Democrats, particularly President Obama, need a new “economic narrative” if they are to win in November, according to a prominent Washington polling organization which conducted focus-group testing of voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
If the president campaigns for re-election strictly on economic performance alone, he is doomed to failure, according to a report by the pollsters, known as Democracy Corps.
“We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class,” their memo says.
Political elites “are creating a conventional wisdom” that says that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance – “and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction,” the pollsters say.
“They are wrong, and that will fail,” the memo says. “The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the President talk about the future. They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle – and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way – not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery.”
Democrats “are losing these voters on the economy,” and are holding ground only because presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney “is very vulnerable,” the pollsters say.
“But in the current context, it produces a fairly diminished embrace of Obama and the Democrats, the lesser of two
evils, without much feeling of hope,” they add.
The pollsters say they base their analysis on “fairly open-ended focus groups” among white non-college-educated voters in Columbus, Ohio and college-educated suburban voters in suburban Philadelphia which excluded strong partisans from both sides. These were all independents or weak partisans and ticket-splitters—swing independent voters—and the groups included an even mix of voters who, in 2008, supported Obama or Republican John McCain.
These voters expressed a variety of economic struggles, even in the affluent suburbs, the pollsters report.
“Most have jobs now, but speak about their lower wages and benefits,” their memo says. “Because wages are down, there has been a dramatic rise in discussion of very basic pocketbook issues. And this does not seem like some passing phase.
This has not been a pocketbook-level recovery for ordinary Americans. This is especially true for non-college-educated voters, who have been uniquely hit by this economy.”
These voters “are not convinced that we are headed in the right direction,” the pollsters say.
“They are living in a new economy – and there is no conceivable recovery in the year ahead that will change the view of the new state of the country. They actually have a very realistic view of the long road back and the struggles of the middle class — and the current narrative about progress just misses the opportunity to connect and point forward,” they say.
‘The Lesser of Two Evils’
Although many voters may continue to side with Obama, it’s with a tepid or ambilivent feeling, considering him “the lesser of two evils,” the pollsters found.
“Nonetheless, many voters express patience with the President and want him to do well. Even if their patience is wearing very thin, they still want to believe in him,” their memo says. “At the end of the exercise, we asked respondents to write postcards to the President. Many encouraged him to maintain the programs they rely on most and offered sym-pathy for the difficulty of his job.”
The strongest message for Democrats to come out of the focus groups, the pollsters found, was one focused on the future of the middle class — “with minimal discussion of the recovery and jobs created and maximal empathy for
the challenges people face.”
“Most voters identified with the line that ‘the middle class has taken it on the chin for years,'” the pollsters’ memo says. “The message turns mid-way to what we will do, beginning with raising taxes on those earning over $200,000 to make the economy work better for the middle class. It taps into their frustrations that began building before the recession even hit and recognizes that this election needs to be about the “future of the middle class.”