One Chance

The most disturbing poll I have seen in this election cycle (for that matter, the most disturbing since 1994) was an NPR poll from June 7-10. It was disturbing in part because it was done by Stan Greenberg -- for my money as good as any Democratic pollster in the business -- and not some Republican hack polling firm like Rasmussen. What it basically showed was that Democratic arguments, even relatively well framed ones, have little credibility with the majority of the likely voters in the 2010 elections. Greenberg tried four different sets of competing Democratic and Republican arguments, and the Republican arguments won each time -- by 10, 12, 12, and 13 points. Not a single one of the four was even competitive. In past years, similar lines of debate have tended to favor Democrats, but not this time.

Facing this kind of atmosphere, Democrats on the ballot this year have to make some tough strategic choices. Right now the definitive frame around which this election story is being built is one dominated by the conservative worldview: the problem is big government, which is over-reaching and ineffective.

Democrats (those on the ballot this year, and the party as a whole) have two possible options in the face of this bad framing and credibility issues.

One is to keep moving, rhetorically and substantively, to the right. This is a natural reaction to an electorate moving right, and it has the advantage on issues involving the corporate community that if you vote their way, you can get more corporate money for your campaign. If you're able to sound independent enough from those nasty liberals in the national party, the theory goes, you might be able to win over enough swing votes to get the win.

This was the path followed by a lot of Democrats in the 1994 and 2002 elections, when the national tide was clearly moving against us. They played defense, started voting with the Republicans a lot, and ran a lot of ads bragging about how much they (a) disagreed with Clinton (in '94) or (b) agreed with Bush (in '02). This strategy arguably could have saved a few, but mostly it was a flaming disaster. Of the 52 House members and eight Senators who lost in 1994, most of them were ones who went with that I'm-a-lot-more-conservative-than-the-national-Dems strategy. And the 2002 candidates who went that direction fared even worse- the only competitive Senate races where Democrats won that year were Landrieu in Louisiana and Tim Johnson in South Dakota. While neither of them ran as flaming liberals, they survived mostly because they put unprecedented amounts of money and effort into turnout of minority communities (Native Americans in South Dakota, African-Americans in Louisiana) in their states.

There are multiple reasons the almost-a-Republican strategy tends not to work. First of all, you tend to depress your base vote even more than it is already depressed. The biggest single factor in 1994, 2002, and the big defeats Democrats have suffered so far this cycle in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia was that the electorate has so many fewer of the youth, unmarried women, and minority voters that tend to vote strongly Democrat. They just aren't coming out to vote. A candidate who moves steadily to the right isn't likely to motivate those voters to turn out.

Secondly, moving to the right reinforces the negative anti-Democratic dynamic in voters' minds. If the Democrat sounds like a Republican, and no one is articulating a Democratic frame, it's a big problem for a Democrat to convince voters -- swing or base -- why they shouldn't just go for the real McCoy, a genuine Republican. If no one is making the case why Democratic principles and policies are good, the electorate will keep moving right. Leaving the playing field regarding the essential framing of the race is never a good idea.

Third, a strategy of walking away from the Democratic Party keeps a Democratic candidate on the defensive for the entire election. The whole narrative of the race becomes "have they walked away enough from Obama/the national party/health care/the stimulus" ad infinitum. I have been volunteering for, working for, or consulting for candidates for about 40 years now, and I have rarely seen a candidate win who was on the defensive for the whole election. I understand how candidates react when they feel besieged and under attack, that you want to pull back the drawbridge and go into a defensive crouch. But if you set up the frame for the entire election in that manner -- that even though I'm running on the Democratic line, I'm really not as much of a Democrat as my opponent says I am -- you are likely to lose. The candidate, and party, on offense is the one that wins the vast majority of the time.

Which brings me to the other strategic path for Democrats, whether as individual candidates or as a political party, in this election. That path is, pure and simple, to go on offense, and to reset the frame in this election. There is genuine anger out there, but it's not only anger at government or the Democrats; it is anger at the big corporate interests who have messed up our economy and who seem to control our government. The swing voters who are disillusioned with government are in great part disillusioned with the fact that government seems to be in bed with big corporate special interests. And the disappointment with Democrats by both swing and base voters not very interested in showing up to vote is that the Democrats didn't deliver on the change they promised: the big bankers got bailouts and bonuses while unemployment stayed high; there seemed to be no change in the corruption that allowed BP to drill a faulty well with no decent plan in case of a spill; deficits keep going up while government contractors keep getting rich and regular folks don't seem to be getting much of the benefit.

I think Democrats should be honest in recognizing those feelings, and not try to pretend the Democratic Party has done everything right in taking on corporate special interests. The frame needs to be about not just taking on big corporations, but taking on corporate corruption of our government. If a candidate is in a district where they need to distance themselves from some Democrats, I'd recommend distancing themselves from the corporate Democrats who aren't holding the big banks and insurers and oil companies accountable.

This is a blame election: voters are in a foul mood, and they are trying to decide who to blame -- or to put it in a somewhat more constructive way, who to hold accountable. Right now, they are leaning heavily toward that being the Democrats, since they control government and government hasn't delivered jobs or the change that was promised. To change that inclination in swing voters, and to motivate their own disaffected base, Democrats need to be very aggressive in framing the election about cleaning up the corporate corruption that permeates our government.

It might not work, but it's got a lot better shot than the I'm-kind-of-a-Republican-even-though-I-am-running-on-the-Democratic-ballot-line strategy that failed so miserably in 1994 and 2002. DC pundits and New York Times writers like Matt Bai don't believe a message going after big corporations works in modern America, but I don't think they talk to enough folks like the ones I grew up with in the working class Midwest. Yes, there is anger at government and the incumbents who people believe have failed them. There is a feeling of bitterness that both parties have failed to deliver, and so we may see a third election in a row where the President's party gets hammered. But the anger at corporations, and corporation corruption of our government, also runs deep. And if Democrats are brave enough to be aggressive about taking that corruption on, they could reap the benefit.

The Democrats have one chance to get this right. If they stay on defense, or are too tentative in their message, they will get swamped. If they gamble and take on the mantle of cleaning up Washington's corporate swamp, they have a chance at doing a lot better than anyone thinks.

Cross-posted at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where you can read all of my other writing on the 2010 elections and various issues.