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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

More About The Late Electoral Unpleasantness

While waiting breathlessly for the smoke from the Senate chimney signalling the outcome of Arlen Specter’s baptism of fire today, I caught up on some web reading, and ran across Noam Scheiber’s “&c” post about the comments that Ruy Teixeira and yours truly had made on Democracy Corps’ analysis of late-breaking voters.
Noam suggested that national security, not “culture issues” per se, were the key to Bush’s surprising success with late-deciding voters, but also argued (and I agree completely) that security and cultural concerns tend to merge. Indeed, I would submit that all the issues that hurt Kerry and that have so persistently hurt Democrats–security, “culture,” and the role of government–are “trust” issues on which our candidates have too often failed the credibility test and exposed themselves to GOP attacks on “elitist, soft-on-defense, big-government liberals.”
But let’s dig a little deeper here. DCorps suggested that seniors were especially disappointing for Democrats on November 2. And there’s no disputing the numbers: Kerry lost over-60 voters by 8 points, a 12-point negative swing from both Gore’s performance in 2000 and Clinton’s in 1996. That’s amazing, when you think about what the Kerry campaign was about during the last phase of the campaign: Iraq, Rx drugs, and Don’t Touch Social Security.
Seniors were famously the age cohort least likely to support the invasion of Iraq, from the very beginning. They were also unhappy with the administration-supported Rx drug benefit. And they are supposed to vibrate like tuning forks at any suggestion of changes in Social Security.
Maybe the results indicate that cultural issues were more important to seniors than Noam thinks. Maybe it means that they thought that trusting Bush on the war on terror trumped their concerns about his Iraq policies. But it almost certainly means that years and years of Democratic efforts to target seniors with a negative message about evil GOP designs on Medicare and Social Security aren’t getting us anywhere. Hell, that’s just about all Democratic congressional candidates in 2002 ever talked about. And whether or not you agree with DCorps’ apparent belief that Kerry didn’t focus enough on domestic issues in the home stretch, he sure focused on those domestic issues thought to work magic with seniors.
I know this is a radical thought, but maybe Democrats should focus on developing a broad, national message for change on all the challenges facing the country, since our “targeted” messages, some of which violently oppose “change,” don’t seem to be succeeding very well. I know for an absolute fact that John Kerry’s campaign considered that option, but his pollsters and consultants hooted it down. This is not a “recrimination,” but simply an observation about a long-standing way of thinking among Democrats that is not standing up well to the test of time after time.

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