The Mystical Center

11/19/2010 02:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Everyone is talking about what the Democrats should do. I have been in meetings with a bunch of big donors this week where primarying Obama was an open topic of discussion. I have in front of me a memo from the Third Way arguing that all the president has to do is move to the center, although they don't choose to define what they mean by that in this particular memo -- I guess that definition is to come later. I have been hearing from Democrats all over a rising panic that the President will never stand up to Republicans, and we are doomed, doomed, doomed. Well, sit back and relax, friends and neighbors, because it is way too early to panic. Besides, I have thought up the solution to everything.

Before I get to that moment of illumination, though, let me focus first on this new Third Way memo, because as usual, their message is fun to deconstruct. Third Way's entire mission in life is to argue that "the center" is all in American politics, that turning to "the left" is always a mistake, that moderates and independents rule. Virtually every memo they write and every poll they take starts and ends with that premise, and is carefully constructed to drive that point home. In this latest poll/memo, they look at what they call the droppers (the people who voted for Obama but didn't vote this time) and the switchers (the people who say they voted for Obama last time but voted Republican this time). They argue that the droppers are more than the base, and the switchers didn't just switch because of the economy but because they thought Democrats are too liberal.

I want to make a few specific points about the poll before getting to my underlying premise of this post:

  1. There are some quirky things about this poll. Unless I looked in depth at the crosstabs and methodology, I can't account for what explains this, but I do know there are some anomalies here. The first is that people frequently misreport who they voted for in the last election, and generally over-report voting for the winner. That could explain some odd data points. For example, 24% of the switchers say they are Republicans who voted for Obama last time and didn't this time. Given that only 9% of Republicans voted for Obama and 5% of Republicans voted for Democrats this time- that 4% total swing being one of the smallest in any demographic group in this election- to have that big a number of their switchers be Republicans strikes me as hard to believe. Here's another oddity: they say that most of the switchers weren't personally effected much by the economy, but the exit polls said that of the people hardest hit by the economy, Obama had a 42% margin in 2008, while the Republicans captured that group by 29% in 2010. That 71% swing accounted for an overwhelming majority of the swing vote in the exit polls, but the switchers in the Third Way poll seemed to be pretty economically comfortable. I can't account for anomalies like these, other than to suggest that if your entire mission going into a poll is to say Democrats need to move to the center, maybe the methodology and way you phrase the questions makes the numbers a little funky.
  2. Here's a classic example of writing the question in a way to achieve a certain result: Third Way asked droppers whether Obama/Democrats "tried to have government do too much" vs. whether they "should have tried to have government do more". I was actually surprised that a plurality of the droppers, 45-39, opted for the latter statement, because it is written to maximize a negative answer. Government as a generic term has a negative cast in American life, and wanting government to do more will always invoke a negative response. Having government invest in, help, have oversight over, create a level playing field, make sure businesses don't cheat, work to create jobs: all of those phrases are automatically more likely to invoke a more positive response than "having government do more" in general. What a plurality in favor of that idea means the droppers really are pretty liberal.
  3. Another thing I would note when you are trying so hard to make a certain point is that you tend to blow by inconvenient statistics. For example, in their paragraph on youth voting, the memo points out that youth vote was 12% of the electorate both in 2006 and 2010- therefore, they say, droppers are not disproportionately young. But in everything else, they were comparing droppers and switchers to 2008. The problem for them is that in 2008, young people were 18% of the electorate, so the droppers- as defined the way Third Way originally defined them, as the people who voted for Obama in 2008 but did not vote this time- were actually very disproportionately young. I guess that got in the way of their bigger argument, which was that droppers weren't all that progressive, since young people are in fact more progressive on most issues. They also conveniently ignored the big drop as a percentage of the electorate in union members, which are normally almost a quarter of the electorate in midterm elections and were 20% in 2008, but were just 17% this time.
  4. A final point: Third Way makes a lot of the independent numbers, including the fact that independents are 40% of the droppers. But when the independents that are coming out are more senior citizens and less young people, who tend to register to vote as indies, the Independents who do vote will be more conservative independents, and the ones who don't vote- your droppers- will be more progressive. There are lots of progressive indies who tend to align with base Democrats on issues, and they include many young people and union members, precisely the indies who didn't vote in this election.

Here is where I do agree with Third Way: the swing voters in the last two elections, the "switchers", tend to be middle and working class voters. They do instinctively worry about government being too big and about deficit spending in general. But as I noted in a post shortly after the election, these working and middle class swing voters are also strongly populist:

  • 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

Which brings me to the solution all of you have been waiting: how can Obama and the Democrats regain the mystical center? How can the President accomplish that while avoiding a primary? How can he show strength when so many Democrats are worried about how strong he is? It really is quite easy: the mystical center is also where the disaffected base resides. Obama doesn't have to choose. Both swing voters and the Democratic base want the President to stand up to Wall Street on behalf of main street. They both want him to fight to create new jobs, especially manufacturing jobs. They both want him to say yes to middle class tax cuts and no to tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. They want him to say no raising the retirement age and cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits.

I don't know what Third Way will say the center is when their next memo comes out, but I can say right now: the center has nothing to do with what Washington elites say it is. The center and progressives want exactly the same thing: for the president to focus on helping the middle class weather this economic storm. The answer to the President's political problems is really pretty simple: he just has to say no to the DC establishment, to the bank lobbyists and pundits yammering at him to just give in to the Republican demands. He has to stand tall for the middle class, and his political problems will resolve themselves.