Relight My Fire Energizing The Rising American Electorate

Isaiah J. Poole

The New York Times today is publishing yet again news about an important Democratic Party constituency, this time union members, threatening to sit on its hands in the November elections, giving Republicans a clear shot at a takeover of at least one house of Congress.

But as a memo released today by Stan Greenberg’s polling operation, Democracy Corps, notes, there is a way for progressives to cut through the malaise and get the same people who were energized to vote in 2008 to be re-energized in 2010: Speak concretely to their economic pain, tout progressive efforts to address that pain, and make it clear that conservatives alternatives will either ignore their pain or make it worse.

The latest Democracy Corps research, done in conjunction with the Women’s Voices. Women Vote Action Fund, focuses on what it calls the “rising American electorate”—unmarried women, young people and people of color—who together make up a majority of the American voting-age population “and have the demographic strength to change outcomes in this election.”

These are the voters whose participation helped propel Barack Obama into the presidency and solidified Democratic control of Congress. But in focus groups among members of this demographic group in recent weeks, pollsters have found “alarmingly low levels of vote intention” in the November election.

The memo explains the enthusiasm gap this way:

The right has a clear agenda in this election and their voters understand it fully. They aim to take control of Congress, repeal health care reform, cut government spending, and lower taxes and regulations on big corporations. Moreover, they exude real confidence—justified or otherwise—that they will succeed, a belief that further amplifies their turnout advantage. Conversely, voters on the progressive side do not have the same clear mission statement and certainly do not have the same confidence in the outcome of the 2010 election.

… In our focus groups, RAE participants were asked what they believed was at stake in the 2010 elections. More often than not, responses were a blank stare and an awkward silence. While participants were open to the likelihood of a Republican takeover, this did not create much stir or interest in the election.

However, the memo goes on to say, “This changed when we spelled out the impact that such an outcome could have on their lives.”

When the discussion turns to such issues as conservatives thwarting efforts to extend unemployment insurance benefits to people in an economy in which there is an average of five unemployed people for every available job, or the right’s vow to undo even the limited health reforms that survived their obstruction tactics in Congress, the blank stares change and the lights come on.

“The most successful framework for these voters employs a very straightforward premise,” the memo concludes. “People are hurting and need help. For a population that is struggling disproportionately, the truth of this premise is hard to dispute.”

Many of Greenberg’s insights are confirmed by an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll that found that while a majority of voters think the economy is on the wrong track, a majority of voters are not necessarily aligned with conservative economic policies.

For example, when asked what “should be the most important priority for our leaders in trying to improve America’s economy,” only 15 percent said “reducing the size of government.” Twenty-one percent said “strengthening public services like infrastructure, education and Social Security,” and 20 percent said “reducing unemployment to the lowest possible level.”

But there are other clear signs in that poll of voters being wooed by conservative anti-government rhetoric, because they have not heard a compelling progressive counter-narrative about how the right government policies can improve the economy and their personal lives.

In the New York Times story, Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan political handicapper, asks a valid question about labor’s efforts to energize the progressive base: “The question is, how effective can labor be when so many of their people are unemployed or underemployed and just not happy campers? How effective will they be in getting people to do the hard work — to do the phone banks, the get-out-the-vote, all the heavy lifting?”

The evidence from all of these recent polls and focus groups suggests that instead of shrinking away from or trying to “me-too” the Tea Party message, progressives must use the next few weeks to draw a very sharp contrast. On one side are progressive efforts the past two years to revive the economy and improve the lives of ordinary Americans. On the other side stands the conservative obstruction that has crippled those efforts in an effort to hang on to an economy where wealth flows to the top and economic stagnation trickles down to everyone else.

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