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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Polls Hint at Need for Stronger Dem Memes

Politico‘s Ben Smith presents a memo by Administration poll analyst Joel Benenson arguing that “Republican unpopularity could be the Democratic Party’s best defense against its own unpopularity.” According to Benenson’s bullet points:

• Today’s NBC/Wall St. Journal poll underscores the fact that with fewer than 90 days until the mid-term elections, the Republican Party’s standing is at one of its lowest points ever and its competitive position vs. the Democrats looks much as it did in the summers of 1998 and 2002, neither of which were “wave” elections.
• The NBC/WSJ poll shows that not only is the Republican Party’s image at its lowest point ever in their polling, their ratings are still lower than Democrats’ and their party image has worsened much more than the Democrats when compared with the last midterm elections in 2006.

See also Ed Kilgore’s post on the survey here. Further, Benenson adds,

• Only 24 percent of Americans gave the Republicans a positive rating while 46 percent were negative for a net of -22 (28 percent were neutral). This positive rating is not only a historic low, it is down 9 points since May — just three months ago. In addition, in July of 2006, a year in which Republicans lost 30 seats, their rating stood at 32 percent positive, 39 percent negative for only a -7 net rating or a change in the net rating of -15. During the same period the Democratic rating slipped only slightly by a net of -4 points from 32/39 in July 2006 to 33/44 today.
• This overall outlook is also consistent with an ABC/Washington Post poll from a month ago (7/13/10) that showed Americans’ confidence in Republicans in Congress to make “the right decisions for the country’s future” lagging behind Democrats:
– 73 percent say they are not confident in Republicans in Congress while 26 percent say they are, for a net negative confidence rating of -47 points.
– Democrats in Congress are at 32 percent confident (6 points higher than the GOP) and 67 percent who say they are not confident (6 points lower than the GOP), for a net confidence rating of -35, which is 12 points better than the congressional Republicans.
• When asked in the NBC/WSJ poll whether they prefer Democratic or Republican control of Congress after the November elections, 43 percent said Democrats and 42 percent said Republicans. While Democrats had a 10-point margin in 2006 when they gained 31 seats, the previous two midterms also showed a deadlocked preference in the summers of 1998 and 2002 in the NBC/WSJ polls. In both of those elections, the gains were only in single digits: 5 seats for the Democrats in 1998 and 8 seats for the Republicans in 2002.
• In addition, a Pew poll from early July showed that Republicans have a significant image deficit among Americans on the question of which party is “more concerned about people like me.” In that survey of 1800 Americans, 50 percent said Democrats were more concerned about people like them while only 34 percent said Republicans were.

Cherry-picked as Benenson’s data may be, all three polls appear to be methodologically-solid. If Benenson is right, Dems are in a better position, image-wise than Republicans. There’s plenty of room for improvement for Dems, but the GOP is in a deeper mess in terms of the way they are viewed by the public.

One Politico reader-respondent observes that President Obama’s popularity is “nowhere near” Bush’s abysmal 20 percent. or Cheney’s 13 percent. Benenson’s memo prompted another interesting reader comment by a poster named, “The Party of No Has to Go!”:

It’s no wonder that the republicans image is lower, especially when you consider that they more than doubled the national debt on their last watch, leaving this country with up to $8 TRILLION of debt that they did not budget for. And now they vote against unemployment benefits, health care for policemen and firemen who were the first responders of 9/11 and now have breathing and lung diseases, tax cuts for small businesses to spur job growth, etc. The only thing they would say “yes” to are more tax cuts for the rich.

Clearly, Dems have plenty of compelling examples of GOP extremism, if they will use them.
Benenson’s analysis of the data is encouraging. But it’s important to keep in mind that turnout mobilization is a more potent factor in midterm elections, since the overall turnout is always smaller. It’s possible for either party to be ahead, image-wise in polling numbers and still get whipped in the midterms because of the adversary’s superior turnout effort, at least in some localities. That’s when decisions about allocating party resources can make the difference.
Not all of the recent polling data suggest a positive scenario for Democrats. Concerns about Rasmussen polls’ pro-Republican bias notwithstanding, in a poll Rasmussen conducted 8/9-10, 57 percent of LV’s agree that the Dem’s agenda is “extreme,” with 34 percent calling it “mainstream,” compared to 40 percent extreme and 45 percent mainstream for the Republican agenda. In addition to the possible bias by Rasmussen, the terms “mainstream” and “extreme” are subjectively loaded, with individual definitions of the terms varying wildly.
The AP report on the Rasmussen poll notes that Republican Senatorial candidate Pat Toomey has been using the “extreme” meme to try and discredit Joe Sestak in the PA senate race. Expect more of this in other races during the next 3 months.
Assuming the worst case scenario, that the Rasmussen poll is an accurate reflection of the way the two parties are viewed at this political moment, it means that perhaps Dems could benefit by beefing up a two-pronged strategy over the next three months: 1. Do a better job of defending Democratic policies as ‘mainstream’ and 2. Attacking GOP policies as “extreme” more persuasively. Dems should be accepting both of these challenges anyway.
Branding ones opponent as ‘extremist’ can be a dicey strategy. In terms of presidential politics, LBJ’s campaign did it well in ’64, primarily because they had Goldwater on record. Jimmy Carter was less successful in ’80, partly because he didn’t mount a strong attack against Reagan, but also because the public was angry about stagflation, as well as the Iran hostage crisis. (Carter blames the Kennedy primary challenge, although it probably wouldn’t have happened if the economy was strong). Granted, the midterm elections are different from Presidential contests. But, In 2010, Dems do have some large extremist targets, like Sharron Angel and Rand Paul.
In addition, the three polls Benenson cites don’t measure the exact same thing as the Rasmussen poll. All of them, however, suggest they are indicators of the parties’ public images.
If the Rasmussen poll is dead wrong, however, Dems should still be attacking the Republican policy-mix as extremist, especially those races in which wingnuts are on record as calling for the gutting of Social Security, which is hugely unpopular with seniors — nearly a third of midterm voters.

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