The Re-Positioning Tango

Self-identified liberals are an important part of the Democratic base, but they sure aren't the only part, or even the biggest one. Most African-Americans, who voted 90% Democratic, do not describe themselves as liberals. Neither do most Hispanics.
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It's only been a week, and I am already sickened unto death of the re-positioning tango over how to re-position ourselves to win the next election. Of course, maybe one of the reasons I am sick of it is that it happens after every losing election. The biggest reason I am sick of it, though, is that none of it really matters at all to the voters Democrats lost in this election and need to win back. The swing voters we lost in this election, as I wrote about here, are the economically stressed working and middle class- the ones whose mortgages are underwater or in danger of getting there, the ones whose family members are losing jobs or having hours being cut back, the ones who haven't gotten a raise in 2 or 3 years, the ones whose pensions and savings are worth a lot less than they were 3 years ago. And you know what: they couldn't care less how Obama or other Democrats are positioned. What they do care about are having good jobs come back to their communities, and having their homes' value start to edge up again.

That's why the new memo from Third Way doesn't do much for me. It doesn't make me angry, either, although I know it is supposed to: you know, get the debate between liberals and moderates engaged and all that. What it does do is go to my friends at Third Way's favorite stalking horse, the fact that self-identified liberals only make up 20% of the electorate. You know what? Just so Third Way folks don't feel like they have to keep beating this dead horse, I will be glad to stipulate that point in this and all future arguments: Self-described liberals are a small minority of the electorate, and you can't win elections with only their votes. See, we agree. And who ever said progressives couldn't get along with moderates?

Now that I've agreed to their main point, let me tell me why it doesn't matter. Because the word liberal has become so poisoned and narrowed as a descriptive phrase, the only people who tend to call themselves that tend to be white urban creative class types, clustered mostly in the northeast and west coast. Liberals are an important part of the Democratic base, but they sure aren't the only part, or even the biggest part. Most African-Americans, who voted 90% Democratic, do not describe themselves as liberals. Neither do most Hispanics, labor union members, unmarried women, or young people, all of whom gave Democrats strong majorities. To me, those demographic groups, along with self-described liberals, are who I think of as the Democratic base. And there were some issues there Democrats need to deal with if they want to win:

  • Voters under 30 were 11% of the electorate in 2010 compared to 18% in 2008, and their margin shrunk from +29 D to +17 D.

  • Unmarried women had about the same % of the electorate as in 2008, but their margin slid from +40 to +16. White unmarried women actually voted Republican for the first time since I've been reading exit poll data.
  • Although their loyalty to Democrats only dropped slightly, African-Americans dropped from 13% of the electorate down to 10%
  • Union households' Democratic margin dropped 8 points, but even more importantly their share of the electorate dropped 6 in comparison to 2006.
  • So before you accept the Third Way/Matt Bai argument that the base doesn't matter much because they voted for us anyway, be extremely careful. The kind of numbers sited in the 4 bullets above, with both smaller shares of the electorate and a smaller % for Democrats in some of the most loyally Democratic demographic groups, is exactly the kind of shift that will cost you elections. But here's the most important point: self-described liberals, who tend to be a little higher income creative class professionals- professors and folks with post-grad educations, tech workers, people in the arts and entertainment, etc- have not been as badly hurt by this economy, so of course their turnout and percentage for democrats isn't dropping, Meanwhile, union households, unmarried women, African-Americans, and young people, while still more Democratic demographic groups, have been hurt badly by this awful economy, so it is no surprise their numbers are going down for Democrats. Meanwhile, the classic swing voters in American politics, the white working class, have been devastated by this economy, so it is no surprise they are turning on Democrats in big numbers.

    Which brings me back to my original point: this ain't about positioning, folks, this is about giving all those folks -- base and swing voters alike -- some solutions on this economy. With the fiscal stimulus being politically dead as a doorknob, that solution is gone. We are going to have to come up with other approaches to help the middle class and those struggling to get into it and the biggest piece of business out there is this housing market that is in a shambles. The big banks' solution is to foreclose on everyone as fast as possible so they can clear those properties off their books, but that does nothing for the middle class whose mortgages are underwater, or for housing prices which will sink further with more foreclosures. The Obama administration can help those folks, and stabilize the housing market by taking a few key steps, all of which they can do without having to get Republicans in Wall St's pocket to pass anything. They have the power in their hands. Check this link out.

    These policies have been developed by church leaders and community groups around the country working on the foreclosure crisis. They would go a long way to providing some tangible help to those hard hit voters who are worse off now than they were two years ago, a demographic group that went from 42 points for Obama to 29 points against Democrats in this election. It is precisely these stressed out voters that are the ones we have to get back.

    We can also get them back by championing policy that will create good new jobs. Check out this new piece in HuffPost by Leo Hindery on how to create new manufacturing jobs now. And we can get them back by making sure the laws passed in this last session of Congress get administered to actually help middle class people: check out this great interview from last night with Elizabeth Warren on the Maddow show.

    Democrats can win the next election, but it won't be by engaging the same stale debates about positioning ourselves in the middle, whatever that means. The way we do it is pretty straightforward: deliver real economic benefits to the working and middle class voters hardest hit by this economy. By the way, guess what: that helps us with the base voters we didn't get this time and with those populist swing voters just as much. Let's not worry so much about positioning. Let's deliver real benefits to the voters who most need them, and we will be rewarded politically.

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