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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Will 2014 Voters See the Economy as Stalled by Democrats or Handcuffed by Republicans?

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on April 30, 2013.
Tom Raum’s AP article “Economic gains may not help Democrats much in 2014” really deserves a subtitle like, say, “Unless of Course They’re Really Good.” The nut of Raum’s argument:

–Presidential claims of responsibility for economic gains rarely win plaudits from voters, yet presidents nearly always get blamed when things get worse.
–The historical odds for midterm gains in Congress by the in-power party are slim at best. Since World War II, the president’s party has lost an average of 26 seats in midterm elections and gained seats only twice — Democrats in 1998 under President Bill Clinton and Republicans in 2002 with George W. Bush in the Oval Office.
–Presidential elections are often referendums on the economy. That applies less often to midterms.

Raum adds that “there has been a feeling of incremental improvement after Obama’s first term in office. That’s the key word, incremental. Presidents have to make the people believe that things are getting better every month.”
Raum concedes the good news Dems are trumpeting: “Right now, surveys and reports show that the recovery is continuing, although more slowly than most, despite continued high unemployment and an environment of modest economic growth and inflation. Home prices are on the rise, manufacturing is slowly improving.” He cites an uptick in consumer spending and economic growth statistics. He says economists credit Obama’s policies with creating about 3 million jobs, while the Administration claims 6 million jobs added.
But Raum believes sitting presidents have to be very cautious about how much they brag about their economic accomplishments:

Democratic strategists James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Erica Seifert concluded from focus-group sessions with both Democratic and Republican audiences that Obama fares far better in speeches when he highlights economic progress without taking credit.
People “are very much on edge financially … because they live it every day. Every speech needs to start from a place that understands this is not theoretical or ideological,” they wrote in a policy memo. Obama must “thread a very careful needle,” they concluded.

Raum also quotes Rutgers political science professor: “Americans would say, ‘Well, that’s our judgment to make, whether you’re doing a good job or not….Facts speak for themselves,” Baker said. “If things are good, you don’t really need to make any extraordinary claims.”
President Obama is certainly smart enough to avoid crossing the line between skilfully defending his record with facts and bragging immodestly. He’s got articulate surrogates who can amplify his accomplishments in a way that allows him to preserve his dignity. he also has a good sense of just how much he can get away with in terms of explaining his challenges without sounding like a whiner. We will never hear him echoing his predecessor’s mantra in the 2004 debate with Sen Kerry “It’s tough…It’s hard work”
Most voters are smart enough to know that presidents can have undeserved good luck or bad luck. The 2012 vote suggests that a healthy majority apparently gets it that President Obama inherited an unholy mess from his predecessor, and increasingly, that he has done fairly well, especially considering that the Republican party has zero interest in doing anything that might help the country if it also means helping Obama.
Historical patterns suggest that the Republicans will take control of the Senate and hold their majority of the House. For that to happen, however, a majority of the voters who show up at the polls in 2014 will have to think continued gridlock is a good thing or believe, against all evidence, that their Republican incumbent is capable of bipartisan cooperation for economic recovery.
What Democrats have going for them in 2014 is the growing realization among most informed voters that President Obama needs a substantial congressional majority to get anything done. Most swing voters will figure out that electing more Republicans means even more gridlock. Getting rid of a few Republicans on the other hand, just might enable the President to kick-start the economy. If Democrats do indeed have a qualitative edge in ground game mechanics and candidate recruitment for 2014, an upset just may be in the making.

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