dictum – and, in most cases, neither worked. The first approach was to point out all the wonderful things they had done for the district. Voters said, “that’s nice, but you guys are in charge and the country is going to hell in a handbasket.” Local projects did not count for anything when voters added up their frustration with the national political environment.

The second approach was to relentlessly attack the Democratic candidate using opposition research – a tack that sounds familiar to Democratic plans in many races this cycle (it’s the “they may hate us, but wait till they see the other jerk’s problems” route). But, when voters are angry at one party, they are more than willing to overlook the sins of the challenger. Carefully crafted negative ads gain no traction, and the incumbent from the in-party is left spinning their wheels.

The “all politics is local” line should be modified to something more along the lines of “all politics is local, except when voters want to run a hot poker through an elephant (2006) or a donkey (2010).” While that redone line is not as pithy as Speaker O’Neill’s comment, it is far more accurate.

This is not to fault the Democrats for trying to make themselves feel better. Instead, it is to point out that, based on recent political history, Democrats should not be surprised when they wake up the morning after Election Day and reach for a consolation bottle instead of a champagne bottle.





Public Opinion Strategies