Revolt of the populist swing voters

by: Mike Lux

Mon Nov 08, 2010 at 13:30

I was going to call this post Revolt of the Screwed, but decided that I didn't want to get readers who were looking for porn sites. However, that is a good summary of what happened in the election: the middle class voters most hurt by this terrible recession turned against the Democrats with a vengeance. They were looking for someone to blame for their economic woes. The good news is that their first pick was Wall Street. The bad news for Democrats is that they associated Obama with Wall Street. The two most important and dramatic statistics coming out of the exit polling were (1) the 40% of voters who felt worse off economically in the last couple of years went Republican by 29% after going for Obama in 2008 by 42%; and (2) the 35% of voters who said Wall Street was more to blame than anyone else for the bad economy broke 56-42 for the Republicans. That first number is the biggest swing by far in any demographic group I have ever seen after looking at exit poll numbers for the past 25 years. I have seen swings in the 30s before, maybe even into the low 40s in some small segment of the electorate once or twice, but I have never seen anything close to a 71% swing before.

I wrote early in 2009 that voters were going to be in a very bad mood in November of 2010, and that this would be a blame election, where economically stressed swing voters would be wanting to take their misery out on someone. I was certainly right about that, but here's the ironic thing: I suggested that since I thought it was unlikely we could get them to blame the economy on Bush since we were in charge now, that our best hope was to get them to blame it on Wall Street. They did, that 35% who laid the blame on Wall Street's door were primarily the middle class swing voter bloc in this election, but they associated us Democrats and Obama with Wall Street more than Republicans. The TARP bailout and Obama and Geithner's vigorous defense of it, the kid glove treatment of the big banks at the hands of Geithner, the AIG and big bank bonuses that closely followed, the failure to prosecute or break up the Too Big To Fail banks: it all came together in those angry middle class voters' minds as Obama being associated with the same Wall Street actors people were blaming for their economic problems. The fact that once the financial reform bill that had some important wins for the middle class was passed, Democrats barely ever talked about it again didn't help.

So now that this election from hell is over, the question is how do Obama and the Democrats come back in 2012. There's a lot of talk about moving to the center, but what does that even mean? When Washingtonians talk about the center, they tend to mean cutting Social Security and doing trade deals, but what do the economically stressed swing voters who turned against Democrats mean by the center? Well, these voters have very strong feelings about certain issues, and they don't tend to track with what pundits in DC talk about much. Check out these numbers from a Stan Greenberg poll done for the Campaign for America's Future. Stan did a careful analysis of which voters were the key swing voters, and what he found is striking:

  • Swing voters supported a message about challenging China on trade, ending subsidies to corporations that send jobs overseas, and stopping NAFTA-like trade deals over a message about increasing exports, passing more trade agreements, and getting government out of the way by 59-28

  • Swing voters supported a message about ending tax cuts for those making over $250,0000 a year, adding a bank tax to curb speculative trading, cutting wasteful military spending and ending subsidies to oil companies over a message about cutting 100 billion dollars from domestic programs, raising the Social Security retirement age, and turning Medicare into a voucher program by 51-37

  • Swing voters supported a statement about politicians keeping their hands off Social Security and Medicare over a statement about raising the retirement age by 62-36

  • 89% of swing voters supported a statement about full disclosure of campaign donations and limiting the power of lobbyists

  • 90% of swing voters supported a statement about cracking down on outsourcing and creating jobs by fixing schools, sewers, and roads in disrepair

  • Even when framed in direct opposition to a statement about stopping increasing government spending and tax increases, swing voters said they were more worried that we will fail to make the investments we need to create jobs and strengthen the economy by 54-44

The voters who were the swing voters in this electorate, the ones who supported Republicans this time but generally supported Obama and Democrats the last time, are the economically hurting middle class- the ones most worried about their jobs, most stressed about their mortgages being underwater or close to it, and most squeezed by stagnant wages. They blame Wall Street for the financial crisis, they strongly dislike outsourcing and "NAFTA-like" trade deals, they favor higher taxes on the wealthy and speculative trading, they don't want Social Security or Medicare benefits cut or the retirement age raised, they think infrastructure jobs ought to be created by the government, and they hate corporate special interest lobbying and money. These voters are the populists who Lee Atwater focused on in 1988, and the middle class populists we ought to be focused on now. The reason they are swing voters is that they think both parties- and yes, government itself- have let them down. They don't like partisan bickering because they want politicians to focus on their needs instead of trying to keep their own jobs, but they have no patience for bi-partisan deals that once again screw them on these economic issues.

The only way President Obama and other Democrats will win in 2012 is by focusing on improving the economic lives of these stressed out voters, and by doing it now. That means first and foremost dealing with the foreclosure crisis and underwater mortgages, and having DOJ actually start prosecuting these bankers who have so clearly violated the law. It means re-orienting government contracts to ones that really will buy American goods and pay a decent wage doing it. It means aggressively using executive orders to spur new manufacturing jobs. And it means eagerly picking some fights with Republicans over these middle class issues.

The election numbers could not be clearer: the voters we need to focus on are the folks who feel the weight of this damaged economy on every muscle of their tired shoulders. And those are the people our policies ought to be focused anyway, so it is a twofer: it's the right thing to do and the best way to win the election.  

Mike Lux :: Revolt of the populist swing voters

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Mike you are right; I have total confidence that Obama blows it. (4.00 / 5)
He has already said he wants to push trade deals through Congress, he has also said this morning a compromise on the Bush tax cuts is possible.  He really does not get it.

Did you see this from 60 Minutes, (4.00 / 4)
via Benen:

OBAMA: What I'm gonna do is I'm gonna reach out to Republicans and I'm gonna say, "What can we work on together?" There are gonna be some things that we can't agree on. You know? Philosophically. And so, we will have those battles. And we'll save those decisions till after the next election. But in the meantime, there must be some things we can agree on.

KROFT: Haven't you tried that?

OBAMA: Well I have, but I'm gonna keep on trying.... And what I'm gonna constantly be looking for are areas that draw from the Democratic ideas, Republican ideas to find that commonsense center, where we can move the country forward. Even though we'll still have some, you know, big disagreements and big debates on other issues.

I'm beginning to suspect that he really believes this. I think possibly he is a smart, well-educated man who is just bone stupid in some very fundamental way.

Can I get my Chatty Cathie in early?

[ Parent ]
Obama working 'Do Nothing Congress' strategy for 2012 (0.00 / 0)
There is undoubtedly a majority (as per Greenberg) for a bunch of middle-of-the-road policies - call it a New Deal Majority - that prioritize job creation and a maintenance of basic institutions (like SS) over the usual corporate crap.

Of course, folks identify Obama with Wall Street because of the size and alacrity of the handouts the banks got, compared to the attention they think they've received from him.

There's no way that Obama doesn't recognize this: clearly, as further shown by the 'reaching out' in 60 Minutes, he's working a Do Nothing Congress shtick for 2012, for which he needs to make futile pleas for bipartisanship he knows will be rejected.

Given that he's shown no sustained inclination towards populism on anything (so far as I can recall), it's not surprising he feels more comfortable with this strategy.

His moral justification (if he's thought he needs one): whatever I do, nothing much will pass Congress (its performance in the almost-supermajority 111th sets a dismal expectation) so I might as well give myself the best chance of getting reelected.

[ Parent ]
This has been intuitively obvious for some time now; (4.00 / 7)
and you (and many other bloggers and strategists) have been actively urging Democrats to do just exactly what you advocate in this diary.  Since the DC Democrats haven't followed this advice--and appear very unlikely to do so any time soon--I think this leads to two likely conclusions:

1. The DC leadership of the Democratic Party is obtuse to an almost unimaginable degree, to ignore evidence-based strategy advice like this: or

2.  They are fully aware of--and recognize the validity of--this data and what it suggests; but, they are more interested in keeping their corporate masters happy, and thus will not pursue a populist course.

I'm not sure which is worse; probably option (2).  

option number one (0.00 / 0)
Is truely "unimaginable", so you have answered your own question.

The worst option is our reality, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob..... FDR

[ Parent ]
Yes, and Jim Webb just confirmed that (0.00 / 0)
He noted that it was Democrats who prevented him from being able to get a vote on imposing a onetime windfall profits tax on Wall Street's record bonuses:

"I couldn't even get a vote," Webb says. "And it wasn't because of the Republicans. I mean they obviously weren't going to vote for it. But I got so much froth from Democrats saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fundraising.

[ Parent ]
So there you have it. (4.00 / 4)
Since I figure it isn't me you actually write these columns for... but more likely, your tone deaf/politically suicidal colleagues... we can put an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, I told you so, instead of a period.  And, told 'em, you did.  I don't know why they aren't listening to you, and I guess I don't even care.  It's the Democrats who are losing because they won't listen, and the voters can't win for losing.

I'm beginning to think that the greatest value in your commentary here is a fairly clear-eyed look at what Democrats could do/should do, at the very same time we pretty much agree (I say it out loud, you don't) that they won't.

Given that the GOP is a waste of political real estate (and oxygen), I'm increasingly frustrated as a voter, and for voters, that we have no "place" to go except to one or the other of the major parties.

Until such time as a viable alternative, that is perceived by the greater electorate to be viable, emerges we are stuck with the current yo-yo that drags us ever closer to a true plutocracy;  Serfdom-R-US.  

The only question I have, which I don't expect you to answer, is what are you contributing towards breaking this iron law of institutions?  Or, have your fully resigned yourself to working (imo, pretty ineffectively) within its interiority, chipping away - at this corner, or that - as opportunity presents?


I want some big democrats to leave the party. (0.00 / 0)
Weiner for example, and then announce or make and then run for a new party.

I don't want asshats running the country anymore, even if I want to make sure that asshats aren't replaced by greedopaths or RepubliCorp employees.

Primary the Party.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]
I don't see that happening at the Congressional level (0.00 / 0)
But if things continue to deteriorate and BOTH Democrats and Republicans continue to show that they don't "get it," this might set the stage for a potentially successful 3rd Party Presidential bid by a Bernie Sanders type populist. If such a person could be elected, progressive Democrats in Congress should gladly work with him or her. Sadly, I see this as the only (slim) chance for progress before 2016 at the earliest.

Unfortunately, Obama wise-ing up strikes me as a LESS likely scenario. :(

[ Parent ]
If only the party apparat were open to this piece. If only. (4.00 / 4)
Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems to me that given Obama's non-stop Capitulation-a-palooza since election day, the Party is being set up to suffer an interminable split.

The Party can clearly redeem itself by focusing on it's alleged core values and constituencies, or it can go the way of the Dodo by sticking with its current leadership. I say alleged, because it's really not clear at this point that leadership, or the larger apparat, really cares about any of the things it says it cares about. It would be helpful if that question were cleared up in an affirmative manner.

I read in HuffPo a few days ago that Pete Peterson was going to fire the opening salvos on the War Against Social Insurance tomorrow. Thus far, we've heard not a peep from the party apparat or progressive orgs in general about this. Then last night, Barack Obama referred to "entitlement" programs, as opposed to what they are--Social Insurance--essentially stating his willingness to attack those programs. He is simply not willing to defend Democratic Core Values, it seems. Indeed, he just sounds like a Republican with manners.

So it looks like we'll be playing defense yet again. Happy, happy days.

Starting in the next few days, then, we're going to find out what the Democratic Party is really about. They will either stick with their president and his vicious Neo-Liberal agenda, essentially destroying what chance the Party has of making a comeback... or they will turn and fight their own leadership for a chance at redemption with the American people.

The latter option seems much less likely to me. I would love to be surprised in this case, but I'm not seeing any movement in the right direction. The Catfood Commission report and the concomitant "product roll-out" isn't getting any attention, while the House leadership election (truly inside baseball stuff) is garnering lots of pixels, for some bizarre reason.

So the party can either stick with a Imperial President bent on self-destruction, or it can take a still-risky route and buck the dominant paradigm. Basically, the party can survive, but only if it rejects it's own corrupt leadership in favor of it's constituencies. I think the days of the Party having it both ways are over and this last election makes the case pretty well.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

The peasants are revolting! You said it. They stink on ice. (4.00 / 4)
The bad news for Democrats is that they associated Obama with Wall Street.

Yeah - the dummies.

In other news, Melissa Bean as head of the CFPA trial balloon gets floated.

also the thing where the Democrats passed a law requiring people to buy a product from for-profit corporations (4.00 / 2)
with no price controls

[ Parent ]
you mean the plan that Obama himself confirmed (4.00 / 2)
was really a Republican plan?

[ Parent ]
Mike, with your contacts inside, (4.00 / 1)
Is there anyone inside the administration listening at all to you?

Or are they not even talking at this point?

Another very good post, and thank you for your insights.  I voted dem for Carnahan in MO, but MO is so far right that it didn't do much good, unfortunately, except down ticket.

bill maher said it (0.00 / 0)
on his show this past friday, the voters are mad about the economy, but everything they want, the things you list that they want, the Republicans ran on the platform of cutting all of them, they promised to cut entitlements, to stop govt spending that might create jobs, their main message was to keep the bush tax cuts, and we all know they love free trade, so why in the hell would swing voters vote in the devil because their brother is messing up, just weird, or stolen again, that could also account for the 70% never seen before swing

whatever you think people owe you, that is what you owe people

Mike you are dead on (0.00 / 0)
Here in Ohio , we took more than a shellacking, we were essentially eliminated as a political party. We lost every statewide race, lost the state house, lost every democratic house race which we had gained in 2006 & 2008 and we will be losing 2 more house seats in 2012. Our best hope is to re-elect Sherrod Brown in 2012 with exactly this message. We need to run pro worker candidates who will focus on this message and if Obama doesn't follow this message, distancing ourselves from him.  


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