THE BLOG
07/17/2012 02:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2012

Changing of the Tide

Some of my consultant friends intentionally put themselves on Republican lists so they can get all their mailings and emails and know what they are saying, and Media Matters does a great job tracking what all the right-wing media figures are saying every day. I am happy all these friends are doing this, and as a result feel like I don't have to, much to my relief -- if I had to listen to and read all that goofy stuff, it would drive me crazy. So I have never given to a Republican candidate or right-wing cause, and never receive direct mail appeals from such entities. But for some strange reason, I managed to get on one of Mitt Romney's direct mail lists and have started getting letters from Mitt asking me for money. I feel good about making this list because the letters are actually pretty funny.

The latest one starts out:

I am running for President of the United States and because you are one of America's most notable Republicans, I wanted to personally let you know why. It is simple really... I believe in America.

Now if I am one of the country's more notable Republicans, their party really is in more trouble than I thought, but let's leave that aside for the moment. Mitt is running for president because he believes in America, which is odd given all his bank accounts in other countries and given his company, Bain Capital, has been a pioneer in outsourcing and offshoring jobs. Plus the fact that his tax policies would create 800,000 jobs overseas but probably cut over 4 million jobs here in America. Apparently, he doesn't believe in American jobs, but still believes in America itself, which is good.

Mitt's letter then goes on to use every cliché Republicans have been using about Obama for four years now, and about Democrats for 30 years: big government, higher taxes, deficits, crushing entrepreneurship, blah, blah, blah...

They have been saying all this same old stuff since the age of Reagan because so much of the time it has worked for them. (It's certainly a more appealing argument than "we want to give massive tax cuts to the rich, help the biggest businesses every chance we get, and take everything we can get away taking from middle class and poor people.") For a long time, many middle and working class swing voters bought that old Republican message hook, line, and sinker. And they may again this year because of the economy being so rough for so long, and because of old habits. But there are fascinating things going on in this electorate, and they are crystallized in an important new poll by Democracy Corps that found that by taking on the Ryan budget, Democrats could move a very significant chunk of the electorate.

What DCorps found is that you give people specific information about what the Ryan budget does, people turn against it dramatically, and when they hear that Romney has endorsed it, it is enough to move voters who have been hard to move in this race strongly toward Obama. The horse race numbers go from 49-46 Obama at the beginning of the poll to 51-43 after they hear both pro and con arguments about the Ryan budget (and 52-43 among those who heard the most about the Ryan budget). That is a major shift given that this has been one of the most stuck-in-concrete presidential races ever in terms of the horserace numbers.

Even more dramatic is the fact that the strongest argument tested, the one that really makes that shift happen, is when the question contains the phrase "President Obama says that he opposes the Ryan budget, particularly because of what it would do to the most vulnerable." When you leave out the part after the comma in that sentence, the thing about the most vulnerable, the shift toward Obama is only one point, not statistically significant. But when you add that half-sentence, when you focus people's attention on the Ryan budget's impact on the most vulnerable, you move Obama's numbers 5 points, a very dramatic shift in this kind of race, and at this stage of the race.

The times they are a-changing. When I started working in politics in the early 1980s, middle class swing voters -- those Reagan Democrats of yore -- were deeply disconnected from the poor. Part of it was Reagan's inventive stories about welfare queens, but what made that believable was that those middle class swing voters in the suburbs really felt no connection or empathy to poor people living in big cities. They felt prosperous and secure enough that they just didn't relate to or care about the poor and vulnerable- ironically, the success of 50 years of New deal economics had made people less sympathetic to those who were struggling. The pounding the middle class has taken over the last decade plus has changed that dynamic. Middle class voters are feeling poorer and more economically insecure themselves, less sure about their jobs and benefits and retirement and kids' future. Their house is worth less, their savings may be depleted, their wages are flat or may even be less than they were not long ago. They know more poor people. Even if they still have their job and home, they know plenty of people -- family, friends, neighbors -- who have lost one or the other or both.

I first noticed this in the polling trends and focus group reports in 2009: to my amazement, you could actually score political points speaking about your concern about the poor and most vulnerable! As someone who was raised in the social gospel tradition of the Methodist church and who likes to preach about helping the poorest among us (much to the distress of some of my fellow Democrats who get nervous about such stuff), I was really pleased to see this developing trend, even if part of the reason it came about was bad news: the declining fortunes of the middle class means they feel so much poorer. But there are some other important reasons for this new trend in American politics, one that if it continues will reshape our political dialogue in a fundamental way for a long time to come. Here are three other things going on:

  1. Demographics are moving Americans toward a more compassionate point of view as well. What Stan Greenberg's calls the Rising American Electorate -- young voters, unmarried women, Latinos, and African-Americans -- are generally much more sympathetic to poor people than older white married voters, and those RAE demographic groups are all rising in population while older whites are shrinking as a percentage of the electorate.

  • Republicans steady march toward more and more extreme positions on a wide range of issues plays into this as well. The cuts in poverty programs that Reagan and the two Presidents Bush proposed were mild compared to the utter decimation by the Ryan budget, and as most people hear more specifics about that budget they are horrified. Given that Ryan's budget is a smorgasbord of the nastiest ideas of extreme right-wingers from the last 30 years, with devastating cuts to poor and middle class people and a cornucopia of delights in terms of new tax cuts for millionaires and our biggest corporations, voters when they hear the details recoil in horror. All told, if the Ryan Budget were passed, it would mean at least $3.3 trillion cut in programs helping the poor, and around $3 trillion in new tax cuts for millionaires over 10 years. In fact, our biggest problem in this election is probably going to be convincing voters that Republicans really have made all these proposals they have voted for in the Ryan budget, because people in focus groups are disbelieving that politicians would be so openly cruel and heartless. But there is no doubt that this steady march toward the world of Ayn Rand extremism is having an impact on moving swing voters our way.
  • I also really do believe that more voters -- whether because of their own and their friends/family hardships or because of changing demographics or whatever -- are responding to the moral arguments of progressives, arguments that we have too frequently refrained from because of our own fear of sounding like "bleeding hearts." Here's how the DCorps memo put it:
  • The Ryan budget is weak -- and attacks against it potent -- because voters believe budget cuts affecting the most vulnerable are just wrong. Voters are most compelled by moral arguments against the budget -- they believe that the budget should not be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable and that cuts affecting seniors and the working poor are simply immoral. In our focus groups among swing voters in Columbus, Ohio, participants articulated this case with strong conviction, asserting that they are unwilling to sacrifice struggling families in order to reduce the deficit.

    To be sure, voters make judgments about the budget based on what is good for the economy and best for themselves personally. But more importantly, above all else, these swing voters in Ohio drew clear lines based on what is "right" and "wrong." These definitions are powerful and immovable; they have the capacity to turn voters sharply and steadfastly against the Ryan budget and against Mitt Romney for endorsing it.

    There is something powerful going on here. For all kinds of reasons, our country is evolving, and I believe it is going to be harder and harder in the coming years to split middle income voters from the poor as politicians like Reagan and the Bushes became experts at. This trend, along with the demographic changes coming from the Rising American Electorate, give one hope that we might go back to an era such as the one from the 1930s to 1960s when people believed in the idea of community and looking out for each other in America.

    The ironic thing about the greed of those at the top of our economic mountain, and the syncophantic politicians and media people that flack for them with their Ayn Randian Social Darwinist theories, is that their success in moving us back to pre-New Deal economics -- with its incredible concentrations of wealth, small weak middle class, and masses of poor people -- may move our politics to the point where people who spoke openly about their progressive vision of economics can win politically again. I am reminded of the incredible court case where Clarence Darrow made his argument for radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood (who had been accused of conspiring to kill a local anti-labor politician), and won him unanimous acquittal from the 12 man jury in small town Idaho with a speech that was pure populist, pro-labor economics:

    Gentlemen, it is not for him alone that I speak. I speak for the poor, for the weak, for the weary, for that long line of men who in darkness and despair have borne the labors of the human race. The eyes of the world are upon you, upon you twelve men of Idaho tonight. Wherever the English language is spoken, or wherever any foreign tongue known to the civilized world is spoken, men are talking and wondering and dreaming about the verdict of these twelve men that I see before me now. If you kill him your act will be applauded by many. If you should decree Bill Haywood's death, in the great railroad offices of our great cities men will applaud your names. If you decree his death, amongst the spiders of Wall Street will go up paeans of praise for those twelve good men and true who killed Bill Haywood . In every bank in the world, where men hate Haywood because he fights for the poor and against the accursed system upon which the favored live and grow rich and fat -- from all those you will receive blessings and unstinted praise.

    But if your verdict should be "Not Guilty," there are still those who will reverently bow their heads and thank these twelve men for the life and the character they have saved. Out on the broad prairies where men toil with their hands, out on the wide ocean where men are are tossed and buffeted on the waves, through our mills and factories, and down deep under the earth, thousands of men and of women and children, men who labor, men to suffer, women and children weary with care and toil, these men and these women and these children will kneel tonight and ask their God to guide your judgment. These men and these women and these little children, the poor, the weak, and the suffering of the world will stretch out their hands to this jury, and implore you to save Haywood's life.

    The reason an Idaho jury would respond to an overtly political, overtly pro-labor appeal from Darrow was that because of their own circumstances, they knew he was right. Today, our economic system is giving us a similar result: people in the middle are feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to the poor in great poor because they know deep in their gut that they have a whole lot more in common with them.

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