2010 Could Bring the Election of a Lifetime
By Bernie Horn
January 4, 2010 - 8:31am ET
Politically, this new year ends in just ten months on November 2, Election Day. Conventional wisdom tells us that the off-year election will end badly for progressives. But the circumstances are unique. 2010 could instead permanently discredit the current brand of conservatism and usher in a genuine progressive era.
Certainly nay-sayers have a point. The President’s party usually loses seats in the mid-term. Obama’s job approval ratings have fallen nearly 20 percent since his inauguration. A plurality of Americans currently opposes his signature project, the reinvention of America’s health care system. Americans are dissatisfied with congressional leaders, Democrats, and government in general.
In short, the polls look bad. But also, as a predictor of the 2010 elections, they are virtually meaningless. They cannot tell us how persuadable voters will feel ten months in the future.
Persuadables (a/k/a swing or independent voters) make the difference in contested general elections, but they represent only a sliver of the electorate. During the last mid-term election, 2006, pollster Stan Greenberg found that only 23 percent of voters had seriously considered casting a ballot for the congressional candidate who opposed the one they voted for. In other words, less than one-in-four is persuadable.
The thing to remember is that persuadable voters are not like political partisans. They don’t pay much attention to public policy. They don’t often read the political news. They don’t even like to watch it on TV. In general, they’re the citizens who are least interested in politics. Consequently, right now they know very little about the candidates and issues. Yes, persuadable voters will answer a poll, but the opinions they give today are lightly held and (unlike opinions held by partisans) easily discarded tomorrow.
So don’t focus on the polls. Consider instead how persuadable voters will perceive their choices in the fall. Waking up from a sort-of two year slumber, what will these voters see when they open their eyes to examine the candidates?
Voters will see a choice that is even more stark than in 2004, 2006, or 2008 because the current conservative brand is more extreme than either George W. Bush or John McCain. Since the election of Barack Obama, conservatives have retreated to the right. Their candidates and officeholders (even the likes of Olympia Snowe) are afraid to differ from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin—powerful figures within their movement, but exceptionally unpopular among persuadable voters.
Voters will see candidates representing a conservative philosophy that brought about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a philosophy that nearly broke our financial system, and a philosophy that championed inequality and battered the middle class year after year.
Voters will see a conservative corps that has practiced inexcusable obstructionism, and uber-partisanship. It is a group that wants the President to fail in his attempts to rescue the American economy—no matter the impact on Americans. Virtually in lockstep they sided with the special interests against desperately needed change.
And these conservative candidates won’t apologize for, or even acknowledge, their horrific mistakes. They are ready, even eager, to re-implement their wrong-headed domestic and foreign policies. Considering their responsibility for our nation’s predicament, and the direction they propose to follow if elected, this year’s conservative platform will be among the worst in American history.
To win in 2010, progressives don’t have to be loved—they simply need to be liked better than their opponents. It’s shouldn’t be hard. Here’s what progressives need to do in order to win:
1. Accomplishments to tout. Persuadable voters want their government to get things done, and frankly, they don’t want to know the details. Even if the legislation is not ideal, we need to deliver health care reform, financial reform, a response to global warming, and a hopeful (if not a healthy) economy.
2. A vision for the future. We need to show voters that we’re not satisfied with compromise and lay out a program for lasting reform.
3. A straightforward comparison with conservative policy. In many ways, America is better off now than it was after 8 years of conservative rule. We need to remind persuadable voters of the tremendous policy failures of 2001-2008, as well as the conservative obstruction throughout 2009-10. No conservative candidate should be allowed to frame him- or herself as an “independent voice.” It’s just not so.
It is time to rekindle the fire. Yes, the stimulus, budget, and health care debates of 2009 were physically and emotionally exhausting. Yes, a few moderate-to-conservative Democratic officeholders have done some damage. But the game continues and the stakes keep rising.
Was an opposition party ever so unified for obstruction, so partisan and political, and less focused on solving America’s problems? Was an opposition philosophy ever so out of the mainstream, and so dangerous if implemented?
If progressives rally to the cause, we will not lose seats in the midterm election. With forethought, skill, and energy, we can ignite the imaginations of persuadable voters and together deliver a stinging repudiation of Limbaugh-Beck-Cheney-Palin-style conservatism. That would make 2010 the political turning point for a decade or more. And that’s the authentic “change we need.”
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and author of the book, “Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People”.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future