Where Is the Middle?

I have had my share of disagreements on political analysis with Third Way over the past few months, but they have come out with a new memo, "Where is the Middle", on the 2010 races that is hard to argue with. Its message is that moderates and swing voters still matter in winning elections, and that we can't do well in the competitive 2010 elections without both appealing to the base and to those swing voters.

Like I said, tough to disagree with that. I do have some friends in progressive politics who believe that most elections can be won by focusing totally on registering and turning out Democratic base voters, but no matter how much money, effort, and message you focus on that goal, it is not enough to win most elections. The best example I know of is 2004, where the combination of America Coming Together, unions, ACORN, Project Vote, America Votes, many other non-profit groups, plus all the Democratic party campaigns and committees spent literally several hundred million dollars on black, Hispanic, youth, unmarried women, and other base Democratic groups' turnout. It was several times more than had ever been spent before on such efforts, turnout was very high with those demographic groups, and we still didn't win. We still needed a higher percentage of swing voters, we didn't get it, and we lost. Getting the base vote to turn out in higher numbers is just as important, but you have to win a solid percentage of the voters in the middle to win close races.

The key question the memo raises but then leaves unaddressed is how Democrats in a tough cycle can win over those folks in the middle. It is not an easy task, not with voters this cynical and disillusioned, not with the economy hurting this badly. And unfortunately, what passes for appealing to the middle in Washington, DC has no resemblance to what actually appeals to swing voters out there in the real world beyond the beltway. In Washington, being a moderate means being for raising the retirement age and cutting benefits for Social Security. In the rest of America, fighting to preserve Social Security is a huge plus for voters. In Washington, being a moderate means being for "free trade" deals. In the rest of America, working class swing voters hate the trade deals that they know are shipping their jobs overseas. In Washington, being a moderate means being for extending all of the Bush tax cuts even those for millionaires. In the rest of America, it is those working class swing voters who don't like those kinds of tax cuts.

Most of all, being a moderate in Washington means getting along nicely with all those corporate lobbyists who keep coming to see you (and dropping off checks). In the rest of America, swing voters and base voters are completely united that Washington is too controlled by wealthy and powerful special interests, and that their power needs to be rolled back. The polling numbers on strict new lobby reforms, on rolling back the Citizens United decision, on public financing so that candidates aren't dependent on special interests for campaign cash are incredibly strong. Voters are disgusted by the kind of business as usual described in this article from Roll Call. If Democratic candidates spent their time attacking that kind of special interest funding and the attack ads being generated by corporate cash, they would have swing as well as Democratic base vote standing up and cheering.

The brain-dead DC establishment still doesn't get this, of course. My favorite recent example was the hand-wringing by the "moderates" in DC over the appointment of Elizabeth Warren. Somehow the logic went that because progressives liked her, appointing her would be a political disaster with the middle. Dana Milbank, in one of his classic diatribes no doubt fed to him by a White House insider fearful of losing his influence, did a long piece full of nasty innuendo from unnamed sources about how Valerie Jarrett was leading the President to disaster, and his leading example was that Jarrett was one of the people in favor of the "politically radioactive" Warren getting her job. Having seen focus groups where working-class swing voters react to clips of Elizabeth talking about the financial industry, with them applauding and talking about how they would support her for President if she ran, I can assure Dana: you can stop worrying about Elizabeth's political radioactivity. Swing voters love her for the same reason progressives do: because she pulls no punches and takes on the powers that be. The only folks that she is radioactive with are the Wall Street execs and their friends in Congress.

Democrats need moderate swing voters to win elections: there is no doubt about that. The question is how best we get them. Some Democrats' theory is that they get them by distancing themselves from Obama and Pelosi, and perhaps a few Democrats from very conservative districts will survive by doing that. But what is clear to me from the polling and focus groups I am looking at is that instead democratic candidates should take on the causes that unite and motivate both Democratic base voters and swing voters: rolling back the power of corporate special interests, standing up to the big banks and energy and insurance industries, fighting the outsourcing of jobs. The path toward a winning electoral coalition in most swing districts and states is to reject Washington centrism and embrace the values of working families in the real America.