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It’s not too late to change the basis of voter choice

14 Oct 2010

EMC’s consulting pollster Vic Fingerhut has penned this memo to Democrats in the lead-up to Congressional elections. His words of wisdom ring true here too.

Despite the feel good messages from the Democratic campaign committees, if messaging frames and context of voter choice on election day remain as they are today, we are heading for disaster.

Two weeks ago, I sent you a memo underlining the fact that while our opponents have a simple and clear frame for the short-term issues in the current election, we have had none.

And despite the millions spent on our side…nothing has changed.

The result has been a consistent (and persistent) 5-12 point GOP margin in the congressional generics.

To give you some taste of what is actually going on, in the latest generic congressional test matching, Democrats were getting:

• 34 percent of White voters
• 28 percent of self-identified Independents
• 35 percent of voters over 65 (the party of Social Security and Medicare !!!)

Gallup this week actually had GOP margins of over 15 points, but, fortunately (or hopefully), those generics were based on some terrible (for us) turnout assumptions.

Despite millions of media expenditures by our political allies in the past few months, we have not been able to fundamentally alter these consistent generic GOP margins.

And, as I have pointed out on previous occasions, we have basically abandoned the field for the framing of the short-term national debate to the GOP…seeking refuge in the delusion that we can somehow hide from the generic results by “localizing” elections.

Speaker O’Neill to the contrary, this idea was a dangerous pipe dream in 1994, where it was presented as a viable strategy by Democratic consultants and staffers at meetings of the DCCC… and it is a pipe dream today.

Then, the prevailing (absurd) image was “flying beneath the jet stream,” which, of course, proved to be a pipe dream as the GOP gained control of Congress in what proved to be the beginning of a six-term, 12-year run.

The simple reality is: If the generics on Election Day continue to have us down by 6 or 7 points, we will lose 30-50 seats in the House and thousands of other important state and local offices around the nation.

For several weeks, I have been sending out memos arguing for the need to test a variety of messages to reshape the immediate, short-term national dialogue for the 2010 elections.

It is too late for that now.

The short-term debate is pretty much over…and we have lost.

We can no longer change swing voter perceptions on either the frame of the current election campaign or the short-term issues as we approach Election Day: Obamacare, the economy, Pelosi, unemployment, the stimulus, the size of government, high taxes, the deficit, and so on.

However, there is something we can do.

We can change the basis of voter choice…basing it on underlying long-term and deeply-held perceptions of the two parties…rather than short-term performance evaluations of the Obama Administration.

That might sound like a distinction without a difference.

I know you are all overwhelmed with incoming communications, so let me use some examples from my own experience to explain this as briefly as possible.

Changing the overriding message frame is what we did in Australia in turning a 15-point John Howard lead in the polls to a 15-point lead for the Australian Labor Party by shifting the focus from economic management (as an abstract, stand-alone policy/performance issue) to “Who’s on your side as a worker and at the workplace.”

That net +30 points shift in voter preference to the ALP side took place over several months, as a result of a national TV campaign funded by the Australian labour movement (although we got a shift of almost 10 points in the first four weeks of our campaign).

That was an option for the Democrats in September.

However, that is no longer the case…we simply don’t have enough time to do it.

Changing the basis of voter choice is the second option.
This is still possible.

Two quick examples (with less than 14 days to go):

1.) Changing the basis of voter choice (in the second week of October, 1968) from the Vietnam War and race (at which point Humphrey was at 29 percent in the polls, less than 10 points ahead of George Wallace) to “Which party (not which candidate) cares about you, your family, and your parents and grandparents”…and “Which party (again, not which candidate) fought for…and will protect your job, and your parents (and grandparents) your social security and Medicare.”

That shift in the basis of voter choice produced the most massive change in voter preference ever recorded in American political history – 15 points, 8-million votes in less than three weeks.
(During this period, by the way, we were outspent by a massive 3-1 margin by Nixon’s well-funded GOP campaign.)

2.) Or, in the Dukakis case, changing the basis of voter choice – from a non-credible (and, frankly, pitiful) “competence” theme…to a party-based, semi-populist “Who’s on your side” frame. (That change in the basis of voter choice reduced Dukakis’ deficit by ten points in ten days, from (-16) points to (-6) points, and clearly saved Democratic control of both Houses of Congress that year.)

Key: In both cases, the dramatic pro-Democratic shift in voter choice came from shifting the emphasis from short-term, performance-based issues to deeply-held, long-term party-related perceptions.

Unfortunately, Democratic campaign strategists today seem intent on ignoring that underlying representational strength of the Democratic Party.

That was sadly driven home to me yesterday, as the executive directors from the two Democratic campaign committees debated the executive directors for the two GOP campaign committees.

The GOP directors stayed close to their effective national themes…the deficit, joblessness, taxes, big government, “Obamacare,” etc., all put in short-term time frames.

On their part, the Democratic spokespeople not only completely failed to use the enduringly strongest Democratic strength — our representational strength: The words “working people” and “working families” were not mentioned once (nor were other representational frames with strong pro-Democratic valences among swing voters).

And to rub it in, they continued to press the (losing) overriding short-term frame in counter-productive terms that are (sadly) becoming a joke: like keeping America moving ahead (when over 65 percent of the American people believe we are headed in the wrong direction!!).

Democratic national strategists still don’t get it.

As observed repeatedly, decades of polling have shown repeatedly that Democrats gain 10-15 points in believability and credibility when just about any policy question is changed from a performance based one (“Which party do you trust to handle the economy?”) to a representational one (“Which party do you trust most to handle the economy in a way that represents regular working people?”).

For example, as I have pointed out for years, when you ask voters “Who is best for handling the economy?” at any given point in time, and the result comes out even between the two parties…if, five minutes later, you then ask the same sample “who handles the economy in a way that tries to protect the interests of regular working families?” …the Democrats get a 10-20 point boost.

Even in good times, our representational strength is considerably greater than our performance-based strength!!

And these, as we all know, are not good times…

Indeed, right now we are actually losing on the formulation of “Which party is better at managing the economy?” …and yet our national strategic spokespeople continue to argue the economic case in abstract policy/performance terms, rather than representational ones.

All I can say to them is: Lots of luck.

A Few Words of Conclusion: What Can We Do?

It is, thus, clear that in the overriding message framing of short-term issues for 2010, the Democrats have been outmaneuvered…and the only changes that will occur in terms of short-term performance-based perceptions of swing voters will be at the margin.

Thus, running from the party, and making (some very good) attacks on their rock-headed, right-wing Republican opponents will save a few seats in basically Democratic areas of the country…but unless we can change the generic vote choices in the next 10-15 days, we will get hammered big time among swing voters and in marginal constituencies throughout the nation.
But there is still hope.

The amazing thing is that with the Democrats having lost five points in party identification in the electorate in less than a year (a rapid decline)…the GOP has not gained them.

Deeply-held long-term perceptions of the two parties (including, in this case, deeply-held, long-term negative perceptions of the GOP) have the ability to significantly modify final voter choice in 2010…if we use them correctly.

Unfortunately, the evidence sadly suggests that national Democratic strategists aren’t even close to thinking in these terms.