Creating a political bogeyman is no easy thing, but Democrats must try to win the midterms

Chris Cillizza
Reporter April 20

Here’s how Democrats can save themselves in the coming midterms elections: Use the exact same “1 percent” economic messaging that won President Obama a second term in 2012.

That’s according to a memo circulated in Washington this week from longtime Democratic operatives Stan Greenberg and James Carville. “The economy is still the main issue in the 2014 election, impacting the mood of the country, driving likely voter turnout, and defining what is at stake,” the duo writes, adding that, to date, the way Democrats have talked about the economy has failed to connect with voters.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

Rather than focusing on the progress of the “economic recovery” — a phrase Greenberg and Carville dismiss as wholly ineffective — they urge Obama (and his party) to return to the rich-keep-getting-richer-while-most-people-struggle-to-get-by message that helped him beat Mitt Romney 18 months ago.

“The more powerful set-up for Democrats’ economic message is the contrast with CEOs and the 1 percent whose incomes have soared, while everyone else works hard just to get by,” conclude Greenberg and Carville. “That reflects the experiences of real people in this economy.”

A look back at a single question on the 2012 exit poll bears out the potential power of that message. Roughly one in five voters in 2012 said that the most important trait in making up their mind about who to vote for was that the candidate “cares about people like me.” Among that group, Obama won 81 percent of the vote to 18 percent for Romney — a shellacking that told the broader story of the election. People weren’t in love (or even in like) with Obama’s economic policies — or the health-care law — but they viewed the president as someone looking out for them while Romney was cast as an unfeeling plutocrat looking out for himself and his extremely wealthy friends.

That dislike for Romney — and for a broader way of life the Obama campaign insisted he represented — was the prime motivator for Democratic base voters who represented almost four in 10 of all voters.

The problem — left unmentioned by Greenberg and Carville — for Democrats on the ballot this fall is that they don’t have Romney to kick around. The 2012 GOP nominee, until very recently, has stayed almost entirely out of the political limelight and, while he will endorse candidates and help the party raise money heading into the midterms, he won’t be on the ballot. Running against him won’t work.

In Romney’s place, Democrats — led by the relentless Sen. Harry M. Reid — are trying to sub in Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who have lavished tens of millions of dollars on a variety of quasi-political conservative organizations.

The Senate majority leader has called the Kochs “un-American” and insisted that Republicans have been bought off by the brothers. Reid (D-Nev.) has said the Kochs are “pour[ing] unlimited money into our democracy to rig the system to benefit themselves and the wealthiest one percent” — an echo of just the sort of message Greenberg and Carville are advocating. (Sidebar: That is not by accident.)

The problem for Reid — and Democrats running this fall — is twofold:

1. More than half the country has no idea who the Koch brothers are.

2. David and Charles Koch are not on the ballot.

Creating a political bogeyman is no easy thing — it took Republicans years to turn Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) into a figure that motivated their base — and it’s hard to see the Kochs alone serving as the excitement-generator that the Democratic base badly needs.

Greenberg and Carville argue that, even if the negative side of the economic argument works against Republicans, Democrats will need even more to close the deal with their voters. “They are desperate to know what Democrats intend to do and progressives must give them something worth voting for,” Greenberg and Carville write.

Their advice? Focus on unmarried women. “The base includes a very high proportion of unmarried women, and they respond very strongly, as do other voters, to a broad economic agenda, but one dominated by policies explicitly to help working women,” reads the memo. Among those policies: raising the minimum wage, equal pay and protecting Medicare and Social Security.

That advice could be particularly resonant given the number of female incumbents and challengers Democrats are fielding in their fight to retain the Senate: Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) are all Republican targets, and Alison Lundergan Grimes (Ky.) and Michelle Nunn (Ga.) are the party’s top two recruits.

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