With all the talk about "angry independents" deciding the special election in Massachusetts Tuesday night, the inclination among establishment Washington Democrats is to chase after them. Progressives, meanwhile, want the party to deliver on promises made during the campaign.
They're both right.
A review of surveys of independent and Democratic voters show that both want much the same thing: change. Both groups are deeply troubled by the state of the economy and angered that bailed-out Wall Street firms seem to be the only ones to have recovered from the crisis.
There is a way to cobble together such a coalition; President Obama did it to win a landslide election just over a year ago.
"If Scott Brown wins tonight, he'll win because he became the change-oriented candidate," Celinda Lake, pollster to losing Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, told HuffPost before the election results came in. "Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they've got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street."
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), whose father held the seat for more than four decades, said that voters were protesting a lack of accountability for Wall Street -- a top priority for both Democrats and independents.
"Frankly, people wanted a whipping boy for the fact that they're losing their jobs and their homes and their businesses because of a lack of credit and that these banks are getting bailed out with taxpayer funds and it seems as if nobody's going to jail. I mean it's pretty basic. They feel like this country got put through the ringer and the taxpayers got held out to dry and nobody's being held accountable. It's like, in Roman times, they'd be trotted out into the coliseum and the lions would be brought out. They're wanting blood and they're not getting it. And so they want to protest and you can't blame them," he said.
The unemployment rate is hovering at 10 percent and many more people have stopped looking for work or are underemployed. Independents, said Lake, have been hit hardest by the economic downturn, so addressing the economy can win support from both independents and Democrats.
Picking up independents means making their lives better in a meaningful way. "We're facing an electorate that is uncertain. They're struggling," said Rep. Paul Hodes, a Democrat from New Hampshire running for Senate. "They've lost jobs. Their friends have lost jobs. They're worried about their houses."
The foreclosure crisis continues to devastate the middle class. The House has passed aggressive legislation to deal with it, allowing bankruptcy judges to rewrite mortgages, but it died in the Senate without Obama pushing for it. "Some people believe that Washington isn't getting it done, and we've got institutions designed by our founders to work slowly in an era when our PDAs work really quick. And so adapting those institutions to our modern era is an important issue," said Hodes.
The administration has also generally adopted an attitude that it should "look forward, not backward," but that approach has allowed Democrats to be blamed for an economic catastrophe that is much the work of President Bush and the GOP. "I think we have to be clear about how we got into this mess. And this is a mess that Bush economics created," Hodes said, adding that it's absurd to listen to Republicans who waged two wars while cutting taxes talk about fiscal discipline.
"It's like Tiger Woods talking about fidelity," he said.
Getting the economy moving and creating jobs is the way to win independents, said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). "We've got to put people back to work," he said. "That'll, I think, restore some confidence that the country's going in the right direction."
The problem for Democrats is that too many of their leaders came of age during economic boom times and, with close ties to Wall Street and comfortable personal wealth, find populism difficult to affect. But Lake said the midterm election year of "2010 is fast turning out to be a blame election and I think that either we are going to characterize who deserves the blame -- whether that's banks and lobbyists and people who still want to hold on to national Republican economic strategies -- or we're going to get the blame. And that's a very different tone than, often, the administration is comfortable with."
They're going to have to get comfortable with it, however, unless they enjoy the sight of state senators who vote with Wall Street, but drive around in pick-up trucks, winning elections in deeply blue parts of the country.
"The irony of the Massachusetts election results is they show that Independents and the progressive base are demanding the same thing -- an answer to the real anger in our country about why Wall Street is still flush and Main Street is still struggling," said Ilyse Hogue of the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org. "People voted for change in 2008, and still believe in President Obama's vision. But voters see Wall Street bonuses unchecked and health care stocks soaring alongside record foreclosures and continuing job losses. Voters want the change they were promised. It's not about independent or right or left -- Americans want to see bold leadership from the party in power and a willingness to challenge the corporate control of our government."
Michael Dimock, associate director with The Pew Research Center, said he's seen the movement that Lake's referring to in his organization's polling. "People are really bummed about what's going on economically...Obama and the Democrats own what's going on," he said. "Independents, almost by definition, they're not driven by ideology, they're effected by current circumstances and right now current circumstances suck. We're stuck in two wars; the economy's terrible; Washington looks like a train wreck more than ever before."
Lake said that in the end, the Massachusetts race was going to be close even if the Coakley campaign had been perfectly run. "I think this was going to be a close race no matter what, honestly. Maybe we could have pulled it out, because we could have gotten Scott Brown defined earlier and we would have had money for tracking, which we didn't have," she said. "But I think this wave was coming."
If nothing changes, she said, the wave will continue wiping out Democrats. "We're either going to get buried by the wave or we're going to ride it. And we're running out of time to ride it. Somebody is going to get the blame for what's happening right now to the American public. They're incredibly angry and incredibly frustrated. And somebody's going to get credit for trying to turn it around. And right now, we're getting the blame and we're not getting the credit and that formula has to change," she said.
Independents, said Lake, are breaking 2-1 and 3-1 away from Democrats, largely because of the economy. "Independents are actually the voters most hard-hit by the economy. They're the voters most troubled by the state of the economy."
While candidate Obama split the independent vote in Virginia and won it outright in New Jersey back in 2008, independent voters broke strongly in favor of their respective Republican candidates for governor this past November, according to exit polls. Although Virginia and New Jersey voters said they remained generally supportive of President Obama two months ago, most said that wasn't the decisive factor.
In Virginia, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds lost independents, he lost hard on the economy, and ultimately he lost by a wide margin, 59 to 41. Voters who declared themselves "very" concerned about the economy sided with the Republican winner, Bob McDonnell, more than 3 to 1, according to exit polls. Among voters who said the economy was the single most important question for them, McDonnell led Deeds by 15 points.
Proving the decisive factor in a 49-to-45 contest, New Jersey independents also sided with the Republican candidate -- in their case, then-Attorney General Chris Christie -- over the Democrat, incumbent Gov. John Corzine. Exit polls showed that Corzine, a former chairman and co-CEO of Goldman Sachs, actually held the advantage over Christie on the economy, but he lost 2 to 1 among independents and 67 to 25 among "change" voters, making the difference in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000 voters.
At the time, the White House was quick to stress that the gubernatorial races were not referenda on Obama's first year in office. But the President's economic track record certainly didn't help.
A month before the November 2009 elections, according to aggregate polling data collected by Pollster, a plurality of Americans disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy for the first time since his inauguration. Since then, those numbers have only gotten worse; now, an outright majority disapproves of the President's economic results, and independents take an even dimmer view of his actions on the economy.
A Quinnipiac poll conducted from Jan. 5 to 11 reports that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, compared to 41 percent who approve; independents disapprove, 61 to 34, and 52 percent of them said Obama is not spending enough time on the economy, versus 38 percent who said he's giving it the right amount of attention. Independents, like Americans generally, still overwhelmingly blame George W. Bush for the nation's current economic problems, according to the Q poll, but they don't think Obama is turning things around.
Another recent representative poll, conducted by CNN from Jan. 8 to 10, reports 54-to-44 disapproval of Obama's handling of the economy, with 47 percent of respondents naming it as the most important issue facing the country today -- trending back upward after losing ground to health care in the summer and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the fall.
Jeff Muskus contributed to this report