11/08/2010 12:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Revolt of the Populist Swing Voters

I was going to call this post Revolt of the Screwed, but decided that I didn't want to get readers who were looking for porn sites. However, that is a good summary of what happened in the election: the middle class voters most hurt by this terrible recession turned against the Democrats with a vengeance. They were looking for someone to blame for their economic woes. The good news is that their first pick was Wall Street. The bad news for Democrats is that they associated Obama with Wall Street. The two most important and dramatic statistics coming out of the exit polling were (1) the 40% of voters who felt worse off economically in the last couple of years went Republican by 29% after going for Obama in 2008 by 42%; and (2) the 35% of voters who said Wall Street was more to blame than anyone else for the bad economy broke 56-42 for the Republicans. That first number is the biggest swing by far in any demographic group I have ever seen after looking at exit poll numbers for the past 25 years. I have seen swings in the 30s before, maybe even into the low 40s in some small segment of the electorate once or twice, but I have never seen anything close to a 71% swing before. I wrote early in 2009 that voters were going to be in a very bad mood in November of 2010, and that this would be a blame election, where economically stressed swing voters would be wanting to take their misery out on someone. I was certainly right about that, but here's the ironic thing: I suggested that since I thought it was unlikely we could get them to blame the economy on Bush since we were in charge now, that our best hope was to get them to blame it on Wall Street. They did, that 35% who laid the blame on Wall Street's door were primarily the middle class swing voter bloc in this election, but they associated us Democrats and Obama with Wall Street more than Republicans. The TARP bailout and Obama and Geithner's vigorous defense of it, the kid glove treatment of the big banks at the hands of Geithner, the AIG and big bank bonuses that closely followed, the failure to prosecute or break up the Too Big To Fail banks: it all came together in those angry middle class voters' minds as Obama being associated with the same Wall Street actors people were blaming for their economic problems. The fact that once the financial reform bill that had some important wins for the middle class was passed, Democrats barely ever talked about it again didn't help. So now that this election from hell is over, the question is how do Obama and the Democrats come back in 2012? There's a lot of talk about moving to the center, but what does that even mean? When Washingtonians talk about the center, they tend to mean cutting Social Security and doing trade deals, but what do the economically stressed swing voters who turned against Democrats mean by the center? Well, these voters have very strong feelings about certain issues, and they don't tend to track with what pundits in DC talk about much. Check out these numbers from a Stan Greenberg poll done for the Campaign for America's Future. Stan did a careful analysis of which voters were the key swing voters, and what he found is striking:
  • Swing voters supported a message about challenging China on trade, ending subsidies to corporations that send jobs overseas, and stopping NAFTA-like trade deals over a message about increasing exports, passing more trade agreements, and getting government out of the way by 59-28
  • Swing voters supported a message about ending tax cuts for those making over250,0000 a year, adding a bank tax to curb speculative trading, cutting wasteful military spending and ending subsidies to oil companies over a message about cutting 100 billion dollars from domestic programs, raising the Social Security retirement age, and turning Medicare into a voucher program by 51-37
  • Swing voters supported a statement about politicians keeping their hands off Social Security and Medicare over a statement about raising the retirement age by 62-36
  • 89% of swing voters supported a statement about full disclosure of campaign donations and limiting the power of lobbyists
  • 90% of swing voters supported a statement about cracking down on outsourcing and creating jobs by fixing schools, sewers, and roads in disrepair
  • Even when framed in direct opposition to a statement about stopping increasing government spending and tax increases, swing voters said they were more worried that we will fail to make the investments we need to create jobs and strengthen the economy by 54-44
The voters who were the swing voters in this electorate, the ones who supported Republicans this time but generally supported Obama and Democrats the last time, are the economically hurting middle class -- the ones most worried about their jobs, most stressed about their mortgages being underwater or close to it, and most squeezed by stagnant wages. They blame Wall Street for the financial crisis, they strongly dislike outsourcing and "NAFTA-like" trade deals, they favor higher taxes on the wealthy and speculative trading, they don't want Social Security or Medicare benefits cut or the retirement age raised, they think infrastructure jobs ought to be created by the government, and they hate corporate special interest lobbying and money. These voters are the populists who Lee Atwater focused on in 1988, and the middle class populists we ought to be focused on now. The reason they are swing voters is that they think both parties- and yes, government itself- have let them down. They don't like partisan bickering because they want politicians to focus on their needs instead of trying to keep their own jobs, but they have no patience for bi-partisan deals that once again screw them on these economic issues. The only way President Obama and other Democrats will win in 2012 is by focusing on improving the economic lives of these stressed out voters, and by doing it now. That means first and foremost dealing with the foreclosure crisis and underwater mortgages, and having DOJ actually start prosecuting these bankers who have so clearly violated the law. It means re-orienting government contracts to ones that really will buy American goods and pay a decent wage doing it. It means aggressively using executive orders to spur new manufacturing jobs. And it means eagerly picking some fights with Republicans over these middle class issues. The election numbers could not be clearer: The voters we need to focus on are the folks who feel the weight of this damaged economy on every muscle of their tired shoulders. And those are the people our policies ought to be focused anyway, so it is a twofer: It's the right thing to do and the best way to win the election.