Why Democrats Should Avoid the ‘R’ Word

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ANN ARBOR, MI - APRIL 2: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage at the University of Michigan on April 2, 2014 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Obama said every American deserves a fair working wage.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
April 28, 2014, 5:56 p.m.

From time to time, we all read something where sud­denly words jump out from the page, grabbing our at­ten­tion. This happened to me the oth­er day while read­ing a memo from Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan Green­berg and strategist James Carville, along with two of their col­leagues who work for the Demo­cracy Corps, Erica Seifert and Fre­drica May­er.

This piece was based on a bi­par­tis­an poll con­duc­ted last month by Green­berg Quin­lan Ros­ner Re­search for Na­tion­al Pub­lic Ra­dio with the Demo­cracy Corps, Re­sur­gent Re­pub­lic, and Wo­men’s Voices Wo­men Vote Ac­tion Fund. Demo­cracy Corps is a 15-year-old or­gan­iz­a­tion, star­ted by Green­berg and Carville, and it has ef­fect­ively be­come the sur­vey re­search and mes­sage de­vel­op­ment arm of the House Demo­crat­ic lead­ers, provid­ing high-qual­ity re­search in the form of na­tion­al polls, sur­veys of com­pet­it­ive con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts, and fo­cus groups among key groups. For tax reas­ons, all res­ults have to be pub­licly re­leased, thus giv­ing out­siders a look over the shoulder at some of the highest qual­ity re­search out there. Re­sur­gent Re­pub­lic is a new GOP ver­sion of the Demo­cracy Corps, star­ted by Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Whit Ayres.

One of the most use­ful things that the Demo­cracy Corps does in its polling, like oth­er high-qual­ity poll­sters for both sides, is to test vari­ous mes­sages for each party, as­cer­tain­ing which ones are more sa­li­ent than oth­ers. Some­times mes­sages may sound good, par­tic­u­larly to folks in­side the Belt­way, but when ac­tu­ally tested with real voters, the re­sponse isn’t al­ways as an­ti­cip­ated.

The key phrase in the Green­berg/Carville memo was, “As a start, Demo­crats should bury any men­tion of ‘the re­cov­ery.’ ” The full para­graph went like this:

Demo­crats have to be hard-hit­ting and fo­cused on the eco­nomy. As a start, Demo­crats should bury any men­tion of “the re­cov­ery.” That mes­sage was tested in the bi­par­tis­an poll we con­duc­ted for NPR, and it lost to the Re­pub­lic­an mes­sage cham­pioned by Karl Rove. The Demo­crat­ic mes­sage missed how much trouble people are in, and doesn’t con­vince them that poli­cy­makers really un­der­stand or are even fo­cus­ing on the prob­lems they con­tin­ue to face. That frame­work gets in the way of a dir­ect eco­nom­ic mes­sage.

Tech­nic­ally speak­ing, the re­ces­sion las­ted 18 months, start­ing in Decem­ber 2007 and end­ing in June 2009, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Bur­eau of Eco­nom­ic Re­search, the of­fi­cial ar­bit­er of when busi­ness cycles and re­ces­sions be­gin and end. That 18-month dur­a­tion is not quite twice as long as the 11.1-month av­er­age length of eco­nom­ic re­trac­tion in the 11 busi­ness cycles since 1945. From a polit­ic­al per­spect­ive, what a cross sec­tion of Amer­ic­an voters think of the eco­nomy mat­ters more than a pan­el of the top eco­nom­ists. Last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll showed that 57 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve we are still in a re­ces­sion; just 41 per­cent say we are not, with pess­im­ism just gradu­ally di­min­ish­ing over the last few years. It is what av­er­age people think that’s im­port­ant, not what eco­nom­ists say.

But back to the Green­berg/Carville memo. If voters flip out at the mere sug­ges­tion that a re­cov­ery is un­der­way, that re­ac­tion is very telling. In fact, it may help ex­plain why non­con­ser­vat­ive voters are so down on Pres­id­ent Obama and, in­fer­en­tially, his party. Sure, the Af­ford­able Care Act is an ele­ment, but maybe it isn’t all of the equa­tion.

All of this came up in the con­text of fram­ing an eco­nom­ic-policy de­bate ques­tion, put­ting for­ward the case from each side of the aisle.

The Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate says: The eco­nomy is re­cov­er­ing, but not for reg­u­lar hard­work­ing people. In­comes of CEOs and the top 1 per­cent are soar­ing, but in the real eco­nomy, people are work­ing harder at jobs that don’t pay enough to live on. We have got to do something. We must raise the min­im­um wage, help people af­ford job train­ing and col­lege, build a 21st-cen­tury in­fra­struc­ture, and stop un­fair trade agree­ments that wipe out Amer­ic­an jobs.

The Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate says: The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has had six years to get this eco­nomy go­ing and its policies haven’t worked. Monthly wages are go­ing down, and there are not enough good-pay­ing jobs to cre­ate op­por­tun­it­ies for strug­gling fam­il­ies. We need to start mak­ing things in Amer­ica again, and stop ex­cess­ive reg­u­la­tions that are hurt­ing the eco­nomy. It’s time to pro­duce more en­ergy here at home, and edu­cate people for the jobs of the 21st cen­tury.

Each para­graph sums up rather nicely the ar­gu­ment that each side makes, with the Re­pub­lic­an ar­gu­ment edging out the Demo­crat­ic by 2 points, 48 per­cent to 46 per­cent (which is with­in the 3.18 per­cent­age point mar­gin of er­ror for the sur­vey of 950 voters).

My thought has long been that back in 2009 and 2010, even though many Amer­ic­ans may have been sym­path­et­ic to the idea that changes should be made in our health care sys­tem, the pub­lic wanted the fo­cus at that time to be on job cre­ation and the eco­nomy, which polling at the time in­dic­ated was ab­so­lutely the case. To the ex­tent that Wash­ing­ton seemed ob­sessed with health care, voters wanted the gov­ern­ment’s fo­cus on jobs, and this rubbed them raw. To this day, Amer­ic­ans don’t think the eco­nomy has been ef­fect­ively dealt with. Thus, maybe Demo­crats should avoid the “R” word.

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