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Why Democrats Should Avoid the 'R' Word Why Democrats Should Avoid the 'R' Word

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Why Democrats Should Avoid the 'R' Word


(Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

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.

This article appears in the April 29, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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