How the Democrats can avoid a November bloodbath

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By Douglas E. Schoen and Patrick H. Caddell
Friday, April 16, 2010

Media reports suggest that President Obama is turning his attention toward the midterm congressional elections. There are a few things it is imperative he understand if he is to, at the least, minimize Democratic losses in November.

We are Democratic pollsters who argued against the health-care legislation ["Democrats' blind ambition," Washington Forum, March 12] that the Obama administration chose to pursue. Instead, we advocated incremental health-care reform. With the passage of health reform, some harsh political realities have emerged.

Recent polling shows that despite lofty predictions that a broad-based Democratic constituency would be activated by the bill's passage, the bill has been an incontrovertible disaster. The most recent Rasmussen Reports poll, released on April 12, shows that 58 percent of the electorate supports a repeal of the health-care reform bill -- up from 54 percent two weeks earlier. Fueling this backlash is concern that health-care reform will drive up health costs and expand the role of government, and the belief that passage was achieved by fundamentally anti-democratic means. Already we are seeing the implications play out with the retirement of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) -- who had effectively become the face of the last-minute, closed-door negotiations that resulted in passage.

Put simply, there has been no bounce, for the president or his party, from passing health care.

In fact, Monday's Gallup report showed the president's weekly job approval rating at a low of 47 percent. And as the Democratic Party's favorability has dropped to 41 percent -- the lowest in Gallup's 18-year history of measuring it -- this week's Rasmussen Reports survey shows the Republican Party with a nine-point lead in the generic congressional vote. Moreover, independents, who are more energized than Democrats, are leaning Republican by a 2-to-1 margin.

What all this means is that Republicans are ripe to pick up major gains in both chambers this November.

To turn a corner, Democrats need to start embracing an agenda that speaks to the broad concerns of the American electorate. It should be somewhat familiar: It is the agenda that is driving the Tea Party movement and one that has the capacity to motivate a broadly based segment of the electorate.

To be sure, great efforts have been made recently to demonize the Tea Party movement. But polling suggests that the Tea Party movement has not been diminished but, in fact, has grown stronger. The Winston Group found, in three national surveys conducted from December through February and published April 1, that the Tea Party movement is composed of a broad cross-section of the American people -- 40 to 50 percent of its supporters are non-Republicans. Indeed, one-third of self-identified Democrats say they support the Tea Party movement.

The electorate's dissatisfaction with the established political order has led the Tea Party movement to become as potent a force as any U.S. political party.

Last week, a Rasmussen Reports survey showed that overall more Americans say that they agree with the Tea Party movement on major issues than with the president of the United States -- 48 percent with the Tea Party and 44 percent with Obama. Among independents, 50 percent said that they're closer to the Tea Party, while only 38 percent are with Obama.

Moreover, the most recent Gallup poll shows that the Tea Party movement is at least as popular as the Democratic Party. And the Tea Party movement stands for fiscal discipline, limited government and balancing the budget -- an agenda that has broad public support extending well beyond the movement. Polling conducted by one of us (Schoen) found that 55 percent of respondents endorse that agenda. More important, a solid majority of swing voters endorse it.

The swing voters, who are key to the fate of the Democratic Party, care most about three things: reigniting the economy, reducing the deficit and creating jobs.

These voters are outraged by the seeming indifference of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, who they believe wasted a year on health-care reform. These voters will not tolerate more diversion from their pressing economic concerns. They view the Obama administration as working systematically to protect the interests of public-sector employees and organized labor -- by offering specific benefits such as pension protection and tax reductions at the expense of all taxpayers.

Democrats must understand that voters will not accept seeing their tax dollars used to pay for higher wages and better benefits for public-sector employees when they themselves are getting higher taxes and lower wages.

Winning over swing voters will require a bold, new focus from the president and his party. They must adopt an agenda aimed at reducing the debt, with an emphasis on tax cuts, while implementing carefully crafted initiatives to stimulate and encourage job creation. This is the agenda that largely motivated the Clinton administration from 1995 through 2000 and that led to a balanced budget and welfare reform. It promoted a modest degree of social welfare spending. This agenda is enormously popular with the electorate and could eventually turn around Democratic fortunes.

Democrats can avoid the electoral bloodbath we predicted before passage of the health-care bill, but in one way: through a bold commitment to fiscal discipline and targeted fiscal stimulus of the private sector and entrepreneurship.

Douglas E. Schoen, a pollster, is the author of "The Political Fix." Patrick H. Caddell is a political commentator and a pollster.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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