Dems can win economic debate, says Clinton’s pollster

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The current Republican political pitch to voters is powerful, but Democrats can win back perhaps 20 to 45 seats in the House if they offer a forward-leaning message to voters, according to an extensive analysis by Stan Greenberg, who worked as resident Bill Clinton’s primary pollster.

“If Democrats gets it…there’s a potential for immense dividends,” Greenberg said Thursday.

Greenberg’s pitch, dubbed “The Path to Democratic Ascendancy on the Economy,” is based on an extensive poll of 1,500 people, as well as focus-groups where he interviewed voters to assess their concerns. Greenberg says he is now pitching his strategy to Democrats, and they’re receptive. Greenberg is co-founder of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a successful Democratic polling firm.

The voters’ attitudes are being battered by four major factors, including a painful decline in incomes and employment, a sense of betrayal by U.S. companies and political leaders, a judgement that inside-the-Beltway corruption will make economic change impossible, and growing fear of expanding debts, burden and overseas competition. “The Middle Class is smashed,” and only 19 percent of people have a “warm attitude” towards the economy, he said. Sixty-six percent of people have a cold, or negative attitude towards the economy, he said.

No president has been reelected for decades when the unemployment rate exceeds eight percent, he said. Today, the rate is at nine percent, and by alternative estimates, well over 10 percent.

Most Democrats and Republicans see these circumstances as a warm-up to an economic recovery, where each party’s economic prescriptions will be validated or discredited, he said. But the four factors are the new reality, and neither party will gain by citing past problems, he said. “The past is a trap, the debate over the past and financial crash and recovery and what was handed to the country by the Bush administration, is something the country has almost no interest in,” he said.

For example, he said, GOP candidates who use a message that looks back to blame Democrats for the failed stimulus, or slam the president’s medical-sector law, persuades only a minority of voters — roughly in the mid-40s — to look favorably at the candidate.

Backward-looking messages from Democrats also do poorly, he said. The pitch that Democrats “were handed a mess, but are working to get back” scores a favorable rating of 44 percent. The alternative pitch to voters –“don’t go back, things are getting better” — wins a favorable reaction from only 32 percent of voters, he said.

The main Republican narrative, he said, focuses on the need to aid the economy by reducing government spending and the deficit. That wins favorable reactions from 56 percent of people, but once pushed, it deeply damages the GOP’s prospects, he said. For example, the GOP’s embrace of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan has pushed its poll ratings down from 51 percent to 44 percent in only a month, he said. The Democrats’ numbers have remained stuck at 35 percent, he said.

Partly because many voters mistakenly think Congress can make many painless budget-cuts, voters find themselves opposing the actual cuts that the GOP is offering, he said. Ryan’s plan, he said, “is clearly out of sync with where people are… it is damaging and I think it will be more damaging.”

“They’ve lost the country in the first five months of the year,” he said, adding that the GOP has no ready alternative. “Republicans have a one-trick pony… focused on deficits and spending.”

The GOP’s setback creates an opportunity for Democrats to offer a forward-leaning message that promises government action to improve the economy, he said. An emphasis on growing jobs with investments, he said, wins approval from 61 percent of voters. That message, he summarized, would say “we don’t blame-game, we face challenges that will take years to solve, we need to work together, the rich should pay their fair share and [government should] support education,” he said.

Broadly, that’s basically the theme Obama is using for his reelection campaign, he said.

An alternative message that emphasizes government action to aid the damaged middle-class garners support from 56 percent of voters, he said.

Those messages “obviously [should be] the heart of any Democratic narrative on the economy… [because they] identify the new economy and focus on what should happen to make life better for ordinary people and the country, without any reference to the history that brought us here,” according to the firm’s summary of its recommendations.

These two narrative do better than an emphasis on economic equality, which gets only a 51 percent favorable rating, or a pitch that says “the middle-class won’t get a break until we confront the power of big money and the lobbyists,” which gets 54 percent, he said.

Democrats are reacting favorably when the data shows they can win the debate over the stalled economy by looking forward, not backwards, Greenberg said. “The party that embraces the real economy, that becomes their opportunity,” he said.