There are still ways for progressive candidates to win the support of working-class, blue-collar candidates, even in today's particularly hostile campaign environment, according to polling research Celinda Lake has presented to the Campaign for America's Future.
The key, Lake said in a briefing for CAF, is to speak in populist terms about basic, kitchen-table economic concerns.
"The most powerful thematic out there right now is building family economic security. People have traded off individual entrepreneurism, they've traded off opportunity for security," she said.
That's the opening, she said, to talk about marshaling government resources to create jobs and invest in the foundational elements of a new economy while standing for curbing Wall Street and corporate excesses.
The economy is by far the No. 1 issue in voters' minds, according to Lake's research, with 49 percent of voters ranking it at the top. The second highest-ranked issue, the federal budget deficit, was ranked most important by only 11 percent of voters. Among economic issues, unemployment was ranked the top issue by 57 percent of voters, a percentage more than three times higher than those ranking the deficit as most important.
A majority of voters (60 percent) also believe the federal government should play an active role in the economy. But half of those voters also doubt that government can be effective in playing that role, a lack of confidence in government that is reflected widely in recent polls.
But even with the negative feelings about government and the record low esteem that voters now have for Congress as a whole, Lake said there are some clear guides for how progressives can cut through the fog and inspire voters:
- "Include some optimism", she said. Acknowledge that there is a difficult road ahead, but don't just hammer away at how bad things are—or take a premature victory lap. Do say there are steps we can take and we’re starting to take those steps.
- Use populist language: Government should work for regular families, not multimillionaires and CEOs.
- Indignation works when it is about the American values of fairness and opportunity. Say that the wealthy should pay their fair share so the burden can shift off of the middle class. Everyone should the opportunity to succeed.
- Voters will respect a willingness to fight for what’s right and take a stand, even if it’s politically unpopular.
"Recapturing the American dream" is a powerful motivator for people who increasingly feel that the ideal of prospering based on honest, hard work is increasingly beyond their grasp. Lake cited a June Pew Research Center poll in which 58% of respondents viewed their personal economic situation as "fair or poor," and 44 percent of respondents in another poll described themselves as "living paycheck to paycheck."
Building and strengthening middle-class families is also a strong theme with voters, as well as the notion that "the government has the money to bail out Wall Street but not the money for" programs that support economic security, such as Social Security.
The reason Democrats are losing ground with voters is that they do not hear enough of a strong economic populist narrative in their campaigns that connects what they know went wrong—conservatives let Wall Street run amok while the Bush administration ran up the federal deficit with two wars and tax cuts for the rich—to a concrete plan for a new economy in which they can regain their footing. The good news is that voters are eager to hear the candidate who will speak directly and sensibly to their economic hopes as well as their fears.