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NJ Daily / OFF TO THE RACES

First, Admit You Have a Problem

Democrats are stuck on messages that ignore the larger problems they face.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Charlie Cook
December 6, 2010

Many Democrats seem to take solace in the idea that stubbornly high unemployment and the terrible economy are to blame for their midterm election losses. They are unwilling to acknowledge that there were some more fundamental factors at work, ones that may be too unpleasant for them to face.  

Some veteran party strategists are warning that this denial, which is on display by key Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, might delay or preclude changes that the party has to make if they are going to recoup the losses they suffered in November.  Those losses, of course, left them with their worst membership levels in the House and in state legislatures in half a century.

I’m not a big fan of using exit polls on election night to figure out what is happening.  But they are quite useful afterward, when postelection autopsies are being performed to ascertain the cause of political fatalities.  

 

One classic poll question asks: “Do you think that government should do more to solve problems, or is government trying to do too many things that would be better left to businesses and individuals?” The wording of the question varies from pollster to pollster.

In the 2008 national exit poll, 51 percent of voters who were surveyed said government should do more to solve problems while 43 percent said government was trying to do too much.

In 2010, only 38 percent thought government should do more, while 56 percent said government was trying to do too much, a 26-point swing in just two years.  

Prior to 2008, the number of people saying government should do more steadily climbed from 43 percent in 2000 to 46 percent in 2004 to 51 percent in 2008, while those saying government was doing too much declined from 53 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2004 to 43 percent in 2008.  

Sharp-eyed readers will note that the three previous times this question was asked was in presidential elections, as opposed to this year’s midterm. However, this trend change was also found in pre-election, non-exit polls that showed that during the last two years there had been a reversal, and increased skepticism about government among independent voters was especially profound.

My theory is that in September of 2008, when the financial crisis was beginning, the world was seeing some scary stuff. Lehman Brothers fell on September 15, 2008, the world’s credit markets seized up, the economy went into cardiac arrest, and the stock market dropped 500 points on one day and 800 points on another.  

This had just as much of an impact on the public’s views of economic security as 9/11 had on the public’s views of national security. Consumers have been spending less, saving more, paying down debt, and investing more cautiously. In every respect, they have behaved more conservatively in their personal finances than anytime in recent memory.

As long as there has been government, there have been those who hated it and become angry by any type of government expansion. But the government’s failure to regulate the subprime mortgage industry and prevent the financial meltdown has led to an eroding public confidence in government. These doubts about the efficacy of government have combined to create a political climate that liberals and many Democrats find extremely hostile.

It was as if there was a turn in the road and the American people made that turn while Democrats continued straight and plowed into the woods last month.

One of the mistakes that Democrats seem to have repeatedly made is to poll specific issue questions, get their desired results, but then have their interpretation of the data lack context.  

I think I could start a bonfire if I had kept all the poll memos from Democratic pollsters over the last two years. First arguing that climate change would be a winning issue, and then health care reform, they now think they can score points by drawing a line and extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for everyone except the top income brackets. What seems to escape many of them is that they haven’t won a message fight in two years on anything.

The public certainly hasn’t forgiven Republicans for their mistakes over the last decade.  But the loss of confidence in Democrats has been more immediate and more relevant than Republican miscues when they had both the White House and majorities in Congress.  There were plenty of things that voters held against the GOP, including scandals, the decision to invade Iraq, the case of Terri Schiavo, and the doubling of the national debt.  None of these were forgiven but they were all less relevant.

Americans see Democrats as having failed in their stewardship of the economy. A recession grew worse, unemployment soared, and Democrats seem to have checked the box and moved on to issues nearer and dearer to their hearts.  

For some reason, climate change legislation and health care seemed to be more important than sticking to a focus on the economy through 2009 and into 2010. It might be a while before voters forgive the president and the remaining Democrats in Congress for that.

One of the more interesting things that seems to be happening behind the scenes among Republican leaders in both the House and Senate is their focus on the mistakes made by the Republican majorities after their takeover in 1994.  

The freshmen and some of the younger Republicans certainly have their hubris, but the leaders seem to know that they scored an unearned run in this election and that they have been given an opportunity that they probably didn’t deserve. Nonetheless, they are determined not to blow it.

This article appears in the December 7, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.

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