One of the keys — if not the key — to success in politics is fighting out the election on your home turf.
Voters tend to have strong pre-conceived notions about which party does better on a variety of issues and those perceptions — whether right or wrong — tend to determine the landscape on which races are fought and won.
Republicans have almost always won the tax argument because their message is simpler: Don’t raise taxes. The Democratic argument — that increases in revenue (particularly on those who make the most) are, at times, necessary — is more nuanced and therefore tougher to sell in an election context.
“Voters understand that Democrats generally want bigger government spending and more government control, while Republicans want less government spending and less government control,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster.
Mark Penn, a longtime Democratic strategist, agreed that taxes are traditionally a political loser for his side. “People who vote to lower taxes typically vote Republican and Democrats usually pick up votes from those who are looking to preserve services and entitlement,” said Penn. “That’s still true today. There are few votes in raising taxes, even just on the wealthy.”
Which brings us to today, the deadline for filing your state and federal income tax returns. (Do it! Hurry up!) Democrats have done considerable messaging on taxes in the runup to today’s deadline, culminating in a vote Monday night on the so-called “Buffett Rule” that would have forced those who make $2 million or more a year to pay at least a 30 percent tax rate. (It failed by a vote of 51-45.)
The Obama White House seems to believe that the idea of talking taxes as a losing proposition for them is a thing of the past. And, there is some polling data to back that sentiment up.
A Gallup survey released last week showed 60 percent of those tested supportive of the Buffett Rule while just 37 percent opposed it. And the long term trend on which side people trust more on taxes suggests it may no longer be a clear win for Republicans.
The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that asked the trust question on taxes was in January. At that point, 42 percent said congressional Republicans could do a better job handling taxes while 40 percent said President Obama was better equipped to do the better job. Average the findings of the five previous Post-ABC surveys that asked that same question and Obama takes 43.8 percent to 43 percent for congressional Republicans.
Some part of those results may have to do with the fact that congressional Republicans are far less popular than Obama and so are less likely to do well on any measure comparing them with the president.
But, several Democratic strategists we talked to insisted that the poll numbers reflect a changing dynamic in the tax debate — a shift from simply a choice between higher or lower taxes to a discussion about fairness.
“I think the perception (and reality) of middle class voters that the rich (and big corporations) get away without paying their fair share because of special loopholes and benefits has narrowed the playing field a bit,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone wrote in an email to the Fix. “This election is not about taxes so if there is a tax narrative, it currently is benefiting us because it shows voters whose side Democrats and Obama are on.”
Added Fred Yang, a partner in the Democratic polling firm Garin Hart Yang Research: “I don’t think Democrats should proactively want to discuss taxes, but compared to past years, given the negative feelings toward Wall Street and the one percent, I think we seem to be better armed (and more credible) to shift the debate to tax fairness.”
(The Post’s Greg Sargent flags data from CNN’s latest poll that suggests the fairness argument is paying political dividends for Democrats.)
The Buffett Rule push certainly fits into that narrative as does the White House’s (so far unsuccessful) push to eliminate tax breaks for oil companies.
What’s clear is that the Obama White House is gambling heavily that they can not only talk about taxes but win a political fight over them. The political rules of the past suggest that they are willingly choosing to play an away game. But the political rules of the past may be changing.