As the election heads into its home stretch, regular people start to tune in. In contested states and districts, they have little choice, as their TV shows are overrun with campaign spots, almost all of them negative. Much of what we’ve heard about the election is now in question.
Here’s a brief field guide to the coming weeks:
Voters Aren’t Buying What Republicans are Selling
This should be a Republican year. The incumbent party generally fares poorly in a bi-election in the sixth year of a presidency. The contested Senate seats are virtually all in red states that President Obama lost in 2012. The economy is still lousy, with nearly half of Americans thinking it is still in recession. Two-thirds of the country thinks we are on the wrong track. Obama’s approval numbers are in the pits. Now the president who was getting us out of the mess in the Middle East seems to be dragging us back in.
But voters aren’t buying what Republicans are selling. The Senate races are still too close to call. Even Karl Rove, the architect of “dark money” politics, admits Republicans haven’t closed the deal (which he turns into a pitch for the billionaires and corporations to ante up even more money).
Republican obstruction has crippled the Obama presidency and impeded any recovery, but it has also left congressional Republicans less popular than the president.
This Is a “Base Election”
Turnout will be low in November. Candidates can be elected with support of 20 percent of eligible voters. Turning out the base will be key.
The conventional wisdom gives Republicans the edge since their base is still rabid about Obama. Rove argues that Republican candidates should present themselves as a check on the president. But that renders Republicans the advocates of dysfunction. “Stop Obama and all will be well” is not a convincing agenda for voters looking for change.
And Republicans aren't exactly on message. The central Republican theme for months – opposition to health care reform – isn’t playing so well, now that the program has helped millions get access to insurance. In Kentucky, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has contorted himself into lying that the popular state program can continue even after Republicans repeal Obamacare. Many Republicans are trying to retreat from the "war on women," supporting over-the counter access to contraception, for example. But that may cost them more in their base than it gains them elsewhere.
Finally, polls suggest that seniors – who do vote – are giving Republicans a smaller margin than they did in 2010, possibly a result of continued Republican efforts to undermine Medicare and Social Security.
The Democratic base, however, is a mess. Young people are disillusioned. Latino activists are enraged by the lack of action on immigration reform. African Americans and single women have fared among the worst in the crash and the recovery. Unions are under siege and focused significantly on state races rather than the national races.
Single women will likely be the determining factor in many elections – whether they turnout and what margins they supply to Democrats. And they are the most stressed in this economy.
The Economy: Whose Side Are You On?
The ISIL outrages have raised security fears. Republicans can’t seem to avoid offending most of Americans, as they appeal to their increasingly stale, male and pale southern base. But at the end of the day, voters are looking for help in this economy. Who has a clue about what to do? And who is on their side?
That’s why Senator Elizabeth Warren’s message is so powerful. This economy does not work for working people because the rich and entrenched corporations have rigged the rules to benefit themselves. And compromised politicians stand in the way of the changes we need. This sets up an agenda that offers people some hope.
Women work. Increasingly, it takes two parents working to support a family. Yet more and more families pay as much for child care each month as they pay in rent or mortgage for their home. We must do what every other industrial country has already done: guarantee paid sick days, paid family leave and affordable child care. We should ensure that women get equal pay for equal work. Yet Republicans in the Congress have opposed fair pay for women, opposed paid sick days and family leave, and slashed funding for child care. This is the agenda that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has championed for Democrats, and it has real power in an election that may be decided by the turnout of single women.
Every person working full-time should be able to lift his or her family out of poverty. We should begin by raising the minimum wage. Yet Republicans have refused to allow even a vote on that in the House.
We cannot leave a generation burdened with debt because they have sought to get the education they need. We should refinance student debt at today’s low interest rates. But Republicans just stood with the banks to filibuster and kill that in the Senate.
We can create good jobs again. We should be cracking down on turncoat corporations and tax havens and dodges that allow millionaires to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. We can use that money to make investments we desperately need – in our schools and in our crumbling sewers, roads and bridges – and put people to work. But Republicans have blocked efforts to shut down the tax dodges and have opposed every measure to rebuild out economy. They even shut down the government to protect tax breaks for the rich.
We must make things in America again, but that requires overturning our perverse trade policies that subsidize companies to move jobs abroad. We have a record trade deficit with China because they play by their own set of rules. We’re shipping good jobs abroad, and undermining growth here at home. We should announce that we will balance our trade over the next five years, putting corporations on notice that they better invest in this country if they plan to sell their products here. But politicians in both parties stand in the way of common sense.
We can’t deny science or reality. Catastrophic climate change is already costing us billions, threatening to increase the price of food, and afflicting us with extreme weather. The transformation to sustainable energy cannot be avoided. If we lead it, it will help create, not cost, jobs. We should be investing in research and development, investing in energy efficiency, retrofitting our buildings to save energy and money. The country that leads the inevitable green industrial revolution will capture markets across the world and jobs here at home. But the Republican right fights to subsidize the big oil interests that pay for their party, while denying the reality before their very eyes.
Convincing the Sensibly Skeptical and Increasingly Cynical Voters
Americans are sensibly skeptical and cynical about their politicians. They have little faith in government, which they sensibly believe is controlled by entrenched interests and big-money lobbies. They have little faith in politicians who they sensibly believe are more likely to serve their donors than their voters. They have little faith in promises since so many promises have been broken for so long.
This sensible cynicism is a formidable obstacle to any politician calling for change. Raising the money needed to challenge an incumbent in itself compromises the credibility of a candidate, particularly one with a populist message.
Here too, Warren provides a clear lesson. She fuses her message with her biography, showing how the struggles she faced growing up helped forge the views she holds now. She takes on big, powerful interests forcefully: On Wall Street, too big to fail is too big to exist. But she is always on the side of people: Refinance student loan debt at the same rate the big banks get from the Fed. Why should we subsidize the folks who blew up our economy while piling debt on those who are the hope of our future?
Whether Democrats can overcome the staggering odds against them this election remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: The candidates who do so will have to find an authentic populist voice that makes it clear to voters whose side they are on.