So I get polls and focus group reports and all manner of public opinion analysis and strategy documents crossing my desk every day, and have for the two decades I have been involved in national politics. I am not given to hyperbole, but this memo from Stan Greenberg ranks right near the top of being one of the most important that I have ever seen, because it definitively lays out a strategy for Democrats, even at this late date, to make these elections far more competitive. I strongly encourage all of you to read it if you haven't already, and to pass it along to every candidate you are talking to, giving to, and working with. If we can get enough candidates to buy into this strategy, it can change the dynamics of the 2010 election cycle.
For months, I- along with many of my colleagues in progressive politics, especially the folks at MoveOn.org- have had the theory that key to our being competitive in this year's elections given the weak economy is that we need to lead with a message about being willing to take on the powerful special interests that run DC, and then move to a fighting-for-the-middle-class economic message. The swing voters in this election feel like neither party gets it, and they want to someone to fight for them instead of the powers that be that rule Washington. Greenberg tested this message strategy, along with several other messages Democrats have been using, against the strongest Republican messages out there, and the results surprised even me: this idea of leading with taking on special interests and then going straight into fighting for the middle class moves the dial 9 points in the right direction. Given how late it is in the cycle, and how cynical and unhappy voters are, that is incredible. None of the other Democratic messages came even close to that movement, and one of them (a Third Way-style message echoed by too many Democrats over the last few months about going forward rather than backward) even cost us points.
I think this message has the potential to make Democrats much more competitive in what has been the toughest political environment for the Democrats at least since 1994.
Stan and I are both veterans of that 1994 disaster, when President Clinton's normally sure-footed political instincts were short circuited by his desire to brag about all the cool things he felt that he had accomplished. The problem was that no one felt the impact of all those legislative achievements yet, Democratic base voters didn't turn out, and working-class swing voters turned against us with a vengeance. I have been fearing this same scenario for over 18 months now. However, this dynamic can still be turned around, because we have a message that works. It has the potential to both reinvigorate discouraged Democratic base voters and appeal to white working class swing voters, the ones not all that impressed by tea partiers' extreme platform. And it sure works better than this bland forward vs backward frame establishment Democrats have been using. There are no guarantees: no matter what, this will be a hell of a tough election. But Stan's data shows clearly this strategy has the potential to change the frame and give us a shot.
There is momentum building on this. As I wrote yesterday, Obama is starting to get it, and is moving more toward this frame all the time, and individual candidates are also using this frame in ads and speeches more and more. MoveOn's Other 98% campaign, the Target boycott, and the ads they are beginning to run going after corporate spending in elections are all creating a sense of momentum. A groundswell is building. We just have to keep it building and hope it is not too late.